Crossing the Bay of Bengal by Sunil S Amrith
The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants.
[The story of Indian population (esp. Tamil) who migrated around Burma, Ceylon, Malaysia/Singapore and the importance of the sea route]
The Bay of Bengal’s circuits of migrations both responded to and fueled change on a global scale. Malaya’s rubber - tapped by Tamil migration workers - fed the American automobile industry. Malay became the most economically valuable tropical colony in the whole of the British Empire. Burma became the largest rice exporter in the world, in a boom backed by Indian capital and drawing millions of Indian migrant workers into every sector of its economy. Somewhere in the region of 28 million people crossed the Bay of Bengal, in both directions between 1840 and 1940, The region was home to one of the world’s great migration - but almost certainly the least well-known.
[The entire area was under the British rule and the subjects were free to travel across]
The world of Bay of Bengal collapsed with astonishing rapidity in the middle decades of 20th century. Crossings were interrupted, first by the global economic depression and then by WW II, with the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia. New, revolutionary visions of citizenship and belonging emerged from the trauma of war. But the ultimate effect of the conflict was to cement the division between South Asia and the lands across the Bay (Southeast Asia). This forced choices upon many who previously had seen no reason to choose between homes and had circulated between India or China and Southeast Asia.
As the turn of 21st century, the Bay of Bengal is once again at the heart of international politics. First the Bay of Bengal is now as it was in the 18th century, an arena for strategic competition between rising powers. Today these 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’ experience of climate change.
The Bay of Bengal is a large triangular basin in the Indian Ocean and the largest bay in the world. It is an enclosed sea, surrounded by thousands of miles of coastlines. Many of the Asia’s great rivers empty into the bay of Bengal: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghna, the Godavari, the Kaveri, the Krishna.
The Asian monsoon animates the Bay of Bengal: it is one of the most dramatic climatic phenomena on Earth. The monsoon - from the Arabic mawsim or season - is a weather system of seasonally reversing winds. Between April and September, the southwest monsoon moves roughly from southwest to northeast; between November and March the northeast monsoon moves in the opposite direction.
The bay of Bengal marks the eastern frontier of the Hindu cosmos. Of the four dhams (sacred dwellings) of Hindu mythology that span the four corners of the subcontinent - Badrinath, Puri, Rameshwaram and Dwarka - Puri fronts the Bay of Bengal along the Orissa coast, and the island of Rameshwaram, where the Indian subcontinent just into the sea, is the southernmost of the dhams. Today, as in the past, the footsteps of pilgrims create a lived landscape. Many Indian pilgrims believe that a visit to the holiest of cities on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi (Banaras), should be followed by a journey to Rameshwaram.
In the first half of the 18th century huge quantities of silver entered China to finance Chinese tea, a lot of it by way of India. Much of this silver was in the form of Mexican pesos, of which well over a billion were minted in the 18th century - they were widely trusted, their silver content guaranteed. Eventually the Chinese market grew saturated with silver; as the relative value of silver declined in China, an alternative medium arose to finance the relentless demand for tea. That alternative was Indian opium.
[With the drain of silver and the growing number of people addicted to the drug, the Daoguang Emperor demanded action. Officials at the court who advocated legalizing the trade so the government could tax it were defeated by those who advocated suppression. In 1838, the Emperor sent Lin Zexu to Guangzhou, where he quickly arrested Chinese opium dealers and summarily demanded that foreign firms turn over their stocks. When they refused, Lin stopped trade altogether and placed the foreign residents under virtual siege, eventually forcing the merchants to surrender their opium to be destroyed.
Edward Thornton, chief statistician at East Indian House put it this way: “Indian, by exporting opium, assists in supplying England with tea. China, by consuming opium, facilities the revenue operations between India and England. England consuming tea, contributes to increase the demand for opium of India” - A perfect equation
In response, the British government sent expeditionary forces from India, which ravaged the Chinese coast and dictated the terms of settlement. The Treaty of Nanking not only opened the way for further opium trade, but ceded territory including Hong Kong, unilaterally fixed Chinese tariffs at a low rate, granted extraterritorial rights to foreigners in China (which were not offered to Chinese abroad), a most favored nation clause, and diplomatic representation. When the court still refused to accept foreign ambassadors and obstructed the trade clauses of the treaties, disputes over the treatment of British merchants in Chinese ports and on the seas led to the Second Opium War and the Treaty of Tientsin.
These treaties, soon followed by similar arrangements with the United States and France, later became known as the Unequal Treaties, and the Opium Wars represented the start of China's "Century of humiliation". - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_Wars]
The three islands - Ceylon, Penang and Singapore - reflected the competing imperatives of imperial rule around the bay. Singapore developed as free port. Ceylon as an agricultural plantation and Penang as a port city that would become the gateway to the Malay Peninsula. The free trade of Singapore might have been more valuable than the ‘whole continents of territory’ to profit from it.
The power of steam promised the conquest of the monsoons. less than a decade after opening of the Suez Canal, the monsoon demonstrated enduring power over human life - they failed. The failure was global and catastrophe. The rain failed across lands as far apart as southern India, China, Java, Egypt and northeastern brazil. In India, the famine was worst in the Southeast and across Deccan plain. At the time, observers assumed a direct connection between the famine of the 1870s and the increase in Indian migration, which accelerated at that very moment. Famine was the ultimate ‘push factor’.
Faced with a chronic shortage of labor, British administrators across the Bay of Bengal saw opportunity in the famine. The number of Indian laborers arriving in Ceylon doubled between 1875 and 1876 and exceeded 160,000 in each of the two worst years of the famine. The migrants to Ceylon came almost entirely from those regions ‘already accustomed to short-term migration’; the dry region of Thanjavur and southeastern Madurai,
The ‘kangany’ dominated recruitment from the start in Ceylon. The Tamil word means, overseer; in the Tamil Bible, kangany is the term for a bishop - overseer of the congregation. The Calcutta nationalist daily, Amrita Bazar Patrika, mocked the kangany as ‘like a tin god clothed in gorgeous velvet coat and lace turban and bedecked with costly jewels in his ears and his fingers’. Another newspaper commented that ‘kangany instils in the minds of these ignorant seekers of fortune’.
In Burma, a similar system of recruitment prevailed under a different name and under different conditions. The recruiter name as ‘maistry’. The movement from India to Burma really took off in the 1880s and most of the migrants to Burma came not from Tamil districts , but Telugu-speaking area north of Madras. They were joined by migrants from Orissa and the Bengal. Migration to Burma was the freest of the three (Ceylon, Burma and Malaya) . Burma was ruled as province of British India and in Burma, south Indian capital, not just labor, was essential to the metamorphosis of the late 19th century.
Chettiar community was the main money lenders in Burma. Once in a week, the community’s elders convene at the Chettiar temple in Mogul Street, Rangoon. They discuss community affairs, set interest rates for different kinds of loans and deposits, beginning with internal rate for transaction between Chettiar firms. They assess market conditions. They distill rumors of war, faltering monsoons and new shipping lines into a single figure: the interest rate. They do business with European exchange banks, which are quite willing to lend to Chettiar firms than Burma farmers. By the turn of the 20th century far more Chettiar capital was invested overseas than in Madras; above all they invested in Burma.
Tamil migrants were not accustomed with Malay climate and mostly got sick with the climate. On Malayan official wrote, contemplating a new stream of migration to British North Borneo, ‘natives of Malabar and South Canara would probably thrive better in Malaya than Tamil migrants.
The world of the Bay of Bengal was, for centuries, a world of men,. men crossed the sea while women stayed behind. In the 18th century and 19th centuries Muslim traders from South India maintained families on both sides of the Bay as they made second wives of local women. E.J.L.ASndrew (retired protector of immigrants) wrote: “the life of prostitutes is pitiable in the extreme. Once in the power of a keeper the girls are not allowed freedom of any kind and they eventually become wrecks”. “In mainly cases, the alliance is based on sentiment. A peculiar system of selling women is common. A labor returning to India (very often to his wife and children) would ‘sell’ his local mistress to another man, ‘reserving his right to purchase her on his return’.
[Malaya;s rubber changed the world - 70 to 80 % of the world market.].
Bruno Lasker a German social reformer noted that in 1930s, “international migration in eastern Asia was to a large extent arrested and even reversed in its course. But most people who lived through them, the changes of the 1930s did not feel so decisive. The depression - with its bouts of unemployment and deflation, its new controls on migration - seemed more like a harsh setback than a lasting shift. After WW II, did these cracks in the web connecting lives around the Bay of Bengal appear to be permanent reversal. Things changed suddenly in the 1930s: arbitrary rules blocked movement and fluctuating markets undue fortunes.
In the assessment of one economic historian, “ few economies can have undergone a macroeconomic shock more severe than that experienced in the 1930s depression by Malaya. The decline in rubber’s price was almost entirely because of reduced demand from the American automobile industry; the general slowdown in the industrialized world weakened demand for tin. The value of copper exports from Singapore fell by 84% between 1929 & 1932 and the real wages across the Malaya fell by half. The market value of rice dropped even faster than that of other commodities, and it took much longer to recover.
In Burma, the pressure on rice growers provoked a crisis in social relations in the countrywide. When the bottom dropped from the world market for rice, the web of debt on which Chettiar moneylenders fortunes were built went awry. Unable to recover loans, Chettiar firms foreclose on mortgages and acquired significant proportion of Burma’s agricultural land (25% of the agricultural land). Liquidity was essential to the Chettiar’s business model, now debted Burmese cultivators suffered a loss of land and livelihood. In this climate of fear, some Burmese turned against not only their Chettiar creditors but also all immigrant Indians on their land.
A familiar language of nationalist resentment echoed around the bay. A Burmese newspaper invoked Hitler approvingly in discussing the ‘Indian problem’. The newspaper ‘now remembers a speech delivered by Hitler before he came into power. Hitler said, “ I have studied the histories of all countries and I find that the retardation of a country’s progress is not due to its economic affairs, but due to the influx of foreigners”. resentment of Indian immigration across the Bay was mirrored by Indian nationalists’ increasing hostility to emigration. “Burma divorces India’, John Christian wrote in Current history in 1937; making Burma’s autonomy from Indian control after a century. Faced with eviction, the Chettiars cried foul. The assumption under which they had invested millions of Burma had been overturned; the imperial rug had been pulled from beneath them. Fearing the worst, some Chettiars moved their money out of Burma, others did the opposite, travelling to Burma in even greater numbers in case their entry should be restricted in the future.
[During the outbreak of WW II, Japanese army overtook, the bay of Bengal area - Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia,..]
Three moments marked the Bay’s rise and fall as a region at the heart of empires and global capitalism. The first was the British conquest of eastern India and the establishment of Penang and Singapore on the other side of the Bay in the midst of the revolutionary upheavals of the early 19th century. The second was the steamship revolution in the last quarter on the 19th century which produced a new level of interconnection across bay as people, goods, and ideas moved back and forth at higher velocity and on a greater scale than before. The third came with WW II, which brought to sudden and decisive end the connected world of the Bay of Bengal, breaking bonds that the depression had already put under strain.
Bhimrao Ambedkar - the fiercely independent leader of India’s dalits and brilliant legal architect of India’s constitution - looked across bay in his search for a spiritual alternative for India's former ‘untouchables’ convinced that Hinduism offered them only humiliation. Ambedkar considered both Islam and Christianity, but eventually he settled on Buddhism as the most appropriate path for himself and for his followers. Before his death, Ambedkar led a mass conversion ceremony in the central Indian city of Nagpur, when half a million dalits embraced Buddhism.
Visiting Chennai in July 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided a resonant narrative of the decline and rise of Chennai as a port city of bay of Bengal, facing east once again, after a half-century’s interruption. “There is no better place to discuss India’s leadership in the region to its east than here in Chennai” she said. “In this port city, looking out at the Bay of Bengal, and beyond to the nations of East and Southeast Asia, we are easily reminded of India’s historic role in the wider region, for thousands of years, Indian traders have sailed those across the Bay and beyond. Today, the stretch of sea from the Indian ocean to the Pacific ocean contains world’s most vibrant trade and energy routes, lining economies and driving strength”.
Since 1990s Hambantota in Sri Lanka has been the site of one of the largest port construction projects in the world. Along the northern arc of Burma’s littoral, the new port at Kyaukpu, on Ramsree island has been built and financed by the Chinese government and private investors. Beijing undoubtedly remembers Burma’s role in WW II when it provided China access to the Indian Ocean, while China is a littoral power in the western pacific in the Indian Ocean it is landlocked. On the eastern coast, India’s fleet is based in Visakhapatnam, from where hundreds of thousands of embarked for Burma in search of fortune in the early 20th century. India forces ‘keep a hawk-eye on the strategically important Malacca strait. Alongside closer relations with Sri Lanka, the Indian state competes with China for Burma’s coastal resources: taking share in the natural gas fields off the coast, investing in the construction of airfields, contributing to deepwater harbor in Dawei. The value of India’s trade with Southeast Asia has more than doubled in a decade, reaching $80 bn in 2012.
[The design of Loyang Tua Pek Kong temple in northeastern Singapore is unlike any other. Inside the temple complex, shrines to Daoist, Buddhist and Hindu deities and the grave site of a Muslim holy man sit next to one another.]
Oceanic history is itself kind of cartography. By foregrounding the bay of Bengal - linked by journeys, memories, and the sinews of power - we can see beyond the borders of today’s nation-states, beyond the borders imposed by imperial mapmakers and immigration officials to a more fluid, more uncertain world; a world that resembles our own. As the furies of nature grow clamorous, the fortunes of migrants are even fickle.