Indian Ocean Trade: Route, Network & History

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  • 0:03 The Indian Ocean
  • 0:29 History of Indian Ocean Trade
  • 2:07 Trade Routes
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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.

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.

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