Trade Across the Indian Ocean Led to New Interactions Between Distant Civilizations
As the Indian Ocean trade network grew, societies thousands of miles apart began interacting directly. These interactions led to the increased spread of cultures into new areas. As these cultures interacted, they combined to create new blended cultures.
The voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He
In 1405, China undertook a series of naval expeditions that brought the Chinese government, not just Chinese merchants, into direct contact with faraway peoples. The Chinese eunuch (a man with his sex organs removed), Zheng He, led the voyages.
The goals of the expeditions: 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.
The voyages: Zheng went on seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433. His first voyage consisted of over 300 vessels and 27,000 crew members. Zheng’s travels took him to ports in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. 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 Zheng’s expeditions: After the first Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperor died, Zheng’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 like their previous Mongol conquerors, who they had just driven out of China a few decades earlier. Old Confucian ideas devalued merchant activity and believed that China had everything it needed and gained little from the outside world were also present in this decision.
The loss of China’s fleet was a disastrous decision: Zheng’s fleet was left to rot in its port, destroying the world’s greatest navy. The long-term impacts of this decision were immense. Europeans arrived in the Indian Ocean region in the 16th century and recognized the profit potential of trade moving through the area. With no significant naval power exerting control over commerce, the Europeans moved in and used weapons to begin taking control of the region’s trade by force. Over the next 400 years, Europeans slowly took over the region’s economic and political systems. China could have fought against European expansion in Asia if it had maintained its naval fleet.
Foreign Merchant Communities Living Outside Their Homeland Spread Their Cultures
Communities of merchants lived outside their homelands (diaspora communities) across the Indian Ocean. These communities spread their cultures into the areas in which they moved. Often these outside cultures became a part of the native culture. In some situations, such as Islam in East Africa and portions of Southeast Asia, it became the dominant culture over time.
As merchants moved throughout the Indian Ocean network, they established diaspora communities (communities of immigrants living away from their homeland). Merchants introduced their cultural traditions through these diaspora communities into local indigenous cultures. Native customs and outside traditions usually existed together peacefully. Local communities, over time, adopted some practices and beliefs from the merchant diaspora.
Communities of people outside their homelands have been important causes of change throughout history. In the 13th century, Turkish Muslim converts from Central Asia reshaped the Islamic world when they migrated to the Middle East and attacked the Abbasid Empire, weakening the hold of Arab Muslims over the Islamic world. Turkish political dynasties dominated much of the Muslim world between North Africa and India for the next 500 years.
Influential Trading Cities Arose Across the Indian Ocean
Wealthy and influential trading cities arose around the Indian Ocean. These cities were relay points from which goods were sold and passed between merchants. Diaspora merchant communities most often lived in these significant trading cities.
Cities served as hubs of exchange and relay stations for exchanging goods in the Indian Ocean.
Cities have had essential roles throughout history. They are centers of trade, governance, artistic production, technological advancements, and cultural exchange.