Friday, October 16, 2015

Ancient Arab Sea Traders – Part I

There are many maps drawn of the ancient Arab Sea Trade routes, most however, deal with start and stop points, i.e., from the Spice Islands in Indonesia to Zanzibar in east Africa, or from the Han Chinese kingdom to Malacca, or from Ezion-geber along the mouth of the Aqaba Sea to the gold mines of Solomon. The person who draws in these lines simply makes a line from point A to point B. However, the reader or scholar often mis-interprets this to mean that was the exact course taken, when it was not at all. 
In this map, the blue line(red arrows) shows a crossing from Malacca to Southern India across the Bay of Bengal, or from there to Yemen by crossing the Sea of Arabia
    The problem is, neither course would have gone that way, out into deep water in coastal dhows that sailed in the early days of the Sea Routes (250 B.C. to 250 A.D. Rather, they would have gone by the coastal route, hugging the coast, setting in at night and setting out the next morning, or staying a day or two to reprovision, etc.
    A map of the actual coastal sea lanes is shown below where the route is along the coast where all these early voyages were—at least the successful ones we know about (those who tried to go out to sea, or were blown away from land, were never heard from again). No sailor would have trusted his ship and life to sailing in the sea at night, and every coastal vessel set in at night for a meal and sleep, often setting in hours early when a good harbor could be found.
Red Arrows: Ancient Sea Routes (Lt. Blue Lines). Note that this map shows these ancient sea routes along the coast, as they actually were. They did not sail across the Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal or South China Sea as so many lazy map designs show, but stayed along the coast where they set in at night. The route started at the Spice Islands (lower right hand corner of map)
    As late as 1498, when the first Europeans reached the Indian Ocean, Vasco da Gama was fearful of continuing on around the Horn of Africa. He was forced to drop anchor upon reaching Malindi below the Horn, and “being the first Europeans in these waters, they dared not venture out onto the broad expanse of the Indian Ocean without a navigator schooled in the sea.”
    In coming back to a previous theme found in these posts, we need to deal with the wind and sea currents along the Sea of Arabia and the Indian Ocean, which many theorists claim are associated with the early sea trade routes found in this region. There are those, especially Mesoamerican theorists that chalk this up to a route from the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula moving eastward toward India and then into and through Indonesia to the Pacific—claiming this is the route Lehi took.
    Despite the fact that these theorists can be shown conclusively that the sea currents and winds simply do not move in that direction, they doggedly hold to the belief that the early Arab traders along the Sea of Arabia and Indian Ocean moved eastward from Indonesia to eastern Africa and back.
Blue Line: Ancient Maritime Trade Route from China and Indonesia to East Africa and back, established and run between 250 B.C. and 250 A.D. Red Arrows: The Sea Route never covered across the deep ocean, these earlier traders were coastal vessels and set in each night. Green Arrows: The trade route kept close to the coast waters in sight of land; Red Line: The famed Silk Road, an overland route from China to the Middle East and on to Europe
    First of all there is no question that such a route did exist. In fact, it moved from the Han Chinese Kingdom down to the Dong Song Kingdom (Cambodia), to Malacca and Malay across the Bay of Bengal to Ruhuna Kingdom on Sri Lanka (Ceylon), to the Satavahanas Kingdom of India, to Himyraites Kingdom (Yemen), then north up the Red Sea to the Nabataean Kingdom of (Northwest Arabia, Petra, and Jordan) or south to the Zanzabar Kingdom in Africa, an island archipelago along the Swahili Coast.
    This travel had existed for centuries among the Arabs who had blazed this “shoreline route” to the Indus River, who were considered “bold sea captains” at the time. These sailings were in ancient Arabian dhows that carried incense, gold, pearls, glass and ornaments of ever variety and returned with perfume, spices, silk, colon cloth and diamonds and teakwood. This is from the travels of Ahmad ibn Majid (1421-1500) who wrote some 40 works of poetry and prose and known as the “Lion of the Sea,” including Book of Lessons on the Foundation of the Sea and Navigation, and others about his travels and sailing routes, and became famous in the West as the navigator who helped Vasco da Gama find his way from Africa to India.
Trade Route between Alexandria in Egypt to China, starting at the Spice Islands (lower right) and traveling to China north, or to Alexandria and Zanzibar in the west. It involved the seven major kingdoms of the time, plus the Indonesia (Malacca Strait)
    The problem is that these routes to the east into Indonesia were not accomplished until at least 1000 years after Lehi sailed. And even then, these voyages were taken with poorly-built, coastal vessels involved in trading, that carried small crews, seldom sailed away from land, and set in at night, sometimes for several days at a time. Their construction, which was very different than the later shipping involved in exploration—using small, shallow-draft vessels that were highly maneuverable but not very sea-worthy, built without thought for withstanding long-haul voyages along wind and current routes capable of withstanding the heavy pounding of surf and wind. The coastal vessels needed only to remain afloat within view of fellow traders, ports, and the light wind and surf involved.
    This kind of poor construction is pointed out in a much later incident in 17th century local shipping in the maritime annals of California and the disastrous results of such work. In the Antiga California 1697-1768, (Harry Crosby, 1994), when most ships that visited northerly ports were built at Acapulco Colima, and later at Chacala, Matanchel, and San Blas. According to various accounts, most of these craft were poorly joined from insufficiently aged timbers; planks were often to short that hulls lacked rigidity and structural integrity. Damage from worm and rot frequently put them on the bottom within months of purchase, and even if detected in time, such damage required extensive renovations, and the same shipyards that launched poorly built hulls offered deplorable repairs.
A 3rd Century A.D. Roman vessel carrying 200 tones of grain between Rome and Greece. The Romans brought in the so-called international shipping trade that connected ship movement of goods with land movement by caravan over the silk road
Not until the Roman Era, when they became involved in international trade, did the Silk Road and the Sea Trade Routes link up, and at that time, with the Roman galleys, more adventurous seamanship was seen. Where the Arab Sea Trade was strictly coastal, during the final century B.C., these routes expanded and included the Mediterranean as well. Between the 1st and 6th centuries A.D., ships were sailing between the Red Sea and India, aided by summer monsoon winds. Goods were transshipped at the town of Beren like along the Red Sea and moved by camels inland to the Nile. From that point, river boats moved the goods to Alexandria, from which trade could be undertaken with the Roman Empire. 

Early dhows were small, fragile, and poorly built. They sailed in sight of land, setting in at night for meals and sleep, continuing their voyage the next morning. They were not built for deep ocean sailing and would not have been strong enough to handle the pounding of constant waves
    From the 9th Century A.D., maritime routes controlled by the Arab traders emerged and gradually undermined the importance of the Silk Road. Since ships could carry much larger capacity than a camel caravan, and the ships were less constraining, larger quantities of goods could be traded. This trade also facilitated the spread of Islam. In addition, the Silk Road reached its peak during the Mongolian Empire (13tnh Century A.D.) when China and Central Asia were controlled by Mongol Khans, which were strong proponent of trade even if they were ruthless conquerors.
    Marco Polo aided in the renewed trade between Europe and China, and by the 15th Century A.D., with the advent of ocean-going vessels, and European powers developed their maritime technologies, the Arab control of these trade routes were overthrown and Europe took control. And because ships could transport commodities faster and cheaper, the Silk Road fell into disuse and the famed trade routes of the Indian Ocean rose in number and capability.
A comparison in size between the dhow (left) and a 16th century sailing vessel. The construction was far superior in the larger and later ships
     However, when Mesoamerican theorists want to look into the mid-centuries, 1500 years after Lehi sailed, and talk about these famous Arab sea trade routes, they obviously miss the point entirely—these routes were not in effect to the extent eastern sailing could have been accomplished across the Sea of Arabia and Indian Ocean against winds and currents until sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries, A.D., in deep-ocean vessels.
    G. R. Tibbetts in his Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese (1971), and also Khal Torabully, the Maritime Memory of the Arabs, showing Arab navigation in the Indian Ocean with special attention to Ahma bin Majid (2000), and numerous other works and documentaries show that this idea of eastward sailing was limited to a much later period than that of Lehi, and not possible prior to a type of dhow construction that predates da Gama only by a few hundred years, not the 1500 of Lehi’s time.

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