Indian Ocean Trading System, 1200 – 1450: The Power of Peaceful Exchanges: A Simulation

James Diskant
Print shows several men some are drinking, some serving wine. One plays a stringed instrument.
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Illustration shows an island with a collection of buildings in the center
Stellar diagram features a drawing of a ship surrounded by Chinese characters


This simulation allows students to use their creative intelligence, as well as their ability to uncover archaeological and historical puzzles to work with primary sources, artifacts, and, as importantly, each other to show the power of exchange. Students work to understand why this elaborate trading system met most participants’ needs peacefully in parts of the Indian Ocean for almost three centuries. In so doing they learn about an intriguing model of positive human interaction from the past.


Why I Taught the Source(s)
Given the evolving nature of globalization and of international commerce in the 21st century and the role of leaders of individual states who sometimes extend and sometimes limit it, it is important for students of world history to understand and appreciate how a trading system worked well in the past: the Indian Ocean Trading System that met most – if not all – of the participants’ diverse needs in which goods, ideas, languages, and, of course, people connected parts of Asia and Africa with one another for hundreds of years. This activity is a modified version of what I taught for a number of years to ninth graders (and one adapted from the collaborative work with colleagues Lori Shaller and Deborah Smith Johnston from Northeastern University’s World History Center). There is a rich variety of materials for students to access so that the combination of textual and visual sources allows for the creation of a simulation so that students can better understand the intricacies of how this system worked. It also allows for students to assess this important contact from multiple perspectives which the wide spectrum of sources and creative intelligence easily allow. This activity seeks to assist students the details of such a trading system and the essential inquiry question is: “What factors made the Indian Ocean trade so effective for almost 3 centuries”?
Using a combination of sources allows students to look at the exchange as a dynamic system by first studying a map of the area, reading about it from two important perspectives, and looking at images that represent five key players: Cambodian herb growers, Chinese merchants, Indian jade workers, Kilwanese town dwellers, and Muslim traders.
The following activity is a 2 – 3 day one; it revolves around the key question listed above. In this module I will share a variant of this activity in which I use materials that are available online and explain how the role play works in which students work themselves as traders.
How I Introduce the Source(s):
As preparation, I assigned background reading on the trading system -- while I used the material from Johnson and Johnson, The Human Drama, World History: from 500 to 1450 C.E.: “Travelers, Germs and Ideas on the Move” (pp. 292-306) & “Seas of Change in the Indian Ocean” (pp. 306-312), material from another text on the Indian Ocean trading network would also work well.
That homework assignment included the following explanation: This reading will be background reading for an activity that we will do in class, looking at how goods, ideas, inventions, and beliefs spread in the area of the Indian Ocean in the 14th century, as well as the specifics of the Indian Ocean trading system. In addition to taking notes on the reading, answer the following 5 questions in complete sentences in your own words:

    1. In what ways were the travels and memoirs of Marco Polo and Ihn Batttuta similar and different from one another? Is one more believable than the other? Why?
      Consider Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta; what did you learn through their memoirs that is important about 14th century Afro-euroasian societies?
      What were the immediate and long-term consequences of the plague of the 14th century?
      What do the examples of the spread of paper, printing, the Panchatantra, the plague, and sugar suggest the way ideas, diseases, inventions, and goods traveled in the 14th and 15th centuries?
      What signs of progress emerged in this reading; which societies appeared to be the most “advanced”?
  • Then in class, I divided students into five groups. I distributed a variant of this Source Packet: #1: href="https://easyzoom.com/imageaccess/ec482e04c2b240d4969c14156bb6836f">Map of the Trading Area, #2: Excerpts from Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), #3: Excerpts from Ma Huan (1380-1451), #4 Image from China (circle), #5: Image from Kilwa or Kilwa Kisiwani (hexagon), #6: Image from India (rectangle), #7: Image of Cambodia (square), and #8: Image from Southwest Asia (triangle). Have each group answer the following questions:

    1. What were the most important goods that were traded?
      How were they traded?
      Who did the trading? Why?
      In what ways do Ibn Battuta and Ma Huan describe their respective encounters?
  • Reading/Using the Source(s)
    Then have the groups turn to the href="https://easyzoom.com/imageaccess/ec482e04c2b240d4969c14156bb6836f">map

      What are your initial thoughts to answer the Key Question for the next 2 days: “What factors made the Indian Ocean trade so effective for almost 3 centuries”?
      Group Activity:

    Step 1: Look at the href="https://easyzoom.com/imageaccess/ec482e04c2b240d4969c14156bb6836f">map

      What were the most important goods are traded?
      How were they traded?
      Who did the trading? Why?

    Step 2: Look at the five sources of traders that are identified by a symbol: circle, hexagon, rectangle, square, and triangle. Your group will be assigned one of these groups -- people from China, Eastern Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or Southwest Asia. You will need to figure out identifying details about your group, where they live, where they are going (if they go anywhere), what they are bringing to trade, what they are hoping to get in exchange.
    Source Questionnaire:

    1. Who are you? Be as specific as you can in terms of your occupation (for example: are you a merchant, a holy person, a ship captain, a farmer, or craftsperson), your class/caste, gender, and age.
      What is your religion? Did it change during this period; if so, from what to what and why?
      What do you live? Be as specific as you can in terms of the period, not the 21st century.
      If you are traveling (hint only two of the groups do so!), where you going?
      What did you bring with you to trade? If it was not your own, where did it originate?
      What do you hope to get in exchange? Where did it originate?

    : Come ready to be traders tomorrow!
    Once each group is clear on their identity, distribute a bag with goods representing each part of the trade. They include: for China: tea, silk, and porcelain; for Kilwa: gold, ivory, and copper; for India: jade and silk, for Cambodia: ginger, pepper, and cardamon, for Muslims: glassware (from Persia) and cloth goods (from India).
    Part One: in Cambodia and in India: Chinese and Muslims traveled to both places and traded
    Part Two: in Kilwa: Chinese and Muslims travel here; they bring the materials from Cambodia and India with them, as well as list of interests
    In the trade, have those who had not travelled, Cambodians, Indians, and Kilwanese stay in their groups, while have the Chinese and Muslims go to those tables and start by conducting the trade first in India (where both Muslims and Chinese went) then Cambodia (where the Chinese went) and then have them both go to Kilwa and see how well they role play the trade.
    The goal would be that everyone comes away with something and that the exchange – without necessarily using any currency – worked for each player. Have students answer the following after the trade is finished: Why? How did they trade? What was the role of language?
    For homework: assign mapping of essay question based on the essential question of the activity.
    Day Three: Journal Reflection: Consider the Indian Ocean trading system of the 14th and 15th centuries and some of the different players: Cambodian herb growers, Chinese merchants, Indian jade workers, Kilwanese town dwellers, and Muslim traders. Which one would have wanted to be and why? Then, debrief about the trade.
    Sample Images and Themes:
    This case study addresses key themes in world history – productive and positive encounters, the role of trade in world history, the relationships between Africans and Asians, questions of identity and syncretic influences, the investigation of place and geography, the questions of power and how it was used. What makes this case study so fascinating is that it illustrates a positive encounter in world history, suggesting that there may be lessons for us to learn in today’s world.
    In addition, other resources can easily be added – maps, (Afro-Eurosian Trade Routes, Mediterranean Routes, Trade and Disease, e.g. the Black Death, the role of the Portuguese), people (beyond the five players, other ones), religious symbols, come to mind to help students grapple with place, perspective, and bias.
    The word “encounter” conjures up particular meanings, doesn’t it? Think about it: how do you communicate with others when you do not share a language and yet you want to get along with each other.
    Students could also investigate the perspectives of Chinese explorers, the ships that they used, the interests and perspectives of explorers from other places and how these perspectives changed or failed to change over the centuries. They could investigate further the situation in Kilwa and later developments with the arrival of the Portuguese challenged this system.
    While primary source analysis is clearly an important skill to teach students, it needs to be coupled with student voice so that the student-centered activities are crucial, as well as to modify the more difficult document from the 14th century for students who need to assistance in reading such material.
    Additional Resources:
    Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D.1250-1350 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, originally published 1989, 1991)
    Alfred Andrea and James H. Overfield, (eds), The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Third Edition, Volume I: to 1700 (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)
    Joan Celebi, “The Indian Ocean Trade: A Classroom Simulation” 1993 http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/teachingresources/history/indian/ Accessed July 22, 2020
    Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (University of California Press, 1994, newly issued 2004)
    Jean Elliott Johnson and Donald James Johnson, The Human Drama, World History: from 500 to 1450 C.E. (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2002)
    Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

  • Primary Sources

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    The following excerpt focuses on Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), a Moroccan Berber scholar and explorer, who traveled extensively in Central Asia, China, northern and eastern Africa, as well as the Mediterranean for much of his adult life. While the details of some of his diaries may exaggerate what he saw and experienced, they do give an interesting portrayal of customs in the places in which he traveled as part of his pilgrimage and related journeys. This particular excerpt concerns his travels in southwest Asia and eastern Africa to Damascus, Basra, Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa.


    James A. Diskant, Ph.D, a historian of modern German History, is a retired high school history and government teacher. From 2001 to 2017 he taught at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, Massachusetts, where he taught courses in world and big history, as well as in government and in research methods. As the author of student-based curricula, he had been an active member of history and pedagogical associations, including the World History Association and the National Council for the Studies, where he led workshops for teachers.. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany and is an active member of EuroClio’s History and Learning Team.

    How to Cite This Source
    James Diskant Indian Ocean Trading System, 1200 – 1450: The Power of Peaceful Exchanges: A Simulation in World History Commons,