Introduction: The Ocean and the Historian

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Lakshmi Subramanian


I feel singularly privileged to write the introduction for the first of two special JIOWS festschrift editions honouring Michael Pearson’s contributions in the field of Indian Ocean studies. My association with Mike goes back to 1979/80 when I met him at the University of Viswabharati, where my mentor Ashin Dasgupta was working with him on an edited volume devoted to the history of India and the Indian Ocean. This was a time when as a young graduate student, I was being exposed to the hotly debated and discussed sub-field of maritime history. Several senior historians questioned the need to study maritime history outside the general frame of Indian economic history, by then an established field of enquiry, driven primarily by the agrarian question, poverty and the drain of wealth paradigm. I recall how, in course of my apprenticeship, I read a range of writings that looked at Asian trade and commercial exchanges that, although written largely out of European archives, dared to tell a very different story to the dominant one of European commercial and military hegemony. This was long before the heady debates of globalization, of Asia before Europe or indeed of the world system thesis that had entered the field; instead, we were chewing over the critiques of the peddler thesis put forward by Van Leur, and of the uncritical endorsement of colonial perspectives on Asian trade embodied in the writings of scholar administrator W.H. Moreland. It was here that Pearson and Dasgupta gave us the vital tools of our trade, to look beyond the official voices in the archive, to search for private adjustments and compromises that had so much more to say about the messy world of commercial and social transactions where to look for Weberian rationality or pure economic determinism was chasing a mirage.

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