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The Moors - BC 200 - 1675 AD

Of the various products of the plant world, the spices and aromatics have from the very beginning ministered to the needs and welfare of people, and have, therefore, been appreciated in a special degree. As a result, they have always been a prominent and influential factor in the intercourse of nations as well as in the world's commerce. During the prime of the Babylonian empire, about 2000 to 1000 BC, a lively caravan trade was developed which extended from China, India and Arabia to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and the Black sea.

During this period, Arabia acquired special importance by means of the sea traffic of her southern coast, which was favored by the Persian gulf and the Red sea. At an early date, the Arabian population conducted a lively intermediate trade with Indian and Egyptian goods which were brought to the Arabian ports. Ginger, cinnamon, cardamoms, pepper, cloves, nutmegs, sandalwood, lignaloes, indigo, etc., were brought to these ports from the interior. From the Chinese ports and the East Indian islands large importations of these and similar drugs were received.

They were known there as traders centuries before Mahomet was born, and such was their passion for enterprise, that at one and the same moment they were pursuing commerce in the Indian Ocean2, and manning the galleys of Marc Antony in the fatal seafight at Actium. The author of the Periplus found them in Ceylon about the first Christian century, Cosmas Indico-pleustes in the sixth; and they had become so numerous in China in the eighth, as to cause a tumult at Canton.

Most of the vessels found in the harbors of Ceylon did not belong to the island, but came from other parts of India; some differed little from those constructed two thousand years since, in which eastern mariners traded in the days of Pliny. Pliny speaks of vessels in Ceylon being constructed with prows at either end, of very largo tonnage. Periplus says "rigged ships with masts and sails were required for Taprobane." Arab dhows, according to Pliny the first vessels employed by the Phoenicians and Arabians in the Red Sea, were rude rafts or fragile boats, made of wicker work covered with hides, and some were formed of papyrus, but these were made to stand a voyage to Taprobane, where he states they went.

In the first century BC Agatharchides states that the Arabians had very large vessels, which character they retained down to the sixteenth century. Among others, Purchas relatest that Arabian vessels were larger than the English, while the Persian ships, and Indian baghalahs1 of the same period, were of still greater dimensions, some of them carrying from seven to fifteen hundred persons, and others one hundred and twenty horses. Arab horses were brought to Bombay, as Marco describes them standing over a date cargo, which does not improve the fruit.

Agatharchides (BC 118): writes "the Arabians are warlike and able mariners; they sail in very large vessels to the countries where the spices come from, and plant colonies there." An obscure passage in Pliny's account of Ceylon, seems to confirm this statement. Haji Khalfa, in his "History of the Ante-Islamic Times," tells of the universal influence of the old Arabian mariners, and how they sailed everywhere. There is good reason to suppose even long after Hippalus they chiefly supplied the West with Eastern produce. The mention by the ancients of spices peculiar to the Archipelago, and their ignorance of where they came from, can only be accounted for by supposing they obtained them through the Arabian merchants, who, having the monopoly, kept the secret to themselves. Herodotus relates that they circulated fabulous stories about cinnamon; and this accounts for the absence of any mention of this spice as a product of Ceylon in ancient authors, although in all probability it was brought from the island by the Arabs.

The genius of the Sinhalese is so essentially nonseafaring that it is impossible to suppose they ever had a native fleet; the few notices of shipping which occur in the annals refer to Indian vessels conveying Buddhist missions and princes to and from the island. Unlike the Sinhalese, the Hindus and several other peoples of the peninsula appear to have been anciently a seafaring people, more so than is generally supposed; and the seas and coasts were infested with pirates; but few Indian rulers appear to have possessed a fleet for war as in Europe, and there is a great absence of accounts of naval engagements until the arrival of the Portuguese. As far back as the tenth century Socotra was a noted haunt of pirates. Mas'udi says it was much frequented by Indian corsairs called "Bawarij," who chased Arabian ships bound for India and China. Ibn Batuta also describes some of their proceedings, and Marco Polo says "the people of Guzerat were the most desperate pirates in existence."

According to one traditionary accounts, the Moors who reside on the coast and in the interior parts of Ceylon, equally with those on the Conroundel coast, are descended from a tribe of Arabs, of the posterity of Hashem, who were expelled from Arabia by their prophet Mohammed, as a punishment for their pusillanimous conduct in one of the battles in which he was engaged against the partizans of Abu Jahbel, and who afteiwards founded a colony at Kaiilpatnam (the Colchis mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythrean sea), and from thence moved in successive emigrations towards this island, and along the borders of the peninsula of Hindoostan as far as Rameswaram.

Following the decline of the Chola as a maritime power in the twelfth century, Muslim trading communities in South Asia claimed a major share of commerce in the Indian Ocean and developed extensive east-west, as well as Indo-Sri Lankan, commercial trade routes. The name of Moor was given to them by the Portuguese, the Mahomedans with whom they were best acquainted before their arrival in India being known as Moors, which denomination they received from their having come from the Roman Mauritania. On the appearance of the Portuguese, they were the most rising race in these eastern seas. They were found in all positions favourable for trade, with special immunities and privileges. Their fleets were numerous and powerful; and if the banner of the cross had not then appeared, that of the crescent might at this moment have been predominant in India.

The Singhalese impose on the Moors the title of Marakkalaya or boatmen, which is very probably derived either from the circumstance of having had formerly at their command the export of the commodities of Ceylon, or from their crossing over to the island in boats from the opposite shore when they made their settlement. The title Moor or Moro appears to be inapplicable to this people, for this appellation was originally bestowed on the Saracens who invaded Spain ; the greater part of them having come from Mauritania in Africa ; though in later times it was rendered a common epithet for Mohammedans of all sects and countries who were settled in Hindoostan and on the coast of Barbary.

Vasco da Gama, on his discovery of India, anchored off Calicut* on the 20th May 1498. Calicut was at that time the most important place of trade in the whole of India, and the arrival of the Portuguese there filled the Arabs, then the principal traders to the East, with considerable alarm for the safety of their commerce; they, therefore, did their best to influence the King against them. The intention of the Arabs to prevent the Portuguese from trading direct Avith India having been communicated to Vasco da Gama, he gave instructions to his Factors that they were to barter their goods for anything the people liked to give in exchange, however worthless or below the proper value it might be. This further incensed the Arabs, who not only ill-treated the Portuguese who went on shore, but also robbed them of their merchandise. Vasco da Gama then left Calicut.

Thus was commenced a war of rivalry between the Portuguese and Arabs for the possession of the Eastern trade, in which, at a later date, the natives of different parts of India became involved, accordingly as they encouraged the Portuguese or the Arab traders. In this contest the Venetians gave their support to the Arabs, since the success of the Portuguese could not fail to injure their trade between Cairo and Europe.

The first appearance of the Portuguese flag in the waters of Ceylon came soon after the year 1500. The seaports on all parts of the coast were virtually in the hands of the Moors; the north was in the possession of the Malabars, whose seat of government was at Jaffna-patam; and the great central region (since known as the Wanny), and Neuera-kalawa, were formed into petty fiefs, each governed by a Wanniya, calling himself a vassal, but virtually uncontrolled by any paramount authority. In the south, the nominal sovereign, Dharma Prakrama Bahu IX, had his capital at Cotta, near Colombo, whilst minor kings held mimic courts at Badulla, Gampola, Peradenia, Kandy, and Mahagam, and caused repeated commotions by their intrigues and insurrections.

The profitable trade previously conducted by the Moors, of carrying the spices of Malacca and Sumatra to Cambay and Bassora, having been effectually cut off by the Portuguese cruisers, the Moorish ships were compelled to take a wide course through the Maldives, and pass south of Ceylon, to escape capture. Don Francisco de Almeyda, the Viceroy of India, despatched a fleet from Goa, under command of his son, Lorenzo, to intercept the Moors on their route. Wandering over unknown seas, he was unexpectedly carried by the current to the harbour of Galle; where he found Moorish ships loading with cinnamon. Don Loureuco did not land in Ceylon accidentally, for he was purposely sent by his father, the Viceroy of India, to discover the Island of Ceylon. Don Lourenco was sent to Ceylon for three purposes: to discover the ships of the Moors, to obtain cinnamon, and to conclude a treaty of peace and friendship with the King of Ceylon.

The owners, alarmed for their own safety, attempted to deceive him by the assertion that Galle was the residence of Dharma Prakrama IX, the king of Ceylon, under whose protection they professed to be trading; and by whom, they further assured him, they were authorised to propose a treaty of peace and commerce with the Portuguese, and to compliment their Commander, by a royal gift of four hundred bahars of cinnamon. They even conducted Payo de Souza, the lieutenant of Lorenzo Almeyda, to an interview with a native who personated the Singhalese monarch, and who promised him permission to erect a factory at Colombo. Don Lorenzo, though aware of the deception, found it prudent to dissemble; and again put to sea after erecting a stone cross at Point de Galle, to record the event of his arrival.

The apprehensions of the Singhalese court were aroused by the discovery that seven hundred' soldiers were carried in the merchant ships of the Viceroy, and that the proposed factory was to be mounted with cannon. In justification of this proceeding, Soarez pleaded the open hostility of the Moors, and the insecurity of the new traders exposed to their violence ; but the arguments by which he succeeded in removing the king's scruples were proffers of the military services upon which the latter might rely, in case of assault from his aspiring relatives.

The Moors, instinctively alive to the dangers that threatened their trade, soon succeeded in re-kindling the alarms of the king at the consequences of his precipitancy. He made another attempt to draw back from his recent engagements; he encouraged the Moors to resistance, and the Portuguese were closely besieged for several months. But the effort was ineffectual; the garrison was relieved by the arrival of succour from India, and the only result of the demonstration was to render the Singhalese king more helplessly dependent upon the power of the Viceroy. He submitted to acknowledge himself a vassal of Portugal, and to pay an annual tribute of cinnamon, rubies, sapphires, and elephants; and with this important convention, inscribed on plates of gold, Lopo Soarez took his departure from Ceylon, leaving Juan de Silveira in command of the new settlement.

In 1520 Lopo de Brito was despatched with 400 soldiers, besides masons and carpenters, with orders to transport the shells of the pearl-oyster, which still form vast mounds along the sea-shore of Aripo, and to burn them for cement to complete the fortifications of Colombo. The Moors availed themselves of this undisguised attempt to convert a factory into a fortress, as an argument to rouse the indignation of the Singhalese; and an army of 20,000 men was collected, which for upwards of five months held the Portuguese in titmost peril within he area of their intrenchments, till the besiegers, alarmed by the arrival of reinforcements from India, suddenly dispersed, and left the garrison at hberty to complete their fortifications.

But hostilities were merely suspended, not abandoned, and a war now commenced which endured almost without intermission during the whole time the Portuguese held possession of the maritime provinces; a war which, as De Couto observes, rendered Ceylon to Portugal what Carthage had proved to Rome a source of unceasing and anxious expenditure, "gradually consuming her Indian revenues, wasting her forces and her artillery, and causing a greater outlay for the government of that single island than for all her other conquests in the East."

On the Dutch capture of Ceylon a large portion of the active trade of the island was in the hands of the energetic Moors, who not only maintained a brisk intercourse by sea with the ports on the opposite coast, but also, by virtue of their neutrality, were enabled to penetrate to the dominions of the emperor, carrying commodities from the low country for the supply of the Zandyans. The Portuguese offered no opposition to this proceeding, and when freed from apprehension of the Moors as military allies of the enemy, they were utterly indifferent to their operations as dealers. Not so the Dutch, with whom commerce was more an object than conquest; not content with having secured to themselves a rigid monopoly of all the great branches of trade, they evinced a narrow-minded impatience of the humble industry carried on by the enterprising Moors.

Among the principal articles protected, were the nuts of the areca, which at the time when the Dutch took possession of Galle, the Moors were in the habit of collecting in the interior of the island, to be exchanged on the coast for cotton cloths, which were sold at a profit to the Kandyans and Singhalese. This traffic the Dutch resolved to stop, not from any design to profit by it themselves, but with the determination, even in the anticipation of loss, to extinguish the commerce of the Moors, whose name is seldom introduced into their official documents without epithets of abhorrence.

Ryklof Van Goens, the Governor of Ceylon, in the Memoir which he left in 1675 for the guidance of his successor, describes the Moors as a detested race, the offspring of Malabar outcasts converted to Islam by the Mahometans of Bassora and Mocha, and whose appearance in the Ceylon seas was first as pirates, and then as pedlars. Every expedient was adopted to crush them; their trade was discouraged they were forbidden to hold land in the country, and prohibited from establishing themselves in the fortified towns, a small number only being permitted to reside at Colombo as tailors. The celebration of their worship was interdicted; they were subjected to a poll tax; they were obliged once a year to sue out a licence for permission to live in the villages; and, at death, one third of their property was for- feited to the Government.

But all these devices of tyranny were unsuccessful; the endurance and enterprise of the Moors were not to be exhausted, and at length the Dutch were compelled to admit that every effort to "extirpate these weeds," "onkruid te zuiveren," had only tended to increase their numbers and energy. Notwithstanding every device, this patient and intelligent class persevered in their pursuit, and they continue to the present day, as they did throughout the entire period of the Dutch ascendancy, to engross a large share of the internal trade of the island; bringing down to the coast the produce of the hills in exchange for manufactured articles, introduced from the Indian continent.

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Page last modified: 05-05-2012 19:19:29 ZULU