Academic journal article Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society

Evolving Technology of the Sailing Ships in the Arabian Sea, from Early Medieval to Modern Times

Academic journal article Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society

Evolving Technology of the Sailing Ships in the Arabian Sea, from Early Medieval to Modern Times

Article excerpt

The information we have on the shipping used in the Arabian Sea before the appearance of Islam is extremely meagre. Archaeological and epigraphic evidence suggests that ship building had begun between the third and second millennia B.C. in Egypt and Megan in the Persian Gulf with coconut wood and teak from south-western coast of India.1 Indian teak has indeed been found in Babylonian, Achaemenid (Achaemenid Empire from 533 B.C. to 330 B.C.) and Sässänid remains, and its use for ship-building has been evidently referred to by Theophratis* (c. 300 B.C.) and Periplus.2

Timber for construction of ships on the Arabian shores, continued to be imported by the Arabs,** some of it, from the north-eastern shores of the Mediterranean like Lebanon and upper Mesopotamia but the most extensive import came from India.3 The effectiveness of the Syrian naval shipping during the Omayyid period (661-744 A.D.) and the 13th and 14th centuries in the Mediterranean region was ascribed to the Arab access to timber from these regions.4

It may be borne in mind here that large parts of the western and northern shores of the Arabian Sea are bereft of any source of this material owing to the aridity of climate. Besides the forests of eastern Africa, the major source of timber was the Western coast of India. The teak that could be obtained from the forests between Sürat and Bombay5 was especially valuable as shipping timber. The teak was used locally in ship-building and transported across the sea to other ship-building areas.

Owing to the availability of this major source various centres of building ships came up. On the Arabian side an ancient ship-building industry existed in Oman as is indicated in the Sumerian inscriptions.6 A pre-Islamic poet, Amra' al-Qais says that Ibn Yämln, the ruler of Bahrain, constructed ships of large size.7 Siräf during the 11th century had flourishing shipyards at Ubullah and imported teak from India and South-East Asia. Owing to availability of suitable wood Maidive and Laccadive Islands became ship-building centres.8

Ships and boats during the 12th century were also constructed in the Red Sea area, at Aydhab and Dumyat.9

Oman during this period used to import materials for ship-building from India.10 The 9th century traveller, Abü Zaid Sïrâfî and the 10th century Maqdisï both speak of ship-building being carried on in Oman.11 Ships were built on the Persian side of the Gulf as well. Hormuz in Marco Polo's time, was however backward in the technique of constructing ships for vessels built at Hormuz, he says, were dangerous for navigation.12 A 15th century chronicle says that ships were built in Färs13 not only at any one centre but at various ports or inlets within easy reach of forests.14

Bassein was a ship-building centre, where smaller vessels for the coasting fleet of India were constructed. Such smaller vessels called Sanguiceis and fustas were constructed to fight the Mäläbär pirates. These were constructed on the pattern of Portuguese gunboats. In 1598 six Sanguiceis were constructed at Bassein for L. da Gama's expedition against the Mapalah, Kunha All.15

Thus technology applied to design carracks* was not a secret confined to Goa's shipyards alone. Bassein's shipwrights and workmen could prepare as efficient carracks as elsewhere in the world.16 Describing the importance of Goa and Bassein, Moreland remarks that the smaller vessels, and some of the larger ones were built, in India, eitherát Goa itself or at Bassein, and the dockyard at the former city was probably the most highly organized industrial enterprise in the country.17

Surat, a Shipbuilding Centre

Surat during Medieval period had attained such a skill in building ships that the varieties of ships such as dhaow,** baglas, ghorabs*** and various other kinds of vessels were constructed there. Foreign merchants and rulers had their representatives or vakeels (agents) at Surat who had their vessels prepared for their masters at Surat on contract. …

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