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Teaching John Ovington's A Voyage to Surat in the Year 1689 in the AP World History Course
Peggy J. Martin
Del Rio High School
Del Rio, Texas
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With its strong emphasis on commercial and cultural interactions, the Advanced Placement World History course is enriched by student exposure to the accounts of traders and travelers. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, Indian Ocean trade provided the stage for a rich drama of commercial and cultural interchanges. The Indian Ocean tale weaves together encounters among South Asians, East Asians, Islamic peoples, Africans, and Europeans, and thus provides an ideal opportunity to emphasize both emerging globalization and contacts between many cultures. One account of such interactions is provided in “The City of Surat and Its Inhabitants,” an excerpt from John Ovington’s A Voyage to Surat in the Year 1689.1 Ovington’s travelogue provides students with a European trader’s point of view as he confronts the world of Islam during the Mughal rule of India. Its themes and habits of mind supplement the study of the years 1450-1750.2 The selection fits into the greater global context by challenging students to place themselves in the position of a meeting of the Western and Islamic worlds against a backdrop of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations.

The contextual background. Prior to receiving the Ovington source, my students read textbook selections on Indian Ocean trade from the 15th to the 18th centuries as well as on the Mughal empire. They also read Lynda Shaffer’s “Southernization,” an essay that provides background information about Indian Ocean trade. 3 By this point in the second semester of the course, students have had numerous opportunities to examine both primary and secondary documents and have written several document-based essays. During the course of instruction in dealing with documents and responding to document-based essay questions, they have been taught to recognize and analyze point of view and bias, to identify the audience to whom the document is addressed, and to define the purpose of the source.

The framework of the analysis. After reading the document selection as a homework assignment, students work in pairs to proceed with the analysis. To complete their analyses, students organize their work using APPARTS, an organizational framework for document analysis published by the College Board. The acronym APPARTS stands for Author, Place and time, Prior knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance. Each item in the acronym is followed by brief questions that direct the students’ focus on that element of point of view or bias. I ask them to discuss the various tasks in the analysis with their partner; each then writes an analysis of the document. My role is to assess student performance by reading selections from their work as the analysis proceeds.

The Analysis. Presenting students with the Ovington document within the Kishlansky collection provides them with the advantage of reading an introductory background sketch of the author and his connection to the world of Indian Ocean trade. My students then proceed to the prior knowledge section of the APPARTS model. Here they are required to produce a paragraph detailing their own background knowledge on the nature of the Mughal Empire and of trade in the Indian Ocean during the time period addressed. After accomplishing this task, students continue analyzing the document.

In order to facilitate the remaining steps in the analytical process, I instruct students to use highlighters to mark significant passages as they once again read through the document. I have them highlight passages in the document that deal with place and time, audience, reason, and the main idea. After each student highlights the article, he or she compares the highlighted passages with those of his or her partner, discussing any differences between them. Students then work individually to write an analysis of the document using the APPARTS format.

Class discussion. After students analyzed the Ovington source, I gave them copies of Vasco da Gama’s account of his voyage of 1497-1499 and a letter written from India to Rome by Saint Francis Xavier in 1549. 4 Upon reading the additional documents, the entire class engaged in a discussion of the different points of view of these documents, which perceived the Indians and Muslims as inferior, and that of the Ovington source, which displayed a more accepting attitude toward the culture of Mughal India. Class members were guided in the discussion by the following instructor-generated questions:

  • How do the accounts of Da Gama and Saint Francis Xavier characterize the Indians and Muslims in India? How do their characterizations differ from Ovington’s?
  • What information do the Da Gama and Saint Francis Xavier accounts convey concerning the dominance of Portugal in Indian Ocean trade in the late 15th and 16th centuries? How do their accounts differ from the opinion of Ovington regarding European commercial influence in India?
  • How do the three sources describe the attitudes of the Indians and Muslims toward European infiltration?
  • What factors might have influenced the points of view of Da Gama and Saint Francis Xavier?
  • What changes, if any, between Indian and European relations can be inferred between the time period of the Da Gama account and that of Ovington?

By this point in their study of point of view and bias, most students readily pick up on the significance of the different time periods of the three selections and their relationship to attitude change. Some students point out that the familiarity of prolonged contact with diverse peoples promotes heightened tolerance, while others comment on the initial disinterest of the Eastern world in Western products as well as the progression of European political control in the Indian Ocean as factors of change.

Student assessment of the source. As a final step in the analytical process, students make inferences from the Ovington document to determine its significance in the global arena, especially:

  • How might Ovington’s opinion of relations between the Mughals and foreigners as well as his description of the volume of trade have influenced future English commercial policies in the Indian Ocean?
  • How might his analysis of the relationship between language diffusion and control have affected English policy toward the establishment of the English language in India under the Raj?

My assessment of the assignment. The Ovington source worked well because the author’s perspective provided key insights into the relationship of Europeans and non-Westerners in the commercial arena in the 17th century. Students should be alerted in advance, however, to the possibility that the author’s possible lack of financial success in England may have somewhat biased his perception, prompting him to exaggerate certain aspects of life in Mughal India. The reading level of the document is manageable for high-school students, making the source appropriate for an Advanced Placement course. The experience that students acquired through analyzing point of view was particularly useful to the analysis of additional documents. I have only given this assignment once; in the future I plan to add to my students’ prior conceptual knowledge by assigning chapter 5 in Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700. 5 Another helpful source with exercises on document analysis is What is Evidence? a valuable resource to prepare students for the examination of primary sources. 6 Even without the use of these two resources, however, the Ovington document allowed students ample opportunity to utilize their skills of primary source analysis while presenting to them a snapshot of the active trade in the Indian Ocean basin.

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1 John Ovington, “A Voyage to Surat in the Year 1689,” in Sources of World History II, 2nd ed., ed. Mark A. Kishlansky (New York, Wadsworth-Thompson, 1999) p. 108.
2 Unit Three corresponds to the “Emergence of the First Global Age, 1450-1770,” elsewhere in World History Matters.
3 Lynda Shaffer, “Southernization,” Journal of World History, 5/1 (1994): 1-21.
4 The Da Gama source is at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1497degama.html, and the Xavier source is at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1549xavier2.html.
5 “South Asia and the Indian Ocean,” in Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700, ed. David R. Ringrose (Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2001) pp. XXX.
6 Chris Hinton, What is Evidence? (London, John Murray Publishers: no date).

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