ASC Associate Jatin Dua, currently the director of the Center for South Asian Studies and an associate professor of anthropology at U-M, was recently awarded the 2020 Elliott P. Skinner Book Prize by the Association for Africanist Anthropology for his book titled, Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean. Published by the University of California Press, Dua’s book investigates piracy in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean sets the geographical context for his work, which spans both land and sea, and connects the reader to a vast range of actors concerning modern-day piracy. Such actors include Ukrainian ship captains, Somali pirates, South African mercenaries, and British insurance agencies.

Through his analysis of piracy and the Indian Ocean, Dua highlights the importance of the notion of the ‘encounter’ specifically recasting piracy as an encounter between multiple regimes of protection and argues that, through its investigation, it allows one to move beyond simplifying binaries such as legality and illegality, the colonized and the colonizer, and simple spatial distinctions between Asia and Africa. The Indian Ocean serves as a means for numerous complex encounters between people, as ships, goods, fishermen, and pirates intersect and connect through global commerce at sea and on land.

Speaking to ASC about the book, Dua discussed his ambition to frame his work and the notion of these encounters between regimes of protection across large spatial and temporal scales. As he was conducting fieldwork, Dua noticed that while piracy happens at sea, the bigger and longer negotiations grew, the more entangled actors on land became. These actors would often determine if the hijacked crew on land would have access to food and water and if, eventually, they would be freed.

This leads to a complex web of encounters that “happen through different mechanisms such as hijacking and ransom at sea.” With the intricate entanglement of actors and stakeholders across the Indian Ocean, Dua asks, “What does it mean to make a claim of protection, and how do these claims translate across different actors, agents, and regions? Who is a pirate? Is a person sending water to hijacked crew members and thus receiving a cut of the ransom a pirate, too? How do we understand the relationship between the pirate and insurance agents and others involved in this transregional ransom economy?”

Reflecting on the book and his extensive fieldwork, Dua commented that piracy entails “violence, but also ideas of hospitality, and longstanding relationships beyond the initial encounter of hijacking and capture at sea.” This kind of nuanced observation, where, for instance, hijacked crews would eat and pray with their captors onboard a hijacked ship, encapsulates the kinds of complex encounters that Dua teases out in his book. He stated that “among the very violent moments, and moments of extraction, there are also possibilities of convivialities and shared forms of recognition which might not necessarily turn into justification…” but encourage the reader to ask  “what kind of politics emerge from our understandings of these relationships and intertwined sense of cohabitation that is not revolutionary, resistant, or simply oppositional and violent.”

Dua mentioned that he is happy to have received the award from the Association of African Anthropology because it recognizes his work and the Africanist work, which extends beyond the geographical borders of the continent. “While there has always been a strong countercurrent and critique within Africanist scholarship of ideas that imagine the continent as somehow out of synch with the rest of the globe, I’m excited to be part of a burgeoning scholarship that is looking at Africa in the world through its oceanic connections, beyond the Atlantic and turning to places like the Indian Ocean to understand African pasts and futures.” Speaking of his future research, Dua has turned his attention to conducting anthropology of the geopolitics of the Red Sea and will also embark on future research interrogating ideas of blackness and racial encounters across Africa and Asia within the world of maritime capitalism and shipping.