As part of an Envirornmental History class for the esteemed Dr. John McNeill, I am trying to integrate an ecological and envirornmental focus into my study of identity, trade, social change and state building in the Eastern Congo. In other words, I want to know not only how merchants like Tippu Tip built nascent state structures and incorporated Swahili, Manyema, Nyamwezi, and other corporate or ethno-cultural groups into their organization, but also how the movement of these merchant-princes impacted the ecology of the Eastern Congo. What kind of crops did the Swahili Arab settlers plant? What sort of envirornmental changes did they set in motion?
It occured to me that such a project may be difficult to undertake without delving into Congolese and Omani archives. So, as part of a related but alternate set of questions, I would also like to explore how the competing discourses of Belgian, British, German and Arab primary sources sought to portray the envirornmental and social changes the Arabs set in motion. On the one hand, the Arabs called Nyangwe the 'New Bengal' and viewed themselves as bringing civilization and order to the land. They tamed the forest, and brought peace and order.
On the other hand, the many European travel accounts emphasize the devastation of Arab slave-trading, the many famines (which they linked with Arab settlement) and the general negative impact of the Arab presence. Of course this discourse itself, even if it was accurate, came to fulfillment only with European colonization--the worst years of ecological and social devastation were assuredly after the 1890s and the routing of Arab power in the Congo.
This relates back to the concept of the frontier in Indian Ocean history. Is there a way I can talk within an Indian Ocean framework of land-based frontiers? On the surface it doesn't appear to be an obviously helpful narrative framework. However, there are compelling cultural links (the presence of Comorians, Baluchis, and Omani Arabs in the Congo) and economic links (Indian financiers in Zanzibar linked the Congo River basin with the circuits of Indian Ocean capital) that make such a framework interesting. Using the idea of systems theory, which posits that we can find common features of a given 'unit' in terms of shared aspects of organization, I submit we can talk of the penetration of Indian Ocean cultural 'clusters' and the integration of Central Africa into Indian Ocean economic exchange and have legitimate historical evidence to back up our assertion. I am reminded as I consider this question of John Wilkinson's insight about Oman: "Oman as a 'natural' region has no real frontiers: like all such regions it tends to be rather more 'Omani' in places than others."
So it goes with the Indian Ocean: if we identify a set of shared religious practices, common clothing items, culinary features, familial organization, vocabulary, and more, that are found in the Indian Ocean, then certain places will have more ties than others, and this is also related to which 'features' we choose to compare.
Of course the challenge is to determine how much the 'Indian Ocean' actually explains; we want it to do some theoretical work, but we would err to depend on it to do heavy historical work as it relates to Central African history in general--most of the history of the Eastern Congo has logical connections with other lake regions in Tanganyika, Zambia, as well as points north in Uganda. But the fact that so few historians have even attempted to use it to look at the history of Central Africa during the late nineteenth century means that some potentially valuable understandings from this perspective can be integrated in with the existing literature.