Indian Ocean Trade

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Indian Ocean Trade

Trade in the Indian Ocean dates back to the time of classical antiquity, if not earlier. Though there are archaeological records attesting to the fact that Indian Ocean societies had merchants shuttling between them before the time of Christ, one of the first reliable written records is the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a geographic primer written by a Greek in Egypt in the first century c.e. Arab geographers wrote copiously about trade movements in the precolonial age, and Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan jurist, left a detailed record of his own Indian Ocean wanderings on the wings of regional commerce in the early fourteenth century. By the early fifteenth century, a Chinese traveler, Zheng He, was also traversing this ocean, only at the head of a huge treasure fleet sent by a curious Ming emperor, Zheng. He brought a giraffe from East Africa back to China on one of his ships; this augured the more concerted and rigorous economic exchanges that would commence with the dawn of the colonial age in the following century.


The Southeast Asian littoral of the Indian Ocean underwent a wide variety of transitions during and after the sixteenth century that were directly caused by the collision of European and indigenous worlds. The ongoing results of this interface, however, were gradual in nature: hegemony did not arrive with the first Portuguese ships at Melaka in 1511, nor did European political and commercial power begin to truly build in much of the region until nearly 350 years later. Set against this mosaic of intrusion were local patterns of action, agency, and response. Heightened royal absolutism in the early years of contact, marked by indigenous territorial expansion, administrative centralization, and the commercial monopolies of ruling classes, gradually gave way to subsumation and finally incorporation as the European presence solidified. Yet what remains to be explained in the unfolding of these processes is the actual place of Western trade as a stimulus for systemic historical change. What were the long-term results of contact, from economic, political, and modes-of-production vantages?

In the early modern age, Southeast Asia's population of 20 million traded heavily amongst themselves, mostly in the larger bulk items of commerce such as rice, dried fish, and salt. Foreign goods that entered the nexus of trade in the early European contact period fit into local systems of culture and exchange, with alcohol circulating alongside native arrack, tobacco alongside betel, and with Chinese porcelain being incorporated into existing dowry and burial rituals throughout much of Southeast Asia. The arrival of European ships accelerated the incorporation of a range of other goods into the region, however, such as textiles and metals.

Most pre-industrial age households in Southeast Asia aimed to be at least partially self-sufficient in cloth production, but with increased shipments of textiles from the Coromandel coasts of Southeastern India (via East India Company and country-trade ships) and still higher exports later from British India, foreign cloth became the largest item of luxury expenditure in the region. This was generally true from Sumatra to what is now Malaysia, from Siam up into Burma. Extensive cloth imports had enormous repercussions on Southeast Asian textile industries, which on the much smaller village-scale could produce only on commissioned orders as hedges against inadequate food supply.

The increased importation of metals also brought about widespread change, as substances like iron and bronze—used first for war, and second for agriculture—penetrated local communities in large quantities for the first time. Such a trade, however, was also a double-edged sword for Europeans: fantastic in its potential for profit, but also deadly if turned against Westerners themselves. This indeed eventually happened throughout Southeast Asia's Indian Ocean rim: in Burma (in the 1820s, 1850s, and 1880s), on the Malay Peninsula throughout the nineteenth century, and particularly in Sumatra, as the Dutch began their slow crawl up that enormous island culminating in the Aceh War of 1873. Commerce could phase into resistance in this way, and this certainly happened in parts of Southeast Asia throughout the nineteenth century.


In South Asia, many of these patterns were echoed and were also different at the same time. The sixteenth century, which older historiographical literature has portrayed as a cataclysmic epoch of Portuguese arrival (with the consequent fire and sword), is in modern times interpreted by scholars to have been much less than that. Though the Iberians were certainly aggressive after appearing off the coasts of Western India in 1498, overall patterns of India's trade and the mechanisms therein did not universally change during this century. While the Portuguese erected their cartaz (pass) system the cost to local traders was sometimes minimal. While many Indians did pay the passage fees, those in areas under weaker Portuguese surveillance and policing simply avoided it altogether. The Zamorins of Calicut and the Rajas of Cochin, Cannanore, and Quilon (all on the Malabar coast), for example, continued to trade effectively, incorporating themselves under the umbrella of Portuguese protection when they had to, but they also ignored the Portuguese at other times and in other places.

It was only with the arrival of the seventeenth century, and the far more organized Dutch and British concerns, that the balance of Indian commerce began to change. Yet even here such change often benefited Indian trade instead of crippling it, as banians and other brokers took advantage of new opportunities. Though historians need to be mindful of the available sources, the records actually seem to indicate that the arrival of Northern Europeans initially served as a boon for indigenous commerce, providing new capital, shipping, navigational technology, and marketing, all for Indians to use. Thus Gujarati trade extended across the Indian Ocean as far away as Manila in the 1660s, using British ships and navigation routes while Gujarati capital funded the voyages. The diversity of trade and its actors stood out in this period—by region, religion, and linguistic group—as well as by occupation, as when English pilots sailed Tamil and Bengali ships.

The eighteenth century pushed change in a new direction, which from the standpoint of Indian choices was a negative one. Although European trade did not initially hurt most Indian merchants, Indian shippers suffered a different fate: as more and more of the carrying trade was monopolized by foreign vessels, India's fleets dwindled, shrinking in competition with the new so-called "country traders." It was this special-interest bloc, diverse in its own right, that pushed the once grand Gujarati fleets off the international trade routes, and into the more minor, subsidiary role of small coastal carriers. Yet it was also these Anglo/Indian country traders—some of whom worked for the East India Company, others of whom were free agents—who began to radically alter what the great Indian historian Ashin Das Gupta has called the "strange Mughal mix of despotism, traditional rights, and equally-traditional freedoms" that was the prevailing system of trade and production in the rural Indian countryside. This involved a system of relationships that transited from port merchants to brokers, from subbrokers to headmen, and from weavers to growers throughout rural South Asia. The Industrial Revolution, with its Dickensian factories and the new importance of steam-powered engines, brought the Indian Ocean closer to Europe than it had ever been before. The numbers and carrying capacities of European ships heading south to this arena to trade rose year after year. By the nineteenth century, this entire system was under stress by the tectonic pressures of Immanel Wallerstein's burgeoning world system.


East Africa's coast was an important site of growing Western influence on Indian Ocean trade and production during the colonial age. Here, the salient issues were analogous to patterns elsewhere along the Indian Ocean Rim: change in the coastal population centers such as Kilwa, Mombasa, Malindi, and Mogadishu; the incorporation of increasingly important hinterlands; and the movements of local peoples, whether these were merchants, banians, or slaves.

Several major trends can be identified as being of primary importance among these phenomena for the East African case, however. Perhaps first and foremost was the rise of Zanzibar, which became an Omani outpost at the end of the seventeenth century and gradually developed into a commercial empire on its own accord. This vault to prominence was achieved by mercantilist means, but the Zanzibari "empire," once established, underwent fundamental structural changes over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This process, as related both by indigenous accounts such as the Ancient History of Dar es-Salaam, and period English documents, was inherently linked to Zanzibar's relations with British India. In greater perspective, these developments were also tied to the evolving world of global capitalism in general, and to the changing institution of slavery in particular.

The long, extended coastline of East Africa was an arena of constant warfare and turmoil in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More than elsewhere along the rim of the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese presence here proved to be not only fundamentally destabilizing, but part of a century-long pattern of violence and reprisal as different actors warred for the riches of coastal trade. Omani Arabs were involved in this contest, as were the Portuguese themselves and African communities on the coast. Initially, Fort Jesus at Mombasa was the focal point of these struggles, and good contemporary records (both eyewitness accounts and archaeological remains) attest to the ferocity of assaults on this structure from all parties. Yet by 1698–1699, it was the unobtrusive Omani station at Zanzibar that was emerging as an important new factor in regional trade and diplomacy. The small port town's influence steadily grew as the seventeenth folded into the eighteenth century only a year later.

As Zanzibar became more economically and politically incorporated into Indian Ocean circuits of exchange, its basic productive and social relations changed to accommodate new international realities. Instead of trading on its own behalf, the Zanzibari polity became a "conveyor belt" between African goods and markets and the industrializing West. Dhows and caravans that had once been utilized for predominantly mercantilist purposes were now directed toward different ends: the purchase of slaves, for instance, to populate clove and food-production plantations under Zanzibari rule, and the transit of ivory, which fetched high prices in Europe and America.

Such changes in the nature of the empire, of course, also had their reverberations on the peoples of the mainland, as weaker polities were depopulated and stronger ones were reoriented to provide desired primary materials, such as ivory and gum copal. Yet even in the metropole itself (which in this case was Zanzibar) vis-à-vis its own East African hinterland, changes rearranged the existing social fabric such that new hierarchies developed. Indians, for example, who were important traders under the old mercantilist state, were given vast new advantages by their British associations, clearly to the detriment of ethnically Arab merchants.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Omani rulers of Zanzibar were so dependent on the British military to maintain tribal stability in Oman itself, as well as on the capital that British Indians brought from the Raj, that they could do little to preclude these changes from happening. In 1862 Oman and Zanzibar were formally split in order that Britain might better control both, and in 1890 Zanzibar was named a British Protectorate.

Trade in the Indian Ocean in the early twentieth century, the twilight of European rule, evinced certain continuities and cleavages with this longue duree past. Commodities and the merchants who moved them continued to circulate around the rim of the ocean, often in far greater quantities (for cloves and ivory, for example) than in the past. Other lines of commerce, such as the slave trade, were discontinued in the previous century but continued in altered forms with the movement of huge numbers of indentured laborers, often from India to East Africa and Southeast Asia. The rise of independent nation-states all along the shores of the Indian Ocean, after two World Wars and a great depression, gave impetus to age-old patterns of trade to be continued, only now under the auspices of indigenous rule. In some ways, this brought the history of commerce in this great maritime space, centuries if not millennia old, full circle after the passing of the colonial age.


In 1593 the Portuguese began construction of Fort Jesus to guard the Old Port of Mombasa, Kenya, a critical outpost securing their trade route to India and their territories in East Africa. Built on the Island of Mombasa, Fort Jesus was designed by the Italian architect Jao Batisto Cairato and, when viewed from the air, resembles the shape of a man. Now housing a museum, the fort is considered one of the finest remaining examples of Portuguese colonial fortifications. Prior to Fort Jesus, the Portuguese based their East African coastal operations at Malindi, north of Mombasa. Following several attacks by the Turks, however, the Portuguese decided to move their primary coastal trading center south to Mombasa Island, which provided a better natural defense. While the site proved ideal for a fortress, control of Fort Jesus nonetheless changed hands nine times between 1631 and 1875, with the Portuguese and various Arab sultans vying for control. In 1875 the British took control of the fort; they kept possession of the outpost, which they used as a prison, until Kenyan independence in 1963.

see also Bullion Trade, South and Southeast Asia; Cities and Towns in the Americas; India, Imperial; Malaysia, British, 1874–1957.


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Indian Ocean Trade

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