Querying the Cosmopolitan in Sri Lankan and Indian Ocean History

Querying the Cosmopolitan in Sri Lankan and Indian Ocean History

Tuesday, 6 February 2018 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Venue: 
Headley Lecture Theatre, Ashmolean Museum
Speaker(s): 
Zoltán Biedermann (University College London) and Alan Strathern (Brasenose)
Convenor: 
Matthew McCartney, Mallica Kumbera Landrus and Rosalind O’Hanlon
Series: 
South Asia Seminar

The presenters will reflect on their proposal to draw Sri Lanka into the paradigm of global history through the recently published edited collection Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (UCL, 2017 - the full volume can be downloaded free of charge at tinyurl.com/SLCrossroads).

Sri Lankan history has been somewhat isolated not only from recent developments in connected and comparative history but even from the wider historiography of South Asia. The presenters will show how recent scholarship has sought to open up Lanka as a space across which Indian Ocean and even global currents moved and intermingled and also to use the island as a test case for thinking through larger debates and conceptual issues relevant to historians of Asia. In particular, a major concept both deployed and critiqued by the authors – working in periods ranging from the archaeology of the first millennium BCE to the nineteenth century – is that of cosmopolitanism.

After introducing the book, each presenter will speak about their particular contribution. Alan Strathern will speak about the role of ethnicity and providentialism in Lankan history, engaging the work of Sheldon Pollock and the fundamental contrasts he has drawn between Indic and European forms of identity creation. Zoltán Biedermann will explore the history of Lankan exiles who, from early times, used the possibility of displacement to South India as a means to further local political projects. The question arises to what extent it is legitimate to theorize the culture of exile as cosmopolitan when it cohabited with various forms of coercion, especially during the early colonial period.

Zoltán Biedermann is Senior Lecturer and Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at UCL. He is the author of The Portuguese in Sri Lanka and South India (2014) and numerous articles and book chapters on the history of European expansion and knowledge production in the Indian Ocean region. He is currently finishing his fourth book, a study of the Portuguese involvement in Sri Lanka before 1600.

Alan Strathern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College. He is the author of Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka (2007), and a number of journal articles and book chapters. He is currently writing a comparative history of ruler conversions to monotheism in world history.

The South Asia Seminar is co-funded by the Ashmolean Museum, the Asian Studies Centre of St Antony’s College, the Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, the Department for International Development and Faculty of History and the Faculty of Oriental Studies.