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.
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.
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.
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 – Nabateae.net
Pic of Arab with kamal- Nabateae