Trading links between the Indian subcontinent and other places have a long history. Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) is known to have had contacts with the Indus Valley civilisation from about 3000 years BC. Ancient Egypt is also thought to have opened trade routes to South India in the Ptolemaic period (4th century BC). These contacts further linked the markets of Asia to Rome and the Mediterranean.
Three key routes
Three routes were established by Roman times. The first, overland, connected the markets of the eastern Mediterranean with Central Asia, India and China. The second, maritime, emerged from the Persian Gulf, hugging the shoreline and following it east and down the length of the Indian peninsula. And the third, emerging from the Red Sea and following the monsoon winds, connected mainly the south and the west of India to the markets, principally, it is thought, of Alexandria.
This trading activity is believed to have been dominated by the Nabateaens, an Arab people concentrated in Yemen and extending their influence up and along the west coast of the Red Sea.
Early Arab traders
Arab traders used these trade routes through the early phase of the Muslim conquests (between the 7th and 10th centuries) as lands and peoples in Iraq, Persia, Central Asia and parts of the sub-continent came under their political control. At the same time the use of specific trade routes ebbed and flowed depending on the demand for products and political conditions in the region. Thus the Silk Road - overland through Central Asia in the main - was disrupted by the Mongol incursions of the 13th century, and was constantly vulnerable to similar incursions thereafter. This encouraged sea-borne trade with India, East Africa, and beyond.
Pepper was one of the first spices to be traded from India.
India's importance was both as a source of products, often luxuries like black pepper and other spices, and as a transit point for trade from further east. This trade from southeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent, was often dominated by Indian and Chinese merchant interests. Products were then landed in South India or Sri Lanka, and transferred to Arab vessels for onward transhipment.
Arab traders thus provided a crucial link between Eastern products and European markets, from which of course they made handsome profits as Europeans were unable to compete with this monopoly. Indeed, much of the prosperity of the Islamic world, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean was dependent on trade relations with India and the East on the one hand, and with Europe on the other.
Arab traders dominate the trade routes
Arab dominance of trade routes east of India became a reality in the 10th century. There were major settlements of Arab traders scattered along the west and south coast of India and Sri Lanka, with similar facilities extending into the chain of islands extending into the South China Sea and the Philippines. Indeed so dominant and pervasive was Arab traders' control of this trade route, that Europeans were driven to despair trying to work out how to carve out profitable routes for themselves.
It was a catastrophe in the East - the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Seljuk Turks, and a triumph in the West - the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, that set in chain a process that was to completely destroy Arab control of international maritime trade, and begin a new age of European colonisation.