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Connectivity across the Bay of Bengal in the 19th and 20th Centuries  

Jayati Bhattacharya

The Bay of Bengal has had long history of commercial and cultural circulation across its maritime space, a lesser-studied region in the emerging discourse of Indian Ocean Studies, and extended much beyond, in both eastern and western directions. However, this maritime space has conventionally been regarded as separating contours of peoples, cultures, and economies, particularly in the realm of area studies which has been deeply embedded in academic scholarship as well as political discourses. On the contrary, the region presents us with fascinating stories of integration through family trees, kinship networks, family firms, financial exchanges, intra-community and inter-ethnic bonding, and other facets of circular movements around the Bay. The political and economic narrative of Asia transformed into one of Western colonial dominance in the 19th century, a process that had begun about almost two centuries earlier. The British emerged as the most powerful of the Western powers in this space having gained strong political footing in India, their most prized possession in the East. The long years were marked by consolidation of their political conquests and economic prowess not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in and around the Bay of Bengal region. The technological innovations and inventions further facilitated their economic aspirations. The 20th century brought about different kind of changes. The ideal of laissez-faire along with the geopolitical discourse on rising maritime powers unleashed a new direction of policies, collaboration, conflicts, and negotiations. An important feature of the century was the dynamic rise of the ideology of nationalism, which worked differently in Europe and Asia. While it led to the world wars in Europe, for Asian powers, it opened doors of opportunity to break the fetters of several years of colonial domination. In the framework of a narrative of subjugation and domination, a macro-view of the Bay brings forth several circuits of circulation in the maritime space. While some of these circuits had been visible and dominant, others existed on the margins, connecting to the larger circuits obliviously, or existing in independent and almost invisible circulatory loops that did not find any place in Western historiography. This article attempts to provide a broad overview of different circulatory movements under four subthemes—acquisition and development of port cities that facilitated the circulatory process, merchants, banians, and capitalists—as both visible and also invisible actors of circulation in the Bay. It also discusses communities that were displaced, integrated, or acculturated around the rim of the Bay, and intellectual exchanges that motivated, influenced, and incorporated participation of a large number of people all over Asia. There is a focus on the mobile Indian communities in particular, both voluntary and involuntary migrants who were the dominant participants in the colonial economic narrative on both sides of the Bay. The legacy of these long years of exchanges and interactions has often been undermined in the postcolonial nation state centric discourses and needs to be revisited with a fresh perspective in view of the increasing geopolitical significance of the Bay in the 21st century.