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Last updated: 10:06:53 PM GMT(+03) Friday, 09, November, 2012

The Indian Ocean and the Secrets of the Deep


Irena Knehtl


Today the Indian Ocean region has emerged as political, economic and strategic power base set to transform the face of global economy. The challenges are formidable. The opportunities are as many as the Indian Ocean itself.

The Indian Ocean in History

The vast geographic spread of the region, combined with the enormous spectrum of human activity within it, has obscured the fact that culturally and historically the lands of the Indian Ocean form a distinctive region. The Indian Ocean region contains a variety of cultures and peoples varying from nomadic, tribal peoples to highly technological urban communities.

Civilizations emerged at various times and places around the Indian Ocean in distinctive core area each with its own separate origins, yet all have undergone various types of interchange with other cultures of the region. The core civilizations have retained their regional identity, whilst at the same time they have enriched and been enriched by neighboring cultural zones to form a larger region within which one can trace the historical perspectives of such processes.

Human activity along the shores of the Indian Ocean can be seen as operating from southern Africa to Yemen and from Southern Arabia and westwards for at least five thousand years leading to a constant intermingling of cultures, race, languages, religions and trading goods. The Indian Ocean itself has been an important avenue for this complex pattern. Sometimes these folk movements have ended at specific points on the Ocean shore. Sometimes the migrating people have taken to the sea and traveled to more distant parts of the littoral or to the islands of the Ocean.

Against this background of population movement, which continued over the millennia, urban civilization begun relatively early along the Indian Ocean littoral compared with other regions. Each of these areas formed links in the giant chain of human activity which stretched along the littoral of the Indian Ocean. Each of the links in the chain represents a distinctive core area of civilization which, as a result of various processes of cultural interchange, is linked to a neighboring core area of civilization. The degree of cultural interchange varied, and varies, greatly but for the greater part of history of human activity in the region the processes of such interchange have taken place along the littoral curve of the Ocean.

The movements of peoples across the Indian ocean, within and between core cultural areas, was one of the major agents in the earliest forms of cultural interchange. The process gained further momentum with the Arab discovery of the secrets of the Ocean – particularly the monsoon winds – and refined ship building techniques. Foremost among them were Yemenis. The process of human maritime expansion constantly interwined with land-based migration of people on the littoral and both processes added to the growing complexity of the core culture. A settled civilization developed and prompted the growth of trade within what used to be than a “Yemeni” Indian Ocean region.

Certainly maritime trade was an important feature of the earliest great empires of the Middle East, and by the first millennium B.C. the Indian Ocean trade was a regular feature of the economic life of that area. Our knowledge of the movement of people and goods around the Indian Ocean region is more detailed from the fourth century B.C onwards. Clear signs of a new type of cultural interchange began to emerge. At the Mediterranean end of the empire good from the Indian Ocean region – silk, cotton, textile, rare timbers, ivory, exotic spices and slaves – were in great demand.

At the beginning of the Christian era, the Western Indian Ocean was interlocked with the Mediterranean in a profitable commercial systems. Greek, Roman, Indian, Arab and Iranian merchants traded directly between East Africa and the Indian sub-continent via the Middle East. Such trade led to the first Arab and Iranian settlements on the coast of East Africa, and also to the establishment of Arab, Iranian and Roman coastal trading centers on the Indian sub-continent.

By the fourth and fifth centuries A.D, the last centuries of the Roman Empire, the patterns of cultural interchange were set. Obviously the intensity and degree of the contact between the zones varied. There is much evidence of contact between East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. After the collapse of the Western Roman empire in the fifth century, the basic pattern of trade remained only the emphasis and direction shifted. The Middle East still supplied Byzantium and Iran with good from the Indian Ocean region and Arab and Iranian traders increased their activity in the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka. This commercial interest in turn reinforced the activity of Indian merchants in Southeast Asia and the Malay World as middlemen for Arab and Iranian merchants.

Thus merchants involved in the maritime trade of the region were not simply agents for Europe or China but were equally involved in the passage of goods between the various internal markets of the Indian Ocean littoral. This spread of Middle Eastern and Indian mercantile activity eastwards had far-reaching repercussions. It confirmed the role of pre-Islamic Arab and Iranian merchants as the major participants in the maritime trade of the Indian sub-continent, such as Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as on the coast of Sri Lanka.

The emergence of Islam in the seventh century A.D. as a major world religion and syncretic culture, was to have profound effect on many of the Indian Ocean cultures. The establishment of a great Islamic empire which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus valley gave impetus to an intellectual and commercial renaissance which was to have repercussions from the North Sea to the Pacific. The core Islamic civilization which emerged had varied origin. The land formed a new dynamic cultural system which was rapidly exported eastwards and westwards to mingle with more ancient non – Islamic cultures. Elsewhere Islam spread along the maritime trade routes and established itself in the pre-Islamic Arab and Iranian trading settlements along the coast of East Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka. Muslim merchants – from the Middle East and South Asia – sailed eastwards in increasing number and Muslim settlements began to grow in Sumatra and Java.

Mediterranean Europe had long been in contact with the Indian Ocean region, classical Egypt, Greece, Rome and later Byzantium, than Medieval and Renaissance Europe had maintained links with the Indian Ocean. At times these were direct, but more often indirect via the trading peoples of the Middle East. By the fifteenth century direct contacts between Europe and the Indian Ocean were non-existent. Through the barrier of Muslim lands separating the two regions goods, myths and rumors of fabulous wealth entered Europe and eventually tempted European rulers and merchants to find their own direct route to the fabled land.

When the Portuguese appeared in the Indian Ocean in the last decade of the fifteenth century they thought it was a "Muslim lake". Wherever they went, the Portuguese met Islam in a variety of guesses; Swahili, Arabic, Iranian, Indian, Malay, merchants, peddlers, princes, sailors, craftsmen and peasants. In the attempt to achieve maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean the Portuguese disrupted the old patterns of cultural interchange. At the same time in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent mighty Islamic empires were established which paralleled and checkmated the rise of Portuguese power.

Elsewhere in the Indian Ocean cultural dynamism was far from dead. Whatever the “failure” of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, they nevertheless began a new process of culture exchange. Their greatest legacy was that they joined Europe and the Indian Ocean region in a new economic nexus which, in time, led to more far-reaching processes of cultural interchange. The Middle East was eliminated as the great exchange center between Europe and the Indian Ocean region. For the first time the peoples of the region were placed in direct and continuous contact with European civilization.

During the nineteenth century Britain emerged as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region, and acquired a huge territorial empire. As European colonies developed various types of labor intensive economies there was a chronic shortage of labor in some areas. However, the old core civilizations were not destroyed, but all had a different experience as a result of this confrontation. Boundaries often at odds with ethnic, cultural and linguistic boundaries fragmented the old core areas, ostensibly discounting their basic cultural unity.

It was the expansion of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam which helped to define the boundaries of the “world” which by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was one of the most prosperous and culturally complex regions on earth. By the sixteenth century Europeans were part of this “world” as partners in trade with the indigenous peoples. But from eighteenth century this economic relationship changed as the economies of the Indian Ocean “world” and began its integration, as region into the global economy and its territorial division among various European powers.

This transition altered the ancient web of regional cultures. The Ocean was no longer a major force binding the peoples on its shores in a self-conscious entity, but the legacy of the past is still evident in their common religious, cultural and historical experience.

The Indian Ocean countries are rich in human and natural resources, a fact recognized long before the recent importance of oil. The Ocean is also an important source of food and the sea bed is repository of minerals such as manganese, nickel, cooper, cobalt, molybdenium, zinc and lead.

Nehru, the late Prime Minister of India wrote about the importance of the Ocean for the Indian continent. India's destiny, Nehru said, can be fulfilled in its entirely only when India becomes again a seafaring nation. We have developed this "continental psychology" which is that of aloofness and narrowness of vision. But when we open ourselves, out nation, to the sea on the three sides of this great land and play our part there and interact with people, inhabiting this Ocean and beyond, than India can fulfill its destiny.


It has been said that the 21st century, is the century of the Oceans. In fact, the present world system has been characterized as an "oceanic system" marked by the use and the control of the sea on a global scale. With the larger part of the globe covered with oceans, it is not surprising that the sea should be such a major factor in economics, politics and international relations. It has indeed been a major factor from ancient times.

Today the Indian Ocean region has emerged as political, economic and strategic power base set to transform the face of global economy. The challenges are formidable. The opportunities are as many as the Indian Ocean itself.
Here are some:

To focus the attention not just on the products or technologies, but also to recognize and identify the complete technological systems. We can hope to make substantial headways in today world only by building up our own "civilizations resources", even while we may be borrowing specific things from outside.

The matters relating to airlines, shipping, satellite, communications, banking and tourism, deep sea mining, wave tidal energy from the sea, or working out economics for electricity production… are equally strong arguments for regional cooperation.

There is scope for greater cooperation in searching out regional economic complementariness in the area of market for goods, cooperative industrial and resource development and regionally generated investment funds.

Countries of the Indian Ocean region should look to their own interest down the path of regional cooperation and seek out new qualities in relationship and cooperation.



The Arab mariners who crossed the Gulf of Aden to the island of Socotra in the "Sea of Zinj" and further after the last sky, they used to call it the "Sea of Barbara" and the "Land of Jaifuni". Its waves are… blind waves. When the waves go high, they are as high as the mountains, and when they go down, they are like deepest valleys.

When they were in the middle of the sea, they would recite a few lines of rajaz poetry:

… Barbara and Jjaifuni, and your insane waves…
… Jaifuni and Barbara… the waves are as you see them…

The Arabs accepted the world was round – encompassed in an ocean, than air, than fire, another ring of air and a final ring of fire. They also recognized an invisible sense of unity streaming from the trade network and sea based political alliances.

The process of cultural exchange and fusion will continue. The modern communications and the multiplication of media facilities, combined with the political and economic exigencies of the Indian Ocean region, have encouraged new patterns of cultural exchange based on the old core areas and the culture of the some European inhabitants in the region.

Southern Arabia from where once the Arab mariners sailed in the Indian Ocean, and in particular, Yemen, is once again placed in the position of a go-between or bridge in the Indian Ocean community, now fastest growing behind the Asia – Pacific Rim.

Countries such as South Africa, India and Australia, Kenya have emerged a major importance to Yemen. The presence of Singapore, Maldives, Mauritius, Comoros has potential to provide significant benefits in the areas of micro project management, infrastructure development, distribution, centers and strategies for attracting and retaining foreign investment as well as development of selected service sector.

Yemen, for example, now openly in search for expanding opportunities for economic cooperation among the Indian Ocean countries. Due to its location across the Horn of Africa, at the entrance of the Red sea and the Indian Ocean, Yemen occupies a strategic position. To the south it joins together with the Indian Ocean into a vast commercial and strategic unity, i.e. the Indian Ocean community and linking emerging opportunities and markets including investment and trade.






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