Sri Lankan Muslims

 

ARAB TRADE WITH CEYLON

 

††††††††††† Having understood that the ancestors of the Ceylon Moors had been in Ceylon from earliest times, let us now examine the growth and history of the latter up to the arrival of the Europeans inn the Sixteenth Century. In Europe the activities of tradesmen and navigators were confined more or less to their own continent. They were content to make use of such products of the East as found their way to the West in Arab ships and by the overland route from the northern shores of the Mediterranean and the Adriatic seas. Meanwhile the Arabs, and their successors for many generations, were exploiting to the full the vast possibilities of Eastern trade.

 

††††††††††† In Ceylon, their story, although disconnected and fragmentary was not a peaceful one entirely. There were all the difficulties of the pioneerís life which had to be encountered in addition to the political strife and internal dissensions which agitated the country. It must be remembered that the ancestors of the present day Moors lived in conditions which differed vastly from those which obtain at the present day. Two powerful races in the Island vied with each other, the supreme authority fluctuating at varying intervals. A great part of the north of Ceylon was under the domination of the Tamil Kings who endeavored to drive the Sinhalese further inland towards the mountain districts. The latter in turn retaliated each time as soon as they were able to take the field again. In this manner an interminable warfare dragged on, on a continuous basis with fluctuating fortunes for either party.

 

††††††††††† In connection with these protracted struggles, the Rajavali under date 1410 narrates certain facts, which in so far as they bear reference to the status of the Moors at that time, are of more than passing interest. In that year the Raja of Jaffnapatam was the most powerful monarch in Ceylon. He had the largest army and was possessed of enormous wealth. So great was his power that the other monarchs were in a kind of subsidiary position to his, so much so, that he collected tribute from the high and low-country and the nine ports as well which were almost entirely in the hands of the Moors. The north, extreme north-west and north-east were under the supreme power of the Jaffna King. The central parts of the country bowed to the despotism of the Sinhalese monarchs, now on the wane, and the maritime areas including almost all the sea ports were in the hands of the Moors.

 

††††††††††† Unlike the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Moors had not the equivalent of a regular army, or for that matter, a military organization of any kind although on occasion they participated in war-fare in a minor degree. They built no mighty palaces and constructed no enormous tanks, nor did they open roads and erect any remarkable forts. Their chief object was trade. This consisted largely of cinnamon, pearls, elephants, ivory and apes. They built themselves houses and some even cultivated lands and reared cattle, but navigation and trade were their principal interests. There was not, at that time, any properly organized system of exchange, and barter was the recognized means of transacting business.

 

††††††††††† In spite off these primitive commercial methods, the Moors as a rule amassed large fortunes, the conditions of barter enabling them to make dual profits. The Arab merchants would set about his business in somewhat the following manner. Having selected to embark on trade for a career, he purchases a ship in the first place. In some cases, however, ownership of the vessel was divided amongst a second and third person who were generally the shipís captain and chief assistant.

†††††††††††

††††††††††† The vessel is then manned by a skilled and experienced crew to be remunerated on a profit sharing basis at the end off the voyage. A shock of provisions and fresh water, enough to last throughout the voyage is laid in and after having decided upon the country to be visited, a cargo of merchandise which is most in demand at the port of call is procured. Ordinarily the goods consisted of cloth and musk from India, horses from Persia, gold from Nubia, and other luxuries, in addition to a variety of minor marketable products which are not to be found in Ceylon.

 

††††††††††† On arrival in this Island, the vessel is anchored off the coast behind the sheltering reef or headland of some friendly roadstead. The captain or some other responsible person, along with a few others then come ashore, leaving the rest of the crew to look after the safety of the ship and guard against thieves and pirates. Once on terra firma the landing party are met by their fellow-countrymen, if any, or their Moorish descendants who receive them with friendliness and hospitality.

 

††††††††††† If the cargo is very extensive a house is taken on rent, and serves both as a temporary residence as well as a store. The merchant and part of his crew remain here until the entire cargo is disposed or until it is decided to proceed to other Ceylon ports. Meanwhile, the news spreads of the arrival of the ship. Local Moors anxious to avail themselves of the opportunity of buying goods which in turn are transported to the interior and retailed there to the Sinhalese, begin to flock in from the surrounding country, as also those of them who are desirous of selling Ceylon products to the shipís merchants. The little colony of Moors in the neighborhood of the port is agog with activity till the departure of the vessel, when they turn their attention to the barter of their wares to the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It will be noticed that the indigenous producer does not come in direct contact with the Arab merchant, with the result that the Moor trader makes his bargain at both ends, being the middleman.

†††††††††††

††††††††††† Eventually, the good ship sails away heavily laden with cinnamon and pepper, cardamoms, pearls, precious stones and other valuables. The possibility of encountering pirates, the dangers of ship wreck and the hardship of a sailorís life in those distant days do not seem to have chilled the desire for trade in these hardy and enterprising navigators and we find these traits present to this date, though in a less prominent manner in their descendants, the Ceylon Moors.

 

††††††††††† In this manner, a continuous trade was carried on for several centuries. As time went on, some of these merchants made lengthy sojourns in this country, some with the object of disposing surplus cargo, until theship returned to Arabia before re-visiting Ceylon, whilst others remained behind as the buying agents of the more prosperous merchants knowing the immense profits that can be made. In the process of time, the nucleus of a small colony was formed here, and from this sprang the flourishing community known as Sonahar.

 

††††††††††† As the volume of trade increased, larger store houses or Kittengis were erected, and permanent dwelling houses were built. Gradually the pioneer began to take an interest in his immediate surroundings. He began to acquire land in the maritime districts which were of no consequence to the Sinhalese whose seat of government, cities and palaces were many miles away in the distant mountainous regions. Presently little unpretentious mosques of modest dimensions began to rear their diminutive minarets, hitherto an unfamiliar feature inn the landscape.