Indian Ocean: Centre Stage of Future History

From empowering the Indus valley-era to modern geostrategic considerations, the third largest ocean has been responsible for the ascent of several civilisations
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi  

The Indian Ocean has been at the centre of world history ever since we knew it. Man originated in Africa, probably somewhere in the Olduvai Gorge in present day Tanzania – where Homo Erectus lived 1.2 million years ago and where the first traces of Homo Sapiens, our more recent ancestors having evolved only about 200,000 years ago. The first phonetic languages evolved around 100,000 years ago. The migration of mankind out of Africa began almost 60,000 years ago.

But we don’t call the Indian Ocean the African Ocean because first recorded activity over it began only about 3,000 years ago. Three great early recorded activities of this period come to mind. The first is the Indus Valley Civilization. It was a Bronze Age civilization (3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1900 BCE) in the Northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent. Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early civilizations of the Old World, and of the three the most widespread.

The Indus civilization’s economy appears to have depended significantly on trade, which was facilitated by major advances in transport technology. It may have been the first civilization to use wheeled transport. These advances may have included bullock carts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today, as well as boats.

Most of these boats were probably small, flat-bottomed craft, perhaps driven by sail, similar to those one can see on the Indus River today; however, there is secondary evidence of sea-going craft. Archaeologists have discovered a massive, dredged canal and what they regard as a docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal now in Gujarat. Judging from the dispersal of Indus civilization artifacts, the trade networks, economically, integrated a huge area, including portions of Afghanistan, the coastal regions of Persia, northern and western India, and Mesopotamia. There is some evidence that trade contacts extended to Crete and possibly to Egypt.

There was an extensive maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations as early as the middle Harappan Phase, with much commerce being handled by “middlemen merchants from Dilmun” (modern Bahrain and Failaka located in the Persian Gulf). Such long-distance sea trade became feasible with the innovative development of plank-built watercraft, equipped with a single central mast supporting a sail of woven rushes or cloth.

The second great economic activity was Slavery. Slavery can be traced back to the earliest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), which refers to it as an established institution. Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations, as it is developed as a system of social stratification. Slavery typically also requires a shortage of labour and a surplus of land to be viable.

Bits and pieces from history indicate that Arabs enslaved over 150 million African people and at least 50 million from other parts of the world.

Later they also converted Africans into Islam, causing a complete social and financial collapse of the entire African continent apart from wealth attributed to a few regional African kings who became wealthy on the trade and encouraged it.