A Multispecies History of the Ceylon Pearl Fishery 1800–1925

Seeing like the sea

by Tamara Fernando,  Past & Present, Volume 254, Issue 1, February 2022, Pages 127–160, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtab002

Published: 21 September 2021


The pearl fishery of Ceylon was a lucrative source of pearls as well as a theatre of colonial power. But instead of narrating a story of abstracted governmentality, this paper dives below the waves, braiding Tamil poetry with scientific material relating to the oyster and state sources concerning fishery administration. Taken together, these unearth a multi-species history of the human relationship to the seas. In the same way that pearl divers’ labour was a mode of knowing nature, so too, natural processes and marine creatures shaped, in turn, the economic, social and cultural worlds at the fishery. This nacreous, layered approach combines natural history, maritime labour and historical ecology to explore the fragile and interlocking balance below the waves which extended beyond humans to the molluscs, sharks, boring sponges and parasitic tapeworms of the Gulf of Mannar. The archive around the pearl fishery advances the animal and ecological histories of the Indian Ocean and also points towards ways of suturing the gulf between Indian and Sri Lankan scholarship.

From Chesapeake Bay to the Bay of Biscay; from the Roman Empire to the Mongols; from the Wadden Sea to Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, oysters have intersected significantly with human histories, serving as medicine, specie, ornament, gift, tribute, dietary staple, or gastronomic delicacy.5 Crucially, molluscs also produce lustrous calcareous deposits to which humans attach value, otherwise known as pearls. These objects, extracted from oysters’ fleshy insides, now in the guise of luxury commodities, spanned global routes of trade, sale and consumption from the late antique period well into the twenty-first century.6 As a result, the story of pearl-bearing oysters is deeply embedded in and entangled with histories of globalization and empire as well as with their darker corollaries of slavery, imperialism and colonial violence.7 In sum, we might quote Aarthi Sridhar: ‘That molluscs have shaped human history profoundly is not an exaggerated claim’.8

But equally, human histories have shaped those of molluscs and their associated underwater cohabitants. Today, naturally occurring oyster reefs are close to functional extinction worldwide.9 The arc of repeated human overharvesting here reads like a textbook case in declensionist environmental history. But although we know much about the human arrangements configured on land around the oyster — with a host of excellent scholarly monographs concerning places ranging from sixteenth-century Venezuela to nineteenth-century Bahrain — we know far less historically about what took place underwater, despite the fact that the above-mentioned interactions altered entire marine ecosystems, and that they were shaped, in turn, by the sea and the physical structures of reefs. Inverting our perspective to the sea or the ocean floor, how did the reef and oysters experience colonialism, slavery or changes in imperial governance?10 Animate oceanic worlds constrained and inflected social behaviour among the historical actors that we are more familiar with, making the pearl fishery an ideal site to submerge Indian Ocean studies underwater and to advance a multi-species reading of local and global capital.

For the specific fishery studied here, two land masses straddle the waters where oysters live. The boundaries between India and Sri Lanka today exist not only in terms of their watery frontiers augmented by the technologies of the nation, but, also, for historians, in the form of the rift through their respective historiographies.11 As a sub-discipline, environmental history is much more robustly developed for India than for Sri Lanka, despite the faunal and geo-morphological links that bind their littorals together.12 Recently, water has become the medium of choice for environmental monographs focused on the Indian subcontinent.13 But although there is a renewed attention to rivers, deltas and the monsoon rains, the ocean has not yet been fully drawn into this fold.14 Instead, approached through the lens of Indian Ocean studies, now a distinct field of analysis in its own right, the human takes precedence again.15 Even the most brilliant accounts of scholars, traders, labourers and pilgrims in the Indian Ocean world present these actors operating laterally over a lifeless sea; although the monsoon animates the space above the waves, that below is silent with an absence of all other life.16 The story of the pearl fishery fills two gaps here: first in terms of the animal and ecological histories of the Indian Ocean more broadly, and second in terms of using historical ecology to partially suture the scholarly gulf between India and Sri Lanka.

Bivalves and other marine creatures are unlikely candidates for the protagonists of posterity.17 They do not speak in our language(s) and left no written testimonials — perhaps explaining why historians writing on pearl fishing have generally been more concerned with empire, labour, citizenship, fashion, or merchant networks.18 But these naturalized actor-categories always functioned within ecologically circumscribed frames; the question, as for all environmental histories, is not whether humans exist in relation to natural history, but instead one of how to access and write the history of this relationship. The problem is compounded, as Arthur F. McEvoy put it in his seminal work on fisheries history, by the fact that fish ‘neither strike, nor sue, nor vote’.19 As a result, animal studies proponents and detractors alike share the concern that multi-species histories, while fast gaining ground, are fundamentally about representations: ventriloquized traces in language that attest less to animals, and more to humans thinking with, on, or about them.20

Yet not all material effects are premised on interlocutors. The ocean has its own chemistry, physics and biology beyond those that involve humans. Indeed, for oceans other than the Indian, a host of maritime protagonists including whales, walrus and even Pacific salmon now compete seriously for historical attention.21 In the case of the pearl fishery, the non-human world threw up obstacles to the routine functioning of the industry: this paper details how, despite being a highly lucrative event, the fishery in the Gulf of Mannar could not be rationalized along capitalist lines. In fact, attempts to industrialize fishing by applying scientific principles failed and floundered, leading to the abandonment of the industry in 1925. Outlining this relationship to the sea using a specific case study can be descriptively and analytically rich without making accompanying truth-claims about the consciousness of benthic bivalves.

The Mannar pearl fishery has featured in key economic and state-centric analyses of imperialism.22 Sanjay Subrahmanyam appraises that ‘One can scarcely find an enterprise then that encapsulates the phases of European ‘expansion’ in Asia better than the fishery’.23 Similarly, Samuel Ostroff’s study of the transition from Dutch to British management in the years 1770–1840 argues that ideas of liberalism and governmentality were forged on the shores of the fishery.24 Unsurprisingly, the fishery loomed large in the colonial imaginary, as Natasha Eaton’s essay on photography and visuality demonstrates.25 But human actors did not labour, buy and barter on a tabula rasa — on the contrary, they lived and worked for weeks at a time on the coast and out at sea where abstracted forces of state power or market economics meandered through and ran up against wet, variable environments occupied by ocean currents, oysters, sharks, stingrays, jellyfish and a host of microbial and microscopic life forms.

To construct a granular local history above and below the salty waters I rely on official archives produced by the colonial state held in Colombo and Kandy, Sri Lanka, alongside scientific publications and contemporary anthropological works. Crucially, this braiding of scientific literature on oysters, reefs and water currents with the labour archive allows for unique possibilities in multi-species storytelling. To plug gaps in the archive around the non-human, I also draw on scholarship produced in climatology, fishery management, marine biology and molluscan studies.26 Taking inspiration from the work of oysters, this paper is decidedly nacreous in its approach: akin to the formation of a pearl, it accretes layers in concentric, interlocking form. We begin with a broader understanding of the regional and local landscape before starting with oysters, moving on to reefs, divers, other maritime actors, water currents, microbial cultures and finally, the sea and the state itself. A pearl-like approach offers opportunities to read older concerns of capitalism, labour and economy in the region not as displaced, but rather as accreted upon fragile, non-human, natural processes.


A pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar was an event, rather than a dispersed set of practices, concentrating large flows of labour and capital for a short span of time, based on the geographies and ecology of the ocean. A fishery was convened seasonally over a four- to six-week period in the lull between monsoons to coincide both with oyster spawning periods and navigable seas. By the mid nineteenth century, the British colonial state exercised monopoly control or dirigisme over the industry.27 Conducting a fishery began with an announcement circulated in newspapers across India and Sri Lanka, alerting potential buyers and labourers. Close to the date stipulated, thousands of people began to arrive by sea and over land at a makeshift camp constructed on the shore. In some years, estimates of the total population ranged up to fifteen thousand persons including a medical establishment, colonial police force, several spectators, bazaar-keepers, indentured workers and divers, haulers and boatmen.28

Logistical and managerial arrangements evolved to extract the bounty of the seas as efficiently as possible. Each day, hundreds of boats departed in the early dawn light to fish on pre-designated reefs up to twenty miles from the shore as a naval patrol vessel kept watch. After high noon, a signal from the inspection vessel marked the end of fishing. Boats returned to the shore gradually over the afternoon (depending on the strength of the wind) and the catch of oysters was unloaded into a large enclosure. Here, state-hired ‘counters’ tallied the daily catch and grouped oysters into three shares.29 One third was allocated to the boatmen, divers and haulers; the remaining majority was taken over by the state and sold to private merchants at an evening auction. Once the dead oysters were sold (in lots of 1000), merchants left them piled high in open fenced areas on the shore. After a few days in the arid Mannar heat, the oyster flesh had suitably decomposed. Then labourers washed the insides of millions of dead oysters out and sorted through the residue for pearls, particularly the small seed pearls for which Mannar was famous.30 Pearls were cleaned, drilled, packaged and shipped on to other entrepôts, primarily to Bombay, and then to markets further afield. The empty shells were then discarded on the beach, accumulating in vast middans which remain, pale and sun-bleached, littered along the coast to this day.

Pearls were harvested for several centuries prior to European incursions. Undersea ecologies buttressed political and social arrangements on land. In early writings about pearls, such as those in classical Tamil literary works, pearls are threaded through the landscape, with a distinct space carved out for the littoral and those who worked with the sea. The Tamil poem Periya Purāṇam by Cēkkiḻār, for instance, interweaves oyster- and chank-derived pearls throughout. Tamil writers celebrate the ‘rich wealth of the billowy sea, arable lands and mountains’ and thus extol the ruling Cōḻa dynasty.31 In these accounts, a land of plenitude yields up its terrestrial and marine riches easily. Notably, the purānam occludes the violence of pre-colonial invasions for control of the pearl banks.32 Given that there is no archival data for fishery yield for the pre-Portuguese period, it is worth exercising considerable caution before espousing a view of a harmonious pre-European past of maritime ecologies in balance: the Cōḻa desire for pearls, for instance, was so intense that the art historian Vidya Dehejia calls it an ‘obsession’, linking it strongly to designs to conquer Ceylon.33

In other words, oyster death was not new, and social worlds had long been constructed around them. In classical Cankan poetry pearls are derived from a number of sources: ‘Bright pearls of the sea, pearls from sugarcanes | That grow in the fields, cool pearls of bamboos | And lustrous pearls that fall from the tusks of tuskers; | These were cunningly threaded into garlands | By damsels whose white teeth were rows of pearls’.34 Here pearls come easily into being from a variety of sources. They were embedded in local visions of royalty, wealth and prosperity — traces that survived in fishers’ oral folklore well into the twentieth century.35 There is no reference to specific ecologies or modes of pearl production by the bivalve; the oyster’s secrets were taken for granted and remained far out at sea, although their by-products were, by contrast, highly visible.

This is not to suggest that the seascape was not theorized as a distinct ecological site prior to European arrival. Cankam poetry, for example, uses a formal structure known as tinnai, literary devices that divide the world into geographical-poetic landscapes.36 These include the pastoral (mullai ), desert (paalai ), riverine (marutam) and littoral (neytal ).37 Each tinnai had particular resonances and that of the sea, or neytal, was a distinct space used to signify pining and longing. The gestures are telling for more than literary merit alone: Romila Thapar, for instance, writes that the tinnais are ‘a fascinating example of a detailed and early perception of the significance of eco-zones’ aiding our understanding of how the seascape was encountered in the pre-European period.38 Oysters and their ecologies inhabited particular niches, which humans memorialized in song, legend and ritual long before they were theorized in the language of a nascent marine biology.

Human and natural geographies settled and moved in predictable ways following the vagaries of the ocean. Tamil compositional forms which predominated in courtly cultures do not, of course, map commensurately onto the lived experience of those who spent their lives at and in the sea, in close contact with its marine occupants. In the case of the fishery, two primary groups, the Tamil Parava caste and the Muslim Marikkaiyar and Lebbai, lived in coastal towns along the Indian side of the gulf and specialized in the work of diving.39 These communities made seasonal visits to Ceylon, enacting a loose pattern of mobility between the two littorals.40 As with other regional maritime work, diving was gendered as male while women performed operations on shore — a marked difference from other pearling contexts in the Pacific for example.41 Few members of these fisher communities were literate, so there are no piquant memoires for historians to mine. Instead, contemporary anthropological work, oral histories and archival traces mangled through observers serve as our best guide to the experiences of divers.42

Outside of the four weeks of pearling, divers engaged in diving for whorled chank shells (Turbinella pyrum), while others found work in fishing, maritime transport or agricultural labour. It is difficult to date precisely when the Parava or Marikkaiyar became occupationally specialized.43 What is evident, however, is that for centuries, oysters and other marine creatures including sea cucumbers, rock fish and sharks, lying on the bottom of the shallow gulf had long knit these communities with the state, as they hired out their skills to regional powers. Marcus Vink describes the Parava community in the seventeenth century as exhibiting ‘forms of agency and management’ which were ‘ecologically circumscribed’.44 These interstices of cultural and natural geographies of labour persisted well into the twentieth century.

Since the pearl beds in the Gulf of Mannar are relatively shallow, human and natural geographies of work overlapped. Through the work of diving, fishing communities had intimate, embodied and dynamic knowledge of the oyster at sea. Boys began diving at eight years old, training with relatives and other members of their caste and village. The work of diving was in the body, which encountered the sea visually, physically and in tactile ways. Free diving on reefs involved acclimatizing bodies to the transition from airborne to waterborne sound, optimizing for vision underwater, equalizing with increasing depth until the pressure inside the ears adjusted to that outside and relaxing the spasms of the diaphragm. The body had to be streamlined to bear the weight of the ocean, and the mind quieted as the spleen contracted, blood flow to the extremities decreased and the heart rate slowed.45

The body mediated directly with the sea and its environment. These interactions were intimate but also dangerous — deaths from drowning and pressure occurred at almost every fishery.46 Medical reports preserve traces of men stung by poisonous fish, cut by coral and reporting eardrums ruptured by pressure.47 In other words, ecological and material realities at sea impinged on bodies at work underwater. Labour was a mode of knowing nature, albeit one distinct from the laboratory and metropole-based textual practices which would soon result. The nineteenth century saw a clash of these two modes of knowing the sea: one, intimate, familiar and tied to livelihood, the other statist, centralized and abstract; one embedded in local ecologies, the other invested in the power of science to override these.


The Gulf of Mannar harbours a variety of different habitats including mangroves, reefs and sea-grass meadows, sustaining a rich variety of marine life.48 Sailing over the gulf in the early nineteenth century, Harriet Winslow described the space below the waves as ‘like a bed of flowers, and almost as varied’.49 Within this ecology, oysters live gregariously: that is, beds of live and dead oysters grow together, with young preferring to attach to the same reef structure composed of the shells of dead or aging adults.50 Eighteenth-century observers in Jaffna recorded how

it would almost seem as if the oysters had a kind of root, stem and branches, by which they are connected and held together, and thus grow to their full perfection … it has been found, that whenever they are distributed in this their natural order of connection, not one of them makes any farther progress in its growth, but remains just as it was, when it was first separated from its vital tree.51

Attempts to bring scientific modes of management to bear on the fishery had to grapple with this ‘vital tree’, although the bonds ended up stretching far beyond the oyster.

Like many bottom-dwelling creatures, the oyster’s life cycle involves two distinct stages, one mobile and one sedentary. Most humans encounter oysters in the latter stage. Local folklore had it that oysters rose to the surface of the ocean at night to absorb drops of dew that became pearls; a notion European observers derided, but one which also speaks to an awareness of the oysters’ mobility.52 Reproduction takes place simultaneously across a bed: roughly twice a year, when temperature and salinity reach a specific level, males release jets of sperm into the water, triggering the female release of ova. Observers recorded a mixture appearing ‘in immense clusters floating about the sea’ and a few days after fertilization occurs, the water current is full of millions of minute oyster larvae known as spat.53 As they grow and develop, their transparent bodies develop organs, elongate in shape, and begin to develop a hinged shell as well as a tough byssus fibre to anchor with. The spat eventually sink and settle on the seafloor, entering their sedentary phase.

Where spat chooses to settle is based on a variety of factors including the type of ground, the sonic landscape and chemicals secreted by adult oysters.54 A spatfall may not take in one location and may move from year to year depending on where conditions are suitable. For the duration of the nineteenth century, the fishery camp followed the oysters, moving up and down the coast of Mannar: from 1796 to 1837, fisheries were held from Arippo; in the 1850s the camp was moved to Silavattuthurai and finally in 1889 to Marichchukkadi where the last fisheries took place.55

Well into the mid nineteenth century, the oyster remained a mystery to those who were responsible for accounting for fishery proceeds. In part, this was a result of colonial bureaucratic organization: management was the responsibility of administrative officials in the Northern Province, complemented with the assistance of an officer from the port in Colombo.56 These were administrators, not naturalists; bureaucrats and mariners rather than underwater workers. It is then unsurprising that one such fishery inspector, James Steuart, observed in 1833 that he had ‘very little time [to] bestow on the natural history of habits of the animal in question’.57 Little had changed by 1868, when officials expressed the view that ‘so little is known about the habits of the pearl oyster in its early stage of growth’.58 Specifically, the lacuna referred to indicated texts in European languages on the Ceylon pearl-bearing oyster, although there was already a considerable and growing literature on European molluscs.

Divers, of course, knew the lifespan of oysters (roughly eight years in the Gulf of Mannar) and that they tended to be richest in pearls around the three- or four-year mark; that they specialized in sex after a certain point; and which predators ate oysters, both young and old.59 Even the smell of a bottom sample was enough for some fishermen to deduce the condition of the ocean-floor.60 As long as the fishery turned a profit, the state was happy for the oyster to remain at sea, relying on divers’ expertise. The problem arose, however, when oysters did not give themselves up for the taking.

If the sea remained inaccessible to the colonial state, because of the terrain, then divers were required to bridge this divide. Because oysters settled and grew without direct intervention, the first step at a fishery was to determine if and where oysters were thickly laid underwater. Oysters clustered on rocky limestone shoals referred to as paars in Tamil. Fishing communities had specific names for each paar that endowed them with geographic, spatial or descriptive specificity: ‘Koddai paar’, referred to an umbrella (koddai )-shaped bank, while ‘Periya paar’ referred to the small (periya) pearl bank and ‘Muttuvaratu’ referred to the reef which yielded many pearls (muttu). These preliminary inspections were used to stipulate the viability of a fishery. Local headmen, such as the adapannar, set out with divers for this work. ‘They appear to read the compass, and to have the same fixed courses, as steered by their ancestors, from Arippo to their variously named pearl banks’, Steuart observed, occluding a host of navigational and experience-based knowledge of the sea and of where the pearl banks were found.61 The names of those who encountered the sensory geographies of the banks are lost in most cases. A select few survive: Kaytan Fonseka, the coxswain of the schooner Ceylon; C. W. Gilgot, who steered the Geraldine; and two divers named Bastian or Josephulle Mannelpoulle.62 Fonseka, Gilgot, Bastian and Mannelpoulle were employed on government vessels through the 1870s and 1880s running the pre-fishery inspections. They received a wage of £12 over the fishery season and translated their findings and those of divers to British officials, crossing terrain, media and technologies of knowing nature.63

But pearl banks are mutable things (see Figure). The paars were stocked and re-stocked, based on an apparently inscrutable rhythm. Until 1906, officers wrote that oysters disappeared for ‘some mysterious and hitherto unexplained reason’.64 In 1888, 156 million adult oysters disappeared from the Cheval paar; in 1894 all of the young oysters vanished from the Periya paar. Sometimes divers found broken byssus fibres left behind, waving in the current, whereas at other times, the limestone platforms were wiped clean. The sense of confusion was echoed by the Madras-based zoologist and botanist Edgar Thurston in 1894 when he wrote: ‘As to the cause of the failure of the pearl oysters to reach maturity on the banks in large numbers, in recent times, except after long intervals, I for my part confess my ignorance’.65 Local divers, by contrast, argued that fish preyed on the oysters, cleaning the banks, but this knowledge, passed down orally had none of the legitimacy of a scientific report.

Gaps in the fishery record transformed the oyster into an object for study, moving it from the partially accessible aqueous terrain of the sea into ambits of inspection, writing and debate. After almost two decades of inactive fishing years, the colonial government commissioned the surgeon-turned-naturalist E. F. Kelaart to investigate the oyster. Kelaart’s ‘Introductory Report on the Natural History of the Pearl Oyster of Ceylon’ (1857) relied on the removal of oysters from reefs for dissection and study. In order for oysters to die, it was crucial to understand how they lived. ‘I shall briefly describe the animal; as it is of the greatest importance, that a correct knowledge be first obtained of the animal structure, before a physiological account of its habits can be properly understood’ he wrote.66 The report documented the oyster’s anatomy, mobility and feeding habits, using captive oysters in tanks and seeing no broader connection with ocean ecologies. The work built on ideas derived from fisherfolk, such as how oysters became specialized as male or female, proving that they were not, as had been supposed, hermaphroditic.67 Unfortunately, studying the oyster outside of the ocean revealed little about how to regulate harvests: later writers assessed Kelaart’s contribution as a welcome addition to the singular study of the oyster, but of little practical use in terms of increasing fishery yield.


Beyond the naturalists’ study, events underwater offered their own possible causes. Consider how in 1885 the Colonial Secretary’s routine administrative correspondence was interrupted with a more unusual bureaucratic update:

I regret having to report that several large shoals of rays were seen about the southern part of the Cheval and Moderagam. They had however done no damage noticeable by the divers except on the Modergam (sic) where on a small portion of it the divers brought up a quantity of recently broken oyster shells bearing evidence in the nature of fractures of having been broken by such pressure as would be exerted by the powerful teeth of rays.68

Humans were not the only species interested in oysters. Predators, eager to consume their fat-rich insides, dwelt on the bottom of the sea throughout the year. These included the boring sponge, several species of starfish and cartilaginous predators such as rays. Until the 1880s, although human fisheries dramatically reduced food sources for predators, human actors had no special concern with reef-dwelling carnivores. Investigations into the causes of oyster disappearance, however, soon attributed it to the activities of other predators.69 Oysters had to die, but these deaths were supposed to take place on shore, at the hands of men, not rays.

From the 1880s onwards, undersea ecologies around Mannar were rewritten by naturalists and colonial administrators in terms of the species which might do harm to oysters. Divers followed ghostly trails of destruction, bringing up ‘quantities of fragments of young oyster shells, which is evidence of the young oysters having been broken up and devoured by fish’.70 These fish were caught, dissected and surveyed, their stomach contents pored over for ‘direct incriminating evidence’.71 Animals were absolved of guilt if ‘the stomachs were filled with crustacean debris and fragments of the lamellibranch shells other than those of the pearl oyster’.72 Officials lamented the ‘destructive agency’ of starfish; the ‘ravages to be feared’ of the boring sponge; and the ‘entire annihilation’ wreaked by rays.73 A haphazard programme of elimination began: in 1905, over three hundred starfish were dredged and killed every day (with several blows to the central body since starfish were known to reassemble and heal).

Nineteenth-century administrators overlooked the relational place of the oyster underwater in favour of extracting a single species, working backwards from pearls to oysters to the ocean. In reality, oysters made the ocean and the reef, just as the ocean, it would soon turn out, collaborated to produce pearls in oysters.74 A single oyster can pump several gallons of seawater through its gills each day, removing algae and sediment. They ingest phytoplankton and recycle inorganic nutrients, reducing water turbidity and increasing the penetration of light, stimulating growth of seagrass and benthic algae. The world divers moved into was formed by oysters themselves. Oysters excreted carbon, nitrogen and phosphate, adding them back into the water column, benefiting other photoplankton and a host of creatures who subsisted on it.75 The hard surfaces of the oyster paar provided the intricate three-dimensional structures required as cover for small fish, sea urchins and other crustaceans. Dead shells, in turn, were places where eggs were laid; shrimp, crabs and corals attached to the folds created between oysters just as predators such as eels hid between them waiting for food.

Officials aimed to further isolate oysters from the ocean, by rearing them in ersatz natural habitats or controlled nurseries at sea. In 1885 the long-serving pearl fishery inspector, the navy official James Donnan, trialled a nursery in a reef three miles from shore: he had divers dig into the coral and line the enclosure with stone. Upon completion he described it as ‘a very snug place to preserve oysters in, the water being quite clear, and having a depth of about three feet at low tide and five at high tide’. Twelve thousand oysters were transplanted to his makeshift underwater sanctuary. None survived.76 In 1894 he hatched plans again for a nursery on the eastern shore of Karaitivu Island, ‘the only sufficiently sheltered place for a nursery on the whole Western coast of Ceylon’ and far enough out that ‘water pouring into the sea during the rainy season’ would not be ‘fatal’ to the oysters.77 The nursery failed again.

Oysters’ periodic disappearances meant that they defied full rationalization into chains of profit and commoditization. Events such as the following in 1864 were not uncommon, when a rapid telegram was distributed throughout South India: ‘Please circulate information that there will be no Pearl Fishery at Arippo Ceylon this year: Oysters all dead’.78 At the apex of high imperialism, this infrequency became the central ‘problem’ of the pearl banks: the ‘notable feature of these fisheries, under all administrations, has been their uncertainty and intermittent character’.79 The application of ‘scientific techniques’ to the oyster fishery in the Gulf of Mannar was consistent with the industrialization of fisheries around the world: Atlantic cod in Newfoundland; otter and seal fisheries in the Pacific; halibut in the Gulf of St Lawrence and so on.80 So in 1903, a receptive administration under Governor Joseph West-Ridgeway (1895–1903) set out to fix Ceylon’s banks. In the words of one optimistic official: ‘The thing [infrequency] has been going on in the same way for centuries, and would so continue if the busy Western mind were not now turning to thoughts of how to improve on this old system, to make the harvest of the sea more regular in its occurrence’.81


The ‘busy Western mind’ turned to William A. Herdman, Professor of Natural History at the University of Liverpool, who would retrospectively be dubbed one of the earliest figures in the emerging discipline of oceanography.82 Herdman arrived in Ceylon in January 1902 along with his assistant James Hornell, a student who went on to become a prominent fisheries expert in the British empire. Herdman’s report, initially conceived of as a single year’s work, spiralled into five volumes over four years, and was described as a ‘welcome contribution to the marine biology of Ceylon’.83 It contained, in addition to reports on the oyster, forty-three supplementary reports and 169 illustrated plates.84 Herdman had recently spent time at the French mussel and oyster fisheries around Arachon, while Hornell himself would visit the Japanese culture farms in 1907.85 Their efforts in Ceylon can thus be read in terms of this global trend towards regulating the harvests of oysters — only one which did not ultimately succeed.

One of the first tasks for Herdman was to describe the conditions of each paar where oysters grew. Significantly, although they were equipped with a steamer, the Serendib, and a dredge, these technologies faltered and broke on the shallow banks, meaning that they had to turn once more to local divers. To survey Kondatchi paar, which is only one mile in diameter, 171 dives were made by local divers; on the Dutch Modragam paar, 260 dives were made. Science never fully superseded the local, and the labour of divers was essential even when it came to ‘scientific’ practices on the banks.

History also weighed heavily on the pearl fishery. Because oyster beds changed position each year, it was insufficient to survey the current state of the paars; one also required knowledge of what form the paars had taken previously. The list of paars thus collapsed time to try to capture oyster habitats: a pearl bank was both what had been and what might be. Unable to track the seafloor in live time, colonial officials mined archival documents including Portuguese and Dutch documents in Colombo and in India for reports of the seafloor. The results took the form of entries such as the following: ‘We believe we have evidence that [the paar] was the source of fisheries in earlier Portuguese times. Captain Donnan says that a bed of oysters died on this paar [Muttuvaratu Paar] unfished in 1860; another bed disappeared in 1899’.86 Indigenous sources were not exempt from this process: the Sinhalese poem, Kovul Sandesaya (1460 CE), for instance, made reference to former fisheries around Chilaw patronized by the Sinhalese kings in former centuries.87 Thus, the marine biological report concluded of the sea around Chilaw that ‘there is a good deal of ground here that might at any time become a “paar”’.88 The delineation of fertile oyster ground was based less on science and more on spectral archival traces.

The attempt to delineate a paar posed the question of how to extract the oyster from its environment. Ecologically speaking, a paar had no specific fixed physical or animal attributes: sometimes oysters settled amidst seagrass; occasionally they preferred rocky plateaus; they seemed to live happily alongside starfish and turtles; at other times the latter swallowed up the entire bed. ‘We must not try to be too precise in regard to the positions, sizes, and outlines of the paars’, Herdman cautioned.89 Geological features were important: the mineral composition of the seafloor was essential to the oyster’s attachment and growth. Oysters were found attached to ‘Lumps of calcrete, Nullipore balls, and dead shells’.90 The bottom of the ocean was important because it directed interventions. By the mid eighteenth century, oyster farms in France, for instance, were successfully using rocky substrates to coerce oysters to land and grow. Around Mannar, large paars of sand were described as ripe for ‘cultching’. The seafloor itself would be altered to farm oysters efficiently.

Delineating a paar was a survey of reef ecosystems more broadly. Commodities are not found, but made, and the oyster-as-commodity did not map onto the natural geographies of the reefs. While Herdman acknowledged that ‘living reefs [are] composed of many common species [which] compete successfully with the pearl oysters at many places and prevent the formation of beds’, in fact, it proved almost impossible to separate the oyster from its assemblage: ‘Oysters on this paar are rather characteristically associated with corals of the genera Madrepora, Porites, Pocillopora, Montipora, Favia and Goniastrea … Some specimens are much overgrown with Polyzoa, sponges & c’, researchers recorded.91

paar was determined also by the movements of the seawater itself. ‘Further exact knowledge of the movements of the water over the pearl banks in the Gulf of Mannar is urgently needed’ the authors noted.92 Authorities’ attention to the movements of the tides and waves was made acute by the nature of oyster spat which floated on the surface currents.93 Fishermen had a number of different ways of delineating the currents: vanivatu, the currents which run from north to south, conivatu, running from south to north, aranivatu, from west to east, and karaikkattivatu from east to west.94 The movements and nature of these tides and currents were also threaded through literary landscapes, as in the poetic work, Paripadal where ‘The hero’s chest was drawn out by the beauty of the ladies like his float was drawn in the current of water and moved as the water current moves’.95

The currents in the Gulf of Mannar however were plotted ‘definitely’ by the scientific adviser for the pearl fisheries, Thomas Southwell, in 1910. Southwell released 565 drift bottles at different stations along the coast.96 Each bottle had a slip inside it with Tamil, Sinhalese and English instructions to return the bottles with the position at which they were found noted down. Over half the bottles were returned (including one from the Maldives) which allowed for a definitive chart of the currents to be made, except that knowing the current patterns did little to indicate where spat might land.

Capitalism extracted the oyster from its plural animal, mineral and aqueous environments, refusing the creatures their roles in relation to the material of the reef, seafloor or ocean. Oysters are ‘bioengineers’ in that they literally contribute to the formation of reef ecosystems.97 The removal of oysters led to the decline of many other species that fed on the oysters: rays, sharks and a host of other ecologically connected actors. In 1912, five years after the last fishery of 1907, when twenty-one million oysters were removed, one author noted that ‘now that the banks are depleted of all molluscs, fish of all species are remarkably scanty’.98


One way to rationalize the fishery was to increase and farm oysters; another was to coerce labour into working more efficiently. Just as colonial administrators commissioned European scientists to solve the mysteries of the oyster, they used the nascent technologies of state rule to extract as much labour power as possible from divers. A colonial police force of European (and later local) constables was present at the fishery both on shore and on inspection vessels at sea.99 Their responsibilities included protecting against the theft or illicit opening of oysters by divers, ‘compelling’ divers to go to sea when they ran away and cracking down on riots and disturbances.100 The fate of oysters was tied to divers’ material, religious and economic positions. As Richard White reminds us, ‘fishing, like any human relation with nature, is as much social and ideological as it is biological’.101

It is important not to reify the distinction between natural and unnatural, which is all the more tempting in a site of maritime labour such as the Gulf of Mannar, where diving technology was not adopted. The fishery, Natasha Eaton explains, is evidence for the ‘persistence of the archaic’ in colonial modernity.102 But despite ‘archaic’ modes of work, human bodies were incredibly efficient machines — or, for that matter, predators: South Indian free divers were more efficient than European divers working with breathing equipment and mechanical dredges. Dredging experiments in 1904, for example, yielded 1522 oysters in one full day; a boat of divers could pull three to five thousand oysters in a week, without any of the additional expenses of coal, the upkeep of the dredge, or paying the crew of a steamer to pull the dredge.103 At an immensely productive fishery, local divers could earn around 3.65 rupees per day, a figure that was further divided with others such as cooks, haulers, and boat-owners.104 Similarly, waged European divers working in diving suits through the 1860s consistently brought up lower catches than native divers — at a considerably higher expense. The cost to output ratio in no way justified implementing technology in the shallow reefs of Mannar.

From 1858 to 1909, the number of oysters fished increased steadily. This was not so much a result of technological advances, but rather the outcome of systematizing and improving the recruitment of a greater number of labourers. From 1887 onwards, this included the importation of ‘expert’ pearl divers from the Persian Gulf. It also included a greater openness to regional divers’ migrating. Even as national boundaries hardened in the early twentieth century, the Colombo government continued to make exceptions to allow skilled divers to attend the fishery. Migration was permissible as long as it improved the returns of the fishery.

Divers’ system of remuneration was tied to how many oysters they retrieved. Divers’ labour resembles sharecropping more than waged work, since they were paid in kind and allowed to dispense their percentage (one-third) of the catch in the bazaar to private merchants. Because each additional oyster garnered more income, one might presume that divers would fish as much as possible. Several incidents prove that this punishing system of pay did compel men to go out to sea over and over: in one incident where the superintendent did not want to send boats out because of poor weather, the divers were so desperate to go out that they ‘all turned out and slept on the beach near their respective boats’.105

But the nature of remuneration also had a built-in check against overfishing. Immature oysters, or the last dredges of a pearl bank would not sell well: moreover, once merchants had made their purchases, there was no point in continuing to fish for oysters which would fetch lower prices. And so, when the oysters dwindled, divers refused to work. The expenditure of labour on fishing was predicated on acts of calculation, conflict and co-operation. Consider how on 31 March 1877 a group of Kilakkarai Muslim divers ‘then turned round all at once and said we are making no profit and do not earn sufficient for our maintenance’. The community then petitioned: ‘They said let us go away; we want to go. I [Twynam] told them that they would not be allowed to go till the fishery was over’. In order to ensure that the divers would not steal away, the fishery superintendent, Twynam, then ordered all the rudders to be confiscated from their boats.106 When divers had ‘made a good thing of it during the fishery’, they stopped work. Other conditions of labour, such as fatigue, also played into willingness to go to sea. In 1877 it was recorded that ‘the divers declined to go out again to-night, saying they were tired’.107 Oyster and diver were interlinked — but only as far as was necessary to make a living. There was no need to scrape the bank clean.

But oysters and divers were not the only maritime occupants of the banks. At 7 a.m. on the morning of 11 April 1877, fifty-one fishing boats were assembled out at sea, ready to continue diving for pearls. Several million oysters had already been retrieved, killed off, and were rotting on shore waiting for their flesh to decompose and yield up pearls. The government vessel was about to give the signal (a gunshot) to start diving when one of the boats hoisted a white flag.108 The pearling boats were clustered close together — divers began shouting to one another across the vessels and no one commenced diving. The inspector of the pearl banks, Donnan, sent a sailor from his vessel out in a smaller boat to see what was wrong: a ‘large shark had been seen on the bottom by the divers in No. 5 boat,’ he reported back. No diving took place that morning. Colonial officials, however, were adamant that fishing should not be interrupted. Events underwater, however, proved different.

Another set of men sent out from the government ship corroborated these reports, having sighted the shark near the pearl bank known as Karativu paar: ‘an enormous tiger shark with a white belly and large head, &c. as long as the boat, and able to carry four men on his back’.109 Reports arrived of ‘a huge monster about 15 feet long and very large in girth’110 and of ‘a large tiger shark about four fathoms long with an enormous head, and that it churned up the water’.111 The fishery inspector, Twynam, had a boat guard bring the divers from the vessel to him. Much to his annoyance, ‘[the divers] then began to treat us to a lecture on natural history in regard to the several species of sharks to be found on the banks … to the effect that it would be better to run the inspection vessel in and close the fishery.112

The reef environment, with its variety of marine fish and coral reefs, made an ample grazing ground for sharks, some of whom are local to specific reefs, and others who migrate in from further away.113 The Gulf of Mannar hosts a variety of species: Tamil names for sharks range from the general to the particular: eru (male shark); atakku parcura (grey shark); erumai cura (shark); kari muttai cura (grey shark); kalai (shark); kumari cura (zebra shark, tawny Stegostoma tigrinum); kurankan cura (zebra shark, grey Chiloscyllium indicum); kompan cura (hammer-head shark Zygaena blochii); kola cura (grey or brown shark Carcharias macloti); cen cura (bronze or grey shark Carccharias acutus).114 Colonial officials immediately distrusted the veracity of the sighting, claiming that feckless, timid divers would use any excuse to stop work. The racialized logics of labour thus corroborated visions of the undersea as well, although since they did not dive, the officials had no way to disprove the shark’s presence.

Sharks featured in maritime Tamil literature from the region for centuries prior to the presence of the British.115 A particular kind of vessel, the long-hulled conku, for example, was invoked in poetry as a vessel which was used by Parava fishers for hunting sharks.116 In the devotional epic Tiruvilaiyadar Puranam, for instance, divers are not daunted, but determined:

In this way they tried to kill the shark by

going on a pataku intitially and after the pataku

was broken by the shark, they took

the toni and spread the net to catch it but

again that toni was broken by the shark and then

they moved in conku to catch it but again they

failed to catch it and so the king of parathavas (fishers) suffered.117

In this passage the divers return, over and over, to the site of the shark, in different vessels, armed with different implements, to vanquish the shark. Although ultimately the men fail to subdue the animal, the link between the headman of the Paravas and the shark is clear: he suffered for the loss of the catch.

Similarly, in the classical work Nar̠r̠iṇai (forumla) the regular activities of fishing might also include sharks: ‘The young boys getting on the timil go to | the sea and catch the sharks and other | fishes and then come back with the fishes | and let down the fishes in the sea shore’.118 Several centuries after the composition of this particular purānam, sharks featured most prominently at the pearl fishery in the guise of a syncretic, hereditary folk mystic figure known as the shark charmer, who was capable of binding the mouths of sharks to stop them from hurting divers.119 Known as kadalkatti in Tamil (deriving from ‘kadal’ meaning sea and ‘kati’ meaning defence) or hai-banda in Hindi, they were believed to have power over sharks.120 In a disavowal of this ritual practice, charmers were banned by the government in 1856 and did not feature in the twilight decades of the industry in Ceylon.121

Sharks, however, outlived their charmers; they were not on colonial payrolls. The effects of the shark sighting on that April morning in 1877 migrated into the dynamics of the seashore, leading to arrests, the use of force and the triggering of a social network of informants. By the following morning, all the divers in the camp refused to go out to work ‘on account of the shark’.122 In this case, upon finding a suspected instigator, Twynam had him arrested: ‘I had him and one or two others, who were stirring up the people, arrested and placed in charge of the Treasury guards’, revealing that his true suspicions were that the divers were using the shark as an excuse to stop work.123 Reckoning with the space below the waves is multifaceted and complex: the ocean floor was not culturally empty. Divers’ ideas about labour and danger as well as racialized colonial logics constructed different visions of the undersea.

The politico-social arrangements of the camp are not so easily parsed from the ecology of the banks. The state could legislate on cultural practices — it could not, however, legislate against the behaviour of apex predators on the reef, who continued to feed, mate and swim. Whatever the reasons for the shark’s own patterns of mobility, the shark morphed into a labour negotiation; a bargaining chip; a piece of evidence for the timidity of marginalized communities in colonized societies. The emphasis here, however, is not on the translation from shark-at-sea to shark-on-shore, but rather on the fact that the maritime world of the banks impinged upon the human world on shore. Animal and human worlds overlapped to make events as they were.

Other incidents of shark alarms are found scattered through the labour archive. In some cases the marine world could be slippery — such as the confusion over the shark above, or another incident where a diver ‘trod upon a hammer oyster’ but sounded a shark alarm and ‘caused many boats to return; for which mistake he was afterwards punished’.124 In a particularly aggressive gesture, one proposal included setting off dynamite underwater (while divers were also submerged) to scare away sharks.125 The fishery literally exploded distinctions between its commercial, labour and natural regimes.


Sharks, even those of a metre and a half in length, however, are visible to the human eye — even eyes that, like the colonial overseers and the pearl divers, saw what they wanted in the waves. But each cubic metre of the ocean that the shark and divers swam through was also teeming with other life — life which wasn’t immediately visible to human (or, for that matter, to sharks’) eyes but which was hooked, fished, sucked up, or filtered by a host of filter-feeders, including oysters. Minute algae known as diatoms, and other single-celled foraminifera teemed in each handful of surface waters. These creatures converted solar energy into organic material, producing oxygen and sugar for the coral polyps to grow and move through oyster, coral, fish, shark and finally human bodies. Among the minute plankton, crabs, copepods, diatoms and foraminifera, were the tiny free-drifting oysters as well as the larvae of several kinds of marine parasites, such as the tapeworms Tylocephalum.

Through their link to revenue, oysters’ secrets plagued the state. Colonial administrators who observed the shifting paars thought that the behaviour of a single oyster might open up the secrets of the bank. Early nineteenth-century writers had speculated on the origins of pearl formation, presuming, for the most part, that the pearl was the result of operations which took place purely within the oyster, with its surrounding ecosystem having little importance in this process. But in 1857, Kelaart happened, in his dissections, to come across two embedded cysts of parasitic tapeworm larvae inside an oyster. Around the larvae were rings of nacre, the shiny calcareous stuff of the shell which produces pearls. Consistent with pearliculture experiments in Europe, Kelaart suggested that pearl formation was triggered by a minute parasitic tapeworm: ‘Worms play an important part in the formation of pearls; and it may yet be found possible to infect oysters in other beds with these works and thus increase the quantity of these gems’.126

In 1890, almost thirty years later, the zoologist and botanist Edgar Thurston provided a section showing two of the parasites enclosed between the alimentary canal and the gonads of the oyster. Finally, Herdman and Hornell observed in 1903 that it was ‘When cutting up oysters from the western part of the Cheval Paar, that we first became convinced that the opaque white globular larvae we were finding encysted in the liver belonged to Cestode worms’.127 Officials believed they had solved the mystery of pearl formation in Ceylon: they deduced that it was triggered by the action of trematode and cestode worms. By 1912, officials concluded that ‘The whole interest attaching to pearl fishing in Ceylon centres round a cestode larva, its life-history and its distribution’.128

But parasites do not survive on their own: they require aquatic (or human) hosts. As the Tylocephalum moved through its life cycle, it required a number of different hosts: adult tapeworms were found in those carnivorous and hated enemies of the pearl oyster and the diver such as rays and sharks. Adult worms living in the stomachs and innards of the rays and sharks would reproduce and release microscopic larvae which would enter the water. They would then be absorbed with other minute algae and foraminifera which oysters absorbed as a food source, and these larvae would cause pearl formation. If the oysters were eaten by other fish, they would ingest the larva and the whole cycle would start again.

Could the parasite be isolated from oyster-eating fish and introduced to oysters?129 In 1912, nine fish known to feed on oysters were enclosed in an area in the open sea by means of wire netting. The first objective was to ‘clear their gut, if possible, from existing parasites, and finally to limit their food to oysters only’ and as a result ‘obtain in their gut the adult worm of the pearl-inducing parasite’. The fish were moved into an enclosure of twelve thousand oysters: two died from ‘shock of transport’ and three died of starvation, while the remainder had a series of other parasites in their guts. Finally, repeated dissections on untold thousands of marine species (Southwell opened up the spinal valve of small rays; the intestines of sea turtles and the innards of whale sharks) allowed ‘nine new species of Cestode Parasites’ to be deduced, but no means of increasing their numbers and infecting oysters were suggested.130

The normative language of capitalism operating in underwater fishery environments designated marine animals as friends or foes of the oyster. Following this line of reasoning, ‘enemies’ were eliminated in order to solve the problem of declining oyster stocks. The ‘discovery’ of pearl-inducing parasites, however, disrupted this logic, turning it on itself and highlighting the impossibility of the oyster question once more. If oysters were sensitive to a host of material and environmental factors, then parasitic worms were even more so, reacting strongly to climatic fluctuations affecting ocean salinity, for example.131 As three doleful fishery officials wrote:

If we exterminate the rays, we do away with the source from which string the cestode larvae [parasite] which form the nuclei of the pearls. On the other hand, if we permit the rays to increase and flourish, they will devour millions of oysters, each of which is a potential pearl producer. No rays, no pearls; abundance of rays, no oysters; which is it to be?’132

Natural ecologies, as it turns out, were impossible to ‘straighten out’ along the lines of profit and extraction, with multi-dimensional relationships which criss-crossed and bolstered one another in fragile balance, capitalist rationalization was impossible.

By 1925, the link between the world of the undersea and the production of high profits mediated via scientific breakthroughs and control of recalcitrant molluscs was over. Subdued authors wrote that ‘we have never taken the view that the application of scientific methods (disguised under the name of Marine Biology) to the pearl fisheries would produce miracles’.133 The biologist Joseph Pearson, newly appointed to a post managing Ceylon’s fisheries, wrote: ‘It is unlikely that the mathematical principles can be applied in their entirety to the practical and economic problems affecting an organism such as the pearl oyster which lives under conditions that are rarely stable and are beyond effective human control’.134

*   *   *

For a century and a half, British colonial authorities in the Gulf of Mannar aimed to regularize the harvest of oysters, as they followed the molluscs through their predators, water currents and parasites, but the bivalve retained its strong periodicity in growth and settlement cycles throughout. Although in one vision (a colonial, panoptic one) the seascape was increasingly systematized, codified and reconstructed, the oyster and its associated ecologies — climatic, animal, mineral and microbial — contained their own limits on growth, settlement and trophic patterns. This paper has argued that these perspectives are equally worthy of attention alongside those plural human visions which existed for the underwater. It suggests that we might naturalize the animal and de-naturalize the human, for the boundaries of natural and artificial, terrestrial and maritime, human and animal were complex and entangled at the fishery.

This is not an attempt to gloss the violence of the colonial encounter with the environment or with the bodies of those who laboured there. Nor does it presume that acts of conscious resistance were distributed amongst non-human agents throughout empire.135 It does, however, make a radical call for altering the lenses of analysis applied within Indian Ocean studies to include the animal constituents of the ‘many Indian Oceans’.136 Indian Ocean scholarship has long been characterized by a kind of geophysical structuralism through the dominant imprint of the monsoon, so submerging this gaze below the waves towards reefs, fish and other marine creatures is in keeping with the field.137

How does interweaving the animal with older concerns of capital, labour and trade change our narratives? As several scholars have pointed out, ‘It matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts’.138 The ocean has proved particularly generative in this regard. ‘The ocean is a material and imaginative space for the conditions of perception that we have taken for granted,’ Melody Jue writes in a recent new book on the oceans.139 Amphibious, blended approaches, which meld labour history with natural history and contemporary oceanography allow us to read capitalism in context and bodies and capital in environments. In fact, tracing pearls to their animal/mineral origins draws us from commodities to ecologies. If capitalism is a process of singling out and simplifying in order to scale up, we might see writing from the sea as a means of reading beyond capital, casting the oyster not purely as producer of pearls, but as a component of a complex undersea ecology of which humans were one part. Our engagement was partial, constituting a nacreous, interlocking and interlinked ‘coralline capitalism’: a precarious and delicately balanced endeavour. As sea levels rise and marine resources are newly imperilled, perhaps it is time that historians, like the diver, venture below the waves.



I would like to thank David Armitage, Rohan Deb Roy, Jim Secord and Sujit Sivasundaram and the members of his reading group for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article. The Smuts Memorial Fund and Jesus College, Cambridge generously funded research trips. The Cabinet of Natural History at Cambridge University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science provided a venue to tease out some of the ideas.


V. Sahaya Vilovetheen Thilaka et al., ‘An Annotated Checklist of Sharks of South Tamil Nadu, Southeast Coast of India’, Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies, vi, 6 (2018), 611; K. K. Joshi et al., ‘Checklist of Fishes of the Gulf of Mannar Ecosystem, Tamil Nadu, India’, Journal of Marine Biology Association of India, lviii, 1 (2016).


S. Dijkgraaf and A. J. Kalmijn, ‘Versuche zur biologischen Bedeutung der Lorenzinischen Ampullen bei den Elasmobranchiern’, Zeitschrift für vergleichende Physiologie, liii (1966).


On the composition of the paars and the characteristic marine creatures found at each one, see ‘Description of the Pearl-Oyster Banks in the Gulf of Mannar’, in W. A. Herdman, Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries of the Gulf of Manaar, 5 vols. (London, 1903), i, 101.


English transliteration of forumla (adapannar), an honorific reference for a Parava leader. On adapannars guiding pearl fishery inspections, see James Steuart, ‘Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon’, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, iii (London, 1834), 453; ‘Adapannar’s Report’, Sri Lanka Department of National Archives (hereafter SLDNA), Lot 20/786.


Elisabeth Strack, ‘Introduction’, in Paul C. Southgate and John S. Lucas (eds.), The Pearl Oyster (Amsterdam and London, 2008); Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (New York, 2006); Christine Keiner, The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880 (Athens, Ga., 2010); Robert A. Carter, Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry That Shaped the Gulf (London, 2012); Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers, The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network (Honolulu, 2015); Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700 (Williamsburg, Va., 2018); Pedro Machado, Steve Mullins and Joseph Christensen (eds.), Pearls, People and Power: Pearling in the Indian Ocean Worlds (Athens, Ohio, 2019); Thomas T. Allsen, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire (Philadelphia, 2019).


George Frederick Kunz and Charles Hugh Stevenson, The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science and Industry of the Queen of Gems (New York, 1908); R. A. Donkin, Beyond Price: Pearls and Pearl-Fishing. Origins to the Age of Discoveries (New York, 1998); Neil H. Landman et al.Pearls: A Natural History (New York, 2001).


Matthew S. Hopper, ‘Debt and Slavery among Arabian Gulf Pearl Divers’, in Gwyn Campbell and Alessandro Stanziani (eds.), Bonded Labour and Debt in the Indian Ocean World (London, 2015); Matthew S. Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (New Haven, 2015); Warsh, American Baroque; Samuel Miles Ostroff, ‘The Beds of Empire: Power And Profit at the Pearl Fisheries of South India and Sri Lanka, c.1770–1840’ (Univ. of Pennsylvania Ph.D. thesis, 2016).


Aarthi Sridhar, ‘Hunting-Gathering Lives with Molluscs’, Seminar, dccii (2018), 46.


Michael W. Beck et al., ‘Oyster Reefs at Risk and Recommendations for Conservation, Restoration and Management’, BioScience, lxi, 2 (2011).


On perspectives from the ocean see, for example, Melody Jue, Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater (Durham, NC, 2020); Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (Berkeley, 2008).


Several historians have observed the rift between Sri Lankan and Indian historiographies: see, for example, Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony (Chicago, 2013), 17.


In its early iteration, Indian environmental history was strongly oriented towards the terrestrial: see, for example, Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Delhi, 1989). There is no engagement with the oceans in David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha (eds.), Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia, new edn (New Delhi, 1997); and there is only one essay on oceans in Richard H. Grove, Vinita Damodaran and Satpal Sangwan (eds.), Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia (Delhi, 1998). In South Asia, discussion of coastal zones tended to feature in development studies or anthropological works rather than in environmental histories. Two exceptions for the environmental history of Sri Lanka are James L. A. Webb, Jr, Tropical Pioneers: Human Agency and Ecological Change in the Highlands of Sri Lanka, 18001900 (Athens, Ohio, 2002); and Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, Fishing, Mobility and Settlerhood: Coastal Socialities in Postwar Sri Lanka (Cham, Switzerland, 2018); see also Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa and Anna-Katharina Hornidge, ‘Putting Lifeworlds at Sea: Studying Meaning-Making in Marine Research’, Frontiers in Marine Science, iii (8 Nov. 2016).


Sudipta Sen, Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River (New Haven, 2019); Debjani Bhattacharyya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta (Cambridge, 2018); Sunil S. Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped Asia’s History (London, 2018).


This phenomenon is, of course, not exclusive to South Asia. The ocean was a late entrant to environmental history more generally: see, for example, J. R. McNeill, ‘Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History’, History and Theory, xlii, 4 (2003); W. Jeffrey Bolster, ‘Opportunities in Marine Environmental History’, Environmental History, xi, 3 (2006).


Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘The Indian Ocean’, in David Armitage, Alison Bashford and Sujit Sivasundaram (eds.), Oceanic Histories (Cambridge, 2018).


Isabel Hofmeyr and Charne Lavery, ‘Exploring the Indian Ocean as a Rich Archive of History — Above and Below the Water Line’, The Conversation, 7 June 2020, online, <https://theconversation.com/exploring-the-indian-ocean-as-a-rich-archive-of-history-above-and-below-the-water-line-133817> (accessed 9 Jan. 2021).


On attempts to render molluscs ‘personable’, see Michael Carrithers, Louise J. Bracken and Steven Emery, ‘Can a Species Be a Person?: A Trope and Its Entanglements in the Anthropocene Era’, Current Anthropology, lii, 5 (2011).


For a classic work on ventriloquizing for oysters from an actor-network theory perspective see, in particular, Michel Callon, ‘Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay’, in John Law (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? (London, 1986); see also n. 5, above.


Arthur F. McEvoy, The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850–1980 (Cambridge, 1986), 9.


Ironically, critiques of anthropocentricity have haunted the very attempt to decentre humans. See, for example, Erica Fudge, ‘A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals’, in Nigel Rothfels (ed.), Representing Animals (Bloomington Ind., 2002); Hilda Kean, ‘Challenges for Historians Writing Animal Human History: What Is Really Enough?’, Anthrozoös, xxv, suppl. 1 (2012); Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, ‘Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism’, Feminist Studies, xxxix, 3 (2013). In anthropology see, in particular, Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley, 2013); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ, 2015); Radhika Govindrajan, Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas (Chicago, 2018).


Ryan Tucker Jones, ‘Running into Whales: The History of the North Pacific from Below the Waves’, American Historical Review, cxviii, 2 (2013); Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (New York, 2019); Joseph E. Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle, 1999).


C. R. De Silva, ‘The Portuguese and Pearl Fishing off South India and Sri Lanka’, South Asia, i, 1 (1978); S. Venantius Fernando, ‘The Portuguese Patronage (Padroado) and the Evangelization of the Pearl Fishery Coast’, Indian Church History Review, xviii,1, (1984); S. Arunachalam, The History of the Pearl Fishery of the Tamil Coast (Annamalai Univ. M.Litt. thesis, 1952); Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘Noble Harvest from the Sea: Managing the Pearl Fishery of Mannar, 1500–1925’, in Burton Stein and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds.), Institutions and Economic Change in South Asia (New Delhi, 1996).


Subrahmanyam, ‘Noble Harvest from the Sea’, 135.


Ostroff, ‘Beds of Empire’.


Natasha Eaton, ‘A Photobook of the Shimmer: Pearl Fisheries, Photography and British Colonialism in South Asia’, British Art Studies, vii (2017).


Here I follow Demuth’s approach in Floating Coast, 324: ‘this is a history that uses science, not a history of science’ in the service of ‘putting into one language a place with many, and into words things that do not speak with human tongues’.


Subrahmanyam, ‘Noble Harvest from the Sea’, 170.


Joseph West Ridgeway, Administration of the Affairs of Ceylon 1896 to 1903 (Colombo, 1903), 114.


‘Pearl Fishery Miscellaneous and Pearl Fishery Accounts’, SLDNA, Lots 20/749, 20/789, 20/822.


General description and history of Mannar district, SLDNA, Lot 31/447.


Cēkkiḻār, St Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam, trans. T. N. Ramachandran (Thanjavur, 1990), 177.


Mayilvakan, Yalpana Vaipava Malai or the History of the Kingdom of Jaffna, trans. C. Brito (Colombo, 1879), 22.


Archaeologists and paleobiologists, however, are able to reconstruct the deep history of oyster fisheries from preserved shell middans. See esp. Victor D. Thompson et al., ‘Ecosystem Stability and Native American Oyster Harvesting along the Atlantic Coast of the United States’, Science Advances, vi, 28 (2020); Nicole R. Cannarozzi and Michal Kowalewski, ‘Seasonal Oyster Harvesting Recorded in a Late Archaic Period Shell Ring’, PLOS ONE, xiv, 11 (2019); Vidya Dehejia, ‘The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India c.855–1280’, Sixty-Fifth A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Natural Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2016 (Princeton, 2021).


‘The Puranam of Viran Mindar’, in Cēkkiḻār, St Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam, trans. Ramachandran, 115.


For instance, on Queen Alli Rani, see Tamara Fernando, ‘ “Secret Histories” of the Sea’, Environmental History Now, 9 March 2020, online, <https://envhistnow.com/2020/03/09/secret-histories-of-the-sea/> (accessed 9 Jan. 2021).


Kaviarasu Kanakappan, ‘Tinaipoetics: An Ecopoetics of South India’, Literary Studies (Literary Association of Nepal), xxx (2017).


Rayson K. Alex, ‘A Survey of the Phases of Indian Ecocriticism’, Comparative Literature and Culture, xvi, 4 (2014).


Romila Thapar, ‘Forests and Settlements’, in Mahesh Rangarajan (ed.), Environmental Issues in India: A Reader (New Delhi, 2007), 34.


Patrick A. Roche, Fishermen of the Coromandel: A Social Study of the Paravas of the Coromandel (Manohar, 1984); S. B. Kaufmann, ‘A Christian Caste in Hindu Society: Religious Leadership and Social Conflict among the Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu’, Modern Asian Studies, xv, 2 (1981).


Eric Meyer, ‘Labour Circulation between Sri Lanka and South India in Historical Perspective’, in Claude Markovits, Jacques Pouchepadass and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds.), Society and Circulation: Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia, 17501950 (London, 2006).


R. L. Stirrat, On the Beach: Fishermen, Fisherwives and Fishtraders in Post Colonial Lanka (New Delhi, 1988).


Maarten Bavinck, ‘Placating the Sea Goddess: Analysis of a Fisher Ritual in Tamil Nadu, India’, Etnofoor, xxvii, 1 (2015).


Several works rehearse tropes of autochthonous Parava decline at the hands of malignant Muslim interlopers: Arunachalam, History of the Pearl Fishery of the Tamil Coast; S. Deckla, ‘Maritime History of the Pearl Fishery Coast with Special Reference to Thoothukudi’, (Manonmaniam Sundaranar Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 2004).


Markus P. M. Vink, ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Christian Paravas, a “Client Community” in Seventeenth-Century Southeast India’, Itinerario, xxvi, 2 (2002).


Contemporary documentaries on South Indian divers, such as forumla (Kadalodi ), Kalaignar TV, online, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7_JgTUlIm0&list=PLnv31x6vbjNHODNZw-AV1GeOjPljysaIj&index=2&app=desktop> (accessed 9 Jan. 2021).


William Twynam, ‘Statement of the Number of Diseases and Deaths in the Small pox and General Hospitals at Silavatturai’, Feb.–Apr. 1881, Centre of South Asian Studies Archive, University of Cambridge, E. L. Pawsey Papers (hereafter CSAS); William Twynam, ‘The Pearl Fishery Held at Dutch Bay during March 1889’, in Ceylon Sessional Papers of 1889 (Colombo, 1890), 474; Joseph Pearson, A. H. Malpas and J. C. Kerkham, ‘The Pearl Fishery of 1925’, in Ceylon Sessional Papers of 1926 (Colombo, 1925), 47.


Twynam, ‘Pearl Fishery Held at Dutch Bay’, 474.


Sriyanie Miththapala, The Gulf of Mannar and Its Surroundings (Colombo, 2012).


Miron Winslow (ed.), A Memoir of Mrs. Harriet Wadsworth Winslow, Combining a Sketch of the Ceylon Mission (New York, 1835), 40.


Mario N. Tamburri, Richard K. Zimmer and Cheryl Ann Zimmer, ‘Mechanisms Reconciling Gregarious Larval Settlement with Adult Cannibalism’, Ecological Monographs, lxxvii, 2 (2007).


J. C. Wolf, The Life and Adventures of John Christopher Wolf, Late Principal Secretary of State at Jaffanapatam, in Ceylon … and the Manners and Customs of Its Inhabitants (London, 1785), 211.


Steuart, ‘Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon’, 452.


K. Alagarswami, Larval Transport and Settlement of Pearl Oysters (Genus Pinctada) in the Gulf of Mannar (Bulletins of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Tuticorin, 1977).


Deepjay Sarkar, Madhura Bhattacherjee and Devapriya Chattopadhyay, ‘Influence of Regional Environment in Guiding the Spatial Distribution of Marine Bivalves along the Indian Coast’, Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, xcix, 1 (2019); Ashlee Lillis, David B. Eggleston, and Del Wayne R. Bohnenstiehl, ‘Oyster Larvae Settle in Response to Habitat-Associated Underwater Sounds’, PLoS ONE, viii, 10 (2013).


Exceptions to this were the fishery of 1801 (Kondachi); 1803 and 1815 (Chilaw); and 1832 (Karaitivu): Steuart, ‘Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon’, 33–6.


Bertram Bastiampillai, Northern Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the 19th Century (Colombo, 2006), 213.


Steuart, ‘Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon’, 452.


James Steuart to the Colonial Secretary, 25 Sept. 1868, CSAS.


‘Pearl Fishery Inspection Diaries’, SLDNA, Lot 20/789.


Jessica S. Lehman, ‘Relating to the Sea: Enlivening the Ocean as an Actor in Eastern Sri Lanka’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, xxxi, 3 (2013); Moti Chandra, Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India (New Delhi, 1977), 205.


Steuart, ‘Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon’, 91.


William Twynam to Kaytan Fonseca, 2 Nov. 1864, SLDNA, Lots 31/396, 31/394, 31/395.


William Twynam, ‘Inspection Diary’, 6 Mar. 1874, SLDNA, Lot 31/396.


Everard Im Thurn, ‘A Sketch of the Ceylon Pearl Fishery of 1903’, Spolia Zeylanica, i (Colombo, 1903).


Edgar Thurston, Pearl and Chank Fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar (Madras, 1894), 12.


E. F. Kelaart, Introductory Report on the Natural History of the Pearl Oyster of Ceylon (Colombo, 1857), 3.


Ibid., 65.


James Donnan to Colonial Secretary, 20 Apr. 1885, CSAS.


The delineation of oysters’ enemies also had global corollaries in oyster fisheries in France, England and America. See, for example, Paulus Schiemenz, ‘How Do Starfish Open Oysters?’ Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, iv, 3 (1896).


James Donnan, ‘Report’, 16 Apr. 1894, in ‘Pearl Fishery Reports Miscellaneous’, CSAS.


Herdman, Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries, iii, 27.




Ibid., 26.


Sarkar, Bhattacherjee and Chattopadhyay, ‘Influence of Regional Environment in Guiding the Spatial Distribution of Marine Bivalves’, 173.


Rochelle Plutchak et al., ‘Impacts of Oyster Reef Restoration on Primary Productivity and Nutrient Dynamics in Tidal Creeks of the North Central Gulf of Mexico’, Estuaries and Coasts, xxxiii, 6 (2010).


Donnan, ‘Report’, 16 Apr. 1894, CSAS.




Pearl fishery superintendent to Captain Phillips, copied also to Tuticorin, Paumben, Negapatnam, Madura, SLDNA, Lot 31/396; see also telegram from master attendant of pearl fishery, 3 Feb. 1864, SLDNA, Lot 30/396.


Herdman, Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries, i, 3.


Helen M. Rozwadowski, Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (London, 2018), 130–5.


Im Thurn, ‘Sketch of the Ceylon Pearl Fishery’, 192.


See, for example, Antony Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fearand Science at Sea (Cambridge, Mass., 2019), 47.


Herdman bemoaned that the report grew ‘to a much greater length than was contemplated at the outset’ and noted significant delays. Herdman, Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries, v, preface.


Ibid., i, p. v.


Hornell’s visit to Misaki Marine Biological Laboratory and Mikimoto’s farm on Tatoku Island: University Library, University of Cambridge, Haddon Collection (James Hornell papers), UL 100065, Boxes 3 & 15. I am grateful to Hannah Eastham for sharing her research on Hornell with me.


Herdman, Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries, i, 116.


Cited ibid.


Ibid., i, 118.


Ibid., v, 446.


Ibid., i, 111.


Ibid., i, 114.


Ibid., i, 123.


Ibid., i, 124.


Raghavan, Nam Nattu Kappal Kalai (Madras, 1968).


forumla (Paripadal ) (11:108) quoted in G. Victor Rajamanickam and V. S. Arul Raj (eds.), Maritime History of South India: Indigenous Traditions of Navigation in the Indian Ocean (Thanjavur, 1994).


These echoed processes underway in European seas: William A. Herdman and Robert A. Dawson, Fishes and Fisheries of the Irish Sea and Especially of the Lancashire and Western Sea Fisheries District (London, 1902).


Tjeerd J. Bouma et al., ‘Ecosystem Engineering and Biodiversity in Coastal Sediments: Posing Hypotheses’, Helgoland Marine Research, lxiii (2009); D. Smyth et al., ‘Anthropogenic Related Variations in the Epibiotic Biodiversity and Age Structure of the “Pearl Oyster” Pinctada radiata within the Eulittoral Zone of Qatar’, Regional Studies in Marine Science, v (Feb. 2016).


T. Southwell and J. C. Kerkham ‘Report on Certain Scientific Work Done on the Ceylon Pearl Banks During the Year 1911’, Ceylon Marine Biological Reports, vi (Colombo, 1912).


James Donnan, ‘Diary of Captain James Donnan 1874–1879’, 22 Feb. 1874, CSAS; William Twynam to Captain Nowlan (paymaster 50th Regiment), 23 May 1863, SLDNA, Lot 31/396.


William Twynam, ‘Pearl Fishery Inspection Diary’, 13 Apr. 1881, CSAS.


Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York, 1995) 45.


Eaton, ‘A Photobook of the Shimmer’.


‘Pearl Fishery Inspection Reports’, SLDNA, Lot 20/801.


Calculation based on a total fishery revenue of 2,510,727 rupees.


Twynam, ‘Diary’, 30 Apr. 1880, CSAS.


Twynam, ‘Inspection Diary’, 31 Mar. 1877, CSAS.


Ibid., 10.


Donnan, ‘Diary’, 11 April 1877, CSAS.






Twynam noticed this error and wrote ‘the discrepancy in the statement as to the colour of the shark served to raise great doubts in my mind as to the truth of the story, which appeared to have been got up with some object’, ‘Diary’, 1877, CSAS.




Thilaka et al., ‘Annotated Checklist of Sharks’.


The Madras University Tamil Lexicon lists over forty-five words for shark.


Here my examples are drawn from Cankam literature, the classical Tamil corpus of poetry which permeates social and cultural life.


Rajamanickam and Arul Raj (eds.), Maritime History of South India, 18.


Paṭavu ṭaippavōr tōṇimēr̠ pāyntumat tōṇi

Vitavu ratterit terintita vicaittoru conkin

itaipu kuntunil valaiyein tinnanam vevve

rutalpu kuntula luyirenap paratanu mulalvan (1–4) (3:57:38).

Quoted in Rajamanickam and Arul Raj (eds.), Maritime History of South India, 55.


Ventiral itaiyavar vettelun tankut timilmer kontu tiraiccuram ninti valvayc curavotu vayamin kent ininampey toniyarikumanal ilitarum perunkalip pakkan kallena varume toli konkan tere (5–9).


India Office Records, British Library, London, IOR/E/4/936, IOR/Z/E/4/42/S422.


For colonial description, see James Cordiner, A Description of Ceylon, 2 vols., (London, 1807), ii, 52; on the place of the charmer across Catholic parava and Muslim communities, see esp. Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 17001900 (Cambridge, 1990), 333.


Ostroff and Eaton both give context to the role of the charmers at the fishery, which pre-dates the years studied here: Ostroff, ‘Beds of Empire’, 133.




Twynam, ‘Report on the Pearl Fishery of 1878’, CSAS.


Henry J. Le Beck, ‘An Account of the Pearl Fishery in the Gulph of Manar in March and April 1797’, Asiatick Researches or Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal for Inquiring into the History and Antiquities, the Arts, Sciences and Literature of Asia, v, 4th edn (London, 1807), 403.


‘Mr Baker of Tuticorin at the Pearl Fishery’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 1890.


Kelaart, Introductory Report on the Natural History of the Pearl Oyster of Ceylon, 7.


Herdman, Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries, v, 15.


T. Southwell, ‘Description of Nine New Species of Cestode Parasites, Including Two New Genera from Marine Fishes of Ceylon’, Ceylon Marine Biological Reports, i, 218.


T. Southwell, ‘Further Notes on the Determination of the Adult of the Pearl-Inducing Worm’, Ceylon Marine Biological Reports, v (1911), 213.


Southwell, ‘Description of Nine New Species of Cestode Parasites’, 216–18.


Thomas M. Soniat et al., ‘Understanding the Success and Failure of Oyster Populations: Periodicities of Perkinsus marinus, and Oyster Recruitment, Mortality, and Size’, Journal of Shellfish Research, xxxi, 3 (2012).


Pearson, Malpas and Kerkham, ‘Pearl Fishery of 1925’, 12.


Ibid., 2.


Joseph Pearson ‘The Maximum Pearl-yield of a Pearl Oyster Bed’, Ceylon Journal of Science: Fisheries, v (1933), 16.


Aaron Skabelund, ‘Animals and Imperialism: Recent Historiographical Trends’, History Compass, xi, 10 (2013); James Beattie, Edward Melillo and Emily O’Gorman, ‘Rethinking the British Empire through Eco-Cultural Networks: Materialist-Cultural Environmental History, Relational Connections and Agency’, Environment and History, xx, 4 (2014); Rohan Deb Roy, ‘White Ants, Empire and Entomo-Politics in South Asia’, Historical Journal, lxiii, 2 (2019); Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan, Shifting Ground: People, Animals, and Mobility in India’s Environmental History (New Delhi, 2014); Rohan Deb Roy, Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909 (Cambridge, 2017).


On this idea of plurality, see esp. Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2006); Sivasundaram, ‘Indian Ocean’, 60.


‘Critical ocean studies’ has cropped up across the so-called ‘blue humanities’. See, for example, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene’, Comparative Literature, lxix, 1 (2017), 33, 35.


Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities, vi, 1 (2015), 160.


Jue, Wild Blue Media, 3.

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