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The Indian Ocean World


The establishment of a direct maritime route from Europe to Asia in 1498 led to a spectacular increase in cross-cultural contacts. First from Portugal, and later from England, the Dutch Republic, France, and other places, thousands of traders, soldiers, and missionaries set off for the Indian Ocean in search of material or spiritual gain. In China and India, they encountered the most powerful empires of the early modern world as well as its leading economic centres. Europe’s encounter with Asia transformed European material culture and consumption patterns and triggered intellectual reflection on European politics and religion in a comparative context. While Europeans in Asia were mostly compelled to adjust to existing structures, during the eighteenth century European colonial power became increasingly dominant in parts of the Indian Ocean world.


In this session, you will be assigned a ‘character’, one of the numerous historical actors active in and around the seventeenth-century Indian Ocean. You will encounter other agents, and be encouraged to reflect on where, how and why you might have responded to and engaged with one another. To prepare in advance, you should read at least two of the ‘Recommended Reading’ texts, and think about the Seminar Questions below.



  • Did early modern Europeans encounter a “New World” in the Indian Ocean? Why/why not?
  • Early modern Asian-European encounters had a greater impact on Europe than on Asia. Discuss.
  • The early modern European encounter with the Indian Ocean world took many forms. List five different types of contact and give examples of each.



Modern Map of Trading Centres in the Indian Ocean World

Map of the Indian Ocean World, c. 1700

  • Compare the early modern and modern maps: what strikes you most?
  • How were the different parts of the Indian Ocean world connected? Identify the principal ports and routes.



(Choose TWO texts)

Alison Games, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), ch. 3, pp. 81-116.

Jos Gommans, ‘Continuity and Change in the Indian Ocean Basin’, in: Jerry H. Bentley, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (eds.), The Cambridge World History, Volume 6: The Construction of a Global World, 1400-1800 CE, Part 1: Foundations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 182-209.

Charles H. Parker, Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 68-98.



Alberts, Tara, Conflict and Conversion: Catholicism in Southeast Asia, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Andrade, Tonio, ‘Beyond Guns, Germs, and Steel: European Expansion and Maritime Asia, 1400-1750’, Journal of Early Modern History 14.1 (2010), 165-186.

Aslanian, Sebouh David, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

Barendse, R.J., The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (New Delhi: Vision Books, 2002).

Blussé, Leonard, ‘Northern European Empire in Asia: The VOC’, in: Hamish Scott (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History, 1350-1750, Volume II: Cultures and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 227-253.

Chaudhuri, K.N., Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean World: An Economic History from the Rise of Islan to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Clulow, Adam, The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

Furber, Holden, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976).

Jackson, Anna, and Amin Jaffer, Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500-1800 (London: V&A Publications, 2004).

Lach, Donald F., and Edwin J. van Kley, Asia in the Making of Europe (3 vols. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1965-1993).

Laven, Mary, Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East (London: Faber and Faber, 2011).

North, Michael (ed.), Artistic and Cultural Exchanges between Europe and Asia, 1400-1900 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

Pearson, Michael (ed.), Trade, Circulation, and Flow in the Indian Ocean World (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Pearson, Michael, The Indian Ocean (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).

Prakash, Om, European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Schwartz, Stuart B. (ed.), Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters between Europeans and other Peoples in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘Taking Stock of the Franks: South Asian Views of Europeans and Europe, 1500-1800’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 42.1 (2005), pp. 69-100.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700: A Political and Economic History (2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Wills, John E. Jr (ed.), China and Maritime Europe, 1500-1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Records of the East India Company

Atlas of Mutual Heritage (on the Dutch East India Company)