These Europeans, the estado, the companies, and the private traders, operated in a complex and confusing commercial milieu, one with which they often had trouble coming to terms. The intricate patterns of Indian Ocean trade required much study and accumulation of knowledge. In 1703 in Surat a Dutch merchant warned his superiors that the bazaar market was risky indeed, for
the bazaar [market] prices are diverse, for they differ not only from day to day, but from hour to hour. Also they differ as to the merchant with whom one is dealing for one has here – as in other places – large dealers, maritime traders, small merchants, shopkeepers and many different kinds of hawkers. One merchant is able to sell one pound [about half a kilogram] or less, another one maund [one maund is about 35 Dutch pounds], the third ten and the fourth 100 and so unto 1000 and 100,000. So one can well imagine the differences in bazaar prices if they have to fetch a profit from one trader to the next.1
We quoted the important VOC governor Coen on the country trade, which he hoped his company could enter (see pages 150–1). Things were much the same even later in the eighteenth century: there was still a complex kaleidoscopic world of trade for the Europeans to try and enter. James Forbes wrote of Mumbai in the 1770s how
Bussorah, Muscat, Ormus, and other ports in the Persian Gulph, furnished [Mumbai's] merchants with pearls, raw silk, Carmenia wool, dates, dried fruits, rose water, attar of roses, coffee, gold, drugs and honey. A number of ships annually freighted with cotton and bullion to China, returned laden with tea, sugar, porcelains, wrought silks, nankeens, and a variety of useful and ornamental articles. From Java, Malacca, Sumatra, and the eastern islands, they brought spices, ambergris, perfumes, arrack, and sugar: the cargoes from Madagascar, the Comorro isles, Mozambique, and other ports on the eastern coast of Africa, consisted chiefly of ivory, slaves and drugs: while the different parts of India produced cotton, silk,
Figure 3 Surat in East-India. Produced by Raspischen (Publishers), c. 1836. © National Maritime Museum, London
muslin, pearls, diamonds, and every precious gem; together with ivory, sandal-wood, pepper, cassia, cinnamon, and other luxuries. This valuable commerce was carried on by vessels belonging to the European or native merchants settled in Bombay; totally independent and unconnected with the trade of the East India Company.2
The great port cities reflected this variety, being still home to a vast array of merchants from many parts of the world. The Jesuit Manuel Godinho was in Surat in 1663, and found
over a hundred thousand: white Mughals, Indian Muslims, all types of pagans, Christians of various nationalities and, in fact, people from all over the world who have either settled in Surat or have come to the port on business. In Surat we find Spaniards, Frenchmen, Germans, English, Dutch, Flemish, Dunkirkians, Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Swedes, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Tartars, Georgians, Scythians, Chinese, Malabaris, Bengalis, Sinhalese, Armenians and an endless variety of other strange barbarian people.
As for its trade,
Foreign vessels visiting the port are countless. At any time of the year one may find in Surat ships bound for China, Malacca, Achin, Macassar, Moluccas, Djakarta, Maldives, Bengal, Tenassserim, Ceylon, Cochin, Cannanore, Calicut, Mecca, Aden, Suez, Mogadishu, Kishm, Muscat, Madagascar, Hormuz, Basra, Sind, England, and so on, to any place one may think of.3
We can now turn to a description of continuing structures of trade in the Indian Ocean. Lancaster, on the first English expedition to the east in 1591–92, moved from one economic world to another as he proceeded up the East African coast, just as had Gama a century earlier. In the extreme south he commented on 'certaine blacke salvages, very brutish'. The English bought an ox for two knives, a heifer for one knife, and some for even less. Then they got to Great Comoro and a more familiar and sophisticated world. 'Their king came aboord our ship in a gowne of crimosine [crimson] satin, pinked after the Moorish fashion downe to the knee; whom we entertained in the best manner, and had some conference with him of the state of the place and marchandises.'4
'Asians' also were well aware of differences, in ways which make clear there is no such thing as an 'Asian' at this time, or indeed any other time. The Persian ambassador Sulaiman was intrigued by some islands in the Bay of Bengal:
One of the many strange islands which we passed on our voyage [from Siam back home to Persia] was the island of Andaman. This island is flourishing and extremely green and here lives a group of cannibals who have long teeth like dogs. The teeth of these savages are so long that they project from their mouth, but otherwise their bodies are like human beings. As for their dress, they are content to wear nothing more than the leaves of trees to cover their loins. If anyone has the misfortune of falling into their hands, they carry off the poor man and eagerly devour him. For this reason people do not visit Andaman and not many details are known about the island or the inhabitants.
At a different level, he was less than impressed with the veneration paid in Sri Lanka to the relic of the Tooth of the Buddha. 'The king of Ceylon and all the Indians living on the island believe in this nonsense and are fervently engaged in idolatry.'5
These are perhaps differences of civilisation, but then we also cannot lump together all Muslims: they were a diverse lot, and even within this broad category they were far from controlling all trade in the Indian Ocean at this time. Hindus from different parts of India, Buddhists from mainland southeast Asia, Armenians, Jews, Christians all shared in the trade. Within the Muslim 'community' there was considerable dubiety expressed by those from the heartland of the Middle East to those on the edges, as in the Malay world, or even in Gujarat. The great navigator Ibn Majid wrote of his ostensible co-religionists in the Malay world that 'They are evil people who follow no rules; the unbeliever marries the Muslim, and the Muslim the infidel woman... they publicly drink wine, and they do not pray before setting out on a voyage.'6 An unsuccessful Ottoman grandee in 1538 said that the local Gujarati Muslims were very slack: 'at the time of prayer they simply play music; most of them are infidels'.7
To list all the items traded would be a tedious task indeed. We will, rather, concentrate on changes over this period. In all this we need to remember Rene Barendse's advice and take care not to see all change as stemming from the European presence. In very general terms from about 1300 to 1750 long-distance trade was roughly oriented north to south, that is India and China trading manufactured, high value added, goods to the south – East Africa, southeast Asia – from whence came tropical raw materials like slaves, ivory and some gold.
The vast bulk of the trade continued to be in humble products, and usually was left alone by the company level of the European presence: rather it was controlled by local traders, amongst whom were some Europeans. A French account from the 1730s mentions a trade in sugar from Bengal to Surat, taken as ballast and then sent up country, and some also re-exported to Persia and the Red Sea. On the Bengal–Melaka–Surat route opium went out, and sugar and calin came back. Bengal provided rice to both the Coromandel and Malabar coasts, while rice, ginger, coarse piece goods and sugar went direct from Bengal to Mocha in the Red Sea, and sugar and coarse cloth to Basra.8 Most of the port cities not only had a trade in goods which were to be re-exported either overseas or inland, they also imported most of their raw materials and necessities. Hurmuz was an example, albeit an extreme one. It got rice from Chaul and other ports on the Indian west coast, grain from the Punjab via Sind and also from the Persian mainland. Rope, iron and coconuts came from Malabar, wood from East Africa, especially from the Somali coast via the Hadhramaut, and also from Socotra. By this time much of this humble trade was being done in private European ships carrying native cargoes. Below this was an even more humble level, with minor merchants in tiny local vessels chaffering their way up and down the coasts and in the archipelago.
Some of these products came from far inland, or went far inland from the port city nodes. We maritime historians need to remember that the trade by sea was in products which came from the land, and were consumed on the land; the sea trade then is not a thing alone and of itself, it existed to service people who lived on the land, and not necessarily on land located on the coast. As an example, Bandar Abbas in the Gulf was the centre or 'scale' of a vast and variegated number of routes, some maritime linking distant forelands, others by land linking very diverse and often distant hinterlands. From Bandar Abbas caravan routes went off to Kirman and Isfahan, to Mashad, Bukhara and Khiva, and from Yazd to Balkh and to Qandahar, Tabriz, and even on to the Caucuses.9
Other products were legion. We have discussed the spice trade in some detail, but there were trades in other high-value goods too. One example is pearls, which came from both the Gulf around Bahrain, and from the Gulf of Mannar between Sri Lanka and India. These were traded and valued far and wide. According to Sulaiman, our Persian ambassador – though he was hardly a neutral observer – those from Bahrain were far superior to those from Mannar. 'Unfortunately all other pearls when confronted with the pearl of Bahrain lose their bright countenance out of shame and grief. The jeweller of Time and Chance has relegated these Indian jewels of lesser lustre to a low shelf in the bazaar of happiness.'10
Another preciosity was the trade in a very large and valuable beast, that is the elephant, which were shipped over surprisingly long distances, though not as far as the rhinoceros which the Portuguese brought from India all the way to Lisbon, and then to Italy, where it died before it could be presented to the Pope. The sultan of Golconda had several large ships to bring elephants from Arakan, Tenasserim and Ceylon. Each could carry '14 to 26 of these Vast Creatures. They must of Necessitie be of Very Considerable burthens and built exceedinge Stronge.' A huge supply of plantains was carried to feed the beasts on the voyage. They could be an unruly cargo:
A great Ship of 5 or 600 tunns burthen that belonged to a great Merchant, an Eminent man in Bengala, whose name was Narsam Cawn [Nasib Khan], In her Voyadge homeward from Cehlone, One of theire Elephants not well Secured, did, with all the force he could possibly, run his tooth through the Ship Side in such a measure that they could not keep her free 2 hours longer, and were forced to betake themselves to their great boat, and haveinge faire Weather and not beinge above 30 leags off Shore, they all Saved theire lives.
If the elephant survived the voyage and lived for three days once landed the freight was payable: between Rs 500 and 800, depending on size.11
A brief regional survey around the littoral of the ocean will identify the main trade products. The East African coast at this time continued mostly humble trade, except in ivory, to the Red Sea and Hadhramaut areas. Most of this trade, of which at least by volume the main item was mangrove poles used for house construction and ship building around the Arabian coasts, was carried by Muslim traders located in the host areas rather than by the Swahili inhabitants of the coast.
The Red Sea continued to be the major route connecting the southern part of Eurasia with the northern, that is the eastern Mediterranean. Some of this trade was that done by pilgrims as they chaffered their way to the Holy Cities, engaging in petty trade on the way in order to cover their costs and buy food. But apart from this there was a very major trade centred on the port of Mecca, Jiddah, which however had little or nothing to do with the pilgrimage traffic. Around 1580 some forty or fifty great ships called each year with spices and merchandise. A few years later Lobo wrote generally of Jiddah,
which has been made so famous in these times in all of the East by the great number of ships that go there and the rich trade the merchants find there, and the superstitious custom of pilgrimages to Mecca made by those who follow the infamous Koran... since the ships which sailed to Juda made excellent business profits, because of the great wealth of the universal market of people and merchandise carried on in that city, they became so famous in India that when people wanted to indicate that something was very costly and valuable they would call it a ship from Mecca or Juda.12
Throughout our period Gujarat was a major trade centre, based on its huge production of cotton cloth and other products, and its role as a gateway not only for the hajj but also for a host of imported products sent up country to the heartland of the Mughal empire. Early in the sixteenth century Tomé Pires wrote that Cambay stretched out two arms, one to the Red Sea and one to Melaka. Portuguese misrule made the Gujaratis move out of the latter, thus assisting in the decline of this once great port city. They traded instead all around the Bay of Bengal, and in the Malay world, especially in Aceh. The companies found them keen, often dominant, competitors in the region. By the seventeenth century Cambay had been replaced by Surat. This was an important change and one which had nothing to do with the European presence in the area. Through the seventeenth century and beyond Surat was one of the greatest ports in the world, with a variegated and skilful merchant community, vast capital resources, and connections all around the littoral of the ocean. Around 1700 the port was home to a fleet of over 100 vessels, mostly medium size ones of 200 or 300 tons, so that the total tonnage available was at least 20,000 dead weight tons. The total value of trade was at least Rs 16 million, and only about Rs 1.5 million of this was European-owned.13
Much local trade in Malabar, especially that in pepper, was disrupted by the Europeans, first the Portuguese and from the 1660s the Dutch. The Coromandel coast was less affected. In the mid seventeenth century the ports of the sultanate of Golconda, especially Masulipatnam, traded extensively around the Bay of Bengal. A dominant figure at this time was the Persian grandee cum trader Mir Jumla, who in the 1640s had his own ships (though carrying cargoes belonging to many people) travelling all over the ocean: to Bengal, Surat, Arakan, Ayuthya, Aceh, Melaka, Johore, Bantam, Makassar, Ceylon, Bandar Abbas, Mocha and the Maldives. While traders from Coromandel ports traded all around the Bay of Bengal, to Burma and Arakan and Pegu for example, one of their best routes had been to exchange local cloths for spices. As the Dutch monopoly became relatively effective this trade declined, but Coromandel merchants were able to disperse, just like the Gujaratis, and trade in places less closely controlled by the VOC. An example is Banten, where south Indian merchants had a very large, even dominating, role.
Traders from north of the Malay world, that is China, also had a role in this region. We pointed out in the previous chapter that an extensive Chinese trade even to the western ocean had ended by the middle of the fifteenth century. However, the Chinese continued to come as far as Melaka, and indeed some still traded there even after the Portuguese conquest in 1511. In the seventeenth century there was a large Chinese settler, and trader, population in Jakarta (Batavia) and its umland. However, China's main trade at this time was with Japan, from whence were brought vast quantities of silver. In the middle of the century the Japanese expelled all European traders, allowing only the Dutch a very restricted presence. Chinese traders from Fukien were not affected by this, and they did well, much better than the Dutch, in the overseas trade of Japan. It could be that the dynastic change in China in the middle of the seventeenth century affected foreign trade as a whole for a time, but if it did this was only temporary.
Who were the main merchants at this time? There was a huge range, from the smallest pedlar to magnates who controlled vast amounts of capital. At one end are the humble folk, local to the area, who traded short distances up and down the coast, say from one Indonesian island to another, or from Bengal to Masulipatnam, or Mombasa to Mogadishu; indeed even these would be considered major voyages for some of these men. Other humble men were able to travel much further, taking their bundle of goods on board a ship owned by some other bigger person: maybe a large merchant, or a political leader, or a European. People could travel for years, making a little profit here, a loss there.
Above such atomised people, about whom admittedly we know very little, we can see a category who are part of a much more articulated merchant world. The Armenians are an excellent example. Ethnicity, kinship and religion were vital in trading matters. The much quoted account of the Armenian merchant Hovhannes has provided us with a typical case. He was by no means a pedlar, but rather was an agent of larger Armenian merchants in the Armenian suburb of New Julfa in Isfahan, in Iran, and later Agra, in India. However, his importance for us is that he operated as a member of a very dispersed community. His journal describes his travels over the period 1682 to 1693. During this time he visited and traded in Bandar Abbas and Surat, and then in Agra, where he spent most of a year. From there he went to Tibet, then back to India, to Patna, and then Bengal. Everywhere he went he had contact with, and assistance from, other members of the far-flung
Armenian merchant community. Indeed he may well have had written advice on where to trade, and what to trade in, for a seventeenth century Armenian merchant's manual gave instructions for all the places Hovhannes visited.14 Armenians were classic intermediaries in the commercial world. It seems that persecution had done them a favour. They were moved by Shah Abbas from Armenia late in the sixteenth century, and made to settle in New Julfa, near Isfahan. This move gave them much better access to routes and products. They spoke Persian, and so could operate all over the Muslim world, yet were Christian, an advantage when dealing with Europeans. Thanks to their network made up of the dispersed Armenian community they had excellent intelligence on prices and conditions in their centre of New Julfa. There were several very large, often kin based, merchant houses in New Julfa, and these sent out agents, maybe a hundred in all from each house, far and wide around the Indian Ocean and far inland too. By the end of the seventeenth century Armenians in London were major freighters of the ships of the EIC. They traded as far as Sweden, and were important merchants in Amsterdam.15 There are strong parallels here with the Jewish trade from Egypt which was so important in a previous period (see pages 103–4). Other major merchants belonged to larger and more settled communities. Such magnates have recently been described as 'portfolio capitalists', that is people who spread their investments into many areas, including banking and shipping as well as trade in a host of commodities. These merchant princes, many of them Muslim at this time, overlapped with rulers and nobles who also traded. None of these were humble men at all. The Europeans wrote in awe of the great Jain merchant Virji Vorah in Surat, reputedly the richest man in the world, and who could have bought and sold the northern European trading companies with ease. Virji Vorah, who died in 1665, was into everything. He was a banker, a ship owner, a trader in indigo, pepper and many other products. He engaged in both retail and wholesale trade, and lent money to the Mughal nobility. He also lent money to the Europeans, and used his power quite unscrupulously. He had a Coromandel counterpart, Kasi Veeranna. He operated all over the central Coromandel coast, and sent out ships to both mainland and island southeast Asia from Pulicat, Chennai, San Thome, Tranquebar and other places. He was a major supplier of local cotton cloths to the European companies, and it is symptomatic of changes occurring at this time that from the 1670s he left a rather unsettled local environment and based himself in Chennai, from where he administered tax farms over an extensive area of coastal Coromandel.16
Most of these wealthy men did not travel themselves, but rather had agents spread around the great port cities of the littoral, and also far inland. Virji Vorah had agents or connections in Calicut, Agra, Burhanpur, all over the interior of Gujarat, and at all the great emporia around the Indian Ocean littoral. Networks of other Gujarati traders, especially the Hindu merchant group known as banias, extended even beyond this, to the Philippines, and even to Russia. These agents would often be members of the same community as themselves, often indeed related to some degree to the central figure.
Members of the chulia community on the Coromandel coast are roughly analogous to the banias of Gujarat. Bowrey wrote a very hostile, and revealing, account of them. We see yet again Indian Ocean merchants competing very well with Europeans in the late seventeenth century, for Bowrey was writing in the 1670s:
The Chulyars are a People that range into all Kingdoms and Countreys in Asia, and are a Subtle and Roguish people of the Mahometan Sect, but not very great Observers of many of his laws. Theire Native land is Upon the Southernmost parts of the Choromandell Coast. . . . They by theire rangeinge much (before they content themselves with a place for theire abode), doe learne to write and Speake Severall of the Eastern languages, whereby they very much delude the people, and not a little cheat them. They are likewise a very great hinderrance to us, for, wherever these rascalls be, wee cannot Sell any goods to a Native of the Countrey, but they creep in alonge with them, and tell them in private what our goods cost upon the Coast, or in Suratt, or Bengala, or elsewhere, which doth many Christians a great Prejudice.17
Stephen Dale's exemplary account of Hindu merchants trading far and wide in Central Asia, Russia and the Middle East is another example, to be put with the Armenians, of how we are beginning to see greatly increased links across the whole globe.18 It would be too grand to start writing of a 'world economy' yet, but certainly there were major new connections. The most important was not European passages around the Cape of Good Hope, but the bringing in of the Americas.
Indeed, it must be seen as a happy coincidence that the Americas were discovered, and bullion obtained, at the same time as the Cape route was opened, for without American bullion Europeans would have lacked the funds with which to trade in Asia. And these bullion-fuelled Europeans in turn affected part of the Indian Ocean littoral: in the early eighteenth century the European demand for textiles from Bengal created an extra 100,000 jobs in the industry. This massive increase in the supply of bullion had some impact on the economies of the Indian Ocean. For example, it meant that ambitious rulers, especially in Mughal India, could now demand their taxation on the produce of the land, the land revenue, in cash rather than kind: hence the Indian countryside was monetised, and markets spread to many remote villages. There were even examples of inter-continental competition impacting deleteriously on Indian Ocean producers. In the seventeenth century indigo and sugar, both major cash crops in India and elsewhere, were undercut by cheaper similar products from the Americas. Later, cloves from Zanzibar were similarly undercut. Some merchant networks now spread even further than before: Portuguese trading in the Indian Ocean area had connections going all the way to the Americas, as did pirates.
Bullion was the prime example of a product flowing around the world. Even before the Americas much European-origin bullion ended up in the Indian Ocean region. However, much larger amounts flowed in once South America came on line. To sketch this trade is important for two reasons. First, it is an example of a major change in trade and the economies of the Indian Ocean area, but not, as Barendse wants us to remember, one that was caused solely by Europeans. Second, it is the prime manifestation of what could be depicted as the beginnings of an integrated world, and this aspect we will turn to in the next chapter.
Contrary to the received opinion, the majority of the flow of precious metals from Europe to the East for most of our period did not take place in European ships via the Cape, but rather in Asian, and some European, ships via the Levant. Other bullion was carried by the Spanish to Manila, and from there taken by Chinese traders to the great sink of China. However, we are only now beginning to take account of the vast production and exports of silver from Japan over the period 1560 to 1668, and even later, to China. Flynn summed up very tersely this whole matter when he wrote that 'Japan and Spain were major competitors in the world's first global market; China was the most important customer, followed by India.'19 Indeed, the role of Europeans has recently, and somewhat extravagantly, been described merely as that of 'intermediaries in the trade between the New World and China.'20 In short, contrary to a European-focused stress on the effects of American silver on Europe, three of the major aspects of world monetary flows in this early modern period have to do with Asia: the drain of much American bullion across the Pacific, or through Europe and so to Asia, often carried in Asian ships, and two major production areas apart from the Americas, that is gold from East Africa and silver from Japan.21
New crops have been listed in many places. However, a flow of new varieties from one place to another was not an innovation in the sixteenth century. Some products and styles that are today spread all around the ocean originated in the distant past in one particular area. The best example is bananas, which came from Indonesia with the migrants to Madagascar, and subsequently were much modified and improved in Africa. The areca nut, a mild stimulant which originated in southeast Asia, again is ubiquitous around the ocean. Ibn Battuta was offered some in Mogadishu as a gesture of respect for his learning. Newitt and Middleton provide quite long lists of products, techniques and crops imported into, and indigenised in, East Africa: cotton, rice, bananas, coconuts, mangoes, outrigger canoes, looms, square houses and the use of coral cement in construction.22 Sub-Saharan Africa over many centuries received from further east, via Hurmuz, the Hadhramaut, northern Ethiopia and then the Sudan, bananas, taro, pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, chickens.
Most plants which came from the Americas to Europe were transmitted by the Spanish, but Brazil sent to all of Africa, and to India and China, Indian corn, manioc, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cashews, pineapples, hot peppers, papaya, pumpkins and squashes. The Spanish made available such American species as tobacco, chillies, pineapples, sweet potatoes, corn, avocado and guavas.23
Tobacco provides an excellent example of flows and adopting. In the early seventeenth century the rulers of both England and Mughal India fulminated against the disgusting habit of smoking the noxious weed. Within the Portuguese empire the main production area was Bahia, from whence it was exported either direct to Goa, or via Lisbon and so to the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese also sent it to Macau, and into Qing China. Indian peasants were cultivating it with some enthusiasm by the early seventeenth century, and indeed many crops were taken up in new locations as a market appeared.24 Coffee originated in Yemen, but once a demand for it appeared in Europe, around 1700, the VOC picked it up and established plantations in Java. Around 1715 Java produced less than 2,000 pounds, but twenty years later it was producing nearly 6 million.25
The source of other products did not necessarily change, but the pattern and extent of distribution did. Tea from China is the best example. In 1701 for the first time the EIC imported over 100,000 lbs of this mild stimulant; this soon rose to over 1 million, and from 1747 was very seldom less than 3 million. Cowry shells, a humble and very important currency, provide another excellent example which we have mentioned before (see pages 84–5). The best examples of this gastropod come from the Maldives. These shells were very widely used indeed. They were especially prevalent in the Bay of Bengal, but they were also used in Timbuktu, Benin, and in the valleys of the Ganga and the Niger. Most African slaves were purchased with cowries. Other wide connections are legion. There was a 'seal rush' in the 1770s. Sealers from New England hunted seals in the southern ocean, sold the skins in Guangzhou, and took home tea or silk. In the early eighteenth century the famous and luxurious 'gold cloth' of Gujarat was purchased by the mikado of Japan, the king of Thailand, and the Zaidi imam of Yemen. One of the best markets for madeira wine was the European communities in India and Guangzhou. Pirates operated globally (see page 000). The 250 or more blue and white willow-pattern tiles in the Cochin synagogue came from China around 1760. And so on....
Nor was it only people and products. Religious chains of authority spread, in the case of Christianity, all over the world, while Mecca was the sacred city for Muslims from all over the world. The vast seventeenth-century Baroque churches in Old Goa, especially the Sé Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesu, are based on European models, albeit with some Indian input in decoration.
As people moved, so also did disease. The massive mortality in the Americas was not matched anywhere in the Indian Ocean world, because the area had been for centuries part of a Eurasian, or Afrasian, disease pool. The only important example of a new disease reaching the Indian Ocean was a much more virulent version of syphilis. It is believed that someone on Columbus' second voyage was responsible for bringing the infection into Europe, where it spread with remarkable rapidity. There was a case reported from Guangzhou as early as 1502, and in 1505 the Italian Varthema in Calicut claimed that the ruler had 'the French disease ["Frangi"] and had it in the throat.'26 However, it was not new diseases which affected populations around the ocean so much as faster communications, and increased densities of people in certain places: examples are the hordes congregated for the hajj, and the increasing populations of the port cities, especially from late in our period. Greater population concentrations meant that the protection provided by the vast expanses of the ocean was overcome, and crowd disease, such as cholera, smallpox and plague increasingly flourished; they had of course been present for many centuries.
It is time now to turn away from products, crops and politics, and look at people moving over the ocean for religious reasons. We will look at conversions, at the travels of religious exemplars keen to fortify the faith of their followers, and at pilgrimage in the context of widespread travels over the ocean. These three matters are very intricately mixed, but for heuristic reasons we will separate them to an extent. For that matter, there also are important links and connections with all of the preceding discussion: for example, the Portuguese opposed the Muslim pilgrimage, arguably the activities of their fleets hindered their own conversion drive, and most pilgrims chaffered their way to their destination, thus engaging in trade.
Conversion is a rather nebulous term. It is best to see it as a long process, taking perhaps several generations. There are entry points to be sure. For Muslims, to pronounce the profession of faith – 'There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet' – is a start. For Christians it would begin with baptism. However, for the exemplars of both of these religions the task then was to consolidate and improve. A whole world of social habits, customs, beliefs had to be set aside. The aim was not additive change, where a new superstructure was imposed on a bedrock of existing believe, but rather substitutive change, where a totally new world view was imposed. This is where people I refer to as rectifiers were important; these men strove to improve the quality of religious practice of people who were already, ostensibly, members of their faith. For these people the term missionary would be inappropriate, for missionaries try to spread, not improve, the faith. We will begin with conversions.
The two main drives were those led by Muslims and Christians. However, it was only the Catholics who spent much effort on this: the Protestant Dutch and English provided spiritual counsel for their own people, but made no effort to convert anyone else. There are many similarities, and many contrasts. The Muslim effort was much more inchoate than the Christian one, which was directed from Europe – from Lisbon and from Rome. Christian missionaries were supported by the political authorities, Muslim ones much less so. Christian missionaries were foreign, Muslim ones rather less so. On the other hand, both frequently relied on the time-honoured 'trickle down from the top' technique, whereby great effort was put into converting a king or other political figure, with the expectation that his subjects would then follow suit.
Muslims obviously had a head start over the Christians in their race to convert people. We described some aspects of their conversion efforts in an earlier chapter (see pages 76–80). Accounts, or more correctly complaints, by Christian missionaries give us good information on how Islam was spread. As a Jesuit lamented from Goa in 1560, what was most disturbing and lamentable was 'to see how the cacizes [Muslim divines] of the accursed and abominable sect of Muhammad confound us, because they come from Mecca and from Persia and from many other places to infect and corrupt the poor Hindus who are almost tabula rasa', and their message had a very great appeal indeed. Often they won by default; what was needed was more Christian missionaries to counter these overly successful Muslims. The same Jesuit added that
the partisans of Muhammad don't sleep, rather their cacizes make themselves into seamen, and thus can go around preaching their accursed sect; and they have done so well that it seems incredible the number of gentiles that in a few years have here submitted to this evil sect, and I believe that here they have a great advantage over us.
Another Jesuit at the same time expanded on this Muslim conversion technique, describing again how they travel as 'lascars, which is the same as sailors', on Portuguese boats even, and sowed their 'evil seed' wherever the boat called, even as far as China, Siam and Java.
The main arena in our period was southeast Asia. Western Indonesia was converted before the Portuguese and Spanish arrived, mostly by new Muslims from India, especially from Gujarat and other coastal areas. It is a matter of missionary activity undertaken by people themselves relatively new converts, and again the mechanism was trade and the use of the sea as a highway for the spread of Islam. It is debatable whether Muslims who were responsible for converting large numbers of people in southeast Asia can be described precisely as 'missionaries'. Few Muslims who spread their faith in the area were religious specialists engaged in fulltime proselytisation, in the way the members of the Christian orders were. Most conversions to Islam apparently were made by people who were traders or travellers, pious no doubt but engaged in worldly activities also. Many traders were members of Sufi orders, and indeed it is a matter of degree, for while most were primarily traders, a few were religious guides for their fellow Muslims and also people interested in spreading the faith.
Once the Portuguese arrived they engaged in vigorous competition with their Muslim rivals. The situation in Siam in the middle of the sixteenth century was well described in a letter by the adventurer-turned-religious Fernão Mendes Pinto. He told his Jesuit fellows that there were various religious beliefs followed in Siam, but the Muslims were doing very well. Already in the capital there were seven mosques, with foreign cacizes, and 30,000 hearths of Muslims. Proselytisation proceeded apace. The king, however, maintained a hands-off attitude to the whole matter: 'The king lets everyone do what they want; they can be Muslim or gentile, for he says he is king of nothing more than their bodies.'
The Christian missionaries tried to work from the top. This worked well in Japan, but not so much elsewhere. In India the Jesuits hoped to convert the Mughal emperor Akbar, after which the rest of India would follow. Hence the ecstatic claims from time to time that the Great Mughal was listening to them, was favourably inclined to them, was now no longer a Muslim, and indeed on occasion that his conversion was imminent. Alas, the hopes were all ill-founded, showing no doubt a Counter-Reformation failure to understand how Akbar could find some merit in all the great religious traditions. As was ruefully noted, he remained as Muslim as he had ever been. So also at a more humble level in Goa, where they encouraged the elite to convert, offering them jobs and other favours in return. In 1548 Lakshman decided to convert. He was a great catch. The bishop performed the ceremony, the governor stood as his godfather, and, now called Luquas de Sá, he was given an important government post.
Letters home to Europe from the religious often complain of the lack of support they received from the secular authorities. Most Spanish and Portuguese governors and captains put political, and especially economic, matters before conversions. Indeed, the efforts of the missionaries were often hindered and obstructed, rather than facilitated, by their fellow Christians. In many areas of seaborne Asia the Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had unenviable reputations. This was both at an official and individual level. The Portuguese tried forcibly to monopolise trade in spices and some other products, and direct other Asian trade, forcing all sea trade to pay customs duties to them at their forts. Most sea trade in the Arabian Sea, and increasingly also in island southeast Asia, was handled by Muslims; this political and economic conflict spilt over into religious hostility, indeed the two were symbiotic and fed on each other.
Nor was it only the official policies of the Portuguese state which contributed to their unsavoury reputation. The conduct of private Portuguese traders also at times lowered the reputation of them all. It is true that these private traders simply operated in Indian Ocean waters on a basis of equality with any other petty traders, but even so their moral reputation seems to have been a low one; again this must have exacerbated the difficulties of their compatriots who were trying to make conversions, and must have made the task of the competition, the cacizes, that much easier. A longish account, admittedly by a hostile Spanish priest, makes clear precisely this problem. Writing in the later seventeenth century about Cochinchina, he said that
The Women there being too free and immodest, as soon as any Ship arrives, they presently go aboard to invite the Men; nay, they even make it an Article of Marriage with their own Countrymen, that when Ships come in, they shall be left to their own Will, and have liberty to do what they please.... A Vessel from Macao came to that Kingdom, and during its stay there, the Portugueses had so openly to do with those Infidel Harlots, that when they were ready to sail, the Women complained to the King, that they did not pay them what they owed them for the use of their Bodys. So the King ordered the Vessel should not stir till that debt was paid. A rare Example given by Christians, and a great help to the conversion of those Infidels! Another time they were so lewd in that Kingdom, that one about the King said to him, 'Sir, we know not how to deal with these people, the Dutch are satisfied with one Woman, but the People of [Portuguese] Macao are not satisfied with many.'
It is difficult to quantify the relative successes of these two protagonists, or antagonists. On the Muslim side, leaving aside the totally Muslim Middle East, we can remember a strong Islamic presence on the East African coast – indeed one way to define the Swahili is to note that they are Muslims, unlike most of their fellow Africans. In South Asia as a whole, including Pakistan and Bangladesh with India, the total Muslim population today is something under 400 million. The Malay world is solidly Muslim, excluding Chinese migrants brought in by Europeans in the nineteenth century. On the Christian side, their share of the populations of the first and third of these areas is minuscule. We have some indications of how they fared in India in this period. It has been estimated that by the end of the sixteenth century there may have been 175,000 Christian converts in all of India, most of them poor fisher folk. Descendants of these converts are to be found all over India, and Asia, today. No doubt this is a substantial achievement, yet there are some hesitations to be expressed also. First, India had a population in this century of about 140 million, so from this perspective the missionary success was rather limited. The greatest success was obviously in the city of Goa itself, where at this time about two-thirds of the population were Christian. However, in the whole territory of Goa, the Old Conquests, Christians at most made up one-quarter of the total. In contrast, a very rough estimate of the Muslim population of South Asia in around 1600 would find perhaps 15,000,000 people.
Once people converted they often undertook pilgrimages to religiously significant places. From the Christian side, a visit to the two most obvious sites of the Holy Land and Rome was hardly possible, except for a handful of priests to Rome. Certainly there were minor pilgrimages to the tombs of holy men. St Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the East, is the best known of these, and even today his birthday is celebrated in Old Goa with great eclat. The regular expositions of his miraculously preserved body also encouraged this cult. Parts of it were even abstracted, either openly or surreptitiously, so that a lucky few had their own personal relics of the saint. Yet surely it is significant that the crowd at his birthday celebrations includes many Hindus, and indeed some of no particular religion at all. He has become in effect a generic holy man. In many other areas also Indian Ocean Christianity, despite the intolerance of Counter-Reformation Catholicism as seen especially in the work of the Inquisition, in many areas continued to include pre-Christian customs and beliefs. Conversion was a two-way process, with much retained from previous religious practice. In many social areas Hindus who had converted to Christianity retained their old customs. Various food prohibitions and notions of pollution continued to be influential. Sometimes Indian Christians seem almost to merge in with Hindus, in an eminently tolerant way. The best example, and the most studied, is the continuance of caste notions in families who have been Christian for centuries. Christianity in India, then, owed as much to its local environment as it did to the norms of Rome.
Hindu pilgrimage certainly occurred, but exclusively by land, so that we will pass this by except to point out that their places of pilgrimage are usually aquatic, being located on the sea shore or rivers. Buddhist pilgrims from East Asia mostly travelled by sea to visit the holy sites in north India associated with the Buddha. We have no hard evidence of Japanese Buddhists reaching India in this period, and indeed the journey would have been an arduous one. One pious Japanese Buddhist worked out, presumably to explain why he never went, that to travel from Japan to India would take 1,000 days at eight miles a day, or 1,600 at five miles a day. He had to make do with a stone that he found on the coast of Japan: 'Thinking that the water poured upon the sacred remains of Buddha flows into the ocean, I feel especially familiar with this stone found on the seashore.'27 We can assume that some followers of the path in Burma and Sri Lanka made visits to north India. Certainly there was travel for religious reasons between these two Buddhist countries. It has been claimed that when Buddhism in Sri Lanka was under attack from the Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Arakan played a vital role in preserving Theravada Buddhism until tolerance returned to Sri Lanka.28
By default, then, the greatest pilgrimage in our period was that of Muslims to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina; indeed to do this is to fulfil one of the central requirement of Islam. In the early modern period some 15,000 from India undertook this pious obligation each year, out of a total of up to 200,000.29
The hajj had a multitude of significances. First of all, it was a pious obligation. However, small-scale economic activity was generated by the peddling of the pilgrims as they made their way to the Red Sea. Most of them supported themselves by trading, using their goods as needed to buy passage, food and accommodation, in a way analogous to the modern travellers' cheque. At the actual time of the hajj, a period of a few days in Mecca, the town was host to a massive market in a great variety of goods. Many were secular, but some were infused with religious significance. Burial shrouds soaked in water from the sacred well of Zamzam, bits from the brooms used to sweep out the Kaba, pieces of the ornate cloth covering of the Kaba, these and many other items found a ready market.
There was also a political dimension to the hajj. Control of the Holy Cities passed in the sixteenth century from the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt, which had only a vestigial control over the hereditary sheikhs of the cities, to the Ottoman Empire. The sultans took very seriously their role as Guardians of the Holy Places, did public works in the two cities, provided food to the inhabitants, and financed the vast pilgrim caravans from Cairo and Damascus to the Hijaz. Muslim Indian rulers similarly patronised those wanting to go on hajj.
We have no good data on numbers of pilgrims from East Africa, nor from southeast Asia. But we do have evidence of quite extensive contact with Mecca in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and indeed with other centres of Islamic power. The sultanate of Banten maintained important links with Mecca. These were for religious guidance and patronage. In 1638 the Meccan authorities bestowed the title of sultan on the ruler of Banten, and his son twice made the hajj.30 In 1581 the Portuguese saw a ship, which apart from a very rich cargo had on board 150 women, these being among the most noble of the kingdom of Pegu, who were going with very rich presents to offer them to, as they put it, 'their false prophet and legislator Muhammad'.
The effects of a visit to Mecca could be various indeed. Regrettably, it sometimes led to an increase in intolerance. In the 1630s Lobo travelled by sea from Suakin, on the west coast of the Red Sea, to Diu:
The ship carried many people, most of them pilgrims to their accursed, detestable house, by which I mean that of Meca, where Mafoma [Muhammad] is buried [sic]. Once these people have visited it, they receive from the Xarifes there an indisputable pass to Heaven; and when they leave Meca in this sanctified state, nothing is more loathsome to them than to meet with Christians, for they believe themselves contaminated if they see or have any dealings with us, so pure in body and soul do they consider themselves when they leave that place. For this reason they very much begrudged our being on that ship, imagining that their purity would be spoiled by our presence there, for they avoided all communication or conversation with us, so that when they arose in the morning and their eyes were unavoidably struck by the sight of us . . . they would immediately spit in the other direction as if they had seen the vilest thing in the world....31
Those who returned home from the pilgrimage had acquired very considerable prestige. In part they were considered to be daring people indeed for having undertaken the long and dangerous sea voyage across the Arabian Sea. They also were now able to stand forth in their home communities as exemplars of Islam: here is how they do it in Mecca; people in Mecca say this and that, and do this. In the Maldive Islands in the early seventeenth century those who had been on hajj were allowed to wear their beards in a distinctive style.
Those who have been to Arabia, and have visited the sepulchre of Mahomet at Mecca [sic], are held in high respect by all the world, whatever be their rank, and whether they be poor or rich; and, indeed, a great number of the poor have been there. These have peculiar privileges: they are called Agy [hajji, one who has done the hajj]; and in order to be recognised and remarked among the others, they all wear very white cotton frocks, and on their heads little round bonnets, also white, and carry beads in their hands without crosses; and when they have not the means to maintain themselves in this attire, the king or the nobles supply them, and fail not to do so.32
These people were engaged, in a modest way, in trying to 'purify' the religion, to root out customs and behaviour which they claimed had no place in 'pure' Islam. In this they had a Christian parallel in the activities of the Inquisitors in Goa, and priests sent out from Rome to rid Indian Catholicism of its deviations and errors. The much-feared Holy Office of the Inquisition was the supreme example of intolerant Counter Reformation Catholicism. Xavier was scandalised by what he saw in Goa, considering many local converts and also Portuguese to have strayed far from the faith. He recommended that an Inquisition be established, though this was achieved only eight years after his death, in 1560. However, even before this heresy did not go unpunished. In 1543 a New Christian physician, that is a Jew converted to Christianity, was convicted by the ecclesiastical court of relapsing to Judaism. He was sentenced to be burnt, but this sentence was reduced after he confessed and apologised. He was strangled before he was burnt.
The Inquisition was concerned to root out vestiges of Hindu practice amongst those recently converted. This was a very harsh regime, for many conversions had been hasty and superficial. Consequently many new converts could offend out of ignorance and yet still be subject to the rigours of the Holy Office. What seem to be social practices deriving from past religious practice were condemned, such as refusing to eat pork, wearing such Indian clothes as a dhoti or choli, cooking rice without salt, 'as the Hindus are accustomed to do'. Those who, probably in all innocence, offended were hauled off to be interrogated – a total of 3,800 between 1561 and 1623.
There was no such tribunal in Muslim lands. What sorts of things were the Muslim purifiers concerned about? We have ample evidence of rather unorthodox practice in many areas of the ocean littoral, though we are making no value judgements at all. Unlike previous western writers on Islam, we do not seek to condemn local people who failed to follow the letter of the Law, the Shariah.
We quoted earlier some derogatory comments on the quality of Islam as seen by people from the centre (see pages 161–2). In 1542 in Malindi Francis Xavier met his alter ego, a chief 'caciz', who complained that the local Muslims were extremely slack in their observance. Once there had been sixteen mosques in the town, but now there were only three, and even these were poorly patronised. An account of Sofala, in the far south, from 1588 claimed that
The Mahometans that at this present doe inhabite those Countries, are not naturally borne there, but before the Portugals came into those quarters, they Trafficked thither in small Barkes, from the Coast of Arabia Felix. And when the Portugals had conquered that Realme, the Mahometans stayed there still, and now they are become neither utter Pagans, nor holding the Sect of Mahomet.
Members of various Muslim Sufi orders, and of schools of law, travelled widely in a quite organised way to achieve greater observance. They were much more conscious of what they were doing than were the generality of returning hajjis, whose role was much less directive. A typical rectifier would study in Mecca and Medina and other centres, and then go to the periphery of the Muslim world, where they had very great prestige. As an example, we know something of the career of 'Abd al-Ra'uf of Singkel, and this gives us a clear picture of the many ties, networks and connections established in seventeenth-century Islam, and of the centrality of the Holy Places in this process. He was born in North Sumatra around 1615, and in about 1640 moved to the Hijaz and Yemen to study. In Medina his main teacher was the Kurdish-born Ibrahim al-Kurani. He spent a total of nineteen years in Mecca, and gained very considerable prestige. In particular, he taught hundreds, even thousands, of Indonesians there, and initiated many of them into the Order of which he was a distinguished member, the Shattariyya. He returned to Sumatra, to Aceh, in 1661 and was a revered teacher there for nearly thirty years. He kept in touch with Ibrahim in Medina, and taught what he had learnt from him to the many Indonesian, especially Javanese, pilgrims who stopped for a time in Aceh on the way to the Red Sea.
So also in India. Hajji Ibrahim Muhaddis Qadiri was born near Allahabad in northern India. He did the hajj, and then studied in Cairo, Mecca and Syria. He was away for twenty-four years, but then returned to India, settled in Agra, and was a prestigious teacher until his death in 1593. A final illustration of the wide ties and influence of these scholars again comes from Indonesia. Shaykh Yusuf was born in Makassar (on Sulawesi) in 1626, and was related to the ruling dynasty. He converted to Islam, and did a hajj at age eighteen. In typical fashion, he then studied in Mecca for several years before he went to Banten where, with his Meccan prestige, he was a very influential religious leader to the sultan and court. In 1682 the VOC conquered Banten, and Yusuf led guerilla resistance to them. Finally he surrendered and was imprisoned in Jakarta. Then he was exiled to other parts of the VOC's dispersed maritime empire: first to Sri Lanka, and in 1694 to the Cape Colony along with two wives, other family, and twelve disciples, a total in all of forty-nine Muslims. The Company tried to isolate him, but even so he was able to make a few converts before he died in 1699.33
We have seen both normative and folk elements in Christianity and Islam, and these were both to be found in the various rites, ceremonies, and practices of men in trouble at sea, or men trying to get divine blessing for a safe passage. Horden and Purcell made two useful comments about this matter in a Mediterranean context which apply equally well to the Indian Ocean. They point out that rites performed on ships were 'not a superficial sprinkling of the holy onto the mundane and normal, but an integral part of the way that the world was experienced.' So also, in a landed context, they comment on 'the apparent continuity or repetitive similarity of religious responses to the environment in different periods, under different religious systems.'34 We will find that seamen from different faiths often mirrored the rites of those of other faiths, even if this was not usually acknowledged.
Portuguese ships nearly always had priests on board, and they played a prominent role on the voyage. Priests about to embark on the carreira to India were excused from Lenten fasts so they would be strong enough to withstand the rigours of the voyage. They did general confessions before the ship set sail, so that any who died on the voyage would have no, or few, unconfessed sins. They led processions around the ship if it was in danger.35 A voyage of 1629 was perhaps typical. The Jesuits on board spent much time hearing confessions and ministering to the sick. One of the ships ran aground, and the Jesuits on board spent the entire night on the poop hearing confessions, so that those who were to die would be in a state of grace. When another ship ran aground a priest calmed the sea by suspending holy relics in the water. He then heard confessions, and distributed devotional objects to all and sundry.36
St Francis Xavier was often called on to protect ships in peril. A Jesuit wrecked off Mozambique struggled ashore, pushed and buffeted by an incoming tide, his feet badly cut and bleeding from the sharp coral. To add to his peril, he was no swimmer. Regardless, he carried a relic of Xavier around his neck, and so was saved.37 Father Lobo decided to return to Portugal on the beautiful new ship the Belem:
Not the least of my reasons, among others, for liking this ship were that it was said to be less heavily loaded, that it was a powerful ship, and that Saint Francis Xavier had performed a great and evident miracle by defending it one crucial night on its voyage to India [in 1633]. At anchor on the bar of Mozambique, the carrack was being battered by a furious storm which had broken four of the five cables. Since there was no reason to believe that one could hold where four others had failed, the poor sailors placed all their hope in a relic of the saint, which they lowered into the water with the sole remaining cable. The winds increased in fury and the people saw cruel death before their eyes at every moment, since they were so close to the reefs that they could not have escaped alive if that single cable had not held fast all night long, which the four other cables had been unable to do. What was even more remarkable was that it could do this without any flukes on the anchor, for both had broken off leaving only the shank, as they discovered in the morning when they hauled it up. This miracle was authenticated, announced, and celebrated in India with demonstrations of admiration and joy.38
Muslims had similar ways to avoid peril at sea. At the end of our period a Muslim crew were at the entrance to the Gulf, and 'to propitiate the deity or genius loci – setting afloat a little ship rigged and in sailing order, bearing a sample of all merchandise carried for sale in the vessel which sends her forth. Prayers for her safety are uttered on launching her, and if she makes for shore the crew consider them granted.'39 Abbé Carré in 1673 wrote down a whole host of things that Muslims did. They tied little paper flags to the mast, inscribed, so he said, with the sayings of Muhammad, though it was more likely the nautical saint Khwaja Khizr. They took around basins to collect all sorts of food, and then threw it overboard. They all bathed in the sea 'in order to wash away the dirty impurities they commit with their young slaves, of which there were more than 200 in the ship.' They searched all the baggage for bones being taken back for burial in Persia, as these were bad luck. 'In short, we were about twenty days practising these superstitious antics, which, however, were of very little use.'40
Some Hindus certainly travelled by sea, normative prohibitions and much academic writing to the contrary, but they had to avoid contact with polluting food, water and people. This could lead to problems, as Dean Mahomet found out:
A considerable Banyan merchant was on his passage from Bombay to Surat, in an English ship, and having made such provision of water in vessels under his own seal, as might serve for the short voyage, which was commonly completed in two or three days, it happened however that, through retardation by calms and contrary winds, his liquid store was expended, and he reduced to a condition of perishing with thirst, though there was plenty of water on board; but, no entreaties could prevail on him to use it, as his religion forbade it, which to him was more dear than life itself. He felt all the torments occasioned by the fever of thirst, and would have actually sunk under them, had not a favourable breeze springing up, brought him to Gandevi, near Surat, but he was so faint on his arrival, that his soul was almost panting between his lips.41
The final illustration must be a long and comic account by the Jesuit Manuel Godinho. If we ignore his ethnocentrism we can see a strong degree of commonality between the practices of the various religions. The rites and ceremonies were different, but all of them were believed to deliver intercession and a favourable outcome. In 1663 he was on a Muslim ship going from Surat to the Gulf. He had disguised himself as a Muslim. When they got near Muscat the ship was becalmed.
The Muslims failed to perceive that the cessation of winds was incidental to that season [it was February], but thought it was a punishment from God and his false prophet, as there was some unclean person on board. Carried away by this fancy of theirs, the nakhuda ordered everyone, be they Muslims or Hindus or Christians, big and small, men and women, to wash their bodies in the sea, which was calm, and being the first to jump into the sea, he set an example to the rest, who promptly followed it, perforce or willingly.
The nakhuda tried to get Godinho and his European companion to jump in too, which would have given them away. Luckily a shark appeared and he was excused.
The first remedy for restoring the wind having failed, they devised yet another that might have brought us all to ruin. It consisted of hanging from the poop a small wooden horse with a very long tail, to the sound of flutes and small kettle-drums, and, lo and behold, the very moment the horse was hung there broke out a north wind, the direction towards which its head was pointing, so strong and so severe, that we flew within a day and a half to the coast of Arabia Felix....
Indeed the rite had been too successful, for the wind was so strong that the boat was in danger of being wrecked, and Godinho was very worried, but
then the Hindus on board, of the Bangassali brahman caste, approached me saying that I must not be discouraged and should hope to overcome the peril, as they would soon attain the desired calm by performing a ritual to their Rama. And, having said that, one of them drew out from his pannier a metal idol, the image of Rama, a hand-bell and two cymbals of the same metal, and took all that to the prow of the ship, where he was joined by the rest of the Hindus, dressed in clean clothes, and after singing, playing music and dancing before the idol, they covered themselves with some red scented powder called sindhur. Soon thereafter they went in procession around the ship, singing songs to the beat of the cymbals and distributing fragrant ointments, biscuits, sweets, coconuts and sugar to everyone present; at the end of the procession they threw a coconut into the sea, against the wind, and carried on singing and dancing into the night. However, as far as I could see, their prayers and processions served no other purpose than to pass the day cheerfully, because the storm did not abate and the Muslims began to laugh at the Hindus. No idol has ever countered the works of the devil nor has the latter raised a storm that destroyed an idol.
Godinho had a bad time with the Hindus, as they revered all life, and so deloused themselves and threw the lice on his bedding, for they refused to kill them. They also offered to ransom a cow which was due to be slaughtered for food on board, but it died anyway.
When they got near the entrance to the Gulf they hit another storm, and the ship was in grave danger:
The ship bobbed in and out of the water, like a buoy at the mercy of the winds and the waves which were leading it towards the Persian rocks. The clamour from the women, crying by the children, shouts from the sailors, confusion among the officers, fury of the winds, raging of the waves, flashing of thunderbolts, pitch darkness of the night, crashing of thunder, recurrence of lightning, breaking of the seas, whistling of the rigging, and finally the fear of death in all, were such as anyone who has been through such a misfortune will realise.... I recited the Sub tuum praesidium [We fly to thy patronage, that is of the Virgin] from the time the storm began. On seeing that it still persisted, the French cleric approached me, more dead than alive, and both of us, on our knees, made several vows to the entire heavenly court, as any single saint alone appeared less reassuring in that sort of danger. Then, addressing ourselves to God, we reminded him of the honour of his holy name which was being blasphemed by those infidels, the Muslims saying that it was a punishment meted out by God and his false prophet because the nakhuda had obliged me by not going to Muscat [Godinho had bribed him to sail past Muscat, but most of the Muslim merchants on board wanted to call there], disappointing his own co-religionists. The Hindus attributed the storm to the death of their cow, but also joined the Muslims in reviling the Christians. And, lo and behold, hardly had we completed the said reminder to God, when all of a sudden the wind changed direction from south to north, and from stormy it turned to mild. The waves then propelled the tired ship to this other side of Arabia, and it moved quite fast over the waters because a lot of cargo was being jettisoned. God is so zealous of his holy name that this is not the first time he has refrained from punishing sinners in order not to discredit it amongst infidels....
Then they were trying to get around a cape at the entrance to the Gulf.
Around midday, on that day, a tiny ship, seven spans long and two in width, came alongside the deck. It resembled our ship in every detail, from the shape of its hull down to the sails, rigging, flag and everything else. Soon a sailor sounded the kettle drums and the ship's master blew his whistle and everyone on board, both Hindus and Muslims, got together, each with samples from the goods he carried in the ship, and placing these in the tiny ship, they set it out into the sea with much rejoicing, and everyone on board watched as the little ship moved away, driven by the wind which filled its tiny sails, until it was out of sight in rounding the cape. On inquiry as to the significance of that observance, I was informed that it was a tribute all ships paid to the Masandam cape, which was otherwise so wicked that those who defaulted it on the way up from India could surely consider themselves lost on their return journey, and that the gift had ensured them a safe passage. If the Cape of Good Hope could be satisfied as easily, we might as well have paid it a similar tribute each year, but I do not think it is as amenable as that of Masandam. When the Portuguese, English and Dutch ships, which invariably carry Hindus and Muslims, pass that way, they too perform the same ceremony, but they load the little ship with the entrails of cows and of the other animal, which the Muslims do not eat, in order to deride their superstitions, which annoys them greatly.42
We have been getting close to actual life on board ships in the Indian Ocean in the early modern period, and we can close this chapter by going on board and looking at actual voyages. It is time for a whiff of ozone. A concluding section inspissated with first-hand accounts may relieve the tedium of the long analytical sections to which I have subjected the reader. Many of the accounts we will quote give vivid portrayals of the hazards of ocean sailing at this time, hence the important role of the rites and superstitions we have just quoted. Here is an account by Father Lobo of a passage back to Europe. The good father had started the voyage badly, suffering terribly from seasickness in a way which must bring back bad memories to anyone who has suffered from this:
the nausea with which my stomach kept churning and vomiting can only be known to those who have experienced it, even vomiting all the various humours, according to the colours by which each one is recognised. Eating, drinking, and all other human functions are entirely impossible during those days. Finally, there is no other human illness that can be compared with this in the effects, vomiting and terrors it causes. The illness fortunately lasts no more than 8 days and the suffering of that week leaves me with complete freedom from this kind of torture for the remainder of the voyage.
Subsequently the ship got into trouble. Here is a vivid account of a storm from Father Lobo:
To the southeast the sky was so heavy, dark and fearsome that it was obviously preparing to break loose against us with great force, which it did so treacherously, however, that, as if it were trying to catch us suddenly and unawares, no matter how forewarned and attentive we were, we were unable to escape the sudden burst of a furious blast of wind called a typhoon or hurricane which came after a sharper wind than the one which had been blowing for some time, which had only caused us to be watchful. The sails kept taking the wind and swelling to the bursting point despite everyone shouting 'Strike sail! Strike sail!' Knowing that the foe was with us, we could not escape damage now, and in a moment it tore all the sails in pieces without leaving us a useable shred. The impetus was so strong that, if the sails had not been old and had been capable of withstanding the weight of the wind, the masts and yards would certainly have been smashed to pieces, falling on the ship with all the danger involved in such happenings....43
Apart from storms, there were other natural hazards at sea. Edmund Barker in 1591 in Lancaster's ship, the first English expedition to the east, had just got around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.
In the morning, toward ten of the clocke, we had a terrible clap of thunder, which slew foure of our men outright, their necks being wrung in sonder without speaking any word, and of 94 men there was not one untouched; whereof some were stricken blind, others were bruised in their legs and armes, and others in their brests, so that they voided blood two dayes after; others were drawen at length, as though they had bene racked. But (God be thanked) they all recovered, saving onely the foure which were slain outright. Also with the same thunder our mainemaste was torne very grievously from the heade to the decke, and some of the spikes, that were ten inches into the timber, were melted with the extreme heate thereof.44
Men often provided additional hazards. For example, when Lobo's ship was in grave danger, they decided not to appeal for help from an accompanying Portuguese ship, for 'it was not a good thing for our ship's condition to be known on the other ship because its loss was so obvious that they would abandon us in order to reach Portugal more quickly so that those aboard could make a better sale of their spices.'45
In February 1673 the Abbé Carré met a host of difficulties as he set off from Surat.
About midday, having shipped my baggage, food, and everything necessary for my voyage, in one of the Company's boats, I went in it to the large Surat roadstead, where there were twenty merchantmen preparing to sail for many oriental countries. I embarked in one belonging to Agha Rahimi, a leading Moor merchant of Surat. He arrived on board his ship at the same time as myself to give his last orders and to see her off, which was accomplished only with a great din and hubbub. A rich and influential Persian merchant, who had chartered half of the ship for his own use, on seeing four large boats of extra merchandise intended to be brought on board the already laden ship, flew into a furious rage with the ship's master. The latter, for some 200 écus more freight, was quite prepared to risk his ship, which had 500 passengers and more than a million écus worth of cargo, by overloading it. There have been tragic examples of this danger recently, as four good ships were lost last year on this account, while leaving the Surat roadstead. The merchants who were passengers all took the part of the Persian and were against Aghe Rahimi, threatening to leave his ship, if he put on any more cargo. He was therefore compelled to send back this extra merchandise to Surat; but, before leaving us, he recouped himself for the loss of this freight by raising the fares for the voyage to Persia, and making us all pay double the amount generally charged for it.
Even once the voyage actually got under way things did not improve.
Our nakhoda, in concert with the ship's captain, seeing the large number of passengers on board, now asserted their rights in regard to accommodation in a surprising way; and I can safely say that no lodging in Paris was as dear as the places in this ship for the month's voyage. The ship's state-room had been hired before departing for 1,000 écus [£225] by our rich Persian merchant for his half-dozen wives, as he wished to keep them out of sight of the rest of the passengers and under his eye. The two middle-sized cabins under the poop each cost 300 écus [£67.50], and other small places and corners six or seven hundred livres [£45–47.50]. Rich merchants were paying such sums to keep their wives in seclusion; and as there were a great number of the latter on this voyage, there was considerable difficulty in finding accommodation for them. I had arranged matters with the captain, who gave me a suitable place near him, where I was not inconvenienced in any way.46
The Abbé whiled away his time on the voyage with mild flirtations with the 'half-dozen wives'.
Increasingly during our period local traders and travellers preferred to travel on European ships, or at least ships with European crews. They were considered to be safer, and less vulnerable to piracy. Yet even this did not always guarantee an agreeable passage. The Persian ambassador, Sulaiman, set off from Coromandel on an English ship bound for Thailand.
As our port of destination was not very far off the captain did not think it necessary to take on large amounts of food but as it happened the wind died down, the food became scarce and all aboard were reduced to the most dire circumstances. During those days a useless piece of bread six months old, all sour and full of worms and ants would be eaten without the least hesitation. That old crust seemed to be the finest honey.47
These could well be extreme examples. We have to assume that most voyages were more or less routine, with boredom the main hazard for the passengers. Jean Aubin recreated such a voyage from Goa to Hurmuz in the early sixteenth century, which may stand as a pattern of a 'normal' passage. The ship concerned was a cranky old tub which had belonged to the Bijapuri governor of Goa. It was captured in 1510 when the Portuguese took the city, and renamed Santa Maria do Monte. With a cargo of rice and iron it took seventy-seven days to get to Hurmuz, and then had to wait for the right monsoon to get back to Goa. The whole, rather minor, voyage took a year. On the outward voyage there were 140 on board, six cows, and 174 tons of cargo. It brought back seventy-one horses. The captain was Italian, most of the crew Muslim, including the pilots and the bombardiers, and even the musicians. There were several passengers, some Portuguese and some Armenian. The Portuguese had nine slaves with them, who helped on the ship. There were also four women, and with them seven servants and family members. All in all it was a very normal and undramatic voyage.48
Voyages on the rivers of northern India could even be quite relaxing and pleasant. In the 1740s a French visitor to Bengal travelled up river on a bazara, a long and light boat with a roof covering the passengers. His one had sixteen oars. They were shaped like a balloon, that is lower in the middle and high at both ends, this being so that when they ran aground on the shallow parts of the river they could be easily refloated. 'These kinds of boats are extremely convenient. In this one there was a quite spacious room where two of us slept in comfort, and another in the rear where the third person slept. A boat with kitchen arrangements followed us', and he also had his interpreter with him, and someone to carry his parasol. They proceeded at a leisurely average of six leagues, about twelve miles, a day.49
So agreeable was river travel that some people, both Indians and Europeans, actually went boating for fun. The Portuguese in Macau and Goa sometimes set off in the evening for a cruise. Dean Mahomet arrived at Dacca, and noticed
the residence of a grand Nabob, who, at his accession to the throne, conformable to an old custom, something similar to that of the Doge of Venice on the Adriatic, enjoys a day's pleasure on the river, in one of the most curious barges in the world, called a samsundar [a processional barge]. It is sheathed with silver, and in the centre is a grand eminence of the same, on which his crown is placed on the day of coronation; nearer the stern is a brilliant seat encompassed with silver rails, and covered with a rich canopy embroidered with gold, under which he reclines in easy majesty. This boat and another of considerable value, that conveys his attendants, are estimated at a lack [100,000] of rupees. He is accompanied by a number of the most distinguished personages, and there are no bounds to the lavish waste of money expended on this occasion, in order to aggrandize the pomp of this ancient ceremony.50
The information that we have on ship sizes at this time is rather patchy. The Surat fleet around 1700 included over 100 vessels, mostly medium size of perhaps 200 or 300 tons. Some Indian ships, especially those owned by the political elite, seem to have been much bigger. Saris in the Red Sea in 1612 measured two ships belonging to the great Mughal noble Abdur-Rahim. The Rahimi was 153 feet from stem to stern post, and her rake from the post aft was 17 feet. From the top of her sides in breadth was 42 feet, and her depth 31 feet. The Muhammadi was 136 feet long, with a rake of 20 feet, breadth of 41, and depth of 291½2. Her main mast was 108 feet, and her main yard 132 feet.51 By comparison the early Portuguese voyages were accomplished in small ships. In 1497–99 Gama's largest ship was 100 feet in length. The smallest ship ever to do the carreira between Goa and Lisbon, in 1535–36, was a foist 20 feet long and 6 feet wide!52 The largest VOC ships were over 50 metres long, comparable then with the Mughal ships in the Red Sea. The Batavia, the pride of the fleet wrecked off the Western Australian coast in 1629 was 59 metres long.
Many of the great Portuguese naus, and later company ships, were made in Asia. Due to cheaper labour and materials, the cost per ton in India was only half what it was in Europe. One reason for this was that caulking, which was done for European ships built in Europe, was very expensive, and in any case this technique had no advantage over the cheaper traditional north Indian method of rabetting. Indian ships continued to use cables and cordage of coir, not hemp ropes, but coir was perfectly adequate so long as it was kept in salt water to keep it strong.53
Indian shipbuilders began to pick up some European techniques, such as some use of iron nails in construction. This was done especially for ships engaged in oceanic, as opposed to coastal, trade. European observers appreciated that Indian craftspeople were very skilled, and quite ready to draw on European expertise if this appeared to be superior. Bowrey found ships for local owners being built in Coromandel.
Very Expert Master builders there are Severall here who have most of their dependancie Upon the English, and indeed learnt theire art and trade from some of them by diligently Observeinge the ingenuitie of Some that built Ships and Sloops here for the English East India Company and theire Agents, Soe that they build very well and give good reasons for what they doe, and launch with as much discretion as I have Seen in any part of the world....
He particularly commented on a huge 1,000 ton ship belonging to the sultan of Golconda, which was being hauled out to be repaired.54
In the past few centuries Europeans had been able to improve considerably the ratio between ship size and crew needed. In the fourteenth century one man was needed for each ton of capacity, but by around 1600 the ratio was about one man for every four tons. This ratio appears to apply to Indian ships also.55
The crews on European ships in the Indian Ocean were usually as much Asian as European. The officers might be Dutch or English or some other European, as in the ship we described going from Goa to Hurmuz, but the rest were locals. Carletti travelled in a Portuguese ship from Macau to Melaka.
They were commanded by a Portuguese captain, pilot, coxswain, mate, and other officers, but were manned by Arab, Indian, Turkish, and Bengali sailors, who gladly serve for so much per month, taking care of their own expenses under the rule of their head man, who commands them and whom they call their saranghi [sarang], and who also belongs to one of the aforesaid nations. They make their understandings with him, recognize and obey him, so that even the Portuguese captain, the master and pilot of the ship, is commanded by this saranghi. And they all embark with their wives or concubines, which as a sight is no less indecent than filthy and unseemly, and which causes such confusions as it is impossible to make clear.56
Sailors seem to have been ready to serve wherever there was work to be had. In 1625 a small Portuguese fleet set off to attack some EIC ships. Of the men on board the Portuguese ships, more than 200 were English, Scottish, Irish and Dutch. Many of the local crew were Muslims, and they seem to have been happy to serve even on ships attacking Muslim ships. The Portuguese fleet sent off to relieve Mombasa from its Muslim conquerors was largely Muslim. On the four ships in this fleet in 1698 there were 126 'white' and 376 'non-white' seamen and gunners.57
Many ships carried large numbers of passengers. All of them carried merchants big and small, but the most passengers were carried on the ships going to the Red Sea full of intending hajjis, and European ships bringing out people to work in the European maritime empires. The largest hajj ships could carry 1,000 or 1,500 passengers. The great Portuguese naus on the outward bound voyage typically had a crew of 120–200, and 500 to 1,000 passengers, mostly soldiers. In Mozambique up to 400 slaves could be added to the ship's complement.58 The VOC ships may have carried fewer people: 200 on the outward voyage, and only about 110 on the return voyage.59
On the European ships officials had to take account of the likelihood of high mortality en route. Over the sixteenth century about 10 per cent of those on board Portuguese ships were lost to disease and shipwreck (see page 138). Gama's pioneering voyage suffered very high attrition: he lost 63 per cent of personnel, and 65 per cent of tonnage during the round-trip.60 The VOC did much better: they lost only a little over 2 per cent of tonnage on the outward voyages, and 4 per cent on the homeward. The worst area was the south African coast.61
Mortality, and also speed, improved greatly for the Europeans as they became more accustomed to the wind patterns and best routes. Gama's fastest ship took 733 days for the return voyage, but on the next expedition, led by Cabral, the return voyage for six ships varied between 471 and 505 days. These times include time in port: the actual sailing times of Cabral's ships was 179 out, and between 178 and 191 return. This became more or less the norm for the Portuguese: 180 days out, 200 return, and a total time of 500 days for the round trip. The fastest voyage out was 106 days, and return 130.62 In the seventeenth century the usual time for an outward voyage from Europe was 6–8 months, and the return 7–9 months. A very fast return trip was 11 months, but the usual return time was 16–19 months.
The speeds achieved varied with the monsoons and the skill of the crew. In the Mediterranean the best, and very exceptional, speed achieved was about 200 km a day.63 Ships racing before the monsoon did this regularly. Vasco da Gama sped from Malindi to Malabar in 1498 in 26 days, at an average speed of just under 200 km a day. In the next century the Dutch ships, which had begun to use the roaring 40s very early on, covered about 150 km a day.64
Life on board these ships ranged over great extremes, from boredom to savagery to danger. The accounts we have quoted, and many others, stress danger, drama, shipwrecks and so on, but the main aspects were tedium and the danger of disease. One traveller wrote that 'Certainly no one, to whom a house was offered, even if it was regally appointed, to live enclosed in it for six months, could remain so long detained and locked in it; much less in a ship, filled with so many and so varied inconveniences.'65 As to disease, it seems that there was a dim awareness that limes and lemons had some role in preventing scurvy, but even so this was a feared and loathsome disease which sometimes took a very heavy toll indeed. Victims died in excruciating pain, screaming in delirium. It affected the gums, so teeth fell out, or the legs, which swelled up with putrefying sores.66
It seems that social divisions were made much more visible, and even were exacerbated, during the months or weeks on board ship. Common sailors on the northern European ships were subject to extremely brutal discipline. Nickolaus de Graaff, who did five voyages as a surgeon on VOC ships in the seventeenth century, wrote that
if the sailors are punished, they are flogged with a thick rope's end for so long before the mast, that they fall on their knees and beg for mercy; or they are ducked from the yardarm into the sea, or keel-hauled three times under the ship, and then flogged before the mast. Or they get a chain and ball on their leg, and must endure hard labour with the black slaves on the Company's public works. Or they are deported to the west coast of Sumatra, or to the Banda Islands, or to Mauritius, or else banished to Robben Island off the Cape of Good Hope. So that there are many ways of taming them; because they are not much better treated than slaves, and must stand ready at the beck and call of the most junior officer.67
Problems with discipline no doubt increased as the quality of the crews and passengers declined. On VOC ships in the eighteenth century many on board were German beggars and paupers. On the Portuguese naus many of the troops on board had come straight from jail, dressed in rags, and suffering from syphilis and other diseases.
There was frequent overcrowding on the naus, a vast array of people travelling in extreme discomfort. But the elite, even if their cabins in the superstructure in the stern were narrow, with ceilings only four feet high, were still much better off than the rest of the passengers. In a previous chapter we found Ibn Battuta travelling in some style, complete with concubines and servants (see pages 111–12). Earlier in this chapter we saw the Abbé Carré in his voyage from Surat to Hurmuz travelling with very wealthy Persian merchants and their harems (see pages 182–3). So also Carletti, who as a wealthy merchant set off from Goa for Portugal in 1601. He had with him three servants, respectively a Japanese, a Korean and a Mozambique Negro. He had his own bedroom, and took one hundred hens with him to provide food along the way.68
Indeed food was the area where the social divisions were most obvious. On Portuguese ships the elite carried livestock on board for themselves: chickens, sheep and even cows. They also had dried fruits, almonds, preserves, wine, oil, sugared candies and cheeses. So also on VOC ships. William Hickey travelled in one and sat at the captain's table and gorged himself. For breakfast there was 'coffee, tea, as good rolls as were ever baked on shore, and what was more extraordinary, admirable fresh butter, toast, eggs, ham, sausages, smoked beef rasped, and lastly an immense cheese.' All this was washed down with small beer and gin. The midday meal was much more substantial, and included fresh vegetables and fruit. Snacks between meals were also provided.69 The common folk, on the other hand, relied on what was provided, and it was very bad. Biscuit could be a year old when it was loaded, the dried fish was inedible and often had to be thrown out, the wine was rough, undrinkable stuff, and water was in very short supply.70
We can close this chapter with two accounts from the seventeenth century of life on board a Portuguese, and an Indian, ship. The first is based on Jesuit accounts. The fathers travelled in very cramped conditions, 'no more no less than sardines in a barrel.' Their cabin was so full of supplies and so small that they 'could neither stand nor sit; to enter [the cabin] it was necessary to drag one's body over barrels and crates, as snakes enter their holes.' The Jesuits, an enthusiastic and rigid new Order, were under a very strict regime, much more so presumably than the others on board. They were told not to spend time in their cabins, as these were unhealthy: rather they should walk around on deck. Clothes and cabins were to be washed frequently, and sheets changed at least every eight days. The food they took on board was very well chosen: water and wine to drink; cured meats, both hams and sausages, chicken, biscuits, dried fruits including figs and raisins, beans, cured olives, cheese, nuts and sweets like marmalade. This abundance meant that common passengers often begged food from the fathers. As is to be expected, they had an important religious role too. When the ship was in danger, or it was the feast day of the saint after whom the ship was named, they led processions around the decks. Apart from this they administered the sacraments and provided general spiritual counsel.71
Our Indian example is derived from an exemplary reconstruction by Professor A. Jan Qaisar, based on an important Persian text which describes a voyage to undertake the hajj. Some of the advice that the author, Qazvini, provides is very elementary. For example, the intending passengers should check the boat, and rely on omens too as to whether they will go on it or not. The ship should be neither small nor old, and its length must be greater than breadth. One also needs to check the masts and rigging, and find out whether or not the crew is industrious. Passengers had a choice of travelling either on deck, or in a cabin, but in either case they had to provide their own food. In theory they were checked in and a list of them was kept by the nakhoda, though on Qazvini's ship there were meant to be 474 passengers, but another 40 appeared after the ship had sailed. Heavy cargo went in the hold, but passengers kept their personal luggage with them. Qazvini advises potential travellers to try and keep near the middle of the boat, near the main mast.
Water was provided for all, stored in big cisterns, but the wealthy brought their own too. Being a Muslim ship, this was not a matter of Hindu pollution problems but simply of accessibility and purity. A variety of food was brought on board. Common items were rice, ghee, dal, salt fish and butter, also smoked fish, breads, fruits and so on. Some better-off people took goats and fowls on board, which were slaughtered as needed. Eggs were preserved by being kept in finely ground salt. There is no mention of liquids like coffee, and nor of course of wine, but Qazvini does recommend tobacco smoking.
He also had some suggestions concerning health. He recommended that ships carry a doctor and a blood-letter. Apart from this he suggests some remedies, such as fruits and juice for those with a bilious humour from sea sickness, and for phlegmatics sweet things like honey and sugar. He does not mention scurvy, but we can assume that this was less of a problem on Indian ships because the voyages were shorter, and there were numerous stops where fresh provisions could be obtained. Life was quite pleasant on board. People studied, and held discussions on devotional and didactic matters. There were poetry recitals and music sessions, while some just relaxed in their harems, or gambled.72