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Research project: The Indian Ocean: narratives in literature and law

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Funded by a grant of £320,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council Landscape and Environment Programme, the project examined how the Indian Ocean has been represented in literary and legal narratives, primarily in English.

Project Overview

When this project was first conceived, it was described as 'following' the 'great will for interdisciplinary learning' prompted by the tsunami of December 2004. By 2010, the global public's idea of the Indian Ocean was captivated by narratives of pirates working off the coast of Somalia. But threats to the environment and threats to commerce have long dominated widely circulating stories about this Ocean. The work of this project engages, compares, and challenges historic and current stories about the region. It does so by delving into ideas about the geography within literary and legal narratives. Key work includes:

  • the recuperation of lost and obscure literature. This is a central part of the project's broader recognition of an energetic and often surprising history of Anglophone writing on the Indian Ocean: a tradition that is deeply marked by concern with issues of law and lawlessness.
  • the pursuit of a nuanced understanding of models of governance of the Cape through an analysis of literary, legal and political writing.
  • an understanding of the Ocean as a site of Utopian and Arcadian thinking across Anglophone literature, and through current legal approaches to the region, particularly its islands.
  • an investigation of a long tradition of 'imagined' and 'real' stories of Indian Ocean pirates that enables an interrogation of current legal approaches to piracy.

This project has generated more imaginatively, historically and ethically aware ideas of the Indian Ocean. It has formed ongoing and expanding networks of scholars, lawyers, poets, and novelists.  And it has informed teaching and research practice: maritime literature, piracy and literature and law are now established features of the University of Southampton's curriculum and postgraduate research culture. It promotes the study of the Indian Ocean within the Humanities and Asian and African Area studies across the UK: and in doing so, its outcomes are part of a wider and growing challenge to the dominance of Atlantic and Pacific studies in academia. The work and particularly the publications of this project have helped the inter-discipline of literature and law to achieve greater prominence and value in the UK academic environment.

The relationship between historical and current, literary and legal narratives of piracy in the Indian Ocean continues to be explored through research, publications, and academic and public-facing lectures and events.  This work is key to the emergence of the University of Southampton as a significant forum for the interdisciplinary study of piracy, as recently explored through a unique international workshop on 'Piracy and Jurisprudence' supported by the project.  The project also continues to update its research agenda in line with the politically sensitive legal issues surrounding the Chagos Islands, including the ongoing exile of the Chagossians, the declaration of the region as a Marine Protected Area, and the use of the archipelago for 'extraordinary rendition' by the US government.  And the work of this project has brought the Indian Ocean into prominence within broader research initiatives, particularly through its key support of the 2011 British Association of South Asian Studies annual conference and the ongoing AHRC network 'Subjects of Law: Rightful Selves and the Legal Process in Imperial Britain and the British Empire'.

Further information is available at the AHRC Landscape and Environment programme.

Map of the Indian Ocean

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