Thesis Statement: The history of the Indian Ocean trade can best be summarized through itineraries of ancient traders because of the wide diversity of commodities and people involved in the trade.
In the early days, the oceans both separated and united people. These large bodies of water physically divided people but because of the necessity of trade, the ocean became the medium of transportation among merchants. As such, the coasts which are connected by the ocean shared culture and traditions.
The Indian Ocean is among the largest bodies of water on earth. With this, the Indian Ocean connects numerous coasts. These coasts can be divided into three regions namely, India’s west coast, the Arabian Peninsula’s southern edge and the East African Coast. The said regions possess different cultures. However, because of the trade relationship that has existed between them for a long period of time, cultural and economic ties were created among the groups of people in those regions.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
The ancient trade in the Indian Ocean involved diverse cultures and the political system that governed the trade was decentralized. Because of this, a summary of the trade characteristics is a challenging task to complete. However, the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” an itinerary prepared by an anonymous Greco-Egyptian merchant helps in understanding the basic places, events and circumstances in ancient Indian Ocean trade. The said itinerary mentions diverse products and people which creates the impression that the ocean is a unifying force in bridging culture and economy even in the olden days.
The Indian Ocean, anciently known as the Erythraean Sea, connects market towns and cities including Berenice which is in Egypt’s boundaries, the Cape and Market of Spices, Opone, Opone, the markets of Azania, Ommana, Ozene, Chryse and others. These market toowns and cities offer a wide range of products such as wine, silver, pearls, ointments, birds, boats, ivory an even slaves. The itinerary also describes the characteristics of the people who lived in each community. Some were ruled by kings and some by chiefs. There are also barbaric and savage groups of people while some are principally engaged in trade. As an itinerary, the document also contains descriptions of the characteristic of each market.
According to early accounts of merchants, traders in the Indian Ocean are Persian, Indian and Arabian. In navigating the waters, these traders used dhow, which is an ancient vessel made of sewn coconut or teak planks. In the ancient times, the dhow is regarded to be the most seaworthy ship ever made.
In the account containing Ibn Battuta’s travels, he started off in the Arabian Peninsula where Arabic is the language and embraced Islam as their religion. As he travelled farther, the lesser people spoke the language and he met more and more people who performed non-Islamic practices. However, he found at least one person in each coast speaking in Arabic. In Africa, the people he traded with are a lot different from those in his hometown, primarily because of their skin color and their traditions. However, he found their language, Swahili, incorporating numerous words from the Arabic language. In Africa, the products offered were mainly ivory and slaves. However, they also offered products such as ceramics, glass and textiles from China, Persia and India, respectively. Africa, even though connected to the other regions by the Indian Ocean and the trade that occurred through it, nevertheless remained not totally within the reach of the traders .
Trade between Cultures
The diversity of communities, especially the market cities and towns along the coasts of the Indian Ocean makes the study of trade among and between these places an interesting subject. While there are inherent similarities among the people, the trade facilitated a way for them to be able to build a heterogeneous culture where commodities, products and even people are interchanged. The trade that occurs through the Indian Ocean therefore provides a good foundation on discourses on culture and economics in the coasts of Africa, India and the Arabian Peninsula. For example, the multifaceted character of the Mediterranean economy and society can be traced from its links in the early trades among cities and towns connected through the Indian Ocean .
According to the records of traders, the market cities and towns possessed distinct characteristics but some aspects of their culture seemed to be influenced by one another. This was evidenced by the presence of people belonging to a foreign tribe in almost every community, or at least a person who could communicate in more than one language.
Like the other large bodies of water, the Indian Ocean serves as a venue of intermingling of cultures and traditions. Although the trade in the Indian Ocean is difficult to summarize, recorded itineraries of traders serve as guides in understanding the specific places where trading occurred and the kind of commodities and people involved in the process. These itineraries then become useful tools in tracing historical backgrounds of cultures and societies particularly in the coasts of India, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Hansen, Valerie and Kenneth Curtis. Voyages in World History, Volume 1. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.
Margariti, Roxani Eleni. Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.