Muslims in the Indian Ocean II

Piri Reis’ Book on Navigation (Kitab-i Bahriyye)

Grose also approved of the coir rigging: ‘more harsh and intractable than what is produced from hemp’, but they lasted longer than hemp in salt water. Even the cotton sails were fine: true, they were not as strong as European canvas, but they were less liable to split.

Barbosa’s account of Calicut very early in the sixteenth century seems to point to another regional variation, that is the use of keels. He wrote of the pardesi Muslims, those from the Red Sea and Egypt, that

In the days of their prosperity in trade and navigation they built in the city keeled ships of a thousand and a thousand and two hundred bahares burden [about 250 tonnes]. These ships were built without any nails, but the whole of the sheathing was sewn with thread, and all upper works differed much from the fashion of ours, they had no decks.

Once we round Cape Comorin and enter the Bay of Bengal we encounter very different ships. Some of them were great Chinese ships, which sailed in the Bay of Bengal and around to Malabar until the mid fifteenth century. We have a charming account of Song sailing from a Chinese source:

The ships which sail the southern sea and south of it are like houses. When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky. Their rudders are several tens of feet long. A single ship carries several hundred men, and has in the stores a year’s supply of grain. Pigs are fed and wine fermented on board. There is no account of dead or living, no going back to the mainland when the people have set forth on the azure-blue sea. When the gong sounds at daybreak aboard ship, the animals can drink their fill, and crew and passengers alike forget all dangers. To those on board, everything is hidden and lost in space – mountains, landmarks, and foreign countries. The pilot may say, ‘To make such and such a country, with a favourable wind, in so many days, we should sight such and such a mountain, [then] the ship may steer in such and such a direction.’ But suddenly the wind may fall, and may not be strong enough to allow the sighting of the mountain on the given day. In such a case, the bearing may have to be changed. Then again, the ship may be carried far beyond [the landmark] and lose its bearing. A gale may spring up, blowing the ship off course, or the ship may encounter shoals or hidden rocks and be broken apart to the roofs [of the cabins]. A great ship with heavy cargo has nothing to fear in high seas, but in shallow water it will come to grief.

Two foreign travellers, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, left more detailed descriptions. Marco Polo described the ships he saw in the thirteenth century on the Fujian coast. They had only one deck,

though each of them contains some 50 or 60 cabins, wherein the merchants abide greatly at their ease, every man having one to himself. The ship hath but one rudder, but it hath four masts; and sometimes they have two additional masts, which they ship and unship at pleasure. Moreover the larger of their vessels have some thirteen [watertight] compartments or severances in the interior, made with planking strongly framed, in case maybe the ship should spring a leak, either by running on a rock or by the blow of a hungry whale…. The fastenings are all of good iron nails and the sides are double, one plank laid over the other, and caulked outside and in. The planks are not pitched, for those people do not have any pitch, but they daub the sides with another matter, deemed by them far better than pitch; it is this. You may see them take some lime and some chopped hemp, and these they knead together with a certain wood-oil; and when the three are thoroughly amalgamated, they hold like any glue. And with this mixture they do paint their ships.

Each of these great ships carried 200 or 300 sailors. If the wind dropped sweeps were used, each taking four sailors to row. They also each had two or three large tenders attached, with 50 or 60 sailors on each, and ten smaller boats to catch fish, bring supplies, and lay out anchors. These were slung to the side of the big ship, and put in the water as needed. Repairs were easy: they merely nailed another layer of planks over the existing ones.

Ibn Battuta found a vast array of vessels in Calicut in the early fourteenth century, from Java, Ceylon, the Maldives, Yemen and Fars. However, the greatest were thirteen Chinese vessels. His eyewitness account is of very large ships indeed. He wrote that they were called junks, and had up to twelve sails, and 1,000 men on board, 600 of them sailors and 400 archers and other soldiers. All this may sound incredible, yet Ibn Battuta has a reputation for veracity, and he did travel on one of these ships himself. The oars were as large as the masts on the dhows with which he was familiar, and each was worked by ten or fifteen men. His ship had four decks,

and it has cabins, suites and salons for merchants; a set of rooms has several rooms and a latrine; it can be locked by its occupant, and he can take along with him slave-girls and wives. Often a man will live in his suite unknown to any of the others on board until they meet on reaching some town. The sailors have their children living on board ship, and they cultivate green stuffs, vegetables and ginger in wooden tanks. The owner’s factor on board ship is like a great amir. When he goes on shore he is preceded by archers and Abyssinians with javelins, swords, drums, bugles and trumpets.

These great Chinese ships sailed south through the Malay world and on to India, and sometimes even beyond this. However, this was a rather temporary presence. They came south to the Malay world only from the twelfth century, and may have been displaced for a time in the mid fourteenth century when the powerful Javanese state of Majapahit was at its height. Under the Ming, from 1368 Chinese ships re-entered southeast Asian waters, reaching a massive peak with the Zheng He expeditions of the early fifteenth century. Soon after this, long-distance Chinese voyaging in these monsters ended.

In the Malay world most of the local craft were small craft, capable of sailing between the myriad islands. As elsewhere, the vast majority of boats were humble things used by fishers, or for short fair-weather voyages using the monsoons. However, Manguin claims that from the early first millennium of the Common Era maritime powers in the region, that is especially Srivijaya and later Majapahit, built, owned and operated ocean-going ships of considerable size, up to 700 tons burthen and carrying up to 1,000 people. These were not exactly junks, for while Chinese ships had used nails for centuries, these ships did not. Nor were they sewn; rather they were held together with dowels. There was, following Chinese practice, multiple sheathing of the hull. The steering gear was different from dhows, for they had double quarter-rudders, and two to four masts and sails. Manguin claims, controversially, that these large ships were distinctively southeast Asian. This statement is to be seen as part of the general historiographical tendency to see this region as having a creativity and culture of its own, not as a passive recipient of high culture from the north or the west, that is from China or India. Rather mysteriously, these ships vanished in the later sixteenth century, possibly because they could not stand up to Portuguese cannon.

How did captains find their way over the ocean? There is a contrast here between blue water sailing and finding one’s way in more restricted waterways. In the treacherous Red Sea, Ibn Jubayr was very impressed with the navigational skills of sailors in these confined waters: ‘We observed the art of these captains and the mariners in the handling of their ships through the reefs. It was truly marvellous. They would enter the narrow channels and manage their way through them as a cavalier manages a horse that is light on the bridle and tractable.’ It was a matter of the run of the water, experience, birds, seaweed, fishes, and sightings of known areas of land. Experienced navigators often wrote down what they had learnt. The most famous was Ibn Majid, who in the following passage, just like the Song source we quoted earlier, is using land sightings for guidance. When approaching Calicut, he says, ‘look out for the hill between the mountains which are above the coast and there is no other such hill in these places and nothing so useful as a guide especially in the dark and its sides slope steeply.’ When one is approaching from the north the ship should stay in about four and three-quarters fathoms of water until this hill is north-north-east of you, then approach the coast until the water is four and one-half fathoms and the hill becomes north by east and then north, and so on.

Ibn Majid’s work is an example of the pilot guides and navigational literature which were commonplace in the ocean. This geographical literature, from both the Chinese and the Arab side, showed that both knew the whole ocean, though Arabs found a limit at Madagascar. Ibn Majid wrote that ‘to its south is the sea known to the Greeks as Uqiyanus which is known to the Arabs as the ‘Ocean which encircles the world.’ Here is the beginning of the southern Dark regions to the south of this island.’ Tibbetts claims that there really was no exclusivity in nautical knowledge. Rather there was a common body of knowledge shared by Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Malays. It may be that practical navigational charts were not known before the Europeans, but there certainly were maps, as we will see. Charts may not have even been necessary, for navigation, apart from the use of wayfaring techniques, was done by observing the sun and the stars. In this the Arabs were simply following tradition, for the Beduin had long done this to find their way across the desert.

Again Ibn Jubayr tells us about this use. He was going on pilgrimage to Mecca, and embarked at Aydhab bound for Jiddah. They left on their jilabah, and on the evening of the second day there

rose a storm which darkened the skies and at last covered them. The tempest raged and drove the ship from off its course and backwards. The fury of the wind continued, and the darkness thickened and filled the air so that we knew not which way lay our course. Then a few stars appeared and gave us some guidance. The sail was lowered to the bottom of the mast, and we passed that night in a storm which drove us to despair….

More usually either the North or Pole Star or the sun was used as a referent, and latitude was worked out from their height, measured in finger widths. The compass was apparently already known, as it had been long used by the Chinese, but it seems not to have been very widely used. In any case, it has been claimed that Arab empirical methods were more than adequate to determine latitude quite accurately. Based largely on a technical analysis of Ibn Majid’s famous work, Clark claimed that the methods he describes compare well with modern stellar methods using spherical trigonometry, the navigational triangle and data from nautical publications. In sum, we can perhaps claim that during this period Arab navigation was a mixture of a craft mystery, based on accumulated oral tradition, and an applied science, the latter being the dominant technique today. In Europe the latter was becoming dominant in the sixteenth century.

While Arab navigation may ideally have served the sailors well, contemporary accounts do not always give an impression of ‘scientific’ exactitude on board ship. One tale from the first half of the tenth century, no doubt based on real experience but with some embroidery, concerns a man called Allama, who was going from India to China. It came the time for the dawn prayer, so he went to the lavatory to do ablutions. Then he looked at the sea and was terrified. He forgot his ablutions and prayers, and instead rushed up on deck and got the men to lower the sails, and throw overboard all the cargo. Then he got everyone to purify themselves and pray. Sure enough, a huge storm came up that night, and only this ship survived. A similar account tells of Captain Abhara, a native of Kirman, where he was a shepherd. Later he became a sea captain, and went to China seven times, which was unheard of as it was so dangerous. ‘If a man reached China without dying on the way, it was already a miracle. Returning safe and sound was unheard of. I have never heard tell of anyone, except him, who had made the two voyages there and back without mishap.’ Other similar tales make Arab navigation sound very ad hoc indeed. The same Abhara knew that on the way to China on each thirtieth day the water went down very greatly and ships ran onto rocks, especially as a violent gale would come up at the same time. Another captain proffered that ‘if you want to know whether or not you are near land or a mountain, look out after the afternoon prayer, when the sun is going down. At that time, if you are opposite a mountain or an island, you will see it distinctly.’

European map making was revolutionised following Marco Polo’s journey to and from China in 1271–92. Drawing on this, Europeans produced two famous maps, greatly in advance of what they had done before: the Catalan map of 1375, and especially Fra Mauro’s map of 1458. East Asia had relatively sophisticated charts and maps by at least the fifteenth century. Mills has discussed in detail the Mao K’un map, which refers to the time of Zheng He’s voyages. He considers it to be far superior to European maps of the same time, when the Portuguese had just started voyaging down the west African coast. This Chinese chart goes all the way from East Asia to India, and on to Persia, Arabia and East Africa. Mills’ claim is that obviously Europeans did better in mapping the west, and Chinese the east; Chinese superiority is seen in their much better attempt to map the area in between, that is Arabia, India, and East Africa. This Chinese map showed a more accurate knowledge over a much larger area of the world than was available to Europeans at the same time. Several of their accounts depict a western and an eastern ocean, with the division at the Straits of Singapore. This is seen most clearly in the account by Wang Dayuan, who travelled extensively in the 1330s. My own brief to a large extent follows this division, for most of the time I also stop around these straits.

Even more extraordinary is the Korean Kangnido Map of 1402, which seems to draw on earlier Chinese and Arab works. It has clear delineations of Africa and the Arabian peninsular, and a recognisable outline of Europe, though India is submerged in the Chinese continent. Not surprisingly, Korea is shown as very large indeed, as large as all Africa. At a time when Europeans knew almost nothing of East Asia, this map has a clearly recognisable Mediterranean Sea, and Iberia, Italy and the Adriatic Sea. There are some hundred as yet unidentified place names in the Europe area, and about thirty-five in Africa, most of them on the southern Mediterranean coast.

Another example of sophisticated map making comes from Java, and like the previous two shows that there was a large degree of interaction and exchange of knowledge between map makers at this time. In 1512 the Portuguese captain Albuquerque was shown a Javanese chart which delineated the Cape of Good Hope, Portugal, Brazil, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the country where the gold is (Minangkabau in Sumatra), the clove islands, the Malukus, Java, the Banda islands, Siam, the navigation of the Chinese, and the courses followed by their ships. All the names are marked in Javanese script. This sort of interchange extended in some surprising directions. The Chinese, even if they did not travel, certainly picked up much information at second or third hand. One eighth-century Chinese author described the people of Bobali, which is somewhere in northern East Africa. They ‘eat only meat. They often stick a needle into the veins of cattle and draw blood which they drink raw, mixed with milk.’ Intriguing to find that this is clearly a description of the same people whom a sixteenth-century Portuguese cleric found. He wrote of the Segeju that ‘They own much cattle, the milk and blood thereof being to them as food; they eat the flesh raw without any other manner of ordinary food, as it is said, and they bleed the oxen every other day.’

Finally, another Muslim example, this time the Turk Piri Reis and his magnificent Kitab, completed in 1521 and now available in a stunning four volume facsimile edition with translation. He wrote of the ‘great sea’, that is the all-encircling sea:

All the others are united with the Bahr-Azam. The Ocean is the sea into which they are all collected. It encircles the world. It is the head of all the seas; from it all seas emerge and to it all return. As I have told you, the fact is that all the other seas are but gulfs of the Ocean. The sea is like a tree that spreads everywhere left and right. The source of them all is the Ocean, of which they are the branches and twigs.

He described the Portuguese voyages to India, and among other places identified Madeira, Cape Verde, Brazil, Abyssinia, and Mogadishu, which he says is near the entrance to the Red Sea. Below 55° S all is Darkness, and similarly above 55° N. He has a brief account of China, which he says is based on what the Portuguese say, and then a fabulous account of an island with all sorts of monstrous people, based on ‘those who voyaged there’. His account of India is rather vague, and he thinks it is winter in India when it is summer in Europe. A few years after this Kitab he drew a map of the Atlantic which included the North American coast from Greenland to Florida, and was quite accurate.