Burkhard Schnepel
Burkhard Schnepel studies the Indian Ocean. (Photo: Michael Deutsch)

Indian Ocean Studies: ideas that travel

Globalisation isn’t new. It effectively started in the 16th century. Back then, sailors navigated the Indian Ocean and the world’s other seas. This was accompanied by active trading: traders brought with them goods, languages and ideas. All of these influences are examined today as part of the study programme “Indian Ocean Studies” and represent some of the aspects social anthropologist Professor Burkhard Schnepel is investigating. He has created a unique network in Halle in partnership with the Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology.

Burkhard Schnepel has a broad area of research: the Indian Ocean, which is spread across nearly 70 million square kilometres. It covers around 15 per cent of the world’s surface, connecting Africa and the Arabian-Persian world with India, Indonesia, Australia and countries in the Far East, including China. In between lie many islands and groups of islands with melodious sounding names that conjure up images of holidays: Madagascar, the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Parts of the Indian Ocean have been frequented for around 5,000 years. Once seafarers were able to unmask the secrets behind the inevitable recurrence of the monsoons, a weather phenomenon typical for the region, sailing in the Indian Ocean became more predictable. Sailing vessels were able to conduct trade between the coasts and islands connecting the three continents. The Indian Ocean is the oldest ocean in the world from a seafaring perspective.

From small to large

Schnepel readily explains what excites him so much about such a large research area. “It’s the complexity. Understanding the region as a whole and its historical depths,” he remarks. How is it possible to research a field that is, in many aspects, so heterogenous? Thanks to many individual social-anthropological and ethno-historical microstudies, small insights are generated that can be joined together to form a larger picture. Projects are tackled from two directions: through empirical microstudies and by striving to understand the big picture in its historical depth and spatial breadth. Conditions and changes can be characterised through many individual projects. Like puzzle pieces, these findings should fit together to form an overall picture of the historical changes, as well as the continuities.

“The historically based trading relations that still exist today are of primary interest to the research conducted by me and my colleagues,” says Burkard Schnepel. This phenomenon has been captivating the ethnologist for years. He grew up on the North Sea and knows that the old saying of “mountains divide while seas connect” more than applies to his area of research. After all, maritime trading has made a crucial impact in the regions surrounding the Indian Ocean.

The phenomena that are being investigated vary just as much as the area under investigation. For example, the food and culinary habits in the former British colonial city of George Town on the Malaysian island of Penang can be the subject of research as can the local understanding of democracy on the Maldives. It should be noted that both of these topics have been dissertation projects.

Cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

During one of his many research trips, Schnepel himself investigated a style of music and dance called Sega, which is typical for the island of Mauritius. It was brought to the island by African slaves. Now it is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. “It is a typical example of what an exchange between and the co-existence of people from different backgrounds around the Indian Ocean can produce,” says Schnepel, who is always able to acquire a large amount of third-party funding for his work.

The 62-year-old has also been a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle since 2013. There his programme entitled “Connectivity in Motion: Port Cities of the Indian Ocean” has been receiving funding for more than six years. The project primarily examines port cities. It identifies so-called hubs of different neighbouring countries that have a wide range of languages and cultures and through which goods are imported and exported.

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