The First Annual Graduate Conference on Indian Ocean World History - Recap

The Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC) hosted its First Annual Graduate Conference on Indian Ocean World History on 27-28 October 2012. The conference included nine papers divided into panels on "Empire, World Systems and Circulation in the Indian Ocean," "Health and Morality in the Indian Ocean World," and "Women and Gender in the Indian Ocean World." The participants included doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows from McGill University, Syracuse University (Syracuse, New York) and York University (Toronto), as well as a contribution in absentia from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). Professor Thabit Abdullah of York University gave a keynote address. The conference was organised by the IOWC postdoctoral fellows Rashed Chowdhury and Hideaki Suzuki, and the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies PhD candidate Alberto Tiburcio. Funding was provided by the McGill Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), as well as the IOWC. The first panel included contributions on the Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin’s journey to India in the 1470s (Rashed Chowdhury), the circulation of China root, a medicinal plant, from 1500 to 1900 (Anna Winterbottom), and the role of South Indian Muslim merchants in the Islamic world system from 1200 to 1700 (Anas S.). In the second panel, Yossina Hurgobin discussed the social construction of malaria as a coolie-derived illness in colonial Mauritius, Peter Hynd talked about alcohol taxation as simultaneously a major source of revenue and a morally questionable practice in colonial India, and Alberto Tiburcio discussed avenues for the investigation of plagues in Safavid Iran. The third panel included papers on the treatment of children in the prisons of colonial Kenya in the 1950s (Erin Bell), women’s social roles as seen in Somali shari‘a court registers from the nineteenth century (Deika Mohamed), and the categorisation of slaves in East Africa from the slave owner’s perspective (Hideaki Suzuki). In his keynote address, Professor Abdullah emphasised the need to overcome the Eurocentric legacy that much of Western historiography is burdened with, and the difficulty of doing so in practice. Using the example of the Ottoman (and later Iraqi) city of Basra, Prof. Abudllah demonstrated that local, indigenous agency was crucial in shaping and constraining European behaviour in the Indian Ocean World in the modern era. It is thus impossible to understand even seemingly European initiatives in the region (such as the conquest of Iraq by the British during the First World War) without taking into account the dialectical role played by local elites and interest groups. Lastly, the conference also included the screening of an episode from Simon Reeve’s newly released documentary, Indian Ocean. The episode, entitled “Oman to the Maldives,” discussed the myriad historical, commercial, social and environmental ties between different parts of the Indian Ocean World, which were precisely the themes addressed at the conference.