Global Geographies: the Indian Ocean in Historical Perspective

Research objectives: The seminar seeks to develop a theoretical and practical framework for understanding pre-modern trade and cultural exchange between the countries contiguous to the Indian Ocean.

Context and rationale: The research context of this proposal is the substantial amount of historical and archaeological work conducted around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean over the last four decades. Some of this work has been carried out by British Academy sponsored organisations, i.e. BIEA, BIPS and the Society for South Asian Studies (now BASAS). To date, however, most of the work has been conceived, funded and published in regional or national frameworks. Although inter-regional and international links have been noted as findings have emerged, few efforts have been made to study the wider historical picture or to analyze data-sets within broader geographical, historical and religious themes.

Trade and exchange across the Indian Ocean has deep historical roots. The movement of people and goods can be traced to at least the second millennium BCE, with volumes increasing substantially in Roman times. This is shown by numerous Roman finds in the port and hinterland cities of western India and Sind, as well as the adaptation of Ptolemaic astronomy in India in the early centuries CE. There seems to have been a gradual abatement in the centuries prior to the rise of Islam, after which links across the Indian Ocean were reactivated. The consolidation of the Delhi Sultanate under the Tughluqs in the fourteenth century led to an intensification of activity, encouraged in part by the institution of pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.The fourteenth century also witnessed much expansion toward South East Asia and China.

The ways in which the Indian Ocean brought together an array of societies with different histories, economies, languages and religious traditions over several thousand years makes any study centered on the Indian Ocean a daunting task. The complex nature of the subject necessitates a careful focus on a specific period and set of research problems. For the seminar in October, the participants intend to look at the late antique period from the Roman occupation of Egypt to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century CE. This timeframe is justified in that it starts during the heyday of eastwest trade and ends with the appearance of Islam, a new political and socio-religious dispensation that fundamentally changed the geographical horizon and dynamics of movement across the Indian Ocean.

Indian Ocean Archaeological and Historic Sites

Top Left - Ivory plaque from Brahminabad, Pakistan. Courtesy of the Department of Asia, British Museum (Bellasis Collection 1857.11-18.6)