“This format reflected the very notion of the mobility of people, ideas and practices across oceans in the past and at present”

By Kris Ramlan

Recently, I attended the 10thWeberWorldCafé at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies. It was certainly a Friday afternoon well spent traversing the broad theme of Transoceanic Cultures: The Sea in Past and Present. Altogether, six sub-themes were explored in richly interactive table-talks, hosted by subject-matter experts, running parallel to each other. To maximise participation, each table session went on for 25 minutes or so, and in the short breaks in-between, the participants could move on to another table-talk. Throughout the whole three-hour event, participants could engage in four sub-themes as they moved around—a good way to partake in the different aspects of the overall theme.  

Brilliantly, this format reflected well the very notion of the mobility of people, ideas and practices across oceans in the past and at present. As the participants moved around the seemingly discrete thematic table-islands, they were effectively bridging different fields and disciplines; forging connections that may not necessarily be clearly visible but nonetheless link us all. I chose to focus on the two tables of Oceanic Images and Imaginations and Fluid Disciplines and Archives to learn about “fluid methodologies” from a wide range of approaches and objects of study, i.e. images, imaginations, documents and objects of, about, and across the sea and the ocean.

Oceanic Images and Imaginations

Table host Hannah Baader during the final wrap-up

This table was hosted by two experts, Hannah Baader, a senior researcher in European art history and Hester Blum, an associate professor of American literature. To kick off the conversation, they invited participants to articulate their imaginations of the sea and their associations with that space. What ensued were interesting exchanges that were multi directional and cross-referencing in terms of representations of the sea, times past and present, and spaces.

The seas are sometimes considered a barrier, but above all a contact zone, a medium that despite its dangers and difficulties enabled people, objects, ideas, and practices to establish and maintain manifold exchange relations. The earth’s surface is 71 per cent covered with water and most that is covered in water is oceans. Yet, the way the world is represented in standard world maps gives a disproportionate projection of the ocean world.

J. M. W. Turner’s „The Slave Ship“ | Public Domain.

Imaginations of the sea have derived from juxtaposition of beauty and horror. Wide popularity of the sea as a space for relaxation only began in the 19thcentury. More recently, in the Mediterranean, within the same oceanic space,holidaymakers on cruise ships are but a mere few nautical miles away from dying refugees. The artist Banksy called our attention to this issue in his piece of street art in Calais that reproduced a version of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa 19th century painting of shipwreck survivors. In Banksy’s re-imagining of the work, survivors on a raft desperately wave to catch the attention of an ostentatious modern yacht on the horizon. The horror of violence at sea was also depicted by J.W.M Turner’s painting The Slave Ship whose original title was Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On. Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being called to attention that the water of the sea is constituted by micro-particles of the history of enslavement from the disintegrated bodies of enslaved people. These works portrayed a powerful imagination of ships, slaves and refugees.

In maritime Southeast Asia the continued widespread distribution and fluid mobility of sea nomads throughout the area bears testament to a very different indigenous perception and mapping of the region.These seafaring people used to play an important role in pre- and early modern states in this archipelagic area. Paradoxically, as bounded territorial sovereign states emerged, the sea nomads became progressively peripheralized and impoverished, reaching the point that they are now defined as being on the margins of “otherness”. Even for a land-locked site like Tibet, located in the world’s highest plateau of Himalayas, there is a direct connection with the ocean, as it was once a seabed. The sea occupies their myths, marine fossils are still found in multiple locations and unsurprisingly, seashells are still used in Tibetean rituals today. Thus, thinking of cultural materials of the oceanic past enabled us to see varied dimensions that we might not have expected.

The ocean and the oceanic are of renewed importance in the Anthropocene marked by global warming-induced sea level rise, seabed and aquatic disturbance, new maritime legal regimes, and the explosion of ocean-based scientific discoveries. Life of and on the sea was a growing feature of the late-modern condition and imaginary. In his artwork’s engagement with reality, Allan Sekula’s photography book the Fish Story and his film documentary The Forgotten Space tackled a rare portrayal of a reality of seamen today. He foregrounded the voices of people labouring in the largely unseen bedrock of the worldwide distribution of commodities. Notwithstanding, those containers standing at ports and harbours have also completely changed the landscape of these areas, and the large scale of maritime traffic is significantly contributing to waste discharges and pollution. Another artist, Tita Salina produced a video and a diorama entitled 1001stIsland The Most Sustainable Island in Archipelago to engage with land reclamation issue and waste that plagues the ocean and the livelihood of traditional fishermen. She collaborated with local fishermen near the bay of Jakarta,Indonesia where they collected litter in the sea and turned it into an artificial island of waste.

Treating the sea as the site and subject of investigation and theorization, an oceanic re-orientation promotes the intersection of humanistic, scientific and social scientific inquiry. In one example, Hester Blum shared a soundscape project called “data sonification”. A six minutes long soundscape was created from a scientific data set of 400,000 years of the Antarctic ice sheet. Each data was assigned a tone and as those numbers shifted over 400,000 years, one could hear the change in the Antarctic ice sheet over half a million years. The representation through music illustrates how we can continue to expand ways to think and write about the sea.  

Hannah Baader described her methodology in her works with the sea as based on connectivity and the sea as an epistemic thing. This brought to my mind Hans-Jörg Rheinberger writing’s Toward a History of Epistemic Things in which he characterized epistemic things as material entities or as processes that constituted the targets of enquiry. He also said epistemic things embodied what one did not yet know belonging to the domain of the unthinkable and that they have a strange and fragile reality. Hester Blum premised oceanic studies as taking the ocean mobility and fluidity as a central principal. Correspondingly, this approach is deeply invested in ecological forms of thoughts towards understanding human and non-human relations, one that does not have fixity or easy signposts of a certain kind of state divisions or demarcations.

Fluid Disciplines and Archives

Notes from the table cloth

At this table, participants were introduced to the Prize Papers Project (see also @Prize_Papers) by Annika Raapke who is the Public Relations Coordinator, and Lucas Haasis who handles Research Cooperations of the project. The PrizePapers is a unique and fascinating collection of the British High Court of Admiralty held in the British National Archives. Unknown until now, this archive is akin to a time capsule that has been preserved largely untouched, unsorted, and unrevised as the only surviving collection of its kind in Europe. Over the next 20 years, the project team will digitize and catalogue the PrizePapers, and upload them to an open access database. The project is still in its early stage focussing on building the database, creating research-oriented metadata and digitization. The database is scheduled to be publicly accessible towards end-2019.

This early modern global collection comprised hundreds of thousands of letters, journals, ship logbooks, freight lists, administrative files and other documents seized by the privateers and British navy, from 40,000 ships captured during the naval wars between 1664 and 1817. Of these, 160,000 were undelivered letters, many of which had been sealed for over three centuries. The Prize Papers were a result of the practice of prize-taking on sea as part of the early modern sea powers’ war strategy. Private ships which carried a Letter of Marque issued by the government cruised for enemy prizes. Martial law required that the lawfulness of a capture be established in front of the Prize Court of the High Admiralty. Thus, the entire shipload such as private and commercial documents, ship’s papers, newspapers, personal effects, trading registers etc. were seized by the capturing party. Such privateering contrasted with attacks and captures of random ships, which was unlicensed and known as piracy.

Notes from the table cloth

These accidental archives provide a new perspective on global relations of the period when European countries were starting to establish colonies. So far, the findings have included journals, sheet music, drawings, colonial administration records, and artifacts like keys, playing cards, seeds, glass beads, sample fabrics and drugs all tucked in with communications between women, men, children, families, friends, Christian missionaries, slave owners, sailors, and business partners across the globe. They open up different perspectives about people living on, with, and across the ocean. Interesting too, many of the letters were written by people from the lower strata including women, sailors, convicts, and prisoners of war. So far, documents in 19 different languages (Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Basque, Yiddish, Ladino, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Mandarin, Hindi), have been identified and more languages are expected to emerge as the project progresses.

This provides insights into the entanglements of early modern worlds and lives, for instance of the slave trade, international trade, language acquisition, knowledge transfer, political and economic practices, and reveals how people interacted across borders, continents, and seas. It also shows a different form of colonial expansion not documented in the European colonial archives; one that is not necessarily a structured governmental push but an approach focussing on ordinary Europeans who moved and colonialized. The unique variety and scope of the archives also offer resources for natural sciences disciplines. The ship logbook entries contained meteorological data and climatic conditions over the span of three centuries. In fact, a co-operation has already started with an institute of marine biology studying documents in the Prize Papers collection. As more documents are unearthed, we can expect a host of information that could well be very useful to many other fields and areas.

The research project is based at the University of Oldenburg in partnership with the National Archives London, the German Historical Institute London (GHIL) and the IT Experts of the Verbundzentrale des Gemeinsamen Bibliotheksverbundes (VZG Göttingen). The project also pursues various research projects and cooperates with numerous international researchers and research institutions. Interested individuals or institutions with knowledge of language or expertise relevant to this project are welcome to contact Annika Raapke at annika.raapke@uol.de.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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