As one of Oceania Cruises’ passionate guest lecturers, Dr. John Freedman thrives on sharing his in-depth knowledge of international cultures while sailing around the globe with our guests. Combining his well-established career in medicine with a fascination with faraway lands, Dr. Freedman has led a number of medical volunteer programs and relief efforts throughout the world. Below, Dr. Freedman offers insight on the compelling role of the Indian Ocean – economically, geopolitically and historically.
The Indian Ocean is a spectacularly beautiful destination. Sun- and sand- and sea-lovers will find more than their fill of joy in this part of the world. But beyond its magnificent beauty, the Indian Ocean is also a region of unique geopolitical and economic significance - perhaps moreso than any other ocean on our planet, and perhaps now more than ever.
Of course there is really only one ocean on planet Earth, the saline hydrosphere that covers three-fourths of the earth’s surface and contains 97% of our planet’s water. That’s a lot of water – billions of billions of gallons – and it is roughly, if artificially, divided up by geographers into 3 major ocean systems: the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. (Some geographers count the circumferential ocean around Antarctica as a separate “Southern Ocean” and the northernmost arms of the Atlantic and Pacific as a separate “Arctic Ocean”, but we’ll just consider the Big Three for now.) The Indian Ocean is the smallest of the 3 major oceans - but still of impressive extent: it covers over 27 million square miles and is over 5 miles deep at its deepest point in the Java Trench. It is the warmest of the planet’s oceans, and it is getting even warmer as the heat energy from global warming is transferred into it from the Pacific via a massive oceanic heat transfer mechanism known as the Indonesian Throughflow. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean combined with its relatively low salinity and its exquisite clarity and soft aquamarine tones make it my favorite ocean for swimming, be it in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, the Seychelles, or Zanzibar.
The picture postcard beauty of the Indian Ocean: Zanzibar
The Indian Ocean has long been the least studied of the world’s great ocean systems, yet that seems to be changing as more and more attention is focused on its economics and the overlay of geopolitics. Indeed, the Indian Ocean connects the Atlantic and Euro-African and Middle Eastern worlds to south Asia and ultimately through the Strait of Malacca to the greater Asian and Pacific worlds. Ancient Egyptian mariners traveled from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via man-made canals which connected the Nile Delta to the Red Sea (pre-dating the Suez Canal by at least 3000 years). At the dawn of the first mil lennium, Greek sailors of the Alexandrian world were the first to grasp and master the unique and powerful monsoon system of the Indian Ocean. Understanding how to harness the energy of the monsoon was revolutionary, in that it made truly long-distance sea travel practical for the first time in human history. We think of the monsoon as a terrestrial rain phenomenon, but at sea it is actually a seasonally reversing wind regime of prodigious power over a vast ocean expanse. Every summer the warm air over the Asian landmass creates a low-pressure zone, and cooler air over the Indian Ocean comes rushing toward the Asian continent. That pattern reverses itself in the winter. For centuries, seaborne traders harnessed the powerful reversing winds of the monsoon to go back and forth to India, the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia, and to and from the exotic realms of Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. Persian and Arab traders dominated these routes for centuries, and many grew spectacularly rich from the enormous profits on ivory and gold from Africa and spices, silk and porcelains from the Orient. Their extensive trade activity went hand in hand with the Islamicization of much of south and Southeast Asia, a legacy which exists to this day. The monsoons also propelled immense Chinese treasure ships to and from Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Horn of Africa. Indian and Sri Lankan traders rode the winds to Southeast Asia, where both Hinduism and Buddhism followed in their wake, with Buddhism’s profound influence throughout Asia enduring to this day.
Famed medieval traveler/explorers such as the Venetian trader Marco Polo and the Moroccan pilgrim Ibn Battuta sailed across the Indian Ocean en route to China and wrote of its charms and mysteries – and its mercantile importance. They and other navigators since the 2nd century AD depended on maps created by the great Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemaic maps depicted the Indian Ocean clearly enough, but incorrectly showed it to be a giant landlocked sea. Ptolemy and his centuries of disciples in the ancient cartographic world believed the southern end of Africa was connected to a large landmass known as Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (Southern Land Not Yet Known).
Phi Phi Islands in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand, the northeast region of the Indian Ocean
This purely mythical land, amazingly, did turn out to exist – we know it today as Antarctica. But we know today that Antarctica is actually a separate stand-alone contine nt. It was not until 1488 that the intrepid Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias was able to definitively prove all the mapmakers wrong by rounding the southern tip of Africa by sea – a feat which changed the world forever by showing there was indeed an oceanic route between the Atlantic world of Europe and the Indian Ocean, which would then serve as the great crossroads and gateway to all of Asia. Vasco da Gama took the next giant step when he made it from Lisbon all the way to India in 1498. This opened the way not just for a new Age of Imperialism by the Portuguese and a host of other European powers who followed quickly and rapaciously, but also for world-changing globalization of trade and cultural diffusion between East and West – processes which continually accelerated over subsequent centuries and which are today more robust and of more importance than ever.
Steamships freed traders from the tyranny of the monsoon regime in the 19th century, and trade increased exponentially, a pattern which shows no sign of slowing down today or long into the future. Today the Indian Ocean is a vital shipping lane for the world’s goods and is also an energy superhighway. China, for example, gets 80% of its petroleum products from the Gulf States, via the Indian Ocean. The key geographical “choke points” of the Indian Ocean trade route have for centuries been coveted geopolitical loci, and remain so to this day.
Dr. John Freedman looking for lemurs on the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar (Found one!)
Two of the most important – the Strait of Hormuz which is the “neck of the wine bottle” of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca which is the “funnel to East Asia” – have been sites of great strategic value, continued political intrigue, and intermittent warfare for over 500 years.
The Indian Ocean has long been a major theatre for global geopolitics, and this is especially true today as China definitively assumes the mantle of a world superpower. China and India are two Asian giants who vie for economic dominance and political hegemony in the Indian Ocean sphere. China’s “soft power” approach through robust economic and diplomatic initiatives has been carried out on a massive scale in Africa over the past decade – so much so that some pundits have gone so far as to call Africa “China’s second continent.” The Indian Ocean is China’s sea bridge to Africa and the Middle East. Along the route there are numerous countries whose political and economic kinship China is very actively courting, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (Karachi itself, the second most populous city in the world, is a major Indian Ocean port city). China has developed what the U.S Defense Department has referred to as a “String of Pearls” of naval bases spanning the Indian Ocean from Asia to Africa. The U.S. has a major naval base on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and it is likely inclined to pursue establishing more bases in this important region in the future. The Maldives, a stunningly beautiful archipelagic nation in the northern Indian Ocean, is today in the throes of a dynamic internal confrontation between democratic and authoritarian forces – China, India, the U.S. and other western powers have all begun jockeying for an advantageous position as the political drama plays out.
So while the Indian Ocean is indeed spectacularly beautiful and “exotic” and a destination full of picture postcard natural beauty, we should not forget its dynamic economic and geopolitical importance throughout human history and into the present day. As the “crossroads of the world” it will surely play a large and pivotal role in the future evolution of world history.
Dr. Freedman invites you to join him this fall for fascinating explorations throughout Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean on these voyages:
Pagodas & Palaces: Insignia | October 10, 2015
Sultans & Safaris: Insignia | October 26, 2015
Wonders of the Atlantic: Insignia | November 30, 2015