Dr Sujit Sivasundaram will speak at the Hay Festival about the history of the islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans and its marginalisation despite the fact the islands played a crucial role in modern political, intellectual and cultural thought.

Islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans are by their very nature marginalised spaces. They don’t conform with how we organise our knowledge.

Dr Sujit Sivasundaram

The islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans are “the testing grounds for modernity”, but despite their importance they have been overlooked due to the Eurocentric focus of many history textbooks, says Dr Sujit Sivasundaram.

His forthcoming book, tentatively titled ‘Revolutionary Empire’, will be about the history of Pacific and Indian Ocean islands between 1780 and 1840 and he will speak about the subject as part of the Cambridge Series at this year’s Hay Festival. “That was the period that gave rise to the modern world and which consolidated the British Empire,” he says. “If we want to think of modernity in terms of a political system of states and a globalised world linked through capital, technology, ideas and forms of self-understanding this is a crucial period. The Indian and the Pacific Oceans are the ultimate frontiers of the world. Yet they were critical to what the modern world came to be.”

Dr Sivasundaram says the history of islands in the Asia/Pacific region is underexplored compared, for instance, to the Caribbean or the Atlantic, because of the way we see the spread of languages of rights, protest and state-making, from the West to the East. The islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans were further away and ‘othered’ – viewed as exotic and with very different forms of social organisation from Europe. This made it difficult for scholars in the West to give these places the chance to have a history.

“The histories of certain countries have come to stand for Britain’s imperial engagement. For instance, India. And the same is true for the story of the birth of the modern world in the so-called ‘age of revolutions’ at the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth. We think that it all started with the American Revolution, the French Revolution and  the Industrial Revolution,” he states. Moreover, there is a tendency to focus mainly on the high point of empire at the end of the nineteenth century, he adds, and to consider the period of the book he is writing retrospectively. The later period was when imperial powers focused on the interiors of continents.

Yet, says Dr Sivasundaram, the study of island history casts an important light on some of the key issues associated with modernity, as they were sites of awful war, waves of migration and cultural encounter, depopulation and deforestation, wide scale attempts at conversion and concentrated attempts at the gathering of knowledge or trade. “They were crucibles of the story that would then unfold and places for the formation of categories of race and gender, for instance,” he adds.

Late 18th century and early 19th century documents also show how people in the region reflected on the environment, an abiding concern of Dr Sivasundaram’s research. Sea levels were studied by Pacific explorers. In Sri Lanka or Mauritius there was a lot of interest in natural history and deforestation. “Concerns with the environment have been long running and were present in the period my book covers,” says Dr Sivasundaram.

He anticipates that there will be more focus on islands as the impact of climate change increases and the world sees increasing numbers of climate refugees. “And the history of islands will be instructive for humanity as we face the future of modernity,”he adds.

From Tasmania to Tonga

Dr Sivasundaram will talk about the commonalities and differences between specific islands at the Hay Festival, by starting with the stories of four islands - Singapore, Tasmania, Tonga and Sri Lanka. In Tasmania, for example, disease and forcible removal led to the vast death of Aboriginals. He is particularly interested in the issue of kingship and local systems of rule. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the Kingdom of Kandy was an independent monarchy until 1815 when the British arrested the king and sent him into exile. The British then appropriated the mantle of kingship.

In Tonga, however, the imperial forces came looking for kings to negotiate with. The local chiefs picked up on the European idea of kings and adopted the model to help them to create more expansive states and retain independence. “Tonga was never colonised. It sees itself as the true Pacific,” says Dr Sivasundaram. “My interest is in the different paths taken and how the outcomes in different islands can be so different.”

He thinks there is a renewed interest in oceanic history and he sees that among the students he teaches on his popular ‘Islands and Beaches’ course for finalist undergraduate historians. “Younger people are travelling a lot off the beaten track. They are also intellectually committed to a history that is as diverse as possible.. There should not just be one history. Looking at the history of islands pluralises our view of the past in so many ways.

"Islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans are by their very nature marginalised spaces. They don’t conform with how we organise our knowledge. In universities we still focus on area studies (such as African studies or South Asian studies), but islands do not fit that disciplinary rubric. It’s a classification that dates from the time of the Cold War when area studies institutions were set up for strategic reasons. Island histories are also greatly vulnerable to loss, because of extinction, depopulation and dramatic change. These are specific reasons why islands have become so marginalised.”

Dr Sivasundaram’s previous books have been for a university readership, but his new one, which will be published by Harper Collins, is aimed at a public audience and he is keen to get it read in the Asia-Pacific region. “I want to change what is learnt about the history of islands,” he says, “and not simply in the West, but through a process of learning between island communities and students and readers in places like the UK.”

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