Who are the people who live on or near the beach, those who inhabit the coastal zone, not just the beach? They have been called the shore folk, or sea nomads, or members of a littoral society. The place of port cities in littoral society is a matter of dispute. In terms of location they may qualify, though Ashin Das Gupta in his classic book on Surat made an important distinction. “To begin with there was coastal Gujarat, marshy, irregular, often broken by estuaries of the rivers and dotted with tidal flats which were submerged at high tide…. It was peopled by the truly maritime men who fished and who sailed the vessels on which trade depended. The coastal cities usually stood back a little.” On our other two criteria, occupation and culture, definition is more difficult, and things change over time. In premodern times port cities had more of a whiff of ozone about them than is the case today. The occupations of many of the inhabitants were intricately connected to the foreland and hinterland, thus making these people truly littoral. However, their economic functions and influences extended much further than their fellows on the coast, with much more extended forelands and hinterlands. Culturally, the port cities, where populations are more concentrated, are more exposed to external influences, such as élite norms from the inland, or the attentions of seafaring scholars and religious folk. Ibn Battuta traveled around the Indian Ocean, calling at port cities and being recognized for his scholarship. In return he tried to improve the quality of Islam in these places.
One way to separate out littoral from port city is to insist that littoral people live on the coast and seldom travel. Some people in the port cities—sailors, merchants—indeed go to sea and have important maritime experiences, but my concern is with fisherfolk, or people who tend the lighters that go out to meet the big ships. These folk live on shore, but work on the sea: they are very precisely littoral.
Greg Dening wrote, “Beaches are beginnings and endings. They are frontiers and boundaries of islands. For some life forms the division between land and sea is not abrupt but for human beings beaches divide the world between here and there, us and them, good and bad, familiar and strange”—an extravagant claim indeed, even if meant metaphorically. I would argue exactly the opposite, as does Jan Heesterman. He stressed that “The littoral forms a frontier zone that is not there to separate or enclose, but which rather finds its meaning in its permeability.” Braudel wrote evocatively about coastal society, stressing that it was as much land oriented as sea oriented. The life of the coast of the Mediterranean “is linked to the land, its poetry more than half-rural, its sailors may turn peasant with the seasons; it is the sea of vineyards and olive trees just as much as the sea of the long-oared galleys and the round-ships of merchants, and its history can no more be separated from that of the lands surrounding it than the clay can be separated from the hands of the potter who shapes it.”
Several modern scholars have described the shore folk of the Indian Ocean. John Middleton focused on the east African coast. “Part of the coast is the sea: the two cannot be separated. The Swahili are a maritime people and the stretches of lagoon, creek, and open sea beyond the reefs are as much part of their environment as are the coastlands. The sea, rivers, and lagoons are not merely stretches of water but highly productive food resources, divided into territories that are owned by families and protected by spirits just as are stretches of land. The Swahili use the sea as though it were a network of roads.” The very term “Swahili” means “shore folk,” those who live on the edge of the ocean. As Randall L. Pouwels has it, Swahili culture was “a child of its human and physical environment, being neither wholly ‘African’ nor ‘Arab,’ but distinctly ‘coastal,’ the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”…
Certain languages achieved wide currency, this providing commonality around the shores of the Indian Ocean. In the earlier centuries it was Arabic. There are some five thousand words of Arabic influence in Malay, and more than that in Swahili, and about 80 percent of these are the same in Malay and Swahili, so that we have a “corpus of travelling Arabic words.” Later, a sort of nautical Portuguese and, today, some variant of English, have achieved a quasi-universal status.
Languages know no boundaries, and this also applies to coastal people. For most of history they knew little of political borders. Smuggling was an occupation, not a crime, as was the plunder of ships driven ashore. Dian Murray, an expert on piracy, wrote of a “water world,” where boundaries were indistinct, just like Villiers’s delta region. Robert Antony recently modified Murray slightly, writing of a water world of “shared social, economic, and cultural activities, and patterns that are not easily defined and delimited by ethnic and linguistic differences or by national boundaries.” He and Murray are concerned with the southern China coast, but their findings apply precisely to other coasts.
In a water world, coastal religion is also distinctive. Littoral people, living in a more cosmopolitan environment than those inland, are more likely to convert. In the case of the Indian Ocean, the cosmopolitan, international aspect of Islam has often been cited as a prime motivation for conversion, and while this applied most strongly in the port cities, it also was evident on the coasts between them. Coastal people especially found their indigenous beliefs, localized and very specific, to be inadequate as their world expanded. When they were exposed to a universal faith—Islam as exemplified by visitors from the north—the attraction was obvious, and the results can be seen all over the Indian Ocean world from the early modern period onward. There were and are widespread Islamic religious connections around the coasts. In Zanzibar one group uses a certificate of authenticity and authority issued in Indonesia. In Mayotte, off Madagascar, South Asian Islamic reformers are active. A devotional text in Indonesia was probably originally written in Arabic, either in the Middle East or in Indonesia itself, and is now available in Javanese and Acehinese. In Zanzibar Islamic books, including Qur’ans, come from Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, and Pakistan.