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Pedro Machado brings the Ocean into History

Think of the great sea voyages in history and literature. The Odyssey. Moby Dick. The Mayflower. Hōkūle’a. Try to name the major figures in those narratives: Captain Ahab, the Sirens, the Native Americans, the night sky. More than likely, the ocean and its hidden depths did not figure at the top of your list, but, Pedro Machado argues, it should.
Machado, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Indiana University, Bloomington, is a thalassologist, that is, a researcher of the sea. To “bring the ocean itself into our narratives,” his research focuses on the history of entangled oceanic trade routes, cultural relationships and material cultures that crisscrossed the globe.
Machado has recently turned his attention to the world of pearl fisheries and other “marine products,” an outgrowth of his work exploring the commercial cultures of the Indian Ocean with a focus on the wide-ranging oceanic linkages generated by the Afro-Asian cloth trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At his recent talk at UC Davis, entitled “An Ocean Deep: Labour, Capital and the Pearling Networks of the Indian Ocean,” Machado pointed out that, aside from George Kunz’s and Charles Stevenson’s 1908 The Book of the Pearl, the influence of and technologies of pearling as a local and international trade has yet to be fully explored.
Machado’s current research centers on the tiny, largely unknown Mergui Archipelago, located off the coast of Burma (or today’s Myanmar – both names remain contested among scholars and politicians alike). By focusing on this area as node in widespread circuits of labor and exchange, Machado hopes to trace the “shadow histories” of marginalized sites, economies, and communities. Similarly, he concentrates on undervalued marine products, like seed pearls and pearl shell, that are central to vernacular markets alongside the more widely-traded and internationally-valued larger pearls.
Exploring these marginalized maritime communities and economies, Machado argues, helps us develop a richer understanding of the channels through which goods and people move, especially in light of the reemergence of marine goods trade in the twenty-first century. Further, they help us pinpoint the interaction of human communities with the oceanic spaces on which they depend, a missing connection in our conceptions of the history and networks formed by commercial and cultural relationships.
Though Chinese merchants and other traders with China were first attracted to the Mergui Archipelago to harvest and then farm edible bird’s nests, pearling also became an important part of the regional economy for Mokens and Chinese consumers. Machado’s presentation included photographs of Moken fishermen using traditional diving methods to secure oysters as both a food source and a source of pearl shell and pearls for trade. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century also saw rapid growth in the search for marine products in the region by Western traders and whalers as well.
Machado’s study, which spans the late eighteenth century to the twentieth century, also confronts the effects of technology and colonialism on the region’s ecosystem, community and commercial networks. Colonial commercial interests in the area led to the selling of fishing rights to traders outside the Moken community and the industrialization of pearling in the area.
In particular, the development of diving dress, a systematic and highly-mechanized air pump, diving suit and weighted boots, changed the work of pearling forever in the 1890s. The suit allowed divers to immerse themselves at greater depth and for longer periods than traditional diving, making for larger oyster harvests and access to the rich untouched oyster beds close to the sea floor—sidelining traditional Moken diving techniques and claims to the islands.
It was fitting that Machado was invited to campus by the Mellon Research Initiative on Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds since his work attempts “to chart a translocal Indian Ocean history that breaks down the artificial divide in much scholarship between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ oceanic spheres.” To recognize these connections allows us to reexamine the way we think about ecosystems, time scale, chronologies, and, crucially, to bring the ocean into history.
–Jennifer Tinonga-Valle, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English

This page was last updated: April 24, 2017



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