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Ibn Battuta: International Trade at the Malabar Coast

Introduction: Ibn Battuta, a Muslim of Morocco, visited for nearly thirty years (1325-1354) nearly all Muslim states and places of Muslim Diaspora of his age in Spain, North Africa and Asia up to China, thus even surpassing Marco Polo. But as he dictated the report of his travels, the famous Rihla (Voyage), to a scholar in Morocco who is known to have quoted extensively from other contemporary Arabic travel reports, it is doubtful,  as in the case of Marco Polo, whether he visited all the places he describes in his Rihla, particularly China.  However, the detailed reports about his stay at the court of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq at Delhi and his travels in South Asia appear to be genuine. The quoted passage reports about his travel at the Malabar Coast in present-day Kerala.  After suffering a severe shipwreck, allegedly as an ambassador of the Delhi Sultan to the Yuan Dynasty of China, he continued his journey by land from Qaliqut (Calicut) to Kawlam (Quilon) partly on “rivers”, Kerala’s famous backwaters. Particularly in the harbours cities, Ibn Battuta observed a truly “multicultural” society. Although Ibn Battuta’s Rihla, written for a Muslim audience, may have exaggerated the dominance of Muslim traders at the Malabar Coast, their presence in its harbours is nevertheless  as impressive as  the great Chinese junks and their dominance in the Bay of Bengal and the Chinese Sea

(see also AHOI, ch. 4, section Muhammad Tughluq’s Ambitious Plans)

(quoted from The Travels of Ibn Battuta A.D 1325-1354, translated by H. A. R. Gibb, Vol. IV, London 1994, pp.812-817)


Thence we travelled to the town of Qāliqūṭ. [Calicut], which is one of the chief ports in Mulaibār. It is visited by men from China, Jāwa, Ceylon, the Maldives, al-Yaman [Yemen] and Fārs [Persia], and in it gather merchants from all quarters. Its harbour is one of the largest in the world.

Account of its Sultan. The Sultan of Qāliqūṭ is an infidel, known as ‘the Sāmarri’ [Samuri, Portuguese Zamorin]. He is an aged man and shaves his beard, as some of the Greeks do. I saw him there and we shall speak of him later, if God will. The amir of the merchants there was Ibrāhīm Shāhbandar, of the people of Baḥrain, a worthy man, of generous habits, at whose house the merchants used to gather and to eat at his table. The qāḍī of the place was Fakhr ad-Dīn ‘othmān, a worthy and charitable man, and the superior of the hospice there was the shaikh Shihāb al-Dīn of Kāzarūn, to whom are paid the offerings made in vows by the people of India and China to the shaikh Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī, God profit us by him. In this town too lives the famous shipowner Mithqāl, who possesses vast wealth and many ships for his trade with India, China, al-Yaman, and Fārs. When we reached the city, the shāhbandar Ibrāhīm, the qāḍī, the Shaikh Shihāb-al-Dīn, the principal merchants and the infidel Sultan’s [Hindu Raja] deputy, by the name of Qulaj, all came out to welcome us, with drums, trumpets, bugles and standards on their ships. We entered the harbour in great pomp, the like of which I have never seen in those lands, but it was a joy to be followed by distress. We stopped in the port of Qāliqūṭ, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. Every one of us was lodged in a house, and we stayed there three months as | the guests of the infidel, awaiting the season of the voyage to China. On the sea of China travelling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements.

Description of the Chinese vessels. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called junks, middle sized ones called zaws,and small ones called kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited like mats. They are never lowered, but they turn them according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind. A ship carries a complement of a thousand men, six hundred of whom are sailors and four hundred men-at-arms, including archers, men with shields and arbalists, that is men who throw naphtha. Each large vessel is accompanied by three smaller ones, the ‘half’, the ‘third’, and the ‘quarter’. These vessels are built only in the town of Zaitūn in China [Quanzhou], or in Ṣīn-Kalān. which is Ṣīn al-Ṣīn [Canton].

In the vessel they build four decks, and it has cabins, suites and salons for merchants; a set of rooms has several rooms and a latrine; it can be locked by its occupant, and he can take along with him slave-girls and wives. Often a man will live in his suite unknown to any of the others on board until they meet on reaching some town. The sailors have their children living on board ship, and they cultivate green stuffs, vegetables and ginger in wooden tanks. The owner’s factor on board ship is like a great amir. When he goes on shore he is preceded by archers and Abyssinians with javelins, swords, drums, bugles and trumpets. On reaching the house where he is to stay they stand their lances on both sides of the door, and continue thus during his stay. Some of the Chinese own large numbers of ships on which their factors are sent to foreign countries. There is no people in the world wealthier than the Chinese.

Account of our preparations for the voyage to China, and how it all ended. When the time came for the voyage to China, the Sultan al-Sāmarī equipped for us one of the thirteen junks in the port of Qāliqūṭ.

That night the sea struck the junk which carried the Sultan’s present, and all on board died. In the morning we, went to the scene of their disaster; I saw the infidel, the Sultan of Qāliqūṭ, wearing a large white cloth round his waist, folded over from his navel down to his knee, and with it a small turban on his head, bare-footed, with the parasol carried by a slave over his head and a fire lit in front of him on the beach; his police officers were beating the people to prevent them from plundering what the sea cast up. In all the lands of Mulaibār, except in this one land alone, it is the custom that whenever a ship is wrecked all that is taken from it belongs to the treasury. At Qāliqūṭ, however, it is retained by its owners, and for that reason Qāliqūṭ has become a flourishing and much frequented city.

I decided to travel thither, it being a ten days’ journey either by land or by the river, if anyone prefers that route. I set out therefore by the river, and hired one of the Muslims to carry the carpet for me. Their custom when travelling on that river is to disembark in the evening and pass the night in the villages on its banks, returning to the boat in the morning. We used to do this too. There was no Muslim on the boat except the man I had hired, and he used to drink wine with the infidels when we went ashore and annoy me with his brawling, which made things all the worse for me. On the fifth day of our journey we came to Kunjī-Karī, which is on top of a hill there; it is inhabited by Jews, who have one of their own number as their governor, and pay a poll-tax to the Sultan of Kawlam.

Account of the cinnamon and brazil trees. All the trees along this river are cinnamon and brazil trees. They use them for firewood in these parts and we used to light fires with them to cook our food on this journey.

On the tenth day we reached the city of Kawlam [Quilon], one of the finest towns in the Mulaibār lands. It has fine bazaars, and its merchants are called Ṣūlīs. [Chulia, South Indian Muslim traders] They are immensely wealthy; a single merchant will buy a vessel with all that is in it and load it with goods from his own house. There is a colony of Muslim merchants there, the chief of whom is ‘Alā’ al-Dīn al-Āwajī, from Āwa in al-‘Iraq. He is a Rāfiḍī [Shi’ah] and has a number of associates belonging to his sect, and they proclaim it openly. The qāḍī of the town is a worthy man from Qazwīn, and the head of the Muslim community there is Muḥammad Shāhbandar, who has a worthy and open-handed brother named Taqī al-Dīn. The cathedral mosque is a magnificent building, constructed by the merchant Khwāja Muhadhdhab. This city is the nearest of the Mulaibār towns to China and it is to it that most of the merchants [from China] come. Muslims are honoured and respected there.

 

 

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