A Brief Historical Survey of the Indian Ocean Region


The Indian Ocean region since antiquity has been a melting pot of civilizations and cultures which have continually intermingled through trade. Connections established through it’s medium predate even the Viking forays into the northern part of the American continent by over 4000 years. Contrary to general belief, the history of the Indian Ocean region certainly did not begin in 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. If anything, all this achieved was to introduce an element of intolerance and bring about a demeaning influence in a region renowned for its free trade and fair practices. As a matter of fact, the Indian Ocean region since 5000 BC was a scene of frantic trading activity, both coastal and transoceanic. Around the beginning of the Common Era, the two ancient Red Sea port cities of Berenice and Hormuz had extensive trading links with India.

Early Trading Activities

Traders from Persia, enjoying state patronage during the height of the Sassanian empire in the third to the fifth centuries, were seen to dominate trade in the Gulf as well as the Western Indian Ocean. The Arabs were also renowned seafarers whose presence in India, East Africa and even in the East Indies were a familiar sight. Their commercial activities can be said to have peaked in the 9th century AD. Extensive trading activity in the Bay of Bengal as well as South East Asia is much in evidence. Barring a few exceptions, the general trading pattern was such that Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and Calicut acted as an entrepot for trade between the eastern and western parts of the ocean.

Chinese Incursions

Though much is made of the grand entrance of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, a much more spectacular entry can be attributed to the Chinese Admiral Zhong He, whose massive fleet, which included sixty two big ships carrying nearly 28000 men, sailed up to the Arabian peninsula and down the Swahili coast almost to the Cape of Good Hope. A total of six large Chinese expeditions, sponsored by the Yong Le emperor of the Ming dynasty, were undertaken in a thirty year period till 1433, but are not written about as much as European adventurism presumably because they were neither high on violence nor did they trigger off an unfortunate train of events.

Portuguese Designs

Right from the moment the first lot of Portuguese expeditionary ships sailed into Calicut harbour, the Portuguese regional designs were clear. Armed with the Papal Bull of 1494 granting it sovereignty over the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese proceeded to identify and thereafter sequentially annex the main strategic ports in the Ocean. Colombo (1505), Socotra (1507), Goa (1510), Melaka (1511), Hormuz (1515) and Diu (1535) were occupied during a 30 year stretch commencing 1505 and fortified. Bases were also established at Zanzibar, Mombasa and Mogadishu on the East African coast. The main aim of the Portuguese was to achieve an economic stranglehold over the Asian trade in pepper and spices in particular. This monopoly enabled them to reap huge profits by selling in Europe, where Asian spices were in great demand. They also managed to simultaneously give vent to their deeply-rooted anti-Muslim animosities by sidelining primarily Muslim traders who had thus far been dominating this trade. The markets which dealt with these commodities namely Aden, Jiddah, Basra, Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo, Sofala, Hormuz, Diu and Melaka, consequently fell into decline. The Portuguese task was made considerably easier by the three great regional powers of the time, namely Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran and Mughal India, being too preoccupied on land to worry much about the Indian Ocean.

The Zamorin Resistance

The only real resistance came from the Zamorins of Calicut, who not only successfully fended off all Portuguese naval incursions for nearly a century, but kept making their life difficult elsewhere as well, including the east coast of India. Much of the credit for this goes to the intrepid hereditary admirals of the Ali Marakar family.

The Portuguese Response

With Calicut posing a perpetual threat to the nearby Portuguese headquarters at Cochin, the Portuguese Governor Albuqurque specifically selected Goa to serve as their primary base, since it possessed an excellent natural harbour and was ideally sited midway between the prosperous Gujrati coast and Calicut. This enabled the Portuguese fleet to monitor the Gujrati ports in the Gulf of Cambay as the Gujrati merchants played a major role in the spice trade, though the area did not produce any of its own. Gujrati products like cloths were also widely renowned. The Portuguese also attempted to extend its occupation of Colombo to well inside the Sri Lankan mainland in order to monopolise the cinnamon trade, albeit with limited success.

Enter the Dutch

Towards the end of the 16th century, the Dutch, sensing an opportunity, commenced its trading activities in the Indian Ocean and a little later, in 1604, entered into a treaty with the Emperor of Malabar, the Zamorin, to work together for the expulsion of the Portuguese presence. Realizing that the Portuguese were deeply entrenched at all the strategic locations, the Dutch embarked on a plan to first establish their base in Java and from there to make inroads in the Portuguese domain. After capturing Malacca in 1641, The Dutch then aided the powerful Kings of Ceylon to drive out the Portuguese from there, with Colombo the last to fall after a protracted seige by the Dutch fleet in 1654.

British and French Trading Companies

The English and the French commenced their Indian Ocean activities in the wake of the Dutch and following the Dutch example of 1592, set up their own East India Companies in 1600 and 1664 respectively. The Dutch East India Company, seeking like the Portuguese to control the spice and pepper trade, was initially much more successful than the British East India Company.

The Sidis of the Konkan Coast

At a time when Portuguese naval power was waning, the star of the Sidi navy based in Janjira was in the ascendant, especially after it had secured the support of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The Sidis mastery of the Konkan Coast from Goa to Gujrat was however wrested in 1683 by the Maratha Admiral Sidhoji Gujar. Kanhoji Angre, who succeeded him, not only wiped out the Sidis and the Mughals but also troubled the British who were forced to resort to convoying their ships. The British finally succeeded in destroying the power of the Angrias after a land and sea siege around 1750.

The French Naval Inroads

The French having failed to make inroads in Ceylon in 1670 against the deeply-entrenched Dutch settled for Madagascar and Mauritius. The French fleet saw their best days under Admiral De Suffren in 1782-84, during which they not only actively supported Hyder Ali’s Carnatic campaign but also managed to capture Trincomalee.

The British Empire in India

Using their sea power effectively, the British gradually built up their land power, through Madras in 1749 and Bengal in 1756. The Napoleonic wars in Europe helped the British take over Ceylon, Java, Malacca and the Cape from the Dutch and the French possessions, especially Mauritius, from the French. The ports of Madras (Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) were established by the British in the mid to late 17th century to wean the transoceanic trade away from the traditional port cities. Despite the application of the typically British coercion to attract the Asian traders, it still took a good seventy odd years for Bombay to become more formidable than its neighboring port Surat. After setting up factories in the port cities, the British proceeded to set them up further inland near the production centers. This sent a clear message that the British were in it for the long haul. The advent of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal (in Nov 1869) were two major developments that transformed trading patterns in the region by shortening the time and distances involved.

World War-I

So complete was British dominance over the Indian Ocean during the nineteenth century and even later that it came to be referred to as a British lake. This picture of tranquility received a jolt when World War-I broke out and British naval forces in the region were diluted to meet the war commitments in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Some surface raids were attempted by the axis powers around the south eastern coast of Africa but these were quickly contained. The end of the war saw the British empire taking control of the German colonies in Africa, notably Tanganyka, which fronted the Indian Ocean.

World War-II

Just like they were disrupting trade in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Axis powers tried to do the same in the Indian Ocean region as well, albeit with limited success. Their primary interest lay in controlling the south western approaches to the Indian Ocean. A Japanese fleet, in a bid to occupy Madagascar, got as far as Sri Lanka before being recalled back to the Pacific theatre to address the more immediate US naval threat. The very real Axis U-boat threat was thwarted through the British takeover of Madagascar. The most notable success in this theatre off Mozambiqu was achieved by the Japanese U-boats which sank over 100,000 tons of shipping in the second quarter of 1942. This World War sapped British strength to such a degree that it became difficult to hold on to most of its overseas possessions. India was the first to gain independence, followd by Burma and Sri Lanka in 1948, Malaya in 1957, Somalia in 1960, Kuwait and Tanganyka in 1961, Aden, Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963, the Maldives in 1965 and Bahrain, Qatar and UAE in 1971.

Indo-Pak Wars

The 1965 Indo-Pak wars saw limited naval action, the only engagement worth mentioning being the bombardment of the coastal Indian town of Dwarka by a Pakistan naval surface force consisting of a light cruiser and four destroyers. During the 1971 war, the first major casualty was arguably the PN Submarine Ghazi, which reportedly sank off the Indian east coast under mysterious circumstances. The Indian carrier group was thereafter employed in the Bay of Bengal to carry out strikes on shore-based and off-shore targets. On the western theatre, around two coordinated missile attacks were undertaken by the Indian Navy, resulting in the sinking of a PN destroyer, a minesweeper and a few merchant ships at the Karachi anchorage, while setting the oil tanks at Keamari on fire. The PN submarine Hangor restored some balance by torpedoing an IN frigate (INS Khukri) on 08 Dec 1971.

Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)

This war witnessed a relentless series of attacks against tankers, with Iraq having the upper hand. Its ASM-equipped fighter aircraft wreaked havoc on tankers in and around the main Iranian oil export terminal at Kharg Inland. In one such attack, Iraqi fighter aircraft inadvertently fired at a USN frigate, the USS Stark, nearly crippling it, and for which act the Iraqi Government had to pay reparations. Iran was hard-pressed to reciprocate in kind as Iraqi oil was being exported through Kuwaiti ports. When it threatened to retaliate against the Kuwaiti Tankers, the US quickly moved to reflag the tankers as American and the US Navy commenced escorting them through the Gulf. When one of the Iranian-laid mines struck a USN guided missile frigate, the USS Samuel B Roberts, the US Navy extracted revenge by targeting two Iranian oil platforms and in the naval clashes that followed, an Iranian frigate IRIS Sabalan was crippled while one FAC and several armed speedboats were sunk. In 1988, a USN guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, shot down a civil Iranian airliner on a routing flight across the Gulf. Though this incident was attributed by the US Authorities to a case of nerves and inadequate information, it did lead to a cessation of hostilities between Iraq and Iran.

Operation Desert Shield/Storm

The Persian Gulf and its adjoining waters were destined to witness three further wars waged therefrom. Gulf War 1 codenamed Desert Shield/Storm was triggered by the Iraqi invasion and occupation of its smaller neighbour Kuwait. Spearheading a UN-authorized coalition force from around 34 nations, the United States immediate response was to despatch two carrier battle groups, while commencing a region-wide build-up. The Gulf War began on 17 January 1991, with an extensive aerial bombing campaign, during which around 288 Land Attack Cruise Missiles were launched from the sea. Over 1300 mines are believed to have been laid by Iraq, most of which were later found to be inoperable. Two US warships, USS Tripoli and Princeton, suffered substantial mine-induced damage. This war caused unimagineable environmental chaos; by the time hostilities ceased on 28 Feb, Iraq had created a massive oil slick in the Gulf and ignited over 700 oil wells in Kuwait as part of a scorched earth policy.

Operation Enduring Freedom

A decade later, another UN-authorized coalition was formed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strikes to rid Afghanistan of the influence of Al-Qaeda. Codenamed Operation Enduring Freedom, the war commenced on 7 Oct 2001 with an aerial bombing campaign, with Land Attack Cruise Missiles being launched from warships, including submarines, at sea. US and Allied warships set up an interception zone in the Arabian Sea for netting the fleeing terrorist leaders.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Iraq was again in the US crosshairs in 2002 soon after the Afghanistan invasion, on the pretext of pursuing a cladestine WMD programme. Operation Iraqi Freedom, which lead to the total occupation of Iraq, began on 19 March 2002, when 40 Land Attack Cruise Missiles were fired from four warships, including two submarines. Five US carrier groups took part in the operation which culminated in the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Since that time, the US-led coalition is maintaining a strong military presence in and around the Gulf.

An uneasy calm currently prevails in the region with the world waiting with bated breath to see how the US-Iran nuclear impasse pans out.

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