Connecting Continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange

A taster, what seems like a cupboard stocked with little nuggets of information about trade around an ocean that connects Asia, Africa and the middle East, where commodities such as spices, gemstones, ivory and ceramics have been exchanged for over five thousand years.

It wasn’t until the first Century AD though that people understood the ocean currents and monsoon winds, which would shape the pattern of trading until the steamship in the Nineteenth Century. Merchants would live for 6 months in port cities and travel back with the prevailing winds.

The first thing you see as you step into the small room is a boat and figures made from cloves, from the Indonesian Spice Islands, that were popular from the seventeenth century onwards. The exhibits on show are complimented by images from sailors, travellers and pilgrims, all of whom traversed this mighty ocean along with the merchants, who’s ships bulged with people, culture and religions, ideas and beliefs as well as goods such as pottery, plants, food and luxury goods such as gold and ivory from Zanzibar and Bagamoyo, used for piano keys and billiard balls.

For much of the time beads were used both as a form of money as well as decoration, as were cowrie shells, which are impossible to forge and which were used widely. However incredibly, their value depreciated between 1897 and 1902 from 200 to 1 rupee to 1200 to 1 rupee.

Into this complex and established network sailed the Europeans, as they rounded the Cape, hunting for spices such as nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon and pepper to take back to a hungry and excited population back home, which they did so in vast quantities from the sixteen hundreds onwards. As their empires moved in they moved people for infrastructure projects and plantation labour using a form of indenture, where workers from South East Asia and China worked to pay for their passage, as East Indiamen, built for large quantities of cargo, joined Chinese Junks and Arabian Dhow’s riding the ocean currents and winds.

The exhibition and interest in the ocean as a focus, has formed from work of a growing body of scholars, inspired in part by the work of Fernand Braudel on the Mediterranean, which uses seas and oceans as the geographical setting for research, over and above continents and land based regions. Although goods were originally traded along coastal routes, ships were soon traversing the ocean, creating the need for ports and trading centres to cater for an ever increasing array of merchants and sailors. A travel route along the coastal route of this network, although almost impossible today given where it would traverse through, would provide some fascinating insights into the historical and current impact and influence of the ocean on it’s shores. Paul Theroux did something similar, travelling around the coast of the Mediterranean in his 1996 book, the Pillars of Hercules

There is much much more to say here, and in the end this small exhibition can merely give a taster, and like the first time a European tasted pepper and enthused the what and wherefore’s that would eventually lead to pushing the boundaries of the known world, hopefully this will lead to people learning more about the history of this mighty Ocean.

The exhibition, Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange is on in room 69a of the British Museum until the 31st of May


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