When did the Indian Ocean become a place?

Guest post by Erik Gilbert

What the Taj Mahal is to India, the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, and the Brandenburg Gate is to Berlin, the dhow is to the Indian Ocean. The dhow is the iconic image that photographers, film makers, and writers use to evoke a sense of the Indian Ocean as a place. Now, they are celebrated as heritage, representing a region — the Indian Ocean — that until recently was more of a scholarly construct than a popular one.

A jahazi leaving Zanzibar en route to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In East Africa, sailing dhows still function, unlike in the Persian Gulf, where they mostly live in museums.
A jahazi leaving Zanzibar en route to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In East Africa, sailing dhows still function, unlike in the Persian Gulf, where they mostly live in museums.

I started working on Indian Ocean history in 1994 when I was doing my dissertation research in Zanzibar. At the time there was a pretty well-established notion of the Indian Ocean as a historical place. Auguste Tousainte and then K.N. Chaudhuri had written books that took broad looks at the ocean as place of cultural and commercial exchange. Chaudhuri, using Braudel’s treatment of the Mediterranean as his model, had restricted his work to the period between the rise of Islam and 1750. After 1750, he argued, structural change in the form of steamships and imperialism brought to a close the unity of the Indian Ocean. I thought I was being rather clever and innovative by looking at events in the 19th and 20th centuries in East Africa in the context of a surviving Indian Ocean economy.

As it turns out the time was ripe for such an idea, and a bunch of other people had the same idea at the same time. What none of us had really bothered to think about was whether the people whose lives we had declared to be part of the Indian Ocean world perceived themselves as inhabitants or participants in that world.

Was there in fact an Indian Ocean identity? And if so, who saw themselves in this light? When and why did this identity emerge?

I first started thinking in these terms after a short visit to Oman in 2005. I had gone there with the idea of looking at connections between the Zanzibari exile community in Muscat and their relatives in Zanzibar. But that line inquiry sort of fizzled. What caught my attention during that visit was the constant presence of the traditional sailing ship of the western Indian Ocean: the dhow. In Muscat there was a reconstruction of an 11th century dhow in one of the traffic circles. It was in pool of water with nozzles that sprayed the hull to make it appear to be in motion. In Muscat’s various museums large and meticulously detailed models of dhow were abundant, often with plaques indicating that they were donations from wealthy patrons. The yacht club had several pleasure boats done in the dhow style. The sultan’s yacht was a sort of fiberglass mock up of a dhow. Later I saw another royal yacht under construction in the port of Sur, this one much more traditional, entirely built of wood, and covered with hand-carved decoration. Also in Sur there was a public park that had a couple of big seagoing dhows on display.

The Omanis had clearly embraced the dhow as a symbol of national heritage.

A reconstruction  of a medieval dhow that sailed from Muscat to China in an effort to replicate the voyages of Sindbad.  It now resides in a traffic circle in Muscat, Oman.
A reconstruction of a medieval dhow that sailed from Muscat to China in an effort to replicate the voyages of Sindbad. It now resides in a traffic circle in Muscat, Oman.

From Oman I went to Zanzibar and saw something similar at work. A major new museum had been built in the decade since I was last there and its centerpiece was a reconstruction of an mtepe, which is a type of dhow unique to the East African coast that more or less disappeared in the early 20th century. In the same museum there were dhow models similar to the ones I had seen in Muscat, complete with the little plaques indicating that they had been donated by Gulf Arabs. In addition to the museum’s interest in dhows, there was also a film festival that took as its logo the dhow. The Zanzibar International Film Festival, which has been presented each year since 1998, is dedicated to showcasing the cultures of the western Indian Ocean, which it defines as the “Dhow Countries”.

Dhow imagery had been present when I was in Zanzibar in 1994, but that presence was largely limited to the tourism industry. There were dhow restaurants and a Dhow Palace Hotel, but the government and its supporters had been pretty ambivalent about dhows. Zanzibar’s government came to power in 1964 in the wake of an anti-Arab revolution. For the revolutionary government, dhows were a symbol of the Arabs and the economic and political system they had revolted against. One of the new government’s first acts was to ban most seagoing dhows from calling at Zanzibar. Over the next 35 years the government of Zanzibar turned its back on the sea and instead embraced an African nationalist identity.

Likewise, Gulf Arabs had been less enthusiastic about dhows in the 1960s and 70s. At that time dhows had been a sign of a backwards, technologically underdeveloped economy and a reminder of the poverty that characterized the region before the oil boom. The less said about them, the better was the consensus.

The public use of dhow symbols to represent a regional identity and a heritage to be valued rather than vilified, struck me as very interesting. In Oman, it was less surprising than in Zanzibar. Oman’s rulers are the descendants of 19th century merchant princes whose power and wealth came from controlling trade in East Africa and their participation in the western Indian Ocean economy. For Zanzibar it came as a bit more of a surprise. For many Zanzibaris, dhows were associated with the slave trade, Arab rule, and other things that many people would rather not celebrate. But even in Zanzibar dhows were in the process of being rehabilitated and the notion of a regional, oceanic identity seemed to be gaining ground.

An old cargo ship, now on display in a public park in Sur, Oman.  Sur was once a major trading port, and Suri ships routinely sailed to East Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Now Sur depends on tourism and the oil industry.
An old cargo ship, now on display in a public park in Sur, Oman. Sur was once a major trading port, and Suri ships routinely sailed to East Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now Sur depends on tourism and the oil industry.

I am not sure whether anyone in the Indian Ocean ports of Calicut or Aden or Kilwa in 1450 would have thought of themselves as part of Chaudhuri’s Indian Ocean world. But it does seem, at least among elites, that the idea of a commonality among the people of “Dhow Countries” is gaining traction. In places like Zanzibar, which has never been that comfortable with its place in the nation of Tanzania, and the Gulf States, where hereditary monarchs rule very new nations whose citizens are often greatly outnumbered by immigrants, supranational identities that hark back to the time of an imagined regional unity and prosperity have an appeal. Dhows have come to represent this new use of the past.

I will be watching to see if this new conception of identity takes hold. If it does, it will offer an alternative to national or religious ideas about identity. In the Gulf, where virtually the entire population is coastal and much of the immigrant population comes from the Indian Ocean rim, the regional identity that the dhow symbolizes may strengthen national cohesiveness. In East Africa where coastal people already have fractious relationships with their national governments, a shift toward an oceanic identity could exacerbate tensions between coast and interior.

All photos courtesy of Erik Gilbert.

Erik Gilbert is Professor of History at Arkansas State University. He recently published an article on this subject, “The Dhow as Cultural Icon: Heritage and Regional Identity in the Indian Ocean”, in the International Journal of Heritage Studies. He has done research in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya, Oman, and Yemen and is the author of Dhows and the Colonial Economy of Zanzibar and Africa in World History (with Jonathan Reynolds). He is currently working on a study of the origins of Asian rice in East Africa and writing a history of the Indian Ocean.

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