Richard Hall is one of Britain's most respected popular historians and a distinguished journalist. With his sixth book, Empires of the Monsoon, A History of the Indian Ocean and its Invaders he has again demonstrated a special talent for combining historical analysis with a sparkling and compelling narrative.
The author, during a long career as a journalist, has travelled extensively throughout the Indian Ocean region. He lived in Africa for 13 years for a time editing The Times of Zambia, and has a first-hand knowledge of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Arabia. He is also the founder of the highly respected financial and political bulletin African Analysis.
The book is set out in a chronological sequence of chapters. Like any responsible historian, Mr Hall assembles and interprets evidence drawn from contemporary accounts, but inevitably this tends to focus on the period after Europeans first discovered a passage around the Cape of Good Hope and put pen to parchment to describe the peoples and cultures they encountered.
What transpired before the first written account is shrouded by the mists of time, other than the occasional clues provided by linguistic, archeological and anthropological evidence that has been uncovered. But there is little doubt that even preceding the classical civilisations of Rome and Greece, the Indian Ocean, a region having an almost unimaginable wealth of raw materials, was being navigated by adventurers, traders and settlers relying on a predictable bi-annual pattern of monsoon trade winds.
Africa's eastern coast was already settled by Arabs in port cities stretching from present day Somalia to Mozambique. Patterns of commerce had extended from Arabia to India and China for centuries when the Portuguese mariner Vasco de Gama finally discovered a passage around the African continent at the end of the 15th century. He enlisted the assistance of an Arab navigator on the African coast to reach India's western coast.
Beyond East Africa's littoral, virtually nothing was known in Europe of the highly sophisticated cultures of Africa's interior. It would be another decade before early Portuguese missionaries would attempt to journey to Africa's interior.
What drove Vasco de Gama on, emboldened by his Christian belief, were the...