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Reviewed by:
  • Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce, and Islam
  • Ghulam A. Nadri
Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce, and Islam. By Abdul Sheriff. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 384 pp. $50.00 (cloth).

The book under review is the third in a row that I have recently read on the Indian Ocean world. This is not a mere coincidence that all of them have coastal southern/eastern Africa as one of their main foci; this is indicative of growing scholarly interest in the aspects of culture and commerce of the Indian Ocean in general and of coastal eastern Africa in particular. One does not fail to notice that the authors of these books endeavored, in one way or another, to study coastal or even continental Africa within the framework of the Indian Ocean. By so doing, they not only significantly contribute to the existing literature but also offer new perspectives to study the Indian Ocean world. Abdul Sheriff's Dhow Cultures is a study of commercial exchanges and concomitant sociocultural interactions in the western Indian Ocean [End Page 167] from the longue durée perspective. Although the book is based almost entirely on published sources well known to scholars, it is provocative and questions some of the major interpretations and established views on the history of the Indian Ocean world.

The book consists of fifteen chapters. In the first two chapters, which together serve as an introduction, the author outlines the key issues and interpretations involved in the study of the Indian Ocean world, highlights the strengths and weaknesses of some major studies done in the past, and provides the context in which the author examines the maritime culture of the western Indian Ocean. Here, the author talks about how the regular and alternating monsoon winds, a characteristic of the Indian Ocean, determined the structure and flow of maritime trade. A major concern of the author has been the historiographical peripheralization of the East African Coast in the study of the Indian Ocean world. Past studies, the author claims, have accorded only a marginal space to coastal East Africa. A good deal of the narrative in the Dhow Cultures is, therefore, devoted to this segment of the ocean. The author argues that the East African coast maintained close commercial and cultural ties with the littoral societies around the western Indian Ocean rim and that it was an integral part of the Indian Ocean world. The remaining thirteen chapters are divided into four parts, each of which contains chapters that deal with a particular theme or a set of themes.

Part 1 outlines the main characteristics of the economy of the western Indian Ocean, society and the maritime cultures of the Swahili coast, West Asia, and western India. The author explains how the forest-and-sea zones of the East African coast and of western India and the intermediate desert-and-sea zone of Arabia and Persia extending from the Red Sea to the Indus River in northwestern India constituted a circuit in which peoples, commodities, ideas, and sociocultural values, including religions, circulated and moved freely and continuously. This led to the development of a cultural continuum in the western Indian Ocean in which each of the three zones had their significant contribution. He argues that the global world of the India Ocean evolved over several centuries beginning from the days of the Roman Empire, and that it had matured by the fifteenth century.

Part 2 deals with the aspects of the culture of navigation, in particular the dhow culture and the factors that facilitated it, such as nautical expertise, knowledge of the monsoon, shores, and coastal regions. Part 3 tracks the development of maritime trade in the western Indian Ocean from the time of the Periplus in the first century up to the fifteenth century. Here the author illuminates the role of different ports, port [End Page 168] cities, and successive generations of people in the growth and expansion of Indian Ocean trade throughout this long period. The author argues that major political events such as the decline of the Roman Empire or the Mongol invasion and the consequent sack of Baghdad, the seat...


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