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.
A. C. S. Peacock
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.
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.
Roxani Eleni Margariti
Epigraphic materials, travel narratives, religious-legal literature, and documents of daily life produced by or for Jews between the 7th and the 13th centuries add significant dimensions to our understanding of the history of trade across Asia. Written in a variety of Jewish languages, these sources hail from places across the Afro-Eurasian geographical continuum and speak to the two well-known circuits of medieval trans-Asian trade: the Silk Road and its maritime Indian Ocean equivalent. While there has been a tendency to look at medieval Jewish sources scattered across Asia as vestiges of a unified trading diaspora, a consideration of these sources’ volume, chronology, and the circumstances of their production and use reveals several disjunctures and suggests a more fractured history of Jewish participation in Asia trade. Even so a survey of these sources illuminates a variety of topics that relate to Jewish mercantile activity along well-trodden avenues of exchange, transactions and relationships across confessional lines, and the structures and institutions of transregional commerce.
The presence of Africans in Asia and their migration around it is one of the least-studied subjects in all of Asian history. The same is true for studies of the African diaspora, but that does not mean that African migration lacks significance in either field. Existing scholarship reveals that Africans traveled to and settled in various regions in Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula to Nagasaki. While there were free African migrants in Asia, a larger number of them arrived as slaves, transported there by both local and European traders. Conditions for the forced immigrants varied and not all of them remained permanently un-free, with some even eventually coming to obtain political power. To understand their dispersal and presence in Asia does more than simply broaden our current understanding of the African diaspora; it also enables us to understand that the African diaspora is a global phenomenon. That improved understanding can in turn break down the geographical boundary of Asian history and connect it not only to African history but to European history too. To do that, the topic requires scholars to challenge the methodological limits of current historical studies.
The presence of Bollywood films in Africa has a long history, one embedded in larger cultural and commodity exchanges between the continent and South Asia. “Bollywood” is a modern signifier for older film industries located in colonial and postcolonial India, with the largest export being commercial Hindi-Urdu movies produced in Bombay. Their circulation played out distinctly in different parts of Africa, based on colonial connections, Indian diasporic networks, regional trading linkages, and audience tastes. East Africa first saw the arrival of Indian films in the 1920s, imported by diasporic Indian entrepreneurs who opened movie theaters and screened Hollywood and British films as well. Indian and African communities both consumed Bombay movies and they increasingly came to lead East African box office shares for decades, even as moviegoing declined toward the end of the 20th century. Bollywood films reached South Africa in the 1930s and later were the preserve of isolated Indian communities under Apartheid in cities like Durban, home to a large South Asian population as a result of colonial indentured labor flows. Hindi and Tamil movies formed a cultural touchstone for settled diasporic populations who engaged with representations from a perceived homeland, although Bollywood films were mainstreamed in South African society in the 1990s. In West Africa, lacking robust Indian diasporic networks, Lebanese traders introduced Bollywood films in the 1950s. They became immensely popular among African audiences in places like northern Nigeria and Senegal. As in East Africa, West African audiences interpreted foreign films in line with localized cultural and political values. By the 1990s, Nigerians were making some movies that riffed off popular Indian films in a global milieu of cultural mixing. In North Africa, distributors first marketed Indian movies in the 1950s to Egypt, where they attained a cult following. Bollywood stars and paraphernalia gained social prominence, although the public screening of films dwindled in the 1990s, forcing Arab fans to rely on alternate circulations, which continued into the early 21st century throughout the continent thanks to satellite television and other media technologies. The long-standing popularity of Bollywood in Africa should be no surprise given the worldwide spread of Bombay films from their inception, a tradition of exchange between South Asia and Africa, especially across Indian Ocean and imperial worlds, and Africans’ historically vigorous participation in regional and global cultural economies.
The glass beads found at archaeological sites up and down the eastern coast of Africa between the 7th and 17th centuries ce bear witness to the trade that connected communities from all reaches of the Indian Ocean and beyond. Glass beads are small, relatively inexpensive to produce, and easy to transport as well as being colorful, often beautiful, and very durable. They were thus ideal trade items, especially when glass was a rare commodity that was produced in a limited number of places. Careful study of the glass beads traded into eastern Africa illuminate trade connections and patterns in the Western Indian Ocean that are not seen through a study of ceramics or glass vessels. In the earliest period, from the 7th to the mid-10th century, the East Coast (Kenya and Tanzania) first received beads made from a mineral soda glass from Sri Lanka (or possibly South India). The next to arrive were all made of a type of plant-ash glass that was probably produced in Iraq, but, because raw glass was widely traded, the beads were made in different places: perhaps the Persian Gulf/Iraq/Iran and even Thailand. In southern Africa in this period all beads were made of this same plant-ash glass but the beads—cut from drawn tubes—may have been finished locally. Similar beads of this glass have been found around the Old World including South and Southeast Asia, both East and West Africa, the Mediterranean, and as far north as Scandinavia—all date from the 8th into the mid-10th century. From the mid-10th to mid-13th century mineral soda beads from India were found in both the southern and northern regions of Africa’s east coast, but many of them appear to be from different areas of India and would likely have arrived by different routes. In the mid-13th to mid-15th century period, during which the gold trade out of southern Africa was at its peak, southern Africa turned away from Indian beads and accepted only ones from a region that has yet to be identified, while East Africa continued mainly with ones from South Asia. However, early in the 15th century a small number of Chinese beads appeared on the East Coast that might have arrived on ships from the fleet of the Chinese general Zheng He. The final period, the mid-15th to late 17th century, saw the two ends of the coast receiving the same beads for the first time, reflecting the growing dominance of European traders in the Indian Ocean. Although from their first arrival Europeans had attempted to trade their own beads in eastern Africa, populations there refused to accept them, forcing the outsiders to purchase beads in India, for which they were obliged to pay—often in silver.
The Indian Ocean and its adjoining seas, from the Middle East and East Africa to Southeast Asia, have been witness to the nautical ventures of most, if not all, major sea powers of world history. Progress in nautical archaeology in the past few decades has brought about a much better understanding of shipbuilding traditions of the Indian Ocean, until then limited to textual and ethnographic sources. Only a few shipwreck sites and terrestrial sites with ship remains have been studied so far along the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, or the Indian Ocean proper. Many more were found in recent excavations in the Southeast Asian seas, which were built along Southeast Asian or Indian Ocean shipbuilding traditions. Two main technical traditions can now be clearly identified for pre-modern times: the Arabo-Indian sewn-plank ships of the western Indian Ocean, which survived into our times, and the Southeast Asian vessels that evolved from a distinctive sewn-plank technology to fully doweled assemblages, as could still be observed in Indonesian vessels of the late 20th century. The still limited number of shipwrecks brought to light in the Indian Ocean as well as the considerable imbalance in archaeological research between the Indian Ocean proper and the Southeast Asian seas have hindered the advancement of the discipline. Considerable difficulties and interpretation problems have moreover been generated by biased commercial excavations and subsequent incomplete excavation records, not to speak of the ethical problems raised in the process. Such deficiencies still prevent solid conclusions being drawn on the development of regional shipbuilding traditions, and on the historical role of the ships and people who sailed along the essential Indian Ocean maritime networks.