Indian Ocean as rich archive of history — above and below the water line

This article is part of a series on oceans being co-ordinated across all The Conversation sites. This is an introductory article on the Indian Ocean. Similar essays will be featured on the other oceans of the world. These essays are longer than usual.


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’s 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.

by - Isabel Hofmeyr and Charne Lavery.


For full essay read, click DownToEarth.