International Institute for Asian Studies
Indian Ocean Studies - The Leiden Centre for Indian Ocean Studies brings together people and methods to study the oceanic world through individual and institutional collaborations.



Why the Indian Ocean?

The Indian Ocean has long brought together communities, countries, cultures, ideas and objects. As such, its study has the potential to link the local with the global and build bridges between geographical areas (Africa, Asia, Middle East and Australia) as well as academic disciplines. The Ocean also provides helpful ways of thinking about circulation, mobilities and the littoral societies whose destinies largely depend on it.

The Leiden Centre for Indian Ocean Studies brings together people and methods to study the ‘Indian Ocean World’. Supported by numerous individual and institutional collaborations, we aim to provide a global platform for scholars working on connections and comparisons across this axis of human interaction. We are interested in scholarship that cuts across borders of places, periods and disciplines.

The presence of a strong Indian Ocean-focused community within the dynamic scholarly environment of Leiden University, along with IIAS as a global facilitating platform, can paradoxically contribute to re-introducing notions of global interactions and the importance of rehabilitating local agencies in context. Leiden University has historically been crucial to intellectual engagements on the Indian Ocean and today it hosts a great variety of relevant resources and expertise, spread across different departments and disciplines. The Centre not only unites the multitude of local resources, but also links them to national and international experts in the field.

With some exceptions, the study of the Indian Ocean has mainly taken place in Europe and North America. The Centre, however, aims to facilitate interactions between scholars from the Indian Ocean World by co-organizing conferences and workshops with institutions in the region. Such collaborations have been initiated with the University of St Denis, Université de La Réunion, Ibn Battuta Foundation in Colombo, University of Calicut, National University of Singapore, and others.

   Thematic Focus

We approach the Indian Ocean in the broadest sense of the term, beyond the geographical determinism faced by conventional Area Studies. Too often, conceptualizations of an Indian Ocean have given precedence to research of a geo-strategic and global economic nature, without much attention given to the historical agencies displayed by the communities that live off or around it. To address these types of connections and mobilities and help cultivate synergies between scholars and projects focusing on the Indian Ocean, our areas of interest include:

  • Climate and ecology
  • Circulations in art, culture, religion and heritage
  • Economic connectivities and socio-political geographies
  • Forced and voluntary mobilities
  • Law, state and society
  • Linguistic and ethnolinguistic connections
  • Networks and circulations of peoples, ideas and ideologies
  • Port-cities, shipping, littoral societies and coastal histories
  • The ‘insular’ versus ‘continental’ Indian Ocean
  • The Indian Ocean as a space of creolization
  • The Indian Ocean ‘in the world’ (global connections, links to the rest of Africa, Middle-East, Americas, Europe, Asia, etc.)
Indian Ocean Studies Updates

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
4 April 2019

Lunch Lecture - The historiographies of the Middle East and South Asia between the 17th and 19th centuries are frequently framed through the tropes of decline and transition. What do we miss out by sticking to this narrative? Gagan Sood highlights a number of unscripted possibilities.

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
29 January 2019

Analysing the influential work of Jesuit Jean-Venant Bouchet, Danna Agmon demonstrates how Catholic orientalist scholarship on law emerged from the daily practice of Jesuit conversion in the mission field. Danna Agmon is a historian and author of the book 'A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India' (2017). Lecture and Q&A, followed by drinks.

Call for papers
21 October 2018

We invite papers for the one-day workshop Colonial Institutions and the Uses of Law in Early Modern South Asia in the framework of the Indian Ocean World in the 18th Century (IOW18) Workshop Series (28 January 2019, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands)

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
25 September 2018

As the Academic Year begins, so does our new Indian Ocean Lecture Series.

20 September 2018

Building on the multiple encounters, interactions and dialogues initiated at the 1st Africa-Asia Conference (Accra, Ghana, 2015), the 2nd international Conference ‘Africa-Asia, a New Axis of Knowledge’, to be held from 20-22 September 2018, in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), seeks to deepen the explorations of new realities, and long histories connecting Africa and Asia.

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
11 December 2017

Among all prominent Indian merchant communities, the Parsis (Zoroastrians) have played a momentous role in the growth of commerce and industry in India from the 18th century to the present. In this talk, Prof. Ghulam A. Nadri (Georgia State University, USA) explores the role of political, social, and cultural factors in their rise to prominence as a merchant community and their entrepreneurial accomplishments.

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
16 November 2017

(Lunch lecture, registration required). Julia Byl (University of Alberta, Canada) and David Lunn (SOAS University of London, UK) explores the literary, linguistic, and performative aspects of the recently rediscovered narrative poem 'Syair Tabut', focusing on what it reveals to us about cultural and religious linkages between and around South and Southeast Asia in the 19th century. The Syair Tabut, or ‘Poem of the tomb effigies’, provides a Malay-language, Jawi-script account of the Muharram public processions of 1864 commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein.

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
24 October 2017

Professor Michael Laffan (Princeton University, USA) talks about the complicated life and legacy of the Indonesian exile Abdallah of Tidore, popularly known as Tuan Guru (Master Teacher), who is said to to have been imprisoned on Robben Island by the Dutch for over a decade after his arrival in 1780, and to have profoundly energized the Muslim community at Cape Town after his release.

IIAS Lunch Lecture
18 April 2017

The relocation of Bengali refugees in the Andamans transported a rich baggage of oral literature and performative traditions, which still provide strong links with the past and the “homeland”. What is the role of the transmission and performance of oral literature and traditional repertoires of songs in constructing and reinforcing “Bengaliness”? How is the performance of traditional verbal arts strengthening a displaced community’s sense of belonging? What is the use of congregational music in processes of identity-making?

Indian Ocean Lecture Series
9 March 2017

Through a focus on longer histories of trade, empire and regulation, this talk reframes maritime piracy as an economy of protection that straddles boundaries of land and sea, law and economy, history and anthropology. 


Articles in the Newsletter


Reviewed titles:

Ali, O.H. 2016. Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Burton, A. 2016. Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation. Durham and London: Duke...


International workshop held on 29-30 May 2017, Leiden University

Over the last decades, historians have mined French, British, Portuguese and Dutch records for quantitative data on the European slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The information that is often...


Reviewed title:
Marie-Françoise Boussac, Jean- Françoise Salles & Jean-Baptiste Yon (eds.) 2016. Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean. Delhi: Primus Books. ISBN 97893840820792


The spread and growth of Islamic law across the Indian Ocean world have been largely neglected by scholars of Islamic law, Middle East specialists, and scholars of the Indian Ocean, despite South and Southeast Asia together being home to the largest Muslim population in the world. The...


‘The Indian Ocean Muslims’ have contributed to the synthesis of Islamic history for over a millennium, but their roles have been continuously downplayed and disregarded in the historiography. Indians [al-Hindīs], Malays [al-Jāwīs] and Swahilis [al-Zanjīs], in South and...


Report of the workshop ‘Belonging Across the Bay of Bengal: Migrations, Networks, Circulations’, convened at Princeton University, 31 October 2014

The workshop ‘Belonging Across the Bay of Bengal’, held under the rubric of the Asian Spatialities forum of the IIAS/Mellon-sponsored program...