In the popular imagination, the story of oceanic trade is a reminder of India’s colonial past. Europeans – the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the French, and the British –arrived as sea-faring merchants, and eventually insinuated themselves in the politics of the subcontinent with the backing of their governments.

These trading enterprises began on the coasts – Malabar, Goa, Gujarat, Bengal – but as is known to every school child, the East India Company eventually took over direct and indirect control. By the 19th century, with the advent of the steamship, the British truly became the monopolistic masters of the Indian Ocean moving goods and people in large numbers. Sea trade then is associated with the tragedy that brought in the trepidations of colonial exploitation. This past prevents us from looking at the dazzling world of Indian Ocean trade that came before.

In a period prior to modern navigation and ships, the monsoon integrated a world of trade across the Indian Ocean. The fact that it depended on the vagaries of the weather did not mean this trade was marginal. India’s location at the centre of this oceanic geography facilitated its rise as the fulcrum of world trade and economy. This sophisticated, wide ranging commerce, played a key role in the subcontinent. India at the time and for centuries later accounted for, according to some estimates, nearly a fifth of the world’s GDP.

One of the earliest written accounts of this complex network of trade is the Greek text, Periplus Maris Erythraei or the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (read it online here). This remarkable handbook was written sometime in the middle of the first century CE and was meant for Greek merchants trading between Egypt, East Africa, southern Arabia and India.

1597 map depicting the locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Abraham Ortelius [Public domain]

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea primarily focuses on two trade routes originating at Egyptian ports: one, on the East African coast as far as Tanzania, and the other via the Arabian peninsula and Persian Gulf to western India. The author writes in detail of numerous cities, ports and harbours on these routes but India’s western coast, from Karachi down to Kanyakumari on the southernmost tip, accounts for nearly half the narrative.

Literally, Erythraean Sea means “red sea” but this is not a reference to the waterbody we know as the Red Sea today. For ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Erythraean Sea incorporated the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the western Indian Ocean. The text of the Periplus survives in the form of a 10th-century manuscript preserved in Heidelberg, a copy of which is also housed at the British Museum. Written over 1,900 years ago and more than 1,400 years before Vasco da Gama “discovered” the trade route to India, the Periplus is a window into the diverse world of the Indian Ocean.

Lionel Casson, scholar of the Periplus and also its most recent translator, has noted that other periploi, an ancient genre of manuals, from the time are primarily guides for seamen containing navigational information. In contrast, according to Casson, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a guide for merchants emphasising knowledge of trade and products that could be bought and sold on each port – something akin to a modern shoppers’ guide. The descriptions of the places on these oceanic routes are colourful and the reporting style is direct and detailed giving the impression that the author, an Egyptian Greek who remains anonymous, was writing from personal experience.

Manoeuvring the monsoons

By the time this merchant drafted his deliberations on traversing the western Indian Ocean, Mediterranean trade with India had been on the rise for three centuries. But Indian and Arab mariners had plied the Indian Ocean years before Greek ships entered these waters. To ensure safe voyage, these seamen needed to manoeuvre the monsoons, those seasonal winds that in the western Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea, blow from the southwest during the summer and from the northeast during the winter.

Until about a century before the Periplus was written, while goods were frequently traded between India and the Mediterranean, the Greek merchants depended primarily on their Indian and Arab counterparts for access to India. Mastery over monsoon was so integral to this entire trading world that for every port that the Periplus mentions, it also makes sure to note the most suitable months in which to make the journey.

Quite apart from the delight of reading a merchant’s advice and opinions from so far back in time, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, tells us of three vital but overlooked aspects of the ancient Indian Ocean trade. First, the ports, harbours, and metropolises located on the Indian Ocean coasts the Periplus mentions may not be well-known today but were some of the most vibrant trading centres of the world at the time.

The Indian port city of Bharuch, which was also a major manufacturing centre features pre-eminently in the Greek merchant’s handbook. Muziris, roughly near present-day Kochi on the Malabar coast, was another hub of commercial interactions between the Mediterranean, India, Persia, Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. Northeast of Bharuch, Ujjan was a thriving entrepot from where products from all over the subcontinent made their way to the maritime ports. The Periplus mentions nearly 20 Indian ports, markets, and towns painting a picture of a buzzing world of trade, production, and social exchange around 50 CE. Over the centuries that followed, Indian ports, urban, and commercial centres rose to prominence as some of biggest cities of the medieval world.

Second, the Periplus gives the modern reader a fascinating glimpse into the “bestsellers” traded across the Indian Ocean two millennia ago. The most frequently mentioned and perhaps also the most surprising from today’s vantage point, is tortoise shell procured from India and Africa. Frankincense and myrrh, aromatic resins used for incense and perfumes and for the purpose of embalming in Egypt also make it to the list. Less surprising is that India’s Malabar coast exported ship-fulls of pepper, as it would continue to do when Vasco da Gama came in search for this precious “black gold” centuries later.

The widest spread of goods was traded by India: native spices, drugs and aromatics, fine cottons and Chinese silks, ivory, and pearls. Indian merchants along with their Arab counterparts controlled the trade in everyday commodities like grain, rice, sesame oil, ghee, cane sugar, and cotton cloth.

Taste on the Indian coast veered decidedly towards the more expensive side even when it came to imports from the Mediterranean. Indians bought Italian and Arab wines, olive oil, silverware and glassware. Indian kings also demanded deluxe clothing, choice unguents, as well as “slave musicians” and “beautiful girls for concubinage”. The Mediterranean demands for expensive goods from India, as the Roman officials often lamented were draining their coffers, and as the Periplus also notes, Roman gold and silver coins, valued as bullion, fetched high exchange rates on the subcontinent; the hordes of Roman coins and shards of amphorae (which mostly hold wine but also oil) that archaeologists have unearthed from India’s southwestern coast provide tangible evidence of this exchange.

Third, it is clear that even in its earliest form, trade between India and the Mediterranean across the Indian Ocean was highly evolved. A sophisticated economic system was needed to support these intricately linked commercial and social networks. Evidence from the Periplus shows how merchants had to navigate restrictive rulers and their officials, face the threat of pirates and negotiate with vendors who drove hard bargains. Trade was conducted through barter as well as with money. Maritime ports were linked, particularly in India, to webs of internal riverine routes and inland trading and production centres. Over time, complex banking and capital generating systems came in to place.

Historian Himanshu Prabha Ray has written, for instance, of the vital role Buddhist monasteries played in the cultural and commercial landscape of the northern Deccan and western India during the first century CE. Her research shows that Buddhist monasteries were able to provide early forms of banking and act as safe houses for merchants and travellers. Their location on important trade routes linked to the Arabian sea also facilitated the rise of production centres and cities in the surrounding areas; the Periplus in fact mentions the towns of Paithan and Tagara in this region that supplied onyx and ordinary cloth respectively to the port of Bharuch.

A dhow carrying slaves in the Indian Ocean in 1893. Colomb, Philip Howard, 1831-1899

The world that the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea describes and that developed, over the centuries, into a network of some of the world’s richest cities is far removed from our own times. It is important to avoid the temptation to read into it only the values and ideas we cherish today. Yet, this was by no means an idyllic world. For example, even from the Periplus we glean that slaves were not only bought and sold in these markets, slaves and convicts also provided the labour for the most difficult tasks of the lucrative luxury trade like pearl diving and the unhealthy work of collecting frankincense from trees; women find only three passing mentions in the entire text.

However, we do learn one big thing from the Periplus: that as early as the first century CE, India was part of an interconnected global network. And as much as it was part of the old it was also a cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, dynamic world. For centuries before the European trading companies “discovered” it, the Indian Ocean was place where merchants without navies ruled the high seas. And trade without colonialism flourished.

Aparna Kapadia teaches history at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat. This is the first part of her column, Off Centre.