Regional organizations in the Indian Ocean need to be understood in their geopolitical context. The sense of “regionness” in the Indian Ocean is weak. There is some focus on the oceanic region as a whole, but also on the various sectors of the ocean: northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast. India, China, and the United States are the most important of the major powers involved, with their interests and engagement extending across the whole ocean. Other extraregional powers include Japan, Russia, and the European Union (EU). Among the middle powers, the most important are France (especially in the southwest sector), Australia (southeast), South Africa (southwest), and Indonesia (northeast), with the United Kingdom also playing a role. Some Middle Eastern states (especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]) are involved in the Indian Ocean because the northwest sector has a strategic significance for issues in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Then there is the “rest,” the range of Indian Ocean littoral and island states that are affected by developments in the Indian Ocean, especially in areas adjacent to their own territories. There is only one comprehensive regional organization based on the whole Indian Ocean: the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). There is also a comprehensive regional organization for the southwest sector: the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC). Most of the other Indian Ocean organizations focus on different kinds of maritime activities. The more significant regional organizations affecting the Indian Ocean are those relating to the adjoining regions but with some Indian Ocean involvement. These are the organizations relating to southern and eastern Africa, the Persian/Arabian Gulf, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Regional Organizations and Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean
The Ottoman Empire and the Indian Ocean
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.
Located between the foothills of the eastern Himalayas and the northern shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Bengal Delta has been for more than a millennium a major frontier region of the subcontinent, a gateway to the Indian Ocean and an evolving cultural hub. Because of its frontier location, the region has experienced the interplay of domination and independence from northern Indian imperial powers. Its location also allowed it to connect with the western Indian Ocean as well as the Southeast Asian and South China maritime spaces, making it a long-term player in international trade. These spatially induced political and economic experiences and a remarkable mobility of people and ideas from and into the region shaped a culture that was regionally rooted yet open to cosmopolitan ethos. It was not until the arrival of late colonial national imaginations when the Bengal Delta’s regional integration was put to the test, which resulted in its splitting into two parts: West Bengal of India and Bangladesh.
The Chagos Archipelago
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.
The Appropriation of Islam in the Maldives
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.
Unfree Labor in Colonial South Asia
Various forms of labor obligation, coercion, and oppression existed in colonial India, but the supposed dichotomy between “free” and “unfree” labor was rarely absolute. European slave-trafficking, internal trades in women and children, domestic slavery, caste-based obligations for agricultural and other labor, and capitalist systems such as indenture represented distinct but overlapping forms of “unfree” labor in the South Asian context. Enslaved Indians were exported to various European colonial possessions in the 17th and 18th century or provided domestic services within the homes of both the European and Indian elites. Meanwhile, various preexisting local labor relationships such as begar, caste-based obligation, and debt bondage involved elements of coercion, control, and ownership that mirrored some of the characteristics of slavery. These underwent significant changes in the colonial period, as the colonial state both tapped into and sought to reshape the Indian labor market to suit the needs of the imperial capitalist economy.
Origins of British India
The origin of British India can be traced to warfare in 18th-century Europe and India, trade-related conflicts and disputes, and the East India Company’s business model. The state that emerged from these roots survived by reforming the institutions of capitalism, military strategy, and political strategy. As the 19th century unfolded and its power became paramount, the Company evolved from a trading firm to a protector of trade. The rapid growth of the three port cities where Indo-European trade and naval power was concentrated exemplifies that commitment. But beyond maintaining an army and protecting trade routes, the state remained limited in its reach.
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.
Japanese Textiles in East Africa
Between the 1920s and 1980s, East African consumers were strongly attracted to Japanese textiles, especially cotton, and Japanese manufacturers paid careful attention to that market. The relationship between the both east and west ends of the historical Indian Ocean developed when Japan was in the industrialization phase, which was led by its textile industry at a time during the postabolition period when East Africans were developing a keen interest in the new fashions, which contributed to their keenness to create a new self-identification. Nonetheless, the situation cannot be understood simply by looking at the general relationship between Japan and East Africa. In fact, from the mid-1910s onward, there were many occasions when the Chinese market—the largest for all Japanese products, including textiles—boycotted Japanese products. Then came the Great Depression, when the creation of bloc economies and the raising of tariffs negatively affected Japan’s textile exports to its existing major markets such as the United States, India, and China. On the other hand, there was a space for Japanese textiles to enter the East African market under the free trade principle of the Congo Basin Treaties, which Japan ratified in 1919. Japanese textile exports to East Africa eventually peaked in 1935 but then declined until they ceased altogether during the 1940s as a consequence of World War II and the devastation of Japan immediately postwar. However, beginning in the 1950s, the trade revived and went on to again occupy a large market share, which it maintained until the early 1980s. The history of Japanese textiles in East Africa is more than simply one part of the history of Japan’s relationship with Africa; rather, it is a topic which embeds conjunctions and entanglements of local, regional, and global contexts as well as interaction between consumer and producer—and not forgetting the middlemen.
Bollywood in Africa
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.
Medieval Jewish Sources for Asian Trade
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.
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.
Ships and Shipwrecks in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean
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.
The Maldives as an Indian Ocean Crossroads
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.
The Portuguese Estado da Índia (Empire in Asia)
The origins of the Portuguese Estado da Índia—the sum of all Portuguese Crown possessions east of the Cape of Good Hope—can be traced back to the late 1400s, most importantly to the inaugural voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1497–1498. After some initial hesitations, the Portuguese Crown created a governorship for India in 1505, with a seat at Cochin (Kochi) later transferred to Goa, to oversee commercial, military, administrative, and other activities in an increasing number of possessions along the shores of East Africa and Maritime Asia. Portuguese trading posts (feitorias), forts, and fortified towns across the region resulted from conquest or, more frequently, from negotiated agreements with local rulers, on whose cooperation the Portuguese generally relied. The Estado reached its apex in the second half of the 16th century, drawing vast resources from trade around the Cape and within Asian and African waters, while investing increasingly in military and religious campaigns in a variety of regions from southeastern Africa to the Moluccas (Malukus) and Japan. Despite significant losses to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) during the 17th century, the Estado survived until the 20th century. Goa became a part of the Indian Union in 1961, and Macao integrated into the People’s Republic of China in 1999. The perceived decadence of the Estado during much of its history is at odds with its longevity and has prompted longstanding debates about the nature of Portuguese power in Asia; its reliance on trade, military might, and imperial ideas; and its intertwinement with Asian polities and societies.
Glass Beads and Trade in the Western Indian Ocean
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.
African Diaspora in Asia
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.
Commercial Networks Connecting Southeast Asia with the Indian Ocean
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.
Jewish Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade
The history of Jewish merchants in the Indian Ocean trade is a story in two parts. Before the modern period the scarcity of surviving material and textual sources causes this community’s history to wax and wane depending on the place and the period. Historians are left to grapple with the question of whether such microhistories can be read as paradigmatic. After 1500 a plethora of documents and material remains allow a far more detailed history and analysis, as well as across an expanded area. Especially after 1700, Jews from Europe and the Middle East entered colonial flows, joining long-standing Jewish communities along India’s western seaboard and in the Yemen, and in time establishing new businesses across the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Academic research into these networks is sparse and quite dated until the colonial period, when a new wave of work integrating Jewish merchants into larger narratives occurred.
The Dutch East India Company in South Asia
Guido van Meersbergen
The Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602–1799) developed into Europe’s largest commercial and colonial power in 17th-century Asia. Within its extensive intra-Asian trading network centered on Batavia (Jakarta), the Indian subcontinent and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) occupied a pivotal position. The VOC’s desire to tap into the exchange of Indian cloth for fine spices from the Maluku Islands first drove the Dutch to the Coromandel Coast, while Surat’s position as the preeminent maritime hub of the western Indian Ocean and Bengal’s status as a major exporter of silk and cottons attracted the Company to the Mughal Empire. Between 1638 and 1663, the VOC also displaced the Portuguese from their colonial holdings in Ceylon and the Malabar Coast, the world’s only source of high-quality cinnamon and an important producer of pepper, respectively. In Mughal India, the Dutch presence was limited to trading posts from which it conducted trade on conditions set by the imperial authorities, whereas along the Coromandel and Malabar Coasts the VOC possessed fortresses, and in Ceylon it acted as a territorial power exercising colonial rule over several hundred thousand Sinhalese and Tamil inhabitants. In all parts of South Asia, the Company’s position relied on and was maintained through diplomatic relations with local rulers. The various commercial, diplomatic, and colonial interactions gave rise to important forms of cultural exchange and knowledge production in the realms of art, religion, language, and botanical science, which testify to significant cross-cultural connections and mutual influences. The VOC maintained a dynamic trade in South Asia until the final quarter of the 18th century, when its Indian possessions were captured by the British first during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) and again in 1795 to 1796 during the French Revolutionary Wars.