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Another Jewish Trader – Allan Bin Hassun

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Part 1

The Genizah scrolls have provided us with valuable insight into the lives and times of ordinary people straddling the edges of the Indian Ocean, the mainly Tunisian origin Jews of Fustat and their agents in India. Some time back I told you the story of Abraham Bin Yiju. Today it is the story of Allan. The Genizah scrolls cover stories of many more people, but the Indian angle is relatively low in this case compared to Yiju. If you recall, Yiju lived for decades in India and had a Malayali wife Ashu. But this trader Allan visited the Malabar shores often for trade, though not living in any parts.

Looking back at the Genizah scrolls, the Egyptians were understandably upset when around the turn of the 20th century; various Jewish scholars walked away with all the Genizah papers and distributed them to collectors and libraries in the US, UK and USSR. I wonder what the great problem was with that, for until then the best bits were quietly being sold by Egyptians to private collectors instead of making any attempt to secure and catalog the vast collection. In fact, the synagogue & the Genizah were nearly bulldozed before being discovered and in a way we are all lucky that people like Solomon Schechter cataloged many of the bits found and another luminary, none other than the late Shlom Deo Goitein took up the study of the India traders. I cannot help but think of the unseen private collections and what it contains, but it is sad that they will remain hidden from the view of those who are thirsting for this kind of historical knowledge.

Eventually, I hope that the events that befell the scrolls of Ancona (if those scrolls were indeed genuine) do not happen to these privately held Genizah scrolls, for people may start to disbelieve these fabulous bits of information, when they eventually turn up for public scrutiny. Regarding the scrolls of Ancona, I will get back to them another day, for I am still reading the hotly disputed book.

As for now let us get back to Allah Bin Hassun. Now Goitein in the referred paper covers a transcript of the three letters from Hassun, written around the early quarter on the 12th century, but if you try to analyze this from an Indian perspective, you can work out some very interesting observations.

Prof Goitein asks a question in his paper- The Jews of the Mediterranean area, unlike their brethren in Iraq, were latecomers to the India trade. Why should they have taken upon themselves the physical dangers and material risks of those far-flung travels, when the blessed shores of the Mediterranean offered enough opportunities for gaining a livelihood? His complete reply spans over 6 volumes of brilliant studies -A Mediterranean society and teh India book.

I had answered this question briefly some months ago in the talk given on Yiju. During the 11th century, Mediterranean trade was largely in Muslim hands. Naturally Arab speaking Jews thus found able partners in the same trade and coupled with the profits and trustworthy ports in Malabar, established easy pickings. This continued until the 13th century when the Karimi traders wrested control of the India trade. The short period of trade in those two centuries relate to forays by these traders from Ayadhab in today’s Sudan to the Malabar coasts.

As you read letters like those written by Allan Hassun, you see the immense short term gain related to opportunistic pricing of spices and other items. And typically, fortune favored the brave. It is also very interesting to note that these Jewish traders stuck to certain ports, not major ports like Muziris, but Northern ports like Sindbaur (Goa), Bakanur or Faknur, Manjarur and the lone southern port Kulam (Quilon). They would start with the Northern port, collecting Iron and travel down south to pick up Pepper & other goods before the return to Aden. All this becomes clear in the letters of Allan. So let us first try to get to know this enterprising character.

An individual who was well set in Mediterranean trade was ‘Arus b. Joseph al- Arjawani al-Mahdawi. Arus was a manufacturer and trader of purple cloth, delivering his material to N Africa & Spain. He was a renowned member of his society, a helpful generous man, and quite successful. However he had no sons, a very important desire for traders to further the family trade lines. So he married off his daughter to his brother’s son Allan Hassun. The boy addresses Arus as father and himself as the son of Arus. Allan was initially apprenticed by Arus in the Mediterranean trade between Egypt and Aden in Yemen. Allan’s family also originated from Al Mahdiyya in Tunisia (where Ben Yiju also lived once). The equipment traded was typically fine clothing made in the region.

Youngsters are always seeking adventure, and young Allan decided that he must venture farther, to India. Arus and his partner Siba were not so happy about that, but it appears that they eventually agreed to the venture. Allan was initially provided with some goods meant for trade like Coral and Storax. His cousin Joseph was dispatched to tell him that he should not cross the oceans, but then the boy did just that and went on to become a very famous & renowned India trader, continuing to do so till late in life. As in the case of Yiju, we follow his story from letters he wrote in Hebrew while at Sindabur (Goa) on the Malabar coast and later from Kulam and Ayadhab, letters which then found their way to the Genizah (New readers may refer my notes on Yiju if you have not been initiated to the Genizah scrolls as yet).

We can see here that Allan was bringing back iron and pepper from India, much like the goods exported by Yiju. As we read through the mundane writings in the Genizah letters about debts, goods sold and purchased, relationships with other traders, business meetings and so on, some regional aspects come to light (Incidentally Ben Yiju also features in these trade documents!!).

Goitein reports after extensive studies that one thing you did not do in those days was writing voluminously about ones own misfortune or other personal matters. Paper was dear, I presume. In some letters written to his family, Allan expresses regret for being on the road all the time (but it turns out that his son Zayn Al Dar also got into the same trade). He then tells his three sons to form a partnership in trade, for their own good. But well, Allan did write about one such voyage and his misfortune and also about special circumstances in Quilon, where he traded, during one voyage. This is a valuable insight to the methods of that port.

Goitein summarizes - By that time, people at home had become familiar with conditions in India and were interested in the happenings there. Moreover, the report about legal procedures and other government care for the foreigners in Kulam (Quilon), the southernmost port on the Malabar Coast (from which one returned to Aden), were reassuring. The feeling of safety at sea while running before a steady monsoon is also implicit in the letters.

So why did Allan venture out to Sindbaur and into the India trade? The first letter explains

Having sought God’s guidance, I decided to travel to Sindabur with the corals and Storax, for I did not find a market for it [meaning the corals]; all they offered me for it [in Aden] was 18 [dinars] per selling unit.(Storax, ‘may’a’, an aromatic resin obtained from trees in Asia Minor, used in perfume and medicine, a common commodity exported via Alexandria, Cairo, and Aden to India, as proved by the Geniza letters – It is for a layman the resin Benzoin or our Sambrani the aromatic resin that is smoked for poojas, on coals)

The trader’s modus operandi was as follows - The merchants traveled from Sindabur, the northern port leading to the pepper country via Faknur or Baknur(North of Manjarur), to a place called Manibar– presumably Manjarur or Pantalayani or another capital city in the Malabar country, and from there to Kuilam-Kawlam, the popular southern port on the Malabar Coast, from where they planned to return to Aden.

Now we note from the letters that Manibar or Malabar is mentioned. Was it a port, a city or a region? From Allan’s letters the name is not clear though Goitein supposes it is Malibar. It is also becoming apparent that this could have been synonymous with a port, not only a region. Recall that Al Beruni was the first to mention Malabar as a region (Beruni wrote about Malabar circa 1000AD). I will venture to analyze this further in the next part.

Let us now take a detailed look at one of Allan’s letters from the 12th century. I believe Allan lived and traded around 1115-1150AD, continuing on to a ripe old age. It deals with travel to Sindabur and other places in India. Because of riots and bloodshed in Malabar the ship could not sail to Kulam and changed course to faknur. In Faknur the captain (Ali Nawak a prominent Indian shipmaster or Nakhuda who had a number of business deals with the Jews) disappeared, but the ship continued to Kulam, where it stayed for some time.

So let’s look at the words in more detail, and they are quite perplexing to say the least. I finally arrived in Al-M .. r and bought what God, the exalted, made available, to the extent reported in my previous letters. We intended, on our way home, to travel to Aden, but riots and bloodshed occurred, and whoever was in the town fled.

Now which place could that be? Allans letters only mention the letters Al-Ma….r. Goitein states as follows - Only Al-m . . r is visible. Something like Munaybar-Manibar-Malibar (Malabar, the pepper country on the southern section of the west coast of India) must have been written. The use of the article is strange, but perhaps it was meant to express the idea of both city and region. The plural Malibarat in other Letters, might be understood similarly. Or was it Al Manjarur? Anyway if you look a little southwards, to Cannanore & Calicut, and presume that this was indeed one such town, I cannot think of any riot or bloodshed in Zamorin or Kolathiri country where the inhabitants fled a town. The major event that took place in the 1100-1120 timeframe was the annexation of Calicut by the Manavikrama Raja’s or the Zamorin clan from the Vellatiri. That war however may not have resulted in people fleeing the area. So what could have been the traumatizing event?

Anyway the ship master Ali Nawak wanted to flee as well at Malabar. But Allan convinced him not to and they quickly sailed off to Fakkanur in the North after leaving the pepper & some smaller items with a local Jewish trader Jacob Ibn Thabit in Malabar. At Fakkanur, Ali Nawak disembarked or disappeared (Why did a captain leave ship? Was he that traumatized? What happened in al – a…r?) and the ship proceeded on to Kualam – Quilon. We read from his letter that it took some days sailing from this Malabar port to Quilon. So was it Pantalayani? You may recall that early voyagers including Ibn Batuta did mention an exact period of 10 days sailing from Pantalayani to Quilon and we do know that Pantalayani had a smattering of Jewish traders settled there. So is that a reasonable guess? But why were they fearful about docking in Kulam? More on that follows in the next part.

Allan continues thus………

We loaded the textiles and the iron during the night, for he (Nawak) had the power to keep us back [by refusing to sail]. Finally, we all fled to Faknur. I had left some of the pepper and many of the smaller items with Jacob Ibn Thabit. We arrived in Faknur, where ‘Ali Nawak disembarked and remained, while we went on in the same ship to Kulam and stayed there for some time

Ten days after leaving Kulam the ship encountered a dangerous sea, the captain died, and a vociferous crowd on board forced the ship back to Kulam, where it arrived after another twenty days. When the night of... arrived, we loaded and set sail, 35 days before ‘New Year’. The (new?)captain had been ill while still in town, but we sailed for ten days. When we encountered a large pusht (a reef, or another underwater obstacle), water being five fathoms high, and did not know whether this was the Fal (the northern end of the Laccadive Islands) or not, God granted us safety, but the captain had a stroke and died. We threw his body overboard into the sea. So the boat remained without a commander and a . . ., and we had no charts. A crowd in the ship was afraid the ship would be lost, if it landed in an Arab country. However, if we returned to India, there too the same might happen. They got the upper hand and returned us to Kulam. We gave up hope of saving our goods. After twenty days we arrived in Kulam, the place we feared. But God granted us delivery immediately. In Kulam the ship was returned to its proprietor. Another one was provided with water and wood, and its two captains signed documents specifying their obligations towards the passengers. The .. ., the .. ., and the manager came on board and took the ship from us, confirming its rights to its proprietor, being afraid of ‘Ali Nawak. They provided us with water and wood. Two captains traveled with us, after they had signed documents (confirming their obligations) towards us, and we set sail.

Goitein concludes - Having set sail earlier than usual, the ship arrived in Aden prior to all others with the result that Allan sold his goods for excellent prices. Learning that pepper in Aden cost 35 dinars a sack, a price far too high for the town, Allan decided to return immediately to India on the same ship and rented storage space for 150 sacks of pepper and other spices for the voyage back.

In Allan’s words - We arrived in Aden in the shortest possible time, prior to all others. I sold the iron for a good price, 20 dinars a bahar. I had with me 72 bahars and 50 separate pieces, 30 mann saqat, and 40 mann clove. After customs I had obtained 1,500 dinars [and] a lot in other currencies. I had planned to travel home, but learned that a bahar of pepper cost 35 dinars (in Aden). I could not tarry so long until I could buy pepper in Aden (for a reasonable price). Having sought God’s guidance, I decided to travel to Faknur in the same boat in which we had arrived, for it had been blessed for me. I rented from them storage space for 150 bahirs, 100 for pepper and 50 for various other goods. For the 100 bahirs for pepper, I paid 90 mithqals of Adenese coinage. Sheikh ‘AlI Ibn al-Kufi and Sheikh Bundar had stipulated with them (the captains) for me that I would not pay them a dirhem until I had bought the pepper myself.

The last line kind of signifies that the word of mouth of suppliers was not entirely trustworthy. . Allan had intended to pay the shipmaster in advance; expecting that a part of the pepper would be purchased by the latter, but had been dissuaded from this by the two experienced overseas traders. But does this mean that they got the pepper at Fakkanur? If so why go to Kulam?

Part 2 will be a more detailed analysis of the trade and people with additional data

Three Letters from the Cairo Geniza - S. D. Goitein
A Mediterranean society – SD Goitein
Aden & the Indian Ocean trade – Roxani Elleni Margariti
From the Mediterranean to India: S. D. Goitein
The Jewish Merchants in the Light of Eleventh Century Geniza Documents: Moshe Gil
Southern India as known to Arab Geographers – Nainar

Arab traders – from Herotod’s blog & SARAMCO world


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Fascinating new evidence of the vibrant trade activities in the Malabar coast in the 12th century. The Tarisappalli copper plate of the 10th century mentions of Jewish traders and it had even stipulated that the 'foreigners' accused of wrong-doing should be tried by their church. The disturbance mentioned by Allan could be any local one - remember there were repeated attacks on the Chinese by Arabs on the Malabar coast, the two most vicious instances were in Panthalayani and Calicut. It could well be the 48 years war between the Zamorin and the Porlathiri. Anyhow, we can only speculate till the scholars connect the dots. Great job, Maddy!