Reflections on the Indian Ocean

It’s exciting to be heading back into the Indian Ocean with Coral Expeditions, on many, many levels. From a purely personal perspective, the Indian Ocean was the scene of life-changing experiences when I was a young traveller, that set me on compass bearings I’m still following today.

While the Indian Ocean washes right up against Australia’s western shores, I think for many of us there is a limited understanding of just what this complex oceanic world encompasses, what its world-changing significance has been, and continues to be.

The Indian Ocean region is one of huge geographical and cultural diversity. It is an amazing region of tropic and temperate sea lanes, trade winds and monsoon seasons, islands, archipelagos and wildly different continental shores. There is no better way of experiencing this than by small expedition ship, as seaborn trade and cultural interchange has been its essence for thousands of years.

As a mariner-turned-historian, I’ve long been fascinated by the Indian Ocean’s role in creating our modern globalised world.

Indeed, it is the region where globalisation was invented. Right across the Indian Ocean, ancient ships of diverse cultures exchanged precious and exotic commodities over networks that stretched all around the known world. From the far east and South East Asia, via Sri Lanka and India to the coasts of Africa, the Red Sea and reaching Europe through the Mediterranean.

This is the reason we can find ancient Greek and Roman artefacts on the shores of India, and why cloves from the Spice Islands carbon-dated back thousands of years have been dug up by archaeologists excavating Syrian ruins. They were part of a lively trade that included silks and ceramics, nutmegs and peppers, ivory and gemstones, peacocks and temple dancers.

Reflections on the Indian Ocean

Exchanged along those same sea lanes were transformative religions, philosophies and arts that gave rise to entirely new civilisations. First came Buddhism and Hinduism, followed by the variants of Islam. Relative latecomers, Catholic and Protestant Christianity arose just 500 years ago with the arrival of Portuguese, Dutch and English voyagers.

The Europeans arrived intent on dominating sea trades, resulting in the Indian Ocean being the stage on which the rise of the West first played out.

We’ll meet all of these influences in the Straits of Malacca, where a Coral Expeditions voyage starts with visits to Singapore, Penang and Aceh. This, in a literal sense, is the maritime crossroads of both the ancient and modern worlds and fantastic introduction to the diversity of cultures, religions and cuisines of the Indian Ocean.

I for one can’t wait to revisit Malacca and Penang, not just to enjoy their kaleidoscope of temples, mosques, cathedrals and forts but to relish the fabulous fare known variously as Straits, Peranakan or Nonya cuisine. A fusion of Chinese and Malay, these foods blend many of the flavours and spices that originated at this end of the Indian Ocean. Additionally, Tamil (southern Indian), Arab and Persian influences tempt our tastebuds in these parts.

Reflections on the Indian Ocean

The ancient port of Galle in Sri Lanka will be a very special stop-over for me. Known in colonial times as Ceylon, this fabulously rich and fertile island hangs like a pearl pendant from the Bay of Bengal. It is known by the name of Serendib in the old Arabian tales of Sindbad the spice-trader and sailor. In a word, serendipitous certainly sums up this lush jewel of an island.

My own earlier career as a globe-girdling yacht navigator began in Galle Harbour when, as a young man, I hitched my first ride on an American cruising trimaran heading west to Africa. That voyage began as we sailed out past the old fort guarding Galle Harbour’s entrance with Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and English heritage.

This began my ongoing fascination with the Indian Ocean that would unfold as I sailed via Madagascar to east Africa, visiting the Maldives, the Seychelles and so many of the places on Coral Expeditions’ upcoming itineraries.

Reflections on the Indian Ocean

It was on this ocean that I first encountered the timeless rhythms of the monsoon winds that had propelled sailors and traders for millennia. These were my first lessons in seamanship, while also learning the old skills of navigating by sextant and the sun, moon and stars. This was an essential area of study for sailors back in the day, circa mid-1970s, before global positioning satellites were commonplace.

What a difference it will be arriving on a luxurious Coral Expeditions ship to the Maldives, out in the remote Indian Ocean south-west of India, just as geographically isolated now as they were then.

The Maldives archipelago is a perfect necklace of coral atolls reaching down towards the equator, clear and clean like nowhere else. Its Muslim population shows the genetic traces of many of the trading cultures that once criss-crossed the Indian Ocean. With coral footpaths set between dazzling coral walled houses, visitors encounter a purity that can be found in very few earthly places.

The Seychelles are equally remote but with rugged, verdant peaks that signal your arrival from across the horizon. Nearly half a century since my first visit by yacht, I know this little island group will still resemble Indian Ocean heaven. While they were certainly known to the Indian Ocean’s earlier traders, the Seychelles weren’t permanently inhabited until the French claimed them in the 1700s. That’s what gave the mixed-race Seychellois their creole language.

Uniquely, the Seychelles are the home of the coco-de-mer – a legendary, evolutionary variant of the coconut tree found on every tropical shore around the world. Famously sensual in shape, the large nut of the Seychelles coco-de-mer celebrates feminine beauty. Highly valued, they were traded across the Indian Ocean and sometimes exchanged as gifts or tribute to distant rulers.

This is just one of the many gifts that the Indian Ocean has delivered me, along with setting me up for a life connected with the sea as a sailor, maritime writer, photographer, publisher and historian. I’ll enjoy sharing more of its many stories as we cross it together soon.


Reflections on the Indian Ocean

View our Small Islands of the Indian Ocean series >

Read More about Guest Lecturer Jeffrey Mellefont >