Skip to main content

Review of Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam


By Arthur Rose

Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. Abdul Sheriff. C. Hurst & Company, London, 2010. Pp. 351. ISBN. 978-1-84904-008-2 (pb). £18.99.

Abdul Sheriff’s Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean constitutes a significant contribution to the study of littoral societies trading between Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Professor Sheriff extends work done by K.N. Chaudhuri on the Indian Ocean’s trading cultures to include the significance of Africa in the trading triangle. As Sheriff argues in his third chapter, the Swahili coast was an important source of mangrove poles for the Middle East and India, while also providing a market for dried fish and crop species. Taking as a point of inspiration Carr Laughton’s phrase, ‘Of all things the ship is the most cosmopolitan’, Sheriff makes a long durée study of the cosmopolitan relationships between littoral societies around the Indian Ocean up to the arrival of the Portuguese with Vasco Da Gama. True to the nature of long durée, the arrival of the Portuguese itself is not a rupture as has been traditionally thought. Rather, Sheriff argues, ‘what the Portuguese did was to begin a new process that in the long run undermined and subverted the Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean.’ The Portuguese brought with them armed trading, and in so doing ‘they initiated the haemorrhage that gradually sapped the vitality of mare liberum, a sea open to free trade’. The study is a swan song to the dhow as a historically important means of non-violent cultural interaction between Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Dhow Cultures is divided into four parts: ‘Regional Partners’, ‘Navigation’, ‘Dialogue across the Ocean’ and ‘The Cultural World of the Indian Ocean’. The first considers the three primary cultural points of contact across the ocean: the Swahili Coast, the Arabian Peninsula and the Western Indian Seaboard. The second examines the means of communication, the dhow, and the manner by which they moved across the ocean. The third assesses the historical points of contact between the cultures upon each other over the long durée from the anonymous first-century account given in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. The fourth considers the impact that Islam had in facilitating cosmopolitan relations and the cultural events brought about by the existing channels of communication. It demonstrates that important events in the cultural interactions across the Indian Ocean (the Zanj Rebellion, the Zheng He expeditions) were facilitated by the trade and knowledge networks laid down by centuries of maritime interaction, using a variety of vessels that have come to be known by the common name ‘dhow’.

The long durée is the natural theoretical framework for a study that seeks to demonstrate the reliance of event on the gradual evolution of existing conditions, and this is a fine example of the style. But it raises certain inevitable questions about the relevance of Braudel in historical studies today. As Professor Sheriff notes in his Preface, the book has had a long road to publication and Braudel has subsequently been consulted less and less in debates about World Systems Theory. However, this issue does bear directly on the book in one respect: the question of the relation between cosmopolitanism and slavery.

Cosmopolitanism has received increasing levels of attention over the last ten years. Ulrich Beck, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martha C. Nussbaum have each commented upon it extensively within the disciplines of sociology, philosophy and philosophical history. A number of prominent journals have dedicated issues to debating the consequences of the term. Enough critical engagement on the question of cosmopolitanism has been generated to make it necessary for any study that includes cosmopolitanism to make some effort to explicate ‘cosmopolitan culture’ and review the problems it raises. Not doing so risks accepting cosmopolitanism as a legitimate, and therefore legitimating, end in itself. The result is that when a question such as that of slavery arises, as it almost always does in cosmopolitan interactions, Professor Sheriff mitigates the presence of slavery as cyclical event in Indian Ocean trade by arguing for its long durée cosmopolitan benefits.

While this inevitably detracts from the argument for an unproblematic history of the dhow, the study contains some fascinating insights into how Islam disseminated itself across the Indian Ocean, and the reciprocal benefits it brought. It is also richly illustrated with maps, photographs and drawings, demonstrating the author’s knowledge of, and affection for, the impact the dhow has had on cultures around the Indian Ocean.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 83-85]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: