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Borders and Ecotones in the Indian Ocean

 | 
Markus Arnold
, 
Corinne Duboin
, 
Judith Misrahi-Barak

I—Between Land and Water: Motion, Flux and Displacement

Coastal Thought: an Alphabet Spanning the Seas1

Meg Samuelson

Résumé

Seeking to reflect on the shore, this essay attempts an immanent and mimetic method that approaches its subject in a manner informed by its own properties and practices. The coast is by nature non-linear and functions through fluctuance. It affords a mode of thought that ebbs and floods and in which meaning surfaces only to be again submerged, in which images and ideas silt up only to erode into dispersed sediments that will be deposited on other shores. Its peculiar logic is simultaneously random and systematic, variable and repetitive. Generated by inexorable rhythmic forces, it is also directed by serendipity: it is structured by tides, currents and winds that are alternatively periodic and spasmodic, and which deliver various fragments of flotsam to shore. It is composed of miscellaneous things and distributed agencies that gather into transitory assemblages, before dissipating and regrouping elsewhere. Experimenting with an appropriate form through which to convey the systematic haphazardness of coastal thought, the essay presents an alphabet spanning the seas–from Cacophony to Cyclone–that is designed according to a structured syllabary determined by the fortuitous homophonic resonance of the character C.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Earlier versions of this essay were presented as a keynote address at ‘Ecotones, Contact Zones and (...)

1Seeking to reflect on the shore, this essay attempts an immanent and mimetic method. Approaching its subject in a manner informed by its own properties and practices, it begins by considering what would characterize coastal thought.

  • 2 Gibson, James J. ‘The Theory of Affordances’. Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing: Towards an Ecologic (...)

2Shaped by the ‘affordances’2 of its situation in the littoral environment coastal thought would, by nature, be non-linear: it would function through fluctuance, rather than by constructing coherent arguments upon solid foundations. Ebbing and flooding, its meanings would surface and submerge, silting up only to erode again into dispersed sediments that deposit on other shores. Its peculiar logic would be simultaneously random and systematic, variable and repetitive. Generated by inexorable rhythmic forces, it would be directed also by serendipity. Structured by currents, tides, waves and winds that are alternatively periodic and spasmodic, while musing on the fragments of flotsam they deliver to shore, coastal thought would be composed of miscellaneous things and distributed agencies that gather into transitory assemblages before dissipating and regrouping elsewhere.

3Experimenting with an appropriate form through which to convey the systematic haphazardness of coastal thought, this essay presents an alphabet spanning the seas. It is designed according to a structured syllabary determined by the fortuitous homophonic resonance of the character C. Cogitating on the coast through the constraints of this formal conceit, the essay reaches from CACOPHONY to CYCLONE while seeking to percolate a range of other Cs through each entry.

4The words that wash up from the seas—like a message in a bottle—are in this essay drawn primarily from the Indian Ocean literary and historical archive as well as from my experiential encounters with its shores. A few, however, arrive from elsewhere as this ocean flows into the world ocean and unforeseen characters well up from the deep or drift in from over the horizon. Some are as lucid as the limpid waters that often grace this littoral; others are as obscure or perplexing as a beach cloaked in morning fog or the intricate designs traced on its sands by entangled kelp fronds. Mutable, whimsical, vacillating; it is not always clear what these things are, where they come from and to what purposes they may be put—but all form part of coastal thought.

Cacophony

  • 3 Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. London: Routledge, 1990; 1.
  • 4 Bakthin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerso (...)
  • 5 Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010; 11.
  • 6 Tiffin, Helen. ‘Postcolonial-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse’. Kunapipi 9.3 (1987): 17– (...)

5Multiple social dialectics come into contact and contention on the shore. It is no wonder that Mikhail Bakhtin, the theorist of heteroglossia, grew up in Odessa, a port city ‘in whose streets mingled several different cultures, each with its own language’.3 Bakhtin explains that heteroglossia emerges at the point of intersection between the ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal forces’ of language.4 The coast is similarly located between ‘a centripetal pull inwards’ and ‘a centrifugal movement outwards to the edges of the known world and beyond’.5 Littoral literatures are thus characterized by an unresolved babel that positions them athwart the ‘counter-discourse’ said to define the postcolonial.6 The cacophony of the coast is also more-than-human: it includes the cries of gulls, the cawing of crows, the clicking of coral, the creak of swollen boat timbers, the clamour of rigging shivering in the wind, the crackle of bubbles on a foamy beach, the scuttling of crabs between the swishing tide. This is not just the ambient soundtrack to coastal thought; it interrupts, infuses and informs it.

Cairo

  • 7 Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. 1994. London: Tauris, 2010; n.p.
  • 8 Ghosh, Amitav. In an Antique Land. London: Granta, 1992; 288.

6A fragmentary record by a twelfth-century bookseller found among the discarded documents serendipitously preserved in the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo provides the first extant reference to the title ‘Alf Laila wa-Laila’—The Thousand and One Nights’.7 Structured as a series of portals that open into other stories and other worlds, The Nights give form to coastal thought. Also stored in Cairo’s random archive were the remnants from which Amitav Ghosh composes his travelogue-cum-history of the Indian Ocean world, In an Antique Land. This, too, is an exemplary instance of coastal thought: it gathers dispersed scraps into speculative assemblages, muddying generic boundaries, overflowing geopolitical borders and churning up temporalities. The coastal culture of ‘accommodation and compromise’ that it reconstructs takes shape in the littoral bazaars whose bargains and deals were inscribed on the flotsam of papyrus and paper surfacing out of the Ben Ezra Genizah.8

Caliphate

  • 9 Promeranz, Kenneth and Topiz, Steven. The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World (...)
  • 10 Pearson, M.N. The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 200 (...)
  • 11 Battuta, Ibn. Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325–1354. Ed. and trans. H.A.R. Gibb. 1929. London: Rou (...)
  • 12 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Desertion. 2005. London: Bloomsbury, 2006; 62.

7This ‘world that trade created’ was also convened by the Abbasid Caliphate in Bagdad.9 After its capital was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, the Caliphate was partly re-established in Cairo and the Indian Ocean remained the abode of Islam through the subsequent centuries, knitting the eastern African shore into ‘a vast, diverse, and cosmopolitan Muslim world’.10 The fourteenth-century Rihla, or book of travels, of Ibn Battuta records his peregrinations through its emporia and holy sites from Tangier to China.11 In the supreme marketplace of the new global order, the Ibn Battuta Mall of Dubai maps his journeys across a 521,000m2 floorplan. Tellingly, it excises the nodes of Mogadishu, Mombasa and Kilwa. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction offers an important corrective to the abjection of Africa in contemporary reconstructions of the Indian Ocean world. In his novel Desertion, a trader from South Asia establishes a family in Malindi where he lives out his days ‘in the house of God, dar-al-Islam’, in contrast to predatory characters who visit that continent in order to shore up its transoceanic forelands.12

Callosity

8Southern right whales and sailor’s hands can be identified by this hardened skin as they respectively breach the surface of the sea and the shoreline.

Calm

9Gazing out across deceptively smooth surfaces, coastal thought remains alert to roiling depths and to storms gathering beyond the horizon. It registers also the paradox that a becalmed state can be calamitous to windborne watercraft.

Canute

10The legend of King Canute locates the limits of human sovereignty in the intertidal zone, but the proposed Anthropocene epoch would name ‘the human’ as the force behind the rising sea.

Cape

  • 13 Panikkar, K.M. Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1 (...)
  • 14 Camoes, Luiz Vaz de. The Lusiads. 1572. Trans. Landeg White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997 (...)
  • 15 Samuelson, Meg. ‘Rendering the Cape-as-Port: Sea-Mountain, Cape of Storms/Good Hope, Adamastor and (...)

11The Portuguese navigators who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in their caravels during the late fifteenth century opened a portal between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, inaugurating the ‘Vasco da Gama epoch’ of Western domination in Asia.13 Luís Vaz de Camões sixteenth-century epic celebrating Da Gama’s voyage to Calicut follows the fleet as it progresses up the eastern African coast, ‘[b]ombarding, burning, and looting’ the city-states established on these shores.14 But the enterprise it launches remains unsettled by the figure of Adamastor, Camões’s embodiment of the Cape of Storms, who forecasts disaster at the very point of the Lusiads’ triumphant passage.15

Caravans

  • 16 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Paradise. 1994. London: Bloomsbury, 2004; 119; 160.

12Writing from the perspective of the African rim, Gurnah offers a less sanguine depiction of the Indian Ocean world than does Ghosh. His novel Paradise, which is partially based on the merchant Tippu Tip, tracks a caravan from the port of Bagamoyo into the interior. From the perspective of transoceanic traders, commerce is extolled as that which ‘gives life’, but an inland chief retorts: ‘you have made slaves of us and swallowed up our world’.16 This conflict is further complicated by the arrival of European imperialists who will impose ‘their story of the world as if it were the holy word’, condemning these traders as those who ‘made slaves’. Gurnah’s coastal thought enacts this shuttling movement, relativizing each position with that located on the other side.

Caravan Parks

13The playgrounds on the segregated shores of my white South African childhood are another manifestation of the walled gardens that exclude and entrap. Coastal though cannot be innocent of the ramparts and checkpoints that characterize the shore as much as do its open horizons.

Carceral

  • 17 Gunesekera, Romesh. The Prisoner of Paradise. London: Bloomsbury, 2012; Gosh, Amitav. The Sea of P (...)
  • 18 Appanah, Nathacha. The Last Brother. 2007. Trans. Geoffrey Strachan. London: Maclehose, 2010; Coll (...)

14Romesh Gunesekera’s The Prisoner of Paradise, Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish together map the ‘carceral archipelago’ strung between the Mascarene Islands and Van Diemen’s Land in the age of empire.17 Reconfigured rather than dismantled in contemporary settings, it manifests in the narrative syntax of goals and camps that structures novels by Nathacha Appanah, Lindsay Collen and Ananda Devi, and floods through Australia’s strident border controls in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s haunting image of the ‘Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’, which figures a detained Tamil asylum-seeker being hooked by a state that denies him landfall.18

Cargo

15All seaborne freight must cross the shore.

Carpets

  • 19 Muecke, Stephen. ‘What Makes a Carpet Fly? Cultural Studies in the Indian Ocean’. Eyes Across the (...)

16From coastal souks to The Thousand and One Nights, storytelling is ‘what makes a carpet fly’.19

Cash Crops

  • 20 Pearson, M.N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Moder (...)
  • 21 Sam, Agnes. ‘And They Christened It Indenture’. Jesus is Indian and Other Stories. Oxford: Heinema (...)

17In the age of high imperialism, the shores and islands of the western Indian Ocean were converted into vast plantations. Britain made much of the malevolent Arab slaver trader in its self-fashioning as a civilizing power, but the ‘huge rise in the [Indian Ocean] slave trade’ in the late eighteenth century was a direct response to Europe’s growing appetite for cane-sugar and cloves.20 Feeding this appetite while sating its newly-found conscience, Britannia conceived a new system of bonded labour, and ‘christened it indenture’.21 The Indian Ocean littoral has been reconstituted by these migrations, and now labours under the economic, environmental and political legacies of the plantations that they serviced.

Castaways

  • 22 Fugard, Sheila. The Castaways. Cape Town: Macmillan, 1972; 11; Christiansë, Yvette. Castaway. Durh (...)

18The coast is haunted by castaways—those ‘foundering’ founders stranded by the catastrophes wrought through empire and ocean.22

Caulking

19The iterative work of repair that takes place on shore renders the vessels of coastal thought buoyant.

Caves

  • 23 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘The Climate of History’. Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197–222; 208.

20Inscribed through deep time with stories of dropping sea levels, coastal caves remind us that the constructions erected on these shores are situated on a shifting margin. Shell middens in these caves tell also the story of the emergence of the human, as this category has come to be defined: it is believed that the protein provided by the sea led to significant advancements in brain development. At the same time, the walls of caves on the Southern African littoral are adorned with figures of the human transmuting into other species, its boundaries shown to be as permeable as the shore itself. Other caves have, in turn, borne witness to the fracturing of this category—such as those of Mangapwani in Zanzibar and Shimoni in Mombasa, where captives were held before being transported into slavery, or those of Le Morne in Mauritius from which maroons leapt to their death rather than be returned to bondage in the cane-fields; so too for that of Hanglip to which escaped slaves repaired from colonial Cape Town, and those in which the San sought refuge when they were hunted like vermin by its burghers. In an age in which the distinction between human history and geological time is said to have ‘collapsed’, 23 these coastal caves remind us that the human is neither a neutral nor a coherent category.

Cetology

  • 24 Melville, Herman Charles. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Ed. Tony Tanner. Oxford: Oxford University Pre (...)

21Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick is all at sea, but novels set around the rim of the Indian Ocean—Tim Winton’s Shallows, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance—draw human-cetacean encounters to shore.24 In this terraqueous setting, they register the often-destructive nature of contact between maritime and onshore worlds.

Changeable

22The only constant on the coast is its inconstancy; the only reliable predictions observe its capriciousness. Coastal thought must attune to the vacillating and volatile. This renders it apposite to the fickle conditions of late capitalism and the climate crisis.

Choreology

23The coast choreographs an intricate dance of vulnerability and resilience, presenting object lessons in times of unevenly distributed precarity and modes of endurance.

Circulation

  • 25 Bose, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in an Age of Global Empire. Cambridge: Harvard (...)

24The movements of people around the Indian Ocean in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century are shown by Sugata Bose to constitute ‘a kind of circular migration instead of an emigration’.25 They foster ways of inhabiting the shore that imagine it not as the end of the world but as a place of transit and transaction.

City-States

  • 26 Sheriff, Abdul. Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Em (...)

25The Swahili historian Abdul Sheriff writes of city-states ‘threaded together [. . .] like the beads of a rosary’ that were the product of a millennia-long ‘interaction between two cultural streams’—one flowing in from the maritime foreland and the other from the terrestrial hinterland.26 His coastal thought cherishes the ruins of these structures while retreating from the chauvinism that would construct them as ‘civilised’ in contradistinction to the interior.

Climate

  • 27 Earle, Sylvia A. The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One. Washington: National Geo (...)
  • 28 Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: University of C (...)

26Oceanographer Sylvia Earle notes that the climate-regulating function of the oceans means that ‘[e]veryone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the seas’.27 Life on this terraqueous planet is thus is a coastal condition writ large. Today, the beach offers an instructive vantage point from which to apprehend the effects of coal-fired climate change and the accumulating detritus of petro-chemical consumption. Eliciting inter-scalar and conjunctive perspectives, it enables ways of seeing the Anthropocene as ‘a world of insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are [. . .] inconceivably vast’.28 Because the coast is fluctuant and fractal, the position it offers also advances recognition of the uneven distribution of responsibility and harm across this planetary condition.

Cocktails

27‘Cocktails’ is shorthand for touristic and other leisure practices that have commandeered coastal societies, and which are now imperilling the very shores they consume. I am complicit in these practices, as may be some of my readers. Coastal thought stumbles through these states of implication rather than seeking to ascend to the stability of the moral high ground.

Code

  • 29 Gillis, John R. The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012; (...)
  • 30 Majid Al-Najdi, Ahmad B. Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese. (...)
  • 31 Pearson, M.N. The Indian Ocean. London: Routledge, 2003; 47.
  • 32 Muecke, Stephen and Ghosh, Devleena. ‘Natural logics of the Indian Ocean’. Cultures of Trade: Indi (...)

28The code of the monsoons began to be deciphered in the seventh-century BCE, making the Indian Ocean rim the ‘oldest [human] shore’.29 Ibn Majid’s fifteenth-century ‘Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation’ enjoins sailors to ‘know these seasons and these rules’: there are times when ‘one is compelled to travel’ and there are times when the ‘sea is closed’.30 The regular winds of the ‘monsoon regime’ enabled commerce across this ocean while the lengthy layovers that it imposed fostered deep and sticky relations between locals and foreigners along its shore.31 The ‘cultures of trade’ elaborated through these ‘natural logics’ remind us that weather is an actor in coastal thought,32 and that what is closed can be world-opening.

Coelacanth

29This ovoviviparous Indian Ocean fish was thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period until it resurfaced on the shores of the twentieth century. Sharing a common ancestral branch with land vertebrates, it manifests the ecotonal continuum between terrestrial and marine life.

Coins

  • 33 Christiansë, Yvette. Unconfessed; New York: Other Press, 2006; 324.

30The commodification of life into coinage is demonstrated in Yvette Christiansë’s chilling account of a woman being made chattel as she steps from the shores of south-eastern Africa onto a ship that will transport her into slavery: ‘the world tilted and we were scooped up like so many coins from the edge of a table’.33

Colonialism

31The beach is where colonial incursions commence; and, it is through the ports established along the coast that the goods extracted from the outposts of empire are ferried to its core.

Commonality

  • 34 Pearson, M.N. ‘Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems’. Journal of World History 17.4 (200 (...)
  • 35 Pearson, M.N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Moder (...)
  • 36 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. By the Sea. 2001. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.
  • 37 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. The Last Gift. London: Bloomsbury, 2011; 259–260.

32Michael Pearson proposes the category of ‘littoral society’ that informs my coastal thought. 34 It is based on his observation that people living around the Indian Ocean basin share more in common with one another than they do with those in their immediate hinterland. The Swahili coast exemplifies this ‘common culture’ as it demonstrates an ‘overarching unity’ across the borders of ‘five modern African states: Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and the Comoro Islands’.35 Gurnah traces this cultural continuum along the eastern African shore in novels such as By the Sea.36 In The Last Gift, he extends its reach across the ocean and south of the monsoon belt to shores that were stitched into the Indian Ocean world by the plantation economy of imperial Europe. Docking in Durban, Bombay, Madras and Colombo, his protagonist encounters familiar faces and foods; while his ship moors in Port Louis to load a cargo of sugar, he watches ‘an old man sitting amid the reek of sun-burnt fishscales’, ‘surprised by the familiar grace with which he pulled the needle through the sailcloth he was sewing’.37

Compass

33Early navigators of the Indian Ocean took their bearings from the stars by way of the stellar compass and kamal. Sailing like Sindbad from shore to shore, they voyaged also through celestial constellations.

Company

  • 38 Samuelson, Meg. ‘(Un)Lawful Subjects of Company: Reading Cape Town from Tavern of the Seas to Corp (...)

34European trading companies reconstituted the Indian Ocean world during the age of mercantile capitalism. Many of the settlements surrounding this basin were initially founded or refitted as refreshment stations and halfway houses to service ships plying the spice route between Europe and Asia. The remnants of canals, cannons, castles, company gardens and custom-houses in Jakarta, Cape Town, Colombo, Melaka, Port Louis and Saint-Denis remind us that these coastal cities are constitutively entangled in the making of a world-system that continues to consume them. Harbingers of global capitalism rather than temporary structures surpassed by empire and the nation-state, the Dutch East India Company and its European competitors governed the coastal nodes of its commercial network with the sole intent of funnelling off profit.38

Complicated

  • 39 Janmohamed, Abdul R. ‘The Economy of the Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in (...)
  • 40 Hofmeyr, Isabel. ‘Universalizing the Indian Ocean’. PMLA 125.3 (2010): 721–729; 722.
  • 41 Samuelson, Meg. ‘Coastal Form: Amphibian Positions, Wider Worlds, and Planetary Horizons on the Af (...)

35Gurnah describes the Swahili coast as ‘complicated’ even in its ‘cruelties’ (Gurnah 2005: 222). Enfolded, entwined and muddled, it disturbs the ‘Manichean allegory’ that structures colonial and anti-colonial thought,39 maintaining the ‘complexity of possibility’ in the face of ‘a deadening vision of a racialized world’ (Gurnah 2005: 222). The ocean that washes up upon this shore further ‘complicates binaries’, as Isabel Hofmeyr observes, ‘moving us away from the simplicities of the resistant local and the dominating global’.40 Wavering between interior and exterior, the littoral zone is a mutable and permeable boundary between Africa and the world.41

Concrete

  • 42 Pilkey, Orrin H. and Cooper, J. Andrew. The Last Beach. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014; n.p; (...)
  • 43 Watts, Jonathan. ‘Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth’. The Guardian, 25 February 201 (...)

36In the urban and coastal century, the shifting sands of the fluctuant littoral are being ruinously mined for and shored up by concrete.42 The solidity it promises will ultimately enhance the vulnerability of the developments that manifest the ‘becoming greyer’ of a ‘blue and green world’.43

Congregants

37Baptisms are often performed at sunrise on the beaches of Southern Africa, enfolding indigenous beliefs in the healing properties of seawater into imported Christian practices. Observed in these rituals is the recognition that the sea is a sacred space and that the shore shimmers with numinous powers.

Conservation

  • 44 See PATEL, Shenaz. Silence of the Chagos. Trans. Jeffrey Zukerman. New York: Restless Books, 2019.

38The story of the Chagos Islands warns that marine conservation can be used to extend the reach of the military-industrial complex.44

Contact Zone

  • 45 Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. 1955. Boston: Mariner, 1998; n.p.
  • 46 Pratt, Mary Louise. ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’. Profession (1991): 33–40; 34.

39Rachel Carson writes of the ‘edge of the sea’ that it is ‘the primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change’.45 The littoral is also often a ‘contact zone’ in the terms advanced by Mary Louise Pratt: ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power’.46 Pratt’s reflections on the ‘arts of the contact zone’ are germane to coastal thought: ‘Autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression—these are some of the literate arts of the contact zone. Miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread master pieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning—these are some of the perils of writing in the contact zone’ (Pratt 1991: 37).

Containers

  • 47 Levinson, Marc. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy B (...)
  • 48 Urry, John. Offshoring. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014; n.p.
  • 49 Ntshanga, Masande. The Reactive. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2014; n.p.

40‘The box’ that ‘made the world smaller and the world economy bigger’ has transformed the nature of harbours from bustling hubs of contact, commerce and industrial action to ‘non-places’ through which goods and people transit, unfettered by adhesive attachments.47 Eerily emptied of social life, waterfront developments such as the Victoria & Albert in Cape Town and the Caudan of Port Louis are repackaged for tourists as nostalgic repasts. Circulating on the horizon of coastal thought are the leviathans labouring under loads in which 90% of global commodities are secreted; they are the synecdoche of an ‘offshoring’ economy that realizes the ‘unequal interests’ of neoliberalism.48 Masande Ntshanga’s novelistic analysis of a polity corroded by one of the highest Gini coefficients presents a character watching container ships ‘melt into the horizon, each one swaying before tipping over the edge of the world’.49 Visiting the informal settlements that stretch across the dunes surrounding the port city of Cape Town, he finds that its disposable peoples live in abandoned containers patched up with debris washed in from the sea—it is, he reflects, like ‘regular poverty, but cut into sections and prepared for export’ (Ntshanga 2014: n.p.).

Contraband

  • 50 Couto, Mia. Pensativities: Essays and Provocations. Trans. David Brookshaw. Frankfurt: Biblioasis (...)

41Coasts are places of illicit trafficking. Crime fiction thrives in this setting (Samuelson 2014: 811). So too does writing that seeks act as a ‘smuggler of souls’: this is a literature that remains ‘open to travelling through other experiences, other cultures, other lives’ and which is exemplified by Mia Couto’s prose.50

Contrapuntal

42The conjunction of land and sea positions here and there, near and far, in counterpoint as much as in connection.

Coolitude

  • 51 Carter, Marina and Torabully, Khal. Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora. London: (...)

43The Mauritian poet Khal Torabully presents coolitude as an alternative to the négritude literary movement that flourished in West Africa and the Caribbean during the era of decolonization. It similarly valorises a denigrated identity, but it does so without laying claim to a ‘native land’; indexing the brutal regimes of indenture, it instead presents identity as a composite vessel in motion: ‘I am a Creole by my rigging, an Indian by my mast, a European by my foreyard, a Mauritian by my quest and French by my exile. I will always be elsewhere than in my own self’.51 This processual quality distinguishes coolitude from négritude, which appeals to a stable past. Refiguring loss as regeneration, Torabully declares: ‘My coolitude is not a rock either, / It is coral’ (in Carter and Torabully 2002: 223).

Coral

  • 52 Sheppard, Charles. Coral Reefs: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; (...)
  • 53 Gunsekera, Romesh. Reef. 1994. London: Granta, 2011.

44Coral reefs are both the ‘largest’ and ‘most diverse’ ecosystem on earth, supporting more marine and human life ‘per unit area than any other natural ecosystem’.52 They provide a rich source of sustenance to coastal peoples and offer protection from high surf and storm surges. Today, however, these vital, multispecies assemblages are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of environmental degradation and climate change: coral reefs are likely to be the first planet-wide ecosystem to collapse irrevocably as they succumb to a series of interlocking local and global pressures, including shoreline development, overfishing and pollution as well as ocean warming and acidification (Sheppard 2014, n.p.). Coastal thought stubs its toes against the ‘skull-heaps of petrified coral’ accumulating on the ‘strandline’ of the vanishing present—the fragile refugia that have themselves succumbed to a deluge of local-global violence.53

Corsair

  • 54 Le Clezio, J.M.G. The Prospector. 1985. Trans. C. Dickson. London: Atlantic Books, 2016; n.p.

45The protagonist of JMG Le Clézio’s The Prospector excavates the sands of Rodrigues in search of the hidden treasure believed to have been buried there by his ancestor, the Corsair, before surmising that he ‘threw everything into the sea’.54 Walking along the beach, Le Clézio’s narrator concludes that, ‘having lived through so much killing and so much glory, he retraced his steps and undid what he’d created, in order to be free at last’ (Le Clézio 2016: n.p.). And then, that: ‘I have nothing left’ (Le Clézio 2016: n.p.). If the sea harbours both treasure and terror, the coast is the space of its erasure and dissipation. . .

Cosmopolitan

46The permeability of the littoral zone and the connective monsoon system both enable and are emblematic of the much-vaunted cosmopolitan cultures of the Indian Ocean rim. It is salient to remember, however, that the commerce informing these cultures is premised on the commodification and consumption of human and planetary life.

Creole

  • 55 Lionnet, Françoise. ‘Cosmopolitan or Creole Lives? Globalized Oceans and Insular Identities’. Prof (...)

47Françoise Lionnet notes that, ‘creolization, like cosmopolitanism, presupposes patterns of movement and degrees of mixing’ but in a ‘subaltern’ mode.55 Its histories remind us that the cultural mixtures that are today celebrated—and often commodified in service to island-tourism—were produced under conditions of coercion and cruelty, and that what they enact are the arts of survival.

Crest

  • 56 Samuelson, Meg. ‘Searching for Stoke in Indian Ocean Surf Zones: Surfaris, Offshoring and the Shor (...)

48Swell generated over long-distance fetches crests as it approaches land. Attracting waves of surf tourism along with upwellings of local practitioners, its impact on parts of the Indian Ocean littoral is today comparable to that of the monsoon winds in an age of sail. Thinking through ‘the shore-break’ offers suggestive ways of recalibrating the Indian Ocean as method in this geopolitical and geological present.56

Currents

49Comprising the global conveyor belt, ocean currents control climates, create marine environments, and transport vast volumes of water and human commodities, delivering distant things to local shores. They remind us that what circulates offshore determines existence in and beyond the intertidal zone (Carson 1983: n.p.).

Cyclone

  • 57 Couto, Mia. ‘Call for Solidarity from Mozambique’. World Literature Today. News & Events Blog. 21 (...)

50This alphabet concludes in the devastating wake of Cyclone Idai—said to be ‘the worst climate disaster [to] hit the southern hemisphere’ and the coast of Africa57 to date. As the calamity dissipates into the enduring catastrophes of contaminated water sources, ruined crops and cholera, the effects of inequitable carbon emissions and resource consumption will continue to batter this most immiserated shore. This is the extremity of coastal thought.

Bibliographie

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Augé, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. 1992. Trans. John Howe. London: Verso, 1995.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

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Bose, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in an Age of Global Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. 1955. Boston: Mariner, 1998.

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Samuelson, Meg. ‘Coastal Form: Amphibian Positions, Wider Worlds, and Planetary Horizons on the African Indian Ocean Littoral’. Comparative Literature 61.9 (2017): 16–24.

Samuelson, Meg. ‘Searching for Stoke in Indian Ocean Surf Zones: Surfaris, Offshoring and the Shore-break’. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 13.3 (2017): 311–325.

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Notes

1 Earlier versions of this essay were presented as a keynote address at ‘Ecotones, Contact Zones and Third Spaces’ (Ecotones 3: Indian Ocean) at the University of Reunion, and as seminar paper in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide and in the English Department at Stellenbosch University. I am grateful to the organisers of these forums for the opportunity to test the conceit of this coastal thought, and to the audiences who suggested some of these keywords. The essay is dedicated to Michael Pearson, the preeminent historian of the Indian Ocean and a pioneering proponent of the category of ‘littoral society’.

2 Gibson, James J. ‘The Theory of Affordances’. Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing: Towards an Ecological Psychology. Ed. Robert Shaw and John Bransford. 1979. Oxford: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1986; 127–143. Chemero, Anthony. ‘An Outline of a Theory of Affordances’. Ecological Psychology 15.2 (2003): 181–195.

3 Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. London: Routledge, 1990; 1.

4 Bakthin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981; 272.

5 Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010; 11.

6 Tiffin, Helen. ‘Postcolonial-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse’. Kunapipi 9.3 (1987): 17–34.

7 Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. 1994. London: Tauris, 2010; n.p.

8 Ghosh, Amitav. In an Antique Land. London: Granta, 1992; 288.

9 Promeranz, Kenneth and Topiz, Steven. The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to present. New York: Sharpe, 2006.

10 Pearson, M.N. The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005; 44.

11 Battuta, Ibn. Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325–1354. Ed. and trans. H.A.R. Gibb. 1929. London: Routledge, 2004.

12 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Desertion. 2005. London: Bloomsbury, 2006; 62.

13 Panikkar, K.M. Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498–1945. London: Allen & Unwin, 1953.

14 Camoes, Luiz Vaz de. The Lusiads. 1572. Trans. Landeg White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997; 1: 90.

15 Samuelson, Meg. ‘Rendering the Cape-as-Port: Sea-Mountain, Cape of Storms/Good Hope, Adamastor and Local-World Literary Formations’. Journal of Southern African Studies 42.3 (2016): 523–537.

16 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Paradise. 1994. London: Bloomsbury, 2004; 119; 160.

17 Gunesekera, Romesh. The Prisoner of Paradise. London: Bloomsbury, 2012; Gosh, Amitav. The Sea of Poppies. London: John Murray, 2008; Flanagan, Richard. Gould’s Book of Fish. 2001. London: Vintage, 2016; Anderson, Clare. ‘The Carceral Archipelago of the Indian Ocean World: The Cape, Mascarene Islands, India and Australia’. Keynote Address. ‘Durban and Cape Town as Port Cities’, University of the Western Cape, 2014.

18 Appanah, Nathacha. The Last Brother. 2007. Trans. Geoffrey Strachan. London: Maclehose, 2010; Collen, Lindsay. Mutiny. 2001. London: Bloomsbury, 2002; Devi, Ananda. Eve Out of Her Ruins. 2006. Trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman. Dallas: Deep Vellum. 2016; Clarke, Maxine Beneba. ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’. Foreign Soil. London: Corsair, 2014.

19 Muecke, Stephen. ‘What Makes a Carpet Fly? Cultural Studies in the Indian Ocean’. Eyes Across the Water: Navigating the Indian Ocean. Ed. Pamila Gupta, Isabel Hofmeyr and Michael Pearson. Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2010; 65–74.

20 Pearson, M.N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998; 162.

21 Sam, Agnes. ‘And They Christened It Indenture’. Jesus is Indian and Other Stories. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989; 129.

22 Fugard, Sheila. The Castaways. Cape Town: Macmillan, 1972; 11; Christiansë, Yvette. Castaway. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

23 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘The Climate of History’. Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197–222; 208.

24 Melville, Herman Charles. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Ed. Tony Tanner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; Winton, Tim. Shallows. 1985. London: Picador, 2011; Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. 2004. London: HarperCollins, 2005; Mda, Zakes. The Whale Caller. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2006; Scott, Kim. That Deadman Dance. London: Picador, 2010.

25 Bose, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in an Age of Global Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006; 73.

26 Sheriff, Abdul. Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770–1873. London: James Currey, 1987; 8.

27 Earle, Sylvia A. The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One. Washington: National Geographic, 2009.

28 Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016; n.p.

29 Gillis, John R. The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012; 41.

30 Majid Al-Najdi, Ahmad B. Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese. Ed. and trans. G.R. Tibbetts. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1971; 237, 225, 227.

31 Pearson, M.N. The Indian Ocean. London: Routledge, 2003; 47.

32 Muecke, Stephen and Ghosh, Devleena. ‘Natural logics of the Indian Ocean’. Cultures of Trade: Indian Ocean Exchanges. Ed. Stephen Muecke and Devleena Ghosh. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007; 150–163.

33 Christiansë, Yvette. Unconfessed; New York: Other Press, 2006; 324.

34 Pearson, M.N. ‘Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems’. Journal of World History 17.4 (2006): 353–373.

35 Pearson, M.N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998; 69.

36 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. By the Sea. 2001. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

37 Gurnah, Abdulrazak. The Last Gift. London: Bloomsbury, 2011; 259–260.

38 Samuelson, Meg. ‘(Un)Lawful Subjects of Company: Reading Cape Town from Tavern of the Seas to Corporate City’. Interventions 16.6 (2014): 795–817.

39 Janmohamed, Abdul R. ‘The Economy of the Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature’. Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 59–87.

40 Hofmeyr, Isabel. ‘Universalizing the Indian Ocean’. PMLA 125.3 (2010): 721–729; 722.

41 Samuelson, Meg. ‘Coastal Form: Amphibian Positions, Wider Worlds, and Planetary Horizons on the African Indian Ocean Littoral’. Comparative Literature 61.9 (2017): 16–24; 18.

42 Pilkey, Orrin H. and Cooper, J. Andrew. The Last Beach. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014; n.p; my thanks to Charne Lavery for re-surfacing this word, which was submerged in my initial presentation of this alphabet.

43 Watts, Jonathan. ‘Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth’. The Guardian, 25 February 2019.

44 See PATEL, Shenaz. Silence of the Chagos. Trans. Jeffrey Zukerman. New York: Restless Books, 2019.

45 Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. 1955. Boston: Mariner, 1998; n.p.

46 Pratt, Mary Louise. ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’. Profession (1991): 33–40; 34.

47 Levinson, Marc. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006; AUGÉ, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. 1992. Trans. John Howe. London: Verso, 1995.

48 Urry, John. Offshoring. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014; n.p.

49 Ntshanga, Masande. The Reactive. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2014; n.p.

50 Couto, Mia. Pensativities: Essays and Provocations. Trans. David Brookshaw. Frankfurt: Biblioasis International, 2015; n.p.

51 Carter, Marina and Torabully, Khal. Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora. London: Anthem Press, 2002.

52 Sheppard, Charles. Coral Reefs: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; n.p.

53 Gunsekera, Romesh. Reef. 1994. London: Granta, 2011.

54 Le Clezio, J.M.G. The Prospector. 1985. Trans. C. Dickson. London: Atlantic Books, 2016; n.p.

55 Lionnet, Françoise. ‘Cosmopolitan or Creole Lives? Globalized Oceans and Insular Identities’. Profession (2011): 23–43.

56 Samuelson, Meg. ‘Searching for Stoke in Indian Ocean Surf Zones: Surfaris, Offshoring and the Shore-break’. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 13.3 (2017): 311–325.

57 Couto, Mia. ‘Call for Solidarity from Mozambique’. World Literature Today. News & Events Blog. 21 March 2019.

Auteur

Meg Samuelson is an Associate Professor in the Department of English & Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide and an Associate Professor Extraordinary at Stellenbosch University. She has published widely in Southern African and Indian Ocean literary and cultural studies. Her recent research engages with enduring violence and the practice and poetics of care in women’s writing from Southern Africa, coastal form in narrative fiction from the African Indian Ocean littoral, photography in Zanzibar, ways of telling the China-in-Africa story in the Anthropocene, surfing cultures and the Indian Ocean shore-break, sharks as uncanny figures of racial terror in the Anthropocene, the southern orientations of J. M. Coetzee’s writing, the oceanic south and the literary world ocean. She co-edits the Palgrave Macmillan series on Maritime Literature and Culture.

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