From Ingratiating Merchants to Absolute Monopolists: The Rise and Rise of the Medieval Mapillas

From Ingratiating Merchants to Absolute Monopolists: The Rise and Rise of the Medieval Mapillas

The second part of the series on the Malabar Mapillas traces the rise of the Mapillas who acquired a monopoly on maritime trade

In this series

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From Ingratiating Merchants to Absolute Monopolists: The Rise and Rise of the Medieval Mapillas

The Mapilla history of Malabar can be broadly classified into four distinct phases. The first phase was the introduction of Islam in the region, which we have narrated in the previous part. The second phase is what we will briefly examine in this part. The Malabar region represents a unique and isolated case in the history of Islam in India. Unlike other parts of Bharatavarsha, no Islamic army militarily invaded Malabar from the outside till Hyder Ali cast his covetous eyes in the direction.

The Islamic invasion of Malabar was, loosely speaking, from within. It was a creeping commercial takeover which gnawed its way into political power both of which were largely facilitated by shortsighted Hindu chieftains.

The Arab merchants who settled in Malabar in the mid ninth century also heralded this first epoch in its Muslim history. For the longest time, Malabar was ruled by a powerful political quadrant comprising:

  • Kolathiris (Kola Swarupam, descendants of the Mushaka royal dynasty) who ruled variously from Kannur and Chirakkal.

  • Samuris (widely known by its corrupted Portuguese term, Zamorin) who ruled from Kozhikode and had secondary and tertiary seats of power at Thrissur, Kodungallur and controlled the ship building centre at Beypore (Vayupura or Vadaparappanad) .

  • Cochin Royal Family (Perumpadapu Swaroopam, earlier vassals of the Chera monarchs), who at various points controlled Kochi, Thrissur, parts of Palakkad, parts of Aluva, Kalady, Angamaly, and Manjapra.

  • Venad Royal Family (Kulashekharas of Kollam or Quilon, who in due course became more renowned as the magnificent Travancore Princely State) which controlled various parts of Thiruvananthapuram, Alleppey, Kottayam, and Kanyakumari.

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From Ingratiating Merchants to Absolute Monopolists: The Rise and Rise of the Medieval Mapillas

However, as long as these minor kingdoms were under the control of more powerful neighbouring kingdoms like the Cholas, Pandyas and later, the Vijayanagara Empire, there was relatively less tumult. For much of their history, borders between these petty principalities were never fully settled, and disputes were settled by what is today known as blood feuds. Each of these royal families prided on and vied for the status of being full-blooded Kshatriyas as indicated for example, by the surname Varma. Justice was swift and punishment was swifter and brutal and as a consequence, crime was nonexistent. Arab and other foreign Muslim travellers noted how “nobody other than the owner would pick up a single coconut that had fallen off a tree that did not belong to him.”

Among others, it was this atmosphere of strict justice which ensured the requisite peace, security and stability required for sustained, large-scale commercial activity that not only attracted the enterprising Arab merchants but made them settle here.

However, this atmosphere also had some fatal weaknesses.

The first was the excessive overconfidence among the ruling Hindu Rajas, which over time, made them complacent as we shall see. The second was the extreme social stratification, which would eventually have disastrous consequences for the Hindus. The third was the naive, trusting nature of these Rajas who were also highly susceptible to granting all kinds of concessions to Arab merchants who quickly mastered the art of skilful flattery.

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From Ingratiating Merchants to Absolute Monopolists: The Rise and Rise of the Medieval Mapillas

The infant enterprise that Malik ibn Dinar and his followers had begun acquired firm roots which began spreading throughout the region. The Samuris and Rajas kept granting more land to build mosques and appoint Qazis and allowed them to freely spread Islam in their domains as long as peace was not disturbed and money kept flowing in. And as more and more Arabs began marrying local Hindu Malayali women, their population too, began growing, and the “mixed race” of Mapillas became a distinct, separate class in the Malabar region, and few “pure” Arab Muslims were to be found.

The Only True Faith had silently, ingratiatingly accomplished what a hundred wars couldn’t.

By the end of the 13th century, the maritime trade on the Malabar coast was completely in Mapilla hands. For the selfsame reason. The Malabar coastline provided direct sea access to the Muslim world that encompassed a vast sweep of geography including the thriving maritime hub at the Gulf of Aden, Oman and Yemen on one side, and Djibouti, the Red Sea, and Mecca on the other. And Egypt was just up ahead from Mecca. This expansive swathe was fully controlled by Muslims who had brutally cut off Europe’s contact with India, which in the first place is why Europe so desperately sought an alternate trading route to India.

And when the Mapillas slowly began gaining control over the Malabar coast, they found highly reciprocal allies in their co-religionists controlling this region. Medieval European accounts—mostly Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch—refer to one branch of these Muslims inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Malta, and parts of the Mediterranean Sea with the derogatory term, Moors.

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From Ingratiating Merchants to Absolute Monopolists: The Rise and Rise of the Medieval Mapillas

In the same interim, the Mapillas had also destroyed the last vestiges of the centuries-long, thriving Chinese trade with Malabar, and were unquestioned masters of the coast. Ibn Batuta paints a vivid and sweeping portrait of Malabar in his travelogue including detailed description of its awesome natural beauty, its perennially watered, smiling agricultural fields, the selfless hospitality of the Malayalis, strict criminal laws and swift justice. And notes that every single city and town that he visits has at least two imposing mosques and numerous others, all of them fully functional with a Qazi, members of the clergy and preachers. This includes Kozhikode, Kollam, Pantalavini, Valarpattanam, and Chirakkal, Palyangadi, and Barkur. However, only Dharmapattanam (now the Dharmadam Island) has a majority population of “Brahmins who are held in great estimation among the Hindoos,” which nevertheless has a solitary mosque used as a resting house for Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Batuta also notes that in each of these cities “there is a large number of Muhammadan merchants but the king is an infidel.” And this is the picture of the Kozhikode Mapilla merchants he gives:

The king of this place is an infidel, who shaves his chin just as the Haidarl Fakeers of Rome do…The greatest part of the Muhammadan merchants of this place are so wealthy [that just one merchant] can purchase the whole freightage of…vessels… and fit out others like them.

A century later, Abdur Razzaq, the Persian ambassador, chronicler and Islamic scholar who visited Malabar (1442-45) and stayed at Kozhikode for some time observes how trade with Mecca was extraordinarily abundant, “chiefly in pepper” because

Such security and justice reign in that city that rich merchants bring to it from maritime countries large cargoes of merchandise which they disembark and deposit in the streets and market-places, and for a length of time leave it without consigning it to any one’s charge or placing it under a guard. The officers of the Custom House have it under their protection, and night and day keep guard round it. If it is sold they take a customs duty of 2| per cent. ; otherwise they offer no kind of interference.

Razzaq also approvingly notes the existence of two Cathedral-like Jamath mosques in Kozhikode, and that the “Hindi [Hindus] people went about naked…but the Mussalmans dressed in costly garments.”

Bartolomeu Dias
Bartolomeu DiasWikipedia

This is the recurrent theme emerging from a close study of about three centuries of the genesis, evolution, and growth of Mapillas in Malabar: political rule by Hindu kings and chieftains who generously fostered a healthy competitive business spirit, which in turn strengthened free maritime trade with the Muslim world, which the Mapilla merchants took full advantage of and transformed into a monopoly, accumulating substantial wealth and converts. Malabar exported countless shiploads of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coconut, coconut oil, coffee, coir, cumin, arecanut, betel, clove, nutmeg, ginger, tamarind, and timber, and imported a variety of luxury items from China, Mecca, Egypt, Abyssinia, Zirbad, and Zanzibar. Both export and import were in the stranglehold of the Mapillas.

Malabar was the magnet. Kozhikode was what radiated off the waves of the centrifugal force that attracted the world to it.

Such as its awesome power that Muslim merchants from Arabia kept pouring into the region. Even as late as 1489-90, “a rich Muhammadan came to Malabar, ingratiated himself with the Zamorin, and obtained leave to build additional Muhammadan mosques.”

However, a historical wall had been breached just two years earlier. On 12 March 1488, a Portuguese barbarian-cum-pirate had successfully sailed round what was known as the treacherous Cabo das Tormentas or the Cape of Storms. To mark this historic success, it was renamed as the Cape of Good Hope. The name of this Portuguese pirate was Bartholomew Diaz and he had just found a new route to India.

The Mapilla stranglehold over the maritime trade on the Malabar coast was now sitting on a powder keg.

To be continued

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