Muslims in the Indian Ocean I

The Dhow is not an Arab ship, it is a veritable family of vessels sharing common characteristics, such as the hull, large (about 4 to 1), with straight cut lines, with three masterpieces whose bow, long and the keel, and the stern, less inclined, and one or two masts carrying sails Latin-setie.

The smallest ones are only eight meters for 50 tons. The larger ones, like the Baghala, up to 500 tons and more. Their construction has not varied since their appearance, presumably in the late Middle Ages. Dams were rarely decked to maximize load carrying. It was a coaster, which could be stranded on the shore, and resume the sea with the tide every day, like the cargo ships of antiquity.

Indian Sailing Boats. New mount. Produced by Thomas Daniell (artist).

The rise of Islam in the Hijaz in the early seventh century affected the Indian Ocean in several important ways. Describing these changes will be the main concern of this chapter, which uses material from the period up to the end of the fifteenth century. In this period there was both continuity and change. It would certainly be incorrect to write of an Islamic period or ocean. Many others traded and travelled, and coastal routes remained relatively unchanged. However, over a few centuries most of the population of the coasts of the Indian Ocean became Muslims, so that a large share of both coastal and oceanic trade was handled by the adherents of this new religion. It was much more centralised than was either Hinduism or Buddhism. This was especially manifested in the requirement, one of the most basic tenets of the faith, that if at all possible Muslims should perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in a lifetime. A Muslim community developed around the shores of the Indian Ocean, linked by religion, whose commonality, while this must not be exaggerated, was created and reinforced by travelling scholars. Yet Islam’s success was to a large extent a result of its tolerance of local traditions, so that scholars distinguish between prayers and other religious activities in the mosque, and those performed outside it. Rather than the coastal populations converting to Islam, they accepted it.

What was the attitude of the new religion to sea matters and to merchants? As to the latter, the normative position was well set out by the great fourteenth century social scientist Ibn Khaldun. He claimed countrymen were morally superior to townsmen, with merchants lower again: ‘traders must buy and sell and seek profits. This necessitates flattery and evasiveness, litigation and disputation, all of which are characteristic of this profession. And these qualities lead to a decrease and weakening in virtue and manliness.’ Some claim that normative Islam had a similarly negative attitude to sea travel. The Arabs as men of the desert used to be the prevalent western stereotype: they rode camels, not ships. Today we realise that Muslims had an early and very successful interest in sea trade. The first Arab sea migration was to Abyssinia, in the time of the prophet. On several occasions in the previous chapter we described Arabs engaging in extensive sea voyages. This continued when Arabs became Muslims.

Authentic Islamic sources display a positive attitude to the sea. The Quran itself has several passages which speak approvingly of sea trade and maritime matters. As the Holy Book says, ‘And of His signs is this: He sendeth herald winds to make you taste His mercy, and that the ships may sail at His command, and that ye may seek His favour, and that haply ye may be thankful.’ And again: ‘your Lord is He who driveth for you the ship upon the sea that ye may seek of His bounty’ or ‘Allah it is Who hath made the sea of service unto you that the ships may run thereon by His command, and that ye may seek of His bounty.’ And again: ‘It is He who subjected to you the sea, that you may eat of it fresh flesh, and being forth out of it ornaments for you to wear, and thou may best see the ships cleaving through it, and that you may seek of His bounty, and so haply you will be thankful.’ Similarly, the Caliph Umar II was quoted as saying ‘Dry land and sea belong alike to God; He hath subdued them to His servants to seek of his bounty for themselves in both of them.’

We have seen that the Indian Ocean was already a place of movement, circulation, contacts and travel over great distances. It could be that Islam fits well into this sort of environment. Later Malay literature powerfully links notions of the sea, God, man and the transitory nature of the world. The sea is a trope for Islam. ‘O Seeker, this world is like a wave. God’s condition is like the sea. Even though the wave is different from the sea, it is in reality nothing but the sea.’

We now have much more detail on the ships venturing out over our ocean. At the most humble level, even today one sees coastal fishers, some merely astride a log, rising and falling, vanishing and appearing, in the swell. Coastal craft, used by fisherfolk, and as lighters to take people and goods to larger ships standing off shore where no harbour or estuary was available, were described in the previous chapter. These accounts related mostly to the east coast of India, where the lack of good harbours necessitated lighters. Over much of the rest of the littoral there were estuaries or harbours, and it was here that the famous dhows were found. These larger ships however had many of the characteristics of the coastal craft we have previously described.

The term ‘dhow’ is used by westerners for a variety of craft, large and small, which dominated most trade and navigation in the western Indian Ocean for centuries. There are many different types, depending on size and location, yet they did share enough common characteristics for us to use a generic term for them. The actual word is not Arabic. It probably comes from the Persian word dawh. They have attracted much attention from a truly international array of scholars. These ‘traditional’ dhows were found all over the western Indian Ocean, that is from east Africa around to south India, and at times much further east. This type of ship long-predates the arrival of Islam. It presumably has Gulf or Red Sea origins, but we know little about ships before Islam.

Marco Polo, writing about Hurmuz, left a detailed, accurate, and rather negative account:

Their ships are wretched affairs, and many of them get lost; for they have no iron fastenings, and are only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut [coconut]. They beat this husk until it becomes like horse-hair, and from that they spin twine, and with this stitch the planks of the ship together. It keeps well, and is not corroded by the sea-water, but it will not stand well in a storm. The ships are not pitched, but are rubbed with fish oil. They have one mast, one sail, and one rudder, and have no deck, but only a cover spread over the cargo when loaded. This cover consists of hides, and on the top of these hides they put the horses which they take to India for sale. They have no iron to make nails of, and for this reason they use only wooden trenails in their shipbuilding, and then stitch the planks with twine as I have told you. Hence ’tis a perilous business to go a voyage in one of those ships, and many of them are lost, for in that Sea of India the storms are often terrible.

A Muslim pilgrim in the Red Sea in the late twelfth century left a rather similar account. Ibn Jubayr wrote:

The jilab that ply on this Pharaonic sea [that is, the Red Sea from Aydhab to Jiddah] are sewn together, no nails at all being used on them. They are sewn with cord made from… the fibre of the coconut and which the makers thrash until it takes the form of thread, which then they twist into a cord with which they sew the ships. These they then caulk with shavings of the wood of palm-trees. When they have finished making a jilabah in this fashion, they smear it with grease, or castor oil, or the oil of the shark, which is best. This shark is a huge fish which swallows drowning men. Their purpose in greasing the boat is to soften and supple it against the many reefs that are met with in that sea, and because of which nailed ships do not sail through it. The wood for these parts is brought from India and the Yemen, as is the coconut fibre. A singular feature of these jilab is that their sails are woven from the leaves of the muql tree [a kind of gum-tree], and their parts are conformably weak and unsound in structure. Glory to God who contrives them in this fashion and who entrusts men to them. There is no God but He.’

What then are the main characteristics of these craft? As these contemporaries pointed out, teak from Malabar in southwest India was used almost universally, for this was highly resistant to decay, and provided it was treated properly, along the lines suggested by Ibn Jubayr, it would not split, crack or shrink in salt water. This wood was used to make a hull using the carvel method: that is, the wooden planks of the hull were laid edge to edge, not overlapping as in western ships. They were held together by coir fibre stitching which passed through holes in the planks. There was no iron or bolts, and no ribbing or framework. However, wooden dowels were used, at least on the bigger boats, for strength. The hull was made watertight by inserting resin or other materials between the planks. This has to be differentiated from the European practice of caulking, which was done after the ship was assembled. They had no keels, but instead used either sandbags, or heavy parts of the cargo, as ballast in the bottom of the hold. These dhows had stern post rudders, with ropes attached, not a tiller. One pulled on ropes to steer the vessel. Most had only one mast, and a sail made of matting, though late in our period cloth was also beginning to be used.

The hulls were double ended rather than having square, transom, sterns. On the largest dhows there may have been a raised poop deck, with cabins underneath, but most often the holds were open and there was no deck. As Correia observed in Cannanor around 1500:

in lieu of decks, the hold was built up with huts and compartments for merchandise, covered with plaited palm-leaf thatch, acting as a roof; the water would flow down to their sides, then along the hull and gather at the bottom of the hold where it could be bailed out, thus not wetting the merchandise which was kept well packed into these compartments. On top of these thatched roofs, they would dispose strong cane lattice-work, on which one could walk without damaging the huts below…. People have their lodgings on top, for nobody stays below, where the merchandise is found.

Remarkably heavy cargo, camels, horses, even elephants, could be carried.

The lack of metal in the construction excited much comment, most of it negative, from European observers, such as Marco Polo who we quoted above. The fabulist Sir John Mandeville claimed they did not use nails as there were magnetic islands which would draw to them any ship which contained metal. At first glance the lack of metal condemns dhows as primitive craft indeed, yet their method of construction was well suited to conditions in the Indian Ocean. As Ibn Battuta wrote, ‘The Indian and Yemenite ships are sewn together with them, for that sea is full of reefs, and if a ship is nailed with iron nails it breaks up on striking the rocks, whereas if it is sewn together with cords, it is given a certain resilience and does not fall to pieces.’ In Cambay he wrote of the Gulf that ‘it is navigable for ships and its waters ebb and flow. I myself saw the ships lying on the mud at ebb-tide and floating on the water at high tide.’ Their flexibility, thanks to the coir, meant that they were well adapted to the sandy shores of large parts of the Indian Ocean littoral. They could be driven ashore by storms, or deliberately to unload cargo or undergo repairs or careening, and even in the breakers off the Coromandel coast their flexibility enabled them to ‘give’ and survive, where a more rigidly built ship would have shattered.

A considerable quantity of coir thread or rope was needed: Tim Severin built a quite small replica dhow, yet it used up about 400 miles of rope! The coir had to be kept in salt water to prevent deterioration, as Bowrey noted:

The Cables, Strapps, &c. are made of Cayre, vizt. the Rhine of Coco nuts very fine Spun, the best Sort of which is brought from the Maldiva Isles. They are as Stronge as any hempen Cables whatever, and much more durable in these hott climates, with this provisor, that if they chance to be wet with fresh water, either by raine or rideinge in a fresh River, they doe not let them drye before they wett them well in Salt water, which doth much preserve them, and the Other as much rott them.

The coconut tree was a great provider of useful products. Indeed, in the Maldive and Laccadive islands ships were built entirely from this tree: the hull, masts, stitches, ropes, and sails. As noted, most other areas used teak for the hulls, but the sails were usually woven from the leaves of palm or coconut trees; cotton sailcloth apparently came in later, though possibly before 1500.

These sails were the famous triangular lateen sails so evident even today in the Indian Ocean. The name is a misnomer, as it comes from the time of the Crusades, when western Europeans first saw them, and called them the Latin sail, from the French une voile latine. They had been used by the Arabs for some centuries before the Common Era, and were the first sails which allowed a ship to beat into the wind. As compared with European square sails, a lateen rigged ship can sail well with the wind abeam, that is 90° against the direction of travel, and even reasonably well with the wind forward of the beam, at 50° or even 60° off the bow. Some authorities say dhows tack straight across the wind as a modern yacht does, but in fact they changed course by wearing around, stern to wind, instead of tacking.

Lateen sails are often described as a ‘gift of the Arabs’ to western sailors. However, Campbell claims that they developed independently in several places. Their origin may be from Persia, rather than pre-Islamic Arabia, and it could be that they reached the Mediterranean via Persia. They were found in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Common Era, and he suggests that Arabs then learnt to use them from earlier users in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Very similarly shaped sails evolved independently in eastern Indonesia and were used in the great voyages in the Pacific by Austronesian peoples which we mentioned in the previous chapter (page 60). Campbell claims that they are not particularly effective sails anyway, though this obviously raises the question of why they were used for so many centuries.

To make the dhow watertight was only one reason for treating the wood. Equally important was to deter the accumulation of barnacles and other growths on the hull. Of these, the most dangerous was teredo, or shipworm, a ravenous mollusc which wreaked havoc in tropical waters. Severin described their rapid penetration. He found that if it was not treated, the timber in his replica dhow was nearly destroyed after two months. Even after this short time wormholes as big as knitting needles appeared, and one could snap with bare hands panels 2½ inches thick.

The traditional solution was to smear the hull every two months or so with a combination of boiled animal or fish fat and crushed lime. In the absence of dry docks this required running the vessel aground, but thanks to the flexibility of the construction this could be done easily and safely. There were two processes involved. The carvel method of construction meant that resin was used to fill gaps between the planks while the boat was being built, but then the process of greasing and smearing was done routinely during the life of the vessel.

The navigator of the dhow in our period, such as the famous fifteenth century sailor Ibn Majid, was the mu’allim, who sailed the ship and was responsible for what happened on board. He checked the fitting out, stores, gear, and loading. He was in charge of the crew and passengers, looked after their safety and health and solved their quarrels. All this was laid down in the contract drawn up before the ship left. It was required to take a set number of passengers, and a set quantity of their effects. There were also bills of lading governing the cargo. His duty of care ended when he got the ship back to its home port. Ibn Majid also advised the captain to

Be quick to make a decision…. It is necessary when you sail to be clean…. Forbid all those who sail from making fun of others on the sea; it will only result in evil, hatred and enmity and he who does this continually will not be spared from grudge or hatred or contempt…. Consult other people and improve your own opinion.

Dhows of one sort or another were the dominant form all over the western Indian Ocean. Their sizes covered a wide range, from less than 50 tons up to perhaps 500. Different sizes had different names. A major variation was the ships built in Gujarat, which in the period before Europeans were the largest in this region, being up to 800 tons, and on average 300 to 600 tons. By contrast, when Magellan set off to sail around the world he had five ships, the largest of which was only 120 tons and 31 metres long. In 1577 Drake sailed out of Plymouth with three ships. One was a bit over 100 tons, the other two only 80 and 30 tons. The early Portuguese found these Gujarati ships to be formidable indeed: ‘these ships are so powerful and well armed and have so many men that they dare to sail this route [from Melaka to the Red Sea] without fear of our ships.’ While these large Gujarati ships still usually had no deck, their construction was different, as a process called rabetting, rather like tongue and groove, was used to join the planks together. An English traveller around 1750 praised these ships highly:

Surat ships last much longer than Europe ships, even a century, because they are so solidly built, the planks in their bottom and sides being let into one another in the nature of rabbet work. The knees are natural shape not warped, or forced by fire. Teak is as good as oak, and bottoms rubbed with wood oil keep planks from decay.