The Human Story – The Indian Ocean Trade Network

Today we will be discussing the trading network that was prevalent in the Indian Ocean and provided a crucial method of exchange during the significant increase in trade in approximately 500 – 1500 CE. This article will focus on a system rather than individuals, groups of people or nations. Many world history books, classes and television programmes tend to zero in on the people whose actions have shaped the course of history and influenced our ancestors’ lives and whilst it may be interesting to note that when Pedro I (1320 – 1367) was crowned King of Portugal, he had the remains of his late mistress dug up to be crowned as well, or that King Charles VI of France (1368 – 1422) believed, at times, that he was made entirely of glass, we lose focus and forget that the common people of history also helped forge it.

The Trade Winds

The Indian Ocean trade network was much like the Silk Road in that it was a system of trading routes that connected people who had goods with people who wanted goods and were willing to pay for them. Just as the Silk Road was never just a single road, there were lots of long distance trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting various port cities all around the Indian Ocean basin, stretching from Java and Canton in the East to Zanzibar and Mombasa in the West. The Indian Ocean Trade Network was bigger, better and included more diverse players than its Eurasian land-based equivalent. However, this trading system is much less famous than the Silk Road, probably because it does not have a catchy name attached to it.

Trade in the Indian Ocean dates back millennia and there was an extensive maritime trading network operating between the Indus River Valley Civilisation (Harappan) and the Mesopotamian civilisations as early as the middle Harappan Phase (2600 – 1900 BCE) with much of the commerce being handled by middlemen in the Persian Gulf.

However, it did not truly take off until the seventh century CE and by around 700 CE there was a recognisable major trading network in place around the Indian Ocean basin, but it really blew up between 1000 – 1200 CE. The Indian Ocean Trade Network did experience a bit of decline during the heyday of the Mongol Empire when overland trade became safer and cheaper, but then it surged again in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

So, just who was trading in this intricate network of port cities dotted around the Indian Ocean? The Swahili city-states of East Africa, the Islamic Empires of the Middle East, India, China and the principalities and states of South-East Asia. At this point, it should be noted that the states of Europe are not on this list… which is probably a contributing factor as to why the Indian Ocean Trade Network is probably not as famous as the Silk Road: the Eurocentrism view of world history strikes again!

If you were an ornament maker in fourteenth century China and needed some ivory to craft an intricate ivory ornament, then you would have to trade for it as elephants are only found in India and Africa. One of the reasons that the Indian Ocean Trade Network took off is that there was a massive range of resources available and a wide range of import needs from ivory to timber to books to grain. But, the most important factor in the emergence of the Indian Ocean maritime trading network as being as important as it was, was due to winds.

The Indian Ocean is home to a set of special winds known as the Monsoons. Generally, when we think of monsoons, we tend to think of them in the context of the rains in the Indian subcontinent but rather than thinking of them as rains we should picture monsoons as the winds that bring the rainy season. The great thing about seasons is that they are predictably cyclical and come around regularly, as do Monsoon Winds. If you were a thirteenth century sailor, you could count on the wind to take you from Africa to India if you set sail between April and September. Likewise, these winds could be counted on to take you back if you sailed between November and February. These winds were so reliable that early maritime travel guides often listed the times of departure down to the week and sometimes even down to the day!


Predictable winds made trade much less risky. For example, back in the days when the only power available to ships was sails and oarsmen, the cargo may not arrive in time, or may be spoiled by the time of disembarkation, or perhaps the ship would be lost to shipwreck. All of these were bad for the health of global economic trade. However, predictable winds led to lower risk which led to cheaper trade which, in turn, meant that more people could participate and benefit from the Indian Ocean Trade Network.

There are a few more aspects of Indian Ocean trade that are worth mentioning. Indian Ocean trade incorporated many more people than participated in Silk Road trade: there were Muslims, Jewish people, people from Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, South East Asia, India and China all sailing around the Indian Ocean and setting up trading communities where they would act as middlemen trying to sell for more than they had bought and trying to buy new stuff that they could mark up to sell.

Despite all this diversity, for the most part, especially in the western half of the Indian Ocean basin, the trade was dominated by Muslim merchants. Why? Well, largely because they had the money to build the ships, although in the fifteenth century the Chinese state could have completely changed that balance.

Bulk Goods to Philosophies – What was Traded

As previously mentioned, we tend to think that states, governments and those who ruled them are the real movers and shakers of world history but that is not always the case. In the Indian Ocean, the terms and conditions of trade were set by the merchants and dictated by the demands of the market and not by the whims of the political and religious leaders of the regions. The self-regulating nature of this oceanic marketplace was astonishing and pretty much unprecedented. Perhaps the most incredible aspect is that, a few pirates besides, this whole commercial enterprise was remarkably peaceful. For the better part of seven hundred years these merchant ships were free to sail and trade without the protection of any state’s navy, even though some astonishingly valuable goods and cargoes were being traded.

The great advantage that seaborne trade has over land-based trade is that you can trade goods in bulk like foodstuffs, cotton cloth and timber that is all too heavy to strap to the back of a mule or camel and march them for hundreds of miles across inhospitable terrain. For the first time, we see goods being traded for mass markets instead of just luxury goods for the elites of society like silk. For example, wood can be used to erect houses and buildings but there is not all that much timber to be found in the barren Arabian Peninsula. However, when it becomes cheaper due to bulk trade then suddenly more people can have improved housing.


Much of the timber that was shipped throughout the Indian Ocean Trade Network came from Africa, which is kind of emblematic. Africa produced a lot of raw materials like timber, gold, animal hides and ivory, whilst the Swahili city-states imported finished goods, such as silk and porcelain from China and cotton cloth from India. Spices and rice were shipped from South East Asia, especially Sri Lanka where black pepper was a primary export. The Islamic world provided everything from books to coffee to weapons.
It was not just goods and products that were transported around the Indian Ocean basin, however. Technology also spread too. Technologies like the magnetic compass, which was crucial if you wanted to know where you were headed, came from China and dated back as far as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Additionally, Muslim sailors popularised a device called the astrolabe which made it easier to navigate by using the stars. The sternpost rudder, another Chinese invention, made it easier for crews to steer ships and this technology quickly found advocates throughout the Indian Ocean. One of the most important technologies to be used in the Indian Ocean Trade Network was the triangular lateen sail which allowed ships to tack against the wind. Dating back to Roman navigation, the lateen sail was introduced into the trading network by the Islamic world and meant that a skilled crew could make their way through the ocean even if they did not have a particularly strong tailwind.

Just as with the Silk Road, philosophies and ideas also travelled throughout the Indian Ocean basin. For example, today there are more Muslims living in Indonesia than in any other country on the planet, and knowing what you have already learned about the spread of Islam and the growth of trade then it will come as no surprise to learn that Islam spread to Indonesia during the times of the Indian Ocean Trade Network.

After the 1200s, the region, which had been heavily influenced by the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism became increasingly Islamic as the ruling elites began to adopt the religious practices of the incoming merchants. As has happened so often throughout history (think of the Islamisation of West Africa) the leaders of a region adopted the religion of merchants so that they could have religious as well as economic ties to the people that they were trading with.

A Lesson from History

The conversion of a region to Islam, where it continues to flourish to this day, is a pretty massive deal to world history. However, Islam did not take hold as effectively in other South East Asian countries as it did in Indonesia. The religion did not spread to Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam for one simple reason and that is because they were not centres of trade.

So, just how does an area become a centre for trade exactly?


Between the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra lies a narrow 890 km stretch of water, which is still one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, known as the Strait of Malacca which acts as a choking point for trade. Any city that controlled this channel could stop any ships from travelling through it, or at least tax them. This is exactly what happened to such an extent that a powerful merchant state called Srivijaya emerged and rose to prominence on the island of Sumatra.

For a while, Srivijaya dominated trade in the region because there were so many ships using the straits to get to and from China. However, this trade began to decline in the fifteenth century and with it, so did the Srivijayan Empire.

This leads us onto an especially important point about the Indian Ocean Trade Network, which is that it was essential to the development and growth of certain powerful city-states like those of the Swahili coast and the empire of Srivijiya. Without the riches brought in by trade, these places would never have existed, let alone become wealthy and powerful regional powers. Trade was of such huge importance to these places because they could tax it, through import and export duties or port fees but the fact that they are no longer places of great importance just proves the fact that trade is a pretty weak foundation on which to build a polity, even a small one. There are a multitude of reasons for this, for example, high taxes may motivate traders to find alternative routes. However, the main reason that trade is such a poor base for society is that it relies upon trade… this makes the society susceptible to the peaks and troughs of the global economy.

The legacy of the South East Asian market kingdom lives on in the city-state of Singapore, for instance, but one of the great lessons to be learned from cities and states that have declined or disappeared is that there is usually a town or country nearby that is eager to take your place and happy to offer lower taxes. It is almost as if the merchants and markets decide where the shakers and movers of history go, rather than the other way around.

The Rest is History.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease

One thought on “The Human Story – The Indian Ocean Trade Network”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s