Indian Ocean Region Essay

Change and Continuity of Commerce in the Indian Ocean Region from 650 CE to 1750 CE. The Indian Ocean has always been a powerful trading region, between East Africa and China, that has caused religion, crops, languages, and people to spread. Through the rise and fall of powerful land and sea empires, trade routes shifted and control switched hands numerous times over history. The goods have remained fairly constant, compared to the traders and the powers behind them that changed from 650 C.E. to 1750 C.E. Spices, textiles, manufactured goods, and raw goods were staples on the many of the routes that led from the coast of Zimbabwe all the way to the ports of China. Early traders from Polynesia even traveled to Madagascar. With the rise of Islam and of the Mongol Empire, overseas trade slowed slightly because of the importance of the Silk Road as the main connection between China and Europe. However, as the Mongols declined, the Indian Ocean trade became more important to the empires or kingdoms of China and the regional powers of India.

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The Chinese Ming Dynasty engaged heavily in foreign trade and they displayed their wealth with giant treasure ships and junks that sailed the day from China through the port of Malacca to the east coast of India. The ships carried silk and porcelain, goods that were in high demand in Europe and Arabia. The ships also picked up spices and hardwoods from Southeast Asian islands. In India, the majority of these goods were sent on dhows to the Arabian Peninsula, stopping at major important ports like Aden, and then continuing on to East Africa and the Swahili Coast states of Mogadishu, Kilwa, and Sofala. The ships sailed according to the monsoons, they then returned loaded with gold and ivory from Africa, to China where the cycle would restart. Eventually states like Gujurat and Calicut grew in importance in manufacturing and the textile production of cotton. The powers around the Indian Ocean remained in control, until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. While Silk Road trade with Europe was thriving, Europeans wanted to cut out the Arab middlemen and get direct access to Asian goods.

As the tools of navigation developed and new nation-states sought after trade and exploration, Portugal led the continent in the race to Asia. When Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498 by sailing around the tip of Africa, he was greeted with a mocking laughter of people he needed to trade with and was turned down most of the goods he had to trade. The powerful merchants of Gujarat and neighboring states were used to the highest quality goods so they did not want to trade with Gama’s poor quality goods. However, before long, Portugal took over almost all trade in the Indian Ocean, establishing ports like Goa in India and controlling strategic areas with their imperialistic manner.

Around the same time, Britain also began its expansion and joined with joint-stock companies like the Dutch East India Company. They proceeded to dominate the region as well, taking land they thought suited their purposes. The sea empires and the cut off of foreign trade by the Ming dynasty did not greatly change the products traded, but did affect the overall trade system. Goods were now produced for the success of mercantilist people in European countries, not for the enrichment of local powers. While the trade routes and the goods that passed through them may not have been greatly changed, the impact of the European trading empires and the decline of nations like India and China changed who benefited from Indian Ocean trade and who were mostly involved.

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