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The many mysteries behind a Tamil Bell

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

The Marakkar Bell in New Zealand

Around 1836 or perhaps closer to 1840, a missionary Rev Colenso in New Zealand saw and acquired a broken bronze bell while touring a Maori village in Whangarei - New Zealand. The relatively small bell was being used for cooking as Colenso put it. The bell itself was damaged, with its top portion intact, while the lower portion and clapper tongue had been lost, over time. Colenso was told that the bell had been found among the roots of a large tree brought down by a heavy gale. Its owners believed that the bell had been in the possession of their iwi (tribe) for several generations. Colenso then went on to swap the bell for an iron pot, more eminently suited for cooking. After his death, he bequeathed the bell to the Colonial Museum, now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The bell produced a lot of interest when it was exhibited, and discussions and theories abounded about its origins.

Now that does not qualify the event to be one of any importance, but what was curious was the inscription found on the bell, coupled with the remoteness of New Zealand, in that 19th century timeline. Today it is relatively easy, though somewhat time consuming, to get there, but imagine a time in the past, many centuries ago, when navigation and sailing was tricky and at the mercy of the winds. It certainly would have been difficult to get there. So how would a 15th- 16th century bell with a Tamil inscription land up in New Zealand when the island itself had not been formally discovered and mapped?

Ideas, thoughts, and speculation ran rife, and some historians went on to suggest that a primitive Tamil colony lived there, or that seafaring Tamils became the first settlers on the island. Some others opined that skillful Tamil seafarers could have easily got there; for they knew all the seas. Some others focused on the long distance a Tamil skippered ship could have sailed, starting from a South Indian port, all the way to a location in the Northland region of the Zealand. Others thought that it was actually the Portuguese from Goa who had got there, well before Cook discovered Oz. And then there was another thought that this was a dhow accompanying the Zheng He armada sailing around the world. All stimulating ideas, and so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the discussions and studies around this subject.

First a look at the bell and the embossed Tamil inscription on the object, reveals that it is written in archaic Tamil, generally transcribed as “Mukaitan Vakkuchu utiya kappal utiya mani”. Experts date the script to the 15th century (approx. 1400-1450) and explained that it is supposedly ‘Mohideen Baksh’s ship bell”. The bell itself was presumed to have been cast around 1450, dating it even before Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498. From the bell’s canon and its design, it is quite clear that this originated from a European bell casting unit, and we also know that South Indian temple bells had a simple ring eyelet canon.

Considering therefore that the original bell belonged to a Portuguese ship from one of their early armadas, we can assume that the bell passed hands from the Portuguese to Marakkar traders and shipowners in Malabar or M’aabar (We have discussed before about the Marakkars and their Tamil origins). So, after acquisition, the boat or dhow, their marakkam would have hoisted the bell with the owner’s or the ships name Mohideen Baksh. We also know that these marakkar ships coasted around the Eastern regions of South India, ferrying rice, and other items including spices such as cinnamon from the East, and from Lanka to various Malabar ports. We also know that similar ships travelled to Malacca where the Portuguese established a trading town in 1511, as well as Chinese ports. If this established a potential ownership of the bell, the next question would be how it found its way to distant New Zealand, which is not usually accessed through commercial trading monsoon winds. Such winds were used for sailing up the Northerly Chinese coast, but it is possible for a ship which flounders to sail on to Oz, only problem being the fact that NZ was never a destination in those times. Perhaps the dhow never ventured out of Malacca or S India, but from Java where many Marakkars had settled and continued with their seafaring activities and trading.

JCG Lever was one of the first to propound the Marakkar theory. He explained “As the bell bears a Tamil inscription and the name appearing is Islamic, one can only conclude that exhibit is a Maricar bell from one of their ships. The ship to which the bell belonged could have reached the West Coast of New Zealand via Indonesia (the old Netherlands East Indies), as these people settled down in the Islands early in history and their descendants are to be found even today. However, the possibility of direct voyaging from South India cannot be ruled out, for the Maricars, like their forebears, were great sea rovers. The presence of a bell on a Maricar ship, however, poses an interesting question. Their ships are believed to have been small and the need for a bell on them, to serve the purpose of a ship's bell as we know it, would hardly arise. The bell, perhaps, was used on the ship to summon the devout Muslim to his five times of prayer.”

British bell - See canon design
However, recent paleographic reading by scholars dated the inscription closer to the 17th or 18th century and this I believe matches up to the complex canon design seen in 18th century English admiralty bells (see picture to the right). Thus, we can assume that the bell originated from a Marakkar ship from South India, Indonesia or Malaysia during the 18th century. As such we also know that James Cook was the first non-Maori to get to New Zealand, in 1769. While British ships plied the route to New Zealand after that, the question of how this bell landed up in New Zealand has been discussed often, reaching no conclusion.

I have not come across any other dating reports on the bronze and the metallurgy of the bell metal as such, other than an early report mentioning a 1450 date, which may have been erroneous if this was a 18th century British bell. Thus, it could either have been a floundering ship or a derelict Maricar shipwreck from perhaps, Indonesia. Considering that no other Indian origin artifacts have been discovered in NZ, it is a one-off event and does not indicate any Tamil colony or settlement in NZ.

A Portuguese wreck?

One of the early theories was that this bell had connections to Portuguese voyagers who reached Oz, well before James Cook. Robert Langdon, in his book The Lost Caravel, claimed that the bell was taken as a souvenir from the East Indies to Spain, and later brought into the Pacific by a caravel which was wrecked in the Tuamotu group. From there he proposes that it was carried in stages to New Zealand by some of the survivors or their descendants as part of their Spanish culture. The date would presumably have been 1550. This theory, though sounding far-fetched; did link the bell with another relic, the Spanish helmet found in Wellington Harbor.

Brett Hilder who studied the bell in detail did not agree, stating - In January 1970, I suggested that the bell might have belonged to a ship in the Indian Ocean which had become a derelict, probably abandoned, dismasted, and waterlogged. Such a vessel could have drifted the 5,000 miles to the west coast of New Zealand. This led me to assume that the bell came to New Zealand in the ship to which it belonged, namely the ship of Mohaideen Bakhsh.

The details of, and evidence for, this theory has the following basis. Derelicts are carried along by the permanent currents in the sea, most of which are known and charted from years of observation from ships and by the drift of sealed bottles. The largest of these currents, and the one of most importance in my theory, is that which runs right round the southern part of the world between the coast of Antarctica and the southern continents. This is the area of regular westerlies, known as the “Roaring Forties” and “Shrieking Fifties” after the latitudes in which they are found. These westerlies produce a current running to the eastward with a speed of half a knot or more. Although this is not a great speed, any derelict drifting in it, with some help from the wind, will travel for thousands of miles in due course.

Somehow and indirectly connected with the bell is the so-called mahogany shipwreck near Warrnambool, Victoria, only 40 miles east of Portland. Hilder adds - The local Aborigines in 1840 said that the wreck had been there longer than their knowledge. I contend that the ship arrived off the coast as a derelict and was cast ashore in a great storm at least 500 years ago. Her timbers were obviously very ancient and what could be seen of the bulwarks and remains of her poop appeared to be mahogany, although one witness wrote “cedar or mahogany” in 1876. What could be observed of her style of construction was quite foreign to the whalemen and other early witnesses, but she had two masts and some decking, and being about 100 feet in length was presumably about 100 tons or more. This relatively intact ship located on an isolated beach near Warrnambool, Victoria, was visited by and known to a whole community of people during the latter half of the 19th century before it was covered over by shifting sands after a storm, never to be seen again.

In and before 1490, the whole trade of the Indian Ocean shores was carried in Arab and Indian vessels and Hilder therefore concluded that the Mahogany Ship was one of these vessels, lost and abandoned, left to drift dismasted and waterlogged on the ocean currents. But after its early sighting, the remains were lost, and were no longer available for analysis. Is this what happened to one of Mohaideen Baksh’s ships? Did it drift all the way to New Zealand bringing the bell along? Or could it be simply a case of bell theft from the Moslem ship after it was plundered, and the Bell changed hands several times until it reached New Zealand?

The Portuguese theory is explained in further detail as follows - Diego Lopes de Sequeira, the Viceroy of Goa, launched an expedition into the uncharted water beyond the Spice Islands which was perhaps an exploratory expedition to intercept Magellan who was sailing for the Spaniards. Cristovas de Mendonca, at Goa, captained the fleet of three caravels and sailed in 1521, towards Sumatra, and then east to Malacca before heading off into unknown territory. After 18 months, and the loss of two caravels, Mendonca returned, but the fate of the other two ships is not known, nor have been recorded. It is presumed that one of the caravels is the Mahagony ship, the one we talked about. A description of it, from 1848, indicates that, instead of the planks, it had wooden panels, just as caravels were constructed. But radiocarbon dating of some wood perceived to be from the wreck provides a 167-1710 time frame, well after the above voyages.

Now we get to the second wreck - In 1877 a shipwreck was uncovered in a violent storm at Raupuke Beach, near Raglan, on the west coast of New Zealand. Eyewitness descriptions of the shape and size of the wrecked vessel bear a striking resemblance to those of Warrnambool's mahogany ship. Further evidence of this is a medieval helmet dredged out of the harbor at Petone, a Wellington suburb. The helmet, since identified as 16th century Portuguese, and a cannon ball found nearby, seem to point to a Portuguese origin for the wreck.

Fitting the Tamil bell to these wrecks was the next attempt and the teams who worked with these mysteries concluded that the caravels were from Goa, where Tamil was known and spoken, and so the bell came in those ships. Most people believed the mystery was solved.  

Now all this sounded somewhat vague to me – a marakkar ship owner’s bell on a Portuguese caravel? It is definitely unlikely. The Portuguese had their own, bigger bells on their ships, why should Mohideen Baksh’s tiny bell be used on a Portuguese war ship? Thus, arose the next possibility, that the Ruapuke wreck was could be that of a Tamil Muslim dhow.

A Tamil wreck ?

Could drifting flotsam from a dhow wreck near Java be the likely scenario? The person who studied this wreck in much detail is CG Hunt, who noted that the wooden ship was made of diagonal planking using teak beams, fastened by many wooden screws (and some large brass screws for the bigger planks) pointing to a South Indian construction. Bill and Sullivan who inspected it found that the bell had been removed, but found a brass plate under its location inscribed in Tamil letters. The Tamil inscribed plate which they sent to Auckland for preservation, however vanished mysteriously. If the bronze name-plate prised out from the deck of the Ruapuke wreck is ever found, and if its Tamil script matches the Colenso bell, then the origin would have cleared up, but as I mentioned previously, the bronze plate vanished mysteriously.

A recent theory floated by Gavin Menezes was that the Chinese admiral Zheng he and his armada sailed around, that the Maraicar dhow was part of the Chinese armada and it got wrecked at New Zealand. He goes on to imply that some writing on the rocks were left by Tamil survivors of the wreck. After looking at the rock engravings and detailed analysis, most experts scoffed at this theory, stating it as being totally unlikely and without basis. But an early report on the mahogany wreck which vanished around 1880, informs us that the aborigines (Annual Dogwatch # 18 1960 - J MacKenzie)mentioned the coming of yellow skinned men and some early settlers noted that the aborigines had a lighter skin color, so some ancient Chinese arrivals are indeed possible.

Conspiracy theorists wondered why all the evidence, even those taken away by treasure hunters from the Raglan and Mahogany wreck vanished, opining that this was encouraged to ensure Cook’s legacy and make sure there were no Portuguese claims. John Tasker who pored over the mystery at length, believes that Ruapuke was where a lot or rubbish washed up over time from various parts of the oceans moving with the Tasman drift. What was found does not prove that Tamils or Portuguese ventured into those regions, considering available proof. He went over various clues in his study, such as the case where some said the ship’s wood was teak, others said it was inferior pine and yet others called it mahogany and with all this conflicting opinion, he could neither establish it to be or Portuguese nor of Tamil origin. Another important question remained unanswered, which was how a bell which may have belonged to this wreck at Ruapuke on the west coast traveled to Whangarei in the North East and wagot lodged under a tree. The wreck itself, sighted many times, finally disappeared in 1944.

With no other avenues to search and the inability to access CG Hunt’s little study, I concluded that the bell was part of flotsam, or maybe a Marakkar ship did indeed flounder and get wrecked at Ruapuke. And I recalled an old Gujarati proverb relating to trading voyages to Java. It said: He who goes to Java never comes back; but if he does return, his descendants, for seven generations, live at ease.

As I was wondering about the wooden nails, the bell, archaic Tamil characters and the such, and continued my search for sources, I laid my hands on a recent study by Prof Arunachalam, presented in the Indian Geographic journal, from which I obtained many new inputs, and I acknowledge it with very many thanks. He explains that the translation should actually be “Mukayathin Vaksu Udaya kappal Mani”. Now this can be interpreted in two ways, that the bell belongs to the ship named Mukayathin Vaksu or it could mean that the bell belonged to Mukayathin Vaksu, the owner of the ship, the former being more appropriate. He tends to agree that a dating more towards 17th -18th century is viable coinciding with my hypothesis looking at the canon.

Let’s now move the focus to the ownership of the bell and the dhow on which it was mounted. Was the owner named Mohideen Baksh or was it the ship which was named Mohideen Baksh? Dutch records from Pulicat show that spice trade with Java was indeed carried on through a Meer Mohammed Maricar in his ship Mohideen Baksh. Interestingly, one of the members of this Marakkar’s family at Marakkar Pattinam from Vedalai in Ramanathapuram had filed a claim on the bell, after the news surfaced. In addition to this there was another ship owner Habib Marakkar who owned a fleet of about 40 ships. Two of his ships Mohideen Baksh and Kadir Baksh plied the Java route. Both ships may have been built in Nagapattinam and the Mohideen Baksh was indeed lost in a storm off Java, between the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Yet another clue exists on the bell itself, and it appears that below the main sentence, there is a missed word “Marakayar”, this having been identified and transcribed by Dr Taninayakam, a Lankan scholar. So, it becomes clear that the bell was indeed from a Marakkar ship. The derelict wreck from Java may have been floating around for ages and finally washed up at Ruapuke. If one were to discount the wreck of one of the two Mohideen Baksh vessels, we can also presume that the MB was on charter for the British who were procuring timber from Norfolk island in NZ and it got caught in a storm near Norfolk, washing up ashore at Ruapuke.

So much for the Tamil bell and the Marakkar ship. So, friends, that is how a Tamil inscription on a broken bell took us on this incredible trip from Nagapatinam to Java and then to New Zealand and back, traversing thousands of miles across the seas and many hundreds of years!!


Indian Geographic journal, Vol 81, June-Dec 2006. – Exploring the Indian Coast Prof B Arunachalam

The journal of the Polynesian society - Volume 84 1975 > Volume 84, No. 4 > The story of the Tamil bell, by Brett Hilder, p 476-484

Sixteenth Century Portuguese Down Under - Volume Three - John Tasker

Pocket guide to Australia - Portuguese connections

Historic alleys - The marakkars and their origins 


Pics – Raglan rocks – National library NZ, British admiralty bell with similar canon (St George), Royal museum, Greenwich