The historian Daniel Richter’s Before the Revolution is a centuries-deep excavation of the multiple pasts of the land that became the United States. “Excavation” is Richter’s own term, a metaphor that guides the book and offers a fruitful way of imagining the lineage of a land. “The American Revolution,” he explains, “submerged earlier strata of society, culture, and politics, but those ancient worlds remain beneath the surface to mold the nation’s current contours.” He describes these remaining traces, these temporal palimpsests, as “layered pasts,” the new always a product of the old, which itself must be understood in order to fully know the present.
In his own exciting new work of Indian Ocean history, Crossing the Bay of Bengal, Sunil Amrith cites Richter’s figurative geology in presenting centuries of forgotten interconnection that can help us better to understand our modern age, in which the lines drawn between cultures, states, and peoples are tested in ways that reveal their artifice. In laying bare the ever perforated barriers between Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia—today’s names for the lands whose coasts ring the Bay of Bengal—Amrith also highlights the “limitations of the artificial distinctions between economic, political, cultural, and environmental history—and of those between South Asian and Southeast Asian history.” Crossing the Bay of Bengal is, then, a work of history with implications as transformative for historiography as for our understanding of the past.
And also for our understanding of the present:
A history that seemed of little relevance in the heyday of postcolonial nation building now seems urgent again. In two key ways, the region is at the forefront of processes that are shaping Asia’s future. First, the Bay of Bengal is now, as it was in the eighteenth century, an arena for strategic competition between rising powers. Today those powers are Asian rather than European: India and China both eye the Bay of Bengal as a crucial frontier in their competition over energy resources, shipping lanes, and cultural influence. Second, the Bay of Bengal’s littoral stands at the front line of Asia’s experience of climate change: its densely populated coastal zone is home to nearly half a billion people. In this new context, the Bay of Bengal’s history can be a source of insight and explanation. A historical perspective can explain the potential for and the obstacles to greater regional integration. It can show us that many of the region’s current environmental challenges are the (often unintended) outcome of earlier movements of capital and labor. It can show us, too, that informal networks of mobility have always outstripped official attempts to control them—and that these old paths assume new salience today, as climate change threatens to displace millions of people. The Bay of Bengal’s history is, finally, an archive of cultural resources that might help us to reimagine solidarity across distance and to comprehend planetary change on a regional, even human scale.
In the video below, Amrith describes “the furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants” that his book presents.