Ahmad Ibn Majid : the Master Mariner of The Indian Ocean

Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese Navigator, was the first European to reach Calicut in Kerala, India, in 1459 . It would be an epoch-making voyagethat would deeply affect trade and the history of the Indian Ocean

Ahmad Ibn Majid, the great Muslim Navigator, is also famous in the West because it is said he helped guide the Portuguese Navigator, Vasco da Gama on his historic voyage to India —  which was a first by a European by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. It is also alleged that da Gama, who had reached Malindi, in East Africa, had been looking for a guide/helper to take him to India — a route that was until then unknown to European navigators. The Arab mariners were very familiar with the Indian sea-routes having been plying the Indian Ocean for years, unhindered, unchallenged, carrying out thriving trade in spices and other commodities with ports cities of Southern India and the Far East. Indeed, the Arab traders would bring the goods from India and the South China Sea all the way along the East coast of Africa to the Middle Eastern ports of, among others, Aden, Muscat, Riyadh and Hormuz, from where the goods would be transported by caravans over land-routes to the well known European trading centres, namely Florence, Venice and Constantinople (later, Istanbul) the capital of Byzantium Empire.

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Ahmad ibn Majid was born in an Arab Muslim sea-faring family in 1432 in Sharjah, now in U.A.E., which was then a part of Oman. However, Ahmad Ibn Majid would not be allowed to go to sea until he had finished his education that included, among others, studying the sciences and memorizing the Holy Qur’an by heart — all of which he did to the satisfaction of his parents. Ibn Majid thus made  his first voyage out to sea at the age of seventeen. And, his first job on board was to man the rudder and do the measurements when asked.

Ibn Majid was fascinated by the sea. As a young boy, he had heard alluring tales of travels from his sea-faring father. He also heard about lands beyond the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean. He grew up to be a fine young man and a source of pride to his parents and, down the years, he would gradually build for himself a solid reputation as the most well known seaman along the Eastern coasts of Africa  and the Indian Ocean  — a region that he plied regularly aboard Arabian dhows doing, with his fellow Arab merchants, lucrative business in trading spices like cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper and tumeric, among others. And, until the turn of the sixteenth century, the Arabs were the dominant traders along the East African coastal routes and in the Indian seas. 

The Arabs knew the waters of the Indian Ocean well and were master-sailors. The Europeans had until then not really ventured beyond the Mediterranean Sea — so to say.  Indeed, until the fall of Constantinople (to-day Istanbul) to the Ottomans in May, 1453, the Arab’s supremacy remained unchallenged in that part of the world. But after the loss of Istanbul, things were to change dramatically for the Muslims in the Indian seas. The Ottomans would impose new rules, new tariffs and duties on the commodities that passed through their newly conquered city. That sent the European traders scrambling to find new routes to the Far East and India to keep the supply of the prized goods coming to the West. The Portuguese and the Spaniards would be the first Europeans to scramble to find new sea-routes to the East.  And that was the time when such navigating stalwarts like Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, among others, would come forward to offer their services to the European Kings to finance their expedition in search of the new sea-route to the East. Portugal and Spain were the first to welcome the offers and thus they heralded the beginning of a new defining moment in history.

Ibn Majid enjoyed a great reputation as an experienced navigator not only in the East African region and the China Seas but also in the Arab world because he was much more than a navigator. He was an accomplished cartographer and an inventor as well as a poet and an author. His most famous book on sea-faring: “Kitab al-Fawa ‘idfi Usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa’l Qawa’id” (The Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation) is an encyclopaedia on navigation and has been ever looked upon as such.  He was also an inventor. In fact, he invented or improved on several navigational instruments like the Astrolabe  — instruments that literally revolutionized sailings and helped set new standards in navigation. Indeed, Ibn Majib was considered, by those in the know, a giant among the sea-farers of his day and was justly hailed as “The Lion of the Sea.

By the end of the fifteenth century, things would change for the Arab traders when Vasco da Gama, the famed Portuguese Navigator, managed to sail round the Cape of Good Hope and ventured up the east coast of Africa and touched at the trading port of Malindi in Kenya. He already had then in his possession a map of the Indian seas drawn by none other than Ibn Majid. He was therefore looking for help to get to India.

Vasco da Gama was well aware that the Arab navigators knew and were quite familiar with sailing in the Indian seas. All he needed then was a guide/helper to take him to Calicut, India, which was then among the most prominent spice trading centres in the Far East.

It is strongly conjectured that it was Ahmad ibn Majid, the famed Muslim navigator, who happened to be in the port of Malindi at the time, was coaxed by da Gama to show him the way to India. However, that claim is strongly disputed by Arab sources. No name is mentioned in da Gama’s Captain’s Log except that he had enlisted the help of “an Arab mariner” to take him in his historic mission. The Arab sources rather give the ‘credit’ or ‘blame’ for helping da Gama to a Gujerati Indian sailor, who had been abandoned in Malindi by his crew. It was the Gujerati, yearning to get to his homeland, who volunteered to guide da Gama. But then this is also conjecture.  Ibn Majib, the wise and experienced navigator that he was, knew how precious the maps of the Indian Ocean and the information contained therein were and he would be last person, as an Arab and a Muslim, to cede trade secrets  to the  ‘enemy’ —  who were the Portuguese.

Vasco da Gama, in fact, managed to sail the Indian Ocean with ‘the guide’ and reached Calicut, India, on May 20, 1498, which was a historic feat in itself and which would be reckoned as a turning-point in world history. It would literally open, to the Europeans, the new sea-routes to the East by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. And from then on things would not be the same in the region for the Muslims. In fact, da Gama’s triumphant voyage would lead, as the world knows, the era of “Global Imperialism” by the European powers.

The Arabs could offer little competition to the Portuguese intrusion in the Indian Ocean. The latter’s fast, modern vessels equipped with modern weaponry in terms of canons and guns, were literally no match for the old and ‘sluggish’ Arab dhows. Soon more and more European powers — notably the Dutch, the French and the British would rush to claim a share in the trade and exploitation of the riches of the East. The Portuguese strove hard to guard their newly acquired naval supremacy in the area but they could offer little resistance to their tough Europeans competitors. The Portuguese would, nevertheless, successfully hold on to their various strategic trading outposts and enclaves they had established to protect their trade routes and trading outposts, namely: in Hormuz (Persia), Goa (India), Malacca (Malaysia), Macao (South China Sea) and Mozambique in East Africa.

The conjecture that it was Ibn Majid, who, inadvertently, helped bring the collapse of Arab-seafaring in the Indian Ocean, is a trifle problematical as circumstances do not quite support it.  One only has to look at the facts surrounding Ibn Majid’s life.  It is reported that he was a pious and religious man, brought up in a strict orthodox Muslim home. He practised his faith rigidly and was well learned in the Holy Qur’an. It is said, he never consumed alcohol. So much so, the common story that da Gama  got him drunk and then coaxed him into taking him to India, does not stand and the conjecture is often dismissed by Arab intellectuals as hogwash. However, it is very plausible that it was Ibn Majid’s map, which da Gama had in his possession, that might have indirectly contributed to the success of the latter’s trip and, ultimately, helped end the supremacy the Arabs  in the Indian Ocean.

Ibn Majid’s image and reputation as a Master Navigator has ever remained large in the Middle Eastern  countries. He is revered and venerated as a hero and an icon of Arab’s significant contribution to  modern  science and world civilization. He passed away in 1500 A. D.

(*) All photos from Google

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