What Was the Indian Ocean Trade Network?

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The Indian Ocean trade network was a system of maritime trade routes that connected China, India, Thailand, the Indonesian and Malaysian islands, East Africa and Arabia. It dates back at least to the third century B.C. and involved ancient empires like the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty.

Along this network, triangle-sailed dhows took advantage of seasonal monsoon winds to navigate well-traveled trade routes, carrying silk from China to Rome and Arabia and ivory from Africa to China. With the domestication of the camel, the network spread inland throughout Persia and India, and it connected with the European Silk Route to bring goods from East Asia to the entire western world.

In addition to goods, religions and ways of thought traveled along the network. Islam spread to Indonesia, East Africa and India in this manner, while Buddhist thought and Confucian philosophy was carried to Europe. When piracy rose up along the coast and in the small, densely-jungled islands separating the Indian and Pacific Oceans, China developed a strong anti-piracy navy to protect its trade.

Europeans entered and later dominated these trade routes after Vasco da Gama’s navigation of the African Cape of Good Hope. When the Portuguese found they had little the Asians and Africans were interested in trading, they turned to conquest and piracy. The Dutch East India Company entered the Indian Ocean shortly thereafter and followed a similar pattern of conquest and bullying. Over time, the Europeans largely took over these trade routes and established maritime empires.