Geopolitics of the Ocean : connections across time and space

Ocean WorldThe Ocean is big. From when we are children, we have been told how water covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface. We are shown globes, and apart from the beauty of the earth, the sheer visual understanding of the size of the oceans was amazing. Then, we were told, perhaps a grade or two later, that life originated from the ocean, billions of years ago. We didn’t have the slightest idea of what a billion was, but again, it was amazing. Unlike how it may seem, I was never easily amazed as a child. But certain facts did blow my mind. Like, that you could travel from China to America by ship without having to cross the entire landmass of the Asian and African continents. The world was round, of course, but its implications were wonderful. China and America are, despite being on ‘opposite’ sides of the world, actual neighbours, connected by the ocean.

The ocean separates the continents, but it also connects across vast distances. Traveling by road from Korea to Portugal requires covering a much larger arc of the earth, than from Japan to North America. Each journey has its own challenges. In ancient times, they would all have been challenges of the wilderness – having to deal with hostile environment or lawless peoples. Or, in case of the sea, more than land, of technology. In the modern world, the challenges are geopolitical, and traveling across the Pacific would be the much preferred option than having to journey through the heart of Eurasia. One involves boarding a tech-laden, massive ship from a top-class Japanese port, and disembarking on a perhaps slightly inferior port in the USA. The other, would require the crossing of any number of borders and boundaries, each guarded by their own political authorities, or anarchists.

The sea, even historically, has always been the preferred route of conduct, for trade and travel, if available, of course. The main reason why the sea is preferred over land routes, is also more or less the same across history. The land is divided into multiple sovereignties, authorities and powers, the sea, on the other hand, belongs to no one. So, everyone.

Human beings have been sailing across surprisingly wide waters for a very, very long time. Even more than fourty to fifty thousand years ago, human beings had reached the archipelagos of South-East Asia, traveling on further to Australia, and spreading across the scattered islands of the Pacific. These journeys had mostly been what we could call island hopping, settling on one island and then, by accident or design, ‘discovering’ its neighbour, settling it, and so on. Island hopping may or may not have been accidental to begin with, but even very early in human history, the exploration of the seas became a an enduring human enterprise. The Pacific Islanders were the greatest champions of early exploration of the oceanic world, spreading out as far as Hawaii, closer to the American mainland than to Eurasia, within some ages of explorations. Who knows, perhaps the even reached the western coasts of Americas, like their sea-faring counterparts of Scandinavia did, around 1000 AD, much before Columbus. Speaking of the ancient world though, a recent study suggests that ships from the Indus Valley civilization, of northern India, might have travelled to Australia about five thousand years ago, carrying some technologies and even some animal species which changed the course of native Australian civilization. Among other things, the Indus Valley ships brought dogs to Australia, which gradually evolved into the distinctive Australian dingo.

Sea faring in antiquity

Sea faring in ancient times was both a more wide-ranging and intensive enterprise. Merchants from the Phoenician city states, originally from modern day Lebanon, Syria and Israel, colonized almost the entire coast of the Mediterranean, and most probably even circumnavigated the souther cape of Africa. The Ancient Egyptian Empire was run over by a mysterious ‘sea people’ in the 13th century BC – an entire nation on ships, it would seem.

Sea Peoples

Of course, it is the age of exploration, of European exploration, that captures the imagination of modern students of history, especially because its consequences are still fresh in our minds, even our politics. But European exploration, while responsible for great technological advances, especially in ship-building, owed quite a lot to Arab geographers and sailors. The Ottoman Empire, for example, had navies in both the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. So, obviously, the Ottomans had more than an idea about a route to India from Europe, which Vasco da Gama, supposedly discovered in the 1490’s. Also, the eastern coast of Africa was intensively interlinked with the western coast of India since time immemorial. Sorghum, the staple crop of the Indus Valley civilization, since the 4th millennium BC had its origins in the Horn of Africa. All Vasco da Gama should really be given credit for is bringing armed ships into India. The tradition of arming merchant ships with cannons is, really, the most lasting European contribution to maritime trade. This lasted for more than 500 years, until cannons were made obsolete by modern naval technologies.

Anyway, I should stop this from becoming a post-colonial critique of colonialism. But the point I do want to raise is that the age of colonialism/Imperialism, actually had a part to play in closing the oceans. Oceanic space, which always remained outside political control throughout, became  monopolised by European powers beginning from the 17th, but solidified in the 18th centuries. It was only after the World Wars that oceanic space was opened again, but even then, subject to Cold War politics.

In our times, it is, ironically, a rising post-colonial nation, China in the form of the People’s Republic that poses the most immediate threat to the openness of oceans, by making arbitrary claims in the South China Sea – historically speaking, an unfortunate name. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the combined waters of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans have been the greatest connectors of mankind throughout history. The age of European imperialism was a great disaster for Asians, resulting in long-lasting impoverishment, conflicts and millions of deaths. China, a representative of the oldest civilization in eastern Eurasia is behaving like a greedy, rapacious European power of the colonial age. Japan tried to imitate the West once, The Japanese are still atoning for their mistakes. We are both too old and to young to make those mistakes. To reclaim the Asian century, we must know better. Most of all, we must never forget the power of the sea.

South China Sea

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Three days after the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I was in the south Indian coastal city Chennai. I had made the impulsive decision after seeing a heart wrenching image on the Times of India newspaper’s front page, of a woman holding her dead child, with and absolutely forlorn expression of her face, both animal grief and hopelessness. I can’t really say why I went, taking a 24 hour train from the West Indian city of Pune, but I did, and that was that. In Chennai, I was initially lost. But after a while of thinking, I decided to take a box of biscuits to the nearest relief camp. Now I think it would have been better if I’d just sent some money to some relief fund, but that was what I did then.

From the images I’d seen on TV, I had thought I’d see large-scale destruction of property, masses of forlorn people, noisy crowds of relief vehicles, and the like. But, on the beach, what struck me the most was the emptiness. Vast swathes and swathes of empty sand, littered with flotsam jetsam, most of it rubbish of the human manufacture, but hardly any people. In fact, there were none. In a busy, metropolitan port-city, the centre of industry and commerce on India’s south-eastern coast, one act of nature, a mere spilling over of the ocean, had cleared away all signs of human activity. I rode along the badly damaged, empty road that circled the beach, and finally saw a group of boys in the distance. They were rag-pickers, probably, taking a break, playing a game of cricket with equipment appropriated from the sea. I approached them and decided to give my biscuits to them – if not to the victims of the seas, then to the victims of society. Within seconds my box was empty.

Very disturbed, I rode back in silence. What had I come for? Perhaps, hoping to do some good, perhaps for my pride, or only to see. But that I had seen the wrath of the Tsunami, even if only on a small patch of coast, would remain with me forever. Having spent most of my life in the hills, I have not seen the ocean too many times. And that had been my first visit to the beach.

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