"The ‘Oh wow moments’ during my research?" asks Sebastian R Prange. "There were several interesting ones. Several overwhelming moments."
I am in conversation with the author of Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast, an engrossing book that explores the life and practices of Muslim traders who arrived on Kerala’s coast between the 12th and 16th centuries.
Blame it on my Malabar roots, but I’ve always had a passion for learning more about the Southern Indian coast – its history, culture and traditions – and Sebastian’s book offers an interesting insight into the intriguing past of the region from the standpoint of a trader on a merchant vessel.
The author spent more than six months – spread over several visits – travelling along the Malabar coast meeting and speaking with community elders, visiting ancient and modern places of prayer, studying inscriptions and tablets to piece together the history of Muslim traders who, over the course of centuries, not only dropped anchor at various ports in Malabar but also put down roots smoothly melding into the local community and enriching the region’s culture while also holding firm their own peculiar dialect, traditions, rituals and lifestyle.
When not gleaning interesting bits of information from local populace in Kannur, Thalaserry, and Kozhikode or even in Yemen and beyond, Sebastian spent weeks and months in archives leafing through crumbling manuscripts among other historical records that threw pinpoints of light on a once fabulous and bustling region that could easily rival the legendary silk route of the East in terms of commerce and activity.
"One of the ‘oh wow’ moments was visiting some very old mosques in Kozhikode and realising that they were pretty much the same places where once upon a time Muslims from the Swahili coast, from Iran, from Arabia and even further, visited. Imagine people from such different regions meeting and mingling in one place… I kept thinking what a cosmopolitan place it must have been at the time," says Sebastian.
"We believe we are globalised; that we can jet off and meet people from different parts of the world. But to know that some 500 or 600 years ago there were Muslims from China meeting Muslims from Africa, from Egypt, from Arabia, and they were all praying together, living together, doing business together… that is just mind-blowing."
Sebastian mentions a few other ‘oh wow moments’ but more about that later. First about the book.
"Monsoon Islam is a historical trajectory of how Islamic thought and practice have been adopted in the particular context of the Indian Ocean world," says the author, who started out as an economic historian.
The book also expands on how the history of the Malabar region was shaped by the concerns of trade while also describing the lives of traders who thrived in this bustling, commercial milieu.
Sebastian, who prefers viewing history through an economic lens, was keen to explore the path of trade and how merchant communities in the pre-modern period were able to figure out doing business over long distances. "How do you send goods over distances, how do you send the money, how do you deal with trust, how do you establish prices and supply… how does business actually function across vast distances at a time when communication was very slow and unreliable… I was interested in studying those areas," he says.
Originally from Germany, Sebastian studied history in London before publishing his first piece in a journal – on the history of Saharan trade. Bitten by the travel bug so to speak, he began looking for "another kind of circuit, one that also involved overcoming large distances" and, among other things, whether the ways of doing business across the desert were similar to other long-distance trade circuits.
The historical Indian Ocean trade routes grabbed his attention and the Assistant Professor of history at the University of British Columbia decided to chart his doctoral research, which eventually resulted in a book portraying the lives of Muslim merchants – the spices, precious metals and other goods’ traders – who frequented those routes.
"I’m in awe of these merchants because compared to [the mode of business] these days, their job was really difficult. You needed a lot of knowledge, a lot of savvy. You needed to be very brave, diplomatic... Perhaps that was the reason there weren’t a lot of them. You needed a lot of different skills and, of course, a certain background. But if you did well, you could become rich. Very, very rich."
And one of the main ways the traders became rich was by trading in piper nigrum, better known as black pepper, perhaps the most important and most valued spice that grew abundantly in Malabar’s hinterlands.
Pepper was a magnet for traders, and businessmen back in the 15th century before a sea route was discovered were willing to invest heavily to find a way to India so they could grab a slice of the pie of the black spice trade. Christopher Columbus was the first explorer hoping to control the Indian Ocean pepper trade to set sail for India. However, faulty navigation led him to the Caribbean, giving Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama the opporunity to be the first to find a sea route to India. When da Gama dropped anchor in Calicut in 1498, he also unwittingly threw open the floodgates for Western traders to enter Asia; it would result in them leaving an indelible mark on not just the coast but the entire subcontinent.
Port, mosque, palace and sea
It is at this juncture that Sebastian enters the scene with Monsoon Islam – a rich tapestry of how Muslim merchants and local people, the warp and weft of the community, wove a rich and colourful fabric that continues to endure to this day.
The book is divided into four sections: Port, Mosque, Palace and Sea.
"There were two reasons I chose to organise the book this way," says the author. "Rather than talk only about business practices, I wanted to offer a glimpse of the traders of those times. I tried imagining them moving through these different spaces.
"The first place a Muslim trader who arrived at a port in Kerala from say, Yemen or the Gulf, would go to is the mosque: to give thanks for having survived the ocean crossing." He would also visit the place to get some food, meet the elders of the community, get a better idea of the place and the goings-on, make connections before heading to the palace to broker deals, sign agreements and, maybe, seek incentives.
The port, apart from being a landing point, also housed the market "so I imagined them spending a lot of time here as well", says Sebastian. The Palace would also be a main point for traders to meet with the rulers and to broker trade deals.
The second reason Sebastian used these spaces "is to think about different aspects, or ingredients if you like, of what made the trade possible. Was it economic, religious, political? How important was it to have these connections across different parts of the Indian Ocean?" He believes all these spaces "needed to come together to make this trade happen".
A lot of research happened in the archives in the West, while Yemen and Kerala were two places he visited several times for research purposes. "There wasn’t a lot of material I was looking for in the archives. So mainly my research was travelling along the Malabar coast and visiting and studying as many old mosques as I could," he says.
A large chunk of the time in Kerala he spent examining inscriptions at historical sites in Kozhikode – "the most important centre of Muslim trade in the region and home to some of its oldest surviving mosques" – Kannur, Dharmadom and Tellicherry, among other places, and studying tombstones and picking through Kerala’s archives. He also accumulated a wealth of information from conversations with Thangal – a highly-respected section of Muslims in Kerala – families, perusing manuscripts they had, "mainly genealogies of the families, learning about shrines, listening to stories about major Sufis and saints…
"What I found remarkable was the kindness of the people who were willing to share their knowledge, homes, meals, and contacts with me," says Sebastian. "I couldn’t have done this book without the support from the Muslim communities all along the coast, especially among the smaller towns."
To complete the circle, Sebastian also travelled to Yemen. The trip left him rich with information including about genealogies of families in the Hadramaut, a region in and around Saudi Arabia and Yemen, from where a number of Muslim merchants arrived in Kerala during the 15 and 16th centuries.
"It will be interesting to tally these genealogies with those from Kerala and look for connections or disconnections," he says.
Apart from language, what were the major challenges in sourcing information? I ask.
"There is a real scarcity of sources," he says. "I guess that’s partly because of Kerala’s climactic conditions. A lot of things like palm leaves or paper records don’t survive well in Kerala’s monsoons compared to Hadramaut where everything survives."
Another challenge for Sebastian was inherent in the subject he had chosen to write about. "Most historians chronicling the medieval period write about kings, sultans and rulers who’d leave behind plenty of copper plates, stone inscriptions. But merchants, unlike the rulers, were not really keen about what people in the future would think about them. In the case of traders, it’s really a sheer accident if anything really survives about them.
"Traders would actually take measures to ensure they don’t leave too much information behind because there was the fear that potentially it could be used against them at some time in some way, or it could offer someone an insight into their business practices or secrets, or even their connections."
So finding records of sea-faring traders was akin to navigating choppy waters. Nevertheless, Sebastian puts together a compelling and insightful book on a lesser-written-about section in Kerala’s history.
What are the biggest takeaways after writing this book, I ask the author.
Sebastian takes a few moments to consider the question before replying. "One of the major ones was the realisation of the social embeddedness of trade. Today we think of trade as being very anonymous. But to really understand trade in the pre-modern world, one has to understand social connections."
A merchant of those times could never hope to succeed working on his own. Social and familial connections, and partnerships were crucial for success. The other factor was trust. "But the question arises – how do you establish trust with someone who is in a different part of the world who you might never see again?"
It is here that the system of suhba came into play, he says.
From the Arabic term for companionship or association, suhba was an agency relationship in which merchants acted as unremunerated agents for one another in a reciprocal manner. Using this arrangement a trader on the Malabar Coast could send pepper to Aden, for instance, where his friend agent could sell these goods on his behalf without having a personal stake in the transaction or charging a fee. The trader on the Malabar Coast would then extend the same help when the Adenese merchant wanted to conduct business in India. Sebastian’s description of these details makes for fascinating reading.
Monsoon Islam is also being translated into Arabic and Malayalam, he tells me.
As we come to the end of the interview I ask him to share another ‘oh wow’ moment he experienced while working on Monsoon Islam.
"Seeing some of the places of worship that date back centuries and the elders telling me that maybe some 600 years ago people prayed exactly the same way as people are doing now; that probably they wore similar clothes, ate similar foods… being in spaces that have these incredible sense of continuity… that was really remarkable.
"I also witnessed several Hindu festivals during my time there and noticed that Hindus and Muslims participated in processions of both communities. When I teach students the history of India, I discuss how different religions, although they are mutually exclusive, coexisted in harmony; and during my time there I found that in many cases people continue to have a very fluid and open understanding of faiths. Those experiences left a very deep impression on me, and on my book."