By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Tamil-speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil ancestry dominated maritime trade on the Coromandel or the Tamil Nadu coastline, before the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British arrived to break that monopoly.
According to Dr.J.Raja Mohamad, the author of Maritime History of the Coromandel Muslims (published in 2004 by the Government Museum, Chennai, India), European traders proved to be too pushy, ruthless, cunning for the Coromandel Muslims. The Whites were also better organized.
Unfortunately, the hard-pressed Coromandel Muslims got no help from local Indian rulers of the time, Dr Mohamad points out. According to the author, local rulers, both Hindu and Muslim, were indifferent to the Muslim traders’ plight for two reasons: Firstly, they were not interested in maritime trade and Secondly, the Muslims too had not cultivated them.
The Muslim traders did not realize the need for political support in a commercial world which was getting highly politicized and competitive. Trade had become more than just buying and selling quality goods at a reasonable price and for profit. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British on the other hand came as traders but quickly used political power to buttress and enhance their trading enterprises.
They cultivated local rulers and secured monopolies and also used armed forces and fortifications to protect their establishments. The British and Dutch East India Companies which traded in India and Ceylon had raised and deployed regular armed forces to deal with detractors and enemies. They entered into alliances with local rulers and fought their battles in return for trading concessions and protection. But the Coromandel Muslims did none of these and were eventually over-run.
The dominant Muslim communities on the Coromandel coast were the Marakkayars, also known as Maraikars, Marikkars or Marcars, and the Labbais, also known as Lebbe or Coromandel Moplahs. Maraikars and Labbais were found in Ceylon too.
These communities dominated trade with Ceylon and South East Asia. So much so, that English records described the ports on the Coromandel coast as “Moor ports”. Dr.Raja Mohamad brings out the fact Cuddalore was known as “Islamabad” and Porto Novo or Parangipettai, was known as “Mohammad Bandar”.
The Tamil-speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil ancestry had inherited their dominant position in the trade between South India and South and South East Asia from the Arabs, who had acquired a virtual monopoly of Indian maritime commerce by the 3rd Century BC.
The Arab and Tamil-speaking Muslim traders brought much prosperity to India. The 14th century Arab writer, Ibn Fadbullah ul-Omari, had written that in India, seas were pearls and trees were perfumes!
Arab contact with Tamil Nadu goes back to the Sangam Era. Dr. Raja Mohamad says that Arab contact with Tamil Nadu is mentioned in the Tamil Sangam literature of 2nd Century AD. According to him, the Tamil word “Yavana” in Sangam literature does not refer to the Greeks but to the Arabs from Yemen. “Yavana” is a Tamil corruption of “Yemen”.
Mohamad also maintains that the term “Sonaka” used to identify Coromandel and Ceylon Muslims of Indo-Arab descent, is but a corruption of “Yavana”. He points out that the Mapilla or Moplah Muslims of Kerala were known as “Sonaka Mapillas.” The Malayalam-speaking Moplas are a people of Arab-Malayali descent and the Arab part in their descent came from Yemen.
Unlike the Muslims in North India, who came as invaders, pre-Islamic and post-Islamic Arabs came to the Coromandel coast as traders. They were and are essentially peace-loving people for whom peace, stability and order had been a necessary requirement to practice their vocation.
In Tamil Nadu and South India, generally, conversions to Islam were not at the point of the sword as indeed they were in some cases and during particular periods of Muslim rule in North India. In Tamil Nadu and South India generally, conversions took place through preaching to the under-privileged sections of the caste-ridden Hindu society. Marriage to Tamil women was also a cause of conversion.
Islam came to the Coromandel coast in its earliest days. The oldest mosque in Tamil Nadu, which is near the Kottai (Fort) Railway station in Tiruchi, is dated 743 AD. The native Hindu rulers of what is now Tamil Nadu and Kerala, encouraged Arab-Muslim traders to settle down in their lands.
The Zamorin of Calicut (present-day Kozhikode) in Kerala, needed Arab Muslims to man his ships. He even decreed that the Arab traders should marry Malayali women and bring up at least one of their children as a Muslim! The Rowthers, as the name suggests, had made a name for themselves as traders in Arab horses.
The Marakkayars (boat people from the Tamil word Marakkam ) and Lebbais were expert mariners and traders. The Marakkayars claimed a higher social and economic status than others.
The Portuguese mariner Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route to India when he landed in Calicut in 1498. The Portuguese arrived in Ceylon soon after in 1505. Prior to this, trade in South and South East Asia was free. It was the Portuguese (followed by the Dutch and the English) who introduced the system of “monopolies” and unfair trade regimes based on military might and political clout, Raja Mohamad says.
Cooperation and peace were replaced by discord and war. Unfortunately, the Indian rulers of the day had a hand in bringing about this despicable change in the trading system. Indian rulers at that time did not enter trade and therefore did not appreciate the need to protect it and make it grow along healthy lines. They were supremely indifferent to the depredations of the Europeans. They were offering monopolies to Europeans in return for help to settle scores with a rival.
Instead of protecting their interests or the interests of local Muslim traders, they extended all facilities to the Portuguese in order to attract them to their ports, Raja Mohamad points out.
It is a pity that the Indian rulers did nothing to protect the Muslims, who were at that time, the only Indian maritime traders operating shipping services to far-flung areas in South East Asia, Dr. Mohamad observers. The Indian rulers declared that trade in spices, gold and silver were a Portuguese monopoly. Being virulently anti- Muslim, the Portuguese told the Syrian Christians of Kerala not to sell their pepper to the Muslims and the Christians abided by the diktat.
By 1530, the Arabs had lost their monopoly over trading in horses. This passed entirely into the hands of the Portuguese. By 1537 they had converted to Christianity an oppressed fishing community on the Tamil Nadu coast called Paravas. Socially liberated and with the support of the mighty Portuguese, the Paravas entered pearl trade. The Portuguese had set up the Parava peal traders to break the monopoly of the Muslims, their main rivals in South India and South East Asia.Pearl fishing, which was entirely in the hands of the Muslims for a long time, went into the hands of the Paravas.
To control trade in the entire region, the Portuguese established their power over key points like Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and Malacca in South East Asia. Ceylon passed into their hands. The Portuguese introduced the “Cartaz” or “permit” system, under which only those ships with a Portuguese Cartaz (document or permit) could trade and enter ports in this region.
When the British came, they supported the Chettiars, a community of Hindu traders from Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. This was done systematically to further weaken the Muslim traders. The Chettiars also played ball with the British and supported them, Raja Mohamad points out. As a result of the policy of the British, the presence of the Chettiars in the economic scene on the Coromandel coast and South East Asia, increased while that of the Coromandel Muslims declined.
(The featured image at the top shows the Cheraman mosque in South India, the oldest mosque in India)