Indian Ocean Exchange in Early Modern Yemen

Episode 453

The Red Sea port of Mocha enjoyed ties with London, Amsterdam, Surat, and Jakarta in the eighteenth century. But not all of the ivory, porcelain, and coffee that passed through Mocha was sold for a profit. In this episode, Nancy Um brings the eye of an art historian to the history of exchange and diplomacy in the early modern Indian Ocean, focusing on the ceremonies and gift exchanges that legitimated and lubricated English and Dutch trade with Yemen’s Qasimi rulers. Gift-giving was far more than an annoyance to the major overseas merchants in Mocha. We explore how “promiscuous” objects became valuable beyond their price tag, allowing merchants to communicate across linguistic, religious, and cultural lines.

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Contributor Bios

Nancy Um is an art historian of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Peninsula, with a focus on trade and cross-cultural exchange in the early modern era. She is professor art history and associate dean for faculty development and inclusion at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, Binghamton University.
Zoe Griffith is Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College, CUNY and completed her Ph.D. at Brown University in 2017. Her research focuses on political economy, law, and governance in the Ottoman Arab provinces from the 17th to the 19th centuries. She records mainly in New York City.


Episode No. 453
Release Date: 6 March 2020
Recording Location: Istanbul
Audio editing by Emily Neumeier
Music: Big Road of Burravoe by Zé Trigueiros
Bibliography courtesy of Nancy Um


Vessels used to serve coffee (A, B, and C), to sprinkle rosewater (D), and to burn incense (E), published in Carsten Niebuhr, Beschreibung von Arabien (Copenhagen, 1772), pl. 1 (cropped). Courtesy of the John Hay Library, Brown University Library. Image in the Public Domain.

Case with nine bottles, box: Batavia, bottles: Japan, ca, 1680-1700. Calamander wood, underglaze painted porcelain, silver, and velvet. Box dimensions: 27 x 25.5 x 16.5 cm, Bottle dimensions: 15 x 7 x 7 cm (with caps). Credit: Rijksmuseum, NG-444. Image in the Public Domain.

Foldout illustration of surgical instruments, from John Woodall, "The Surgeons Mate," 1639. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.


Clulow, Adam. The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Ogborn, Miles. Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Ross, Robert. Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony, 1750–1870: A Tragedy of Manners. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ruangsilp, Bhawan. Dutch East India Company Merchants at the Court of Ayutthaya: Dutch Perceptions of the Thai Kingdom, ca. 1604–1765. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Sood, Gagan. India and the Islamic Heartlands: An Eighteenth-Century World of Circulation and Exchange. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Other publications by Nancy Um:


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