The Indian Ocean has a long history as a crucible of empire. Today, the oceans of the Asia-Pacific are at the heart of strategic competition and political consciousness, in a way that they have not been since the 19th century.
Traversed from ancient times by sailors who mastered the reversing monsoon winds, the Indian Ocean was no tabula rasa for European chartered companies to reshape in their own image. Long before the arrival of Europeans, merchants from western India’s Kutch moved money and traded in cloth and cloves along the coast of East Africa and in Zanzibar; Tamil Muslims established themselves in Kedah of Malaysia and in port cities across Southeast Asia; Chinese ships visited every port on the ocean’s rim.
The Portuguese entry into the Indian Ocean was made possible by lethal cannons made of sturdier metal; they sailed on ships furnished with effective navigational aids. Their advance was sustained by Christian fervour and greed for Asia’s fabled wealth. Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape and crossed the Indian Ocean to arrive in Calicut in 1498. Under the leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque (1500-15), the Portuguese presence in Asian waters expanded. From their fortress at Goa (established in 1510), they expanded both east and west. In 1511, Albuquerque captured Melaka, “that vast sea’s emporium” where the Bay of Bengal met the China Sea. Having failed to capture Aden in 1513, Portuguese forces took Hormuz, gateway to the Arabian Sea, two years later.
Brutal, Portuguese power was concentrated at strategic coastal fortresses. Fragile, it never reached far inland. Violence was not unknown in the Indian Ocean before the arrival of Europeans; what was new were the claims of exclusive sovereignty that European chartered companies, backed by states and navies, asserted over land and sea. Conflict in a far corner of Eurasia spread to Asian water. In 1579, Dutch elites rebelled against their Spanish rulers, beginning a decades-long war. The Portuguese were under the Spanish crown, and arrayed against the Dutch revolt. The Dutch refused to recognise Portuguese sovereignty over the sea. The maritime highway between India and China became a corridor of conflict.
At the peak of its power in the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company combined commerce and militarism to devastating effect. The fusion of state power, commercial interests, and new institutional forms characterised the Dutch brand of capitalism. The Dutch took advantage of pre-existing networks to profit from inter-Asian trade, their settlements stretched from Nagasaki to Masulipatnam. They also used the force at their disposal, and an exceptional degree of brutality, to gain a stranglehold over the “spice islands” (Malukus). The Dutch imprinted their own need for labour upon established slave markets. In the process they increased the scale of the slave trade, and turned a regional traffic global: the Dutch empire took its captives to the Cape, and to Sri Lanka. Eventually, competing mercantilisms—the English variety with most success—eclipsed Dutch power altogether.
As its grip over India strengthened in the second half of the 18th century, the English East India Company ventured beyond India’s shores. This unleashed a substantively different sort of imperial connection between India and Southeast Asia. Indian troops were vital to the British conquest of Ceylon, to the short-lived British conquest of Java, and to British expansion into Burma in the 1820s. Under British domination, India was a linchpin of empire: from India, capital, labour and military force fanned out across the Indian Ocean. A series of bases around the ocean’s rim—from Aden in the west to Singapore in the east—secured British dominance. By the turn of the 19th century, the British dominated the Indian Ocean like no previous power.
Europe’s industrial revolution transformed both land and sea. The demands of British factories precipitated a rush for the commodities of the Indian Ocean’s frontiers—a rush for sugar and tea, rubber and tin, timber and cotton. Massive migration followed. In the 1830s, as political pressure mounted at home for slavery’s abolition in the British Empire, sugar planters looked to India and China for unfree labour. The demands of sugar underpinned the 19th century’s worldwide shift from enslaved African to indentured Asian labour. In all, 1.5 million indentured workers moved from India to destinations across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans—Mauritius, Natal, Trinidad and Fiji were among their main destinations. Alongside indentured labourers, tens of thousands of convicted prisoners from India were transported to Bencoolen, the Straits Settlements, and the Andaman Islands. They built roads, cleared forests, erected buildings, cultivated gardens, cleaned cities. The empire’s violent appetite for labour distinguished the mobility of the 19th century from earlier times.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was a turning point—“that dismal but profitable ditch”, Joseph Conrad called it; it inaugurated the age of the steamship. Most of the migration that followed went east from India to just three destinations: Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. As a very rough estimate, there were up to 28 million passenger journeys across the Bay of Bengal in the century after 1840. If you add to this the approximately 20 million Chinese who crossed the South China Sea to a wider range of destinations across Southeast Asia, we have one of the largest movements of people in global history. Their journeys were accompanied, on the other side of the sea, by tens of thousands of Gujaratis and Punjabis who moved to East Africa as traders and shopkeepers and as labour for the railways, and by hundreds of thousands of Chinese who crossed the Pacific to work in the goldmines and the cities of Australia and California.
Migrants destined for the plantations were accompanied by a diverse assortment of men and women who moved to the port cities—journalists and accountants, traders and shopkeepers, road builders and engineers. In South Africa, they were known as “deck passengers”. Among their ranks was a young lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who honed his tactics as a political activist far from India. In Rangoon, they made up 70 per cent of the labour force. The port cities were linked to each other, and to India, by the flow of information. Port cities around the Indian Ocean became centres of Tamil and Telugu, Urdu and Gujarati, Malay and Chinese print culture. Presses were polyglot, as were their staff. Articles were syndicated and copied, moving from shore to shore—and from newspaper to newspaper. In an era of mass migration, the Indian Ocean world gave rise to multiple, interlocking diasporas.
However densely woven the threads of culture and commerce across the Indian Ocean, the region’s fabric frayed in the 1930s and 1940s. Indian and Chinese migration to Southeast Asia reached both reached a peak in 1926-27. With the global economic depression, things began to fall apart. Violence broke out on Rangoon’s docks in 1930, as economic pressures spawned a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. States stepped in to restrict migration. Indian nationalist leaders, too, turned hostile to emigration, which they saw as no solution to India’s economic problems. They worried that the degrading treatment of Indians overseas would undermine India’s status in a world of nations. Even before the Second World War brought traffic across the Ocean to a standstill and forced hundreds of thousands to seek refuge, the era of mass labour migration was at an end. The maritime frontier had closed.
As the war ended and Asia’s new leaders attained or seized power from their discredited colonial rulers, there was consensus that citizens’ rights, and workers’ rights, would best be protected within national communities, with much stricter controls over entry and exit. In India and in Burma, this was accompanied by an economic turn inwards, towards state socialism and import-substitution. Circuits of migration that had taken people overseas were now reoriented internally: to build the roads and the steel plants and the dams that promised a brighter future to millions everywhere.
Almost everywhere around the Ocean’s rim, the post-war moment saw enshrined the assumption that one’s place of birth, where one lived, and where one belonged, should all overlap. This left large numbers of people in an uncomfortable position—migrants and their descendants had to find a place for themselves as “minorities” in newly created nations: for the Chinese in Indonesia, for Indians in East Africa, for Tamils in Sri Lanka, this process was accompanied by a sense of threat and even violence. Economic integration in the region reached a low ebb. At the Asian Relations conference held in Delhi in March 1947, the Burmese delegate expressed the fear that his country “was between two great powers”. It was “terrible to be ruled by a Western power,” he said, “but it was even more so to be ruled by an Asian power.” Newly independent countries turned, instead, to either (or both) of the blocs in the Cold War, and forged bilateral deals of trade and aid.
In the 21st century, it is China’s industrial revolution that animates the Indian Ocean. China’s industrialisation since the 1980s—the most rapid the world has ever seen—has been fuelled by an insatiable appetite for energy. In the decade after 1995, China’s energy consumption more than doubled, and it is forecast to double again in the next decade; the country now imports around half of its energy: over 80 per cent of those imports come through the Straits of Melaka. This dependence on the Indian Ocean’s shipping routes led former Chinese president Hu Jintao to lament China’s “Melaka dilemma”. By road and by rail, by pipeline and canal, China’s Indian Ocean policy seeks to circumvent the Straits of Melaka. In the process, the Chinese state has revived plans much beloved of British investors in the second half of the 19th century: plans to connect the Bay of Bengal directly with Yunnan. They are joined by Chinese plans to gain access to the Arabian Sea through the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Territorial conflicts in the South China Sea escalate, as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia each challenge Chinese claims to the Spratlys and other islands.
This naval battle took place off the coast of Swally near Surat in Gujarat between the English East India Company and the Portuguese. The English victory in this relatively small naval battle became historically important, as it ended Portugal’s commercial monopoly and led to the beginning of the English East India Company and its presence in India.
As India seeks to reassert its own primacy in the Indian Ocean, the echoes of history are profound. India’s naval fleet is based in Visakhapatnam, from where hundreds of thousands embarked for Burma in search of fortune in the early 20th century. In 2001, the establishment of the Andaman and Nicobar command consolidated India’s military presence in the islands that sit at the heart of the Bay—islands that were the symbolic territory of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Provisional Government of Free India during the Second World War. Seen from the newly militarised Andaman Islands—closer to Malaysia than to southern India, closer to Yunnan than Yunnan is to Beijing—the boundary between South, East and Southeast Asia has never been more tenuous.
A version of history has come to play a prominent role in both Chinese and Indian cultural diplomacy in the Indian Ocean. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative—a massive, transcontinental infrastructural push for connectivity—is accompanied by a coordinated push to gain UNESCO recognition for sites across the Silk Road, legitimising current plans with reference to deep civilisational bonds. India counters this with Project Mausam, a proposal to commemorate the Indian Ocean’s contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. The think tank India Foundation held a conference on the Indian Ocean in Singapore in 2016. India’s foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, used his opening address to suggest “reviving the Indian Ocean as a geopolitical concept”, taking “full advantage of the ties of kinship and family” that span the waters. Many speakers evoked a “shared history” of Hindu and Buddhist cultural links across South and Southeast Asia.
In these visions, the Indian Ocean is located simultaneously in the distant past and in the future. At the same time, a selective amnesia shrouds the region’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is plenty of discussion of civilisational bonds, plenty of optimism about trade; there is much less discussion of violence and vulnerability. It is natural to seek to emphasise the more edifying aspects of the past in trying to construct a better future; the problem is that the scars of the Indian Ocean’s history in modern times run deep. In recent months, a statue of Gandhi on the campus of the University of Ghana was torn down after protests from faculty and students who highlighted the Mahatma’s condescending view of Africans. Both from a deliberate British policy of “divide and rule” and as an unintended consequence of economic structures, the era of mass migration introduced new hierarchies to the Indian Ocean world: we still live with their effects.
By the 1830s, Britain’s East India House began replacing African slaves with indentured Asian labour
The roots of many contemporary challenges lie in the intensive connection of the Indian Ocean by British power, and in the subsequent unravelling of those links in an era of nationalism. Among them, the grave refugee crisis that is playing out in the Bay of Bengal, as tens of thousands of Rohingyas flee extreme persecution in Myanmar—and the Myanmar state’s argument for denying the Rohingyas citizenship is entirely an argument about history. For all the talk of reviving trade and investing in infrastructure around the ocean’s rimlands, much less attention is paid to the need for a comprehensive approach to protecting vulnerable migrants. And visions of rapid development cannot be disconnected from a grave shared threat facing the quarter of the world’s population that inhabits the Indian Ocean’s coasts: the threat of climate change.
A frank reckoning with the recent past of the Indian Ocean, as much as its deeper civilisational history, can be instructive in our times. There are lessons to be learned from the successes and failures of earlier attempts to build institutions across the Indian Ocean. In the recovery of paths not taken, in the imagination of alternative futures that emerged so richly from Asia’s first age of mass migration—there are seeds for a vision of how the oceans may serve as a connective tissue between peoples and cultures, and not merely a stage for the performance of superpower ambitions.
(The author teaches South Asian studies at Harvard University. Amrith’s most recent work is on the Bay of Bengal.)