Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean

Cosmopolitanism, Commerce, and Islam

Part of the Society and History in the Indian Ocean series
September 2010 9781849040082 240pp
Out of print


The wooden dhow, with its characteristic lateen sail, is an appropriate icon for the early trading world of the Indian Ocean. It was based on free trade unhindered by monopolies or superpower domination and pre-dated ‘globalisation’ by thousands of years. It carried a motley crew of sailors, traders and passengers, and many commodities, but the dhow was not merely an inanimate transporter of goods and people, but an animated means of social interaction. The dhow was at the mercy of the seasonal monsoons, but mercifully this very fact multiplied opportunities for social interaction between the sailors and traders with their hosts around the rim of the Indian Ocean, giving birth to cosmopolitan populations and cultures. The dhow was thus a vehicle for a genuine dialog between civilisations. The global world of the Indian Ocean had matured by the fifteenth century. Islam was the most widespread religion along its rim, but it had spread not by the sword but through peaceful commerce. The heroes of this world were not the continental empires but a string of small port city-states, from Kilwa in East Africa to Melaka in Malaysia. Nor was their influence confined to the littoral, but penetrated deep into continental hinterlands economically, socially and culturally. Into this world two major incursions occurred from opposite directions, the Chinese expeditions in the early fifteenth century and the Portuguese at the end of it. The contrast could not have been more stark between the Indian Ocean tradition of free trade that the Chinese espoused, despite their enormous strength, and the Vasco da Gama epoch of armed mercantilism that ultimately led to colonial domination. This sweeping and vividly written popular history of the dhow cultures contains dozens of color illustrations and many maps and is set to become the benchmark history of the early Indian Ocean.


‘Professor Abdul Sheriff … acknowledges his debt to the French historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, whose longe durée approach he emulates. He also follows the train in Indian Ocean Studies blazed by the Indian historian K. N. Chaudhuri. The result, in the words of one specialist, is the best history to date of the Western Indian Ocean, its network of international relations, and its exchange of commodities, ideas, technology and people. … This book should appeal to readers who live near the Indian Ocean, or who are drawn to it by travel, work or curiosity.’ – Asian Affars

‘A must for those interested in ocean trade and its importance for the spread of cultures, migrants, and religions, and that trade’s impacts on and transformations of the economic systems and cultures of Indian Ocean countries by seaborne commerce.’ — CHOICE

‘I highly recommend Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean, especially as it applies to global instability today, no doubt in part shaped by the experience of the Indian Ocean.’ — John Nunley, H-AfrArts

Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean is the best history to date of the Western Indian Ocean and its network of international relations, and exchange of commodities, ideas, technology and people. A consummate historian and writer, Sheriff succeeds wonderfully in rendering a complex history comprehensible. An extremely valuable work for all interested in maritime, global and African history.’ — Gwyn Campbell, Professor of History, Director, Indian Ocean World Center, McGill University

‘Sheriff is widely acknowledged to be the great authority on dhows and their role in the Indian Ocean. This book has been long awaited, and it fully meets our expectations. – It is a work of impeccable scholarship and erudition. … Sheriff has constructed a fascinating account of the history of the Indian Ocean and the role of the dhow in creating the ties that made this arguably an integrated “world.”‘ –– Professor Michael Pearson, University of Sydney

Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean is that rare global history which is also a satisfyingly thick social history firmly anchored to a sense of place. Professor Sheriff takes us from the cyclical monsoons and the shuttling dhows, through trade, slavery and intermarriage, to the historical creation of truly cosmopolitan societies in East Africa, Arabia and India.’ — Professor Engseng Ho, Duke University


Professor Abdul Sheriff is the Director of the Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute and the author of three key books on the history of maritime East Africa.

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