Asian Studies, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History

Six Questions with Sujit Sivasundaram, author of “Waves Across the South”

This is a story of tides and coastlines, winds and waves, islands and beaches. In Waves Across the South, Sujit Sivasundaram offers a fresh history of revolution and empire which centers on island nations and ocean-facing communities, turning the familiar narrative of the Age of Revolutions and the origins of the British Empire on its head. Waves Across the South has been praised for the awe-inspiring depth of its research, as well as its captivating storytelling. We asked Sujit Sivasundaram a few questions about his work.

To start us off, what is the Age of Revolutions? How does Waves Across the South reconceptualize it?

Usually, the Age of Revolutions is an Atlantic story, encompassing for instance the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and other uprisings in the Caribbean and Latin America. These events are taken as a pivotal origin point for our modern condition: for ideas of rights and belonging, a system of nation states as well as the application of reason and reform, for instance with respect to labor or governance.

Waves Across the South moves this story to the Indian and Pacific oceans. In this vast oceanic zone, there was a pattern of indigenous creativity, unrest, revolt, and association; this was a first wave. There was then a response which was imperial and British in particular, which sought to fold into imperial structures these indigenous practices. It was like a tsunami. In attending to this dynamic between revolution and empire, my book shows how the Age of Revolutions ends in counter-revolution. It takes the story up to the important year of revolution, 1848.

It also highlights, through the focus on oceans and the waves, that the Age of Revolutions needs to be understood in particular environmental contexts and with respect to the global South.

Waves Across the South centers the perspectives of island nations and communities in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Why was it important to frame your book in this way?

My last book for the University of Chicago Press, Islanded, demonstrated how Sri Lanka served as an intensive site for state-making and the management of people and also for discourses of belonging and environmental and scientific projects in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Waves Across the South is an extension of this argument. It ties these changes to the geopolitics of the Age of Revolutions as well as the rise of the British Empire and it focuses on a much wider oceanic zone.  

Islands are biodiverse sites that have served as stepping-stones in history for humans who wish to colonize vast landmasses. Meanwhile, Indian and Pacific-Ocean islanders have fascinating histories of interchange, commerce, and migration across the waves. Yet islands and islanders are often forgotten in world histories due to the tyranny of larger neighbors who have dominated historical attention. I want to rectify this and to see the Age of Revolutions from the perspective of these communities who were attentive to the shifting landscape of the period, through the arrival of news, weapons, ideas, or refugees across the water in this period.

Tell us a bit about your research process for this book. How did you conduct your research in places such as Tonga, Tasmania, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka?

Now that we are in a pandemic, I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to travel to each of the key places in the book.

When I started to write Waves Across the South, I decided that I didn’t want to sit in London or Cambridge and survey from afar, but that visiting and researching in the places was a significant part of what I wished to do. And I was right: the shadows of the history of the Age of Revolutions are still apparent in these regions. One can see it in monuments; one can read it on the land, for instance in plantations; one can reflect on it in the violent absences of people and one can hear it in the stories that are still told in many of the sites I visited. The book also relied on the advice and interventions of brilliant historians who work on each of the regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In addition to all of this, of course, I spent lots of time in archives and took the view that I wished to build the story from the ground-up using sources from the regions before I started to look at more high-level documents and artifacts housed in Europe.

What places and stories didn’t make it into the final book? Is there going to be a sequel?

This is intentionally not a comprehensive book, in the sense that it is a critique of global histories which aim to be totally comprehensive and also of British imperial histories which are galloping surveys and which follow a ‘rise and fall’ narrative. So there are lots of places which didn’t make it in: for instance, it would have been excellent to have more coverage of East Africa or East Asia, or indeed to follow the story in a more sustained fashion to Latin America.

I don’t really believe in sequels, but who knows? I guess one might envisage a book that starts around 1850 and ends around 1914 which tells the story of the ‘high imperial age’ from the perspective of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Such a book may for instance contest the narrative of the disappearance of the ocean as empires turned inland in a ‘scramble’, and it may see the origins of new modes of resistance and the early seeds of nationalism across waters. There is a burgeoning literature on the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century histories of the Indian and Pacific Oceans which is making the point that this zone may change the history of this later era.

What’s next for you? Are you working on any projects that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m still unsure of what’s next. I should read and think for a while without committing to a project. However, the pandemic has made me rather homesick for Sri Lanka and made me long to walk the streets of Colombo, where I grew up. For this reason and others, including the dramatic change that Colombo is witnessing at the moment with a Chinese-financed development program, I am wondering about writing a history of the city which is attuned to the environment and to culture and to Colombo’s place at the center of the Indian ocean.

What is the best thing you’ve read, watched, or listened to lately?

Plenty of things in fact. But on Sri Lanka, I really recommend the new book by Nira Wickramasinghe, Slave in a Palanquin. I thought I knew the history of Sri Lanka, but I am struck at how much can be gained by reconsidering it from the perspective of enslaved peoples, their creative acts of resistance, and also the fragments that they have left behind. The history of slavery is forgotten and erased on the island, but

Colombo was a key node for the transshipment of enslaved peoples. If I were to develop a history of Colombo, I would want to trace how the history of enslavement has led to a history of coerced labor which runs until the present.

Sujit Sivasundaram is professor of world history and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony.

Waves Across the South is available now from our website or from your local bookseller.