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Exchange in the Indian Ocean for AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

16 min read

Oct 17, 2023




Trade has significantly influenced our history and our world. The exchange of goods, ideas, and technology in the Indian Ocean changed lives. Read the Google Slides to learn more about the exchange in the Indian Ocean.

Illustrative Examples

City-States of the Swahili Coast


Sultanate of Malacca

map of Indian Ocean

Exchange in the Indian Ocean

Exchange in the Indian Ocean, historically and even in contemporary times, has been a dynamic and integral part of global trade, culture, and human interaction. The Indian Ocean has served as a vital maritime highway connecting the diverse civilizations and cultures that surround its shores.

Historical Significance: The Indian Ocean has been a hub of trade and cultural exchange for millennia. It facilitated the movement of goods, people, and ideas between regions like the Indian subcontinent, East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Europe.

Early Maritime Routes: Ancient maritime routes in the Indian Ocean included the Spice Route, which connected the Indian subcontinent with Southeast Asia, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean. Another important route was the Incense Route, which linked southern Arabia with the Mediterranean.

Cultural Exchange: The Indian Ocean trade network allowed for the exchange of languages, religions, art, and architecture. This facilitated the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other belief systems. The architecture of Southeast Asian temples, for example, bears the influence of Indian designs.

Spices and Luxury Goods: The Indian Ocean was known for its prized commodities such as spices (cinnamon, pepper, cloves), gemstones, textiles, and other luxury items. These products were in high demand in various parts of the world, which made the region economically significant.

Dhows and Junks: The traditional boats, dhows in the Arabian Sea and junks in the South China Sea, played a vital role in facilitating trade and travel. These vessels were capable of navigating long distances, carrying goods, and promoting cultural exchanges.

Causes for the Expansion of Maritime Trade

  1. Collapse of the Mongol Empire

  2. Commercial Practices

  3. Reliability of Monsoon Winds

  4. Technological Advances

The Collapse of the Mongol Empire

The collapse of the Mongol Empire had various effects on Indian Ocean trade, although it was not the sole factor influencing trade dynamics in the region.

Disruption of Overland Routes: The Mongol Empire had facilitated the movement of goods and people across the vast Eurasian landmass. Its collapse, along with the decline of the Mongol-controlled Ilkhanate, disrupted overland trade routes that connected the Mediterranean and Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. This led to a reorientation of trade routes and a shift in the balance of power within the region.

Emergence of New Trade Hubs: The collapse of the Mongol Empire prompted the emergence of new trade hubs and the revitalization of existing ones. For instance, the city-states of the Swahili Coast (e.g., Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar) became prominent centers of trade and cultural exchange.

Chinese Maritime Expeditions: During the Ming Dynasty in China, the collapse of the Mongol Empire coincided with the beginning of the famous maritime expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He. These expeditions expanded Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Red Sea and Persian Gulf Trade: The Red Sea and Persian Gulf regions saw increased trade activity, as they became key transit points for goods traveling between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Emergence of Maritime Empires: The collapse of the Mongol Empire coincided with the rise of powerful maritime empires, such as the Sultanate of Malacca and the Portuguese Empire. These empires played significant roles in Indian Ocean trade, affecting trade dynamics and routes.

Commercial Practices

The increase in maritime trade across the Indian Ocean was possible because of innovations in commercial practices. First, trade was self-regulated. No one empire controlled trade. This meant merchants could move freely and only pay taxes when necessary. The freedom from regulation allowed them to adjust the supply to fit the demand quickly.

Second, the emergence of banking houses allowed people to access their money in different places. “Flying money” describes depositing money in one place and withdrawing it elsewhere. Paper money also made transporting wealth easier. Paper money wasn’t the cash we use today. They were promissory notes that people could exchange for money at a different location. Over time, merchants began trading the notes without turning them into money. The Chinese government even started issuing promissory notes to save money making new coins. Banks could also give notes of credit, similar to a loan. This paper money and promissory notes were helpful because there were different types of money all around the Indian Ocean.

Reliability of Monsoon Winds

Monsoon winds are seasonal wind patterns. In the Indian Ocean, the summer months bring the wet monsoon season. The winds blow to the northeast, making it a good time to travel from East Africa to India because the wind is blowing in that direction.

In the winter, it is the dry monsoon season. The wind blows to the southwest, making it a good time to travel from India to Africa.

By timing their travel to the monsoon winds, traders could travel faster and avoid unpredictable weather.

Trading hubs also developed in places that were convenient because of the monsoon winds. For example, Calicut in India and Zanzibar in Tanzania became key trading ports.

Technological Advances

Junks and Dhows

Lateen Sail


Magnetic Compass


Junks are a type of traditional sailing vessel that have played a significant role in maritime trade, especially in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian regions.

Origin: Junks originated in China and have a long history dating back to ancient times. They are often associated with Chinese maritime culture.

Design: Junk boats have a unique design featuring flat bottoms with multiple hulls, providing stability in rough waters. They have a distinctive appearance, with high masts and a large number of sails. The sails on junks are typically made from woven bamboo or other natural materials.

Size: Junks come in various sizes, ranging from smaller coastal vessels to larger oceangoing ships. Some larger junks were massive, capable of carrying substantial cargo.

Function: Junks were versatile vessels used for both coastal and long-distance voyages. They were primarily cargo ships, transporting goods like tea, porcelain, silk, and spices. Junk fleets were known to engage in trade across the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as East Africa.

Sailing Abilities: Junks were renowned for their seaworthiness and stability. They could navigate open seas, and their design allowed for efficient sailing against the wind.


Origin: Dhows are traditional sailing vessels that originated in the Indian Ocean region. They are closely associated with the maritime cultures of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

Design: Dhows are known for their distinctive lateen sails, which are triangular and set at an angle to the mast. They have a single hull and are typically made of wood.

Size: Dhows vary in size, with some being small fishing boats and others being larger trading vessels. The larger trading dhows were used for transporting goods across the Indian Ocean.

Function: Dhows served multiple purposes, including fishing, transportation, and trade. They were crucial for the trade of goods such as spices, textiles, and precious metals along the Indian Ocean’s trade routes.

Sailing Abilities: Dhows were well-suited for sailing downwind with the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. Their lateen sails allowed them to tack efficiently, making them agile vessels for both coastal and open-sea navigation.

Lateen Sail

A lateen sail is a type of triangular sail that is set at an angle to the mast and is most commonly associated with traditional sailing vessels in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and other regions with strong and consistent winds. The lateen sail is characterized by its distinctive shape, which allows it to efficiently capture the force of the wind and convert it into forward motion for the vessel.

Triangular Shape: The lateen sail is a triangular sail that is attached to a long, diagonal yard (a spar) known as the “lateen yard.” The forward edge of the sail is attached to the mast, and the sail extends aft, forming a triangular shape.

Versatility: Lateen sails are highly versatile and well-suited for a variety of sailing conditions. They can be adjusted to capture wind from various angles, making them effective for sailing both upwind and downwind.

Efficiency: The lateen sail is known for its efficiency, especially when sailing downwind or with the wind at an angle. It allows vessels to make use of the wind’s force to propel them forward effectively.

Maneuverability: Lateen sails provide good maneuverability to sailing vessels. The ability to adjust the sail’s angle to the wind allows for agile tacking and gybing, making it easier to navigate and change direction.

Historical Use: Lateen sails have been used for centuries and are associated with various types of vessels, including Arab dhows, Mediterranean feluccas, and caravels during the Age of Exploration.


An astrolabe is a historical instrument used for various purposes, including navigation, timekeeping, and astronomical measurements. It has a long history dating back to ancient times.

Navigation: One of the primary uses of the astrolabe was for celestial navigation. Sailors and mariners would use it to determine their latitude at sea by measuring the angle between a celestial body, usually the sun or a star, and the horizon. This information helped them calculate their position on the Earth’s surface.

Astronomical Measurements: Astrolabes were essential tools for astronomers and scientists for making measurements of celestial objects. They could be used to determine the positions of stars, planets, and other celestial bodies in the night sky.

Timekeeping: Some astrolabes had features for telling time, including the position of celestial bodies in relation to the local time. These features were important for various timekeeping purposes, such as scheduling events or determining prayer times.

Design: The astrolabe has a distinctive design, typically consisting of a flat, circular plate with various scales, dials, and pointers. It has a sighting mechanism, such as an alidade, which is used to measure angles between celestial bodies and the horizon. The back of the astrolabe often featured various inscriptions and scales for performing calculations.

Types: There were different types of astrolabes, including the mariner’s astrolabe, which was designed for use at sea, and the quadrant, which was a simplified version of the astrolabe. Variations existed in different regions, reflecting local needs and preferences.

Historical Significance: The astrolabe played a significant role in the Age of Exploration and the expansion of maritime trade routes. It allowed sailors to navigate across oceans and explore new territories.

Evolution: Over time, the astrolabe underwent various improvements and refinements, making it a versatile and precise instrument. These advancements contributed to its enduring use and relevance.

Decline: The astrolabe eventually fell out of common use with the development of more advanced navigation instruments, such as the sextant and chronometer, during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Magnetic Compass

The magnetic compass was introduced to Europe in the 12th century CE. By 1200, maritime traders were consistently using the compass to navigate on ocean voyages. However, the Chinese invented the compass hundreds of years earlier. Around the 4th century BCE, the Chinese discovered that iron ore always pointed north. Over time, they developed the magnetic compass for use in navigation.

The earliest magnetic compasses were simply magnetized metal floating in liquid. The needle would automatically align itself to point north. Later, the compass rose, showing all of the cardinal directions was added to make navigation easier.

The magnetic compass was important to travel across the Indian Ocean because sailors could navigate even when they couldn’t spot landmarks. Better navigation meant less time on the water and fewer expenses for the traders.

Indian Ocean vs Silk Roads

Trade and cultural exchange dominated the Indian Ocean and Silk Roads. In both places, traders carried goods to new lands and brought their cultures and religions. However, the Indian Ocean connected much more diverse lands than the Silk Roads. The Swahili city-states, India, China, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia all took part in Indian Ocean trade.

While all religions spread due to the trade, Islam spread the most. It traveled as far as Indonesia. Buddhism also spread to Southeast Asia from India.

Traders didn’t travel the entire length of the Silk Roads. Instead, they would go back and forth along part of it as goods traveled from person to person. In the Indian Ocean, traders could travel farther. They even settled in some of the places they traveled, forming diasporic communities. These traders brought their cultures but adopted parts of the local culture.

Finally, maritime trade was so much cheaper than overland travel that traders could bring luxury goods and more common products.

Diasporic Communities

Arab and Persion communities formed in the Swahili city-states of East Africa.

Chinese communities formed in Southeast Asia.

Malaysian communities formed in the Indian Ocean Basin.

What They Traded

India: cotton, leather, stonework, spices (pepper from Calicut)

Malaysia and Indonesia: spices (cinnamon and nutmeg)

Swahili City-States: ivory, gold, enslaved people

China: silk and porcelain

Southwest Asia: horses, figs, dates

The Swahili City-States

The Swahili city-states were a network of urban centers along the eastern coast of Africa, stretching from present-day Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south. These city-states emerged as important trading hubs and cultural centers during the early centuries of the first millennium CE and thrived until the colonial period.

Location and Geography: The Swahili city-states were situated along the Swahili Coast, which bordered the Indian Ocean. This region included parts of modern-day Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Somalia, and other neighboring areas.

Origins: The city-states have ancient origins, with evidence of urban settlements dating back to the first few centuries CE. They were strategically located along maritime trade routes, allowing them to engage in trade with various regions, including the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, and even China.

Trade and Commerce: Trade was the lifeblood of the Swahili city-states. They were part of a vast Indian Ocean trade network and served as intermediaries in the exchange of goods such as gold, ivory, timber, spices, gemstones, and exotic wildlife with traders from different parts of the world.

Culture and Society: The Swahili city-states were culturally diverse, with a mix of indigenous African, Arab, Persian, and Indian influences. Swahili culture, a blend of Bantu and Islamic elements, was characterized by its language (Swahili), architecture, dress, and cuisine. The majority of the population practiced Islam, and the city-states featured mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools).

Maritime Expertise: Swahili sailors were skilled navigators who used dhows, traditional sailing vessels with lateen sails, for their trade and exploration. They were known for their ability to navigate the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean.

The Swahili City-States and the Indian Ocean

As more traders sailed across the Indian Ocean, the Swahili City-States transitioned from farming and fishing villages to trading hubs. Some of the most important were Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa. Not only would traders from the Indian Ocean come to the city-states to trade, but other civilizations from the interior of Africa would bring goods. Swahili rulers became rich by taxing the trade.

The traders brought goods, but they also brought their culture and religion. Islam spread to the Swahili city-states and soon became the dominant religion. Muslim traders also settled there, forming diasporic communities. Diasporic communities are people who come from the same place and have the same culture but are living in a different area together.


Malacca, also known as Melaka, played a crucial role in the Indian Ocean trade network during the 15th century. Located on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, Malacca served as a vital trading port that connected the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Geographic Location: Malacca’s strategic location made it a central point of convergence for trade between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. It was situated on the narrowest point of the Strait of Malacca, through which all maritime trade between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea had to pass. They charged a tax on every boat to pass through the strait.

Trade Hub: Malacca became a bustling trade hub where goods from various parts of the world were exchanged. Valuable commodities, including spices, precious metals, silks, ceramics, gemstones, and other luxury items, flowed through the city.

Cultural Exchange: The city’s prominence in trade led to a vibrant cultural exchange. Malacca was a melting pot of diverse cultures, with influences from the Indian Ocean world, China, the Middle East, and Europe. It was also a center of Islamic culture and scholarship, with a strong influence of Islamic traditions.

Trade Routes: Trade in Malacca was primarily maritime, with merchant vessels from the Indian Ocean, including those from the Middle East and India, making port calls in the city. Trade winds and monsoon patterns were crucial for the timing and success of voyages in the region.

Strategic Control: The control of Malacca was of immense strategic importance. It allowed the dominant power in the region to regulate and tax trade passing through the strait. Various empires and states, including the Srivijaya Empire, Majapahit, and eventually the Malacca Sultanate, sought control over Malacca.

Portuguese Conquest: In 1511, the Portuguese under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque captured Malacca. This marked the beginning of European control over the region and the decline of Malacca’s significance as a trade center. The Portuguese established a base at Malacca, which became an important link in their global trade network.


Calicut was a city along the southwest coast of India. It was an important trade port, and it was famous for its unique spices, such as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger.


Gujarat was a city along the northwest coast of India. It was an important trade port between the East and the West. It became incredibly wealthy from the taxes it charged on traded goods.

Zheng He

Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, was a Chinese explorer, diplomat, and admiral during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. He is renowned for his seven voyages, which were massive naval expeditions that extended China’s influence across the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

The Seven Voyages: Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven expeditions, known as the “Treasure Voyages.” These voyages aimed to establish and consolidate Chinese influence, foster diplomatic relations, and promote trade across the Indian Ocean.

Fleet and Crew: Zheng He’s fleet was immense, consisting of hundreds of ships, including massive treasure ships (the largest were believed to be around 400 feet long) and support vessels. He commanded a crew of tens of thousands, including sailors, soldiers, diplomats, and scholars.

Destinations: Zheng He’s voyages took him to various destinations, including Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Persian Gulf, the east coast of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. He visited ports, conducted diplomacy, and established relationships with local rulers.

Diplomacy and Trade: Zheng He’s missions were primarily diplomatic and focused on promoting trade, gathering tribute, and securing alliances. He brought back exotic goods to China, fostering a cultural exchange.

Religion and Multicultural Crew: Zheng He’s fleet was diverse, with individuals from different regions, ethnicities, and religions. His expeditions facilitated the spread of Chinese culture, knowledge, and, in some cases, Islam.

Legacy and Impact: Zheng He’s voyages demonstrated China’s maritime prowess and its reach across the Indian Ocean. They played a crucial role in strengthening China’s influence in the region. However, after Zheng He’s death, the expeditions were discontinued, and China turned inward, focusing on domestic issues.

End of Voyages: Zheng he stopped exploring after the emperor who sponsored his voyages died. The new emporer found them wasteful. He was more concerned with the Mongol threat in the north. Zheng He’s ships were left to rot and the navy was destroyed.

Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan scholar, explorer, and traveler who is widely regarded as one of the most remarkable adventurers in history. He is best known for his extensive travels throughout the Islamic world and beyond during the 14th century.

Early Life: Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304. He came from a family of Islamic legal scholars.

Purpose of Travel: Ibn Battuta embarked on his journeys in 1325 at the age of 21 with the intention of performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious obligation for Muslims. However, his wanderlust led him to explore far beyond the holy city.

Extensive Travels: Over the course of 29 years, Ibn Battuta traveled through much of the known Islamic world, including North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. His travels covered over 75,000 miles and took him to over 40 modern-day countries.

Writings: Ibn Battuta documented his travels in a series of books known as the “Rihla” (meaning “Journey” or “Account”). His writings provide invaluable historical, geographical, and cultural insights into the places he visited.

Adventures: Ibn Battuta’s travels were filled with adventures and encounters with different cultures. He visited the courts of various rulers, experienced diverse traditions, and sometimes found himself in dangerous or challenging situations.

Historical Significance: Ibn Battuta’s journeys revealed the vast extent of the Islamic world and its interconnectedness during the medieval period. His accounts contributed to the knowledge of the medieval world and continue to be a valuable resource for historians.

Later Life: After returning to Morocco in 1354, Ibn Battuta dictated his travel experiences to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy. He lived the rest of his life in Morocco and held various administrative and judicial positions in the city of Fez.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo was an Italian merchant, explorer, and writer who is best known for his travels to Asia during the 13th century. His writings about his experiences in China and other parts of Asia became one of the most influential travel books in history.

Early Life: Marco Polo was born in 1254 in the Venetian Republic, which is now part of modern-day Italy. He was born into a wealthy merchant family, and his father and uncle were experienced traders.

The Silk Road: In 1271, at the age of 17, Marco Polo, along with his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, embarked on a journey to the East. Their travels took them along the Silk Road.

Kublai Khan’s Court: The Polos traveled through the Middle East and Central Asia, ultimately reaching the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of the Yuan Dynasty in China. Marco Polo served as an emissary and official in Kublai Khan’s administration for several years.

Return to Europe: After spending about 17 years in the East, the Polos decided to return to Europe. They embarked on a sea voyage, reaching Venice in 1295. Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels were later compiled into a book known as “Il Milione” (The Travels of Marco Polo) or simply “Marco Polo’s Travels.”

Influence: Marco Polo’s book became a bestseller and had a significant impact on European exploration and geography. It introduced Europeans to the vast wealth and culture of Asia and inspired other explorers like Christopher Columbus.

Debate and Controversy: Some aspects of Marco Polo’s account have been the subject of historical debate and skepticism. Some scholars have questioned the accuracy of certain details in his descriptions.

Later Life: Marco Polo became involved in Venetian politics and was even imprisoned during a conflict between Venice and Genoa. He married and had three daughters.

Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe (c. 1373-after 1438) was an English Christian mystic, visionary, and author, best known for her autobiographical work, “The Book of Margery Kempe.” Her life and writings provide valuable insights into the religious and social dynamics of medieval England.

Early Life: Margery Kempe was born into a well-to-do merchant family in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England, around 1373. She received a conventional education for a woman of her time and married John Kempe, with whom she had 14 children.

Mystical Experiences: Margery Kempe claimed to have experienced intense mystical and religious visions, often involving conversations with Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. These experiences were accompanied by extreme emotional outbursts, including tears and loud wailing.

Spiritual Journeys: Margery embarked on a series of pilgrimages and spiritual journeys to various holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land. She visited Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and other religious destinations, often undertaking these journeys with her husband or other companions.

Controversial Figure: Margery Kempe’s behavior and claims of divine revelation often put her at odds with religious authorities and the local community. She was accused of being a religious fanatic, a heretic, and sometimes a nuisance due to her loud expressions of devotion.

The Book of Margery Kempe: Around 1436, Margery dictated her life story and spiritual experiences to scribes (she could not read or write), producing “The Book of Margery Kempe,” which is considered one of the earliest autobiographies in the English language. It provides a unique perspective on the life of a medieval English woman and her mystical encounters.

Themes: The book delves into various themes, including Margery’s spiritual struggles, her fervent devotion to Christ, her experiences of motherhood, and her encounters with clergy and religious authorities who challenged her claims. Her writing reflects a deep and intense personal spirituality.

Would you prefer to watch a video about the Networks of Exchange?

Unit 2: Networks of Exchange

AP World History

Exchange in the Indian Ocean

#APWorldHistory #IndianOcean

Cate O'Donnell

16 min read

Oct 17, 2023




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