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Malemo Cana - Vasco Da Gama’s pilot

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Readers get to the Vasco Da Gama story by sheer curiosity; desire to read about adventure, interest in Malabar or Portuguese history or a need to study in the academic course. Vasco or Gama as he is called is indeed an interesting person and there is so much of text out there praising him, ridiculing him and lauding him for his sheer tenacity. Well, the explorer did set out in search of the spice route and found it for his King. ‘He set out with 170 men in July 1497 on three ships (plus a 4th supply ship that was lost early). By Feb 1498, he had reached Malindi, and here was where his fortunes were to change.

For here he met and contracted the services of a person who was to direct the ships to the coast of Malabar. For the first time, the Portuguese had to cross a large expanse of water. Today we have navigational aids and propulsion that makes it easy, but in the days of winds, sailing and the non availability of precise charts, it was a hit and miss. They needed some person who knew how to navigate the monsoon winds. They found such a person, and sources argue over the identity of the pilot, identifying him variously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Gujarati Hindu. Some stories, text books and novels describe the pilot as the famous Arab navigator Ibn Majid, but historians and contemporaneous accounts disagree. The Portuguese historians of the time also fail to connect the person to Ibn Majid or mention the August name. So who could this pilot have been, the person who changed the course of history, both for the west and the east? People who have read about the age of history will agree that the impact of this Portuguese landing indeed changed the course of trade and history.
Let us first get to know Ibn majid. Quoting Wikipedia, Shihab Al-din Ahmad Ibn Majid al Najdi was an Arab navigator and cartographer born in 1421 in Julphar, which is now known as Ras Al Khaimah. He was raised with a family famous for seafaring; at the age of 17 he was able to navigate ships. He was so famous that he was known as the first Arab seaman. The exact date is not known, but bin Majid probably died in 1500. He was the author of nearly forty works of poetry and prose. His most important work was Kitab al-Fawa’id fi Usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa ’l-Qawa’id (Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation), written in 1490. It is a navigation encyclopedia, describing the history and basic principles of navigation, lunar mansions, thumb lines, the difference between coastal and open-sea sailing, the locations of ports from East Africa to Indonesia, star positions, accounts of the monsoon and other seasonal winds, typhoons and other topics for professional navigators. He drew from his own experience and that of his father, also a famous navigator, and the lore of generations of Indian Ocean sailors. Bin Majid wrote several books on marine science and the movements of ships, which helped people of the Persian Gulf to reach the coasts of India, East Africa and other destinations. He grew very famous and was fondly called Shihan Al Dein (Sea's Lion) for his fearlessness, strength and experience as a sailor who excelled in the art of navigation.

His maps certainly helped the Portuguese find a way to India, and many Arabs find fault with Ibn Majid for personally helping Gama across to Malabar and destroying their lucrative trade with Malabar. For as you know most of the ships that plied these waters were Arab, the traders in Malabar were of Arab or Arab extraction and the goods were destined to Arab ports where hefty customs duties were levied. They found their way over even more expensive camel caravans to Alexandria where they were again loaded into ships bound for Europe. This trade from time immemorial was honorably wrought, till the Gama destroyed it all. The pilot is blamed by many Arabs for having helped the Gama destroy this trade.

Calicut heritage forum covered the contents of the book Pepper & Christ, where the fictional account introduces you to young Taufiq, a disciple of Ibn Majid who guides the Gama to Calicut. Was Keki Daruwalla right in his train of thought?

The time lines were right and much interest could be brought about in the subject by bringing the two people together, one in relentless quest of scientific discoveries and the other a rapacious trader. How did this happen? To figure it all out, we have to read the masterly book on the Gama by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the heavily bearded Professor and Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair of Indian History at UCLA, a person who not only is ‘the expert on these matters’ but also one who loves to demonstrate such diverse aspects like South Indian cooking. A very interesting man (no! I have not had the honor of meeting him, but have read about him and his books) Subrahmanyam has written books in Tamil, Hindi, Portuguese and Italian, English and French, to name a few. In all, he knows ten languages and reads in two more.

Sanjay explains in very interesting fashion how Ibn Majid was brought into the picture, by a writer of Gujarati extract in Mecca.

Barros and Castaneda termed the pilot a Malemo Cana or Malemo Canaca a moor, Barros clarified it as Moor from Guzerate whereas Castaneda called him a Gujarati. The person who connected this to Ibn majid was French orientalist Gabriel Ferrand writing on Ibn majid. He borrowed text from the book written by Qutb Al-din Muhammed Al Nahrawali. Al makki. Nahrawali, a Gujaratai living in Mecca, wrote a book to celebrate Ottoman achievements over the Yemeni Arabs. He mentioned the name Ahmad Ibn Majid as the name of the pilot, wrote that he was given much wine to drink by the Portuguese and the pilot in a state of drunkenness explained the methods of sailing the oceans to the Admiral. Interestingly, the text does not state that Ibn Majid accompanied the Gama, but only states that he explained the way. I will not recount the text, but all he said was ‘do not follow the coast, make for the open sea without fearing it and well, follow the winds’. Now that is not expert advice, in my mind but plain common sense in rough and uncharted waters. Anyway Ferrand connected this Ahmad Ibn Majid to the expert Ibn Majid and set the tongues wagging. However it is still not clear why and how Nahrawali mentioned the name and where and how he obtained it. Was it another Ibn Majid of Gujarati extract?

The clinching reasoning behind Ahmad Ibn Majid’s involvement was his supposed regret over helping Gama as evidenced in a poem written by him. These arjuzas were discovered by Russian orientalist Kratchkovsky and translated. The devil is in the detail and the detail provided in the rather clumsy translations (and substantial additions by the translators in the process) made it an even bigger mess. Ibrahim Khoury a Syrian historian pointed out later the corruption of the translated text and the fact that Ibn Majid was already too old to navigate by the 1490’s and that this poem by Ibn Majid where he expressed regret over helping the Portuguese, was actually composed in the 1470’s, much before 1498 when all this happened.

Anyway the fable and legend continued to grow. The most interesting part is that according to Gama’s letters, the pilot accompanied him back to Lisbon for interrogation. So as you can see, Ibn majid, dons the guise of a Gujarati, gets drunk and guides the Gama and after wretchedly showing him the way to Calicut returns to Lisbon with him and settled down there, for there are no records of him returning.

So who was the pilot? Was he one of the Gujrai Nakhuda’s in Malindi? There was a sizable Indian population there according to Portuguese records. The sailors were not all Arabs, as I wrote in my previous blog. Was it just another chap who succumbed to threats or avarice and well, finally went back to settle down in Lisbon as a Fidalgo? Perhaps, but then we get to know that he really knew his business and to be called a Mualim in an Arab world required you to be one. To get to the details you have to read what Barros wrote

Let us see what Barros had to say – Quoting the footnote in ‘3 voyages of Gama’ based on Correas Lendas, translated by the Hakluyt society.

Barros says that some gentiles from Cambay, whom they call Banians, came to see the ships, and that seeing a picture of Our Lady in Da Gama's cabin, and that the Portuguese reverenced it, they made adoration to it with much more ceremony; and next day they returned to it. The Banians and Portuguese were mutually pleased, and the Portuguese imagined that these people were samples of some Christian community in India from the times of St. Thomas.

About the l5th July. Barros says that among the people who came to visit the ships was a Moor of Guzarat, named Malemo (malemo – Muallim or instructor in Arabic and Cana – kanaka – Astrologer in Sanskrit) Cana, who, both from the satisfaction which he felt at the intercourse with the Portuguese, and to please the King of Melinde who was looking for a pilot for them, accepted to go with them. Vasco da Gama, after talking to him, was very well satisfied with his knowledge, especially after he had shown him a map of all the coast of India, with the bearings laid down after the manner of the Moors, which was with meridians and parallels very small (or close together), without other bearings of the compass ; because, as the squares of those meridians and parallels were very small, the coast was laid down by those two bearings of north and south, and east and west, with great certainty, without that multiplication of bearings of the points of the compass usual in our maps, which serves as the root of the others. When Vasco da Gama showed him the great wooden astrolabe which he had brought and others of metal with which he took the sun's altitude, the Moor was not surprised, and said that some pilots of the lied Sea used brass instruments of a triangular shape, and quadrants with which they took the sun's altitude, and chiefly that of a star which they most made use of for their navigation. But that he and the Cambay mariners and those of all India made their navigation by certain stars both in the north and in the south, and also by other notable stars which traversed the middle of the heavens from east to west, and they did not take their distance with instruments like those, but with another which he used; which he brought at once to show, which was of three tables (or plates). Since we have treated of its shape and use in our geography in the chapter of instruments of navigation, it is sufficient to say here that in that operation they use an instrument which we now use, and which mariners call balhestilla the cross staff (or Jacob's staff), and in that chapter an account of it and its inventors will be given.

Osorio, in speaking of Gama's arrival at Mozambique, describes the compasses used by the Arab mariners at great length; he also says they used quadrants for observing the sun's distance from the equinoctial line; and says: "Finally, they were instructed in so many of the arts of navigation, that they did not yield much to the Portuguese mariners in the science and practice of maritime matters."

Where did the Melinda Sheikh find the pilot or pilots? It appears that they belonged to the Gujarati ships docked at Melinda. How come they left their ships and accompanied the Gama? For monetary compensation of course, considering the fact that the pilot demanded his reward as soon as he sighted Calicut. Could this have been Ahmad Ibn majid? Doubtful, for he had already retired and was living in peace, I suppose.

Would Ibn Majid be an ordinary pilot for a Gujarati ship? Doubtful again and considering that those Indian ships would have also been waiting to sail back to Cambay with the monsoon winds, it is doubtful that he left his own ship in the lurch had he been a honorable pilot. A Melinda King would not be able to overrule that, I presume.

The St Gabriel sailed out on April 26th 1498, as we know reached Kappad around 20th May 1498. The pilot demanded his reward which was apparently provided immediately as soon as the hills behind the city of Calicut were sighted. The Gama and his sailors made history and small fortunes though Vasco vanished for the next few years, however not before heralding the Century of discovery and the start of the ruin of Malabar. Vasco returned twice and eventually fell sick and died during the third of his voyages in the lands he discovered for the West, in pain of an unknown disease.

The Kamal or the Rapalagai (Malayalam) - The Gujarati pilot used a kamal to guide the San Gabriel to Calicut. In using the kamal, the knots are counted by keeping the string between one’s teeth; hence the name kau (=teeth) for the pole star. Vasco da Gama’s men actually thought that the pilot (Malemo Cana) was telling the distance by his teeth! Vasco da Gama later carried back a copy of the instrument “to have it graduated in inches”, suggesting that he did not understand the difference between a linear scale and a harmonic scale. In fact, Europeans seem never to have quite understood the principle of harmonic interpolation used in the kamal.

1. The sheikh of Melinda actually provided two pilots to the Gama, though mentions are made often to one and him being Ibn majid in history books. Who was the second? Food for thought.

2. GR Tibbetts feels that Barros may have borrowed from Varthema as he wrote his book in 1540. Varthema mentions a chart seen during his 1508 voyage, marked with latitudes & longitudes. Whereas Correa and Castenada do not mention nay such thing.

The career & legend of Vasco D agama – Sanjay Subrahmanyam
E.J. Brill's first encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, Volume 1 - M. Th. Houtsma, page 362
Indo-Portuguese Encounters - Lotika Varadarajan
The Navigator Ahmad bin Majid – Paul Lunde - Saudi Aramco World
Arabs and the sea – Saudi Aramco World
Ancient sailing and navigation –

Pic of Arab with kamal- Nabateae


  1. Arun Surendran

    Happy Onam :-) Discovering your blog has made my Onam even happier. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  1. ഹേമാംബിക

    woww!! a wonderful place.. can u add 'follow me' google button in your blog ? to get updates from your blog..
    keep going..

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    "Poem by Ibn Majid where he expressed regret over helping the Portuguese, was actually composed in the 1470’s" Who were the people referred to by Ibn Majid?

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS - that poem is a problem issue. It is not very clear as it was originally composed in 1470, but at that time, the Portuguese were not at the places mentioned. It was probably touched up or embellished by others in the 1480's or much later, but the whole thing about this particular Arjuza is somewhat fishy. I will try to get more specific info on this topic soon. However the efforts of the Spaniards and the Portuguese to get to Malabar had started earlier than 1490 and they were obviously trying to get the majid maps and decipher it, which as you can see happened in this voyage. So you see that Majid was aware of the franks early enough.

    in addition historians say that the old and scholarly Ibn Majid would not have got drunk at that particular time for it was the Ramadan season..

  1. Vijay

    Maddy, informative post. How likely is it that the guide was a Moplah sailor? I have heard this anecdotally. Since the Moplahs were seafarers, it is likely that there may have been one or more of them in Africa when da Gama showed up. Thanks.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Vijay - It is unlikely that the Muallim was a Moplah - for the Moplah of that period was not that educated (in these matters) or well versed in ocean sailing. It was I believe more in the domain of the Arabs and to a certain extent with Konkan and Gujarati sailors. My studies indicate that the Moplahs and Marakkars later learnt the art but still held their smaller boats close to the Malabar & Konkan shores.

    Secondly a Moplah would not have taken the risk of divulging such a closely held secret.

    then again the Portuguese document that the ship was from Cambay and the pilot a Gujarati.

  1. Calicut Hertitage Forum

    Thank you, Maddy for discussing all the possibilities. But, at the end, we still have to speculate on who it was who guided Gama's fleet to Calicut. It could only be an Arab, as you suggest, for only they know the route so well. The fact that the Gama fleet did not touch the Gujarat coast before landing in Calicut shows that it was not, most probably, a Gujarati bania.
    Anyhow, quite an interesting post which raises several new questions.

  1. Calicut Hertitage Forum

    A very interesting post which raises new questions. We still feel (as you conclude) that it could only be an Arab and not a Gujarati bania. Otherwise, the Gama fleet would surely have touched the Gujarat coast before reaching Calicut. One day the mystery of the navigator may be unravelled. Maybe we should look at the Milinde end.Great research!

  1. BVT

    ""Barros says that some gentiles from Cambay, whom they call Banians, came to see the ships, and that seeing a picture of Our Lady in Da Gama's cabin, and that the Portuguese reverenced it, they made adoration to it with much more ceremony; and next day they returned to it. The Banians and Portuguese were mutually pleased, and the Portuguese imagined that these people were samples of some Christian community in India from the times of St. Thomas."""

    During the Middle Ages, Pope John XX, headquartered at Avignon, sent a group of five missionaries to the Mongol Emperor at Khanbalik, modern Beijing in China, under the Dominican Fray Giordano or Jordanus(1321-1330).

    On their way, they picked up a novice, Demetrius, from West Asia and then travelled through South Asia, succoring the Nestorian Christians there, who were hard pressed by the Muslims.

    Jordanus went about the region of Gujarat preaching and baptizing -ninety were baptized in one town, twenty in another, and thirty-five in the third. In his Mirabilia Descripta he wrote that since his arrival in India about thousand persons had been won over to the "Catholic faith". He was very appreciative of the quality of the Christians.

    If they were christians & venerated a picture of "Our lady" then they were Descendants of the EX-Nestorians Converted to Roman catholism by another European Jordanus some 200 years ago.

    Again just a possibility and nothing more:)

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF ...I am still searching..

    As BVT states here, there is another possibility of this being a bania from Gujarat afterall..

  1. tony

    Greatly enjoy your posts. Am reading Walter Fischel's study of East India company records. Ever so often I find similar matter on your blog..... with totally new insights.
    Besides the history, I love the feel for Kerala you impart.

  1. Maddy

    thanks tony..
    I saw another book recently giving a slightly different take on the pilot, will add it to this page some day.
    Thanks for your comment, appreciate it.

  1. rudimentree

    Wonderful article. Thank you. Your last comment mentions another book you read about the pilot...can you mention the name here. Thanks again for the informative article.