Research Expeditions to India and the Indian Ocean in Early Modern and Modern Times

Research Expeditions to India and the Indian Ocean in Early Modern and Modern Times

Katrin Kleemann / Pankoj Sarkar, German Maritime Museum – Leibniz Institute for Maritime History, Bremerhaven
Vom - Bis
03.11.2022 - 03.11.2022
Katrin Kleemann, Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum – Leibniz-Institut für Maritime Geschichte

The Indian Ocean divides and connects Africa, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica. Approaching this region from the perspective of the history of science and maritime history, we invited applications for a workshop focusing on research expeditions that traveled to and through this part of the world, by land and by sea, from the early modern period to the present. During this time, several expeditions motivated by economic and scientific interests explored the Indian Ocean world. These expeditions, from various parts of the British Empire or other European countries, studied the culture, weather, flora, and fauna of the lands around the Indian Ocean. They also studied the currents, winds, and seafloor of the ocean itself. The findings made during these trips, many thanks to local and indigenous expertise, influenced knowledge production in an array of different fields. Research expeditions are interdisciplinary and often costly endeavors that strive to improve our understanding of botany, ethnography, and oceanography, to mention but a few.

After an introduction by the workshop organizers, RUTH MORGAN (Canberra) delivered her keynote. She began by talking about Australia and India, which were, in deep time, connected within the supercontinent of Pangea. Morgan studied various economic initiatives that, in another sense, brought them together again. These exchanges, Morgan pointed out, were comparable to the Columbian exchange Alfred Crosby proposed for the Atlantic world.[1] Terrestrial, atmospheric, and oceanic features played a role in forging these initiatives and relationships; currents, wind, and rain, or lack thereof, had to be tamed if the concept of an Empire was to work. Colonial governments carefully observed local weather conditions, which were very different from those they experienced in Britain and Europe, to improve agricultural practices. In this context, the environment was used as a tool of Empire to envision and enact Australindian exchange.[2] Over time, these regions were brought together even more by the introduction of telegraphy and steam shipping. Often settler-colonial Australia is imagined as a part of the British Empire. However, Morgan used the term Australindia to emphasize that Australia was not only a part of the British Empire but also a part of the Indian Ocean world. Australindia began to appear as a contemporary term in the first half of the 19th century. It appeared on maps drawn by Thomas John Maslen and Thomas Livingstone Mitchell. During this time, it was not necessarily a given that settler colonists would predominantly establish themselves in southeastern Australia rather than the eastern rim of the Indian Ocean. Australian transnational history often focuses on the Pacific; Morgan shifted away from this by bringing the Indian Ocean world into the debate. She introduced us to several such initiatives between Australia and India, some of which proved successful for a while. These initiatives, for instance, included the export of eucalyptus trees and byproducts to India and camels to Australia (which, today, is home to the largest population of feral camels in the world).[3] These initiatives were not only top-down approaches; in fact, some of them emerged where the Empire failed. Some relied on the involvement of local and Indigenous peoples.[4] Local pilots, for instance, were tremendously important in helping foreign ships navigate the harbor and surrounding waters safely.

The first panel addressed research expeditions to India. TOBIAS DELFS (Berlin) analyzed the participation of German botanists in the global network of knowledge production in the first half of the 19th century. These scholars were in a difficult position as Germany was not yet a unified state and had no colonies. Nevertheless, German botanists were able to use collections and take part in international exchanges between India, South Africa, and Britain.

PANIKOS PANAYI (Leicester) showcased his work on Germans in India between 1830 and 1918. Germans in India during this time were a “micro-minority,” and remained mostly invisible until the First World War due to their small numbers (approximately one in every 200,000 people was German). They nevertheless left a lot of information behind. Germans traveling to India at the time can be categorized into different groups, such as businesspeople, scholars, and missionaries. The latter, working for the Leipzig and Basel Missions, left a rich archive of information behind.

VIPUL SINGH (Delhi) described the 1864 cyclone in Calcutta and the devastation it caused, including the destruction of many British ships. The cyclone had an impact on meteorological science in India. They were problematic as they came on suddenly and were seemingly unpredictable. Over the course of the 19th century, surveyors, cartographers, and naturalists, mostly trained at British universities, were tasked with retrieving information from existing historical accounts that could lead to knowledge about cyclones, monsoons, and trade winds. The East India Company, which operated in this area, had an interest in these findings; it needed them ensure the safety of its ships, crews, and cargo. The 1864 cyclone pushed interest in meteorology and forecasting and eventually led to a greater understanding of cyclones and how they form.

Expeditions to the Nicobar Islands, the East African, and the Omani coasts were the focus of the second panel. SHAINA SEHGAL (Toronto) presented her work on the different attempts of foreign expeditions to seize the Nicobar Islands as a colony between the 1600s and 1850. However, the Nicobarese and Shompen peoples proved resistant to scientific and prospecting expeditions helmed by the Danish, Austrian, and English East India Companies. The Nicobar Islands’ location and the prevalence of certain diseases also made it difficult for those trying to gain a foothold. Furthermore, Sehgal discussed the challenges and benefits of writing an inclusive environmental history, which focuses on peoples in a period without a written culture.

ABDELHAKIM BELHACEL (Paris) presented the voyage of the Vénus, a French vessel under the command of François Étienne de Rosily-Mesros, and the vessel Prévoyante, in 1785, which traveled to Comoros, Mauritius, and eastern Africa. The primary aim of this expedition was to establish a French colony in Mongalo near Zanzibar, which could serve as the base for the ivory and slave trade. In this region, different geopolitical interests were at play at the time: The local Mongalo saw the French as their ally against the Portuguese of Mozambique. A short-lived French colony existed from 1786 to 1790 before it went bankrupt and was quickly dismantled by orders of the Sultan. The expedition of these two vessels was generally regarded as a success.

MARIELLE RISSE (Salalah) introduced us to Oman, a country in the Indian Ocean world that was never under foreign control. It is also the only country on the Arabic peninsula that gets monsoonal rains. Risse focused on the two expeditions of the brig Palinurus, which took place in the 1830s and 1850s and were the first explorations by English speakers to the southern coast of Oman, around Dhofar. The expeditions had the goal of investigating whether the Omani coast and hinterlands could be of use to the British government. They also wanted to buy the island Socotra from the Sultan in order to use it for steamship traffic between India and Britain. The surviving accounts of the expedition shed light on the local peoples; they spoke three different languages but left no written records. Risse was able to trace indigenous knowledge through oral history traditions, which were approximately 150 years old by the time they were written down in around 1850. These records reveal that much more water was available at the time, indicating that climate change is already significantly affecting Oman.

The third panel addressed research expeditions at sea. MARGARET SCHOTTE (Toronto) analyzed instructions that were given to sailors before they embarked on their journey and compared these to the notes left behind by these sailors afterward. These included hand-drawn coastal profiles. She noticed that different institutions treated their sailors with varying levels of respect. The instructions they were given were rarely updated. To keep a sailing vessel on a safe and accurate course, sailors needed to be familiar with the environment, able to make careful observations, handle scientific instruments, and apply mathematics. From surviving British, Dutch, and French records, Schotte was able to reconstruct that scientist-sailors taught fellow seamen on board; she conducted network analysis in order to find out who was teaching whom.

JOHN LAURENCE BUSCH (independent) presented his research on the early days of steam-powered vessels: In 1807, the first commercially successful steamboat was built, which operated in protected waters. In 1819, the invention of steamships followed, which operated in open water. While the general public responded, for the most part, enthusiastically, the establishment was concerned about the feasibility of steamships on the open oceans. British colonists in the Indian Ocean were often isolated, as news needed at least ten months for a roundtrip. In the 1820s, British colonists created the “steam fund,” prize money for the invention of a steamship that could travel from England to India in 70 days. Soon after, a steamship made an attempt and got there in 113 days.

MICHAEL JUNG (Saarbrücken) showcased his research on the Austrian research vessel Xarifa, which in 1957 traveled from southern France to the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the Nicobar Islands via the Red Sea. The expedition consisted of six researchers, who studied fish underwater using SCUBA technology. The researchers gathered a great deal of data, which was later passed on to universities and museums. They also published a large number of scientific papers. To finance the expedition, the expedition leader Hans Hass produced 26 documentaries each lasting 30 minutes. The camera that was used was connected with a long cable, which allowed them to film marine wildlife “unobserved.”

A concluding session summarized the research expeditions to the Indian Ocean world from the early modern period to the late 20th century. Some themes emerged repeatedly. One was the role of environmental and climate history during these expeditions; ship logbooks provide a rich source of information on the weather at sea, other sources for these regions are few and far between. Means of faster transportation and communication, through steamships and telegraphy, enabled faster exchanges, which led to the discovery of weather patterns that affect large areas across this region, such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation or cyclones. Knowledge about currents, winds, and safe routes was crucial for the safety of sailors and expedition vessels and for the efficiency and profit of trading companies, who actively sought the expertise of scholars and hydrographers. Another aspect was the role of local and indigenous knowledge; emerging scholarship emphasizes this expertise and its role in the safe passage of ships, business ventures, and scientific discoveries. Reading surviving historical documents with this focus in mind may also reveal an inheritance of information from people who used oral history rather than written documents. Ruth Morgan has shown this for Australindia, as has Marielle Risse for Oman. Concerning network analysis, Margaret Schotte has demonstrated how knowledge is disseminated among sailors aboard ships. Another aspect was the marketing of expeditions prior to their start by establishing credibility through letters of recommendation. Costs sometimes were subsidized by selling books, illustrations, or film materials produced at sea.

Conference Overview:


Katrin Kleemann (Bremerhaven) and Pankoj Sarkar (Bremerhaven)


Ruth Morgan (Canberra): Environment, Empire and Exchange: British India and the Australian Colonies

Panel I: India
Chair: Pankoj Sarkar

Tobias Delfs (Berlin): German Botanists and the “Empire of Knowledge” in the Indian Ocean Arena

Panikos Panayi (Leicester): The Germans in India, ca. 1830-1918

Vipul Singh (Delhi): The Road to Indian Ocean Empire: Survey, Science and Meteorology

Panel 2: From East to West
Chair: Katrin Kleemann

Shaina Sehgal (Toronto): Colonial Expeditions to the Nicobar Islands

Abdelhakim Belhacel (Paris): The Voyage of the Vénus

Marielle Risse (Salalah): Explorations in the North-West Indian Ocean: The Research Journeys of the Palinurus along the Omani Coast in the mid-1800s

Panel 3: At Sea
Chair: Penelope Hardy (La Crosse)

Margaret Schotte (Toronto): Merchant Sailors, Scientist Sailors?

John Laurence Busch (independent scholar): Steaming Expedition in Expedition: The First Forays to India using the First High Technology

Michael Jung (Saarbrücken): A Sub-Oceanic history beneath the surface: The Xarifa-Expedition to the Indian Ocean, from the Maldives via Sri Lanka to the Nicobar Islands 1957/58

Discussion and Conclusion
Chair: Katrin Kleemann

[1] Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Westport 2003.
[2] See also James Beattie, Empire and Environmental Anxiety: Health, Science, Art and Conservation in South Asia and Australasia, 1800-1920, Basingstoke 2011.
[3] Harriet Ritvo, Going Forth and Multiplying: Animal Acclimatization and Invasion, in: Environmental History 17 (2012), p. 404-414, here p. 411.
[4] See also Angela Woollacott, Settler Society in the Australian Colonies: Self-Government and Imperial Culture, Oxford 2015; Samia Khatun, Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia, London 2018.