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Oceans as empty spaces? Redrafting our knowledge by dropping the colonial lens

The myth of the empty sea is largely the product of European imperialisms and their map-making. Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock

Google the word “seascape”, and you’ll find pictures of an aquamarine ocean, possibly with a touch of perfect coast line. These images of a generic ocean are mirrored in maps where the sea generally appears as a uniform expanse of pale blue, apparently empty except for an occasional sprinkling of islands. The sea is a flat, homogeneous space that appears empty.

This myth of the empty sea is largely the product of European imperialisms and their map-making traditions in which the sea becomes blank space across which power can be projected. Just like more familiar myths of empty land, uninhabited and ready for the taking.

Like imperial myths of the empty land, this view of the sea conceals the traces of imperialism and its aftermaths. You don’t see the “graves” of thousands of drowned slaves marked in the Atlantic. Undersea cables and oil rigs do not appear, nor do islands of plastic particles. You also don’t see any trace of the more than one million shipwrecks that litter the ocean floor.

A new project at the University of the Witwatersrand – Oceanic Humanities for the Global South – has taken on the task of unpacking the myth of emptiness. The project has three key focuses: it recognises that our understanding of oceans is informed to a very large degree by a colonial narrative.

Secondly, that previous research in the humanities has focused on the surface of the ocean, in particular tracing the maritime movement of people, ideas and commodities. The ocean functions as backdrop; we learn little about its workings and its depths. And thirdly that the ocean doesn’t fit neatly into scholarly-defined subject matter – a deep understanding needs historians and artists working side by side with ecologists and archaeologists.

Located in the global south, the project’s aim is to undo these limitations. It will continue to keep histories of forced maritime migration – like slavery and indenture and their legacies of inequality – in view. But it will also pay attention to what’s happening below the surface, such as the ecological and material qualities of the ocean.

The project aims to produce new forms of knowledge that are attuned to the issues of ecology as well as decoloniality. Funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, it comprises researchers across a wide range of disciplines based at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of the Western Cape. Its international partners are from Mozambique, Mauritius, India, Jamaica and Barbados.

Imagining the nether world

The deep ocean forms one focus of the project. How does one imagine this nether world? What are the ways in which it is made visible to us and what philosophical and existential questions does it raise? What kinds of stories might one tell about it?

In keeping with the decolonising aspect of the project, one graduate student is examining how black writers from across the world have dealt with the undersea.

Another strand is examining the slave trade – both above and below the waterline. Project members will meet in Mozambique next year to pursue research.

Collaborators include a graduate student from Maputo with underwater archaeology experience and a marine scientist from Jamaica. They’ll be combining their expertise with art students, historians and literary critics to think about the histories, imaginaries and materialities of the ocean, discussing wind, tide, currents, shipwrecks, alongside art, poetry, film and fiction.

Another example of the approach being taken involves a different look at the role oceans have played in South Africa, which unusually on the continent is bordered by the sea on both sides.

Indian Ocean world

South Africa’s oceans and shoreline were drenched in imperialism. The ocean ushered in European settlers, officials and armies. The beach marked the beginning of conquest and subsequently became the playground for white leisure seekers.

A new relationship with the ocean is being forged in a range of ways that embraces both the country’s past as well as its future.

The past speaks to the fact that slaves at the Cape and indentured labour in Natal were drawn from the Indian Ocean world. Reinserting these communities into the mainstream of South African history opens the country up to its multiple inheritances beyond just a story of “native” and settler.

One avenue being explored is revising interpretations of southern African literature, such as the fiction and poetry of South African-born poet, novelist, and scholar, Yvette Christiansë. Her novel Unconfessed examines a slave from the Mozambique region who is imprisoned on Robben Island for killing her son. The novel reworks one of the major themes of southern African literature, the farm novel, by linking it to narratives of slavery and the sea.

Another focus is on exploring pre-colonial understandings of the ocean as a realm of the ancestors. Even today, it remains a site of pilgrimage and healing. One Fine Art graduate student is designing performance art around the practice of bringing bottles of seawater inland for health and spiritual purposes.

In terms of the country’s futures, some of these will be tied up with the Indian Ocean world, with India and China.

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