The western Indian Ocean has been warming faster than any other tropical ocean during the 20th century, and is the largest contributor to the global mean sea surface temperature (SST) rise. However, the temporal pattern of Indian Ocean warming is poorly constrained and depends on the historical SST product. As all SST products are derived from the International Comprehensive Ocean- Atmosphere dataset (ICOADS), it is challenging to evaluate which product is superior. Here, we present a new, independent SST reconstruction from a set of Porites coral geochemical records from the western Indian Ocean. Our coral reconstruction shows that the World War II bias in the historical sea surface temperature record is the main reason for the differences between the SST products, and affects western Indian Ocean and global mean temperature trends. The 20th century Indian Ocean warming pattern portrayed by the corals is consistent with the SST product from the Hadley Centre (HadSST3), and suggests that the latter should be used in climate studies that include Indian Ocean SSTs. Our data shows that multi-core coral temperature reconstructions help to evaluate the SST products. Proxy records can provide estimates of 20th century SST that are truly independent from the ICOADS data base.