South Asian Sojourners in Australia, 1860s-1930s: Samia Khatun


Wednesday, October 28, 2015, 6:00pm to 8:00pm


Harvard University - CGIS South S354 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA

Harvard South Asia Institute and MIT-India
present South Asia and Its Diasporas
a speakers series

Bengali Poetry in Australian Deserts:
Placing Histories of South Asian Diaspora

Samia Khatun
McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Melbourne

Wednesday, October 28, 2015   6:00-8:00pm
Harvard University - CGIS South S354
1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA

Discussant: Vivek Bald
Associate Professor
Comparative Media Studies/Writing, MIT

Australian deserts today are dotted with the remains of 19th century mosques. Built by South Asian merchants and workers during the era of the Australian camel transportation industry from 1860 - 1930, these mosques are rich repositories of the things once most precious to Muslim travellers. Beginning with the discovery of a 19th century book of Bengali sufi poetry in a mosque in Broken Hill, in this paper I explore the epistemological traditions that travelled with colonised peoples moving across the terrain of empire.

British colonisers arrived to South Asia and Australia alike with the conviction of the superiority of their knowledge traditions over the epistemologies of the people they colonised. As British East India Company law minister Thomas Macaulay infamously wrote in 1835, ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ A key architect of histories of nation-building across the Anglophone world, Macaulay’s dismissal of the knowledge traditions of colonised peoples as ‘absurd’ continues to hold considerable sway in contemporary academic historical practise.

For the most part, historians have located accounts of South Asian diaspora on the epistemological ground of European and neo-European historiographical traditions, placing ‘migrants’ within national histories. Challenging the continuing legacy of imperialists’ dismissal of non-European knowledge traditions, in this paper I ask: What role can the poetry of colonised peoples play in crafting new histories of South Asian travellers? What historiographical practises did Aboriginal people deploy to memorialise South Asians travelling through Australian deserts? On what alternative grounds can we place histories of South Asian travellers?

Samia Khatun is a historian, activist and filmmaker. She is currently a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne and is researching a 400-year history of textile workers’ from Mughal Bengal to contemporary Bangladesh. Samia tells histories ‘from below’ across South Asia and Australia and since completing her PhD at the University of Sydney in 2012, she has held visiting postdoctoral fellowships at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin and the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is currently finishing a book on the history of South Asian diaspora in Australia, told from the perspectives of South Asian travellers and Australian Aboriginal storytellers.