Once upon a time: On Pirates, Poetry, and the Portuguese

Spring 2015 | ArteZine

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Once upon a time: On Pirates, Poetry, and the Portuguese



In a preface to an earlier edition of a volume on pirates and emperors, Noam Chomsky begins by relating a story of St. Augustine, who recounts the tale of “a pirate captured by Alexander the Great, who asked him ‘how he dares molest the sea.’ ‘How dare you molest the whole world?’ the pirate replied: ‘Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an Emperor.’”[iii]

This is a story about the stories about stories. More than a story of stories, it is a story about the economics of stories: how stories are bought and sold, constructed and deconstructed. It is not a new story about punk capitalism in which piracy, “as the co-chair at Disney recently put it, is ‘just another business model.’”[iii] But rather, it is an old story about hustling the seas, rhymes, navigation and power. It may also be a story about knowing and deceiving.

This is a story about an Arab sailor. His name was Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Majid ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn Fadl ibn Duwayk ibn Yusuf ibn Hasan ibn Husayn ibn Abi Ma’laq al-Sa’di ibn Abi Raka’ib al-Najdi (circa 1432-circa 1500 AD), or commonly known as Ahmad ibn Majid or ibn Majid. He was born in Julfar, or what is known today as Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates. Author of several manuscripts on poetry and prose related to navigation, he is also often referred to as the individual who helped Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama navigate his way through the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa to the Malabar Coast. His time with da Gama takes on epic proportions through time as scholars from around the world imagine their discourse, constructing their stories at sea. With few textual accounts, most of the stories related to ibn Majid are securely placed within oral tradition and are quick to relate him to da Gama.

For a certain part of the world’s population, and from where I write, that oral tradition could only be accessed through texts in English presented as history. The stories that became popular were those circulated by English publications like Aramco World, the magazine launched in 1949 by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). Initially started as an interoffice newsletter that linked the US offices with the “field,” Aramco World took upon itself some early popular history making of its own. Our protagonist, ibn Majid, made a few appearances, first only as da Gama’s helpful and informative native, such as in “Arabs and the Sea,” which began with the following:

By the time Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Arab sailors were already masters of the Indian Ocean.

“Master navigator,” said Vasco da Gama, “we have a strong wind behind us. How long will it blow?”

“Sir Admiral,” replied Ahmad ibn Majid, “it will continue for another month. It is what you Europeans call the monsoon, which in turn comes from our word mausim, meaning ‘season.’ This monsoon blows steadily toward India for six-months of every year. We will ride it straight on to the Malabar Coast.”[iv]

This is, of course, precisely what da Gama wanted to hear, and so, at least in this version of the story, ibn Majid fulfilled his role as the Arab navigator par excellence. I am not entirely certain where Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde retrieved this dialog from, but it is just as evocative and informative today as it was in 1962 when it first ran in print. It was only in 2005 that ibn Majid received an entire piece about himself by Lunde in Aramaco World.

And such attention is well deserved. Indeed, ibn Majid is considered one of the most significant navigators of the period. He came from generations of navigators and sea farers. He wrote extensively on navigational theory, mostly in the form of poems. Hawiyat, one of his poems, has about 1082 verses and deals with location, lunar mansions, and rhumbs. Similar in topic and form are his series of books entitled al-Urdjuza.[v] The book Kitab al-Fawa’id fi usul ‘ilm al-bahr wa’lqawa’id (Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation) is hailed as the most important and best known of the works by ibn Majid.[vi]

It may have been dubbed ‘best known’ because it is the only one of his texts translated in English.

This volume is said to have been written in 1490. It is encyclopedic in nature and is based on the stories of the sea. The prose is divided up into 12 sections. It is through stories and poetry that the basic principles of navigation and sailing were passed down. His stories and the stories of stories he had heard from the generations of Indian Ocean sailors, including his own father and grandfather, provided the locations of ports from East Africa to Indonesia, star positions, information about seasonal winds. This volume provides tremendous detail on the Indian Ocean, including information on islands such as Madagascar and the Comoros, as well as on the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the forms of navigation provided in this volume was the use of the human body. Using the Pole Star, one could determine latitude by its height above the horizon. That height was measured by the number of arm’s-length finger-widths between the horizon and the star. Thus, by positioning fingers, one could sail east and west on the same latitude. Lunde re-tells the example of Cambay from ibn Majid’s book. According to this navigational technique, Cambay is at a latitude at which the Pole Star lay 11 fingers’ width above the horizon. He also cites ibn Majid as remarking on the differences between European and Arab navigation techniques:

We have 32 rhumbs, and tirfa, and zam, and the measurement of stellar attitudes, but they have not. They cannot understand the way we navigate, but we can understand the way that they do; we can use their system and sail in their ships. For the Indian Ocean is connected to the All-Encompassing Ocean, and we possess scientific books that give stellar attitudes, but they do not have a knowledge of stellar attitudes; they have no science and no books, only the compass and dead reckoning… We can easily sail in their ships and upon their sea, so they have great respect for us and look up to us. They admit we have a better knowledge of the sea and navigation and the wisdom of the stars.[vii]

And yet, in spite of all of his poetry and prose – his story is primarily linked to the story of Vasco da Gama.

In a translation and interpretation of da Gama’s travel diaries, Sulṭān ibn Muḥammad al-Qāsimī presents the Arab relationship with da Gama as one that began with force and deceit. da Gama reports in his diary of how he first met the Moors: “At dawn we saw two ships to our leeward, some three leagues out to sea, and we decided to approach and capture them, because we needed pilots to guide us to where we wanted to go. As evening drew in, we made for one of the boats and seized it…”[viii] The ability to seize ships was noted to be easy as it was not the culture of Indian Ocean mariners to be armed with large weaponry – interaction amongst these Gulf and Indian Ocean navigators was based on certain honor codes related to sea routes and families. The Portuguese, on the other hand, came armed and did not have much trouble overpowering the ships and capturing groups of individuals whom they brought on board their own vessels. Based on the translations of da Gama’s diaries, it is unclear if those captured Moors included ibn Majid, and in fact, in presenting an historical account of this relationship, Historian Arshad Islam says although possible, it is improbable that ibn Majid was the one who took da Gama to India, and recounts how da Gama himself, in addition to the aforementioned episode, “burnt alive 200-400 passengers on an Arab ship in Cannanore, north of Calicut, after seizing their cargo.”[ix] Most notably, however, is the absence in history of such practice coded as one of piracy. Of course interpretations of history must differ, but whether one interprets that interaction as being a different kind of event or a different Moor, that moment in text and time seems to have claimed a space for a relationship between da Gama and ibn Majid. It almost does not matter if they ever really met at all. This relationship between the unacknowledged pirate and the navigational poet certainly seems to have become intricately linked to an Arab and Indian Ocean history written in English. Even if the stories take the pirate for the navigator and vice versa.

According to da Gama’s diaries, those same captured Moors told da Gama about the Indian Christians on the mainland (in the town of Malindi, thirty leagues from Mombasa), and suggested to da Gama and his crew that in exchange for their release, “they would personally provide us with Christian pilots and whatever we wanted, such as meat, water, wood, and other items.”[x] Habeen Salloum, in writing about ibn Majid, remarked upon al-Qāsimī’s work and noted that based on his interpretation, da Gama was guided to India by a Gujarati Christian named Canani, not ibn Majid.[xi]

And so, in this story, the story of da Gama’s voyage to India is not the story of ibn Majid. It is the story of Canani. In some stories it may not matter who showed da Gama the way. In others, it may be a crucial factor in understanding issues related to belonging. The stories of this history seem to be as fluid as the sea. Sometimes we change/claim/forget the stories: it would be too easy to blame the sea for the promiscuity of these stories and stories of stories. But it is said that the sea has its own language. The unboundedness of the sea and its language might then be matched with the boundedness of the language of land. In English we recognize histories of land and so a story of pirates, poets and the Portuguese may be seen as a story of English language and the hidden politics and economics behind such story telling.

Given the geography of this story telling, I cannot help but think of the stories in English that unfold on maps. Within a century of the Arab and Portuguese encounter, which led to the latter establishing their base at Ras al-Khaimah, the British became involved in the region, interested in safeguarding their trade routes to India. As the story told by John Brinton[xii] goes, in 1559 Queen Elizabeth granted a charter for English merchants to traffic goods, commodities and bodies in the East Indies. For over 250 years the British hustled in those seas and tried to take control of them. They told stories of the pirates of these waters – these pirates being those seafaring families and federations of the Qawasim who lived in the region, reflected in the maps of that time, listing the landscape as the Pirate Coast. As English maps became the basis for English language history of the region, most historians allowed the Pirate Coast (a land formation) to act as a defining characteristic of a people.[xiii]

There is something deliciously powerful about story telling that makes people, countries, and nations into what they are in our imaginations. The power vested is as much about the story as it is about the languages in which we imagine our stories. And what happens when we tell the stories of stories that we thought were our own but were not, or if we circulate certain kinds of stories because we can? What if we are not allowed to tell stories, our own stories, or stories of stories that were of our story? Some might say we do not have the authority to tell the stories, and yet, we continue to tell some and resist others.

While we cannot all be emperors, when it comes to storytelling we can certainly be pirates. Once upon a time, the poets were pirates and the pirates were poets; although perhaps most piratical were the historians.

  1. Research for this piece was conducted during my time as Visiting Faculty at the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah in Fall/Winter 2014. Additional work was supported at my home institution, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. I would like to thank Raja’a Khalid and Ipek Ulusoy who have both been generous in their trust of my decisions balancing it with a strong editorial eye. Additionally, this piece has benefited from discussions with Peter Magee and Lantian Xie. I have to acknowledge Murtaza Vali for his critical eye and ability to refine arguments. All errors are my own.
  2. Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World (Cambridge, MA: New Edition South End Press, 2002 [1986]), vii.
  3. Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism (Free Press, 2008), p. 8.
  4. ‘Arabs And The Sea,’ http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/196206/arabs.and.the.sea.htm (last accessed January 7, 2015). This article previously appeared in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World. 13: 6 (Jun/Jul 1962), pp. 22-24.
  5. Habeeb Salloum, ‘Ahmad Ibn Majid: “Lion of the Seas” and the Cape of Good Hope,’ The Ambassadors Online Magazine. 9: 1 (Jan 2006). http://ambassadors.net/archives/issue19/profile.htm (last accessed January 7, 2015).
  6. Marina Tolmacheva, ‘Brief communication: An unknown manuscript of the Kitab al-Fawa id.’ Journal of the American Oriental Society114:2(1994).
  7. Paul Lunde, ‘The Navigator Ahmad Ibn Majid,” http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200504/the.navigator.ahmad.ibn.majid.htm (last accessed January 7, 2015). This article previously appeared in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World. Aramco World. 56: 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), pp. 45-48.
  8. Translation from Bayān lil-muʼarrikhīn al-amājid fī barāʼat Ibn Mājid by Sulṭān ibn Muḥammad al-Qāsimī (2000). Pages 30-35 of the original manuscript from the diary years of 1497-1499. Images of the original are available in this volume. These pages are most likely from the year 1497.
  9. Arshad Islam, Arab navigation in the Indian Ocean before European dominance in South and Southeast Asia: a historical study, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, 58: 2 (2010). pp. 7-23.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Salloum, ‘Ahmad Ibn Majid: “Lion of the Seas” and the Cape of Good Hope’.
  12. John Brinton, ‘From Pirate Coast To Trucial,’ https://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/197306/from.pirate.coast.to.trucial.htm (last accessed January 7, 2015). This article previously appeared in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World. 24: 6 (Nov/Dec 1973), pp 30-31. From this same citation, a short note on John Brinton himself: “John Brinton, whose hobby is collecting old books, writes on forgotten on little-known footnotes to Middle East History.” I am enamored by the idea that the British hustling the seas would be considered a ‘little-known footnote’ as it plays into the idea that land based histories are the major histories. The seas, and in particular pirate histories, might be relegated to the footnotes.
  13. For a counter history see Sulṭān ibn Muḥammad al-Qāsimī’s The Myth of Arab Piracy (Routledge Press, 1986).
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