Indian Ocean System and Arabian Seas

The integration of the Arabian Seas with Indian Ocean studies has received increased interest among world historians in the past few decades.  The sweeping narrative and ongoing project of R.J. Barendse, The Arabian Seas (Barendse R. J., 2002); and André Wink, Al-Hind, the making of the Indo-Islamic World. (Wink, 2004) are among a growing number of works that see the commerce and society of the Arabian Seas and Indian Ocean as interconnected.  Together these works offer a broader historical inquiry that expands beyond the emphasis on European empires[1].  This new research offers ways to understand regional ocean trade and societies both before and after impact of the European empires[2].   Historians make increasing use of not only commercial documents but narratives of culture and society that reflect the material conditions of society and communities based around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Seas[3].  In this paper I examine the rise and relative demise of the natural economy of the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas from the 14 to early 19th century. In this period we find a speculative system known as mudhārabah that allowed a speculative profit or loss on maritime trade across this region. This system was pressured by the absorption and realignment into the modern world system.
The natural economy of the pre-modern Arabian Seas and Indian Ocean system was defined in Khaldoun Hasan al-Naqeeb’s al-Mujtama` wa-al-dawlah fī al-Khalīj wa-al-Jazīrah al-`Arabīyah: min manẓūr mukhtalif (Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula: a different perspective) (al-Naqeeb, 1985).  Al-Naqeeb was a Kuwaiti historian and sociologist whose critical writings and position as an academic and intellectual were both noteworthy and rare in authoritarian states where the comparative study of both modern and contemporary history is generally discouraged and deemphasized[4].  Accordingly, we take up his theory of the natural economy of the Indian Ocean system that described the making and unmaking of a regional economy and system of trade. Of particular interest is his emphasis on the resistance strategies to maintain the muḍārabah system in spite of the eruption of the age of imperialism into the Arabian Seas and Indian Ocean after 1500 (al-Naqeeb, 1985, p. 41). 
Al-Naqeeb identified this natural economy as a system of local capitalist relations that depended on speculative capital put forth by individual lenders and owners of local capital assets, boat owners and primary goods and commodities.  The muḍārabah or speculative capital required an advance of capital by the boat owner to pay for the crew and for capital to buy goods at various ports on a voyage.  In return, the owner of the capital who may have been based in a home port along the Arabian Seas expected a return for his capital upon the voyage’s return.  The savvy of the captain and crew in negotiating and trading for profit at each step of their voyage across the Arabian Seas into the Indian Ocean network meant that the crew and captain had to measure their profit to ensure their own pay or cut of the profit on their return voyage.  On some legs of the voyage, individual crew members might take a stake in purchasing a commodity to be traded at the next port and thereby receive a small wage or profit from their contribution.  For other destinations, the crew might not receive any pay on the outgoing segment but awaited their compensation based on the stake of the profit from the commodity bought and later resold on the return home. 

Evidence of Transitions from Pre-Modern to Early Modern History of the Arabian Sea Economy and Society.

Al-Mujawir’s 13th century chronicle, the Tārīkh al-Mustabșir  may be read cautiously for evidence of pre-modern conditions that led to the success of commercial fishing and trading towns along the Arabian Sea.  His Tārīkh or history provides detailed descriptions of the Arabian Peninsula, its sea routes across the Indian Ocean, as well as accounts of his visits to the Oman and Yemen coasts (Rentz, 2012).  In one dream sequence, he describes the verdant conditions of an imagined town around Sana’ā in Yemen, with prosperous markets, irrigation and a place of learning (Al-Mujawir, 2008, p. 235).  This passage is followed with a description of an actual town where pottery was produced. 
Al-Mujawir recounts that in 12th century Aden, it was the practice to register crew member names while assessing customs fees or duties on ships visiting from other Yemeni ports (Al-Mujawir, 2008, p. 253).  The cloth trade was a key commodity of the late medieval period and one may infer that local officials were taxing or assessing charges to individual crew members who they assumed had a stake in the muḍārabah system of speculative commodity buying and selling.

[1] Barendse’s work first appeared in 1998 under the title of The Arabian Seas 1640-1700.  This project has since been continued and expanded into the three volume study The Arabian Seas
[2] As an example this paper has benefited greatly from use of the extensive digital collections and libraries of the Sheikh Al Qassimi Gulf Studies Research Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
[3] In 2009 the British Academy sponsored a project begun in 2009, Islam, Trade and Politics Across the Indian Ocean.
[4] The Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb archive is especially useful for scholars and available at

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