Unknown seas the portugu.., p.20

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 20


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  These are bad people, who do not know any rule; the Infidel marries the Muslim, and the Muslim the Infidel woman; and when you call them ‘Infidels’, are you really sure that they are Infidels? And the Muslims of whom you speak, are they really Muslims? They drink wine in public, and do not pray when they set out on a voyage.150

  About the coastlines of western India, southern Arabia and eastern Africa that bordered the Indian Ocean were numerous rival port city-states that dominated ocean-borne commerce. Some were independent, others were subject to control by larger ports. Each possessed associated trader settlements and the ports themselves were often allied with one another. These included Cochin, Calicut, Basrur and Gôa in southwestern India; Ormuz, Muscat, Shihr, Aden and Mokha in and immediately around Arabia; Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Sofala, the Comoro Islands and northern Madagascar in east Africa. They prospered from port duties, the customary 10% levy on imports and from a local monopoly in the trade of certain spices, ivory and slaves.

  This cultural and commercial mélange was the consequence of centuries-old developments, some of which were still unfolding when Vasco da Gama and his alien ships suddenly appeared off the coast of India. From the seventh century to the end of the ninth Islam unexpectedly exploded, spreading through Egypt and then sweeping in a great wave over Arabia, across Persia and into the Indus river region. By 1400 it extended through all but the southernmost portion of India and along the east coast of Africa as far south as Kilwa.151 In this region of Africa, Islam was limited to the coastal area and was primarily the religion of the Arab ivory and slave traders, though some of the local population also converted.

  Muslim settlements along the coast of east Africa had generally been established as the results of conflicts on the Sinai peninsula. In the seventh century the inhabitants of Oman revolted against the caliph and in defeat were forced to flee, settling near Patta. Following a conflict in AD 739 another group settled on the Benadir coast. A second wave of refugees joined them in the early tenth century, also establishing Mogadishu and Brava as Arab and Muslim communities.

  In AD 975 the son of a sultan left Persia for some unknown reason with seven ships and a large number of colonists. They settled in Mombasa, Pemba and Quiloa. One of his ships went as far south as the Comoro Islands. With this, Arabs had essentially taken or occupied the historic land of Punt. The Arabs referred to the region as Zanj, their word for native, and from it comes the name Zanzibar. Arab expansion stopped at Sofala in modern Mozambique, at about 20º latitude, just across the strait from Madagascar.152

  The ultimate region of Arab expansion was scarcely greater than it had been for the Romans, although they established trade routes to the Far East of a much greater magnitude. They initially dominated the waters demarcated by a rough triangle formed by Djibouti, Colombo, Zanzibar and the Comoros, and called this region the Sea of Lar. The eastern portion of the Indian Ocean was known to them as the Sea of Harkand. They appear not to have used a single name for the entire expanse of ocean.153

  Throughout the Indian Ocean Arab traders were responsible for the spread of rice, coffee and sugarcane. They also introduced the Chinese inventions of paper, the saddle and stirrups, the compass and gunpowder. They brought to the Chinese the astrolabe, so essential to long-distance blue-ocean sailing.

  In this region of the Indian Ocean the Arabs traded for spices, silks and precious stones, exchanging for them linen, woollen cloth, cotton, carpets, wrought iron, silver, coral and, of course, horses. The Arab dinar replaced the Roman aureus and the Persian dirhem as the coin of trade. The area assumed legendary significance within Arab culture and is the location of Sinbad the Sailor’s adventures.

  Muslim trade and the Arab voyages were not restricted to the Indian Ocean. They established a ‘route to China’, sailing with the prevailing winter winds from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Malabar coast. From there they rounded the tip of India and Ceylon, then sailed to the Nicobar Islands, where they acquired new provisions. Some ships went from here to Sumatra and Java, while others sailed to the island of Tiuman, then to ports of the Champa kingdom, on to Hanoi and finally Canton in China.

  The voyage from Basra took six months. The layover was also six months, as was the return trip, making a total of eighteen months. The Arabs had established a colony in Canton in AD 758, some eighty years after their first expedition. In 878 there was a massacre of both Arabs and Jews in Canton and thereafter the Arabs were content to trade with the Chinese from a base in Malaya while the Jews sent expeditions to China throughout the tenth century.154

  Among the major commodities traded throughout the region were black slaves taken from east Africa. Countless cargoes of slaves were transported into the Middle East and to India, many of them carried as far east as China, a traffic that continued until the nineteenth century. Trade in slaves had always existed in the Indian Ocean, but it was the Arabs who became its great specialists and perfected its operation. Their methodical exploitation of native Africans led to at least one uprising, in Basra in the ninth century.155

  The history of the Indian subcontinent is generally recorded by recounting the nearly endless stream of invasions through the northwestern mountain passes from Central Asia into the Indus river region. The most significant is the series of invasions by the Aryans, but other groups that followed also left a permanent mark on Indian history and its culture. Afghano-Persian nobles ruled the vast Indian population, first in the north and then later, for a time, in the south as well, leaving a residue of their culture.

  From earliest times Indian society was defined primarily by its social and cultural institutions and especially by its division into a rigid class structure. At the bottom was the general tribal group; next was the warrior class, from which the rajan or tribal chieftain was selected. Then there was the priest class, who as early as 1000 BC were identified as Brahmins. This traditional Indian cultural model was to endure no matter who conquered or ruled, or for how long.

  The first expansion of Islam by force into India came from the Middle East in AD 711, when an Arab expedition entered the lower Indus Valley in northwest India. This area was under the control of the caliphate of Baghdad for a time, then was ruled by two independent Muslim rulers. Other portions of India, Baluchistan, Seistan and large parts of Afghanistan, all areas that traditionally had come under Indian influence, fell to Islam. Once established in these regions, the Muslims had a base of operations from which to attack India proper.156

  The great Muslim push into India began in the late tenth century, when Maymud of Ghazni, ruler of a Turkish state in Afghanistan, executed a series of seventeen devastating raids against the declining Pratiharas to plunder and seize slaves. As a consequence a substantial expanse of north central India passed under Muslim control, with Lahore as the capital.157 In the twelfth century the leader of a new Turkish dynasty established just north of Kabul, Muhammad Ghuri, raided in force into India. He quickly defeated the existing Muslim rulers and then moved south and east, looting and conquering as he went.

  The Muslim incursions enjoyed such success in part because of the endless wars among the Hindu states, which had so weakened them, but also because arrogance and contempt for all things foreign had become institutionalized in Hindu culture among the élite. Alberuni, a scholar in the Muslim court at the time, penned the most extensive description of India written by a non-Indian before the arrival of the Portuguese. He recorded that:

  The Hindus believe that there is no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more of course, from any foreigner. Their haughtiness is such that if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khurasan or Persia, they will think you both an ignoramus and a liar.158

  Such self-imposed isolation from new thought and innovation left the Hindu s
tates vulnerable to foreign conquerors.

  The Muslim armies –with their superior military structure, equipment and above all tactics, based on cavalry armed with light bows –proved no match for the enormous plodding Indian armies made up of ill-trained massed infantry supported by ponderous elephants. Their highly disciplined horsemen charged straight at an enemy, stopped abruptly, wheeled their horses so that the head did not obstruct their view and aim, and then unleashed a murderous volley of arrows into the opposing ranks. They withdrew as quickly as they appeared, only to attack unexpectedly in the same manner elsewhere, wreaking damage on the opposing ranks far out of proportion to their own losses.

  At the Battle of Tarain, north of Delhi, in 1192 the power of the Rajputs was broken primarily by the destruction wrought by 10,000 mounted archers. Ghuri then advanced east into Bengal, where his forces sacked the capital.

  The inability of any conqueror, indigenous or foreign, to take or hold India is primarily the result of its geography. Few regions on Earth are as divided by nature as the Indian subcontinent. Penetration southward by armies was extraordinarily demanding because of the difficult terrain and the numerous adverse rivers, often swollen by the monsoon. South India is separated from north India by the Vindhya mountains, the formidable Narmada river and a vast barren, inhospitable zone.

  A region extending from Gujarat on the west to Orissa on the east alone contained four enclaves largely isolated from one another and creating a formidable barrier to any lord seeking to unite the country under one rule. Large parts of India were so inaccessible that even basic knowledge travelled at an incredibly slow pace. To the south disease, which flourished in the more tropical land, was a debilitating plague on every army or attempted occupier and ultimately as devastating as any opposing force of arms.

  One persistent problem faced by the nobility of India was the modest surplus produced by agriculture, much less than was the case in Europe. Rulers depended on this surplus to support themselves, their courts, bureaucrats and armies. In India the margin was razor-thin. Although ostentatious wealth was the norm for kings and royalty, it came upon the backs of a far greater and much poorer population than that of Europe. It was, accordingly, more precarious and hence maintained with greater brutality.

  Indian history has been dominated by the chakravartin, a lord who attempted to conquer the known world.159 The personalities and accomplishments of the seemingly endless stream of rulers throughout India are virtually unknown. When a strong ruler died, the empire and capital very often died with him. Almost nothing remains save their names, uncovered by archaeologists. In few parts of the Earth did rulers and kingdoms arise and flourish only to be swallowed whole within short years.

  In the Vishnu Purana, a Hindu religious text from the seventh or eighth century, the petty rulers of India’s numerous small kingdoms are mocked for believing, ‘This earth is mine, it is my son’s, it belongs to my dynasty’, unaware that ‘they themselves are but foam upon the wave’.160 On a grander scale, an invader from the north could emerge from unknown regions, establish an empire and then pass into obscurity within the span of a single lifetime.161 Although they may have arrived with different beliefs and practices, what remained was assimilated by the entrenched and resilient Hindu culture.

  The chief function of rulers was the collection of taxes and the imposition of their will by force of arms. A Chinese Buddhist pilgrim visited India in the seventh century and reported that the subcontinent possessed no fewer than seventy kingdoms, divided into a ‘web of conflicting sovereignties’.162 Decentralization, though, had little affect on the life of the average person. He still paid taxes to his local ruler, no matter how large or small the kingdom in which he found himself.

  Adding to the difficulties of rule, the land was also occupied by groups separated by a cacophony of languages, racial groups and religious beliefs. Intolerance was no less common in India than it was in Christian Europe and was just as often used as an instrument of royal power.

  The introduction of cavalry warfare by the Muslim invaders initially changed the balance of power in India, but their methods were quickly adopted, re-establishing an equilibrium of sorts. The change meant, however, that the modest agricultural surplus could be even more effectively appropriated. This was made necessary by the new armies, which depended so heavily on swift –and far more expensive – mounted cavalry. Generally, horse-breeding was not effective in India, which meant horses had to be imported at great cost from Arabia and Persia.163

  By the thirteenth century, with Delhi as the capital, Muslims held the entire north of India, from the mouth of the Ganges in the east to the headwaters of the Indus in the west, and as far south as Gwalior just below the Chambal river.164 When their empires had run their course for a time, regional states emerged, each with a similar pattern. As far as was possible, the Muslims attempted to centralize control, as was their model elsewhere, but they largely failed because of the traditional difficulties faced by all conquerors in India. Interestingly, Hindus and Muslims shared a uniform court culture, for even when the Muslim invaders arrived they adopted the existing ruling protocol.165 At the core was a lavish royal centre towards which streamed the greatest measure of wealth. Direct royal authority diminished with distance from the court, so that at the outer region the influence of the adjoining state could be felt. There was intense competition among these concentric states and their borders were in a constant state of flux.

  Because of the difficult geography and for other reasons over 100 years passed before Muslim armies advanced to southern India, yet these events were the turningpoint for both the Muslims and Hindus.166 The greatest expanse of Islam throughout India occurred under Muhammad Tughluq during the fourteenth century. Drawing on previous success, he ruled a largely consolidated empire that consisted of nearly the entire subcontinent with the exception of Kashmir, Orissa and certain remote areas in Rajasthan.

  The most lasting affect of the Muslim invasions was the establishment of a permanent Muslim minority within the subcontinent; this constituted the first time invaders had not been assimilated by the Hindu culture. The Muslims came to recognize that the Hindus would not accept Islam en masse and reluctantly accepted an accommodation with the indigenous population. Where conversions did occur, they were typically the lowest Hindu castes seeking to escape their social stigma and this was only one more reason for the Hindu majority to disdain contact with Muslims.

  In general, Muslims also held themselves apart from the conquered majority. The Muslims tended to be concentrated in Delhi and when they lived in other cities they resided within a fortified compound surrounded by a hostile Hindu majority. In time practicality dictated that the Hindus be granted the de facto status of dhimmis, which had originally been intended for Jews and Christians only. Beyond the immediate sphere of royal power tax-collecting generally remained with the Hindus rulers, who were left in place so long as they paid tribute to the Muslim government. In an area about 100 miles in radius from their capital the Muslims maintained immediate control and all Hindus were reduced to abject poverty wherever possible, to take from them the means of revolt.

  For all this, one of the most impressive aspects of Indian society was its ability to continue to feed itself and to support the nobility, despite a substantial and growing population. The subcontinent’s population at the end of the fifteenth century is estimated at 100 million.

  The reality was that India simply could not be bent to the will of any one conqueror. The invasion of Timur in the late fourteenth century and his sacking of Delhi, with the wanton slaughter of the entire Hindu population, only served to speed the decline of the Muslim rulers in their increasingly diminished states.167 By one estimate the Muslim invaders slaughtered as many as 10 million Hindus, but in the end they did not conquer for long.

  By the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth, five independent sultanates had been established in north and central India, the strongest of which was Delhi. Although thei
r sultanates were reduced in size, the Muslim rulers were great builders, constructing entire cities and erecting forts, mosques and tombs. They were patrons of Islamic culture, which remained dominated by Persian culture and literature.

  By the time of the arrival of the Portuguese three centuries of conquest and intermittent rule by the Muslims was still visible throughout most of India. Regardless of who ruled in a particular region, two cultures and religions, Hindu and Muslim, existed, each within its own constraints. Although there were areas of interaction, as far as possible the two cultures remained distinct and uninvolved,168 even though in the Muslim courts certain Brahmins were employed while in the Hindu states Muslims served a key role in trade.

  The southern tip of India was the least frequently conquered region of the subcontinent and, if seized, was generally held but a short time. The ‘Far South’, as it was known, had a distinct history of its own from which evolved its own unique culture, though antagonism existed among regions, primarily between the highland and coastal lowland. Initially trade and the source of wealth came from pearls, shells and gems, including diamonds. Because of its proximity to the trade routes with the East and the Middle East the trade in spices assumed the dominant role and greatly enriched the south, although, as was the case throughout India, the rewards were primarily enjoyed by a handful at the top. The trading ports and the duties derived from them had been another source of wealth for the rulers since time immemorial. King Solomon, it is believed, sent ships every three years to south India bearing precious metal, ivory, monkeys and peacocks.

  In the absence of a dominant Muslim power two areas of Hindu authority asserted themselves. One was in Rajasthan and the other, significantly for Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese, emerged south of the Krishna river (also known as the Kistna river), occupying all of the far south of India, from where it fiercely resisted the Muslims.

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