When maritime trade was in the hands of South Indian and Lankan Muslims

By P. K. Balachandran

Muslims of Ceylon, and of the Coromandel Coast and Kerala in India were in the vanguard of maritime trade in South and South East Asia from the 3rd Century BC till the Portuguese and other Europeans arrived and imposed their military-backed monopolistic trading regimes from the 16th Century onwards.

Tamil-speaking and of mixed Arab-Tamil ancestry, these Muslims who were trading peacefully in the region for centuries, were outmanoeuvred by European traders. The latter were not only ruthless, armed, and technologically better equipped than the Muslims, but had the backing of State power. And they came not just to trade, but to conquer.

In contrast, the Muslims were apolitical. Conquest was never on their agenda. Their Europeans rivals not only had the support of the Metropolitan power in Europe (Lisbon, Amsterdam or London) but also of local Indian or Lankan kings who flocked to the Europeans either out of fear or for political and military support against their rivals.

The story of the rise and fall of the Coromandel Muslims is told engagingly by Dr. J. Raja Mohamad in his Maritime History of the Coromandel Muslims published by the Director of Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu.

The dominant Muslim communities on the Coromandel Coast, Kerala and Ceylon were known as the Marakkayar (also known as Maraikar, Marikkar or Marcars) and the Labbai or Lebbe in the Tamil speaking areas and as the Mappillai or the Mopla in Kerala. They were also known as Sonakar. Their lingua-franca was Tamil (or Malayalam in Kerala) or Arvi (Arabu Tamil). Almost all traced their origin to what is now Yemen.

These communities were so evident in the ports in the region that English records described the ports on the Coromandel Coast as ‘Moor ports’. Cuddalore was known as ‘Islamabad’ and Porto Novo (Parangipettai) was ‘Mohammad Bandar’ (Mohammad port). The Rowthers made a name for themselves as traders in Arab horses. The Marakkayars (boat people) and Lebbais were both expert mariners and traders.

The Zamorin, the Hindu ruler of Calicut in Kerala, got Muslims to man his ships. He decreed that the Arab traders should marry Malayali women and bring up at least one of their sons as a Muslim. Kunjali Maraikkar, who commanded the Zamorin’s navy, bravely took on the Portuguese when they challenged his sovereign. The Maraikkars raided Ceylon in support of local rulers harassed by the Portuguese.

Muslim interests were hurt when the Portuguese forced the acceptance of the permit or Cartaz system to enter ports. Before long, pliant Indian rulers declared that trade in spices, gold and silver were to be a Portuguese monopoly, which hit the Muslims hard.

The Portuguese stopped the Syrian Christian merchants and planters of Kerala from selling their pepper to the Muslims. By 1537, a Portuguese Jesuit, St. Frances Xavier, had entirely converted to Christianity the large fishing community on the Coromandel coast and North Ceylon called Paravas. Before long peal fishing, dominated by the Paravas and Muslims, went into the hands of the Portuguese. And by 1530, the Muslims also lost their monopoly over trading in horses to the Portuguese.

To control trade in the entire region, the Portuguese established their power over key maritime choke points like Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and Malacca in South East Asia. Ceylon had passed into their hands quite easily.

Trading in Malaya and other parts of South East Asia, Muslims from the Coromandel Coast and Ceylon set up a number of settlements in these far flung areas. In their paper entitled: ‘The Changing Identities of the Tamil Muslims from the Coromandel Coast to Malaysia: An Etymological Analysis’ Shaik Abdullah Hassan Mydin and Mohammed Siraaj Saidumasudu say the Malayan Sultans relied upon the Coromandel Muslims for the progress and well-being of their States and royal trade.

“Such a scenario paved ways to the development of Tamil Muslims in Johor, Perak, Kedah and Acheh in 17th and 18th Centuries. As their importance and influence in trade grew, the Sultans of the Malay states and the aristocrats appointed them as royal merchants or ‘Saudagar Rajas’. Furthermore, they even married into royal families,” Mydin and Saidumasudu say.

However, Muslims in South India and South India origin Muslims in South East Asia, did not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, especially technical knowledge, because of a fear of acquiring a modern western oriented education and losing faith in Islam in the process. In both South India and Ceylon the Muslims shunned European-run schools. Dr. Raja Mohamad noted that even though European steamships had started plying the vicinity of the Indian coast in 1826 itself, Muslim mariners stuck to sailing ships till 1900. Sheikh Mohammad Rowther’s shipping company was an exception. But it only proved the rule.


As in peninsular India, in Ceylon too, international trade was in the hands of the Arabs and their descendants. In his paper ‘Muslim contribution to maritime trading activities in Sri Lanka’ Asiff Hussein says when the “storm tossed ships of Dom Francisco de Almeida made landfall in the port of Galle (1505 CE), he found many Moors who were engaged in  loading cinnamon and elephants to be taken to Cambay (in Gujarat in Western India).”

Though the Portuguese religious fanatics hated the Muslims, and their ruler in Lisbon wanted Muslims to be banished from Ceylon, the Portuguese Governor of Goa (the headquarters of the Portuguese empire in the Eastern hemisphere), Fernao de Albuquerque, wrote on February 11, 1620 explaining that the Moors were “not prejudicial to Portuguese interests in the island,” and that their trading and maritime skills could be used by the Portuguese.

Like the Portuguese, the Dutch too were fierce traders and proselytizers but at times they also used the Moors to further their trading interests. In 1791 and 1792, they used Muslims mariners Sinna Pulle Marikkar and Lebbe Thambi Marikkar.

A German in the service of the Dutch, Johann Wofgang Heydt refers to a large of number of Moors exporting coconuts, coir, and arecanut to Madras, Calcutta and Bombay and other ports in India and bringing back rice and cloth. Colonial Secretary James Emerson Tennent noted that the Moors of Batticaloa had a monopoly of both internal and international trade in that area.

The Moors of Ceylon were closely connected to the ports of Ceylon and their major settlements were naturally there. They were to be found in large numbers in Trincomalee, Jaffna, Mannar, Kudiraimalai, Puttalam, Colombo, Beruwela and Galle.

As on the Coromandel Coast and the rest of South India, the educational backwardness of the Ceylonese Muslims stood in the way of their progress in all fields including international trade. Fear of conversion to Christianity prevented them from acquiring an English education, which in turn kept them away from technological progress and the adoption of modern techniques. The gap between them and the Europeans kept widening till some progressive Muslim leaders emerged and struggled hard to improve the educational levels and general awareness in the community.




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