Before there were trade routes across the Atlantic and Pacific, there was the Indian Ocean trade. In this lesson, we’ll explore the history and trade routes of the Indian Ocean and see how they connected the world.

The Indian Ocean

In the 16th century, European empires found out how to get from South America to China, opening up extensive trade routes across the Pacific Ocean. Before that, however, Christopher Columbus had to land in the Caribbean in 1492 and open up the Atlantic Ocean trade routes. But before any of this, the world’s international systems of trade were being maintained by the Indian Ocean.

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History of Indian Ocean Trade

The Indian Ocean, connecting the Middle East and Africa to East Asia by way of the Indian subcontinent, has been home to shippers and traders for millennia. However, maritime technology was not truly developed until around 800 CE, at which point the Indian Ocean became the central hub of some of the greatest international trade networks the world has ever seen. Have you heard of the Silk Roads that connected Europe to China? The wealth from the Silk Roads led Europe into the Renaissance, and that trade route was only open for about a century. For roughly 700 years, trade goods from across the entire supercontinent of Afro-Eurasia passed through the Indian Ocean. Products from the Persians and powerful Turkish Caliphates of the Middle East were exchanged for items in the kingdoms of Africa, which were sold to empires of India and China.

When Portuguese sailors first reached the east coast of Africa in the last decade of the 15th century, they were amazed to find thriving trading cities, massive networks, and immense wealth flowing through the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese knew there was wealth in China, and they knew that during the age of the Silk Roads that trade made it to Europe, but they never fully realized the enormity of the trade routes in the Indian Ocean that transported these products. Needless to say, they were hooked. Portugal pushed further and further into the Indian Ocean trade routes, finally connecting the Indian Ocean with the emerging Atlantic and Pacific European trade markets. The dominance of the Indian Ocean trade routes declined throughout the 15th century, but this ocean remains an important part of international shipping to this day.

Trade Routes

To better understand the Indian Ocean trade routes, let’s follow some products as they make their way across the world. We’ll focus on the height of the Indian Ocean control over international trade, roughly around the 13th to 14th centuries. We start in the city of Aden. Aden is a major trading city located in modern-day Yemen, right on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula and at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean. Its location means that practically anything from Northern Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, or the Middle East has to pass through this city. Silks and spices from China enter the Mediterranean though Aden, as do gunpowder and ideas like paper money. It’s largely occupied by Persian traders, who dominate international trade through Islamic trade networks and has even been visited by ambassadors of the Chinese emperor.

So, a trading ship at Aden loads up all of the European products – the glass and wine and minerals – and sets off. Its first destination? The east coast of Africa, which at this time features a series of Swahili city-states. The Swahili people are African traders whose culture is a mixture of African, Arabic, and Hindu customs, thanks to their frequent contact with all of these groups along the trade routes. They live in complex societies organized around an urban center and are more than happy to buy the wine and minerals, as well as lumber and other items. In exchange, they sell gold from the Saharan gold trade, as well as slaves from the interior.

From the Swahili city-states, our ship sails north to Gujarat, a major trade center in northwest India. This region is home to the oldest settled societies in India, and Gujarat is one of the oldest trading ports in the world. At one point, Islamic armies attempted to conquer it, but failed. Now, it has a substantial Muslim population, who maintain the trade relations with the Arabian Peninsula. In Gujarat, the ship picks up Indian spices and jewels, exchanges Islamic books for some in Hindi, and continues sailing south.

From Gujarat, we sail along the Malabar Coast of west India. Like Africa’s coastline, it is filled with trading cities and ports that offer various goods from India’s interior. Compared to many other parts of India, the Malabar Coast is fairly diverse, thanks to the various merchants from around the Indian Ocean who set up shop in these ports. We’ll follow the coast all the way down to the southernmost tip of India, picking up spices, textiles, and minerals along the way.

After reaching the tip of India, we’ll sail east, past Sri Lanka and towards the Straits of Malacca, just south of Malaysia. This is the quickest way to get from the Indian Ocean into the waters of and trade routes of China, and along the way we’ll stop at the major trading city of Malacca itself.

Malacca is located at the narrowest point on the Straits, so you really can’t hope to make it to China without stopping here, paying your import and export taxes, and doing a little trading. If we want, we can go all the way to China, but so many Chinese products are already here, as well as Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean goods, that it’s not necessary for this trip. We unload the last of our wares, trade them for spices, silks, and Chinese ceramics, and head back through the Indian Ocean to Aden. We sell our new supplies along the way, until unloading the last of them in Yemen and starting the journey all over again.

Lesson Summary

For roughly 700 years, the Indian Ocean was the center of the greatest international trade network the world had ever seen. First truly rising around 800 CE and maintaining its dominance until the 1500s CE, these networks connected the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent in one massive cycle of trade. Products from Europe and the Middle East entered through the Red Sea and trading ports like Aden, which is located in modern-day Yemen. From there, they could be traded to the Swahili city-states of the east African coast, or go west to the Indian trade city of Gujurat and then along India’s Malabar Coast. In order to leave the Indian Ocean and access China, these products had to pass through the Straits of Malacca, south of Malaysia. From East Asia to the Red Sea, products, people, and ideas passed through the Indian Ocean for centuries. Now that’s how you do international trade.