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Meet a Fellow: Samira Sheikh

Posted by on Monday, March 28, 2022 in Uncategorized.

Meet Samira Sheikh, a 2021-2022 RPW Center Faculty Fellow. This year’s group is exploring the theme of “Environments.”

I was a graduate student at Oxford, writing a dissertation on politics in fifteenth-century Gujarat, in western India, when I received an intriguing stack of photocopies through the Pigeon Post, the university’s internal mail. A prominent historian of Islamic science had run into a curious manuscript bound into the scrapbook of an 18th century English clergyman, amid pressed butterflies and medieval sketches. It was labeled “A China MS and map” but the contents were in an Indian script with a little Arabic thrown in. Its centerfold contained a map of Gujarat. As I was one of the few people around studying Gujarat, could I take a look?

At first I could make little sense of the text or the map but puzzling over the manuscript turned out to be a welcome distraction from my dissertation. After more than a year, I figured out that the text had belonged to a ship pilot’s manual and contained Gujarati instructions on navigating by the stars into the ports of Jeddah, in the Red Sea, and Surat, in Gujarat. There was a remarkably accurate list of the stellar altitudes (similar to latitudes) of about a hundred Indian Ocean ports stretching from Mogadishu to Chittagong, and a detailed map, complete with depth soundings, of Gujarat’s coastline.

It was long assumed that Arab, East African, and Indian sailors steered by esoteric, oral knowledge passed down by word of mouth. The Oxford pilot book was a valuable piece of evidence that some sailors were literate and produced sophisticated written directions and maps.

Very few pilot books or maps survive from India before the 19th century, which raises a number of questions. We know that from medieval times, the Arabian Sea was one of the busiest sea passages in the world. Did its sailors navigate without maps or charts? It was long assumed that Arab, East African, and Indian sailors steered by esoteric, oral knowledge passed down by word of mouth. The Oxford pilot book was a valuable piece of evidence that some sailors were literate and produced sophisticated written directions and maps.

So why are early Indian maps and charts so rare? One reason is that they contained trade secrets. In the 18th century, Gujarat’s ports were bustling international centers of commerce at a time of huge political upheaval. The Mughal empire was disintegrating into scores of little kingdoms and European trading firms, such as the British and Dutch East India Companies, were beginning to make inroads into politics. Knowledge of terrain and sea lanes was a vital commodity and its owners guarded their texts closely. They are only now beginning to come to light.

The “work-crastination” that went into deciphering the Oxford pilot book many years ago sparked a fascination with how early modern people understood and mapped land and sea. During my year at the Warren Center, I hope to understand better how 18th-century mapmakers drew from diverse knowledge traditions to make sense of crops and tides, natural hazards and political boundaries. All but one of the maps I will study are anonymous, but I will try to work out who the mapmakers might have been, how they came by their knowledge, and how they understood their changing environments.

Over the years I’ve collected and examined several more maps from Gujarat but never found the time to write about them. The time has come to stop procrastinating and start exploring.

Samira Sheikh is Associate Professor in the Department of History. A historian of South Asia, she is wrapping up a book on the hectic politics of Bharuch, a small town in Gujarat, India, on the eve of British colonialism in the eighteenth century. She has previously written on fifteenth-century South Asia, Isma‘ili and Hindu devotionalism in Gujarat, the notorious Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and early colonial land-revenue systems. Her early work on an eighteenth-century Gujarati pilot book is the jumping-off point for a new project on knowledge systems and politics in Gujarati maps from the eighteenth century.