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 is 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 7th 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 a 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.
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 17th century, “they were able to go from one end of it to another by carrying letters of introduction from Muslim sultans on various shores”.