The Maldives form the central part of an underwater mountain range in the center of the Indian Ocean, creating a crossroads for seafaring, migration, trade, and warfare. Because of this remote yet strategic location, the Maldives became either a disastrous hurdle, a convenient stopover, or a promising stepping stone in the Indian Ocean—and a favorable residence for a small, self-contained, ocean-foraging and seafaring people. The Maldives are among the few central and western Indian Ocean islands that were already populated, long before the colonial period. The archipelago is presumed to have been settled some 2,500 years ago. Dravidian, Sinhalese Buddhist, and Arab Muslim influences formed the unique cultural identity of the preindustrial Dhivehin (Maldivians). Throughout the historic eras, the crossroads position of the Maldives becomes conspicuous at particular junctures. Three commodities exported by the Dhivehin were of particular significance in the global economy and positioned the islands at various historical crossroads: coco-de-mer, coir, and cowries.
Ptolemy’s Geography provides the earliest western reference to the archipelago. Ibn Battuta, who served as the royal judge, is a renowned representative of the Arab trade and Muslim religious networks that had a lasting effect on the shape of the island kingdom. The most comprehensive accounts of the colonial era are provided by the shipwrecked François Pyrard, from the early 17th century, and by H. C. P Bell, between 1879 and 1922.
The Maldives have ethnic and linguistic ties to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and were politically and economically closely connected to this neighbor. In 1887 the archipelago officially became a British protectorate, gaining its independence in 1965. The eradication of major diseases paved the way for the advent of the tourism industry in the 1970s. Since the late 1990s, the molecular approach to population movements in the Indian Ocean has provided new insights into the cultural admixtures that contribute to the genetic mosaic of the Dhivehin.
Edward A. Alpers
Connections between India and Africa have existed for thousands of years, with the intensity of linkages varying over time. The earliest known relations involve the anonymous exchange of food crops and domestic livestock, which date to the second millennium
The consolidation of a British Empire in the Indian Ocean intensified these relations, giving rise to the movement of migrant labor to both South Africa and the East African Protectorate (eventually Kenya Colony). During the high colonial period an Indian merchant class developed from Ethiopia to South Africa. Indian nationalism played out in various ways in South Africa, Tanganyika, and Kenya. In turn, African nationalism and independence had its own reciprocal, sometimes violent, impact on Indians residing in East Africa, while Afrikaner nationalism and the creation of formal apartheid differentially affected Indians and Africans in South Africa. In the post-colonial era, state relations between India and the independent states of Africa focused on questions of both national and human development. Finally, Indian residents continue to seek their place in independent Africa, while African students in India face prejudice there.
A. C. S. Peacock
With its conquest of the Arab lands in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire (1300–1923) came to control some of the major entrepots of the Indian Ocean trade in the west. This expansion, however, also brought the Ottomans into confrontation with the Portuguese, who were seeking to establish a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. In the first half of the 16th century, Ottoman involvement was limited to the western half of the Indian Ocean, but in the later 16th century, the Southeast Asian sultanate of Aceh forged an alliance with the Ottomans, which, if short-lived in practice, was to attain considerable symbolic importance in later times. Ottoman involvement in the Indian Ocean resumed in the 19th century, again as a reaction to European colonial activities. In the meantime, both commercial and religious links, in particular the hajj, meant that the Ottomans had a prominent role in the Indian Ocean despite only controlling limited littoral territories.
Sebastian R. Prange
Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.
Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified.
The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan.
In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. This section presents statistics from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.
Navigation played a major role in the integration of East Asian polities and economies prior to and during the arrival of European traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. That arrival stimulated an increase in the volume of intra-regional trade in East Asia as Chinese merchants organized exports on a large scale to meet European demand, yet the history of the production of nautical charts in China has been little studied, due in no small part to the poor survival of sea charts and other documentation. The most important new addition to maritime charting in the past decade is the rediscovery of the Selden Map in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This map of navigation routes throughout East Asia is unprecedented, and may be seen as marking the beginning of the transformation of Chinese cartography under the influence of European mapping techniques.
Himanshu Prabha Ray
The interface between the sea and the land and the communities that have historically traversed the Indian Ocean form the focus of this article. Maritime communities have been sustained by a variety of occupations associated with the sea, such as fishing and harvesting other marine resources, pearling, salt making, sailing, trade, shipbuilding, piracy, and more. The communities of the sea negotiate land-based issues through a variety of strategies, which are evident in the archaeological record. Fishing as an adaptation dates to the prehistoric period, and fish remains have been found in abundance at several coastal prosites dating from the 5th millennium
A significant factor facilitating the integrative potential of these communities was their large cargo-carrying vessels, which not only facilitated transformation of the local settlements into centers of commerce and production, but also linked the local groups into regional and trans-regional networks. Underwater archaeology has contributed to an understanding of the boat-building traditions of the Indian Ocean, further supplemented by ethnographic studies of contemporary boat-building communities.
Monumental architecture along the coasts served dual functions. Not only did they provide spaces for the interaction of inland routes with those across the ocean, but the structures themselves were also used as major orientation points by watercraft while approaching land. The larger issue addressed underscores the need to include coastal structures such as wharfs, forts, shrines, and archaeological sites as a part of the maritime heritage and to aid in their preservation for posterity.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
Port cities have long played a critical role as nodes in nascent processes of globalization and in the circulation of peoples, commodities, and ideas within and across the maritime spaces of Southeast Asia. Although port cities had been an indelible component of the islands and archipelagos of this region since at least the 15th century, the rise of global empire in the 19th century rejuvenated these communities by the sea, giving rise to thriving metropolises from Rangoon to Singapore, Bangkok to Penang. These ascendant cities served as “imperial bridgeheads” connecting the products and peoples of the Southeast Asian hinterlands to world markets. Yet, the idea of “cosmopolitanism” arguably pervades our understanding of these port cities; bustling docks, diverse populations, and lively scenes of popular culture take precedence over the imperial coercion unfolding within and beyond its shores.
Port cities and urbanization were also intimately intertwined with the violence of conquest and Islamic insurgency wracking the countryside beyond their borders. When armed conflicts such as the bitter Dutch-Aceh War in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and the Moro Wars in the southern Philippines engulfed venerable Muslim sultanates, maritime metropolises emerged as critical nodes, sites for the dissemination of weapons and smugglers, spies and diplomats, contentious ideas and theologies. These circulations were facilitated not just by Muslim networks or colonial agents, but by the very cosmopolitan nature of port cities. Chinese, Arab, and German, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian, all became drawn into the whirling vortex of “Islamic insurgencies.” By highlighting the integral position of port cities in the conduct of various armed conflicts, it will become possible to gain new perspectives and suggest reconfigured research paradigms for understanding the connected histories of colonial conquest.