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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Changing perspectives on Indian Ocean cityscapes : the port city of Calicut in the early modern period Neelakandan Girija, Archa


This dissertation examines the changing notions of urbanism in the context of the early modern Indian Ocean world. Its primary focus is on the port city of Calicut, in southwestern India, which was the primary trade hub for one of the most sought-after commodities, black pepper. As a result, the city was one of the most vibrant commercial centers in all of maritime Asia and became a cosmopolitan locus not only for economic but also for social and cultural interactions. However, scholars have long held that with the arrival of European powers in the Indian Ocean, Calicut began a commercial and cultural decline, and by the end of the seventeenth century had lost its status as one of the preeminent urban centers of the Indian Ocean world. My research reveals how this seemingly innocuous assumption is rooted in a particular vision of progress and modernity that was projected onto urban sites across Asia by European observers and later historians. Indian Ocean port cities such as Calicut, which did not attract European colonial settlements, or even actively resisted them, came to be represented in contrast to the new, supposedly “modern” colonial cities. It is this dichotomy that is ultimately responsible for the false notion that Asia’s non-European port cities went into terminal decline during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As this dissertation demonstrates, in fact, the opposite proves true: long-established emporia such as Calicut continued to prosper, and in some cases even expand, as hubs of non-European as well as anti-European commercial and political networks that traversed the Indian Ocean well into the early modern period.

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