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Lothal in the History of the Indian Ocean  

Shereen Ratnagar

Whether Lothal was a port is a problem, and this question is no longer seen as an inquiry only of whether it had a dock basin or how it compares with contemporary Ur. (Ur had two basins sheltering inside its perimeter wall; Lothal had none.) Since the beginning of excavation in Lothal in the 1950s, archaeology has become increasingly focused on matters other than local landscapes and seasonal rivers and whether ships could enter the basin from the Gulf of Khambhat. In the early 21st century, it can be compared the water storage reservoirs in the 1995 excavation of Harappan Dholavira with the basin at Lothal, as has been tried. Archaeologists have, besides, realized the significance of the Gulf of Kutch and its sites. Thus, world routes for ships have to be considered and, with that, the relevance of the Oman Peninsula to India, the nearest landmass and its neighbor across the sea. Perhaps the Omani seafaring tradition was as old as that in India. International archaeology has put Oman on the “Harappan trade” map, and Indian students would do well to read about its past—strange as it is in its culture from India.

Article

The Appropriation of Islam in the Maldives  

Boris Wille

The Maldives is one of four Muslim majority countries in South Asia. The contemporary Islamic Republic of the Maldives frames itself as a “100 percent Muslim nation.” The state religion is Islam, all 380,000 citizens are Muslims by law, and the practice of other religions is prohibited. Ever since the first Muslim exposure, probably in the 10th century, Islam has gradually evolved into a sociocultural configuration that affects most domains of archipelagic society and culture. It shapes foreign relations, informs legislation, and influences arts and architecture, as well as language and scripture. Scholarship of Islam and Islamization in the Maldives acknowledges the historical trajectories of the appropriation of Islam as well as its contemporary relevance in Maldivian identity and state politics.

Article

The Chagos Archipelago  

Marina Carter

The Chagos Archipelago comprises fifty-five Indian Ocean islands on five coral atolls, which were little known and uninhabited until the 18th century. Small exploratory settlements were set up by the French and British from the 1770s, but the archipelago was not permanently occupied until after the Napoleonic Wars. Collectively—with Agalega—known as the oil islands because of the exploitation of coconut plantations, the atolls were leased and later sold to Mauritian and Seychellois settlers who employed slaves and later nominally “free” laborers to collect, dehusk, and press the coconuts to produce oil. Economically in decline for most of the 20th century, the Chagos archipelago was controversially detached from Mauritius during independence negotiations in the 1960s and reconstituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Some 1,500 islanders were displaced and, as Chagossians, have engaged in a series of legal battles to reclaim their homeland. Currently only one island on the southernmost atoll—Diego Garcia—is occupied, utilized as an American military base; it was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2010. Mauritius has been internationally recognized to have the strongest claim to sovereignty of the archipelago but some Chagossians are calling for independent statehood.

Article

Colonialism, Nationalism, and Decolonization in Madagascar  

Solofo Randrianja

Madagascar’s colonization by France took place in the wake of rising nationalism. If its colonization corresponded with French strategic interests such as the establishment of an area of influence in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, then, except for the small colony of Réunion, France’s purely economic interest in Madagascar’s colonization remains questionable. Sparsely inhabited in spite of its large area, with no strategic resources such as gold or other important raw materials, Madagascar endured colonization efforts that focused on the constitution of a state capable of politically unifying the whole island through the recycling of what remained from a sovereign precolonial state before French conquest. The conquest itself and the process of colonization were initially met with violent resistance, mainly from the countryside, which was crushed on the eve of World War I. Later, resistance gave way to more modern political expressions, all treated as illegal by colonial legislation until the eve of World War II. The first political proposal called for equal rights and integration of Madagascar and its people into a French republic. Gradually, influenced by the memory of the former Malagasy regime but also under the influence of nationalism, which blew over the whole world during the interwar period, the anticolonialism movement became nationalist despite the existence of its relatively influential socialist component. The post–World War II liberal atmosphere and frustrations and deprivations endured during the war were among the causes of the March 1947 uprising. Its brutal crushing and subsequent repression excluded part of the political elite and the majority of the traumatized rural population from the decolonization process, which began by the mid-1950s. Decolonization was conducted without any actual hiatus from the previous colonial system in both institutions and political personnel.

Article

The Spice Trade in Southeast Asia  

Bryan Averbuch

The history of the “Spice Trade,” much like that of its overland counterpart, the “Silk Road,” has long been imbued with an aura of romance. It has evoked fantasies of dhows, junks, and East Indiamen plying monsoon seas, tropical islands with swaying palms and coastal forts, swaggering pirates, and ports brimming with fragrant exotica—the maritime versions of camel caravans crossing deserts, menacing bandits, distant cities graced with minarets and pagodas, and merchants haggling for silks in bazaars. In the case of the spice trade, these exotic images are haunted at times by less agreeable visions of unbridled princely and corporate greed, ruthless exploitation, and emerging colonial empires. Beyond fantasy, these visions of the spice trade have their roots in very real and complex historical phenomena, whose importance to Southeast Asia’s economic, political, and cultural history, and indeed to global history, are difficult to overstate. Until their gradual early modern diffusion to other regions of the planet, the trees which produced Southeast Asia’s most coveted spices and aromatics, especially the cloves, nutmeg, mace, and white sandalwood of eastern Indonesia, were largely confined to the unique tropical ecoregions in which they had evolved, and were effectively unavailable anywhere else. This fact, combined with their unique and powerful aromas and flavors, ensured that Southeast Asia would remain a nexus of the spice trade for the better part of two millennia. Following their discovery and cultivation by Indigenous peoples, Southeast Asian spices and aromatics began to circulate in the trade networks of the Indo-Malay archipelago in pre- and protohistoric times. By the 4th and 5th centuries ce, seafaring merchants were regularly carrying them to emporia across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Rim, and they became coveted luxuries in India, China, West Asia, the Mediterranean, and northern Europe. By the 14th century, peoples across much of the Eastern Hemisphere had become regular and avid consumers of Southeast Asian spices and aromatics. Their popularity in India, West Asia, and China was a major factor in the development of permanent commercial ties between the three regions, which in turn helped to facilitate the diffusion of Hinduism, Buddhism, and subsequently Islam to Southeast Asia. Conversely, the relatively peripheral position of Europe in the lucrative Southeast Asian spice trade was a major factor in prompting the Iberian maritime voyages of exploration beginning in the 15th century. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a range of European and Indigenous polities engaged in a complex and often violent series of struggles for control of the spice trade. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English armed trading expeditions lay the groundwork for their respective colonial empires in Southeast Asia, while regional peoples and polities adopted and adapted elements of European technology, culture, and in some regions, Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Over time, changing tastes in Europe and the transplantation of nutmeg, cloves, and white sandalwood to the Caribbean, East Africa, and India, respectively, diminished the relative importance of the traditional Southeast Asian spice trade, while new aromatic crops introduced from elsewhere, such as black pepper and later coffee, became increasingly important to the region.

Article

The Cowrie World  

Bin Yang

For a long time cowrie shells originating in the Maldive islands had been used as a form of money in various Afro-Eurasian societies The use of cowrie shells as money was first adopted in Bengal around the 4th century, and cowrie money soon expanded into the Tai world, then into Yunnan province, on China’s southwestern frontier, where it became a legal currency. Local shell money was also adopted as early as the 10th century along the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa, and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were also shipped there by way of the Mediterranean. From the 16th century onwards, European merchants, led by the Portuguese, initiated the cowrie slave trade and the cowrie palm oil trade by shipping Maldivian shells through Europe to West Africa, thus reshaping the cowrie monetary zone in West Africa and creating a broad network that connected two oceans (the Indian and Atlantic oceans) and two worlds (the Old and New Worlds). The cowrie trade and cowrie money enabled the acquisition of Asian and African resources by Europeans and so promoted European dominance across the world, until a glut of cowrie shells destroyed this monetary system.The case of early China is different. While cowrie shells shared the same origin of the Indian Ocean, and played a significant role amongst the Chinese elite, they did not constitute a form of money.

Article

The Chagos Islands and Indian Ocean Geopolitics  

Steffen F. Johannessen

Located in the central Indian Ocean, the Chagos Archipelago was uninhabited until the late 18th century. Midway between India and Mauritius, the clusters of coral atolls were sighted and named by Portuguese pilots in 1512. From the mid-1700s, during the wars between France and Britain, the islands started gaining strategic importance as potential naval bases or supply stations on the India route. Claimed by France, and managed from the French colony of Mauritius, Franco-Mauritian colonizers imported enslaved laborers from Africa and Madagascar to produce copra and coconut oil for a favorable wartime market in Mauritius. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, sovereignty had shifted to British hands. After slavery was abolished, the coconut industries were supplied by Indian indentured laborers. Small societies developed around the island industries, which would continue to produce until the second half of the 20th century. To make way for a joint UK–US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia, British authorities separated the Chagos Archipelago from the rest of their Mauritian colony and established the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965. To accommodate the US Pentagon’s base strategies, British authorities evicted the entire local population to Mauritius and the Seychelles between 1965 and 1973. By the mid-1980s the military base was fully operational. As a forward operations facility strategically located between East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Indonesia, Diego Garcia became one of the United States’ most important overseas military bases. From its airstrip, bomber aircrafts attacking targets in Afghanistan and Iraq have lifted and returned. Located along central Indian Ocean shipping lines, the strategic value of the base also connects to the growing export economy of China and that of India, and these major regional states’ dependence on energy imports. The joint UK–US base is, however, highly controversial. International bodies have repeatedly called for full decolonization and the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. Objections to the Indian Ocean militarization it represents have a long history, and exiled members of the Chagossian community have continuously fought for their right to repatriation. In other words, the history of the military base, now substantiated by disclosed files revealing how British and American authorities conspired and lied to create it—has become one of the most central threats to this central geopolitical establishment in the Indian Ocean.

Article

European Piracy in the Indian Ocean  

Kevin P. McDonald

Defining European piracy in the Indian Ocean is a complicated task and depends entirely on competing definitions and perspectives. As newcomers to the region, Europeans inserted themselves, often violently, into a complex long-distance trade system that had functioned relatively smoothly for centuries before the Portuguese arrival in 1498. Divergent cultural norms, particularly long-standing religious differences, were a central issue for the militantly Catholic Iberians, as they did not accept nor respect claims of sovereignty from local Muslim and Hindu rulers. Among Europeans, a similar dynamic applied after the Reformation, as rising Protestant empires, such as the Dutch and British, began to compete with the Portuguese, and each other, for control of the lucrative Indian Ocean commodities and markets as they battled for global trade dominance. Since the total number of Europeans in the region at any given moment remained quite low relative to the size of the Indigenous populations, they relied on violence and coercion to achieve their economic objectives. The persistence of European piracy in the Indian Ocean exposes a long-standing interconnected Indo-Atlantic world that is yet to be fully integrated into the historical narratives regarding European imperial and Atlantic histories.

Article

Malagasy Diaspora in the Indian Ocean  

Jane Hooper

Since at least the 15th century, people from Madagascar have been leaving the Big Island and living in communities located around the Indian Ocean. Most of these migrants were unfree, having been forcibly transported to labor in East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the ocean, an unknown number of enslaved Malagasy had left the island on African and Arab vessels. Between 1500 and 1930, an estimated half a million people were carried from the shores of Madagascar, many of these Malagasy purchased by Europeans. The island’s west coast was frequented by Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, and English merchants, while the east coast was dominated by French slavers. Enslaved Malagasy comprised a sizeable proportion of slave populations on Mauritius, Réunion, and at the Cape during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the abolition of the slave trade, Europeans transported about 18,000 contract laborers from Madagascar to labor in plantations on Réunion, Mauritius, Mayotte, and Nosy Be. Throughout these centuries of intense migration, Malagasy contributed to the linguistic, religious, and cultural practices of their new homes. Memories of Malagasy ancestry remained potent into the 21st century and are made visible in performances such as sega that remind descendants of their continuing links with Madagascar.

Article

Commercial Networks Connecting Southeast Asia with the Indian Ocean  

Tom Hoogervorst

Southeast Asian history has seen remarkable levels of mobility and durable connections with the rest of the Indian Ocean. The archaeological record points to prehistoric circulations of material culture within the region. Through the power of monsoon sailing, these small-scale circuits coalesced into larger networks by the 5th century bce. Commercial relations with Chinese, Indian, and West Asian traders brought great prosperity to a number of Southeast Asian ports, which were described as places of immense wealth. Professional shipping, facilitated by local watercraft and crews, reveals the indigenous agency behind such long-distance maritime contacts. By the second half of the first millennium ce, ships from the Indo-Malayan world could be found as far west as coastal East Africa. Arabic and Persian merchants started to play a larger role in the Indian Ocean trade by the 8th century, importing spices and aromatic tree resins from sea-oriented polities such as Srivijaya and later Majapahit. From the 15th century, many coastal settlements in Southeast Asia embraced Islam, partly motivated by commercial interests. The arrival of Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships increased the scale of Indian Ocean commerce, including in the domains of capitalist production systems, conquest, slavery, indentured labor, and eventually free trade. During the colonial period, the Indian Ocean was incorporated into a truly global economy. While cultural and intellectual links between Southeast Asia and the wider Indian Ocean have persisted in the 21st century, commercial networks have declined in importance.