When I began teaching world history, one of the more common topics in textbooks and secondary literature was understanding the role of the Indian Ocean. K.N. Chaudhuri’s Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 was one of the most influential books and shaped how we understood the Indian Ocean. Chaudhuri showed how the arrival of the Portuguese thoroughly changed the Indian Ocean. He argued, “the Portuguese demonstrated to all Muslim shipowners and no less to the local rulers that the period of unarmed trading was over in the Indian Ocean.” For many world history teachers, the Indian Ocean before 1498 was a zone of relatively peaceful trading. After the arrival of the Portuguese, “armed trading” dominated the Indian Ocean. We are now aware that Chaudhuri may have exaggerated the stark contrast between periods of peaceful and armed trade. For example, Ibn Battuta described armed men on an Indian Ocean ship:
I myself went on board al-Jagir, which had a complement of fifty rowers and fifty Abyssinian men-at-arms. These latter are the guarantors of safety on this sea; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters.
To help students understand the shifts in Indian Ocean trade, I focused on using primary sources that highlighted what the Portuguese wanted to do as they began expanding down the Atlantic Ocean and into the Indian Ocean and how the Portuguese understood their methods. After a few years of using these sources, I realized that the sources only presented Portuguese perspectives. Students didn’t understand how the people of the Indian Ocean saw and understood the changes in the early sixteenth century. To help students make sense of the shifts in the Indian Ocean trade, I developed a creative essay assignment highlighting how an Indian sailor understood the Portuguese.
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