Accepted paper:

Sapphires and the Seas: Maritime histories that move the trade of Sri Lankan gemstones

Author:

Nethra Samarawickrema (Stanford University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper uncovers the traces of the seas in the transnational trade of Sri Lankan sapphires, now transported by air. It examines how credit-based networks that South Indian traders forged through maritime movements during the twentieth century continue to shape commodity exchange today.

Paper long abstract:

How did a group of traders from a small South Indian coastal town come to control the trade of Sri Lankan sapphires in Hong Kong? What can memories of maritime mobility and histories of imperial infrastructures and networks reveal about the contemporary movements of a highly valuable, speculative commodity across the Indian Ocean? This paper uncovers the traces of the seas in the transnational trade of Sri Lankan sapphires, now hand-carried by air. Unlike newer commodity chains with 'flexibilized' distribution and shifting sites of production, the Sri Lankan sapphire trade relies on a old Indian Ocean trading network run by gem dealers who work across ethnic lines to move sapphires from hinterland mining villages in Sri Lanka, to markets on its coast, and across the Indian Ocean to Hong Kong. The paper examines how credit-based networks that South Indian traders forged through maritime movements across Palk Strait and the Indian Ocean across the twentieth century continue to shape the trajectories of commodity exchange today. Specifically, it examines how traders used colonial infrastructures that linked metropolitan centers in South India and Sri Lanka through a system of railways and ferries to access sapphires mined in the island's hinterlands, and to sell them to buyers stopping at Colombo's port while traveling along Indian Ocean shipping routes. It examines how they rerouted their trade to Hong Kong, using colonial networks once nationalist movements in postcolonial Sri Lanka curbed their mobility, opening up routes that continue to be critical for the sapphire trade today.

panel P082
Moving the goods: maritime mobility and logistics labour [ANTHROMOB]