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Thinking Oceanically: Ilha de Moçambique/Island of Mozambique

OCEANIC

      HUMANITIES 

             FOR THE 

      GLOBAL  SOUTH 

Published Online

10 Nov 2020

211-213

Published Online

Charne Lavery & Isabel Hofmeyr

10 Nov 2020

This special issue hosts a conversation between Ilha de Moçambique and its surrounding oceans and coastlines, convening a globally-oriented set of questions around a rich engagement with the local, and in so doing among material culture and new materialisms, maritime archaeology and poetry. Most significantly, it takes the idea of ‘East Africa’, as a region, underwater. Through shipwrecks, shells and sounds, it explores the possibility of incorporating the submarine world into the East African cultural domain.

Ilha de Moçambique is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its striking architectural unity which evokes its pivotal role in Indian Ocean trade since the 10th century (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2020). It is also characterised by a rich submarine heritage, surrounded by submerged shipwrecks that speak to lesser-known histories of East African and Southern Hemispheric slavery, connections between East African hinterlands and the coasts, and between local livelihoods and unique submarine ecologies. How do we understand this small place differently in relation to new ways of thinking oceanically across the South, as well as in relation to global critical ocean studies? How does thinking in and with Ilha speak to other oceans and their islands? How can we submerge our thinking about trade routes, slavery, heritage, literature, music and history?

The inaugural issue of Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies set out the mandate of the journal which is to enable a mobile and multidimensional matrix of the East African region in cultural terms. As the editors explained, rather than a geographical and political fact of the ‘cartographer’s vision’, the region should be conceived as ‘a multiplicity of cultural facts, actors and artefacts’ which invite ‘creative, artistic and cultural journeys through the region’ (Odhiambo and Siundu 2014, 4). Our special issue deepens this mandate by going below the waterline, as well as by stretching the reach of ‘East Africa’ to Ilha de Moçambique, and further to the east coast of South Africa including Natal, East London and the Cape.

The essays and papers in this special issue take up these themes by following natural and cultural submarine heritage along the East African coastline. In the introductory essay, ‘A Marine Archaeologist reads Mia Couto,’ Anézia Asse discusses Mia Couto's untranslated novel O Outro Pé da Sereia (The Mermaid's Other Leg) that features Ilha de Moçambique — which is also the site of her maritime archaeological research. The story focuses on a statue of Mary, saved from falling into the Indian Ocean by Nimi Nsindi, an enslaved man from Angola. As he does so, Nimi perceives a mermaid, an African goddess of the sea, imprisoned in the statue. He breaks off one of its legs to set the mermaid free, thereby making the statue itself mermaid-like. Both the novel and maritime archaeology concern themselves with the history of objects, but produce different meanings about similar artefacts. Unlike marine archaeology which looks outward from the ship, this story looks inward to the life and struggles on the ship. By creating narratives involving both coloniser and colonised, Couto suggests the changing and creolised meanings of marine artefacts.

Providing a maritime archaeological overview of the area, Diogo Oliviera describes the longue durée of the Island of Mozambique, in its relationship to the East African hinterland as well as the wider Indian Ocean world. He describes the specific shifts which marked a ‘reorientation of society towards the sea’ in this southern part of the Swahili region, employing the case study of a dig on the neighbouring peninsula of Cabaceira Pequena. There, coral stone — a material formed under the sea — can be found alongside ceramics from both China and the interior, linking land-, trans- and sub-oceanic networks on the incipient and southerly Swahili coast.

Shifting from coral to cowrie shell, Justine Wintje’s article pursues an object biography of shells from sixteenth century Portuguese shipwrecks that have found their way into a museum collection in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. These materials, both originating and resurfacing from the ocean, constitute the kinds of ‘small things’ that can connect interspecies and cross-oceanic histories. Cowries had privileged status as a currency in the slave trade out of West Africa, and their ‘life itineraries’ — from aquacultured creatures in the Maldives, to the Bight of Benin, to a cannon on the East African seafloor, and finally to a museum display — allow us to traverse ‘above-water and underwater spaces’, human and natural histories.

Addressing a different kind of layered cultural heritage, Rufus Maculuve investigates the contemporary sound signatures of the Island, exploring how these are produced by historical oceanic mobilities. Focusing on a performance tradition, the Maulide Nakira associated with the Rifa’iyya Sufi Order, Maculuve examines the genre as produced by Islamic movement across the monsoon region. Using the method of the soundwalk, he also sketches the changing soundscapes of the islands with its omnipresent oceanic rhythms, buzzing motorbikes, black crows and muezzins calling.

Charne Lavery extends the exploration of submarine slave histories by putting a slave shipwreck and a collection of poetry into conversation. The ship, the São José Paquete d’Africa was carrying enslaved people from Mozambique Island to Brazil when it sank off the coast of Cape Town. Yvette Christiansë’s Imprendehora likewise memorialises the ‘long middle passage’ — between East Africa and South America, focusing on slave and indenture narratives on St Helena. As Lavery indicates in her paper,

In addressing the doubly submerged experience of southern hemispheric slavery — both literally under the sea, and historically overlooked in favour of northern narratives — the Slave Wrecks Project and Christiansë’s poetry acknowledge the ‘vast silence’ in the historical record and attempt to go ‘beyond the archive’, using the techniques of maritime archaeology and immersive imaginative reconstruction respectively.

Drawing the two together places “the literary and the archaeology in conversation, via the submarine”. Staging an analogous conversation between poetry and history, and opening up onto an even wider oceanic canvas, Phindezwa Mnyaka’s paper is an experimental history of a ship’s journey, in the form of a poem and narrative that tells the ‘ship story’ of the Lady Kennaway. The colonial ship’s itineraries connect widely across the imperial Indian Ocean, including bringing Irish women to the port of East London to bolster the bloody war efforts in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Via the object biography of a ‘nondescript ship in the sea that is modern history’, Mnyaka reflects on the fragility and risks of written history, itself a ‘crumpled paper boat’.

Following these various objects, artefact and narratives across and beneath the surface of the sea, the papers together trace a ‘journey into the past as well as the future, literally and literarily’ (Odhiambo and Siundu 2014, 1). In so doing, each poses a question about the nature of history writing, museum collecting, memorialisation and fictionalization, as well as about the methodological potential of crossing the boundaries between land, air, and sea.