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Littoral Society:ż The concept and the problems*

Michael N. Pearson
University of New South Wales


         An attempt to specify the nature of littoral societies is obviously central in any discussion of seascapes.   Three categories will underlie my discussion.  To anticipate the conclusion, location is an obvious matter.  However, both occupation and culture are more difficult.  Many aspects of both do indeed show the classic characteristics of littoral society, that is a symbiosis between land and sea;  but other parts do not.  It is this mixture of maritime and terrestrial influences which makes a study of littoral society a paradigm for maritime history in general.

         My paper will attempt to move forward the discussion of this crucial part of the maritime world.  It will be consciously tentative and problem-oriented.  Most basically, is there such a thing as littoral society, that is can we go around the shores of an ocean, or a sea, or indeed the whole world, and identify societies which have more in common with other littoral societies than they do with their inland neighbors?  Does location on the shore transcend differing influences from an inland which is very diverse, both in geographic and cultural terms, so that the shorefolk have more in common with other shorefolk thousands of kilometers away on some other shore of the ocean, than they do with those in their immediate hinterland? 1  Do Surat and Mombasa have more in common with each other than they do with inland cities such as Nairobi or Ahmadabad?  Do these societies draw more on their forelands, that is maritime connections, than on their hinterlands?  Certainly there are important gradations along the strand, from wholly aquatic people to those who move easily between land and sea, and indeed may, despite their physical location, draw much more from the land than the sea both in terms of livelihood and of culture.  The extent of the hinterland varies - as Braudel had it, a thousand frontiers - depending on the question or problem being posed.

         The place I am thinking of is not really the beach, for this is a very narrow zone and has no permanent people.  The beach is the very narrow strip where the tide has an effect,  what the Australian novelist Tim Winton called "the distinct ink line where the water meets the shore - the ever-contested margin of high water." 2   Dakin says the seashore is "that narrow strip of land over which the ocean waves and the moon-powered tides are masters - that margin of territory that remains wild despite the proximity of cities or of land surfaces modified by industry."  It is a magic place, "one of the most delightful and exciting areas of the earth's surface - the seashore, that marginal strip where the sea meets the land, and which is covered and uncovered by the tides.  From the dark ocean abysses to the mountain-tops, from the desert to the luxuriant jungle there is no place with more variety and flexibility of life than where the tides ebb and flow." 3 

         David Sopher's classic, though now somewhat problematic,  study introduces the subject of plants and people who live on the littoral or, as he calls it, the strand.

The geographic area with which this description is most concerned is the strand. The environment of the strand begins where the land meets the sea and extends landwards and seaward from this line.  It is of variable and often uncertain width;  some writers find it convenient to regard it as the area between the lines of extreme high and low tide.  It is best regarded as a zone of transition between the sea and terra firma;  as such it is very often characterized by its own special land forms and life forms. . . . . people who live on the strand or make use of it generally have a habitat that extends well beyond its limits.  The extent of the habitat of strand folk varies greatly, in part depending on the complexity of their society. 4 

           An historian of the beach in northern New England commented that "However designated, the seashore, the coast, the marge, the coastal zone, the littoral, the limicole [or limicoline]  realm, the theater of this book deserves prolonged scrutiny. . .   The seacoast is the threshold of American prehistory and history, of American culture, and like most well-passed thresholds, it is hollowed and worn. . .  . All alongshore lies one of the most visited, most noticed, most pictured, and least scrutinized places in North America."  5  Pari passu for the coasts of other oceans.

         Not all coastal areas are beaches.  In delta areas we find ambiguity, lack of definition and boundaries, a zone where land and sea intertwine and merge, really the fungibility, the interchangeability, of land and sea.  Emily Eden looked at the Sunderbunds down from Kolkata in 1837 when she was traveling on a "flat" or large barge towed by a steamer.  The scene she saw was "a composition of low stunted trees, marsh, tigers and snakes, with a stream that sometimes looks like a very wide lake and then becomes so narrow that the jungle wood scrapes against the sides of the flat . . . " Then she reflected, very acutely, that  "It looks as if this bit of world had been left unfinished when land and sea were originally parted." 6 

            Alan Villiers' classic account of the Rufiji delta found a similar, though very hostile, merging. 

Over all the vast area of the delta the water is only three parts water;  the fourth part is mud.  The soil of the islands and the banks is three parts mud and one part water.  Miasmic vapours, steaming swamps, rotting jungles, and pestilences of all kinds abound. . . . The whole river seems possessed of a spirit willful, petulant, and destructive. . . . The whole delta is gloomy, morose, and depressing almost beyond endurance. . . . In all this world, if there is a worse place than the Rufiji Delta, I hope I may never find it.  The list of its enormities is not yet complete, for the murderous crocodile and the clumsy hippopotamus lurk in the stream, ready to capsize a frail canoe and make short work of its occupants.  . . .  The poisonous mud of the mangrove swamps abounds in leeches and ticks, ready to attach themselves to the feet;  creepers beset the way, and thorns tear at the legs. . . . The mosquitos . . . were unbelievably savage, and fell upon each Arab crew as the dhows came in  with the ferocity of small flying tigers. 7

         Who are the people who live on or near the beach, those who inhabit the coastal zone, not just the beach?  They have been called the shore folk, or sea nomads, or members of a littoral society. The place of  port cities in littoral society is a matter of dispute.  In terms of location they may qualify, though Ashin Das Gupta in his classic book on Surat made an important distinction.  "To begin with there was coastal Gujarat, marshy, irregular, often broken by estuaries of the rivers and dotted with tidal flats which were submerged at high tide. . . . It was peopled by the truly maritime men who fished and who sailed the vessels on which trade depended.  The coastal cities usually stood back a little . . ." 8  On our other two criteria it is more difficult, and things change over time.  In premodern times port cities had more of a whiff of ozone about them than is the case today.  The occupations of many of the inhabitants were intricately connected to the foreland and hinterland, thus making these people truly littoral. However, their economic functions and influences extended much further than their fellows on the coast, with much more extended forelands and hinterlands.  Culturally the port cities, where populations are more concentrated, are more exposed to external influences, such a elite norms from the inland, or the attentions of seafaring scholars and religious folk.  Ibn Battuta traveled around the Indian Ocean, calling at port cities and being recognized for his scholarship.  In return he tried to improve the quality of Islam in these places.  On the other hand, Lotika Varadarajan's ethnographic studies show a much more relaxed religious milieu outside the coastal cities. The important thing is to recognize a transition.  If we look at functions within a port city, we find that today maritime, or port, functions are completely subordinated to other aspects, whether governmental, manufacturing, or industrial.  Thus Bombay, once a port city, is now hardly a port at all.  Even those who may appear to have a maritime connection are really no different from inland people:  stevedores are really just laborers, shipping clerks could be in any office. 

             One way to separate out littoral from port city is to insist that littoral people live on the coast and seldom travel.  Some people in the port cities └ sailors, merchants └ indeed go to sea and have important maritime experiences, but my concern is with fisherfolk, or people who tend the lighters which go out to meet the big ships.  These folk live on shore, but work on the sea:  they are very precisely littoral.

             Dening wrote  "Beaches are beginnings and endings.  They are frontiers and boundaries of islands.  For some life forms the division between land and sea is not abrupt but for human beings beaches divide the world between here and there, us and them, good and bad, familiar and strange. . ."  9  An extravagant claim indeed, even if meant metaphorically.  I would argue exactly the opposite, as does Jan Heesterman. He stressed that "The littoral forms a frontier zone that is not there to separate or enclose, but which rather finds its meaning in its permeability." 10  Braudel wrote evocatively about coastal society, stressing that it was as much land as sea oriented.  The life of the coast of the Mediterranean "is linked to the land, its poetry more than half-rural, its sailors may turn peasant with the seasons;  it is the sea of vineyards and olive trees just as much as the sea of the long-oared galleys and the round-ships of merchants, and its history can no more be separated from that of the lands surrounding it than the clay can be separated from the hands of the potter who shapes it."  11

                  Several modern scholars have ruminated on the nature of the shore folk of the Indian Ocean.  Middleton focused on the east African coast. "Part of the coast is the sea:  the two cannot be separated.  The Swahili are a maritime people and the stretches of lagoon, creek, and open sea beyond the reefs are as much part of their environment as are the coastlands.  The sea, rivers, and lagoons are not merely stretches of water but highly productive food resources, divided into territories that are owned by families and protected by spirits just as are stretches of land.  The Swahili use the sea as though it were a network of roads."  12     The very term "Swahili" means "shore folk," those who live on the edge of the ocean. As Pouwels has it, Swahili culture was "a child of its human and physical environment, being neither wholly African nor 'Arab,' but distinctly 'coastal,' the whole being greater than the sum of its parts." 13

         Islands are perhaps where we are most likely to find littoral societies.  Indeed, on smaller ones there would be nothing but coastal people, for the sea permeates the whole area.  The Seychelles, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, tiny fragments of land in the ocean, are purely littoral. Similarly,  islands in the rivers can be seen as making up little littoral societies all their own, even far "inland."  The Zambezi system had many islands, as also did other river basins and deltas:  the Hugli, the Ganga, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Irrawaddy and so on. 

         Horden and Purcell, writing about the Mediterranean, claim islands do not really fulfill the stereotype of being isolated and remote: rather they have all-round "connectivity."   They are especially accessible to the seabourne, and in a way are coastal areas writ large.  Richard Grove wrote of Indian Ocean islands as "Edens" where new European ideas about nature and conservation were stimulated. 14  We find in them the complexity and ambiguity which must be the dominant note in any discussion of littoral society.  Take the priests at the Vivekenanda temple on an island just off Kanya Kumari in the extreme southern tip of India. Their work is on a tiny island, they travel frequently by water to the mainland, yet they are in no sense maritime. Nor are the pilgrims that the priests serve.  The location is littoral, but their occupation and the religion they exemplify are purely land-based. How complicated it can get!

         If the littoral is permeable, then our description must be amphibious, moving easily between land and sea, rather like a fish found by Jacques Cousteau in the Seychelles in 1967.  This was "a species of amphibious fish, Periophthalmus koelreuteri - more commonly, and much less grandly, known as the mudskipper.  It is acknowledged to be the most amphibious of all fishes, for it can stay out of water for longer periods than it spends in the water.  When on land, the mudskipper carries a supply of water in the gill cavity, and it also gulps air.  It is at home on mudflats and among mangrove roots, where it propels itself by 'walking' on its pectoral fins and - in order to move hurriedly - by means of rather spectacular, froglike leaps.  In the water, however, the mudskipper swims quite normally." 15

             A complementary way to conceptualize land/sea relation and connections is Jean-Claude Penrad's notion of ressac, the three-fold violent movement of the waves, turning back on themselves as they crash against the shore.  He uses this image to elucidate the way in which the to-and-fro movements of the Indian Ocean mirror coastal and inland influences which keep coming back at each other just as do waves. 16

             Emmerson summarized the important ideas of the anthropologist Estellie Smith,

Having defined as maritime only those communities that are ecologically, structurally, and culturally shaped by the sea, Estellie Smith has made perhaps the strongest case for their distinctiveness as a type:  Most people, she argues, consider water more 'empty' than land and therefore a more suitable place to discard waste.  Unlike land, the sea is a common-property resource.  Sea fishing as an occupation is physically much more dangerous than agriculture.  Because marine foods are more perishable than land-grown foods, and because the fisherman's work is at sea, fishermen are more vulnerable than farmers to manipulation by middlemen who appropriate the marketing role;  and being so frequently and far away, fishermen are less able to influence village decision-making on land.  Because those who go to sea are generally men, and because it falls therefore mainly to women to try to earn income on land - whereas on farms all normally take part, in one way or another, in the agricultural cycle - sex differentiates occupations more in maritime than non- maritime communities.  Unlike agricultural production units, seagoing vessels are closed social systems that do not cultivate the underlying resource.  Relying as they do on a small number of significant others who are literally in the same boat as they, fishermen are more individualistic but also more egalitarian than farmers.  Lastly, these distinctive characteristics may sustain among fishermen distinctive religious or magical  beliefs or behaviour.17

         Fisherfolk are indeed the quintessential littoral people, as Smith notes. There are a few things to add here.  Certainly fishing is more dangerous than cultivating land, but we should remember that the further out one fishes the more dangerous it gets.  In far offshore fishing it is not so much individualism which is created, but rather a necessary stress on cooperation.  Second, while it is true that gender divisions are, as Smith notes, more important than in peasant societies, essentially a fishing family links land and sea, with the woman on the former, the men on the latter.  Indeed, women may not only do the cleaning and processing and marketing, they may well cultivate land as well.  The fishing family, whether extended or nuclear, has the possibility of exploiting both land and sea, while peasants have only the former option.  Yet this exploitation differs dramatically between land and sea, for unlike agriculture fishing is a purely exploitative activity;  as Dakin says "man is always taking away life from the sea - he neither sows nor fertilises the waters; only reaps." 18

         Yet there are still other complexities.  In many coastal areas fish are not central in people's diets, and indeed fisherfolk often will exchange their fish for the preferred land staples of wheat or meat.  In any case, fish are a nutritionally inefficient resource - a kilogram of fish provides only about two-thirds the calories of a kilogram of wheat. And fish also are an aleatory resource, as compared with rather more routine land based food production which depends mostly on wise husbandry.   Yet fish also can be sent far inland, thanks to another part of the maritime scene. Coastal areas produce salt too, at low tides or when marshes dry up seasonally, and salt is vital in transforming perishables, especially fish, into items which can be exported for long distances and so can enter distant markets. 19  Today fishing activities are crucially dependent on land matters:  middle men, markets, processing plants.

             Other apparently littoral or maritime people also show this mix between sea and land. Michel Mollat in his history of Europe and the Sea discusses the harvesting of seaweed, that is kelp, to make fertilizer, and today also to provide various elements of some foodstuffs.  But, he says, this activity, located by definition right on the sea shore, does not turn the farmer who cuts it into a mariner:  he is a peasant. So also with the person who harvests pebbles for building materials, or collects sand to make glass, or mines salt on the sea shore: this person also was a peasant. Yet on the other hand many inland people depend on the maritime people for their livings, as they provide services.  An Act passed in England in 1540 called "Act for the Mayntenance of the Navy in England" expressed concern about getting enough "masters, mariners and seamen instructed in the art and science of navigation" and then noted "They, their wives and their children, derive their sustenance from the sea and are at the same time the support of cities, towns, villages and ports and harbours on the coast;  bakers, tavern keepers, butchers, blacksmiths, rope-makers, ship builders, tailors, shoesmiths and other suppliers and artisans living in the neighbourhood of the said shores derive from the same source a large part of their sustenance."  20   This indeed is ressac, mutual dependence, with the mixture varying from time to time.

            Le Roy Ladurie described mid sixteenth-century Normandy peasant-fishermen, who were always keen to get back to land "to get on with the more serious matters - looking after the cows, cutting the corn, laying down apple juice." 21 In 1846 people from the island of Fohr set sail in the early months of the year for Greenland to "kill a couple of hundred seals and some whales and then return once more to their island, milk their sheep, and lead their cows out to the heath." 22   American whalers and sealers in the Great Southern Ocean in the nineteenth century hoped to do only a few arduous voyages. Once they had saved enough money they planned to leave the sea and get back to their natural habitat by buying a farm in New England.

         The famous backwaters of Kerala lie behind a coastal sand spit, and their inhabitants can be seen as close to moving beyond amphibious to aquatic. The area consists of narrow strips of land, with flooded rice paddies all around.  The men fish: indeed when Frater was traveling along them in 1987 he was surprised to see heads sticking up out of the water.  These were the bottom walkers, who trawl by hand, walking along the bottom of the shallow waters. 23   The women work in the neighboring paddy fields, and indeed many of the paddy fields are reclaimed to make islands.  Some islands are substantial with stone levees or dykes,  locally called bands.  Others have only earthen bands, which can collapse, especially during the monsoon.  Transport and commerce, and getting to school, is by water, mostly in tiny dugouts.  

             Some exceptional peoples are really not littoral at all: they are aquatic.  They are not amphibious: their lives are spent on or in the water.   Some such people are simply sailors who sail for a long time, so long that they may lose their land ties. Some of the merchants of the great port of Siraf around 1000 traveled so much that they were away at sea all their lives.  The contemporary account goes on "I was told of one man of Siraf who was so accustomed to the sea that for nearly forty years he did not leave his ship. When he came to land he sent his associates ashore to look after his business in all the towns, and he crossed over from his boat to another, when the vessel was damaged  and needed to be repaired." 24   

         The best studied truly aquatic people are the famous Marsh Arabs of the Tigris-Euphrates delta, occupying the vast palustral triangle between An-Nasiriyah, Al-'Amarah, and Basra. Their way of life goes back perhaps 5000 years.  The classic account is by the colorful and somewhat anachronistic Wilfred Thesiger.  He lived in the marshes off and on from 1951 to 1958, and loved it despite the mosquitoes, snakes, very large wild pigs (some the size of a donkey, weighing over 300 lbs), flees, and flooding each year. The area also was riddled with disease:  dysentery was endemic, also  bilharzia, yaws, hookworm, eye infections, and tuberculosis.  He spent so much time with them because "They were cheerful and friendly and I liked the look of them. Their way of life, as yet little affected by the outside world, was unique and the Marshes themselves were beautiful.  Here, thank God, was no sign of that drab modernity which, in its uniform of second-hand European clothes, was spreading like a blight across the rest of Iraq." 25

             This was a totally aquatic society. "The ground looked solid but felt very soggy. Actually it consisted of a layer of roots and decomposed vegetation floating on the surface." Some of the islands were only a few square yards, others an acre, some tethered, some floating about. 26   The houses were built on these reed platforms floating on the water, and all transport was in boats, usually very small. As Thor Heyerdahl noted, "A Marsh Arab can rarely walk more than a couple of steps before he has to enter his canoe." 27 When it floods they just add a few more layers of reeds on the floors of their houses so they can keep dry.   Once Thesiger was treating patients, and there were so many of them that "the weight of my patients submerged the floor.  I finished treating them ankle-deep in water.  My host assured me that it did not matter, but nevertheless he seemed relieved when I moved on." 28

             In other places we find floating markets, extremely venerable, yet today also tourist attractions.  The Bangkok one is a compulsory sight for any visitor.  Long before this, in 1833 an American traveler had some perceptive comments to make.  He had come up river from the mouth, and reached the town. 

We now threaded our way among junks, boats and floating houses, jumbled together in glorious confusion, and totally concealing the banks from our view.  Hundreds of small canoes, some not larger than clothes-baskets, were passing to and fro, many of them containing talapoins or priests, paddling lazily from house to house, collecting presents of provisions.  The occupants of the floating houses were taking down the shutters which formed the fronts, exposing their wares for sale: printed calicoes, paper-umbrellas, sweet-meats, fruits, pots, pans, etc being placed in situations the best calculated to attract the notice of the passers-by." Later he noted that "The best shops are built on wooden floats on the river;  indeed when the waters are out, they flood the whole town, the only communication between the different dwellings being by means of boats.  At this period of the year, when the river becomes swelled by the rains, whole streets of floating houses, together with their inhabitants, sometimes break adrift from their moorings, and are carried down the river, to the utter confusion of the shipping.  These floating streets, nevertheless, possess their advantages. A troublesome neighbour may be ejected, house, family, pots and pans, and all, and sent floating away to find another site for his habitation.  A tradesman, too, if he finds an opposition shop taking away his custom, can remove to another spot with very little difficulty. 29

         So also for the floating market of Banjarmasin, in southern Borneo, which is like the chaotic markets of large southeast Asian cities, "a flotilla of different types of boats imitating the chaos on the roads."  People paddle about from stall to stall in canoes, and a century ago, in 1881,  one rather Orientalist observer, Bock, said  it was very pleasant to "take a canoe and join the busy throng,  paddling about from stall to stall in this floating market └ a sort of Covent Garden and Billingsgate combined └ is a pleasant way of spending the cooler hours of the morning . .  ." 30  The life of the Tan Chia, the boat people of the coasts and rivers of South China, or the Hong Kong families who live on sampans all their lives and never go ashore, fall into this same category. 31   Similarly, on islands near Haiphong in Vietnam for thousands of years people have lived on boats, and come ashore only to shop, and even that very seldom, for most of their needs are met by boat shops, that is people selling goods off boats. 32

            So far we have merely been describing these people. We have, obviously, found them all located on or near the littoral.  As to their occupations, the economic forces which govern their lives move amphibiously from land to sea. This then seems to provide an element of commonality for many, though far from all, folk who live on the shores. What other things show that indeed coastal zone people, at least all those around the shores of warm seas and oceans, have more in common with each other than with their inland neighbors?  We could look at food, obviously largely derived from the sea, even if some fisherfolk prefer to trade some of their catch for cereals.  Houses are usually different from those inland. As one would expect, locally available materials are usually employed.  For much of the tropical coast this means that palm trees are used to provide a housing structure, and a thatched roof.  In some areas coral is available. On the Swahili coast it is widely employed as a building material, along with another quintessential littoral product, mangrove poles.  Jacques Cousteau found coral to be of universal utility in the Maldives.  It was used to construct the landing strip and the houses, and even the beaches were pulverized coral, not sand. "Everywhere we saw tiny cemeteries under palm clusters.  The tombs themselves, crosses and all, were made of coral.  Everything here is bound up with the sea, even life and death."  33

             Certain languages achieved wide currency, this providing commonality around the shores of the Indian Ocean.  One such was Arabic in the earlier centuries.   There are some 5,000 words of Arabic influence in Malay, and more than that in Swahili, and about 80% of these are the same, that is in Malay and Swahili, so that we have a "corpus of travelling Arabic words." 34  Later a sort of nautical Portuguese, and today some variant of English, have achieved a similar quasi-universal status.

         Coastal religion is also distinctive.  Littoral people, living in a more cosmopolitan environment than those inland, are more likely to convert.  In the case of the Indian Ocean, the cosmopolitan, international, aspect of Islam has often been cited as a prime motivation for conversion, and while this applied most strongly in the port cities, it also was evident on the coasts between them.  Coastal people especially found their indigenous beliefs, localized and very specific, to be inadequate as their world expanded.  When they were exposed to a universal faith, Islam as exemplified by visitors from the north, the attraction was obvious, and the results can be seen all over the Indian Ocean world from the early modern period onwards. Folk religion on the littoral, beneath an Islamic veneer,  similarly is to be distinguished from inland manifestations. The concerns of coastal people were usually quite different from those of peasants and pastoralists inland.  On the coast religion had to do with customs to ensure safe voyages or a large catch, or a favorable monsoon so that fishing could recommence.   Particular gods were propitiated for these purposes. 

             One rite on the west coast of India celebrates the end of the southwest monsoon and so the beginning of the sailing and fishing year. The always quotable and always acerbic Dr. John Fryer noted this in Bombay in the 1670s:  "After this Full Moon, the Banyans, assisted by their Brachmins, go in Procession to the Sea-shore, and offer Cocoe Nuts to Neptune, that he would restore them their Mare Pacificum;  when they make Preparations to go to Sea, and about their Business of Trade." 35  In this burgeoning port city it is revealing that Brahmins, that is representatives of normative Hinduism, were involved;  this would not happen on the coasts between the port cities.

             Dr. Varadarajan's ethnographic work in Gujarat has found rather similar things happening today, though based on very old traditions.  Her account makes clear that littoral location, and occupation, transcend religion.  On the "narial prunima" day both Hindus and Muslims take part in ceremonies when the forces governing the sea are worshipped, and boats are symbolically taken out to mark the beginning of the season.  Rites are conducted by the community rather than the temple priest. "As the ritual is so intimately  connected with their vocational life, all seafaring folk come together to celebrate this day coalescing religious heterogeneity through group participation." In general "occupational hazards to which they are exposed cut across religious differences." 36  A similar religious practice tied to the sea, not to any formal canon of normative belief, governed boat building in south Sulawesi: the whole process of building a prahu, from felling the tree to launching the boat, was governed and accompanied by precise ritual ceremonies, and many of them were not purely Islamic either.  Among other things, a live black goat was sacrificed by fire just before the launching. 37  In Goa today fishing boats are named after saints, and the owners and crew make offerings to the relevant saint on his or her feast day.

         Over the last two centuries coastal society in the tropical world has been subjected to pressures from far away, first from colonialism, and then from the increased integration of the  world, sometimes called the process of globalization. Millennia old fishing practices have been undermined, while tourism has subjected many third world coasts to the needs of the rich world. We can distinguish three broad periods in the recent history of Indian Ocean fishing:  the colonial period, when traditional fishers were undermined by western intrusion;  the period after independence, when newly independent states tried to promote indigenous enterprise, and then the last twenty years or so, when an increasingly integrated world economy has impacted in deleterious fashion on these nascent industries.  In the terms used by Horden and Purcell, we can no longer write a history OF an ocean, whether it be the Mediterranean, the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean;  now there is only history IN the ocean.

         In the colonial period imperial powers attempted to control and tax traditional fisherfolk.  After independence littoral states made great efforts to turn fishing into a major generator of food for the domestic market, and foreign currency earner from exports. What was involved was the painful process of a transition from using artisanal techniques to developing industrial fishing practices.  In India artisanal fishing was caste based, used manual power, and produced small catches.  In Kerala, for example, most fishing was done by traditional communal fishing groups in small canoes.  On the other, Coromandel, coast even in the 1970s fishers used catamarans, and masula boats, the latter being sewn plank craft with no floor or frame ribbing, and using no sail.  The catamarans were merely several logs lashed together, yet they ventured out up to 15 miles to fish.  A detailed study of one village in Tamilnadu in the mid 1970s found all the inhabitants were dependent on fishing, and all were from one low caste. The main boats they used were simple log rafts which came from Kerala. Each night the logs were separated and dried, and next day tied together again.  These people also engaged in beachseining, when a boat took a large net out and then it was dragged in from the shore, hopefully with a catch inside.  While all this is very precisely littoral, merging land and sea, it is also very "low tech," the returns erratic and unpredictable.  The nets, which were large and expensive,  could not be used when they were wet, so the fishers needed nine of them for each day's fishing.  38

         The drive to "modernize" this industry had profound effects on the traditional fisherfolk of India. The government, often in alliance with western aid donors, promoted the use of trawlers, hoping to increase exports.  Most of the trawlers are foreign made and owned, most of the profits leave India, even the labor on the deep sea trawlers is not Indian. On locally owned craft owners sometimes prefer using crew from groups with no background in fishing, they being cheaper and more malleable than traditional fishers. 39   Local fishers had to compete with foreign trawlers, which vacuumed up marine life in a totally random way. Especially hard hit were demersal fish species.  Once a given fishing ground was no longer productive the trawlers could move on:  the traditional fisherfolk could not.

         A Kerala case study typifies the dramatic and painful transition. "The greatest asset of the fishermen of Kerala is their accumulated knowledge about fish, fish habits, waves, currents and stars which they have, through generations of learning by doing, handed down from generation to generation." Now this was all cast aside.  Motors neutralized their skill in rowing and sailing, fish finding equipment made redundant their folk wisdom which told them where to find fish.  Wages in the new sector of the industry rose much higher than did those in the artisanal area. 40

         The decline of the traditional sector was advanced by a shift in demand in the early 1960s.  From this time prawns, in America shrimps, have been a major export for some South and Southeast Asian countries.  The results were mixed and changed over time.  Wild prawns are caught by deep sea trawlers, but by the mid 1970s these were, in Kerala, fishing too close in shore, to the detriment of the artisanal sector.  Subsequently this sector began to compete by using motors also, and nylon nets.  Now the problem became overfishing and declining stocks.  On land the women of the male fishers, who traditionally handled cleaning and marketing, were slowly replaced by people not from fisher communities, but rather new capitalists who treated fishing as what it in fact was becoming:  an industry.  In a related area, local women used to smoke and salt fish to preserve it. They lost this role when cold storage came in.

         The tourism industry around the Indian Ocean today betrays many of the benefits and costs which we have just found to characterize fishing.  Again globalization has had mixed results. When western tourists stay in coastal areas around the Indian Ocean their relationship to the sea is very different from the fisherfolk with whom they mingle.  For the traditional beach dwellers the sea is a source of a precarious living, often a dangerous or hostile place, not necessarily benign. Tellingly, their houses often face away from the beach. For leisured middle class westerners the sea and the coast is a space away from normal life.  This is new in world history. Lencek wrote of "the transformation of the beach from an alien, inaccessible, and hostile wilderness devoted to conquest, commerce, exploration, and the primal customs of tribal cultures, into a thriving, civilized, pleasure and recreation oriented outpost of Western life style, where so many sybaritic impulses of culture have been indelibly concentrated." 41

         Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the Indian west coast, a place I have visited frequently over the last 34 years, provides an excellent, if depressing, case study.  The region offers the tropical paradise stereotype: palm trees, sunsets over the Arabian Sea, white sand, cheap accommodation, readily available alcohol, English-speaking locals, and some reassuringly western elements such as a coastal population which is largely Christian, and huge churches in the deserted city of Old Goa.  A  beach scene frequently found in Goa, and in other beach resorts on the west coast such as Kovalam,  is portly western men in G strings self consciously helping traditional fishermen haul in their nets, which may contain enough for one meal.  Their bikini clad women enthusiastically take video pictures of this picturesque scene.  A change,  from Kerala, seems to sum up what is happening.  The traditional rice boats which for centuries have transported rice in the backwaters inland from the coast are now being converted into luxury house boats for western tourists and Indian yuppies.  Similarly, today littoral folk participate in what is called "staged authenticity", that is they become a "typical" Goan fisherman, villager, toddy tapper, who perform in hotels.  "Goa has been constructed to serve as one of the world's pleasure peripheries, a cultural space for the leisure consumption of tourists divorced from the needs and concerns of everyday life." 42  These people are located on or near the beach, but their occupation is governed by economic forces from very far away, and the "culture" they purvey is far from "traditional, authentic" littoral life.

         This is not to say that we can write of the end of littoral society. Rather it has changed dramatically, and arguably deleteriously, but it still can be identified. There are some continuities with the past. One could, for example, see the touts, peddlers and confidence people who prey on tourists today as in line of succession from earlier quasi legal inhabitants of the shore:  smugglers and pirates for example, both of whom for obvious reasons avoided port cities.  Both today and in the past such people are transitory, ephemeral, yet they also, along with the fisherfolk, make up a continuing pattern in littoral society.  Remembering the three criteria which we identified earlier, folk on the coast are still located on the littoral.  Their occupations, while transformed, are still intricately connected with their location on the marge, and possibly their cultures also can be set apart from those of the inland people.

         The geographical area of the coast has also been profoundly affected.  Again we see a pronounced transformation, a new and degraded sort of littoral in Goa. There are now at least 50 swimming pools in the tiny Calangute-Baga strip alone, when thirty years ago there were none.  The government privileges hotels over local rice farmers when it allocates water, so that the swimming pools will be full, and the lawns green. A nude beach has been suggested, which would alienate completely part of the  shore.  "Development" has often been uncontrolled, leading to massive violations of the environment, such as  building far too close to the maximum high tide level, discharge of sewage into the ocean, and mounds of discarded plastic containers disfiguring the sand. One of Goa's main attractions, pristine beaches, is being violated and ruined;  it is in danger of becoming less idyllic, and falling out of favor.  So also with the  Indian Ocean islands:  again littoral society is being modified, even transformed,  to meet the needs of package tourists from far away. As two historians of northern seas commented: "it behoves thinking, as people flock to the shores in ever-increasing numbers, how fragile is the line between our need for recreation, peace or spiritual sustenance from the sea, and the effects of our recreation on the sea itself." 43

             Coasts are also under threat from pollution. Coral reefs are important tourist attractions, and form a fascinating natural underseascape.  They have been under threat for at least fifty years. In the late 1960s Jacques Cousteau worried that coral reefs were in danger as the purity of the water declined.  Equally threatening, conchs were being taken to sell their shells to tourists, but they are the deadly enemy of a kind of starfish which is very destructive to coral:  consequently coral suffers.  More recently global warming has had a catastrophic effect on coral reefs all around the Indian Ocean.   At least half of the total have died over the past two years up to 2000.  Coral cannot tolerate a rise in sea temperatures of more than 1 or 2 degrees C for more than a few weeks, yet in the Seychelles in 1998 the temperature was 3 degrees C above seasonal norms for several weeks.  The results have been far reaching.  It is estimated that in 1998-99 the death of the coral, or its bleaching to an unattractive monochrome, cost the Maldives' economy about $US36 million, a result of the impact on tourism and on local fishers.  44

             Other littoral areas have been detrimentally affected by various government policies. We wrote earlier of the Marsh Arabs and their unique culture, yet even when Thesiger was there in the 1950s the oil boom in Iraq had begun, and many Madan, as the Marsh Arabs call themselves,  had moved off to Basra and Baghdad in search of fortune.  As he noted:  "Soon the marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear." 45   Gavin Young was a bit of a prot■g■ of Thesiger, and first visited the marshes with him.  He spent considerable time there in the early 1970s, but by then things had already changed dramatically.  There was a tourist invasion, with guests living in floating house boats or government guest houses or tourist bungalows, and people got about in motor launches rather than canoes. 46   Much marsh land was being reclaimed for rice cultivation, and there were even then schemes to control the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates and so reduce further the size of the marshes, or even drain them completely.  Over the last 25 years the size of the marshes has dwindled by no less than 90%.  This has been caused by drainage to provide irrigation water elsewhere, and by building massive dams up stream, not only in Iraq but also in Turkey, Iran and Syria. Saddam Hussain has favored the end of the marshes, for they provide a refuge for shi'a Muslims often opposed to his dictatorship.  Much of the landscape is now salt deserts, the people are in refugee camps.  The smooth coated otter, once common, is now extinct, and migrating birds are left with no havens.  47

            The complex symbiosis between land and sea which we found to characterize littoral society for most of history is fast being transformed.  Land influences, often from far away, are profoundly modifying what used to be an important, albeit elusive, segment of human society. People still live on the coast, but a littoral society which moves easily between land and sea, an amphibious society governed by ressac, back and forth, has now been overwhelmed by forces from far inland, and far away.  It is not a matter of the end of littoral society, but rather that it has undergone, over the last century or so, much more major changes, huge stresses, even transformations, than was ever the case before this.  Yet the littoral still essentially makes up an exaggerated, or quintessential, part of maritime history.


* This paper was tested at Harvard and Brown universities before the Seascapes conference.  I am most  grateful for valuable comments from my audience at all three places.  However, it was discussion and comments at the Seascapes conference both after my presentation and on later occasions which have helped me most to revise this paper, and rethink many of the statements in the original paper.  Being a collective matter, I will refrain from thanking individual colleagues at the Seascapes conference.

1 A recent article by Eric Tagliacozzo ("Trade, Production, and Incorporation:  The Indian Ocean in Flux, 1600-1900," Itinerario, no. 1, 2002, pp. 75-106) claims that this is the case. (pp. 84, 98)  This article is a courageous attempt at a broad overview along political economy lines, but the three "littorals" he identifies are really better described as "regions."

2  Tim Winton, Land's Edge, Sydney, 1993, p. 23.

3 W.J. Dakin, Australia's Seashores, new ed by Isobel Bennett, Sydney, 1987, preface, n.p., and p. 4.

4 David Sopher, The Sea Nomads, Singapore, 1965, 1977, p. 1.

5 John R. Stilgoe, Alongshore, New Haven, 1994, p. ix.

6 Emily Eden, Up the Country, London, 1866, p. 3.

7 Alan Villiers, Sons of Sinbad:  An account of sailing with the Arabs in the Dhows, in the Red Sea, around the Coasts of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika;  Pearling in the Persian Gulf; and the Life of the Shipmasters, the Mariners and Merchants of Kuwait, London, 1940, pp. 191-2.

8  Ashin Das Gupta, Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat, New Delhi, 1994, p. 2.

9   Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches, Chicago, 1988, p. 34.

10  J.C. Heesterman, "Littoral et Int■rieur de l'Inde," Itinerario, 1, 1980, p. 89.

11 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II,  London, 1972, 2 vols, p. 17.

12  John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, An African Mercantile Civilisation, New Haven, 1992,  p. 9.

13  Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent:  Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800-1900, Cambridge, 1987, p. 31.  See also a neglected classic study by Richard Wilding, The Shorefolk:  Aspects of the Early Development of Swahili Communities, Fort Jesus Occasional Papers no. 2, mimeo, 1987.

14 Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea:  A Study of Mediterranean History, vol. I, Oxford, 2000, pp. 227, 229, 346, 382; Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism:  Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, Cambridge, 1995. 

15  Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Life and Death in a Coral Sea, London, 1971, p. 79.

16   Jean-Claude Penrad, "Societies of the Ressac:  the mainland meets the ocean," in David Parkin, ed, Continuity and autonomy in Swahili Communities:  inland influences and strategies of self-determination, London, 1994, pp. 41-8.

17 Donald K. Emmerson, "The Case for a Maritime Perspective on Southeast Asia,"  Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, XI, l, March 1980, pp. 143-4.

18   Dakin, p. 6.

19   Horden and Purcell, p. 195-6.

20  Michel Mollat du Jourdin, Europe and the Sea, London, 1993, pp. 133, 155.

21   E. Le Roy Ladurie, The Territory of the Historian, Chicago, 1979, 142-5.

22 David Kirby and Merja-Liisa Hinkkanen, The Baltic and North Seas, London, 2000, p. 191.

23 Alexander Frater, Chasing the Monsoon, Penguin, 1991, p. 75, and personal observation in December 1999.  For an enchanting portrayal from 1689 see R.J. Barendse,  The Arabian Seas, 1640-1700, Leiden, 1998, p. 56.

24 Moira Tampoe, Maritime trade between China and the West   an archaeological study of the ceramics from Siraf (Persian Gulf), 8th to 15th centuries A.D, Oxford, 1989, p. 124.

25 Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs, London, 1964, p. 51.

26   Ibid, p. 28.

27 Thor Heyerdahl, The Tigris Expedition:  in Search of our Beginnings, Garden City, 1981, p. 15.

28   Thesiger, p. 107.

29 George Windsor Earl, The Eastern Seas, or Voyages and Adventures in the Indian Archipelago in 1832-34,  London, 1837, pp. 160, 176-7.

30   C. Bock, The Head Hunters of Borneo:  A Narrative of Travell up the Mahkkam and Down the Barito, London, 1881, pp. 167-8.  For similar scenes in Singapore in 1877 see Lady Anna Brassey, A Voyage in the Sunbeam: Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months, London, 1878, p. 412.

31   For an extended description, one of very many, see ibid., p. 372.

32    There are obvious parallels, and some differences, with the Aztec Chinampas. See Jeffrey R. Parsons, "Political Implications of Prehispanic Chinampa Agriculture in the Valley of Mexico,"  in H.R. Harvey, ed., Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico,  Albuquerque, NM, 1991, pp. 17-42; Teresa Rojas Rabiela, "Ecological and Agricultural Changes in the Chanampas of Xochimilco-Chalco," in ibid, pp. 275-90, and Dav═d Carrasco and Scott Sessions, Daily Life of the Aztecs:  People of the Sun and Earth, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998.

33   Cousteau, Life and Death, pp. 56-7.

34  Jan Knappert, "East Africa and the Indian Ocean," in J.C. Stone ed., Africa and the Sea: Proceedings of a Colloquium at the University of Aberdeen, March, 1984, Aberdeen, 1985, p. 125.

35 Dr. John Fryer, A New Account of East India and Persia, London, Hakluyt, 1909-15, 3 vols, I, 197. See also other accounts quoted in ibid by the editor, William Crooke, and also Maria Graham, Journal of a Residence in India, Edinburgh, 1813, p. 35

36 Lotika Varadarajan, "Traditions of Indigenous Navigation in Gujarat," South Asia n.s. III, 1, 1980, pp. 28-35.

37  K.N. Chaudhuri, K.N., Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean. An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750, Cambridge, 1985, p. 143.

38 Kathleen Fordham Norr, "The Organisation of Coastal Fishing in Tamilnadu," in Alexander Spoehr, ed., Maritime Adaptations, Essays on Contemporary Fishing Communities, Contributions from Ethnology, Pittsburg, 1980, pp. 113-27, and in the same volume Paul Alexander,  "Sea Tenure in Southern Sri Lanka," pp. 91-111.

39  R.S. Newman, "Green Revolution-Blue Revolution:  the predicament of India's traditional fishermen,"   South Asia, IV, l, 1981, pp. 35-46.

40 Jona Halfdanardottir, "Social Mobilization in Kerala:  fishers, priests, unions and political parties," in MAST, 1993, VI, 1/2, pp. 136-56.

41  Lencek, p. xx.

42 Paul Routledge,  "Consuming Goa: Tourist Site as Dispensable Space," Economic and Political Weekly [Mumbai], July 22, 2000, pp. 2647-56.

43 Kirby and  Hinkkanen, p. 275.

44 Economist,  Oct. 28-Nov 4, 2000, p. 44.

45  Thesiger, p. 1.

46 Gavin Young, Return to the Marshes : life with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, London, 1977, pp. 189-221.

47   Sydney Morning Herald, May 22, 2001,  quoting the Guardian.


Copyright Statement

Copyright: ę 2003 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format by Chris Hale.

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