It is impossible to identify exactly when, but sometime in the first millennium B.C.E. Malays became intrepid sailors and traveled long distances to ports as far away as the east coast of Africa and Madagascar. They carried plants such as bananas and coconuts as well as the precious cinnamon, which originally came from southern China. Malay sailors also discovered how to ride the monsoon, a technique later adopted by all merchant seamen. The winds governing the sea routes are moderate and fairly predictable. From May to August, the monsoon blows from the west or south; from December to March, it blows from the northwest or northeast. Taking advantage of the seasonal winds' likely patterns, the Malays learned to sail for thousands of miles with the winds at their backs (Africa is more than 3,000 miles to the west), wait until the winds changed directions, and sail home with the winds again at their backs.
By the first century C.E., regular maritime traffic connected India to the Malay Peninsula and points east and was noted by westerners who reached India. At that time, goods were transported from India by ship across the Bay of Bengal and portaged over the 35-mile-wide Isthmus of Kra to the Gulf of Thailand. Everything was then reloaded on boats and taken along the coast to ports in the Mekong Delta such as Oc-éo, near the present-day Vietnamese-Cambodian border—where a Roman coin dated 152 C.E. has been found—and farther up the coast to China. Passage through Southeast Asia became especially important to international traders during the second and third centuries C.E., when the overland routes, previously the preferred commercial networks, were disrupted by political turmoil in China and predatory bandits in central Asia. By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the awkward portage over the Isthmus of Kra was no longer necessary as the maritime route between India and points east made regular use of the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. From the mid-fifth century on, this water-only route became well defined, and commercial intercourse between East and West was concentrated on it. Maritime traffic also linked Japan with the Korean peninsula and with the Chinese mainland.
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