The Contested Sea: Regimes of Maritime Violence in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean

in Journal of Early Modern History
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Rulers on the Indian Ocean littoral are generally portrayed as having been uninterested in the pursuit of sea power until the coming of the Europeans. This article examines a series of case studies from this earlier period to argue that maritime violence had long been a part of expansionist political projects centered on the control of trade routes and coastal waters. In their sum, they show the Indian Ocean to have been an arena of active political competition and legal contestation, which were waged through private and semi-private agents commonly denoted as pirates.

The Contested Sea: Regimes of Maritime Violence in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean

in Journal of Early Modern History




R.E. Margariti“Mercantile Networks, Port Cities, and ‘Pirate’ States: Conflict and Competition in the Indian Ocean World of Trade before the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 51 no. 4 (2008): 543-77.


S.R. Prange“A Trade of No Dishonour: Piracy, Commerce, and Community in the Western Indian Ocean, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century,” American Historical Review 116 no. 5 (2012): 1269-93.


For an overview see Herman Kulke“Introduction,” in From Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asiaed. H. Kulke K. Kesavapany and V. Sakhuja (Singapore 2009) xvi.


ChaudhuriTrade and Civilisation37-41.


See P.-Y. Manguin“Palembang and Sriwijaya: An Early Malay Harbour-City Rediscovered,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 66 no. 1 (1993): 2346.


S. Kee-Long“Dissolving Hegemony or Changing Trade Pattern? Images of Srivijaya in the Chinese Sources of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29 no. 2 (1998): 297.


Kee-Long“Dissolving Hegemony” 298. The Cholas were also reliant on mercenaries and especially the private armies of merchant guilds for their military campaigns. It is likely that they also used merchant ships in their attack on Srivijaya not least because of the strong benefits Tamil merchants could expect from breaking Srivijayan obstructions to their trade with China; lamentably the generic terminology of the Thanjavur inscription holds no clue as to what type of vessels were employed in this venture or who owned them. See Spencer “The Politics of Plunder” 413-16; Hall Trade and Statecraft 190-198; N. Karashima “South Indian Merchant Guilds in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia” in From Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa ed. Kulke et al. 135-57; and for a critical assessment see Subbarayalu South India under the Cholas 188-201.


G. Wade“An Early Age of Commerce in Southeast Asia, 900-1300 CE,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40 no. 2 (2009): 221-65; J. Wisseman Christie “Javanese Markets and the Asian Sea Trade Boom of the Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries A.D.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 no. 3 (1998): 344-81.


See for instance B. Lewis“The Fatimids and the Route to India,” Revue de la Faculté de sciences économiques de’l Université d’Istanbul 11 nos. 1-4 (1949-50): 50-4.


Goitein“Two Eyewitness Reports” 248.


Margariti“Mercantile Networks Port Cities and ‘Pirate’ States” 572.


T. Bruce“Piracy as Statecraft: The Mediterranean Policies of the Fifth/Eleventh-Century Taifa of Denia,” Al-Masāq 22 no. 3 (2010): 248.


See for instance E. Sohmer Tai“Marking Water: Piracy and Property in the Premodern West,” in Seascapes: Maritime Histories Littoral Cultures and Transoceanic Exchangesed. J.H. Bentley R. Bridenthal and K. Wigen (Honolulu 2007) 205–20.


Goitein and Friedman eds.India Traders475.


Goitein and Friedman eds.India Traders615-16 656-57.


Goitein and Friedman eds.India Traders341. Ibn al-Mujāwir while noting the different types of vessels involved in the attack uses neither the term shaffāra nor shawānī; Smith ed. Traveller 143. For the dating of the naval attack on Aden to 1134-35 see Goitein “Two Eyewitness” 250.


See Goitein and Friedman eds.India Traders23.


Smith ed.Traveller158.


É. Vallet“Yemeni ‘Oceanic Policy’ at the End of the Thirteenth Century,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 36 (2006): 289-296; also see Vallet L’Arabie Marchande 541-623.


L.F.F.R. Thomaz“Portuguese Control over the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal: A Comparative Study,” in Commerce and Culture in the Bay of Bengal 1500-1800ed. O. Prakash and D. Lombard (New Delhi 1999) 119.


See C.A. Lockard“ ‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, ca. 1400-1750,” Journal of World History 21 no. 2 (2010): 230.


Winstedt and de Josselin de Jong“Maritime Laws” 54. On the contrast of this provision to Islamic practice in the Mediterranean see H.S. Khalilieh Islamic Maritime Law: An Introduction (Leiden 1998) 133-38.


R. Finlay“The Treasure-Ships of Zheng He: Chinese Maritime Imperialism in the Age of Discovery,” Terrae Incognitae 23 (1991): 8.


L. Benton“Legal Spaces of Empire: Piracy and the Origins of Ocean Regionalism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 47 no. 4 (2005): 701-2. Emily Sohmer Tai makes a similar point about the competitive claims to maritime jurisdiction in medieval Europe that were directly reflected in competing accusations of piracy. E. Sohmer Tai “The Legal Status of Piracy in Medieval Europe” History Compass 10 no. 11 (2012): 838-51.


SubrahmanyamThe Portuguese Empire in Asia65; V.F. Piacentini “Salghur Shāh malik of Hormuz and his embargo of Iranian harbours (1475-1505)” in Revisiting Hormuz 8; G. Casale The Ottoman Age of Exploration (Oxford 2010) 8.


T. Andrade“Beyond Guns, Germs, and Steel: European Expansion and Maritime Asia, 1400-1750,” Journal of Early Modern History 14 nos. 1-2 (2010): 165-86; I am grateful to Professor Michael Pearson for bringing this text to my attention.


On this point see Prange“A Trade of No Dishonor” 1269-72.


G. Teitler“Piracy in Southeast Asia: A Historical Comparison,” Maritime Studies 1 no. 1 (2002): 67.


M. Kempe“ ‘Even in the Remotest Corners of the World’: Globalized Piracy and International Law, 1500-1900,” Journal of Global History 5 no. 3 (2010): 353.


R.I. Burns“Piracy as an Islamic-Christian Interface in the Thirteenth Century,” Viator 11 (1980): 166.

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