Indian Ocean Trade Research Paper

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The seas, gulfs, and straits of the Indian Ocean have been areas of intense trading activity from the beginning of human seafaring. The unique nature of its wind patterns enabled the development of maritime trading, linking it to the Atlantic, the South China Sea, and the Pacific. Today the Indian Ocean incorporates those regions that together trade in the bulk of the global oil, which has always been a maritime commodity.

The physical features of the Indian Ocean have fundamentally shaped the development of trading patterns in the region throughout history. Historians offer different perspectives on the chronology and regional boundaries of Indian Ocean trade depending on their vantage points, but the basic elements of states and empires, navigation and mapping, goods and services, and transportation technologies need to be taken into account in any long-range analysis of trading patterns in the Indian Ocean.

Geography and Climate of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is the site of the most ancient and complex maritime migrations and trading networks of all Earth’s oceans. Covering an area of over 73.4 million square kilometers, extending approximately 6,400 kilometers at the equator and more than 9,900 kilometers at its widest point from the tip of southern Africa to the west coast of Australia, the Indian Ocean is the smallest of the three major global oceans. It is bounded on the east by Africa, on the north by Asia, on the west by Australia and on the south by Antarctica. Twenty-six continental nations have coastlines with access to the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is home to four island nations and three archipelagic nations. It has more major rivers flowing into its waters than any other ocean, and these river outlets have been essential to the ebb and flow of trading networks. The Zambezi and Limpopo enter the ocean in Mozambique; at the border region of Iraq and Iran, the Tigris and the Euphrates meet at the confluence of the Shatt al Arab near the coast; in Pakistan the Indus meets the ocean; and on its path through India the Ganges meets the Brahmaputra to create the delta region of Bangladesh. The Irrawaddy flows through the length of Myanmar (Burma) to the waters where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea. This complex network of rivers and coastal regions that connect inland to ocean have been as essential to trade as the ocean itself.

The seas, gulfs, and straits of the Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Strait of Malacca, have been areas of intense trading activity from the beginning of human seafaring. But it is the unique nature of the Indian Ocean wind patterns that have enabled the development of maritime trading patterns, and linking it to the Atlantic in the west and the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean in the east. Although the advent of air traffic has altered the global networks of trade, the complexities of interaction in the Indian Ocean have not diminished. The trading patterns of the Indian Ocean link the most populous regions in the world. Moreover, the Indian Ocean incorporates those regions that together constitute the bulk of the global oil trade, which has always been a maritime commodity.

The earliest maritime technologies were based on sailing craft that by nature depended on the vagaries of wind patterns and ocean currents that carried the vessels across the sea. Absolutely basic to any long-term historical analysis of the Indian Ocean is a consideration of the monsoon winds. The Indian Ocean is unique in having a seasonal pattern of winds that facilitate transoceanic shipping. The monsoons are caused by differences in the temperature of air above land and sea, which generate wind that blows from cold to hot regions. In the Indian Ocean the biannual monsoons blow from the south and west during April through August, reversing direction between December and March. Seasonal patterns of high and low rainfall correspond with these winds to varying degrees outside the equatorial regions, although in peripheral areas the impact on rainfall is minimal. The word monsoon derives from an Arabic word, mausim, and the Arabs, Indians, and Persians called the Indian Ocean area “the land below the winds” in recognition of the importance of these wind patterns.

The second major wind pattern is the trade winds of the southern Indian Ocean that occur between latitudes 10? and 30? south and that blow consistently from the southeast. This trade route directly across the breadth of the Indian Ocean was not commonly used before seventeenth-century European traders entered these waters from the Atlantic.

Early Mariners

The Indian Ocean was probably the first ocean traversed by mariners. Technologies of seafaring developed in the first human coastal settlements, whose inhabitants relied partly on fish for their subsistence. Various delta and coast-hugging maritime networks existed from the earliest known times. The regional networks of the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, the East African coast, the coasts of South Asia, and in the archipelagic regions of Southeast Asia developed their own patterns of maritime trade and technology.

The Egyptians and Mesopotamian civilizations traded along the coastal networks of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf over 7,000 years ago, but their maritime voyages did not extend into the open ocean. Inland trade was far more extensive than maritime trade during this early period.

Southeast Asian seafaring evolved as people migrated from the mainland and established the first human settlements in the vast Indonesian archipelago. Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Austronesian-speaking Malayo-Polynesian mariners from Indonesia crossed the Indian Ocean in their single- and double-hulled canoe outriggers during the first millennium BCE. These ships were stable and fast enough for transoceanic voyages, and the mariners used their knowledge of ocean currents, clouds, stars, and the habits of birds and fish to find their way across the oceans. While these voyages led to permanent settlement, it is probable that the initial incentive was trade.

During this period, oceanic trading links developed between the Persian Gulf societies and those on the northern coast of India. By the time an anonymous Greco-Egyptian trader wrote the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (c. 50 CE) as a guide to trade with the port polities along the length of the East African and South Asian coasts, these trading network was already well established. A myriad variety of luxury goods, including spices, aromatic woods, cloth, ceramics, precious metals, and currency, as well as the forced migration of slaves, constituted some of the items of trade in these Indian Ocean networks.

The Transmission of Religions

Cultural influence accompanied trade in the Indian Ocean, but the region has always been cosmopolitan rather than unified. In the first centuries of the common era, Hindu and Buddhist traders and religious specialists were invited to settle in Southeast Asian polities. The first large-scale states of Southeast Asia adopted and adapted Hindu and Buddhist cultural practices as part of their state formation. One such state was the Srivijaya maritime empire on Sumatra. From its emergence in the seventh century to its decline in the thirteenth, the Srivijaya Empire prospered because of its control of the Malay Peninsula and the Strait of Malacca that linked Asia to China by sea.

From around 1300, transoceanic trading links between the Middle East and South Asia and thence to Southeast Asia helped spread Islam in the Indian Ocean. The foundation of the state of Melaka on the Malay Peninsula and the conversion of its ruler to Islam both occurred around 1400; Melaka became one of the richest and most cosmopolitan trading entrepots in the world before its conquest by the Portuguese in 1511. The growth of Melaka and the spread of its influence mark the beginning of the spread of Islam that occurred in parts of the coastal mainland and much of insular Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the Indian Ocean the East African Swahili coastal civilizations were expanding, and from the twelfth century onwards they too were converting to Islam.

The First Traders from Outside

The voyages of the Chinese treasure fleet between 1405 and 1433 under the command of Zheng He signal a change in the trading patterns of the Indian Ocean. Zheng He’s was the first major fleet that had originated in other oceans to make its way into the networks of the Indian Ocean. The size of the Chinese fleet was unprecedented. Over three hundred large trading vessels and a hundred supply ships manned by some 28,000 sailors and soldiers crossed the Indian Ocean for the purposes of trade and diplomacy. The dimensions and capacities of the largest Chinese junks dwarfed the most advanced European, African, and other Asian shipping technology at the time. Although the direct maritime involvement of China in the Indian Ocean ended with Zheng He, it presaged the arrival of the Portuguese, who made their Indian Ocean debut with the 1497–1499 voyage of Vasco da Gama.

Despite the Chinese and Portuguese forays into the Indian Ocean, Muslim traders of all nations were the major mariners throughout the Indian Ocean during this period. Around 1490, Ahmad Ibn Majid wrote the Fawai’d, a famous nautical manual that included detailed astronomical instructions. Over the course of the sixteenth century and through to the end of the eighteenth century, improved maritime technologies and the expansion of trading networks shifted the emphasis from small-scale cargoes of various luxury goods toward bulk trade in spices and other commodities. The increasing pilgrimage trade that brought Muslims from throughout the Indian Ocean region to Mecca was also a significant component of trading networks.

Historians still argue about the significance of European involvement in the Indian Ocean in the early modern period. It is probable the majority of ordinary people’s daily lives in Indian Ocean societies changed minimally, if at all. The entrance of European traders into the region did not cause a breakdown of the complex webs of trading networks. Trade with China through these networks was for centuries more significant than trade with Europe.

The Growth of European Influence

The era of the European chartered companies, which were founded in the seventeenth century, did alter the scope of trading networks by bringing Indian Ocean polities into direct maritime contact with Europe and the Atlantic world. Europeans voyagers had initially come by sea to the Indian Ocean as a consequence of their search for a way to circumvent overland trade routes to the fabled Spice Islands. Once they encountered the rich and varied maritime trade of the Indian Ocean, however, they inserted themselves, often through force, into all the major networks in the region. Indigenous trade and shipping did not disappear but was disrupted with the rapid expansion of commercial capitalism in the region. Although the spices provided the initial impetus for trade, the major commodities that stimulated this commercial revolution were cotton and textiles from India. The European demand for Chinese tea stimulated the production of opium in South Asia: opium was traded in Southeast Asia for the silver and pepper that was traded in China for the purchase of tea.

European weapons technology, one of the few commodities from Europe that was in demand in the Indian Ocean region, altered the dynamics of state formation and conflict. In Southeast Asia, the increasing presence of Portuguese, Dutch, and English trading posts and colonies, established through conquest and diplomacy, fractured many of the existing maritime and territorial empires, which then reconfigured in smaller-scale polities. This era laid the groundwork for direct European colonization and strengthened imperialist networks that introduced changes in crop production, raw-materials extraction, and commodities production throughout the region. The overall volume of trade increased dramatically, though it continued to be linked to trade with China.

Indigenous shipping was essential to local and regional trade, and new transoceanic trading networks, controlled by European ships, were partly crewed by sailors from all over the Indian Ocean. But indigenous shipping was confined to the Indian Ocean networks. No African, Middle Eastern, or Asian vessels rounded the western edge of the Indian to trade directly with West Africa or Europe.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the scope and scale of Indian Ocean trade had changed dramatically. The Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa made it easier for European shipping to access the Indian Ocean from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. The Cape became part of an entirely new southwestern Indian Ocean regional trading network in which one of the major commodities was slaves.

Plantations and the Expansion of Global Capitalism

Much of the East African coast and the islands of Pemba and Zanzibar came under the rule of the Omani maritime empire around the beginning of the nineteenth century, creating a western Indian Ocean trading network from East Africa to the Middle East and South Asia largely based on ivory, cloves from clove plantations, and slaves. The islands of Madagascar and Mauritius became European slave-plantation colonies, while plantation agriculture grew throughout the region. Tea from India, coffee from Indonesia, and sugar from many Indian Ocean societies became three of the most significant plantation crops during this time.

In the late eighteenth century, the British had established convict colonies on the coast of Australia. This added another component to trade and forced migration in the Indian Ocean and extended European conquest and colonization to the eastern periphery of the region. In the nineteenth century direct colonization and trade between Europe and Indian Ocean societies intensified. Both South Africa and Australia became dominated by European settlers. Societies in the region became increasingly integrated into, dependent upon, and marginalized by, the expansion of the global capitalism. As the industrial revolution stimulated demand for raw products from around the region, markets were created for European goods, and indigenous production that competed with them was forcibly disrupted. Colonial rubber plantations were established in the East Indies, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Insatiable demands for labor worldwide also created a huge international market for workers that created new networks in the Indian Ocean. While slaves initially provided the main source of labor, gradual emancipation during the course of the nineteenth century stimulated indentured servitude. India in particular became a major source of indentured workers, who were contracted all over the world.

New Patterns in the Indian Ocean Region

The development of European empires and colonies shifted the pattern of major ports and polities in the Indian Ocean over the long term. The earliest major example of this was the displacement of Melaka, which declined rapidly after Portuguese and then Dutch conquest. The Dutch purposefully diverted trade from Melaka to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on the island of Java from the mid-sixteenth century. The coastal or near-coastal cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Madras, and Calcutta became major trading bases for the British in South Asia, while the older inland cities of Delhi in India, Kandy in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), and Jogjakarta in Java declined in importance. The intensification of coastal commerce also shifted the emphasis of indigenous state formation, which had formerly been concentrated inland along rivers, toward the coast.

European colonization from the late eighteenth century consolidated this trend with the establishment of port cities such as Penang and Singapore in Southeast Asia, which were entirely the product of British imperialism. Rangoon (now Yangon) became the center of trade in Burma (now Myanmar) under the British, displacing the ancient riceproducing hinterland cities. In East and southern Africa, new ports such as Durban and Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) were founded, while older ports, including Dar es Salaam (in present-day Tanzania) and Mombasa (in Kenya), came under European control.

Technological Advances and Changes

Changes in maritime technology during the nineteenth century profoundly altered the dimensions of Indian Ocean trading networks. Wooden-hulled ships gave way to iron-hulled ones, but more important was the gradual displacement of the great sailing vessels by steamships that were less dependent on the wind patterns of the Indian Ocean and that reduced the time of voyages. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 allowed direct maritime access from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, creating an entirely new network of trade in the region. Steamships had stimulated the demand for coal worldwide, and new mining industries grew up in places like South Africa and Australia. Improved ship design and the development of canning and refrigeration from the late nineteenth century onward transformed the fishing industry in the Indian Ocean from an indigenous and regional trade into an international trade that was part of the global commercial trading networks.

The displacement of steam by fuel derived from oil in the early twentieth century thrust the oil-producing countries of the Indian Ocean into global prominence. By the late twentieth century it also integrated the southernmost territory, Antarctica, into Indian Ocean networks through exploration and possession, if not direct exploitation. The trade in oil is largely a maritime trade and therefore had an effect on the evolution of shipping technology. Purpose-built oil tankers, as well as bulk and oil carriers, currently constitute the largest proportion of shipping vessels in the world. The size and capacity of oil tankers has expanded exponentially since the 1950s, from about 46,000 to 555,000 metric tons.

The advances in airplane technology from the mid-twentieth century, initially stimulated by the intensification of global warfare, have been one of the major motors of globalization. The trading and migration networks of the Indian Ocean have expanded to include air routes. Airplanes have made possible networks that are independent of geographical or oceanic impediments, and the volume of both cargo and passenger air traffic in the Indian Ocean continues to grow rapidly. Airplanes enable people to travel faster and further than any other form of transport, stimulating migration and tourism as major economic factors throughout the Indian Ocean. Although indigenous shipping technology has not entirely disappeared in the Indian Ocean, it has been marginalized by these transportation innovations.

From the End of World War II to the Present

By the end of the twentieth century all the nations of the Indian Ocean had gained independence from colonial rule. World War II was an important stimulus to this trend and marks a turning point in the region. Britain and the Netherlands were focused on the European war at the expense of their colonies. Communication between Europe and the Indian Ocean was disrupted, while in Southeast Asia the expansion of the Japanese Empire included the conquest of Singapore, Indonesia, and Burma, and the replacement of colonial regimes by nationalists. Indian nationalists demanded independence; the result was the partition of India into the independent nations of India and Pakistan in 1947, followed in 1971 by the creation of Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan. African colonies gained independence by the 1970s.

The Cold War changed the geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean nations, bringing the United States and the Soviet Union into Indian Ocean politics. The Middle East oil-producing states became a global focal point, and nationalist governments were closely monitored. Global geopolitical networks such as the nonaligned movement, which was inaugurated in Indonesia in 1955, attempted to establish an alternative to Cold War allegiances for newly independent states. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was founded in Baghdad in 1960 as a global organization for oil-producing countries that had hitherto not benefited from the profits of their resources. Middle Eastern states and Indonesia were founding members. Despite the existence of those movements and organizations, the states of the Indian Ocean have not created their own regional body. African States belong to the African Union, formed in 2002 from the dissolution of the Organization of African Unity (1963–2002). Southeast Asian states belong to the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), which was established in 1967. Processes of globalization continue to accelerate, and Indian Ocean trading networks can in most cases be incorporated into this trend.


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