Penang and Bombay: Indian Ocean port cities in the nineteenth century

Sir Christopher Bayly

In the 1960s and ’70s a number of studies treated the port cities of the Indian Ocean before and during the colonial period as comparative and connected societies. Thereafter, historians turned to more intensive local studies of parts of maritime South and Southeast Asia. This lecture returns to the earlier problem by examining Penang and Bombay, located at different levels of the commercial system, but vital elements in the emergence of capitalist modernity across Asia. The lecture considers recent scholarly interpretations of ‘multiple modernities’ in the light of the belief of the nineteenth-century inhabitants of these cities that they did, in fact, uniquely embody novel forms of commerce, community relations and urban space. It goes on to consider their major resident communities, drawing comparisons between, for instance, the role of the Peranakan Babas in Penang and on the Straits of Malacca and the role of Parsis in Bombay and on the western Indian coast. It also examines the ethos and ideologies of the Muslim commercial communities of the two cities. The lecture then turns to the politics of the Penang and Bombay during the ‘long’ nineteenth century. It examines Bombay’s role in British expansion into the Arabian Sea, the Gulf and East Africa, comparing it with Penang’s role in colonial expansion in the Straits and the interior of Malaya. Finally, the lecture turns to these cities’ role in the emergence of anti-colonial movements in their respective regions. Both supported ‘moderate’ nationalist politics before 1914 and onset of the shock of war and depression. Yet both saw the beginnings of an outward turning anti-colonial movement led by Chinese revolutionaries and western India ‘extremists’ respectively.


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Presented by Sir Christopher Bayly
C. A. Bayly, LittD, FBA, is Vere Harmsworth professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St Catharine’s College. He is also Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies there. His most recent works include The Birth of the Modern World and, with Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars and Forgotten Armies. His new book, Recovering liberties. Indian thought in the age of liberalism and empire will be published in November 2011.

Moderated by Dr Tim Harper
Dr Tim Harper Reader in Southeast Asian and Imperial History, University of Cambridge Dr Harper’s research interests centre on the history of modern Southeast Asia and the region’s global connections. His first book was a study of the end of colonial rule in Malaya, in its social as well as political aspects. He has written, with Christopher Bayly, a two-volume account of the Second World War and its aftermath in South and Southeast Asia. His most recent work has focussed on how the history of localities and local political events are shaped by a global consciousness and transnational networks. Dr Harper is Associate Director of the Centre of History and Economics, and a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He has held visiting research positions at Universiti Malaya, the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, Singapore, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and has been Visiting Professor in Asian Studies, Centre Asie, Sciences Po, Paris.