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Recognizing the contribution of Arab Sailors in the Indian Ocean

Contributor : Philip Fleuriau Chateau Source: The Maritime History of the Indian Ocean – Ed. By Ameenah Gurib-Fakim & Khal Torabully

For many centuries, the islands of the Indian Ocean were familiar territory to Arab traders and sailors. However, even though these travellers made many significant contributions to the science of navigation, they are not often mentioned in mainstream history books, and rarely receive the recognition that is their due, for having sailed the same seas as their European counterparts.

We know, for instance, that the first accurate circular world map was drawn by the twelfth –century Arab scholar Al-Idrissi, who lived on the island of Sicily, in the heart of the Mediterranean sea. It is probable that he also mapped the Mascarene islands, one of the first cartographers to do so. Furthermore, Arab sailors applied their vast astronomical knowledge, accumulated over centuries of desert crossings, to high sea navigation. Among other contributions, the lateen sail, which allows ships to sail against the wind, was also invented by Arab sailors in the Indian Ocean.

The Alberto Cantino Planisphere (1502) shows the first names given to our islands by their Arab discoverers. Indeed, during the years of Arab mastery of the Indian Ocean, the islands of Réunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues were known respectively as Dina Maghribin, Dina Arobi and Dina Mashriq. “Maghrib” means “west” in Arabic, therefore Dina Maghribin undoubtedly refers to Réunion Island because of its westernmost location. Some historians believe that Rodrigues was Dina Mashriq (meaning “east” in Arabic), whereas Mauritius, which lies between the two other islands, was Dina Arobi.

Arab sailors mainly followed the coastlines, but they are believed to have been the first to discover these islands. Very often, ships returning west from their eastward journeys were pushed off course by powerful monsoons, and some inevitably landed on the shores of Mauritius, Madagascar, and other neighbouring islands, thus leading to their discovery, as early as the 10th century. It is believed that Suleiman al-Mahri (1480-1550), one of the most famous disciples of the Arab navigator Ibn Majid, visited Mauritius and the neighbouring islands frequently. Al-Mahri was a descendant of the Turkish tribe of Mahara, and he lived during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. He sailed extensively across the Indian Ocean, collecting his observations and experiences in a book on the geography of the ocean. Later on, when European sailors visited Mauritius, they found several wax tablets with Arabic inscriptions, lying on the beaches – proof of earlier Arab presence on the island! These tablets contained messages, presumably intended for fellow Arab sailors to retrieve on their next expeditions.

Whether for Arab sailors seeking refuge from storms, or for European travellers looking for a stop between the Cape of Good Hope and the distant shores of India, Mauritius was a crucial port-of-call. It was a strategic location for all sailors and merchants trading between the ports of Africa to the west, and India and the Orient to the east. Mauritius afforded them the opportunity to replenish fresh water supplies, but it was also vital to effective communication: indeed, traders could leave messages for their fellow seamen, who were scattered across the Indian Ocean on different missions.

Arab trade in the Indian Ocean was essentially peaceful and unchallenged during the medieval period, therefore the Arabs did not feel the need to establish military strongholds or a physical presence on Mauritius or other neighbouring islands. The long Arab domination in the Indian Ocean, before the arrival of European traders, followed the unwritten customs of the ancient caravan trade across the deserts: liberty of movement, unchecked migration, freedom of trade, and security of traders were all accepted principles, whereas fighting against commercial rivals and stealing from them was strictly forbidden. All business dealings were governed by the rule of the highest bidder, and the sanctity of trust in commercial deals.

With the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French in the Indian Ocean, Arab and Ottoman naval activities did not cease. However, a new balance of power followed, with the Europeans dominating the high seas, while the Arabs and Muslims remained powerful near the coasts, in the Red Sea for instance. Many French and English crews included Arab seamen, probably a mix of Emirati people and Muslims from the Malabar coast of western India. They were known as “lascars”, from the Persian term “lashkar”, or the Arabic word “al-askar”, meaning “guard” or “soldier”. The Portuguese broadened the term to designate Indian seamen in general. The lascars had been employed on European ships since Vasco da Gama made the first sea voyage to India from Europe. Portuguese ships continued to employ lascars in large numbers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. British companies also employed them under “lascar” agreements, which allowed ship owners to retain their services for up to three years, and to transfer them from one ship to another. Mahé de Labourdonnais, governor of Mauritius, wanted to make Port-Louis an important naval base of the Indian Ocean, and also imported several batches of lascars to help build the port infrastructure.

The history of the Indian Ocean has rarely been viewed from an Arab perspective. The colonial past, largely influenced by Western countries, has conditioned historians to often overlook the contributions of Arab sailors. Nowadays, it is high time to restore the truth and acknowledge their crucial participation.

Contributor : Philip Fleuriau Chateau

Source: The Maritime History of the Indian Ocean – Ed. By Ameenah Gurib-Fakim & Khal Torabully

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