Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants
by Sunil S. Amrith
Harvard University Press
Sunil Amrith specialises in the study of migrations between South India and Southeast Asia. His latest book begins with a readable account of the bay's centuries-old role as a crossroads of trade and cultures.
Bordered by India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia, the bay is also increasingly geopolitically significant, Amrith writes. The sea now serves a combined population of about 500 million, and is a frontline of China and India's competing muscle.
The highlight of this 368-page book is the way Amrith introduces the bay's early trade routes and encourages further reading into its ancient civilisations - from the medieval Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya empire of Sumatra, who ruled much of Southeast Asia, to the powerful Chola (southern India) dynasty's thriving China trade. Such accounts reveal vibrant "East-meets-West" business communities where Arab, Indian and, later, European ships moored alongside Chinese junks for cloth, spices, opium and Mexican silver. Amrith brings these images to life with clear maps and thoughtful research, such as the observations of Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, who noted 84 languages "from the Middle East to China" in early 16th-century Melaka.
Equally engaging is the way Amrith portrays traders' study of the bay's monsoons, and how they intermarried with locals from across the bay to create hybrid cultures and architecture that embraced multiple beliefs and traditions.
He studies how the British consolidated their power along the bay, and precipitated one of the greatest migrations in history, primarily for the clearing of newly colonised Southeast Asian forests for Burmese rice, Ceylon tea and Malayan rubber. He compares the scale of Indian migration by 1911, of "more than 100,000 people each year" to Burma, Malaya and Ceylon with the 26 million migrants who arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1930. He says although "between half and three-quarters of [migrants] returned to India each year", more than six million people of Indian origin and "a similar number of Chinese had settled overseas by the end of the 1930s".
Yet the author looks beyond the statistics and colourfully researches the role of the Chettiar financiers and labour recruiters; how drought, sloppy Raj administration or debt induced migration; and the bay's inextricable links to global trade in foodstuffs and automotive rubber.
Amrith unearths fascinating reminiscences to illustrate the effects of the 1930s depression, the second world war and nationalism, but newcomers to the region's culture might wish he had covered more on the growth of the region's capital, Calcutta; delved deeper into the Chinese communities in India; and guided current debate on the bay's rising sea levels with potential evacuation scenarios.
His credibility is undermined by poor fact checking: the Royal Navy's Prince of Wales warship, for example, was not sunk "in Singapore's harbour", on December 10, 1941, but off Malaysia's Kuantan.