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Littoral Shell Tracks: Tracing Burma’s Pearl Histories

Date and Time: 
Wednesday, April 25, 2018. 12:00 PM - 01:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Boardroom
Workshop: 
Worlds of Work and the Work of Networks 2017
Meeting Description: 

By focusing on the Bay of Bengal’s and South China Sea’s Mergui archipelago located along southern Burma, as well as the territory’s other zones of coastal and riverine extraction, this talk explores pearling and shell collection as a way to study the Indian Ocean’s marine environmental histories. Through a focus on the collection and exchange of shell from the late eighteenth to the early decades of the twentieth century, the talk suggests that if the Indian Ocean is regarded as an aquatic space of crisscrossing movements of labour, capital, and goods linking, for example, South Asia to Burma, Malaya, and China – and the expansion of the regional global economies of plantations, mines, and agricultural economies – it was shaped in no less important ways by robust translocal and transregional marine goods economies underpinned by a mix of South Asian, Chinese, British, American and Australian commercial interests, and extensive labour movements. While my focus will be on the harvesting and management of shell, I will locate it within a larger marine goods economy that included turtle eggs, green snails, trepang, and so on. This focus also both opens up questions of the creation of diving ‘labour’ as a category and object of imperial control, and of the relationship between the sea and ideas of sovereignty tied to the territorialization of oceanic space across lateral and vertical scales as new ecological strata were rendered visible and thus controllable through the application of particular technologies.

Pedro Machado is associate professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of several works, most recently Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean, c. 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2014); “Views from Other Boats: On Amitav Ghosh’s Indian Ocean ‘Worlds,” American Historical Review, Vol. 121, No. 5 (December 2016); and Textile Trades, Consumer Cultures and the Material Worlds of the Indian Ocean (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). He is currently at work on a volume on the Indian Ocean’s pearling histories, as well as a global history of shell collection and exchange, while also developing research on eucalyptus and colonial forestry in the Portuguese empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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