Tapestry of the Indian Ocean
In 2004, while visiting West Sumatra, we stopped along the promenade in Padang, the capital city of the province. My then 10-year-old son, Rumi, exclaimed in disbelief: “The Indian Ocean!”
That was the first time he and I stood before the vastness of the Indian Ocean, the geography and history that we had erstwhile encountered through textbooks and the media. Standing before the open sea, the geography is just awesome.
The historic port city of Padang is sandwiched between the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Minangkabau highlands. That moment drew upon me the consciousness of the oceanic space, a mare liberum before the coming of the Europeans in the 16th century.
The sea was a commons. There was no control of maritime matters by any of the authorities, by the littoral communities or by a string of small port/city states from the Swahili coast, Aden and Hormuz, to Calicut on the Malabar coast, the western coast of Sumatra, Melaka and the rest of the Malay archipelago.
For example, 16th century chronicler Tome Pires, in his Suma Oriental, mentioned that in Melaka, political authority was quite diffused, foreign merchant communities exercised considerable autonomy to practise customs, laws and religions under their leaders, and shahbandars (port officers) to adjudicate their differences.
But the Portuguese entry ended the peace and tolerance. It disturbed a civilisation. The single-minded crusaders had made their arrival into the Indian Ocean as conquistadors. The capture of the spice trade of the Indian Ocean was paramount. Brutality was the order of the ocean. In one instance, the Portuguese cut off the ears and noses of those they found on board a ship to Makkah.
The Suma Oriental recorded that in Calicut, the Portuguese sought to break the common economic interest shared by the Hindu rulers, and their Muslim subjects and foreign traders. They demanded the expulsion of the Muslim traders.
The Zamorin refused, saying that it was impossible to expel “more than 4,000 of them, who lived in the city not like foreigners, but as natives, and from whom his kingdom received much profit”. The old Indian Ocean principle of tolerance, respect for all religions, socio-cultural integration and common economic interest was breached.
Like Padang, the port in Tanjung (cape) Pulau Pinang, they were beneficiaries from the tolerance of the Indian Ocean — a cultural continuum from the Swahili coast in eastern Africa to the Malay archipelago, and penetrating deep into their respective hinterlands.
French historian Fernand Braudel’s longue duree (historical writings) precisely seeks to understand such great movements in history. The Indian Ocean reveals the intimate relationships between man and the environment, trade and culture, and ethnicity and identity.
There is depth, dialogue and duration. And only in recent years, in the search for the vanished Malaysia Airlines MH370, was the ocean floor mapped and disclosed, breaking its blackness with light that it had never seen before. The surface of the ocean over more than a millennia of movements in human history ever glows in enlightenment.
According to Abdul Sheriff, executive director of the Zanzibar Indian Ocean Institute (2007-2012), the Indian Ocean is “An Islamic Lake”.
While the mercantile world of the ocean was tolerant of a great deal of diversity, its spiritual face increasingly became Islamic along its whole rim, from Southeast Asia and beyond to the northern tip of Madagascar as the centuries wore on.
In a 2014 essay — “Globalisation with a Difference: An Overview”— Sheriff clarified that Islam developed in the Indian Ocean as the overarching milieu in which commercial and cultural relations were forged. That moulded administrative, legal, educational and spiritual structures that underpinned the expansion of the Indian Ocean’s global economy beginning in the 7th century.
A new “language language” emerged in the climate of free trade — a common vocabulary and cultural concept from the major lingua franca of the Indian Ocean: Arabic, Persian and Gujarati. And the patterns of borrowings of words from those languages into such languages as Swahili and Bahasa Melayu — at the two ends of the Indian Ocean world.
There was diversity and cosmopolitanism. The Indian Ocean wove littoral societies into an elaborate tapestry. The global unity has long preceded capitalist globalisation. The Hadhramis of Yemen is central to that cultural fusion and continuum.
Migration has been an integral part of the culture of the Hadhramis. Sheriff, in co-editing the book (with Engseng Ho) — The Indian Ocean: Oceanic Connections and the Creation of New Societies — cited the idea of the Indian Ocean as an extension of their home base (from Ulrike Freitage’s 2003 study) “and they were more closely connected with Southeast Asia, India and East Africa rather than with the interior of Yemen”.
The Hadhramis were described as a “translocal” community that held multiple identities linking them both to place of origin and their new places of residence. They maintain an almost religious bond with their homeland over several generations, but there was also a process of indigenisation in their new homes.
It was a two-way process — assimilation by host societies around the Indian Ocean, and the transformation of Hadhrami society itself in their involvement in the Indian Ocean World as we see in Malaysia and Indonesia.
But that dialogue reached a crescendo during the 15th century. The Portuguese violently entered, introducing an entirely a new concept of trade monopolies, a crusading spirit and territorial conquest.
K.M. Pannikar, Indian historian and diplomat in his book, Asia and Western Dominance (1953), dubbed the rupture as the “Vasco da Gama epoch” of history. Thus, began the colonisation of the Indian Ocean region.
The writer is a professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), International Islamic University, Malaysia.
Pubshied in: The New Straits TImes, Saturday, 22 June 2019