The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean


In this stimulating and authoritative overview, Michael Pearson reverses the traditional angle of maritime history and looks from the sea to its shores - its impact on the land through trade, naval power, travel and scientific exploration. This vast ocean, both connecting and separating nations, has shaped many countries' cultures and ideologies through the movement of goods, people, ideas and religions across the sea. The Indian Ocean moves from a discussion of physical elements, its shape, winds, currents and boundaries, to a history from pre-Islamic times to the modern period of European dominance. Going far beyond pure maritime history, this compelling survey is an invaluable addition to political, cultural and economic world history.


Seas and oceans cover roughly two-thirds of the surface of the globe. Since time immemorial they have provided mankind with food. In our own age they have been found to contain a rich diversity of resources whose exploitation remains a matter of contention. But the waters of the world are more than a prime instance of nature’s munificence, or a handy dumping ground for the refuse of civilisation. They can be formidable obstacles to societies lacking the will or the means to cross them. Equally they can be a powerful stimulus to technology and a challenge to the skills of those who, for any reason, seek to use them. They can unite the cultures and economies of widely dispersed and radically different peoples, allowing knowledge, ideas and beliefs to be freely transmitted. The ports that develop along their littorals often have more in common with one another than with the states or communities in which they are sited.

Yet since seas are in themselves so rich, and since for centuries they alone gave access to the wealth of many distant regions, land powers have put forward ambitious claims to exercise authority over them. In Europe the justification or denial of such title has concerned thinkers and apologists since the days of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Economic, political or strategic necessity, real or imagined, stimulated the growth of navies, which became formidable expressions of the power of the modern state. Seaborne commerce entailed the construction of ships which, however propelled, were for long among the most expensive and technologically advanced products of contemporary economies. The shipping industries of the world support a labour force whose social organisation and way of life radically differ from those of the rest of society.

But there is more to the history of the sea than the impressive chronicle of man’s triumph over the elements, or of battles fought, freight’s carried and ships launched. Everywhere seas and oceans have had a significant cultural influence on the civilisations adjoining them.

These themes, and much else besides, are examined by Michael Pearson in this illuminating and authoritative book. Professor Pearson is internationally renowned for his innovative studies of the Portuguese pioneers in India and for his stimulating writings on the Indian Ocean and maritime history in general. In this new and fascinating work he brings together the fruits of a lifetime’s scholarship. The learning . . .

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