Updated: April 27, 2010 15:42 IST

Maritime history of pre-modern India

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The two books under review complement each other in establishing the sea trade as an important driver of socioeconomic process in littoral societies that interacted primarily for trade.

They highlight the social dynamics behind the changes in the ruling and trade patterns of the coastal region. Michael N. Pearson, the well known historian of the Indian Ocean, has written the foreword for both. Sea trade was known in the South from very early times and the Sangam literature is full of references to the overseas trade and the functioning of ports, with the state acting as a facilitator of trade and as the custodian of goods landing in the harbour. Almost everyone who came from the West was referred to as Yavanas in Sangam and there was cordial relationship between the state and the foreign trader.

Effect of Christianity

A collection of articles by Pius Malekandathil, ‘Maritime India' speaks largely about Christianity in the coastal areas and its effect on trade. And the author describes the publication as a “study of the impact that the circuits in the Indian Ocean exerted on the socioeconomic and political process of India.” Significantly, Pius has dealt with the India-Sassanid (Persia) maritime trade and its impact on society, an area that has not been gone into by the earlier studies. One felt that the analysis of tributary-trade system could have drawn upon the Tamil inscriptions in Southeast Asia and China, where Indian merchant guilds had a strong presence.

Coastal society

The other book, titled “Coastal histories…”, is a compilation of essays on the ecology and society in pre-modern India. In his elaborate introduction, its editor, Yogesh Sarma details the various aspects of the coastal society including religion and modes of worship and goes on to discuss the problems and calamities the coastal people met with. Sharma quotes, approvingly, Charles Lockyer's remarks about the “simple and cheerful boatmen of Madras”. However, G.G. Armstrong, who served as chairman of the Madras port for a long period, has an entirely different tale to tell. This is what he has to say in the tercentenary volume of Madras (1939): “Many descriptions have come down to us of landing at Madras in these boats how the boatmen waited for a big wave…And as they waited outside the surf for a good wave they bargained with their passengers; their luggage was so heavy they must give extra pay…If he [a passenger] did not, or if his luggage looked valuable, a box or two usually fell out into the surf, whence the boatmen salvaged it at their leisure. Most of the profits were made out of passengers.” And so, the boatmen were not as simple and cheerful as Sharma would say!

In his article in this book, Malekandathil refers to “the attempts of the Chera chieftains, to keep the various minor ports dependent on the pivotal port [Muziris] for the purpose of their trade …” From the Sangam literature it is clear that Thondi was also an important port, and the oft-quoted Periplus of the Erythraen Sea mentions, with equal importance, all the ports of the area. His description of the stages through which the trade pattern changed makes a compelling read. The article by L. K. Pachuau on women in Portuguese India is interesting, except that it deals generally with European women and the material has been drawn mostly from the European authors.

Jangkhomang Guite's article relates to the fishermen communities of the Coromandel Coast. However, what is not mentioned is that Madras had a flourishing slave trade and the East India Company itself indulged in it, engaging slaves as masula boatmen, as many ‘ Muckawaes' (fishermen) deserted the Company's service. Fraser, the Land Customer, ordered his subordinates to buy “forty young sound slaves for the Rt. Hon'ble Company and dispose them to the several masulas, two or three on each, in charge of the Chief man of the boat, to be fed and taught by them.” The recruited slaves were even given red coats and numbers to identify them.

Well-researched and documented, quite a few of the articles throw valuable new light on the early modern maritime history of India.


MARITIME INDIA - Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean: Pius Malekandathil; Both the books pub. by Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar, Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 695 each.

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