“Secret Histories” of the Sea

On an expedition to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1906, the colonial official James Hornell was given a tour of Pukkulam in the Mannar district, on the northwest coast of the island. Passing by a local chapel, Hornell’s guide explained to him that the stones of the church were repurposed from ancient ruins dating to the reign of “a certain Tamil Princess Aliarisani” (Tamil: அல்லி அரசாணி) who “from this spot superintended some of the greatest fisheries of by-gone days.”[1] Like the princess, Hornell too, was concerned with fisheries; he conducted research on the island’s pearl fisheries, a lucrative industry which generated vast revenues for the British Crown.[2]

Two years later, while compiling a survey in the region, an official named Frank Modder visited a small island off the coast of Ceylon known as Karativu. In the process of gathering data, Modder was interrupted by fisherfolk, who drew his attention to the constantly shifting coastline. In fact, they began, the island’s local history was linked to that of a particular queen and the watery fate that befell her: “In the time of the famed Queen Alliarasani the Gulf of Kalpitiya had no opening to the north,” Modder recorded. His informants continued: although the said queen once easily traversed Ceylon by land, at some point “a great flood came, buried her palace under the waves, and burst through a neck of land converting the lake into a gulf, which form it still retains.”[3]

The origins of local littoral and watery cartographies were thus entangled with and inscribed over the queen’s legacy. Similarly, on an annual pearl bank inspection, the Superintendent, William C. Twynam, gestured inquisitively at “some large mounds of old oyster shells” remaining on the shore; once again, he was informed that these trails of sea-debris were “the accumulations of Queen Alliyarasani’s fisheries.”[4]

Alli Rani was a Tamil queen who appears in Dravidian reworkings of the fourth-century Sanskrit epic the Mahabharta. Her biography is drawn primarily from a sixteenth-century poem by Pughazhendi, the Alli Arasani Malai.[5] Aside from these sources, we find examples of Alli Rani’s life and biography embedded along the coastline of north-western Ceylon in the nineteenth century. The three references described here derive from incidental and minor comments in a regulatory colonial archive, easily missed for those reading these documents for more straighforward examples of coercion and violent extraction in imperial commodity production. Through the interstices we find glimpses—sideways and obscured—of a narrative revolving around a local queen: repurposed stones from a ruined palace, a submerged kingdom below the waves, and discarded oyster shells. The memory of these royal fisheries of yore permeated space and place, well into the colonial period.

The question of how historians might read the colonial archive for subaltern voices has plagued scholars. So too has the risk that new projects in environmental history in formerly-colonised spaces might reinscribe imperial structures and ideas. Where do the regulatory archives end and lived, labouring lives begin?

We might turn here to the theorist Sylvia Wynter’s classic essay “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation” (1971). She compares two spatial models which have divergent literary-social outcomes: the plantation and the plot. Whereas the former was a site where capital was invested towards producing commodities for the market and defined by emporium and imperio [the market and empire], the latter, small landholdings from which enslaved persons or labourers were required to grow food for themselves, had a different character. Just as the plantation produces one narrative, the plot, Wynter insists, has its own histories of “resistance to the market system and market values,” albeit histories that might remain partially occluded or secret in surviving sources.

So, what are the secret histories of the sea? Glimpses of the legacy of Queen Alli Rani at the pearl fishery of Ceylon emerge from documents produced at the height of British imperialism, through the vice-like grip of the colonial archive, mediated through European, male and bureaucratic voices. We receive fragments of a submerged, lost, and partially recalled regent, embedded physically and culturally in the landscape. But Alli Rani was, at the same time, accessible to local fishers and divers, even at the height of the state’s coercive power.

Her afterlife in the sources prompts us to look beyond the prosaic and banal realities of capital and empire for other modes of meaning-making and life-worlds at sea. Perhaps, like the waves of the ocean, these histories will remain only partially visible at particular moments—but this tension might be a productive and fruitful place within which to situate ourselves.

[1] James Hornell, Inspection of the Pearl Banks, 1905 (30 November 1905), 6.

[2] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Noble Harvest from the Sea: Managing the Pearl Fishery of Mannar, 1500-1925,” in Institutions and Economic Change in South Asia, ed. Burton Stein and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996); Samuel Miles Ostroff, “The Beds Of Empire: Power And Profit At The Pearl Fisheries Of South India And Sri Lanka, C. 1770-1840” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2016).

[3] Frank Modder, Gazetteer of the Puttalam District of the North-Western Province of Ceylon (1908).

[4] Twynam qtd. in W.A. Herdman, Report on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar (London, UK: Royal Society, 1903)

[5] Surinder Singh and I. D. Gaur, Popular Literature and Pre-Modern Societies in South Asia (Pearson Education India, 2008), 215; Vijaya Ramaswamy, “From ‘Amazonian’ Warrior to Submissive Wife: The Taming of Alli,” 41 Economic and Political Weekly (April 29 – May 5, 2006), 1661-1668.