In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indian Ocean Trade

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • The Pre-Islamic Period
  • Islam and Trade to 1500
  • The Modern Era

African Studies Indian Ocean Trade
Edward A. Alpers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0084


Africans have traded with the Indian Ocean world for millennia. Beginning with the exchange of food crops by anonymous Africans and Asians perhaps some forty-five hundred years ago, the coastline of eastern Africa—stretching from Suez to the Cape of Good Hope—has been an integral part of Indian Ocean trading networks (see separate Oxford Bibliographies entry on Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trade). Although much of the scholarship on these connections focuses on the coast and coastal communities, such as the Swahili (see Oxford Bibliographies entry on Swahili City States of the East African Coast), Indian Ocean trade could extend deep into the African interior and have an impact among people who never saw the ocean. The majority of this scholarship has emphasized external factors in writing about Indian Ocean trade and Africa, but since the 1990s more scholars have sought to understand the African contributions to these commercial exchanges. The imposition of colonialism shifted the focus of African trade and production away from the Indian Ocean toward the metropolitan colonial powers. Since the gaining of independence in the second half of the 20th century, maritime trade has certainly not ceased, but its scope has become more global. Although there are still certain specifically Indian Ocean trade linkages to Africa, for the most part these reflect aspects of international business rather than Indian Ocean trade. Thus the rich history of Indian Ocean trade focuses on the many centuries of exchanges up until the end of World War II. Conceptually, we can think of this broad region as Indian Ocean Africa.

General Overviews

The emergence of world history as a teaching and research field since the 1990s has drawn much greater attention to the Indian Ocean than in years past. However, while a number of valuable histories of the Indian Ocean are available, Africa is necessarily only one regional element in these studies, trade itself being only one feature in each author’s discussion of Africa. Accordingly, no easily accessible overview of the entire field of Indian Ocean trade as it relates to Africa is available.

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