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Harnessing the Trade Winds: History of Indian Traders in Eastern Africa  

Many other fascinating trivia are revealed in the book. It’s intriguing to learn how Indians helped Zanzibar become a regional commerce powerhouse by connecting Zanzibar
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Title– ‘Harnessing the Trade Winds: The Story of the Centuries-Old Indian Trade with East Africa, Using the Monsoon Winds’
Author– Blanche Rocha D’Souza
Publisher– Pentagon Press
Price– 650/-
February 2022

Imagine someone telling you, Indians knew the monsoon winds much before European sailors. Imagine someone claiming that Indians started sailing long before the European explorers of the 14th century; even before Hippalus. The Greek sailor Hippalus is credited with discovering the monsoon winds. Is it possible then that, as early as 2500 BC, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization were already utilising seasonal monsoon winds—also known as trade winds and currents—for maritime trade and navigation? Sounds interesting but absurd! 

Would you agree that the Red Sea we are familiar with today is the Lohita Sagar depicted in the ‘Ramayana’? Or that River Nile, is the Krishna River of the ‘Puranas’ and Lake Victoria is Dev Sarovar? Could you guess, the Misar mentioned in the ‘Puranas’ refers to Egypt? But it is also true that Egyptians still refer to Egypt as ‘Misr’ even to this day because ‘Misr’ is the Arabic for Egypt. Can one also overlook the parallels between the mystical location stated in the ‘Mahabharata’ and Uganda or between the seabirds in the ‘Jataka’ and the ship-guiding crows?

What if all of the aforementioned claims were verified and published as a book? These assertions can be supported by a large body of texts from the Vedic and Sangam eras as well as an abundance of archaeological data. Yes, this is not precisely what is recorded in the history books, but we are all aware of how frequently official history is slanted and manipulated in accordance with the ruling class of the time. Harnessing the Trade Winds: The Story of the Centuries-Old Indian Trade with East Africa, Using the Monsoon Winds’  might be an exception. The book’s honest effort to honour and value certain lesser-known actors who were denied their due recognition in history may be its central message.

Also read: Cut out the Compliment

The early Indian traders’ contributions to the present African culture are hardly ever mentioned in history textbooks. This book is an attempt to rewrite history. This history is not widely accepted and is occasionally mentioned in reports, articles or stories but is consistently disregarded by both western and Asian historians. It takes courage to attempt to summarise three thousand years of nonconforming history. 

Blanche Rocha D’Souza used a variety of sources, including some non-academic books and reports as well as colonial British documents, to support her findings. To that aim, statements made by officials from the British government, including John Kirk and Sir Bartle Frere, are frequently cited. Additionally, the author cites evidence from Ptolemy, the Bible, the Ramayana, the Vedas, and the Puranas. The monsoon winds, maritime circulations and terminology relating to ships and commerce are all explicitly mentioned in the Rig Veda, the earliest literary work on the Indian subcontinent, as well as other literature from the Vedic period. Although some of these sources lack academic rigour, they nonetheless capture the realities of the day and cannot be disregarded.

Zanzibar Port Sultan Palace
Zanzibar a thriving African port, in the 19th century.

Many other fascinating trivia are revealed in the book. It’s intriguing to learn how Indians helped Zanzibar become a regional commerce powerhouse by connecting Zanzibar with Bombay and other western Indian ports. Certain significant Indians, like A.M. Jeevanjee, Jairam Shewji, and Tharya Topan, who made significant contributions to the region’s growth and the defence of Indian rights, find their rightful mention in the book. 

The book details the exceptional politics played by the British in order to abolish slavery. And any reader will get chills reading about how the Ugandan railway was built. Unfortunately, the British claimed all the glory for the railway line’s construction, despite the hardships that Indian labourers endured and the financial support Indian merchants provided.

The contacts between Indian and other merchants at that period are also covered at length in the book. There is a detailed account of how British traders used their cunning to seize the commercial network that Arabs and Indians had established. They initially entered as a distinct merchant class and then seized power from the local authorities under the pretext of protecting their Indian colonial subjects. Once in power, the British exploited the situation by using the divide and rule strategy to drag Indians and Africans into bloody warfare. The relationship between Berlin’s 1884 “scramble for Africa” and its significant influence on East African commercial networks is also explained in the book.

ancient Indian merchant ship
Ancient Indian merchant ship.

While pondering carefully, the assertions made in the book may seem extraordinary. Still, it is also because of the scanty scholarly research in this field that this book becomes valuable. Additionally, Harnessing the Trade Winds: The Story of the Centuries-Old Indian Trade with East Africa, Using the Monsoon Winds”  offers a wealth of information that should inspire further studies honouring several historically underrepresented groups. The author’s childhood interest in the similarities between the street vendors in Karachi, Pakistan and Nairobi, Kenya, is where the book originated. How did these people interact, stay alive, and even flourish despite being divided by the Indian Ocean? Through this straightforward inquiry, the author travelled from Kenya through modern-day Tanzania to Mumbai and Goa in India.

But why have so many people over the years disregarded the topic? Why is there not enough documented evidence? While there are several possible explanations for the lack of records, such as poor record-keeping or those destruction by the conquerors themselves, the illiteracy of the Indian traders is one of the main reasons. Indeed, the Baniya or the business class in India were not well educated.

This non-academic essay was first published in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008 and has been published in India in February 2022 for a wide readership. The book would also be an interesting read for historiography students, though more in an inductive than a deductive sense. This work is the ideal illustration of what is required to rekindle the enthusiasm of historiography experts so that they might rewrite history without any ideological moorings and question the present knowledge.

Images courtesy: Amazon and Youtube

Samir Bhattacharya is a Research Associate at the VIF. He is also pursuing PhD on India-Africa economic relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He has done his graduate study from University of Auvergne 1, France on Environment Economics. Before resuming his higher studies, he has worked with different types of organizations such as French Embassy in New Delhi, Saciwaters (Research Organisation) and CUTS International (NGO). In addition to geopolitics of Africa, his research interests include climate politics, south-south cooperation, international trade and functioning of different multilateral institutions.

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