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Crossing the Bay of Bengal

Crossing the Bay of Bengal

The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants

Sunil S. Amrith

ISBN 9780674287242

Publication date: 10/05/2015

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The Indian Ocean was global long before the Atlantic, and today the countries bordering the Bay of Bengal—India, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia—are home to one in four people on Earth. Crossing the Bay of Bengal places this region at the heart of world history for the first time. Integrating human and environmental history, and mining a wealth of sources, Sunil Amrith gives a revelatory and stirring new account of the Bay and those who have inhabited it.

For centuries the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway between India and China, and then as a battleground for European empires, all while being shaped by the monsoons and by human migration. Imperial powers in the nineteenth century, abetted by the force of capital and the power of steam, reconfigured the Bay in their quest for coffee, rice, and rubber. Millions of Indian migrants crossed the sea, bound by debt or spurred by drought, and filled with ambition. Booming port cities like Singapore and Penang became the most culturally diverse societies of their time. By the 1930s, however, economic, political, and environmental pressures began to erode the Bay’s centuries-old patterns of interconnection.

Today, rising waters leave the Bay of Bengal’s shores especially vulnerable to climate change, at the same time that its location makes it central to struggles over Asia’s future. Amrith’s evocative and compelling narrative of the region’s pasts offers insights critical to understanding and confronting the many challenges facing Asia in the decades ahead.


  • Fascinating… Although several books have been written about the strategic and geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean…there is little awareness of the cultural and historical ties that bind diverse nations bordering the bay. Amrith’s signal achievement is to bring these ties to light. In doing so, he gives voice—and an identity—to one of the most complex and culturally interesting regions of the world… Amrith’s excavation of this culture is painstaking and meticulous. He digs deep into the archives, drawing on journals, letters and official colonial records to assemble an account that dates back to the first millennium… The result of all this research is a textured biography of a region… This is a formidable work of scholarship… It is the sheer accumulation of information, and the multiple, interwoven strands in this profoundly interdisciplinary work, that yield such an impressive, multifaceted portrait… [A] remarkable book.

    —Akash Kapur, New York Times Book Review


  • 2014, Winner of the John F. Richards Prize


  • Sunil S. Amrith is Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and Professor of History at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press