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What goods were traded in the medieval Indian Ocean?

What goods were traded in the medieval Indian Ocean?


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The Periplus of the Erythrian Sea has detailed reports of trade ports of the Eastern Indian Ocean in the first century AD. There are also plenty of archaeological reports, summaries, and books from that period in English.

Similarly, there is profuse evidence (in English) for trade after Vasco de Gama. However, for the Middle Ages, there are some first hand details from Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, and not much else.

What trade goods were commonly traded in the Eastern Indian Ocean, between the Swahili coast, the Middle East, and India? Where were the sources of supply, and where was the demand for these goods?


Physical Goods

There were many goods traded across routes with the domestication of the camel including silk, porcelain, spices, slaves, incense, and ivory. Here's a picture that I think you might find really useful:

Thought

The biggest "thing" (in my opinion) that was traded was actually religious thought. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were spread through not just missionaries, but by traders too. Later on, Islam spread the same way.

Source for Map: http://maritimeasia.ws/maritimelanka/images/maps/productroutes_700x522.jpg">ShareImprove this answeredited Jan 4 '17 at 4:21answered Jan 4 '17 at 4:12SunnySunny1824 bronze badges

Abraham’s Luggage: A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean World

The typical Indian Ocean history does not lend itself to social history or to close looks at the daily lives of actual humans. It can read like a 5,000 years-long weather report interspersed with lists of trade goods—a massive amount of research and scholarly synthesis that is more than a little dry. The other common feature of the Indian Ocean genre is recourse to Braudel’s longue duree, which allows authors to use more recent anthropological work to try to illuminate social and cultural practices from the distant past. 1 Thus, a description of life on board a twentieth-century dhow might serve as an approximate guide to life on a twelfth-century ship. It might not be perfect for the task, but it is the best that we could do for now.

Lambourn’s book, which is built around a list that was scribbled into the margins of a letter, represents a totally different approach to social history in the Indian Ocean. Abraham Ben Yiju, the list’s author, was a member of the community of North African Jews, whose correspondence is preserved in the contents of the Cairo Geniza. 2 His list was made in 1149 as he was preparing to return from Malabar to Egypt. Lists of trade goods are a dime a dozen in Indian Ocean histories, but this one, of personal items, was meant to provide for the Ben Yiju party’s sea voyage home rather than to catalog trade goods. Items range from bags of rice to preserved fish, jars of lemons, a cabin door, and a rat trap (never go to sea without one). Lambourn also includes lists of goods that Ben Yiju’s friends and agents sent to him as gifts, which were clearly intended for household use rather than resale. Like the packing list, they shed light on the social and material culture of Ben Yiju’s world.

From Lambourn we learn that raisins (which Ben Yiju received frequently as gifts) were macerated in water to make a substance that could be used as “wine” for Jewish ritual purposes. The silver trays that Ben Yiju packed for the sea voyage reveal something of South Indian rice-eating habits (dishes served on a platter and garnished with pickles). The cabin door and planks that he packed for the sea voyage testify to women’s modesty and their protection at sea. Some parts of the book consider Ben Yiju and his family’s life on land (and by inference that of the entire Jewish community), and other parts use Ben Yiju’s packing list to improve our knowledge of life at sea.

In effect, Lambourn’s book is an ethnography of an 800-year-old cultural world, but its human feel makes it unlike any previous work about the region and period. Ghosh’s book also has this human element, but it is not always clear about the line between evidence and imagination. Lambourn’s is more attentive to the usual scholarly conventions about evidence. She discovers a wealth of information hiding in plain sight, waiting for new questions and contexts (most of the Geniza’s contents were translated and published decades ago). Hopefully, this good book is the first of many to deviate from the traditional lines-on-maps-and-commodity-list approach to Indian History.


Acknowledgements
This work was completed during a period of research funded by the Entrepot Project, Danish Research Council Sapere Aude fund. We are grateful to the fund and to the PI, Dr Søren Sindbaek, for their support.

  • 1 M.C. Horton , 1996.
  • 2 M.C. Horton , T.R. Blurton , 1988.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 19.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 20.
  • 5 L. Fouché , 1937.
  • 6 D. Miller et al., 2000.
  • 7 A. Oddy , 1995, p. 186.

1 Excavations at the Swahili stonetown of Shanga, on the northern Kenya coast,1 recovered one of the more enigmatic and suggestive artefacts known from the eastern African coast during the pre-colonial trading period. The bronze figure of a lion, dated to c. AD 1100, is unique among finds from the coast of eastern Africa, yet is typical of a number of similar figurines found in India—specifically the Deccan Plateau—known to have been used in Hindu rituals.2 One explanation for the presence of this figurine in an archaeological context in East Africa is that it was brought by an Indian merchant or traveller, or imported by a member of the increasingly rich local elite Shanga was deeply connected with Indian Ocean routes of commerce and interaction dominated by Islamic traders. Yet, the Indian technologies employed in the manufacture of the Shanga lion tell only half the story. Despite its South Asian style, the figurine appears to depict an African—not an Indian—lion, with a wild unkempt mane running down its back. Indian examples have the neatly trimmed collar of an Asian lion. This means that its maker was familiar with both this style of Indian sculpture and with African lions themselves, and it suggests the possibility that it was made by an Indian craftsman present in Africa. The metal content of the lion further supports this latter suggestion. This is somewhat different from comparable statuettes found in Indian contexts.3 The closest parallels to the lion’s specific alloy are with contemporary Chinese coins, leading to the suggestion that it may have been cast from melted coins, as part of a wider practice of metal recycling in the Indian Ocean world.4 The single find of the Shanga lion therefore opens up a world of possibilities, to the movement of people, materials, ideas, styles, and religions. Further glimpses of such movements are evident in other isolated finds, such as the 13th century gold rhinoceros figurine from Mapungubwe in southern Africa.5 Made from wood and covered in locally sourced gold sheet,6 the figure of the rhinoceros itself has only one horn and may thus have been based on an Indian model.7 Beyond these individual objects, however, these movements are poorly accounted for by archaeologies, which tend to assume trade as the explanation for foreign objects in far-flung contexts.

2 Horton is also the only archaeologist to have considered the ways that archaeology might reveal a wider web of relationships between India and Africa than that suggested by trade goods alone.8 Drawing on the evidence of the Shanga lion, he suggests the possibility of the movement of artisanal communities around the Indian Ocean and hypothesizes a two-way exchange between India and Africa.9 At the sites of Shanga and Tumbatu, Horton points to some of the more sizeable collections of Indian goods known on the coast. These are mainly ceramics, and he deals largely with the period from the 11th century onwards, when the largest numbers of goods are known. This study offers an important challenge to some of the ways that Indian Ocean connections are understood, which have focused on trade relationships. Here, we build on these suggestions, exploring known assemblages from the period before c. AD 1000 on the East African coast and placing these into the context of what is known from the Indian subcontinent at this time. As Horton points out, these traces are much less tangible than those after AD 1000, when the beginnings of a recognizable diaspora might be seen. Rather than seeing this as solely a problem of recognition, we use this scarcity as a provocation, challenging us as archaeologists to explore other means of connection than simple trade relationships. In fact, the rarity of pre-AD 1000 goods suggests that trade relationships between India and Africa were not significant in economic terms at this time, and we suggest some other explanations for those few objects found. Like Horton, we point to the movement of technologies and knowledge and think through some of the mechanisms for this dispersal.


Trade and the Black Death

Students will explore the diffusion of the Black Plague from Asia to Europe. Students will explain relationships between the Silk Road and the Black Plague.

Biology, Health, Social Studies, World History

Though historically rats have been blamed for the spread of the bubonic plague in the medieval pandemic of the Black Death, it was in fact the humble flea that spread this bacterial infection to humans and animals alike.

Photograph by James L. Stanfield

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Links

Ask students: How is Yersinia pestis (Black Death) transmitted to humans?

  1. Click this link to launch the map.
  2. With the Details button depressed, click the button, Content.
  3. Click the most southerly black pop-up located in Southeast Asia and read the information provided.

 Ask: What were some factors that might have influenced the spread of the plague? [Answer: Rodents, fleas, and densely populated areas]

Help students acquire new information through the map by asking: Where did the 14th century Black Plague spread?

  1. Click the remaining four black pop-ups ( from north to south) in East Asia. Read the information provided.
  2. Have students determine during which time period the deaths due to the plague occured in those five cities. [1320�]
  3. Click the blue “I” Issyk-Kul Lake symbol and read the pop-up. Click the small right arrow to cycle info.
  4. Click the “M” (Kharkhorum) symbol and read the pop-up.
    Ask: Which direction were the Mongols and the plague traveling? [Answer: Westward from the Mongol capital area, through the Issyk-Kul Lake area.]
  5. Click the “K” symbol for the city of Kaffa (Caffa) and read the pop-up.
    Ask: What action did Mongols laying siege to Kaffa take to capture the city? [Answer: They flung infested dead bodies over the wall to spread the plague.]

Have students explore the question Where do you predict Yersina pestis would diffuse from Kaffa?

  1. Turn on the two layers, Maritime Silk Road and the European Shipping Routes.
  2. Click the two layer names (above) to expand the legends.

Ask: How did shipping routes aid in transmitting the plague? [Answer: Infected rats and fleas made way onto ships in contaminated food and supplies. The plague was also transmitted through rat, work animal, and human waste. Ships could efficiently get to other continents as they sailed the seas.]

Have students analyze the problem by asking: How did Yersina pestis reach Europe?

  1. Zoom in and click the “C” symbol for the city of Constantinople and read the pop-up.
  2. Turn on the layer, European Overland Trade Routes.
  3. Click Bookmarks and choose Europe.

Ask: In which direction did Yersinia pestis spread from Constantinople? [Answer: First along the shipping routes to trade ports along the Mediterranean Sea and then overland from the ports into the European interior.]

Have students act on their analysis by asking: How prevelant was the Black Plague in Europe in the mid-1300s?


In the run-up to the COP26 climate change conference scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, The Conversation has prepared a five-part series entitled Oceans 21 examining the history and future of the world’s oceans. This is the first article in the series which looks into ancient Indian Ocean trade networks.

JOHANNESBURG | PRETORIA (IDN) – On many beaches around the Indian Ocean, keen observers may spot bits of broken pottery. Washed smooth by the ocean, these shards are in all likelihood hundreds of years old, from centres of ceramic production like the Middle Eastern Abbasid Caliphate and the Chinese Ming dynasty.

Originally destined for Indian Ocean port cities, this pottery would have been purchased by merchant elites accustomed to eating off fine plates. These traders formed part of vast commercial networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean arena and beyond, from East Africa to Indonesia, the Middle East and China.

These trade networks stretched back thousands of years, powered by the monsoon winds. Reversing direction in different seasons, these winds have long shaped the rhythm of life around the ocean, bringing rain to farmers, filling the sails of dhows and enabling trade between different ecological zones.

The monsoon wind pattern makes the Indian Ocean relatively easy to cross both ways. In the Atlantic, by contrast, winds blow in one direction all year round. That’s why the Indian Ocean is the world’s oldest long-distance trans-oceanic trading arena and is sometimes known as the “cradle of globalisation”.

This cosmopolitan world has long fascinated scholars and has become a vibrant domain of research. Yet this work has had little to say about the sea itself. Its focus is on human movement with the ocean as a passive backdrop. In the age of rising sea levels and climate change, it is important to learn more about the sea from a material and ecological point of view.

Over the past few years, this situation has started to shift. In this article, we survey both the older and the newer forms of Indian Ocean studies, of surface and depth.

Surface histories of the Indian Ocean

Given the long millennia of trade and exchange, one key concern of Indian Ocean studies has been a focus on cultural interaction. Cities on the shores have sustained deep forms of material, intellectual and cultural exchange so that the denizens of these ports had more in common with each other than with their fellows inland.

This early cosmopolitan world has famously been explored in Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, which traces the travels of Abram bin Yiju, a 12th-century Jewish Tunisian merchant based in Cairo and later in Mangalore, India. The book contrasts the rigidity of borders in the 1980s with the relative ease of movement in the late medieval Indian Ocean.

The Swahili coast provides another famed example of Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism. Stretching a thousand miles from Somalia to Mozambique, Swahili society arose from centuries of interaction between Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Centred on coastal city-states like Kilwa, Zanzibar and Lamu, Swahili trade networks reached far inland to present-day Zimbabwe and outward to Persia, India and China. After reaching their height from the 12th to the 15th centuries, these city-states were eventually undone by the Portuguese, who arrived from the early 16th century, seeking to establish a monopoly of the spice trade.

Central to these histories of mobility and exchange in the Indian Ocean has been the spread of Islam across land and sea from the 7 th century CE. By the 14th century, mercantile networks around the Indian Ocean were almost entirely in the hands of Muslim traders.

In their wake came scholars, theologians, pilgrims, clerks, legal pundits and Sufi divines. Together, these groups created shared economic, spiritual and legal frameworks. Sufism, a mystical form of Islam is an important strand in the Indian Ocean histories, as is the centrifugal power of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

European colonisation along the Indian Ocean

When the Portuguese rounded the Cape in the late 15th century, they entered what many have termed a “Muslim lake”, dominated in the north by the Turkish Ottoman, Persian Safavid and Indian Mughal empires. When the Dutch arrived in the Indian Ocean in the 17 th century, “they were able to go from one end of it to another by carrying letters of introduction from Muslim sultans on various shores”.

As Engseng Ho has indicated in The Graves of Tarim, these sprawling networks of Muslim commerce operated without the backing of an army or a state.

The Portuguese, Dutch and English in the Indian Ocean were strange new traders who brought their states with them. They created militarised trading-post empires in the Indian Ocean, following Venetian and Genoese precedents in the Mediterranean, and were wont to do business at the point of a gun.

Early European entrants to the Indian Ocean world initially had to adapt to the trading orders that they encountered. But by the 19th century, European empires dominated. Their military, transport and communication infrastructure intensified the movement of people across the Indian Ocean world.

As Clare Anderson has demonstrated in Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia, much of this mobility was forced and conscripted. It involved slaves, indentured labourers, political exiles and prisoners who were transported between regions. At times, these systems built on existing foundations of labour exploitation. As recent research indicates, South Asian indentured labour was often taken from regions in India where slavery existed. Old and new systems of unfree labour produced an archipelago of prisons, plantations and penal colonies.

As an archive, the Indian Ocean provides a new way of looking at world history, which has previously been dominated by European accounts. The age of European empires is only one tiny sliver of time in a much longer arc. A view from the Indian Ocean unsettles ideas of the relationship between European colonisers and colonised groups.

As historians like Engseng Ho and Sugata Bose have argued, the Indian Ocean world was an arena of competing claims.

The ambitions of British imperialism, for example, were countered by the equally grand visions of Islam. Indeed, the Indian Ocean arena produced a rich repertoire of transoceanic ideologies, including Hindu reformism and pan-Buddhism.

Such ideologies eventually acquired an anti-imperial character which also fed into ideas of Afro-Asian solidarity and non-alignment. These arose from the Bandung Conference in 1955 at which 29 newly independent nations gathered to forge a new path rather than falling in line with either of the rival camps in the emerging Cold War.

In the 21st century, these older alliances have come under pressure as China and India elbow each other for dominance in the Indian Ocean. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative involves massive transport and port infrastructure and aims to extend China’s footprint across much of the Indian Ocean arena. In response, New Delhi has bolstered its economic and military activity in this domain.

Deep histories of the Indian Ocean

While the uniquely well-travelled surface of the Indian Ocean has received much attention, its depths barely register in the cultural or historical imagination. Its waters constitute nearly 20 per cent of the ocean’s total volume, and its deepest point, the Sunda Deep of the Java Trench, lies nearly 8 km below the surface. Yet its seafloor, like much of the world’s oceans, is largely unmapped.

Seafloor features determine weather patterns, fish concentrations and tsunami dynamics. Initial explorations by mining companies revealed mineral-rich deposits on submarine volcanic vents, while new species are continually being discovered.

The deep Indian Ocean is far less studied than the depths of the other oceans, for economic reasons: it is ringed by underdeveloped countries. The Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIEO-2) was launched only in 2015, fifty years after the first. It aims to increase understanding about the oceanographic and biological characteristics of this under-sampled ocean, as well as the ways in which it is changing.

Paying attention to the submarine world is becoming increasingly important in a time of climate change prompted by human activities. The Indian Ocean is warming faster than any of the other oceans, holding more than 70 per cent of all the heat absorbed by the upper ocean since 2003. Indian Ocean islands – the Maldives being a well-known example – are already being submerged by rising global sea levels.

Cyclone patterns are shifting further south and happening more often as a result of the ocean’s rising temperature. The monsoon, which underpinned the Indian Ocean’s shipping networks and the rainfall patterns on its coastlines, is losing its power and predictability.

Deities, spirits and ancestors

While the Indian Ocean’s depths are in many ways opaque, they are not unpopulated in people’s imaginations. The ocean bustles with water deities, djinns, mermaids and ancestral spirits – a mythical submarine world that reflects the cosmopolitanism of its land populations.

In southern Africa, this mix is especially rich: Khoisan/ First Nation water sprites, Muslim djinns introduced by South East Asian slaves, African ancestors, one of whose domains is the ocean, and British imperial ideas about the romance of the sea.

These ideas encounter each other and turn bodies of water into rich sites of memory and history. They have been explored by the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South project. Work by Confidence Joseph, Oupa Sibeko, Mapule Mohulatsi and Ryan Poinasamy explores the literary and artistic imaginations of southern Africa’s creolised waters.

Afrofuturist science fiction is also turning to the deep Indian Ocean. Mohale Mashigo’s Floating Rugs is situated in a submarine community on South Africa’s east coast. Mia Couto’s stories from the Mozambican coastline have long paired myths of mermaids with marine biology. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel The Dragonfly Sea links contemporary Afro-Asian networks to the undersea.

Deep-sea mining

Some exploration of the deep ocean can seem science-fictional but is not.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a branch of the United Nations in operation since 2001 and responsible for parcelling out potential marine mining areas, has granted contracts for mining exploration in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, researchers are discovering an astonishing number of new deep-ocean species on the same sites.

The submarine world has long been plundered for riches. Histories of pearl diving in the Indian Ocean – as in a central scene of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea – are continued in today’s illegal abalone trade. Poachers on the coast of South Africa don scuba gear to harvest abalone to trade with Asian markets, linking the undersea to Indian Ocean criminal underworlds, along the same lines as the ancient trade networks.

At times, these networks are the source of treasure. On the Island of Mozambique, for instance, the shards of blue pottery that were traded around the Indian Ocean are one of the objects of the active treasure hunting trade today. While some of the treasures are sold by dealers in antiquities, others provide crucial evidence for maritime archaeological research. Recently, the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) has discovered slave shipwrecks that provide concrete symbols of the transatlantic slave trade and link it to histories of Indian Ocean slavery and indenture.

The old waterfronts of East African port cities like Mombasa, Zanzibar and Lamu are dominated by buildings with a pure white finish. This present-day architecture echoes a centuries-old tradition of building houses, mosques and tombs from white coral stone and dressed with lime plaster. Made from shells and corals that began their life under the sea, this luminous plaster made port cities visible from afar to incoming vessels.

The ocean’s submarine life and its human histories are always entangled. And now writers, artists and scholars are increasingly drawing attention to their connectedness. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 December 2020]

* Isabel Hofmeyr is Professor of African Literature at the University of Witwatersrand and Charne Lavery is Lecturer and Research Associate at the University of Pretoria. The original version of this article was published on The Conversation – an independent source of news and views sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public – under Creative Commons licence.


What goods were traded in the medieval Indian Ocean? - History

The population of Asia in 1500 was five times as big as that of Western Europe (284 million compared with 57 million), and the ratio was about the same in 1600. It was a very large market with a network of Asian traders operating between East Africa and India, and from Eastern India to Indonesia. East of the straits of Malacca, trade was dominated by China. Indian ships were not sturdy enough to withstand the typhoons of the China sea, and not adequately armed to deal with pirate activity off the China coast (see Chaudhuri, 1982, p. 410).

The Portuguese displaced Asian traders who had supplied spices to Red Sea and Persian Gulf ports for onward sale to Venetian, Genoese and Catalan traders. But this was only a fraction, perhaps a quarter, of Asian trade in one group of commodities. In addition there was trade within Asian waters in textiles, porcelain, precious metals, carpets, perfume, jewellery, horses, timber, salt, raw silk, gold, silver, medicinal herbs and many other commodities.

Hence, the spice trade was not the only trading opportunity for the Portuguese, or for the other later European traders (Dutch, British, French and others) who followed. Silk and porcelain played an increased role, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cotton textiles and tea became very important. There were possibilities of participating in intra–Asian trade as well. In the 1550s to the 1630s this kind of trade between China and Japan was a particularly profitable source of income for Portugal.

Asian merchants were familiar with the seasonal wind patterns and problems of the Indian Ocean, there were experienced pilots, scientific works on astronomy and navigation, and navigational instruments not greatly inferior to those of the Portuguese.

From East Africa to Malacca (on the narrow straits between Sumatra and Malaya), Asian trade was conducted by merchant communities which operated without armed vessels or significant interference from governments. Although Southern India, where the Portuguese started their Asian trade, was ruled by the Empire of Vijayanagar, conditions in coastal trade were set by rulers of much smaller political units, who derived income by offering protection and marketing opportunities to traders. The income of the rulers of Vijayanagar and later the Moghul Empire was derived from land taxes, and they had no significant financial interest in foreign trade activities. In China and Japan the situation was different.

Asian merchants operated in mutually interactive community networks with ethnic, religious, family or linguistic ties and an opportunistic concentration on profit. In this respect their trading habits were not very different from those of Venetians or of Jewish traders in the Arab world of the Mediterranean. In Western Asia and the Middle East merchants were generally Arabs and Muslims, but further east they included “Gujarati vaniyas, Tamil and Telugu Chettis, Syrian Christians from Southwestern India, Chinese from Fukien and neighbouring provinces”. If they paid for protection and market access, they found that they were free to trade. If the protection became too expensive they usually had some leeway for moving elsewhere.

The Portuguese trading network was different in two respects. It consisted of a string of strongly fortified bases linked by a fleet of armed ships, so market forces were modified by coercion. Unlike the Asian trading communities or in the European trading companies which penetrated Asia at a later date, Portugal was involved in religious evangelism.

The headquarters of the Portuguese trading empire was established in 1510 at the captured Arab port of Goa, an island harbour halfway up the west Indian coast which was a Portuguese colony for nearly 460 years. It was the residence of the Portuguese Viceroy, and from 1542 it was the headquarters of the Jesuit order for all its operations in Asia. Malacca, the port which controlled trade and shipping from India to Indonesia and China, was captured in 1511 and kept until 1641 when it was taken by the Dutch. A base was established at Jaffna in Sri Lanka for trade in cinnamon. Most Portuguese shipments of pepper and ginger originated from the Malabar coast of India, but for higher value spices they obtained a base at Ternate in the Moluccas (between Celebes and New Guinea) for trade in cloves, nutmeg and mace.


Deep sea mining

Some exploration of the deep ocean can seem science-fictional, but isn’t.

The International Seabed Authority, a branch of the United Nations in operation since 2001 and responsible for parcelling out potential marine mining areas, has granted contracts for mining exploration in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, researchers are discovering an astonishing number of new deep ocean species on the same sites.

Underwater pearl farm. GettyImages

The submarine world has long been plundered for riches. Histories of pearl diving in the Indian Ocean – as in a central scene of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea – are continued in today’s illegal abalone trade. Poachers on the coast of South Africa don scuba gear to harvest abalone to trade with Asian markets, linking the undersea to Indian Ocean criminal underworlds, along the same lines as the ancient trade networks.

At times these networks are the source of treasure. On the Island of Mozambique, for instance, the shards of blue pottery that were traded around the Indian Ocean are one of the objects of the active treasure hunting trade today. While some of the treasures are sold by dealers in antiquities, others provide crucial evidence for maritime archaeological research. Recently, the Slave Wrecks Project has discovered slave shipwrecks that provide concrete symbols of the transatlantic slave trade and link it to histories of Indian Ocean slavery and indenture.

The old waterfronts of East African port cities like Mombasa, Zanzibar and Lamu are dominated by buildings with a pure white finish. This present-day architecture echoes a centuries-old tradition of building houses, mosques and tombs from white coral stone and dressed with lime plaster. Made from shells and corals that began their life under the sea, this luminous plaster made port cities visible from afar to incoming vessels.

The ocean’s submarine life and its human histories are always entangled. And now writers, artists and scholars are increasingly drawing attention to their connectedness.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Original article.


These included Kilwa, Sofala, Mombasa, Malindi, and others. The city-states traded with inland kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe to obtain gold, ivory, and iron. These materials were then sold to places like India, Southeast Asia, and China. These were Africa’s exports in the Indian Ocean Trade.

Root Causes of Indian Ocean Trade In fact, knowledge of monsoon winds (when they blew at what times) was huge in making Indian Ocean trade happen. Once sailors could utilize where the monsoons were blowing at what times, they could make those winds blow their sails to wherever they wanted to go!


What Was the Indian Ocean Trade Network?

The Indian Ocean trade network was a system of maritime trade routes that connected China, India, Thailand, the Indonesian and Malaysian islands, East Africa and Arabia. It dates back at least to the third century B.C. and involved ancient empires like the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty.

Along this network, triangle-sailed dhows took advantage of seasonal monsoon winds to navigate well-traveled trade routes, carrying silk from China to Rome and Arabia and ivory from Africa to China. With the domestication of the camel, the network spread inland throughout Persia and India, and it connected with the European Silk Route to bring goods from East Asia to the entire western world.

In addition to goods, religions and ways of thought traveled along the network. Islam spread to Indonesia, East Africa and India in this manner, while Buddhist thought and Confucian philosophy was carried to Europe. When piracy rose up along the coast and in the small, densely-jungled islands separating the Indian and Pacific Oceans, China developed a strong anti-piracy navy to protect its trade.

Europeans entered and later dominated these trade routes after Vasco da Gama's navigation of the African Cape of Good Hope. When the Portuguese found they had little the Asians and Africans were interested in trading, they turned to conquest and piracy. The Dutch East India Company entered the Indian Ocean shortly thereafter and followed a similar pattern of conquest and bullying. Over time, the Europeans largely took over these trade routes and established maritime empires.


Additional Layers are extra activities you can do or tangents you can take off on. You will find them in the sidebars of each Layers of Learning unit. They are optional, so just choose what interests you.

Writer’s Notebook

Pirates were all over the Indian Ocean, but there were certain places that were especially favorable to pirates. If you were a pirate what would you look for in a good hideout or base of operations?

Write about it in your Writing Journal.

Additional Layer

Learn about the dhow boats used by the Arabs.

Additional Layer

Learn about the slave trade of east Africa. This slave trade had been going on since ancient times and was mostly run by the Arabs. East coast Africans would capture slaves from the interior and then sell them to Arabs who sold them throughout the Muslim world and sometimes in Europe.


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