The Origins of An Ocean of Paper

An Ocean of Paper: Mapping Genealogies and Migrations Across the Indian Ocean is the culmination of the research conducted by 2015 SQCC Research Fellow Dr. Thomas McDow and Dr. Fahad Bishara. Dr. McDow (an assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University) worked with co-investigator Dr. Fahad Bishara (an assistant professor of history at The University of Virginia) to develop a public history tool by collecting, digitizing, cataloging, and publishing thousands of 19th Century documents detailing the commercial lives of Omani merchants and migrants in Oman and East Africa. The goal of the database is to facilitate research by students and academics writing the social and economic history of the Sultanate, as well as Omanis interested in tracking the movements and activities of their ancestors.

Dr. McDow and Dr. Bishara are indebted to the efforts of Dr. Hollian Wint (UCLA), Omar Sheha (Zanzibar National Archives), Torey Beth Jackson (research assistant at The College of William & Mary), and Abdulrahman Zaid (research assistant at The University of Virginia) for their assistance to
An Ocean of Paper.

Both Dr. McDow and Dr. Bishara have used the primary sources found in An Ocean of Paper in their recent academic publications:

A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1950 by Dr. Fahad Bishara was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. In this innovative legal history of economic life in the Western Indian Ocean, Bishara examines the transformations of Islamic law and Islamicate commercial practices during the emergence of modern capitalism in the region. In this time of expanding commercial activity, a mélange of Arab, Indian, Swahili and Baloch merchants, planters, jurists, judges, soldiers and seamen forged the frontiers of a shared world. The interlinked worlds of trade and politics that these actors created, the shared commercial grammars and institutions that they developed, and the spatial and socio-economic mobilities they engaged in endured until at least the middle of the twentieth century. This major study examines the Indian Ocean from Oman to India and East Africa over an extended period of time, drawing together the histories of commerce, law and empire in a sophisticated, original and richly textured history of capitalism in the Islamic world.


Dr. Thomas McDow's Buying Time: Debt and Mobility in the Western Indian Ocean was published by Ohio University Press in 2018. In Buying Time, Dr. McDow synthesizes Indian Ocean, Middle Eastern, and East African studies as well as economic and social history to explain how, in the nineteenth century, credit, mobility, and kinship knit together a vast interconnected Indian Ocean region. That vibrant and enormously influential swath extended from the desert fringes of Arabia to Zanzibar and the Swahili coast and on to the Congo River watershed. The key to McDow's analysis is a previously unstudied trove of Arabic business deeds that show complex variations on the financial transactions that underwrote the trade economy across the region. The documents list names, genealogies, statuses, and clan names of a wide variety of people—Africans, Indians, and Arabs; men and women—who bought, sold, and mortgaged property. Through unprecedented use of these sources, McDow moves the historical analysis of the Indian Ocean beyond connected port cities to reveal the roles of previously invisible people.