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Volume 13, Number 6June/July 1962

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Arabs And The Sea

By the time Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Arab sailors were already masters of the Indian Ocean.

"Master navigator," said Vasco da Gama, "we have a strong wind behind us. How long will it blow?"

"Sir Admiral," replied Ahmad ibn Majid, "it will continue for another month. It is what you Europeans call the monsoon, which in turn comes from our word mausim, meaning 'season.' This monsoon blows steadily toward India for six-months of every year. We will ride it straight on to the Malabar Coast."

The words of the Arab pilot were exactly what the Portuguese sea captain wanted to hear. Vasco da Gama was in a hurry. It was April of 1498. He and his men had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to India. They had reached Malindi below the Horn of East Africa and then were forced to drop anchor, for, as the first Europeans in these Islamic waters, they dared not venture out onto the broad expanse of the Indian Ocean without a navigator schooled in the sea.

Da Gama was fortunate. He found in Malindi the most illustrious Arab navigator of the time. Ahmad ibn Majid, weather-beaten veteran of half a century at sea, had sailed the Indian Ocean from shore to shore. His coal black eyes and steady hands had steered ships into the mouths of the great rivers—the Zambezi, the Tigris, the Indus. He could number the shoals off Mozambique. He could describe the best landfalls on both sides of the Red Sea. And so skillful was he at piloting argosies on the open-sea run from Malindi to the Malabar Coast that his services were constantly in demand by the prosperous merchants of Arabia and Africa.

"The sea route to India is easily managed," declared Ahmad ibn Majid, "if one has ability, courage and science." He himself enjoyed all three.

Moreover, he was willing to place his nautical virtues at the disposal of the Portuguese, to whom he was already known by name. Even in far-off Europe they had read Ibn Majid's The Advantages of Knowing the Sciences of the Sea, an internationally celebrated sailors' handbook. Da Gama and his officers had studied it. Now the author came aboard their flagship armed with highly technical maps and charts of the Indian Ocean. He plotted for them the route between Malindi and Malabar. He proved that he could handle relatively new instruments like the compass and the astrolabe, forerunner of the sextant. He spoke with expert precision of vectors, tides and Indian seaports. He revealed a seaman's intuitive understanding of what their ships, completely new to him, could and could not do.'

The result was a quick bargain. The anchors were lifted, the sails unfurled and the Europeans, with their Islamic navigator barking instructions in the pilothouse, were on their way to India.

Before the voyage was over the admiral and his navigator had developed an enormous respect for one another. They talked endlessly of naval matters through their interpreter. One of the topics that came up time and again was the chief problem of sailing ships—the wind, in this case the monsoon.

Ibn Majid described the remarkable meteorology of the Indian Ocean and the way in which Arab sailors had been exploiting it for centuries. He knew no scientific explanation for the phenomenon of the monsoon, not at all surprising since even today there are mysteries about it. All we can say for sure is that the monsoon is due to climatic conditions in southern Asia. One theory is that the summer heat of India causes the air to rise over the subcontinent, creating a vacuum into which rush the winds from the Indian Ocean. By the same token, the comparative coolness of the Indian winter causes a reverse monsoon from India to Africa.

The Arabs had known since ancient times that they could rely on prevailing winds for long voyages beyond sight of land. The Portuguese were surprised to hear this, for they did not relish the idea of going to sea in an Arabian dhow. It was a natural misapprehension. The Europeans did not understand the merits of the dhow as an oceangoing vessel—merits as distinct as those of their own larger ships.

The Portuguese had constructed their fleet expressly for the circumnavigation of Africa. Similarly, the Arabs had built theirs for use in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. They needed craft small enough to be light and maneuverable. The answer to their specific problem was the dhow.

Usually constructed of coconut wood or teak, the hardest and most durable timber, the dhow was entirely seaworthy amid the comparatively mild waves of the Indian Ocean. Its light bulk allowed it to travel with speed so that it could scud out of the path of threatening weather. Its triangular lateen sail was adapted to catch the slightest breeze and lend the ship maneuverability in treacherous coastal waters.

The planks of the dhow were stitched rather than nailed, because nails were not common in Arabia. Islamic shipwrights ingeniously fastened the planks to one another, and to the keel and ribs, with twisted cord. They caulked the hull with a heavy coat of mixed whale oil and pitch and rendered the vessel sufficiently watertight to keep the hold dry. Even perishable goods could be transported safely.

The worth of the dhow is proved by its longevity. Old in da Gama's time, it has lasted into our own.

In addition, the Arabs knew how to get full value out of their ships. They were true scientists of the sea, experienced in navigation, meteorology and geography, adept at taking advantage of good sailing conditions on a regular seasonal schedule. Their dhows were not usually subjected to the oceanic battering that so often damaged the ships of less skillful navigators, those, for instance, who did not realize when the monsoon was about to change.

Da Gama's crew may have paled at the thought of sailing to India in a dhow, but Ahmad ibn Majid did not. He regaled his new acquaintances with sagas of the sea as the Arabs had seen it from the rails of their ships—as he himself had seen it.

He reminded his listeners that Islamic naval tradition extended to their home waters. Arab warships had coursed the Mediterranean Sea, and one Arab admiral, Tariq ibn Ziyad, had given his name to Gibraltar. The Rock was originally known as Jebel Tariq (meaning "Mount of Tariq") and later was corrupted by usage into Gibraltar. Another Arab admiral, Asad ibn al-Furat, had landed invading armies on Sicily and even on the Italian mainland at the Po River.

But most of all, Ahmad ibn Majid spoke of the Arab conquest of the Indian Ocean. He mentioned the triad of sailors who had pointed the prows of their ships out of the Persian Gulf in the tenth century and helped to blaze the shoreline route to the Indus River: Muhammad ibn Shad-han, Layth ibn Kahlan and Sahl ibn Aban. He referred to bold sea captains who had braved the Indian Ocean along the shortest path to Calicut in Hindustan and then turned author to recount their experiences in writing: Al-Maqdisi, Al-Marwazi—and Ahmad ibn Majid. In these writers apprentices of the trade studied everything from star patterns over the Indian Ocean to dockside conditions at Calicut.

On one occasion Ibn Majid remarked: "Did you know that we sail beyond Ceylon to China? I myself have made the trip many times, and perhaps I may without immodesty note that I have written a couple of books about it. But our longest tradition of distant voyages links us with the land of the tiger and the elephant."

Ibn Majid advised da Gama to read The Wonders of India by Buzurg ibn Shahriyar. It was good advice for the book abounds in dramatic voyages to the subcontinent, in storms and shipwrecks along the way, in the salty lore of the sea. Some critics believe that Ibn Shahriyar may have influenced the anonymous literary genius who first spun the tales of Sinbad the Sailor.

Ibn Majid did not have to spell out the reasons for Arabian interest in India. The Portuguese were well aware of it and had themselves been prompted by it to sail so far from home. Half the world wanted a share in the opulent Indian trade.

Early in their history, the Arabs living on the littoral of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea had learned that they could make a profit by hazarding their lives on the deep waters beyond their shores. Seafaring families grew rich from transoceanic commerce. Splendid emporiums arose wherever trading ships came to dock—Aden, Zanzibar, Madagascar. Conversely, the seaports of the Malabar Coast, principally Calicut, became affluent from bartering with their Arab visitors.

What kind of trade? The dhows carried incense, gold, pearls, glass and ornaments of every variety. They returned with their holds full of perfume, spices, silk, cotton cloth, diamonds and teakwood. There was also a brisk exchange of animals—leopards for peacocks, and so forth.

The Portuguese had come to exploit this booming commerce of the splendid East. They became a permanent factor in the Indian Ocean after their pilot had brought them safely to landfall in the harbor of Calicut. The history of the world was to be changed by the epic of Vasco da Gama and Ahmad ibn Majid.

The man from Malindi disappears from the story in Calicut. Perhaps he found other things to occupy him along the Malabar Coast. Perhaps he got tired of waiting for the Portuguese and signed aboard a dhow headed west toward Aden or Zanzibar. Whatever the truth about him, the annals of both East and West give a prominent place to Ibn Majid the Navigator and his sea route to India.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the June/July 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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