Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean

By Patricia Risso | Go to book overview

6 Interpretations of the Muslim
Era in the Indian Ocean

The introductory chapter posed questions relevant to the intersection of Islamic and Indian Ocean histories. The answers offered here, by way of conclusion, attempt to achieve a synthesis of the material in the foregoing chapters and reflect wide-ranging scholarship.


What Were the Relationships Between
Littoral Asia and Land-Based Empires?

In 1573, when the Mughal emperor Akbar was in the seventeenth year of his reign, he visited the newly conquered coast of the Gulf of Cambay, where the ports of Cambay and Surat were located. It was the first time he had ever seen the ocean. 1 The conquest of Gujarat meant that local port revenues could now accrue to Akbar's administration, but it also meant that the goods produced in Gujarat had a larger overland market in the direction of Delhi. There was no immediate change in Mughal maritime policy as a result of either the conquest itself or Akbar's visit; it was left to Akbar's successors to make modest increases in the Mughal fleet. The story conveys an image of a land-based ruler tentatively approaching the maritime world, and the image seems to capture the essence of the Asian imperial relationship to the Indian Ocean.

Historians of Asia and historians of the Indian Ocean region rely on each other's work in rather limited ways, a situation that is partly an artifact of land-based imperial priorities, reflected in documentation. Perhaps the best-known example concerns the Ming maritime expeditions. The fact that there were such expeditions is significant, but the official records of them are unrevealing, making it difficult to reconstruct motivations and objectives. In the Islamic context, an example with the same sort of ambiguity might be the history of the Karimi merchants, whose rise and demise remain obscure. Also, historians of the Ottoman or Ming empires, for example, rely heavily on the voluminous archives of those regimes. Historians of the Indian Ocean must rely, far more than they would like, on the archives of European trading companies and, es

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