Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The South - trade and exploration

Concurrent with the decline of the Delhi Sultanate in the north, the Bahmani Sultanate was established in the southern peninsula of India in the middle of the 14th Century. The sultanate and its successors continued their grip on the upper peninsula, with fluctuating fortunes, till the 17th Century when they were gradually supplanted by the Mughal Empire. Even after the rise of the Marathas a portion of the peninsula remained under the Muslim state of Hyderabad till the middle of the 20th Century.

One would expect a large converted population in this region with such a long period of foreign occupation but it is not so. The proportion of Muslims in the peninsula corresponds with the ratios found in upper India and not with the proportions of Punjab or Bengal—the rural populace is mostly of the indigenous faith while the converts are concentrated in the cities that were the centers of Islamic power in the south.

Additionally there are pockets of Muslim populations in the coastal regions. These are the descendants of the Arab traders and some converts who were allowed to settle in the region by the local kings—a clear indication of how important the sea-borne trade was to the economies of the southern kingdoms. It was this trade that attracted the European powers who established settlements in the coastal towns, which later grew into colonies with their own administrative setup.

Apart from trade the coastal ports were bases from which merchants and explorers traveled to Africa, Arabia, South-East Asia, and China to spread the different phases of Indian civilization in those areas. Thus the historical background of the southern regions will be made first through the study of naval power and its reach, and later to the politico-military relations of the kingdoms in the peninsula.

Trade and exploration

The ancient text Rigveda speaks of a ship with a hundred oars (sataritra) and also mentions eastern and western oceans (samudra). A stone seal discovered from an old archaeological site[1] depicts a mast-less ship with a central cabin and a steersman seated at the rudder—ships of similar make are known in ancient Sumer and Egypt. The ports of this period along the Gujarat coast have waterways, docks, and channels where ships of all sizes could ply. The discovery of seals and other objects of this civilization found in Mesopotamia indicate a flourishing trade between the two regions.

Now if ships from the western coast of India regularly plied to West Asia all those thousands of years ago, it falls to reason that they would have also explored the coast along the southern peninsula[2] in this time—precious stones and metals from the south are present in these northern sites while the latter’s bronze age tools have been found, but only in traces, in the south. Movements of populations between the two regions are another corollary to long-term trade relations.

On the eastern coast as well trade and exploration must have been prevalent since ancient times. This is seen in Vedic literature that refers to an eastern ocean and also in the text of the Ramayan, where a specific reference is made to the islands of Java and Sumatra besides Sri Lanka. The Sangam literature of a later period describes a flourishing sea-trade in the south and mentions foreign sailors in the India ports of the east coast. The excavations at the ancient port of Arikamedu have revealed several Roman coins, which is a factual confirmation of the Roman Senator Pliny’s complaint that the excessive import of Indian goods was draining the Roman Empire of its wealth.

Indian merchants and adventurers went further than mere trade to explore the vast chain of isles in South East Asia and the Pacific Ocean. These adventurers introduced the early Vedic culture to the people living there and created several Hindu Kingdoms across that region. Of course such links between South East Asia and India were known in earlier times—and every new development later on in India was similarly transported to these lands[3] and vice versa[4]. Relations between these Asian and Indian kingdoms were mostly cordial through the centuries and only in one instance[5] degenerated into a full-scale war for the control of the maritime trade. Indian shipping and trading outposts are noted also at the Chinese ports in the ancient texts of that civilization.

From the ports on the western coast of the peninsula and Gujarat, Indian merchants plied their ships to Iran, Arabia, and eastern Africa. These merchants established trading settlements and outposts in those lands while a similar facility was provided to the foreign merchants trading in India—facilities that would prove to be something of a disaster in later times with the Islamic and European traders turning their settlements into separate ghettos (in the case of the former) and colonies (in the case of the latter).

The horse trade

While there have been innumerable articles[6] for export from and import to India one article slowly acquired gigantic proportions in the value of import and played a crucial role in the military history of the peninsula. This was the horse.

No indigenous horse-breeds are known in the peninsula except the Dakhini[7] because much of the land is forested and hilly while the climate is too humid to sustain horses. On the other hand the dry grassy plains of northern India have been home to several indigenous horse breeds[8] from the earliest times. The Rig Veda declares the land around the Saraswati River (modern Rajasthan) as the place where the best horses were found. Similarly horse remains, a horse figure, and horse saddles have been unearthed in some levels of the ruined ancient cities of the Bronze Age.











Model horse from the Bronze Age

It was in the North India that chariots were first used in war and it was from here that this military technology spread to the eastern and southern parts of the continent. On the other hand the use of elephants in war began in the east and spread to the other regions and also to the outside world as described in earlier posts. Several centuries passed before developments of stirrups and the recurved bow gave the Central Asian horsemen an edge over both chariots and elephants. From this point on cavalry became an important arm of all armies. Since the tall and sturdy foreign horses were more suited to cavalry than the medium-sized local breeds used earlier in drawing chariots, there was a great demand for importing the former.

The southern powers also noted this change and began the import of horses directly from Arabia or Iran. Naturally merchants of those regions, particularly the Arabs, began dominating the trade along the western coast of India. The sea-borne horse trade continued till the decline of the Mughal Empire in the south, while before them both the Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijaynagar Empire had been dependent on imported horses for their military power—the latter had an agreement with the Arab merchants to bring thousands of such horses to the ports under the direct control of Vijaynagar[9]. In an earlier era the Pandya dynasty imported horses at great expense to the number of 2000 every year by an agreement with Arab merchants.

The reason for such hefty imports is attributed by the Arab writer Wassaf to the ignorance of the South Indians in training and maintaining horses. The Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who visited the coast of Malabar on his return from China, gives three reasons for the same only one of which is really credible[10]. The real cause for the waste of horses was the hot and humid climate in the south, which of course was the reason why no indigenous horses were found there in the first place. The Indians could not have been merely ignorant of training horses since the Muslim rulers in the Deccan[11] also imported horses in large numbers every year.

Apart from the export of horses, the Arabs had conquered the entire land from Spain, across Africa, and to the borders of India in the 7th Century CE. Control of the entire western trade came into their hands while Indian merchants still controlled the trade with eastern Africa, South-East Asia, and China. On the western coast down from Gujarat, Konkan, and Malabar, settlements of Arab traders and merchants came up, which were encouraged by the numerous Hindu rulers.

Trade was so important to the economy and strength of these states that they went out of their way to provide facilities to the Arab merchants. Separate colonies were assigned for their habitation where they built mosques and freely practiced their faith—they were even allowed to marry with and convert local people. Every new Arab merchant who came to Calicut was assigned a Nair bodyguard, a Chetty accountant, and a broker for help in the inland trade by the Zamorin[12]. In some states these Muslims even became ministers and commanders of the war fleets while royal monopolies in various articles of trade were assigned to them by the Hindu rulers in return for a fixed annual fee.

Even the powerful Rashtrakutas of an earlier era welcomed the Arab settlers because of their reliance on imported horses. Arab writers like Masudi record these rulers as being friendly to Islam while Al Istakhri in his description of the Rashtrakuta lands says, “There are Musalmans in its cities, and none but Musalmans rule over them.” In this way colonies of Muslims sprouted all along the western coast, living separately from the original inhabitants and freely converting them. These settlers had their own administrators and qazis and did not submit to the prevailing law of the land.

In the north though, the presence of indigenous horses freed the Pratihar Empire from any reliance on these traders. This fact was acknowledged by the Arab writer Sulaiman who credits the Pratihar King with having the best cavalry and then remarks, “Among the princes of India, there is no greater foe of the Muhamaddan faith than he.” This is the right place to mention the politico-military campaigns of the Arabs in India—in 712 CE after conquering the Kingdom of Sindh, which was then suffering from internal conflict, the Arabs sent armies to probe the other parts of India.

In the east the Arab invader Junaid was defeated by a confederacy of clans (later known as Rajputs[13]) headed by Nagabhatta Pratihar. In the north Lalitaditya of Kashmir similarly repulsed an Arab incursion into Punjab. The Arabs then sent a naval expedition to the Gujarat coast where Chalukya Vikramaditya II and his feudatories[14] defeated them. The Arabs were trounced even by a small kingdom in Saurashtra ruled by the Saindhavas, who called themselves masters of the western sea (apara-samudradhipati) and commanded a strong naval force. The Arab power in Sindh was finally broken by Nagabhatta II of the Pratihar Empire[15]. The Islamic expansion under the Turks to the peninsula will be described later.

Naval artillery

The Arab monopoly on the western Indian trade inflated the prices of these goods several times till they reached the markets of Europe. They were first shipped to the Arab ports and then transferred overland to the Mediterranean ports—on the way Turk and Arab rulers imposed several duties and imposts on them. The merchants of Venice and Genoa then took these goods to Europe and increased the prices to make a profit on them before selling them in the markets.

To bypass the monopolies of these merchants rising sea powers like Spain and Portugal had been exploring the waters to their west and south in order to find a direct route to India[16]. At the same time the European powers had been fighting the attempts of the Islamic powers, Arabs and Ottomans, to conquer their lands from across the Mediterranean Sea.

When the Portuguese turned the southern tip of Africa and discovered a route to India in the 15th Century they came into conflict with the Arab traders. The Arab settlers in the Hindu Kingdoms of Malabar strongly opposed the welcome given by the local rulers to these strangers and fought them on land and sea. The superior artillery and marksmanship of the Portuguese gave them an edge over the Arabs and the Hindu rulers—in 1505 the Portuguese king decided to appoint a Viceroy to permanently command his forces in India[17].

Now even the Muslim rulers on the mainland were concerned at the Portuguese success—the Sultans of Bijapur and Gujarat sought the aid of the Sultan of Egypt. The combined Muslim fleet won a victory over the Europeans at Chaul on the Konkan coast but in 1509 the Portuguese defeated them near Diu (Gujarat coast). In 1511 they captured Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur—subsequently the Egyptian fleet returned home and the local rulers made peace with the Portuguese. The crowning glory for the Portuguese was the capture of the trading ports of Malacca (in the east commanding the all-important bottleneck of the Malacca Straits) in 1511 and Ormuz (in the west commanding the approach to the Persian Gulf) in 1513.

In the wake of the Portuguese came the Dutch, the English, and the French. All through the 16th and 17th Centuries they established trading houses (and later factories) in the ports of western, southern, and eastern India. But of these powers only the Portuguese imitated the Arabs in settling down in the country, inter-marrying with and converting the locals to Christianity, and fighting wars with the Indian powers. The other nations remained interested purely in trade.

The Portuguese fought wars with the Sultans of Bijapur, the Marathas, and the Mughals. They were successful when defending their island-fortresses or when fighting on the open seas but were usually trounced when they ventured onto the land—the Mughal historian describes specific reasons[18] for the Portuguese defeat. In the same period the European traders at Surat defended their factories during Shivaji’s raid on that city and received commendation from Aurangzeb for this feat. However in the second raid by the Marathas in 1670 Shivaji came to an understanding[19] with the Europeans.

In the late 17th Century the English traders in Bengal and Surat also fought skirmishes with the local Mughal officials following a trade dispute. The English were supreme at sea or in sending raiding parties along the coast but could not hold captured land for a long period—the war concluded with a mutually agreeable settlement. In a later period, the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the constant raiding of the Marathas, forced the European factories to build fortified settlements and raise armies for their defence—these armies began intervening in the conflicts of the local powers and eventually acquired political control over them.

Indian naval powers

From the earliest times there are references to Indian powers sending naval expeditions to distant lands. The following sketch is a reproduction of a fresco from the ancient Ajanta caves depicting the transport of armies by boat to Sri Lanka. In southern India the Chola dynasty made a mark on Indian History with their succession of naval victories in the 11th and 12th Centuries CE—Rajaraj Chola first defeated the Chera navy at Trivandrum and then annexed a portion of northern Sri Lanka.


















He conquered Orissa and acquired the ports of the eastern coast and even sent a naval expedition that conquered the Maldive Islands. With the increased naval resources of these lands his successor Rajendra Chola sent maritime expeditions[20] against the Sailendra Empire of Indonesia—a Chola inscription describes “many ships in the midst of the rolling sea” transporting armies to those countries. However there are no records of any specific naval battle—most of the fighting was on land[21]. From this insufficient evidence it is concluded that naval wars, of the kind witnessed in the Mediterranean from the earliest times, were unknown in all of the eastern waters.

The naval campaigns of the later rulers of Malabar and the increasing role of the Arabs in them have been outlined in the conflict with the Portuguese. On the northern coast the Siddis of Janjira established an independent naval power that dominated the coast of Maharashtra till the rise of Shivaji. The Maratha ruler first hired Muslims to man his navy while later the Angre Sardars became commanders of that force—this navy later operated as an independent force but even in the early period was not always under the direction of the Maratha rulers[22].

On the open seas the superior range and firepower of the European vessels usually gave them victories over the Indian ships. However within the coastal waters the smaller and lighter Indian ships could outmaneuver the bigger sea-faring vessels of the foreigners—they could take shelter in bays and lagoons or sail upriver to avoid the enemies’ guns. These powers also raided the coastal villages under each other's control and built numerous forts to shelter their small armies. The conflict of the Europeans with the mainland powers was complicated by the introduction of new factor in the balance of power on the high seas.

European piracy

As described above the European powers had been fighting naval wars with the Ottoman Empire and its Arab feudatories for several centuries. In these fights European ships, armed with the newly developed artillery, roamed the open seas and attacked both the war and merchant vessels of the enemy—in many cases the captains of such ships were granted commissions by their rulers to commit piracy on Muslim shipping as a legitimate means of self-defence.

Such a policy was initially repeated by the Portuguese in Indian waters. In other words, “To prey upon Muhammadan ships was simply to pursue in other waters the chronic warfare carried on against Moors and Turks in the Mediterranean.”[23] Piracy was known in the east before the coming of the Europeans but it was a low-level raiding of vessels near the coast—the pirates lived on islands or forts built on the coast and even sent raiding parties on land. But more importantly these pirates were usually of poor means and remained outside the control of society or government—while the Europeans were usually ex-naval officers or civilians of the highest class[24].

The story of only one of these pirates will illustrate firstly the superior use of artillery by the Europeans and secondly the complications introduced into their relations with the Mughals on account of such piracy. Henry Bridgman (alias Evory), a mate on an English ship, overpowered the officers in 1694, renamed his vessel Fancy and became a pirate. His ship had 46 guns and 150 fighters on board and after capturing several vessels in the Gulf of Aden, Evory took a rich merchant ship name Fath Muhammadi belonging to a merchant of Surat.

Only a few days later, and in alliance with some other pirate ships, Evory attacked the Ganj-i-sawai, a ship belonging to the Mughal Emperor off the coast of Maharashtra. Even though this was a large ship with 80 guns and 400 musketeers on board, the accurate firing of the Europeans from all sides caused heavy casualties among the defenders. While the pirates boarded the ship and plundered the passengers its captain, Muhammad Ibrahim, hid in the cabin. After three days Evory departed with his loot and the Ganj-i-sawai was taken to Surat by its crew. In retaliation the Mughals imprisoned the English traders at Surat and demanded compensation from the East India Company.

In fact for every incident of piracy the European traders were held responsible, and were either punished or forced to pay compensation. But as the incidents of piracy mounted, Aurangzeb[25] threatened to stop all trade by the Europeans, until they found a way to stop piracy. As it turned out, he was so dependent on the Europeans for the safety of pilgrims going to Mecca that such harsh policies did not work—and he had to be content with the Europeans providing escorts to the Mughal ships sailing to Arabia.

[1] The site and several others like it were discovered along the lower course of the Indus River and its tributaries in the early 20th Century—for this reason the name Indus Valley Civilization was applied to these sites. Subsequently older and more numerous sites were discovered in the eastern plains (the course of the ancient River Saraswati) and along the coast of Gujarat. So a more accurate name used nowadays is the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization.
[2] The logs of Indian teak, which grows in South India, found in the palace of Nebuchadenezzar confirm this exploration.
[3] In religion it was Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism, while newer immigrants created their own kingdoms that replaced the older kingdoms or fought against them. Languages like Sanskrit and Pali also influenced the local dialects.
[4] In a case of reverse influence the migration of the Thai Ahoms into the Brahmaputra valley of North-East India in the 13th Century CE.
[5] The war between the Chola dynasty of South India and the Sailendra Empire of Indonesia in the 12th Century CE. Another lesser conflict was between the Islamic invaders of Bengal and their Mughal successors with the neighboring Mag Kingdom of Arakan from the 12th to the 17th Century.
[6] An inscription in the southern city of Mysore states, “Brave men…penetrating lands of the six continents by land and water routes and dealing in various articles such as horses and elephants, precious stones, perfumes and drugs either wholesale or in retail.”
[7] The horse of the Maratha homeland; very small in size and now extinct. See http://nrce.nic.in/eqindia.htm
[8] The Rig Veda describes these horses as having only 34 ribs.
[9] In particular the port of Bhaktal. After the Portuguese conquest of Goa Krishnadevaraya made an agreement with them for buying all horses that were delivered to their port.
[10] 1) No horses were bred in the south, 2) the foreign merchants did not allow any horse trainer to come to South India and there were no local farriers, 3) the local people fed the horses cooked food in their ignorance. Of the three only the first is corroborated by evidence while the last two appear to be spiced up stories.
[11] During Aurangzeb’s war with the Marathas the waste of army horses in campaigns prompted that Mughal Emperor to issue commands for the direct purchase of horses from Arabia and Persia—it was their strenuous exertions in the humid climate that caused the early demise of the horses imported from the dry climes of Western and Central Asia.
[12] The title of the rulers of Calicut, which was derived from Samudrika.
[13] The term Rajaputra (prince) was in use throughout northern and central India but it was among these clans, namely Chauhans, Guhilots, and Pratihars, which faced the brunt of the Islamic onslaught that the word Rajput became current and replaced the word Kshatriya.
[14] Among these were Dantidurga who founded the Rashtrakuta power and Pulaksein who established the rule of the Chaulukya dynasty in Gujarat. These Chaulukyas were considered to be different from the Deccan Chalukyas.
[15] The colonial historians like Elphinstone found it difficult to stomach these repeated defeats of the Arabs at a time when they had conquered lands from Spain to Iran. So they sought to explain these away by suggesting that either the Arabs were not interested in conquering India or that the Thar Desert prevented their further advance. Both of these reasons are negated by the several invasion attempts described above—in fact the organized Indian empires of the time were too powerful to be defeated by a power based in Sindh.
[16] As a consequence in whatever new lands they first found, the inhabitants were usually called Indians.
[17] The very next a year a vicious battle between the Arab traders, armed and equipped by the Zamorin of Calicut, and four Portuguese vessels was fought leading to the capture of the larger Muslim ships and the massacre of their crews.
[18] Khafi Khan states, “…they are weak in fighting on the plain and use no weapon except the musket and a short sword looking lie a spit, and do not ride good horses.”
[19] The French sent gifts to Shivaji while the Dutch were asked to remain quiet as the Marathas looted the nearby houses. A trading house of the ruler of Kashghar resisted the invaders but eventually those Central Asians took shelter in the fort of Surat while in another quarter the Ottoman traders successfully defended themselves. At the English factory a hot exchange of fire led to the loss of several Marathas and over the next few days they tried to bomb or storm the factory in revenge—ultimately they made friends with the English when the latter sent certain gifts to Shivaji.
[20] However the conflict continued with mixed results for several generations and ended with the Cholas finally abandoning their claims over Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.
[21] The Sri Lankans won their independence from the Cholas in 1070 CE and one of their later kings, Parakrambahu sent a naval expedition against the rulers of southern Myanmar—here again armies were transported by ship and battles were fought on the land.
[22] On some occasions they even resorted to piracy when their salaries were not paid by the central government.
[23] From “Pirates of Malabar” by Biddulph.
[24] And most of the pirates were Englishmen. On ships licensed by King Charles I, Captain Cobb and Sir William Courten engaged in acts of piracy. In a late period Captian William Kidd became a pirate even though his ship, the Adventure, had been equipped by a syndicate of English noblemen to act against the pirates of the Indian Ocean.
[25] In desperation Aurangzeb wrote to his chief of artillery to, “ask the Feringi gunners how the pirates can be chastised and the sea-route kept open for travelers to the Holy Cities and for the traders—whether by friendliness or conciliation or by force and fighting.” Read More......