Rise and fall of Coromandel Muslims
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran
January 16, 2006
Before the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English established themselves on the Coromandel or East Tamil Nadu coastline, maritime trade was entirely in the hands of Tamil-speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil ancestry.
But once the pushy, ruthless, cunning and better organised European merchants entered the arena, the Coromandel Muslims began to lose ground rapidly.
And in their fight for survival, they got no help from the Indian rulers, writes Dr J Raja Mohamad, in his fascinating book entitled: Maritime History of the Coromandel Muslims (published by the Government Museum, Chennai, India, in 2004).
The local rulers were indifferent to the Muslims' plight because they were not interested in maritime trade and the Muslims had not cultivated them.
In the new era, when trade was inextricably tied to political and military power, the apolitical Coromandel Muslims found themselves completely outplayed by the more savvy Europeans, Raja Mohamad says.
The dominant Muslim communities on the Coromandel coast were the Marakkayars, also known as Maraikars, Marikkars or Marcars, and the Labbais, also known as Lebbe or Coromandel Moplahs. Maraikars and Labbais were found in Ceylon too.
These communities dominated trade with Ceylon and South East Asia. So much so, that English records describe the ports on the Coromandel coast as "Moor ports".
Cuddalore was known as Islamabad and Porto Novo or Parangipettai, as Mohammad Bandar.
The Tamil-speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil ancestry had inherited their dominant position in South and South East Asian trade from the Arabs, who had acquired a virtual monopoly of Indian maritime commerce by 3rd Century BC.
The Arab and Tamil-speaking Muslim traders brought much prosperity to India. The 14th century Arab writer Ibn Fadbullah ul-Omari had written that in India the seas were pearls and the trees were perfumes!
According to Raja Mohamad, Arab contact with Tamil Nadu is mentioned in the Tamil Sangam literature of 2nd Century AD.
He says that the "Yavana" in Sangam literature are not Greeks, as generally presumed, but Muslims from what is now Yemen.
He also says that the term "Sonaka" used to identify Coromandel and Ceylon Muslims of Indo-Arab descent is but a corruption of Yavana. He also points out that the Mapilla or Moplah Muslims of Kerala were known as Sonaka Mapillas.
The Arabs came to the Coromandel coast not as conquerors, but as traders.
Conversions to Islam took place through preaching to the under-privileged sections of the caste-ridden Hindu society, and marriage to Tamil women. Islam came to the Coromandel coast in its earliest days.
The oldest mosque in Tamil Nadu which is near the Kottai (Fort) Railway station in Tiruchi is dated 743 AD.
The native Hindu rulers of what is now Tamil Nadu and Kerala, encouraged the Arab-Muslims to settle down and trade.
The Zamorin of Calicut in Kerala needed Muslims to man his ships. He even decreed that the Arab traders should marry Malayali women and bring up at least one of their children as a Muslim.
The Rowthers, as the name suggests, had made a name for themselves as traders in Arab horses.
The Marakkayars (boat people) and Lebbais were expert mariners and traders. The Marakkayars claimed a higher social and economic status.
Arrival of Portuguese and end of free trade
Prior to the advent of the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th. Century, trade in South and South East Asia was free.
It was the Portuguese (followed by the Dutch and the English) who introduced the system of monopolies and unfair trade regimes based on military might and political clout, Raja Mohamad says.
Cooperation and peace were replaced by discord and war, he comments.
In bringing about this iniquitous system, the Indian rulers had a hand. Indian rulers at that time did not enter trade.
So they did not pitch for monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean. They extended all facilities to the Portuguese to attract them to their ports, Raja Mohamad says.
He laments that the Indian rulers did nothing to protect the Muslims, who were the only Indian maritime traders operating shipping services to far-flung areas.
The Indian rulers declared that trade in spices, gold and silver were a Portuguese monopoly.
Being virulently anti- Muslim, the Portuguese told the Christians of Kerala not to sell their pepper to the Muslims.
By 1530, the Arabs lost their monopoly over trading in horses. This passed entirely into the hands of the Portuguese.
By 1537 they had converted to Christianity an oppressed fishing community on the Tamil Nadu coast called Paravas.
The rejuvenated Paravas were set up to compete with the Muslims in trade and pearl fishing.
Pearl fishing, which was entirely in the hands of the Muslims for a long time, went into the hands of the Paravas.
To control trade in the entire region, the Portuguese established their power over key points like Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and Malacca in South East Asia. Ceylon passed into their hands.
Under the Cartaz system, only those ships with a Portuguese Cartaz (document or permit) could trade and enter ports in this region.
Indian rulers favoured Portuguese
To the misfortune of the Coromandel Muslims, the Nayak rulers of Thanjavur favoured the Portuguese, and the latter in turn favoured the Hindu Chettiar merchants, who were taken as local partners.
This affected the Muslims badly because their trade centre was the port of Nagapattinam in Thanjavur.
In Madurai too, the Nayak rulers favoured the Portuguese. This was because the Portuguese helped Thirumalai Nayak in a succession dispute.
Taking advantage of the Nayaks' lack of interest in seafaring and sea trading, the Portuguese took control of the Madurai Nayakdom's ports.
But the Portuguese ran into trouble with the Sethupathi Rajas of Ramanathapuram, who formed an alliance with the Dutch against the Portuguese.
As the Muslims too had complaints against the Portuguese, the Ramanathapuram Rajas helped the Muslims establish themselves on the Ramanathapuram coastline facing Ceylon.
With the local Rajas being generally indifferent, if not hostile, to the Muslims, the Portuguese were able to persecute the Muslim traders with impunity.
Their ships used to be disallowed in harbours even if they had the Cartaz and heavy bribes were demanded. It cost the Muslims a great deal more to get a Cartaz.
When the Portuguese acquired Colombo in Ceylon, they found a strong Muslim population there dominating trade.
Persecution was set in motion immediately. They were driven out of the maritime regions into the Kandyan region at the Centre.
From there they had to go to the Eastern and South Eastern Coast, where they became rice cultivators.
Dutch displace Portuguese
The Dutch set up their first factory in India in 1605, and by 1658, they had displaced the Portuguese from most places on the Coromandel coast.
The Indian princes welcomed the Dutch because they needed help to counter the Portuguese who had become rapacious.
The Dutch were given trade concessions in return for help to counter the Portuguese.
The Sethupathi of Ramanathapuram had borrowed money from the Dutch, and as repayment, he had to mortgage all his ports to them.
In Ceylon, the Dutch confiscated the vessels of the Sethupathi and his allies, the Muslims.
Heavy restrictions were put on the Muslims both in India and Ceylon. In Ceylon, after the Dutch had established themselves, government lands were not rented out to the Muslims and no government work was entrusted to them.
But the Dutch could not stand the pressure from the English who had also started forming alliances with native princes by exploiting differences between them.
By 1783-84, the Dutch East India Company was virtually bankrupt and before long, the Dutch had to quit India.
Muslims turn to smuggling
Raja Mohammad says that because of the restrictions put on them by the Portuguese and the Dutch, Muslim traders and mariners took to smuggling in a big way in the 17th and 18th centuries. Records tended to describe them as smugglers.
The French, who followed the Dutch, were more favourable to the Muslims. The French used Muslim mariners in their trade with Burma.
The Muslims began to operate from Pondicherry, where the customs rates were lower.
Impact of the British
The British changed the character of trade in peninsular India. They entered into deals with weavers and financed their production for export. Many of the weavers were Muslims from the Lebbe community.
But by the first half of the 19th century, all this changed, Raja Mohamad observes. The British began to export cotton from South India and import finished cloth made in Lancashire, England. South Indian cloth lost its market in England.
Muslim traders were disadvantaged by the growth of British Joint Stock Companies in the trading sector.
The system of advancing money to weavers had broken the back of the Muslim trader and exporter.
Local weavers sold their products to the British merchants not the Muslims. The British Indian government favoured British companies and discriminated against Muslim merchants.
Muslims who were in shipping and ship building were badly hit when the British restricted Indian shipping and ships having Indian crew.
A ship entering English waters had to have a White captain and at least 75 per cent of the crew had to be White, Raja Mohamad writes.
The British also preferred to work with the docile Hindu Chettiars rather than the Muslims, he says.
Muslim traders lost out to the Chettiars also because the financial clout of the latter was much greater.
After the revolt of 1857 in North India, British attitude towards the Muslims in general hardened.
Southern Tamil Nadu was the home ground of the Tamil Muslim trader and mariner.
When the British started developing Madras as the main port of the Coromandel coast, the Muslims were highly disadvantaged.
Ports on the southern coast like Kayal, Kilakarai, Devipattinam, Thondi, Adiramapattinam, Porto Novo, and Nagapattinam began to lose their importance.
These remained dominant only in Indo-Ceylon trade, in which of course, the Tamil Muslims had a big role to play till quite recently.
The heavy restrictions on Muslim maritime trade forced the Coromandel Muslims to leave this line and look for other trading opportunities further inland in India and abroad.
Migration to Ceylon, Malaya and other parts of British-held South East Asia began in a big way.
Muslim-owned ships began to take passengers rather than cargo. Many Muslims became traders, peddlers and contractors in South East Asia.
Reasons for the decline of the Coromandel Muslims
Raja Mohamad has identified several reasons for the decline of the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the Coromandel coast:
1) There was a sharp religious and economic conflict between the Portuguese and the Dutch on the one hand, and the Muslims on the other.
2) The Portuguese and the Dutch and later the British preferred to work with the Hindu Chettiar merchants rather than the Muslims.
3) Native Indian rulers, whether Hindu or Muslim, barring the Sethupathis of Ramnad, had no interest in maritime trade and therefore gave away their ports and maritime trading rights to the European powers in return for financial/political/ military help against their rivals.
In the process, the interest of the indigenous maritime trader, the Muslim, was sacrificed.
4) Unlike the Europeans, the Muslims showed no interest in the politics or political conflicts in the areas in which they lived, and therefore failed to take advantage of political currents.
5) Muslims did not modernise their business styles and practices. The British were more innovative and reaped huge benefits as a result.
6) Muslims did not have the financial resources of the Hindu Chettiars or the British merchants. They had to borrow from the Chettiars at high rates of interest.
7) Unlike the Chettiars, the Muslims were not united. And unlike the British merchants, they did not have the backing of the British Indian government.
The British Indian government placed such restrictions on overseas shipping and trade that it was impossible for Muslim overseas traders and shipping interests to survive.
Raja Mohamad ends his book on a somber note. He says that the Muslims of Coromandel, who were the "rulers of the waves, merchant princes at home and king makers and economic builders in far off countries", disappeared from the scene rapidly, because they could not match the strength and guile of the Europeans.
Sadly, the short-sighted Indian rulers had no use for the Muslims and ignored them.
Today, the Coromandel Muslims are a pale shadow of what they were even 200 years ago.
Though their deeds "glitter in the pages of history," they do not remember their past, Raja Mohamad observes.
(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)