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Indian Ocean History

Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center

Reviewed by:
Kristin Lehner
Johns Hopkins University
October 2010

The Indian Ocean has been a zone of human interaction for several millennia, boasting a 1,500-year history of active high-seas trade before the arrival of Europeans in 1498. This website seeks to enhance the profile of Indian Ocean history, long neglected relative to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in both academic study and world history courses. To do so, it provides more than 800 primary sources, as well as ample contextual information and lesson plans, as a teaching tool for Indian Ocean history in upper elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. It is easily the most comprehensive website for studying and teaching Indian Ocean history currently available.

Primary sources, including maps, objects, and excerpts from travelers’ accounts and official documents, are accessible through seven chronological maps ranging from the Prehistoric Era (90,000 BCE to 7000 BCE) to the present. These primary sources, along with contextual information on commodities, peoples and cultures, trade and migratory routes, and the environment, are embedded into the maps through eight icon classes: documents, technologies, places, goods, geography, routes, travelers, and objects. These icons, numbering more than 50 for each map, are distributed in relevant geographic locations. Clicking on an icon calls up a short primary source excerpt and/or between one and three images, as well as some contextual information.

The choice to embed sources and historical context into these maps and within these categories—there is no central database that collects all the sources—is one that has both benefits and drawbacks.

The decision to organize chronologically highlights the website’s emphasis on a “Big History” approach to world history. The website begins its narrative of Indian Ocean history in 90,000 BCE—well before the Foundations era (8000 BCE to 600 CE) that serves as the beginning of the AP world history curriculum. As such, users are encouraged to understand the Indian Ocean as a longstanding zone of intercommunication and cultural diversity.

The Prehistoric Era map, for example, highlights scientific investigations into genetic markers that have been used to trace human migrations out of Africa and into the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, Eurasia, and Australia. This “Big History” approach also foregrounds the environmental factors that helped shape the nature of trade in later eras. Clicking on the “geography” icon for “Monsoon Cycle,” located on the map near modern day Sri Lanka, for example, calls up detailed information on seasonal variations in the Indian Ocean.

Presenting website materials chronologically, accompanied by a timeline of world events below every map, also allows users to understand and visualize change over time across eras. As the maps are static, however, it is much more difficult to understand changes within eras. Though the development of trade is easily traceable through the route markings across the Prehistoric, Ancient, Classical, and Medieval eras, it is more difficult to understand who was trading what with whom and when within the First Global Era map. There, trade route markers stretch down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, and across the entirety of the southern Indian Ocean and on into Australia.

Given the proliferation of icons representing both primary and secondary sources and trade routes, these maps are best used in conjunction with the website’s teaching and contextual materials. The historical background essays, which match up with the chronological subdivisions of the maps, direct users to the prominent themes within a given time period, and introduce important places and trade goods within each era, which, in turn, help direct user exploration of the maps.

The teaching materials, including useful graphic organizers, provide ample suggestions for scaffolding student inquiries into the maps. Also useful are the brief guides to teaching with genres of primary sources, accessible by clicking on the icons in the icon key in the bottom left corner of each map. Unfortunately, the existence of these guides is only apparent after reading the “How to Use this Site” section—a document necessary for any teacher planning to use this website.

The source categories themselves provide the opportunity for following up on prominent themes in Indian Ocean history. Users might examine the “Technologies” icons across eras to see how developments surrounding navigation and ship construction gave rise to particular patterns of trade. These categories, however, perhaps also serve as a constraint—limiting thematic exploration of the website to trade goods and routes, technologies, and traders. Many of the documents also focus on trade regulations—reflecting a dominant trend in scholarship on Indian Ocean history. Monographs such as Engseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean, Sugata Bose’s A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, and Pier Larson’s Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora might be useful alongside this website’s resources, as they emphasize the importance of mobility for cultural, religious, and political exchange in the Indian Ocean region. A “search” toolbar located on the upper right-hand corner of the maps, presents the opportunity to explore these themes.

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