Woven Webs: Trading Textiles around the Indian Ocean

Lola Sharon Davidson


Abstract

Throughout its long history, the changing networks of the Indian Ocean textile trade have served as circuits of material communication, transmitting cultural values embodied in cloth, defining and redefining identities and relationships. This paper explores some of the cultural ramifications of this venerable trade. From ancient times, India was a major exporter of textiles, sitting at the centre of a complex regional network of exchanges which inserted Indian cottons and silks as prestige items into the textile regimes of societies all around the Indian Ocean. The balance between indigenous production marking local identity and Indian imports marking elite status and trans-local identity was disrupted by the spread of the competing globalisations of Islam and Christianity. Colonialism expanded networks and forged new connections, redirecting a significant portion of production through metropolitan centres towards a global market and facilitating a dynamic process of cultural exchange. By the late 20th century India was no longer the dominant player in a regional system, but one of several players in a global system. Nevertheless, within this new system particular networks continue to connect the disparate communities of the Indian Ocean and to play a complex role in negotiating identification with and resistance to competing globalisations.

Keywords

history; trade; identity

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