Long Teaching Module: Trade and Religion in the Indian Ocean Network, 1100-1500

Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Document icon
Illustration shows an island with a collection of buildings in the center
Porcelain tankard with blue ornate decorations
Bronze sculpture of Buddha sitting under a tree


Global trade is a central aspect of the contemporary world, but trade was also important in pre-modern eras. The most important trading network in the period from the tenth through the fifteenth centuries was that across Eurasia, both land routes and sea routes, especially those across and around the Indian Ocean. Ships carried merchants and many types of products, and also carried religious objects and individuals traveling for religious reasons, for trade routes were also pilgrimage routes. The eight sources for this module include two written travelers’ reports, several woodcuts, and objects that were carried across the Indian Ocean.


The largest trading network in the period from the tenth through the fifteenth centuries was that across Eurasia. The middle of this trading zone was the Muslim world, where the spread of Islam enhanced a wide network of trade contacts and productive handicraft industries already in place. Commerce was judged to be an honorable profession in Islam, as the Prophet Muhammad himself had once been a merchant. Islam provided a body of commercial law, a common commercial language in Arabic, and an international currency, the Muslim dinar. In the eleventh century trade on the Red Sea became increasingly important, and Cairo soon surpassed Baghdad as the hub of world commerce. Persian and Arab merchants sailed down the East African Swahili coast, establishing fortified, independent, merchant-controlled trading towns as far south as Sofala in Zimbabwe, and linking these with those across the Indian Ocean.

Coastal Indian cities, including Muslim ones in the north and Hindu ones in the south, made a profit from trade going in any direction. Ships carried all types of merchandise, but spices from the “Spice Islands” (now the Moluccas, part of Indonesia) and other parts of South and Southeast Asia were the most important luxury product. Spices – pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger – served not only as flavoring for food, but also as ingredients in perfumes, love potions, pain killers, and funeral balms. In an era before refrigeration, spices helped preserve meats and masked the taste of meat that was slightly spoiled. Other growth markets were cotton textiles, porcelain, and horses for use in warfare and as symbols of power and status. Ships carried religious objects and individuals travelling for religious reasons, for trade routes were also pilgrimage routes. Pilgrimage was one of the duties of a believer in Islam, and Buddhism and Christianity also encouraged pilgrimages to holy places, which became scattered all over the map as these religions expanded.

From India, ships went through the Straits of Melacca, carrying merchants and their products to China, the eastern end of this trading zone, and especially to the growing cities of South China. Here the Confucian value system disparaged merchants as dishonorable parasites, tolerable only because they brought in luxuries desired by elites at court and could be taxed. This attitude prevented merchants from achieving political power, but did not prevent at least some from becoming very rich.

Sea routes benefited from troubles along land routes, such as political instability or the spread of disease. In South China, the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1234-1368) encouraged maritime commerce, and sea routes continued to boom. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo (ca. 1254-1324), and the Moroccan scholar and diplomat Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) both visited the Mongol Yuan court, Marco Polo staying seventeen years. If we believe his account, Marco Polo traveled to the Mongol court by the northern land route, but returned across the Indian Ocean; Ibn Battuta traveled by ship in both directions. Building on earlier advances in navigation and maritime technology made by Arabs, Indians, and Malays, the Chinese introduced the magnetic compass, watertight bulkheads for shipping, and giant ships with many mainmasts that carried several hundred tons of cargo.

The Yuan dynasty collapsed in 1368 and was replaced by the native Ming dynasty; the new government refused to negotiate with the Mongols who controlled the central Asian trade routes, and initially paid even more attention to maritime commerce. Between 1405 and 1433, the third Ming emperor sent seven huge naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf led by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from southwestern China. Designed to convince potential vassal states of Chinese power, these expeditions called at all major ports and reached the Philippines, the east coast of Africa, and the Red Sea. They were abruptly stopped in a dramatic reversal of government policy, however. The ships were scrapped, log books destroyed, shipyards closed, and Chinese merchants ordered to come home.

Historians speculate about the reasons for this sudden halt and turn inward: the voyages may have seemed too costly, as they cost more than the value of the goods brought back; an anti-commercial Confucianist scholar-official faction may have gained the upper hand at court; border wars with the Mongols and with Vietnam, floods, peasant uprisings, and piracy along the coast may have sucked up all government resources. Whatever the reasons, trade in the Indian Ocean did not decline, as Indian, Arab, Malay, Persian, Turkish and even a few Italian merchants quickly filled any vacuum left by the Chinese.

Most of the merchants were male, as trade requires access to trade goods and the ability to move about, both of which were more available to men. Male heads of household generally had control over the products of their household, including those made or harvested by female family members as well as slaves and servants of both genders. Because of this, and because women’s ability to travel was often limited by cultural norms about propriety and respectability, men were the primary long-distance traders, sending or taking items of great value such as precious metals, spices, perfumes, amber, and gems, or large quantities of less valuable goods, such as grain, timber, and metals. In some places women did trade locally, handling small retail sales of foodstuffs and other basic commodities, though in others men handled this small-scale distribution of goods as well. In a few places, including West Africa and Southeast Asia, women were important traders at the regional and even the transregional level, handling both basic commodities such as cloth and luxuries such as pepper, betel, gold, and ivory.

In many places, male traders established temporary or even long-term relationships with local women. Through such a relationship, the man gained a sexual and domestic partner and connections with groups who provided supplies and goods to trade, and the woman and her family gained prestige through their contact with an outsider. These marriages or other types of domestic arrangements also served as ways in which religious ideas and rituals or other cultural practices traveled and blended, as husbands, wives, and children converted or mixed elements from different traditions as these proved appealing or useful.

How I Introduce These Sources

The eight sources include two written travelers’ reports, several woodcuts, and objects that were carried across the Indian Ocean. As background, students should read the essay for this module, and also the section in your textbook that covers the Indian Ocean region in the period from 1000 to 1500.

The first two sources for this module concern the East African coast, the western side of the Indian Ocean trading network. First is a short excerpt from the travel book of Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and explorer, describing his time in Damascus, Basra, Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa. Questions that can guide student reading: What does Ibn Battuta do at his various stops? How do his activities reflect the Indian Ocean as a place of both religious travel and trade? What role does his identity as a Muslim seem to play in his travels? What does he find praiseworthy about the people he meets and the cities he visits? What does that suggest about his values?

Second is an engraving from a sixteenth-century European atlas showing the trading city state of Kilwa or Kilwa Kiswani on an island off the Swahili Coast in East Africa (modern Tanzania), which flourished between the 12th and 15th century. Kilwa was the leading trading center in the southern part of the Swahili Coast, trading gold, iron, ivory and other animal products from the African interior for textiles, jewelry, spices and porcelain from Asia. Students can combine information on Kilwa from this illustration with the discussion of Kilwa in Ibn Battuta to consider the following: What did Kilwa look like? What accounted for its prosperity? How did the illustrator (who was from Europe and had never been to Kilwa) portray the importance of ocean trade to the city? Do the illustrator and Ibn Battuta seem to have similar impressions of Kilwa?

The next group of sources relate to the voyages of Zheng He. The third source is an excerpt from the memoir of Ma Huan (1380-1460), a Chinese Muslim voyager and translator who accompanied Zheng He (here spelled Cheng Ho) on three of his seven voyages. This section focuses on their journey in Calicut (modern day Kozhikode) on the west coast of India in the 1430s. It contains a great deal of information on different aspects of the voyage, and also many names of places and people that your students may find difficult, but that are not particularly important for what they need to learn from this. Questions that can guide student reading: What does Ma Huan say about why the Chinese emperor sent Zheng He to this area? (This is the section that begins: “the court ordered the principal envoy the grand eunuch Cheng Ho and others to…”) How does he describe relations between those of different religions living in Calicut? (Those he describes as Buddhists were most likely Hindu.) How does he describe the way that trade was conducted? (By “calculating-plate” Ma Huan probably means an abacus, which was used in India at this point, but apparently not in the transactions that Ma Huan saw.) Does he seem to approve or disapprove of these religious and trading practices?

The fourth source includes two navigational charts that were part of a map, printed in the seventeenth century, and thought to be based on those used by Zheng He. These are quite different from maps your students may be used to in that they do not have a uniform scale or orientation, but in some aspects they are similar. The first map shows sailing routes as dotted lines, islands, rivers and coastal areas, along with cities, identified by name. The second chart is a stellar diagram, used to determine latitude. Questions that can guide student examination of these: Why might the shape of the coasts be of particular importance to navigators using these maps? The position of the stars?

The last four sources are objects that were carried around the Indian Ocean by religious travelers and merchants. The two small statues represent sacred figures in Hinduism and Buddhism, both religions that were carried from India to Southeast Asia and beyond by merchants, religious leaders, and ordinary people. The tankard and the cloth were some of the many objects of trade. Questions that can guide student examination of these: Why was it important for people to carry religious objects with them when they traveled or moved to new areas? Can you think about modern parallels? Why might porcelain and textiles be important articles of trade?

Additional Resources:

Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D.1250-1350 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Joan Celebi, “The Indian Ocean Trade: A Classroom Simulation” 1993 http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/teachingresources/history/indian/ Accessed May 12, 2021
Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (University of California Press, 1994, newly issued 2004).
Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 3rd. ed. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2013).
Richard L. Smith, Premodern Trade in World History (London: Routledge, 2008).

Primary Sources

Document icon

This source comes from the travel book of Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), a Moroccan Berber scholar and explorer. He began his travels with the pilgrimage to Mecca expected of observant Muslims, and then continued on to Persia, down the east coast of Africa to Kilwa on the Swahili Coast, back north through Syria to the Central Asian steppes, then south again to India, where he became an official of the sultan ruling there. The Delhi sultan sent him as a diplomat to China, and although he was shipwrecked he did make it to the Yuan emperor’s court in Beijing, with stops in Bengal, southern China, and various Southeast Asian ports on the way. He returned home to Morocco by way of Mecca, stopped for a bit, and then set out by camel caravan across the Sahara desert to Mali. When he returned from that trip the sultan of Morocco gave him a scribe, and the two together composed a travel book in Arabic, whose formal title reads A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. The book relied on memory rather than written notes and mixed in stories of foreign lands from the works of earlier travelers, so there has been some skepticism about it, but most historians think that he was actually in most of the places he said he was. This particular excerpt concerns his travels in southwest Asia and eastern Africa to Damascus, Basra, Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa.

This source is a part of the Trade and Religion in the Indian Ocean Network, 1100-1500 teaching module.


Merry Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the long-time senior editor of the Sixteenth Century Journal, an editor of the Journal of Global History, and the editor-in-chief of the nine-volume Cambridge World History (2015). She is an author or editor of more than thirty books and nearly 100 articles that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.

How to Cite This Source
Merry Wiesner-Hanks Long Teaching Module: Trade and Religion in the Indian Ocean Network, 1100-1500 in World History Commons,