The Briny South: Displacement and Sentiment in the Indian Ocean World

Rishabh Verma

'I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them,’ says he, ‘except three of their hats, one cap and two shoes that were not fellows.’ Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows the shoes have ceased to be footwear and became proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas of the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. (p. 29)

This snippet perfectly captures the view that Nienke Boer portrays in her book: the ‘exploitative’ nature of the ocean and the complexities of finding the voices of those who were enslaved. The book combines the historical breadth and environmental focus of ocean studies with the political and ethical drive towards understanding the subaltern experience of globalization that marks Global South studies. The Briny South explores how expressions of sentiment are manifested in legal and literary sources, with a specific focus on the racialization that arises from the displacement of individuals across the Indian Ocean. The book traces these displacements in a chronological manner, using the categories of Enslavement, Indentured, and Interned. Boer emphasises the role of sentiments while tracing their appearances out of court records, pamphlets, memoirs, and fictions.

The first two chapters trace a shift in the conventions governing court records as the Dutch Capo de Goede Hoop transitions into the British Cape Colony, while also demonstrating how records of enslaved individuals' emotional expressions vanish from historical documents after the British takeover of South Africa, a trend that continues when indentured labour replaces slavery. The fourth and fifth chapters delve deeper into this theme through case studies. The Dutch established a legal system that emphasized representing the direct speech of enslaved individuals, fostering a sense of authenticity. During Dutch rule, court documents directly quoted enslaved individuals' testimonies, aiming for "legal verisimilitude." These documents included racialized descriptions of emotional expression, creating an illusion of credibility. Paradoxically, these depictions, while highlighting the ability of enslaved people to express emotions, were used to support their persecution in the courts. In contrast, under British rule, the sentiments of enslaved people were increasingly portrayed indirectly by abolitionists, slaveholders, and civil servants.

The later chapters argue that the sentiments are more effective when wielded by those in power. To support her argument, she uses the example of the portrayal of indentured laborers in the political writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, using his distinction between sentimental and material grievances to explore which forms of expression were recognized by British authorities in occupied Natal. She also uses the example of Amitav Ghosh’s text Sea of Poppies and others, in which she traces the itineraries between the voyage experiences of the sub-altern and the elites and establishing the connecting yet exploitative nature of the ocean. There are other notable mentions as well – e.g,  Torabully, Lalbihari Sharma, Totaram Sanadhya, etc. – which provide vivid pictures of tussle between the abolitionist tendency of the colonial state and the memoirs of the slaves fighting for the issues of representation.

The fourth chapter examines the role of emotions in British-run prisoner of war camps in South Asia during the Second Boer War and examines censorship and self-representation in the writings of Boer prisoners of war interned across the Indian Ocean. It explores efforts to assimilate Boer war prisoners into British subjects and how emotions were monitored and controlled in the camps. Letters and prisoner newspapers from the camps expressed hostility towards the Boers and criticized their camp experiences. However, post-war reminiscences framed their experiences as imperial travel stories, indicating a shift in mindset towards British sentimental education.

The final chapter reinterprets Gandhi's autobiography as a settler-colonial narrative, potentially influencing other authors to adopt colonial tropes. Throughout the book, the author, Boer, highlights how genres that historically silenced coerced laborers may inadvertently persist today. It investigates the relationship between sentiment and settlement in South African settler narratives, highlighting how the language of love for the land is employed differently in South African Indian fiction and the political writings of apartheid propagandist Geoffrey Cronje.

The book is full of interesting and binding narratives. Boer has done great work tracing these stories and using an analytical framework to scarping out sentiments from the documents from various chronological periods. It is an extension of her article “The Briny South: Transoceanic Subalternities at the Intersection of Global South and Ocean Studies,” in which she highlights existing scholarship and discusses networks of slavery and indenture in the Indian Ocean, as well as examining select archival and literary sources. The book is very beneficial particularly for the students of history and diasporic studies, as it presents us a vivid picture of the agony of the displacement within the intricacies of the colonial power politics. Those who are interested in follow-up readings can refer to Ashutosh Kumar’s book, Coolies of the Empire: Indentured Indians in the Sugar Colonies, 1830–1920 and Nira Wickramasinghe’s Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka, both of which provide different perspectives of the role of sub-altern populations and the colonial slave and indenture system along the shores of the Indian Ocean.