Anna Lively on ‘Tales of Shrimp and Debt’

On 24 November 2020, CSMCH hosted a discussion centred on Betty Banks’ ‘Tales of Shrimp and Debt’, which raised fascinating questions about international connections, socialist internationalism, and about how to write to global history. Banks (IASH-CSMCH Fellow) began the event by placing her paper on soviet fishing in Mozambique in the context of her wider book manuscript, which looks at political, social, cultural and economic relations between the Soviet Union and Mozambique during the Cold War era. This binational case study is used as a framework to consider global interconnections and realities more broadly. During the panel discussion, Banks conveyed the opportunities and challenges in writing this kind of ambitious, multi-layered history: how do you maintain a narrative arc while moving between different regions and concepts? How do you find balance in a binational study when the archival material is fundamentally imbalanced and tells us different stories in different places?

Banks’ paper, which was pre-circulated before the discussion, is a highly original piece and looks at the Soviet Union’s role in the fishing industry in Mozambique. From 1982, the Soviet fishing company Sovrybflot held all licenses for fishing deep-water shrimp off the Mozambican coast, which was paid for on the basis of credit. The global popularity of shrimp in the 1980s meant this was a highly profitable arrangement, allowing Soviet export enterprises to make an average of $5500 per ton from prawns on the world market. Crucially, this helped the Soviet Union to shore up their supplies of hard currency and dollars, as the internal rouble was purposefully unconvertible. As Banks emphasises, ‘fishing has always been about more than just fish’ and her paper touches on a diverse range of themes, including global consumption patterns, decolonisation, technology and trade.

Responding to Banks’ paper and introduction, Nadin Heé (Freie Universität Berlin) made a number of important points on globalization and scale. Globalization is a hugely contested and loaded term, with a vast literature. Heé encouraged Banks to think further about what this term adds to the paper and to be more specific on her position within the wider field, including consideration of whether it was an actors’ term. The classic question of universality and particularity might, Heé suggested, provide a useful analytical framework and help address the question of scales. She also made comparisons to her own research on the fishing industry in East Asia and emphasised the importance of looking at disconnections and ruptures, as well connections and similarities.

In the paper, Banks includes two intriguing illustrations of deep-water shrimp: the Heterocarpus woodmasoni and the Haliporoides triarthrus vniroi, the latter of which only lives in the waters between Durban in South Africa and Beira in Mozambique. Heé recommended greater historicization of these pictures, asking where the Soviet Union obtained their knowledge of fish from. Environmental history approaches and materiality, as well as knowledge transfer and exchange, were also discussed.

Justyna Turkowska (Edinburgh) then picked up on three key themes in her comment: socialist globalization, globalization on a micro level and binational history. If ‘globalization is never fully global’, then we need to consider which countries are influenced by particular financial flows and why. Responding to Banks’ comments in her introduction, Turkowska reiterated the problems of separating out ‘socialist’ and ‘normal’ globalization and asked what ‘socialist’ globalization means in an economic and analytical sense. She examined the balance between the macro and the micro in the paper, encouraging more focus on the local level and on the shrimp as actors. How did the fishing industry affect everyday life in Mozambique and who was responsible for the daily processes? A more localised approach, she suggested, might help in moving the analysis beyond a centre-periphery model and end up revealing more about the global. In addition, Turkowska indicated potential problems with studying globalization through a binational lens, particularly given implicit hierarchies and subjugations. Material culture and everyday practices could be used to address the general absence of Mozambican voices in the narrative.

The following discussion was dynamic and broad in scope. Like Banks’ paper, it spanned from the small scale (such as how prawns were processed) to big questions on global trade, internationalism and national specificities. Ismay Milford (Edinburgh) asked whether the quest for dollars was widely recognised in the historiography of soviet internationalism, suggesting the potential importance of Banks’ intervention. Banks agreed that the conversion point was central to the chapter, although indicated that ideology and solidarity were also genuine motivations behind Soviet-Mozambican connections. The topic of this paper has huge comparative potential, and audience members proposed multiple possible lines of enquiry, such as comparisons with other forms of resource extraction and with artisanal fishing.

The discussion also touched on how we write and structure history, particularly when trying to weave together different strands, voices and scales. Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) suggested the paper could be restructured as a stand-alone piece by starting from small and zooming outwards. It could move from the shrimp itself to the fishing industry, then to credit agreements and end with the global consumption of shrimp. This could also be done in reverse, said Julie Gibbings (Edinburgh). You could begin with a prawn cocktail in 1980s Manhattan, an archetypal capitalist centre, and then follow the shrimp back to the Soviet fishing industry in Mozambique. Essentially, it could become a global history of the prawn cocktail!

Overall, the panel was highly thought-provoking and encouraged the audience to think creatively about methodology, frameworks and global connections. Gibbings ended the session by linking this paper to the CSMCH theme of crisis, suggesting how long durée processes, like debt and internationalism, often underwrite moments of crisis. The relationship between the global and local is often critical at times of crisis, when international events have tangible and material impacts on everyday realities.

Anna Lively is an AHRC-funded PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh. Her main research interests lie in Russian and Soviet history, Irish history, transnational history and the history of revolutions. Her PhD project looks at revolutionary connections between Russia and Ireland from 1905 to 1923. She is a CSMCH steering committee member.