This article examines European perceptions and misperceptions, distortions, exaggerations and misunderstandings of western Indian Ocean societies in the 19th century. For this work I have combined research on European sources, both published and manuscript, and mostly from the British archives, with field research that I have carried out in southwest Asia, Arabia, and east Africa. The fact that most European observers of Indian Ocean societies in the 19th century carried the baggage of British and French colonial policy, and that they tended to lack deep knowledge of the region as well as empathy for the people, combined to produce a certain historical, political and cultural approach to local realities, which, in some cases, is still unmodified today. Through my own field research I have met with local tribal elites in Makran, Baluchistan and Oman, and with leaders of the major Swahili families of Zanzibar. I have shared tea and stories with old women. These contacts provide an invaluable insight into local interpretations of regional history, through the historical memory preserved in rituals and tales. This research also makes possible a new understanding of the significance of places, and the historical events associated with them.