Pre-Columbus, the greatest feats of maritime navigation belonged to the Polynesians. Before the Portuguese had reached even the Canaries, Polynesian seafarers had traversed most of the Pacific. The northern seaboards of the Indian Ocean were the conduits of the world’s most lucrative trade routes, with their control fiercely contested by a cluster of vying thalassocracies. By 1450, the established Hindu kingdoms of Vijayanagara in Southern India, and Majapahit, led from Surabaya in Java, were both threatened by waxing Islamic powers to their north: the Bahmani and Malacca. Malacca itself fought off repeated attacks from the powerful Buddhist kingdom of Ayutthaya. Safely distanced from these struggles, the Islamic city states of East Africa prospered from their links to the trading network: Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan explorer described Mogadishu as ‘endless in size’. The Chinese admiral Cheng Ho and his vast trading fleets visited Mogadishu three times, before the Ming dynasty turned inward.
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