The Effects of Indian Ocean Commerce


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 1

 Explain the effects of the growth of networks of exchange after 1200.

Historical Development 1

Expanded Indian Ocean trade led to new interactions between distant cultures. 

Historical Development 2

In key places along trade routes, merchants set up diasporic communities and introduced their own cultural traditions into the indigenous cultures.


New Interactions Between Distant Cultures

Indian Ocean commerce reshaped societies across the Indian Ocean through new contacts between distant peoples and new communities that merchants established outside their homelands (diaspora). While the long-term impacts of this trading system were global, East Africa and Southeast Asia experienced the most direct effects between the 10th and 15th centuries.

New cross-cultural interactions were a significant impact of Indian Ocean trade. These interactions were crucial in the spread of religions and philosophical systems, technology, and cultural systems.

Zheng He Brings Chinese Exploration East

In 1405, China undertook a series of naval expeditions that brought the Chinese government, not just Chinese merchants, as had previously been the case, into direct contact with faraway peoples. The Chinese eunuch ( a man who has his sex organs removed) admiral Zheng He led the voyages. 

  • Zheng’s goal was to extend China’s power and prestige to new areas and control foreign trade across the South China Sea. 
  • He also sought to enroll distant peoples into China’s tribute system.  
  • Zheng He’s first voyage consisted of over 300 vessels and 27,000 crew members. 
  • Zheng visited ports in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Arabia, and East Africa throughout his journeys. Several foreign rulers returned with Zheng He to China, where they would perform submission rituals to the Chinese emperor, who would give them gifts and grant them trading rights with China. 
  • The expeditions also returned with exotic foreign products, including animals like zebras and giraffes.

The end of large Chinese maritime voyages

After the first Ming dynasty emperor died, Zheng He’s voyages ended. The new Chinese emperor viewed them as wasteful. The new emperor believed that China’s resources were best used to protect China’s northern border from nomadic tribes. After all, China had just defeated their nomadic Mongol conquerors a few decades before, and China’s new leadership did not want a repeat performance.

Zheng He’s fleet was left to rot in port, and the greatest navy the world had ever seen laid destroyed. Old Confucian thought that devalued merchant activity and believed that China had everything it needed and gained little from the outside world was also present in this decision.

Long term impacts of Chinese decision to end large maritime voyages

The long-term impacts of this decision were immense. When Europeans arrived in the region in the 16th century, they recognized the profit potential of trade moving through the area. With no significant power like China exerting control over commerce, the Europeans moved in to begin controlling and profiting from the region’s trade. Over the next 400 years, Europe would dominate trade in the Indian Ocean region. Had China maintained its naval fleet, they could have provided a check on European expansion in Asia, and the area’s history may have unfolded very differently.

Merchant Diaspora Communities

As merchants moved throughout the Indian Ocean network, they established diaspora communities (communities of immigrants living away from their homeland). Through these diaspora communities, merchants introduced their cultural traditions into local indigenous cultures. Often native customs and outside traditions existed side by side in relative peace, and local communities sometimes even adopted new practices and beliefs from the merchant diaspora.

Historical trend :Diaspora communities cause change throughout history: the Turks reshaped the Islamic world in the Middle East and Chinese diaspora spread Confucian values throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Significant Indian Ocean Diaspora Communities

Arab and Persian communities

Arabs and Persians lived in East Africa, along the West Indian Coast, and in Southwest Asia. They brought Islam and Islamic culture to the settled areas. Swahili’s city-states became predominantly Islamic, India remained predominantly Hindu, while Southeast Asia slowly became predominantly Islamic after the 15th century as Hinduism and Buddhism lost favor.

Chinese communities

Chinese moved into Southeast Asia and brought Confucian values to the areas in which they moved. However, women in the region retained higher degrees of freedom than women in China. It was common for women in Southeast Asia to be heavily involved in commerce and family finances. Women were also artists, gladiators, poets, artists, religious teachers, and warriors in the Angkor kingdom.

Malay communities

Malay spread out across the Indian Ocean region and brought their language, which became the dominant language of commerce in the Eastern Indian Ocean. The Malay language also found its way into non-Malay cultures’ literature, such as in Java in Indonesia. The Malay diaspora also had a prominent role within Indian Ocean commerce. After Europe’s takeover of trade in the area, European financial records refer to Malay traders with respect markers, which Europeans did not use for other non-Malay traders.

Indian and South Asian communities

Indians living in Southeast Asia had the most significant impact on the region. The various great Southeast Asian powers between the 1st and 15th centuries had either Hindu or Buddhist monarchies. Other Indian cultural elements common in the area included the Indian language of Sanskrit and Indian literature, such as the Hindu epic the Ramayana.