Since the beginning of time sea has held an important position in the affairs of nations. The oceans make up 70 percent of the planet and contain 97 percent of all the water on Earth. Naturally, the earlier and modern-day coastal empires of the world regarded these seemingly limitless seas and oceans as potential mediums to project their economic and military might across the globe, drawing up borderlines to define the peripheries of their influence and authority.
The Western Indian Ocean which is recognized as a separate and independent water body by numerous organizations and institutions, should be renamed the African Ocean so that the European colonial construction of the so called “Indian Ocean”, carried out to legitimize their imperial claims, may finally be demolished in a rapidly changing geostrategic world, where those claims are no longer applicable.
The West line concept basically highlights the fact that over the 5000 years of human history, the centre of sea trade and influence has constantly been shifting from the Indus to the Mesopotamia civilization and further onwards to Rome. After that it came to be to the Dutch, followed by the British and subsequently leading to the United States of America. In all of this, the presently named Western Indian Ocean (WIO) has maintained the position of paramount importance in projecting military strength and securing important markets of trade leading to the flourishment of commerce.
Every power has in its way tried to stamp its control over these oceans through their large fleets. The colonial powers of Europe specifically refashioned the entire map of the world to project their image, supplanting local names with labels and culture that would entrench their hegemony.
With the establishment of few posts at the coastline of the African Continent, the process of colonization of African nations and consequently the African Continent by the European empires started in the 16th century AD. That process finally resulted in the Scramble for Africa after the Berlin Conference in the 19th century. The notorious term “Scramble for Africa” refers to the occupation, division and colonization of African territory by European powers. The main motivating factors behind the occupation through colonization of other nations and territories can be delineated through the 3Cs factor: Civilization, Christianity and Commerce.
In the absence of compasses, proper maps and navigational tools, the sailors and adventurers received guidance from periplus accounts of other peoples. The periplus was a log of sorts, a written account containing possible available information about the ports and coastal landmarks in order and with approximate intervening distances. Through it the captain of a vessel could expect what to find along a shore. It was a great source of navigation, geography and related information which was useful for the navigators. Now, for us periplus is considered as a bona fide source of history especially regarding the old historical names of places, ports, seas and oceans etc. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, or Red Sea, was written by an unknown Greek of the Hellenistic or Romanized Alexandrian writer in the first century CE. It provides a shoreline itinerary of the Red (Erythraean) Sea, which started at the port of Berenice, an ancient seaport of Egypt on the west coast of the Red Sea. It is situated about 825 km south of Suez and 260 km east of Aswan in Upper Egypt.
The manuscript contains many historic names of places like the Horn of Africa was called ‘the Cape of Spices’ and modern day Yemen was known as the ‘Frankincense Country’. The Sindh region of Pakistan is also mentioned in the periplus, along with southwestern regions of India.
Although the author is unknown, it is clearly a first-hand description by someone familiar with the area and is unique in providing accurate information and insights into what the ancient European world knew about the lands around the Western Indian Ocean (WIO).
For centuries after, the Europeans used the same periplus for navigation into Asian and Western Indian Ocean. So much so that with the commencement of the so-called era of exploration by the Europeans, their cartographers and geographers started making maps within which they borrowed the names of places, ports, sea and oceans. One such name which is the most relevant with this study is the Erythraean Sea or the Erythraean Ocean.
Cartographers were vital in the colonization and takeover of the African continent through the utilization of the tools of their trades, serving a purpose as much efficient as that of the musket and canon.
The most obvious victim of such predispositions kept by European cartographers were the oceans surrounding the African continent. Since many centuries, the ocean on the western shores of the continent was known as the Ethiopian Ocean and the mass of water on the eastern coast of the African continent was recognized by the Europeans as the Erythraean Sea. The Ethiopian Ocean was transmogrified into the Atlantic Ocean and the name Erythraean Sea which was used for the present day Western Indian Ocean was interchangeably used by many different names such as Mare Rubium, Oriental Ocean, Oriental of Indian Ocean, Eastern Ocean, Eastern or Indian Ocean, Indian Ocean, and now, Western Indian Ocean.
Notably, none of the above mentioned terms contained any reference of African continent or any of its coastline area despite having the longest coastline of African continent.
As mentioned earlier, Africa has long been sidelined by the strategic community. In case of its maritime domain, the result is no different. The continent of Africa which was once the pivot of marine travel by both eastern and western sailors has become a sideshow. Historically the ocean at the eastern coast of the African continent was called by different names as mentioned before. Afterwards, by colonial process it was named as Indian Ocean and now it is called as the Western Indian Ocean. The latest name of Western Indian Ocean is asserted to be colonial baggage left behind by European powers in their bid to redefine the world while pursuing hegemonic ambitions.
Western Indian Ocean is a well-known and widely used term in the maritime domain. Many international governmental and non-governmental organizations use the term either to define the geographic and oceanographic boundaries of their limits of operations or to define the area of their interest in this particular Ocean i.e., Western Indian Ocean.
The geographic, bathymetric, hydrographic and ecological significance of WIO means it has a potential of growth in blue economy. Regionally, all of its coastal countries jointly have 7000 km long coastline with littoral African countries. Although all countries situated on its boundaries were under colonial rule in the recent past, in the annals of history this region had always been seen as historically African. Even though communities living there are socio-politically diverse, they all are united in being African. For that matter in all and any aspect “WIO” is a self-determining, independent and separate entity of its own. We have now reached the appropriate and precise juncture in time which necessitates that this water body must have a true representative name of its own which is the African Ocean.
Following are some major examples where legally and technically the term WIO is used by different international, regional and national organizations and institutions. All these institutions define WIO as a separate and independent water body.
In the legal examples, the first and foremost example would be the Nairobi Convention. The full and official name of it is the Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Eastern African Region adopted in Nairobi in 1985. The Contracting Parties to Nairobi Convention are Comoros, France, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and the Republic of South Africa. It refers to the ocean off the Eastern coast of the African continent as Western Indian Ocean. Secondly, the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) also refers to it as the Western Indian Ocean. The organization is dedicated to promoting the educational, scientific and technological development of all aspects of marine sciences throughout the WIO region. All this with a view toward sustaining the use and conservation of its marine resources. The WIO region consists of 10 countries: Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius, Réunion (France).
In the modern day and age, we see that the borders of these great oceans are being rearranged by many international organisations as well as state organizations. The so-called Indian Ocean is a case in point, with a split between the Indo Pacific and the Western Indian Ocean. Yet it can be asserted that the WIO is in fact a return to factual roots and is in fact a separate body from what is termed the Indian Ocean.
Scientific examples may include the Consortium for the Conservation of Coastal and Marine Ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean officially launched at the fifth meeting of the Contracting Parties to the Nairobi Convention held in Johannesburg, South Africa in November 2007. The main purpose was to advance efforts to protect, conserve, and manage the coastal and marine environment of the WIO region while working to alleviate poverty and attain sustainable livelihoods for the most vulnerable segments of its population. Secondly, there is the Western Indian Ocean Coastal Challenge (WIOCC) which is another internationally led partnership that promotes actions for climate resilient development that achieves effective conservation of biodiversity, enhanced livelihood and economies for greater social security among coastal communities. The WIOCC mobilizes the political, financial and technical commitment at national and regional levels by inspiring leadership and facilitating collaboration towards a shared, long-term vision.
There are also international organizations working for fisheries in the WIO region. In the lead is the Convention on the Western Indian Ocean Tuna Organization (WIOTO) established in 1991. It covers the following aims:
“The Parties, recognizing their common interests in the conservation, management and optimum utilization of the living marine resources of the Western Indian Ocean region and in particular of the highly migratory tuna and tuna-like species; Desiring to cooperate with a view to ensure the conservation, management and optimum utilization of tuna and tuna-like species in the Western Indian Ocean.”
Furthermore, the WIO is also a distinct and well-defined term in the context of international maritime safety and security. The Djibouti Code of Conduct has been instrumental in repressing piracy and armed robbery against ships in the WIO and the Gulf of Aden has seen its scope significantly broadened to cover other illicit maritime activities, including human trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The Jeddah Amendment to the Djibouti Code of Conduct in 2017 contains in the introduction of the document that: “revised code of conduct concerning the repression of piracy, armed robbery against ships, and illicit maritime activity in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden area.”
Other than the following there are numerous reasons which distinctly highlight the WIO as a separate water body which includes the WWF’s identification of the Western Indian Ocean as a geographically separate entity with distinct wildlife and ecology. The World Bank also views the WIO as an independent region whilst referring to investment projects in the region. The International Bathymetric Chart of the Western Indian Ocean (IBCWIO) indicates WIO to be a separate and independent region.
For all the legal, scientific, and historic reasons stated herein, now is the right time to give this ocean region its true representative name – African Ocean. The name African Ocean highlights its significant linkage with the African continent that has been underplayed for millennia.
The so-called “Indian Ocean” covers at least one-fifth of the world’s total ocean area and is bounded by Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (known as the western Indian Ocean), India’s coastal waters (the central Indian Ocean), and the Bay of Bengal near Myanmar and Indonesia (the eastern Indian Ocean). It provides critical sea trade routes that connect the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia with the broader Asian continent to the east and Europe to the west. Some 80% of the world’s maritime oil trade flows through three narrow passages of water, known as choke points, in the Indian Ocean. This includes the Strait of Hormuz, located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, which provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.
Nearly 40 percent of the world’s offshore petroleum is produced in the Indian Ocean; coastal beach sands and offshore waters host heavy mineral deposits; and fisheries are increasingly important for both exports and domestic consumption. According to reports, the Indian Ocean boasts reserves of over 65% of world oil and 35% of the world gas in the littoral states.
The Ocean is also important due to the fact that a major amount of global armed conflicts are presently located in this region. Its territory also houses emerging developments that are helping shape the future world order such as the peaceful rise of China; the turbulent politics of the Middle East; potential nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan; the U.S. interference in the Greater Middle East region such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran; violent modern terrorism; increasing frequency of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa; and, the increased competition over marine resources such as fisheries.
However, in the modern day and age, we see that the borders of these great oceans are being rearranged by many international organisations as well as state organizations. The so-called Indian Ocean is a case in point, with a split between the Indo Pacific and the Western Indian Ocean. Yet it can be asserted that the WIO is in fact a return to factual roots and is in fact a separate body from what is termed the Indian Ocean.
Thus in conclusion, it is put forward that the Western Indian Ocean which is recognized as a separate and independent water body by numerous organizations and institutions, should be renamed the African Ocean so that the European colonial construction of the so called “Indian Ocean”, carried out to legitimize their imperial claims, may finally be demolished in a rapidly changing geostrategic world, where those claims are no longer applicable.
The writer is an Islamabad based Supreme Court Lawyer, Ex-Deputy Attorney General Pakistan and heads an independent think tank, Maritime Study Forum – MSF.
E-mail: [email protected]
Read 5 times