Trade in the Indian Ocean Before European Conquest

Dr.Santosh Kumar Sain

Sailing to the east and the newly discovered spice trade routes was the start of the European Age of Exploration and has established the basis of the world economy today. However, Vasco da Gama and his fleet stormed the Indian Ocean in 1493 and went around the Cape of Good Hope. Upon their arrival, they discovered a bustling trading audience that was beyond European people’s comprehension in terms of scale and extent.

Trade in the Indian Ocean Before the European Conquest

Trade in the Indian Ocean Before the European Conquest

During those times, the Indian Ocean was encircled by one formidable Muslim empire and some large Muslim states. The Ottoman Empire was on the horizon to the west which had controlled previous Byzantine regions. The empire of the Red Sea controlled this maritime trading route, linking Southeast Asia with Venice in Italy.

The Safavid dynasty was spinning around in the central region and was taking charge of the Persian Gulf coast road.

The age of the Mughals was one of the greatest periods in the history of India and its territories were spread east to the present location. The Mughals' superiority did not, however, deter powerful forces such as the kingdoms of Kozhikode (Calicut) and the Vijayanagar Empire. The Mughals often had a clash with them thus they could not conquer South India easily.

By this time, the Buddhist empire of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) also helped to bring different forms of power to this part of the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean was linked with two major Muslim gateways, namely the east and southwest. The Ottoman portal, all at Aden, owing to the narrow exportway of the Red Sea. The historical importance of Aden as an indispensable connecting point between the Red Sea region and the Indian Ocean has emerged since the era of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, it is one such region that bureaucrats of the ancient eastern trading lines used to pass on their missions. Turned into a highly fortified Arab Muslim power base, Aden became the main seaport that every vessel trading from the Indian Ocean came in for unloading their items that were destined to be sailed to Egypt.

On the one hand, the Safavids would have bought goods from the Persian lands, transported them via Bab al-Mandab Strait and unloaded them in Hormuz (a town located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman), or vice versa and sold them at the Indian market. There is no doubt that Hormoz for a lengthy time had been a bridge between the Persian world and glamorous the Ocean of India.

India at the Center

India occupied a unique position as the heartland of the Indian Ocean trade for an extended period. These key mercantile cities had populations that were predominantly Hindus of Calicut (Kozhikode), Cannanore, Cochin, and Quilon on the southwestern coast of Malabar, and people who were Muslims, either as the ruling or trading groups of Goa on the southwestern head of Malabar and Cambay of Gujarat, in the northwestern corner of the peninsula. As the years got to the end of the 15th century, Gujarat sailors became Arabians' competitors as they became dominant traders through the Indian Ocean.

Calicut was rightly described to be the biggest trading center of India and had the leading place in the trade of pepper, which was the most valuable item in the world. Since the ancient ages, it stood out as the main stop for traders of the stormy Indian Ocean from Aden, Ormuz, Malacca, and the East. Moreover, “calico” or what the European traders called it, was also made famous in the city. For that reason, it seems to give or consider the name to this town.

Kampai in Gujarat was supposed to be the home to such people who subsequently became the most profoundly traveled traders in the world. As 16th-century chronicler Tome Pires observed: As 16th-century chronicler Tome Pires observed:

There is certainly no denying that they possess the most skillful tradesmen. They are men o' the world or they are of the sort that has been well steeped in the sound of merchandise for so long; then they will say that any offense connected with merchandise that occurs in daily life is forgivable. Whether you do Gujarat business or not, there are always Gujaratees somewhere. They work as a team to make something happen but also as individuals. They are genteel in noble birth and sharp in business. When have we ever bumped into one of our characters yielding a quill pen or ledger for manufacturing their trader’s accounts? They are men who have not shared with anyone their own belongings and are not willing to steal anything belonging to others, hence, have received high honor from the Cambay people until now.

Cambay chiefly stretches out two arms, with her right arm she reaches out towards Aden and with the other towards Malacca, as the most important places to sail to….. They sailed many ships to all parts, to Aden, Ormuz, the kingdom of the Deccan, Goa, Bhatkal, all over Malabar, Ceylon, Bengal, Pegu, Siam, Pedir, Pase (Paefe), and Malacca, where they take quantities of merchandise, bringing other kinds back, thus making Cambay rich and important. (Cortesão, 42)

By the 15th century, the key ports of the vast Indian Ocean trading network were under mostly Muslim control. Muslim traders had spread far and wide from Arabia, settling in mercantile communities across Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. As the Muslim communities grew strong, they became trading empires led by powerful sultans. These included Malacca on the Malaya Peninsula, the islands of Ternate and Tidore in the Moluccas, and a series of rich city-states that stretched along the coast of East Africa.

The chief port of Cambay stands in the Malabar region and reaches out towards Aden by the right hand and with the left towards Malacca, it is the most important place to put the ships to sail just as the road ends…. They sail many ships to all places, from Aden to Ormus, then to the kingdom of the Deccan, Goa, to Bhatkal, to all parts of Malabar,

The Indian Ocean trading network was entirely dominated by these ports by the 15th century and they all were controlled by Muslims. Muslims' merchant caravaners were pioneering everywhere in regions such as Africa, east India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and neighboring islands. They were settling in merchant communities in those regions. With the Muslim community being equally big and powerful, they were able to form several trading empires that were buffeted by strong sultans. These included Malacca (a port city on the peninsular Malaya), Ternate and Tidore (two islands in the Moluccas), and a coastal swatch of oriental city-states extending from East Africa.

Swahili Coast of Africa

The string of city-states dominated by the Muslim and rich set between Sofala in the south and Mogadishu in the north formed a complete series. East of it were the cities and villages of Mombasa, Pate, Gedi, Lamu, Malindi, Kilwa, and Zanzibar. The people of the Swahili city-states were a mixture of African and Arab-mixed blood. This complex social structure had separate societies. According to the historian H. Neville Chittick: According to the historian H. Neville Chittick:

The inhabitants of the towns could be classified into three groups, namely the lower status, the high status, and the dependents. The ruling class mainly comprised people of mixed Arab and African origin (… Indeed, most of the land owners, merchants, and those who held the religious acts as well as the artisans were also probably of these origins. But others not privileged than them were the pure-blooded Africans who probably attacked mainland settlements and were taken into slavery to carry out labor on the fields and no doubt other menial tasks. Apart from these two categories, there were the Arab traveling trade people as well as immigrants, who had just settled in Arab society and had not become fully integrated yet.

At the top of the US reinforcements was Mombasa, which was followed by Kilwa, and they were among the most powerful African states. These people were the traders of ivory from the south, gold and slaves from the western periphery, and frankincense and myrrh from the north of Africa. Apart from the production of textiles and mining of copper close to their territory, as well as the historical city of Zanzibar, these two cities have also been important. Each one of them created vessels and had iron implements for their daily needs and the global market. Merchants from all around the world traded with them in one way or the other, mostly, cotton, silk, and porcelain.

Malacca: Natural landing point for the whole world trade

When the 16th century was coming to an end the city of Malacca (Melaka) on the Peninsula of Malaya was becoming a great window to the world. Their ports in the Strait of Malacca, accessible throughout all years were at the narrowest route of the sea trade. Besides, the emperor of Malacca quickly adorned the city as the foremost marketplace offering nuts and other exotic spices harvested across Indonesia to the Middle East and Europe. This trade union is described as a crossroads becoming an invaluable link between the principal Indian Ocean trading cities, with the commercial route of the South China Sea being the main trading route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

The fact that almost all trade routes passed through this narrow waterway determined the rise of settlements as powerful kingdoms on the shores. As described by Tomé Pires: As described by Tomé Pires:

Malacca literally is a city that was created for trade, gloriously more ahead of any other one all over the world at the climax and ebb of the strong seasonal winds. Malacca is located in the middle and is surrounded by water in addition to receiving goods and services from a myriad of nations, an impressive thousand leagues away from each side.

The spices such as pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and mace attracted merchants and sailors from India and China, both to exchange the commodities, ye, and also to trade them. As the metropolis developed, people from different Indian, Chinese, and Javanese backgrounds started settling in distinct residential areas hence the enormous diversity of its citizenry. The traders from Cambay specifically, the Gujaratis, were among the elite merchants. Tomé Pires further elucidated:

"Among the migrants in Malacca were a thousand Gujaratis. An additional four or five thousand seamen, both users and newcomers were in transit, to and fro." Mekong River cannot be a jewel without the Parbati, and Parbati cannot twinkle in its presence, in their capacity to be wealthy and prosperous. All the products sourced out from Gujarat thereby have trading value in Malacca and in the various kingdoms that trade with Malacca; just as the products of Malacca are valued even in places that are far beyond this region and where the availability of the items is not assured……if Cambay was cut off from the trade with Malacca, it could not live, for it would have no outlet for the merch.

Sri Lanka: The African continent has a unique set of circumstances with numerous opportunities that can act as the source of future economic growth.

Because of the stable and affluent society of Buddhist Sri Lanka (Ceylon), it was an indispensable stopover for all merchants approaching or leaving Malacca. According to Ancient Greeks, Sri Lanka was the best supplier of cinnamon among others. Sprinkled with gems, pearls, ivory, elephants, turtle shells, and cloth, it was also a region of trade value. The ships of all corners of the world did their favorite type of business; that of buying the native products of the country and the articles from other places, which were imported for re-export. The crew's station onboard shipped to foreign ports as well. Significant are one-way streets of horses from India and Persia to this country; and China exported gold, silver, copper coins, silk, and ceramic goods.

Located in the Indian Ocean between Eastern and Western territories, Sri Lanka or Ceilao was historically a key node near the Indian subcontinent and along the maritime routes to the edge of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern areas as well as East Asia. The island was a wondrous place full of many ways where one could tie a ship at a bay or an anchor in an insecure harbor. The Muslim community in this population was the leading body amongst commerce communities, being the pivoted in trade activities in the 15th century. Sri Lanka was ruled by three provincial kingdoms, all guarded by China from taking over. The tribute system was the policy under which China acted to ensure the local rulers were faithful.

Spice Islands: The Cradle of Spices, is what it has been usually denoted as.

The Moluccas are to the Maluku Islands which sits at the far eastern edge of the Market of the Indian Ocean. The islands of this region are globally known as the Spice Islands where cloves, nutmeg, and mace originated. While being the only source of these precious booms to China and trading partners such as India, Arabia, Persia, and Africa, this region was still digitally isolated from mainland trade routes.

The Banda Islands, mentioned in Chinese records dating back to 200 BCE, remained unsettled by Muslim traders. Trade in these islands was overseen by a select group known as orang kaya or "rich men". Before European intervention, the Bandanese played an active and independent role in trade, transporting cloves in outrigger canoes to Malaysia and other larger Indonesian islands for exchange with Chinese and Indian mariners.

Muslim traders arrived in Ternate and Tidore in the early 1500s, leading to the emergence of rival sultanates competing for dominance in the nutmeg trade with the Chinese and Indonesians by the end of the century. Their bitter rivalry over control of the spice trade ultimately played into the hands of European traders, who exploited the discord to gain advantages in the clove trade.

The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration

Spices in medieval Europe were imagined as being from afar; perhaps as a lost paradise much similar to the fantasy of our ancient Garden of Eden. The absence of difficulties in finding or harvesting the metal was considered attributed among other factors solely to the unknown origin of that metal. This exotic illusion was the reason behind the European Age of Exploration, as many men like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were also tempted to know more about these heritages. At the beginning of the 15th century, to the latter half of the 16th century, the historical journey of.

With successive Vasco da Gama’s safe navigation of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the world sounded the horror of the vast ocean alone by discovering its extensive and highly-structured trading network of the Indian Ocean. In the 15th century, European powers remained vital to the trading system, unaware of its levels of depth, diversity, and overall value. Such jarring power they wielded, their cannons beat the opposition while they claimed the most profitable route in the trade route. The preface of Portuguese rule in the region was the setting up of Cochin in 1503, and the foundation of Goa as the capital of the Estado da India (the Eastern part of the Portuguese Empire). Encompassing the coastline of Africa to the Islands of Japan, this trade empire was one of the major ports of the Portuguese in the eastern world to get involved in the vast spice route.

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