The Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University, the first of its kind in the world, is on the cutting edge of a new and expanding field of research. The Centre aims to build a solid academic basis which will place IOW studies alongside the already established fields of Atlantic and Pacific Ocean studies.
A vast region stretching from Africa and the Middle East, to South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East, the Indian Ocean World contains more than 50% of the world's population. Given the presence of China, India and Australia as well as of less developed economies, notably in Africa, this initiative, while of considerable importance to academe, will also contribute to a wider understanding of current events and policy making.
Indian Ocean World Centre Research Interests
- The making of the Indian Ocean World global economy
- Trans IOW exchange of commodities, technologies and ideas
- The economy of Indian Ocean Africa (IOA) and islands
Human Migrations across the Indian Ocean World
- Voluntary migrations
- Forced migrations (slave trade; forced labour)
- Comparative migrations
Imperialism and Colonialism
Africa in the Indian Ocean World Global Economy
While scholars have examined the role of Asian countries in the making of the Indian Ocean World economy the world's first ‘global’ economy – they have largely neglected the role of Africa. IOWC research will attempt to rectify the omission by studying the economic relationship between Africa and the wider Indian Ocean World, and assessing the significance of Africa in that global economy, from early times to the European Scramble for territory at the end of the nineteenth century.
Austronesian Migration to the East African Region and its Impact
The investigation of Austronesian migration to the east African region and its impact is a subject of considerable scholarly debate.
Two main hypotheses exist. One holds that from at least the BCE/CE changeover up to the 13th century (some argue the 16th), Austronesians (primarily from the Indonesian region) first forged and subsequently maintained maritime links with East Africa. They introduced Southeast Asian plants (e.g. the banana) and animals (e.g. the chicken) which revolutionised agriculture and facilitated the settlement of most of southern Africa by newly-arrived Bantu-speaking peoples. Austronesians themselves settled the hitherto uninhabited island of Madagascar. The counter hypothesis holds that Austronesian contact with the east African region was limited to Madagascar.
This research project is a rare collaboration between social scientists and human geneticists: Himla Soodyall of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and historians. Dr. Soodyall is currently collecting and analysing the DNA of various groups within the Eastern Indian Ocean regions, as part of the Genographic Project funded by National Geographic and the Gates Foundation.
Indian Ocean World Slave Trade
Until recently, slavery studies have largely concentrated on Greco-Roman and trans-Atlantic slave systems. However, recent research indicates that the IOW slave trade is much older and involved more people than Greco-Roman or Atlantic slave trades. Again employing a multidisciplinary and multilateral approach, this project will explore the important slave trading connections between the different regions of the IOW. In addition to examining routes and transport, finance and credit, the personnel involved, it will also, from an analysis of available sources (including shipping, port and government tax and other records), estimate prices and profits and, most importantly, build up as detailed a picture as possible of slaves themselves in terms of age, gender, origins, the process of enslavement, conditions of slavery, and slave agency. This research will permit inter-regional comparisons, comparisons with the Atlantic slave trade, and delineation of changes over time.
Exchange of Scholars & Research Results
The IOWC encourages international exchanges and collaborative research.
Research results will be presented
- on the Indian Ocean World Centre website
- at seminars, workshops and conferences
- as publications, scholarly articles in refereed journals, chapters in accredited collections of essays, academic monographs
Background to the IOWC Research Agenda
The foundations for Indian Ocean World history were laid by K.N. Chaudhuri (1985), Anthony Reid (1998, 1993) and other scholars who applied Braudelian (1966) concepts of a ‘maritime’ economy to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Both were uniquely characterised by a monsoon system that served to regulate agricultural production in the hinterland and facilitate the early development of a long-distance maritime trading network.
Traditional, largely Eurocentric studies (e.g. Trevor-Roper, 1968), considered that Asian and African societies possessed insuperable social and political obstacles to modernization. The Braudelian approach facilitated the emergence of an Asia-centric school which challenged Eurocentricists. Asia-centric scholars not only assert that Asian societies were dynamic; they argue that the first ‘global’ economy to emerge between the eighth and thirteenth centuries was centred not in Europe but in Asia.
However, this revisionist model has largely excluded Africa, or relegated it to a peripheral role as a source of servile labour - a view reinforced by Afro-centric scholars of slavery who only marginally modified the overall picture by stressing that some African slaves performed important military and/or political roles in Asia.
The aim of the IOWC's research agenda is to correct this imbalance through fully integrating Africa into IOW studies, by demonstrating that African regions possessed major commercial and other linkages with the Indian Ocean (and its Red Sea subsidiary) and that they formed an integral part of the first ‘global’ economy (centred on the IOW). It has traditionally been thought, and taught, that Africans played a passive role, and that the history of the continent was shaped, in the main, by external forces. In fact, African economies enjoyed a two-way relationship with the IOW economy and made a vital contribution.
Disrupted by European colonial and Cold War animosities, these historical linkages are being rediscovered and strengthened through intra-regional cooperation. At the same time, the IOW is currently the arena of some of the world's major geo-strategic concerns, most notably in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. A historical awareness of the economic development and linkages between these regions is crucial to understanding such issues.
Indian Ocean World – the First Global Economy
- 1989 Abu-Lughod, Janet L. 1989, Before European Hegemony. The World System A.D. 1250-1350, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 1966 Braudel, Fernand. 1966, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, 2 vols, Paris, A. Colin.
- 1985 Chaudhuri, K.N. 1985, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean. An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- 1998 Frank, Andre Gunder. 1998, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Berkeley University Press.
- 1988-1988 Reid, Anthony.1993 and 1988, Southeast Asia in the age of commerce, 1450-1680, 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- 1996-1997 Wink, André. 1996 & 1997, Al-Hind. The Making of the Indo-Islamic World 2 vols, Leiden, New York, Köln.