Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

3 - History between the Tides: Ecology and Industry in the Straits of Melaka, 1880-1940

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Maryland Suite C, Lobby Level

The Straits of Melaka have long played a central role in the history of Southeast Asia. From facilitating the movement of people, ideas, and commodities to marking the edge of states and sultanates, this storied seascape has shaped the nature of human societies in the region and the place of these societies in the world. Area scholars, in particular, have enriched our knowledge of this body of water by explaining why the Straits of Melaka mattered in multi-scalar terms—narrating them as a local corridor, regional conduit, and global waterway.

But between 1880 and 1940, the Straits of Melaka became significant because they also served as a resource frontier. This environmental moment was built on multiple forms of knowledge about tides, species, and climate in the Straits of Melaka. Through a close study of the mouth of Sumatra’s Rokan River, this paper documents the ways in which this largely uninhabited estuary became home to an interwar industry that produced more tons of fish than nearly anywhere else in the world. It shows how interactions between Hokkien migrants, Dutch scientists, and Malay pawangs shaped the formation of knowledge about this Sumatran estuary and its remarkable career as a global center of fish production. By looking at the human and intertidal worlds of the Rokan mouth, the essay explains not only why estuaries along the Straits of Melaka were pivotal to the rise of urban Southeast Asia, but also why they remain critical to understanding the effects of climate change in anthropogenic Asia.

Anthony D. Medrano

Harvard University, Massachusetts

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3 - History between the Tides: Ecology and Industry in the Straits of Melaka, 1880-1940



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