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In Session: Anthropogenic Asia: Energy and Environment in the Long Twentieth Century
3: The Biological Bay: Science and Society on the Bay of Bengal, 1852-1953
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
Anthony D. Medrano
Yale-NUS College, Singapore
The Bay of Bengal is in crisis. Home to countless people who depend on its resources for food and security, today’s Bay is also the site of an alarming “dead zone” roughly the same area as Sri Lanka. Discovered in 2017, this anthropogenic hotspot carries dire implications for aquatic food webs and the arc of megacities that stretch from the Subcontinent to Southeast Asia. For the Bay, ecological and economic life are deeply intertwined. Yet recent scholarship has fashioned this basin as a space of human crossings and creole belongings, focusing on how the ebb and flow of its waters moved bodies, ideas, diseases, and goods from port to port and from shore to shore. Consequently, the Bay has been rendered less as a biological place and more as a "[basin] born of movement”: metaphorically visible but materially absent (Braudel 1972).
This paper charts a different kind of story. It recovers the Bay not as a zone of circulation but as a site of production, centering a history of human-fish interactions and how this history helps contextualize today’s knowledge of the basin’s unfolding crisis. Through food fish and the foreign and Indian experts who studied them out of Madras, it shows how the Bay became biological and explains why this change mattered in scientific and somatic terms. It argues that the interplay between science and society was central to transforming these waters in ways that historicize both the peril of the Bay’s state and the state of the Bay’s peril.