History is sometimes thought to be the stories of forgotten civilisations, the rise and fall of great cities, kings and their kingdoms, battles and wars won and lost through valour or treachery.
But beyond the classic boundaries of kingdoms and continents on which these dramatic events played out lay the seas, the great pathways linking people across great distances. From ancient times, down to the modern era, the Indian Ocean has been a hotbed of human activity, stirring the cultural pot in the region, as it were.
Bordering East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the Indian Ocean has shaped a highly diverse and multi-cultural world of its own. Propelled by the ocean and wind currents of the seasonal monsoons, people, along with their goods, practices and ideas, have been crisscrossing the Indian Ocean, resulting in a unique confluence of cultures, and an exchange of people and their ways of life.
For instance, over the centuries, East African and Middle Eastern merchants intermarried with Gujarati and other women from South Asia and were assimilated into local life. In the process, these Muslims adopted the customs of local Hindus, like the ‘Mappilas’ (Muslims who settled in Kerala in medieval times), who followed local matrilineal Hindu practices in Kerala. The formation of communities such as this along the western and southern coasts of India pointed to religious tolerance and the culturally dynamic nature of littoral societies.
In these ways, Muslims, Jews, Arabs and merchants from other distant lands became part of the great mix of Indian Ocean cultures, as did enslaved and mercenary warriors from Abyssinia (Ethiopia), scholars and traders from the Middle East, as well as those from Iberia to the west and China to the east. In later times, Europeans – the Dutch, French, Portuguese and the British – brought their cultures to India and gave rise to exciting new cultural marriages in the Indian subcontinent.
Many of the travellers, adventurers, explorers, merchants and scholars who sailed the Indian Ocean and dropped anchor on India’s western and southern shores wrote detailed accounts of what they encountered and their observations about this new land, offering valuable insights into life as it was in India in those times.
The 14th-century Muslim jurist and traveller Ibn Battuta is perhaps the best-known witness to the Indian Ocean world during the early modern period. His Rihla (Book of Travels) gives us insight into the human networks comprising this vast world. It is through accounts like the Rihla that we begin to appreciate the cosmopolitan and culturally rich societies that comprised the circum-Indian Ocean during the early modern period.
Such accounts include Arabic and Hebrew fragments found in the Cairo Geniza, a Portuguese medical book titled Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India published in Goa, Mughal imperial court documents, a Dutch merchant’s record, Hindu chronicles from Southern India, Persian travel literature and Sufi poetry. Together, these first-hand accounts and other primary sources give us an understanding of the range of people, products, ideas, and practices circulating and forming the western part of the Indian Ocean world that linked East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia with the Eastern part of that littoral world.
Moroccan Jurist: Ibn Battuta (14th century CE)
A North African Berber of the Lawata tribe, Ibn Battuta was born in 1304 CE, into a family of Muslim legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco. The qadi (jurist) recorded his three-decade-long experiences serving a variety of courts in his travelogue, which he dictated at the end of his journeys in 1355 CE. Leaving Morocco in 1325 CE, he first travelled to Mecca to perform the Hajj before continuing his long journey.
In vivid and detailed prose, Battuta depicts the people and societies of the Indian Ocean world, their architecture, systems of government, the products they traded, what they ate, and their cultural and religious practices. His Rihla, a vital and primary source for its length and depth, offers a rare snapshot of much of the Western part of the Indian Ocean world in particular.
For example, he begins by describing the city of Cambay on the west coast of India as “one of the most beautiful cities as regards the artistic architecture of its houses and the construction of its mosques”. The majority of Cambay’s inhabitants, he notes, were competitive foreign merchants, who were continually building new houses and mosques to outdo each other. Many of the foreign merchants were transient visitors following the rhythms of the monsoons. However, there were Arabs and Persians whose families had long settled there.
Maghrebi Trader: Abraham Ben Yijū (12th century CE)
Based on fragments of documents from the Cairo Geniza, a massive collection of Jewish manuscripts that documents Jewish Middle Eastern and North African history across 1,000 years, we learn about the life of Abraham Ben Yijū. A Jew and a Berber of the Yijū tribe, he was a 12th-century CE merchant and trader from the Maghreb, in today’s Tunisia. He travelled to Aden in Yemen, before arriving in India in 1132 CE, to seek better business opportunities. He settled in Malibarat (Malabar), on the west coast of India. He lived there for almost 17 years, building a family and integrating into local life.
Soon after reaching Malibarat, Ben Yijū purchased, manumitted and then married a local woman named Ashu. Little is known about her but she was from the Nair caste and was an enslaved maid. Yijū and Ashu had three children. One son died young, the second son was named Surūr, and the daughter Sitt-al Dār. Ashu took the name ‘Berākha’, suggesting that she converted to Judaism.
This is likely the case since children of a non-Jewish, enslaved mother would have also been considered slaves. Ben Yijū also owned at least two other enslaved women of local origin in Mangalore and followed what had become a pattern among foreign traders: marrying local, enslaved women in South Asia, which led to the women being freed, with their foreign husband being better able to assimilate into local business communities.
Ben Yijū ran a factory in Valarapattnam on the Malabar coast, which manufactured bronze and brass vessels. Old copper or bronze vessels were sent to India from the West and new or repaired vessels were shipped back. Ben Yijū traded in goods as well as acted as a middleman or agent, either on a bartering basis or drawing a percentage.
In addition to being a trader, Ben Yijū wrote poetry and had some medical knowledge. A multi-talented traveller across the Indian Ocean world, he was, therefore, part merchant, manufacturer, Torah scholar, and a poet, who was also familiar with medicine. Jews such as Ben Yijū had long been represented in medicine as physicians and as pharmacists across the Middle East, and their presence and practice led to wider circulation of specialised medical knowledge and treatments across the wider Indian Ocean world.
In 1149 CE, after Ashu passed away, Ben Yijū left Malibarat for Egypt with his son and daughter. Before reaching Egypt, however, during a stay in Yemen, Surūr (whose name means ‘joy’) tragically died. Ben Yijū, who never recovered from his son’s death, lived the rest of his days in Fustat in Egypt, a city that connected the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds.
After Ben Yijū passed away in 1156 CE, his daughter married her cousin, Perahya, Ben Yijū’s elder brother’s son. Sitt-al Dār, meaning ‘mistress of the house,’ the product of a Maghrebi Jewish and South Asian Hindu union, would bring her combined cultural, aesthetic, and linguistic sensibilities and ways of being to North Africa.
Iberian Physician: Garcia de Orta (16th century CE)
From Iberia, physician Garcia de Orta migrated to the Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast of India during the 16th century CE. A Sephardic Jew, de Orta travelled to India from Portugal to escape the Portuguese Inquisition and start a new life.
De Orta was particularly keen to learn about plants and medicines from the East. In addition to being a physician, he was a herbalist, botanist, merchant and shipowner. He spoke several languages and traded chiefly in ‘exotic’ materia medica (plants and other substances with therapeutic properties), jewels and precious stones. He left Portugal for Goa in 1534 CE, accompanying explorer and colonial administrator Martim Afonso de Sousa, his patron and friend, and for whom he also served as personal physician.
De Sousa served as Portugal’s Captain Major of the Indian Ocean, and later became the Governor of ‘Portuguese Asia’. In 1563 CE, de Orta published a book titled Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India—only the third book to have been printed in a European language in Asia. The book consists of 57 colloquies in the form of chapters with references to medications and simples, mostly of vegetable origin.
For a time, de Orta had also served as the personal physician of Burhan Nizam Shah I, Sultan of the Deccani kingdom of Ahmednagar. The Jewish doctor and botanist, therefore, treated Christian patients in Goa and Muslim patients at Ahmednagar. While in India, de Orta learnt about a range of medicinal plants and healing practices and, through his book, transmitted this knowledge to Europe. For instance, he discusses in Colóquios how guaiacam and the china root are different and how they are used to treat syphilis. In Goa, de Orta supervised the Royal Military Hospital Garden, a medicinal garden, for a ready supply of local and imported healing herbs to treat a range of ailments, including arthritis, eczema, sciatica, gout, scrofula, indigestion and swellings.
In 1554 CE, de Orta was granted a long lease on the islands of Bombaim (later called Bombay and then Mumbai) as vazador (proprietor) by one of the Portuguese viceroys and governors of Goa he was treating. Amid thatched huts and mudflats, he built a quinta (manor house) surrounded by a garden with medicinal plants and fruits on the eastern shore of Bom Bahia (‘Good Bay’ in Portuguese), later pronounced by the British as ‘Bombay’.
Even though de Orta became a Christãos-Novo ‘New Christian’), he was, in fact, a Marrano (that is, continuing to practice Judaism in private). De Orta and his family maintained the public appearance of a strict Roman Catholic orthodoxy in Goa, especially after the establishment of the Goa Inquisition in 1560 CE. Nevertheless, he was made a target, as the reach of the Iberian-initiated Inquisition was extensive, going to its most distant colonial outposts.
While de Orta died before the Goa Inquisition was able to get hold of him, he was not fully able to escape it. In 1580 CE, his body was exhumed and burnt. India, a land generally of great religious tolerance, was blemished by deep prejudices in Catholic Goa under Portuguese rule. The contrast could not be more stark.
Abyssinian Warrior: Malik Ambar (16th-17th century CE)
From the edges of the western Indian Ocean during the 16th century CE arrived the enslaved Abyssinian Malik Ambar to India. Ambar was born Oromo (one of the three main ethnicities in Ethiopia) around 1548 CE, in Hararghe, Ethiopia, and was captured at 12 years of age. Like other captives of war and systematic enslavement, he was stripped from his family, sold into slavery, and taken to Southern Arabia, where he was traded and taken to Baghdad, and converted to Islam in the service of Mir Qasim, a merchant who educated him. Years later, however, Ambar was taken to India and then sold again, this time to the statesman Mirak Dabir (also known as Chengis Khan), himself an Abyssinian.
Learning the ways of the court under Dabir, Ambar proved an excellent administrator, military leader, and diplomat. By the turn of the 17th century CE, he ascended to power as de facto ruler of the Sultanate of Ahmednagar in India’s Deccan region, where he served as Regent Minister for a quarter of a century.
Notably, both de Orta and Malik Ambar served the courts of the Nizam Shah, although de Orta had done so two generations earlier. Ambar would go on to marry Bibi Karima, a Siddi (a term, along with ‘Habshi’, used to describe a person of African descent in India), creating a new home and becoming part of an African elite in India. They had four children: two sons (Fateh Khan and Changez Khan) and two daughters (Shahir Bano and Azija Bano).
Ambar, who successfully defended the Deccan from multiple northern Mughal incursions, can be credited with further developing bargi-giri, a type of guerilla warfare. He refined the existing technique that combined lightning-quick cavalry and a false retreat. The Hindu Maratha light cavalry he commanded would swoop in at full speed, briefly fight the enemy and then disappear in different directions before collecting and attacking once again. This style of attack was later adopted by Maratha combatants in Southern India.
Using diplomacy, fortifying existing strongholds, and winning over local populations through innovative agricultural reforms, Ambar emerged as an effective and powerful leader. He built a model capital named ‘Khirki’ (later renamed ‘Aurangabad’ by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb), with palaces, mosques and an extensive water supply system, in part modelled on what he had seen in Baghdad.
A Dutch merchant named Pieter Van Den Broecke had described Ambar as having come “from the land of Habessi [Ethiopia]”, further noting that “he had a stern Roman face and is tall and strong in stature”. And when news arrived of Ambar’s death at the age of 80 in 1626 CE, a Mughal court chronicler, Mu’tamad Khan wrote, “In warfare, in command, in sound judgement, and in administration, he had no rival or equal.” Ambar, along with thousands of other Abyssinians taken into the military slave system of the Western Indian Ocean, would leave an indelible mark of the East African presence in South Asia.
Persian Hajji: ‘Gulbadan of Isfahan’ (17th century CE)
Like Ibn Battuta, Ben Yijū, Garcia de Orta and Malik Ambar, Gulbadan of Isfahan travelled far from home. Unlike these other travellers, Gulbadan was a woman whose life we know about through her Safarnāma (Literary Travelogue). (The Safārnama does not mention the specific name of who we are calling ‘Gulbadan of Isfahan’; she is only referred to as the ‘wife of Mirza Khalil’)
Living in 17th-century Isfahan (in present-day Iran), her Persian city’s wealth and grandeur was well known and inspired the rhyming proverb, ‘Isfahan Nesf-e-Jahan’, meaning ‘Isfahan is half the world’. During the 17th century CE, Isfahan was larger than London and more cosmopolitan than Paris. Europeans, Turks, and Indians flocked to the Persian court.
While being a Hajji—a Muslim who has performed a pilgrimage to Mecca—she also composed evocative poetry in the Sufi mystical tradition. Gulbadan, a Shia Muslim woman who was born into a privileged literary Urdubadi family, was exceptionally educated. She narrated her journey to Mecca to her family scribe in Farsi, in the form of masnavi, a literary Sufi poetic expression normally written in rhyming couplets.
She was the widow of Mirza Khalil, a raqamnivas (secretary) in the financial department of the Diwan-i A‘la of the last Safavid king in Isfahan in the last decade of the 17th century CE. After her husband’s death, Gulbadan decided to travel alone to Mecca to perform the Hajj to escape from her relatives, with whom she did not get along. Leaving for Hajj would also give her an opportunity to visit a friend, whose name is not known but with whom Gulbadan may have been romantically involved. She apparently took a significant detour on her way to Mecca to visit her friend in Urdubad (modern-day Azerbaijan) near the Ars River. Yet she was conflicted. Performing the Hajj as a devout Muslim, she also repented for having intimate feelings towards another woman, which was viewed generally as socially and religiously inappropriate.
Isfahani Safavid Sufi culture had a practice of what was called siqqah-yi-khwāhar khwandahgi, a vow of sisterhood and closeness between women. In the context of Shi‘i law, siqqah is a reference to ‘temporary marriages’. The practice of sisterhood led to forms of female intimacy which could be platonic, romantic or sexual. Gulbadan’s travelogue gives us a tiny and precious peek into the lives of elite women in Isfahan. Her extended poem not only sheds light on women’s spaces in Isfahani society established through Sufi sisterhoods, blurring female and male spheres as part of a longing for spiritual union with God, it also offers insight into the social history of women during the period.
A kaleidoscope of people travelled across, lived in and shaped the Indian Ocean world during the early modern period. Just as people from Western Europe and Africa were making their way (either of their own volition or as enslaved captives) across the Atlantic, starting in the late 15th century CE, people like Ibn Battuta, Ben Yijū, Garcia de Orta, Malik Ambar, and Gulbadan of Isfahan were travelling to ‘new worlds’ of their own.
These men and women, and so many more, were each, in their own way, historical and cultural agents, who shaped and were shaped by the societies they encountered. That is, they were both the products and producers of the societies and cultures into which they travelled and lived.
Today, we view their lives as extraordinary, even exceptional. Some, like the Mughal court chronicler describing Ambar, said so explicitly. After all, they travelled great distances and interacted with cultures that were in, a number of ways, very different from their own. Several were very accomplished. Each, in their own way, made contributions. From their perspective, however, they were simply living their lives. At the end of the day, did they think of themselves as exceptional?
Purvi Sanghvi is a PhD student in the Department of History at Georgia State University. A graduate of Lloyd International Honors College, she received both her B.A. and M.A. in History from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is interested in foodways across the Indian Ocean world—how food shaped people’s lives and how people used food to create their cultures.Abraham Ben Yijūforeign travellerGarcia de ortaGulbadanIbn BattutaIndian OceanLiteratureMalik Ambar
Omar H Ali is Dean of Lloyd International Honors College and a professor of world history, with a focus on the global African Diaspora, at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The author of Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean and Islam in the Indian Ocean World, he is an editor of the three-volume series Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora.
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