The historian gathering fragments of the past to understand how humans tick

This Cambridge Life

The historian gathering fragments of the past to understand how humans tick

Sujit Sivasundaram in the Old Library, Caius.

Sujit Sivasundaram in the Old Library, Gonville and Caius College. By Lloyd Mann 

Sujit Sivasundaram in the Old Library, Gonville and Caius College. By Lloyd Mann 

After he began studying at Cambridge, Sujit Sivasundaram, found the freedom to let his imagination and curiosity roam. Yet his interests and intellectual life continue to be shaped by the global South. Today, as Professor of World History, he is passionate about bringing the untold and forgotten stories from the past to life, so that we can understand the conditions and possibilities that frame human existence.

People say that all the world is concentrated in Sri Lanka. If I think back to my childhood, I have memories of stunning beaches, beautiful highlands covered in forests and bustling cities. I went to school with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. The island is culturally diverse, multi-religious and multi-ethnic.

Despite being unbelievably beautiful it can be a tragic place. While most of the time people of different communities and faiths live alongside each other peacefully, at other times prejudices and racism emerge and shift into moments of enmity and violence. Sri Lanka’s virulent civil war also arose out of long-term inequalities of access and disparities of power.

I remember a moment in the Sri Lankan Civil War, the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, which ripped through Colombo, the city in which I lived. I would have been seven years old at the time. One indelible memory is the sight of a gang of people coming down the street close to where my family lived burning houses belonging to Tamils. 

It was a confusing place in which to grow up and to work out what it meant to belong and to be human. Despite my Tamil surname, I knew I had at least three of Sri Lanka’s communities within me as my ancestors, majorities and minorities included. Though I was unscathed by the conflict, I was quite uncertain of where I fitted in the world.

Sujit reading in front of bookcase

The first thing Cambridge taught me was that it was important to follow my passions. What I really enjoyed was reading, writing and thinking – and studying history allowed me to do more of this. I changed degrees, first to the fascinating field of history and philosophy of science which introduced me to the way knowledge, including race, is constructed, and over time I became more and more caught up with my study of human beings and the natural world.

Curiosity and imagination are essential to being a historian. The people I find most interesting are those who are unlike me. When I do my research, I know I need to be open to that sense of surprise at the realisation of difference and to the power of understanding new ways of thought. Historical research also depends on being ingenious with evidence, working with fragments and going beyond the bulk of sources to get to the underside.

Global history is about reaching for places that are not at the forefront of historical narratives. It’s about continuously decentring the obvious, the familiar and the iconic in order to bring overlooked stories and processes of change to the light. I like to think of it as starting with an island like Sri Lanka which holds the world in it – to understand the world from that one small place far from the expected centres of historical change and innovation.  

Viewing a map of Tonga, one of the sites in 'Waves Across the South.'

Viewing a map of Tonga, one of the sites in Waves Across the South.

Viewing a map of Tonga, one of the sites in Waves Across the South.

I’m interested in understanding the paths that were taken – and not taken – by our predecessors and how these pathways were constrained by larger structural forces, like the rise and fall of empires, ideas of race and gender, capitalism or nationalism. Even the environment we inhabit influences these paths. I’m especially interested in how oceans have shaped the human past over the long term and have written on this. I have recently written on COVID-19 by thinking about the rapidly changing relations of humans and animals in the modern era in Asia.

The late 18th century to the early 19th century is a period that fascinates me as it was a moment of a lot of possibilities. Various people around the world were trying to figure out what their future might be. It was ‘the age of revolutions’, yet these uprisings were stalled by the rise of global imperialism.

The Atlantic Ocean, encompassing revolutionary events such as the French Revolution or the Haitian Revolution, is normally the focus of this period, but I wanted to track this era across the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. I’d previously written on Sri Lanka and my PhD was on the Pacific Ocean – now I had an opportunity to connect up the dots and to be ambitious in linking two vast zones in the global South which are rarely brought together in historical writing.

Holding book

I travelled around the Indian and Pacific oceans doing research in archives and meeting people, from Mauritius, South Africa, Tonga, Burma/Myanmar and many places between. The conversations I had were wonderful and fed my historical imagination and I learnt a great deal from scholars in many places in the global South. I wrote a book about my research called Waves Across the South

In Waves Across the South I had to exercise my imagination in reconstructing a rich range of lives. Among the most telling was the story of Tasmanian Aboriginal women involved in the seal trade alongside foreign men such as escaped convicts from New South Wales. What really struck me was how gender roles looked different in the sealing camp. But their story like so many in the book is utterly tragic: genocide driven in part by British abolitionist commitments to protecting these women saw rapid depopulation.

Sujit looking ahead

The pandemic has made me nostalgic about Sri Lanka and Colombo once again. While stuck in Cambridge, in my mind I walked the streets of Colombo, exploring the neighbourhoods and buying food from street markets.

View from quarantine hotel showing the new port development project financed by China, involving land taken back from the sea.

View from quarantine hotel showing the new port development project financed by China, involving land taken back from the sea, which can be seen on the horizon. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

View from quarantine hotel showing the new port development project financed by China, involving land taken back from the sea, which can be seen on the horizon. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Street in Colombo.

Street in Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Street in Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Cityscape of Colombo.

Cityscape of Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Cityscape of Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

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View from quarantine hotel showing the new port development project financed by China, involving land taken back from the sea.

View from quarantine hotel showing the new port development project financed by China, involving land taken back from the sea, which can be seen on the horizon. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

View from quarantine hotel showing the new port development project financed by China, involving land taken back from the sea, which can be seen on the horizon. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Street in Colombo.

Street in Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Street in Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Cityscape of Colombo.

Cityscape of Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

Cityscape of Colombo. Credit: Sujit Sivasundaram, taken in 2021

On returning, the first sight out of the window of my quarantine hotel, however, was the massive project afoot to build a new zone of Colombo in the sea, with Chinese finance and expertise. Once again, Colombo is at a cross-roads with the rise of China. This is no time to be nostalgic.

The city is changing dramatically, and what I would like to research next is how this moment came to be. But in keeping with my commitment to starting with the least expected departure point, one of my first ports of call is to consider the role of Muslims in this city, another small community who have faced sustained discrimination. Colombo was first and foremost an Islamic settlement and Muslims have played and continue to play a critical role in building it. This is a scarcely-acknowledged historical story.

Sujit sitting in chair

One of the things I absolutely love about being in Cambridge is working with students. Teaching invigorates me as a person and energises my research. The graduate students are brilliant, and the future of my discipline is theirs.  

Since I’ve been here for more than two decades, Cambridge has undoubtedly shaped me. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that it has given me the space to engage with the global South, by reminding me of who I am. Rather than being unsure of myself or seeing myself as someone born of conflict, I am confident to express my views and to let my imagination roam. The experience of that transition still guides the style of my intellectual life. And the gift I’d like to give Cambridge is to make it more and more a place, where other young people, who perhaps are like I was, and certainly who are far less privileged, have the opportunity to follow their passions and express their views.

Sujit Sivasundaram is Professor of World History, Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies and Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. He arrived in Cambridge in 1994 as an undergraduate of Christ’s College where he studied History and Philosophy of Science. His book Waves Across the South has just been shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people who make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Lloyd Mann.