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Grades 6-8
This lesson will introduce students to the geographic features of the Indian Ocean and the critical role of the monsoon in determining maritime trading patterns before the 16th century. Students will research various historic ports along the borders of the Indian Ocean and determine possible ways that local rulers attracted merchants. They will assess the extent of commerce in the Indian Ocean before the arrival of European ships in the 16th century and how trading patterns changed there as a result.

This lesson is one in a series developed in collaboration with The Asia Society , with support from the Freeman Foundation, highlighting the geography and culture of Asia and its people.

Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, world history, economics, social studies
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 4: "The physical and human characteristics of places"
Standard 11: "The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface"
Standard 13: "How the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence division and control of Earth's surface"
Two hours

Materials Required:
Students will
  • describe geographic features of the Indian Ocean;
  • describe the influence of the monsoon on maritime trading patterns in the Indian Ocean before 1500;
  • assess the desirability of certain areas as trading ports;
  • assess the role and importance of cultural factors in attracting trade; and
  • explore contemporary maritime trading patterns.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
This lesson focuses on maritime trade in the Indian Ocean before the 16th century, when sailors relied on wind patterns to propel ships. Have students examine maps of the Indian Ocean . Ask students the following questions in a class discussion:
  • What information do you need in order to determine the pattern of maritime trade when ships were powered solely by the wind?
  • How important is knowledge of who controls the areas bordering the Indian Ocean?
  • How important is knowledge of what commodities were available in the various countries and which of those were in demand?
  • Do you think most of the trade would have been local or long distance?
After the discussion, have students draw possible routes of maritime trade between ports in the Far East and ports in the Near East. Pair students to compare their maps.
Explain that a factor in determining trade routes was an understanding of cyclical weather patterns. Ask students what kinds of weather patterns might impact maritime trade routes (hurricanes, powerful storms, etc.). Explain that common occurrences in Southeast Asia are monsoons, which are caused by a particular weather pattern that brings high winds and heavy rain. Have students read about monsoons in the National Geographic MapMachine Student Edition . Explain that there are three main circuits of seasonal monsoons: Arabia to India; India to Southeast Asia; and Southeast Asia to China. Have students draw the directions of the winds on a blank map of Asia .

Then remind students that, at the time, ships were wind-powered. Ask them to consider how monsoon winds might have affected maritime trade routes. Then, have students draw logical trade routes on their blank map of Asia with these considerations in mind.

Have students speculate where ports might have developed and why. Ask students:

  • Where and for how long would traders have to wait for the monsoon conditions to change?
  • Why did traders form diaspora communities? Diaspora communities are communities of people who live far from their common homeland.
  • What influences other than trade might these communities have had?
Keeping monsoons in mind, help students identify some of the major Indian Ocean trading ports that flourished before the year 1500. The list might include ports such as 'Adan (Aden), Yemen; Masqat (Muscat), Oman; Kozhikode (Calicut), India; Quilon (Kollam), India; Kanchipuram, India; Palembang, Indonesia; Malacca, Malaysia; Sulawesi (Celebes), Indonesia; and Hangzhou, China. Have students note these locations on their maps.

Divide the students into small groups. Assign each group one of the ports. Have each group collectively research the answers to the following questions:

  • What were the advantages of your port?
  • How might the monsoons have affected it?
  • Would it have been easy to defend?
  • Why might boats have passed by it?
  • Did it have the potential to control a strategic point along the route (such as the Straits of Malacca)?
  • What products were produced near this port or were traded from this port? (For example, which had valuable spices, raw materials, Cowrie shells, or silk or cotton textiles?)
  • Was your port a major importer of products? If so, which ones?
  • Did your port serve as a “rest stop” for ships involved in long-distance trade? If so, to which areas?
Explain that trade can bring wealth. Have the students imagine what a local ruler in their port might do to attract traders. Ask students: What is the relative importance of factors such as easy ship access, a safe harbor, no threat of pirates, no fees or taxes, lodging and activities for traders in their diaspora communities, and the sharing of religious and cultural beliefs? What other factors might help attract merchants and their ships?

After the research is completed, have students share the information about their ports, and then ask the class to indicate what they think were logical maritime trade routes that flourished before 1500. Compare these to maps from the Age of Discovery and have students determine how their ideas of a logical trade route compared with the real routes used during that time.

Have students discuss to what extent the Near East and the Far East were linked by maritime trade routes. Ask the students which countries were involved in Indian Ocean trade before the year 1500. Then superimpose a map showing the routes of the major European explorers during the early period of the Age of Discovery. Finally, ask the students what should be added to the discovery maps? What did the Europeans really "discover"?
Suggested Student Assessment:
Have students write several journal entries as if they were on one of the trading ships in the Indian Ocean before 1500. Have them describe the ports they visited, the goods that were being shipped, what hardships they might have faced, and the many different people they might have seen.
Extending the Lesson:
Have students discuss the implications of the following quotes. What do they suggest about Indian Ocean trade before 1500?
  • The Koran states: "Seek ye knowledge, even unto China."
  • Al-Mansur, the caliph who founded Baghdad in 762, stated: "This is the Tigris; there is no obstacle between us and China; everything on the sea can come to us."
  • "In the broadest perspective of Afro-Eurasian history, in the period from 750 to at least 1500, Islam was the central civilization. . . . It was the principle agency for contact between the discreet cultures of this period, serving as the carrier that transmitted innovations from one society to another." (Curtin, 1984)
  • Tome Piers, a European traveler who visited Malacca in 1520, claimed: "Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hands on the throat of Venice."
  • An Indonesian ruler in 1615 stated, "You can’t use up the wind. God has made the earth and the seas, has divided the earth among mankind, and given the seas in common. It is a thing unheard of that anyone should be forbidden to sail the seas."
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