Skip to content

“Ruined and Plundered and Burned”: Historical Imagination, Lascars, and the Portuguese Arrival in the Indian Ocean

A discussion of teaching the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean from the perspective of local sailors.

Bram Hubbell
Bram Hubbell
9 min read
“Ruined and Plundered and Burned”: Historical Imagination, Lascars, and the Portuguese Arrival in the Indian Ocean

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.

The Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century. From A History of World Societies.
The Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century. From A History of World Societies.

Related Posts

Members Public

“Excessive Labor and Confinement”: Historical Imagination and the Urban Working Class

A discussion of teaching the Industrial Revolution to help students better understand how workers experienced industrialization.

“Excessive Labor and Confinement”: Historical Imagination and the Urban Working Class
Members Public

“Making a Great Profit”: Historical Imagination and the Opium Trade

A discussion of teaching the opium trade to understand the different ways opium shaped the nineteenth century.

“Making a Great Profit”: Historical Imagination and the Opium Trade
Members Public

“Men so Heartless”: Historical Imagination and Potosí

A discussion of teaching the silver trade to understand the effects on Indigenous Americans better.

“Men so Heartless”: Historical Imagination and Potosí