At sea about naval history

No historian, with the exception of K. M. Panikkar, has taken the trouble to chart out how India’s seafaring activity helped forge and sustain cultural linkages in this part of the world. Former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash makes out a case for a voyage to explore India’s maritime tradition and document it

Indian Shipping: High Vessels - Pearl, Fishers’ Crabs and Catamarans Image source: From Les Hindous, early 19th century French work

On the banks of the Kalimas river in the heart of Surabaya, the Indonesian Navy has created its submarine museum; inside a former Russian Whiskey class boat. After an interesting walk around the well-preserved submarine, I happened to ask my guide what she was named while in service. "Pasopati", came the answer. I must have looked bemused, because my Indonesian escort explained patiently, "It is another name for the Hindu god Shiva." Later that day, answering my queries with equal patience, the Commander of the Eastern Armada explained that his crest depicted the Brahma Astra, and that the motto of the Indonesian Navy was Jalaseva Jayamahe, which is Sanskrit for: "On the sea we are glorious".

So deep-rooted is the pride in their past, that these citizens of the world’s largest Muslim nation did not bat an eyelid while speaking of their obviously Indian heritage. This may come as a surprise to Indians, because only some of us are aware of the deep and ancient cultural linkages that bind us to South-east Asia. But, such awareness does not automatically include knowledge of the fact that these linkages could have only been established and sustained through intense maritime intercourse between India and the region we now call South-east Asia.

HMS Trincomalee built at Bombay dockyard. Today it is the world’s oldest wooden sail ship still afloat in Portsmouth as TS Foudroyant
HMS Trincomalee built at Bombay dockyard. Today it is the world’s oldest wooden sail ship still afloat in Portsmouth as TS Foudroyant

Many of us have also heard of the dockyard in the ancient city of Lothal in Gujarat, dating back to 2400 BCE. This fact neither rings many bells nor arouses a sense of pride regarding India’s maritime tradition.

One of the reasons for our maritime blindness is, that as a nation we have been indifferent to the reading as well as writing of history; both our own and that of others. Whatever little history we do study, has been recorded by western historians who have made full use of the "literary licence" to give it the slant that they wished to. Most works on maritime history originating in the West start with a description of the seafaring tradition in the Mediterranean basin circa 3000-2500 BCE, and dwell on the maritime exploits of Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans.

Subsequently, of course, advances in ship construction, navigation and gunnery enabled European seafaring adventurers to overpower "other races", and lay the foundations of a completely new era of colonial domination and exploitation.

It is intriguing that nowhere in any Western historical account does one find even a passing mention of the seafaring skills of ancient Indians. The lone Indian voice in this arena is that of Sardar KM Panikkar (1895-1963)— statesman, diplomat, visionary historian and patriot. Amongst the large number of his works in many languages is a seminal essay titled India and the Indian Ocean . First published by Allen & Unwin as a monograph in 1945, this treatise is now out of print and read more by foreign scholars than Indians.

According to Panikkar, for geo-physical reasons (namely the winds that accompany the cyclic SW and NE monsoons, as well as the prevailing currents) it was the Indian Ocean, and specifically the lands washed by the Arabian Sea, which saw the first oceanic sailing activity. He maintains that European historians err grievously when they assume that the navigational tradition first developed in the "limited" waters of the Aegean.

He clinches his extensive arguments by stating: "Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic between the west coast of India and Babylon, as well as the Levant."

He goes on to assert that Hindus had in use a matsya yantra (magnetic compass) and possessed the skills to construct ocean-going ships, sturdy enough to venture into the distant reaches of the Arabian Sea. Debunking the commonly held belief that all Hindus had a religious objection to crossing the seas, he says, "`85it was never true of the people of the South". Panikkar then recounts the continuum of colonisation as well as cultural and religious osmosis by sea from India’s east coast to SE Asia.

Starting with the Mauryan emperors, he traces Indian maritime activism through the Andhra, Pallava, Pandya, Chalukya and Chola dynasties. He concludes that Hindu influence could not have prevailed so far from home from the 5th to the 13th century without resolute and substantive maritime sustenance from the mother country.

It appears that since the passing of Panikkar, no Indian researcher has been willing to don this doughty historian’s onerous mantle and carry forward the torch. We therefore, have neither scholarly investigations of India’s glorious maritime past nor historical accounts of the exploits of our ancient seafarers. Quite the contrary.

It was with a sense of dismay that I heard at a recent seminar on Kerala’s Maritime Heritage in Kochi, the startling views of a local historian. "History", he said "is not meant to glorify nations. Historians need to exercise extreme caution that every piece of evidence is thoroughly verified beyond a shadow of doubt before it is given historical credence". So far so good.

"The problem with maritime history," he added, "is that Indian historians have neither the wherewithal to look for marine artefacts, nor sufficient nautical expertise to interpret whatever they do find." As if this was not bad enough, he went on to cite the iconic Zamorins and Kunjali Marrakars of Kerala (who gallantly fought and held off the Portuguese for a hundred years) as examples of "mythification" based on inadequate historical evidence. It is this lack of a grand narrative in Indian history which perhaps drew me to a book named 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Bantam Press 2002) by Gavin Menzies, a former Royal Navy officer of the submarine arm. Displaying as much obsession as objectivity, Menzies launches with a crusader’s zeal into his thesis that a massive armada of Chinese junks sailed in March 1421, on an epic voyage, at the behest af Emperor Zhu Di, and circumnavigated the globe. In the process, they discovered Africa, South and North America, Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, and Greenland. Unfortunately, on their return to China, the death of the Chinese emperor led to a drastic policy reversal and the total destruction of all records of the armada’s voyages. Led by the eunuch Admiral Cheng Ho and three of his contemporaries, these Chinese fleets, according to Menzies, blazed all the trails, and made all the discoveries for which history has subsequently given credit to Magellan, Columbus, and Captain Cook.

Menzies concedes that he is treading on territory which is the domain of scholars, researchers and historians, but stakes his claim to interpret the history of Cheng Ho’s voyages, by virtue of his specialist knowledge of astro-navigation and having sailed extensively as a former naval officer. The book makes fascinating reading, and even though Menzies, in his messianic zeal, shows little regard for our Malayalee historian’s strait-laced views, I have no intention of taking issue with him. Menzies contends that the 15th century European explorers used copies of Chinese maps to merely rediscover what the Chinese sailors had discovered decades earlier. If all records of Cheng Ho’s voyages were destroyed, where did these copies come from? By a great leap of imagination, he claims that a Venetian merchant, Niccolo da Conti happened to be in the Indian port of Calicut at exactly the time that the Chinese fleet passed through in 1421 on its outbound passage and boarded one of the junks. Niccolo da Conti is subsequently supposed to have been instrumental in passing on copies of Chinese maps through various intermediaries to Prince Henry the Navigator, who gave copies to the Portuguese explorers.

Menzies asserts that wherever the Chinese fleets stopped for picking up water or victuals, they left stone tablets or other artefacts to mark their visit. According to him, in the Congo, and in Cape Verde islands (off the Atlantic coast of Africa), stones have been found, which commemorate the visit of the Chinese fleet, and they are inscribed in Malayalam. On North Island in New Zealand, next to the wreck of a Chinese junk from one of these fleets, Menzies tells us, they found a "huge stone carved in Tamil calligraphy". Again in New Zealand, we are told, near another "Chinese" wreck, has been found a ship’s bell with the words, "bell of the ship Mohaideen Baksh", inscribed yet again in Tamil. According to Menzies, "the most persuasive evidence of the Chinese visits to Australia comes from Gympie (in Queensland)". And the evidence? Two carved statues: one of Ganesh in granite, and the other of Hanuman in ironstone.

The world’s first tidal dock was built in Lothal around 2500 BC during the Harappan civilisation at Lothal near the present-day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast
The world’s first tidal dock was built in Lothal around 2500 BC during the Harappan civilisation at Lothal near the present-day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast.

So what goes on? If the Chinese sailors left stone tablets in Malaya, Ceylon and India inscribed in Mandarin, why should they scatter inscriptions in Malayalam or Tamil, and statues of Hindu gods, as their calling cards in the rest of the world? While offering these as proof, Menzies does not even attempt to explore any thesis other than the one he has set his heart on: that Chinese seafarers discovered the world. He is only willing to concede that there may have been a few Indian ships or Indian mining engineers accompanying the Chinese fleets. If so, we need to know more about our countrymen who crossed the Atlantic, sailed through Tierra del Fuego 100 years before Magellan and mined for gold in Australia, all in the 15th century.

Repeated allusions to India in his narrative notwithstanding, of the 500 or more people Menzies has mentioned in the acknowledgments section of his book, not one is an Indian.. Just one intriguing but remarkable contradiction between Panikkar and Menzies calls for further enquiry by an Indian. In his book India and the Indian Ocean, Panikkar quotes Niccolo da Conti as saying: "The natives of India build some ships larger than ours, capable of containing 2000 butts, and with triple planks in order to withstand the force of the tempests, to which they are much exposed. But some ships are so built in compartments that should one part be shattered the other portion remaining entire may accomplish the voyage." On page 116 of his book, written 57 years later, Menzies uses a very similar quote by da Conti (the words in italics are actually identical) but omits mention of India, and adds his own comment, "The description could only refer to ships of Cheng Ho’s fleet."

So has Gavin Menzies gone overboard in his enthusiasm for a Chinese maritime revival, or is there a possibility that some or all of the credit should go to Indian mariners? There are hundreds of Chinese institutions and thousands of researchers working on this issue today. I wonder if there is one Indian— either a naval officer, or a member of our maritime NGOs— with the knowledge, curiosity and inclination to investigate Menzies’ conclusions.

A postage stamp commemorating the maritime heritage of India. These kind of ships were built in 2200 B.C.E
A postage stamp commemorating the maritime heritage of India. These kind of ships were built in 2200 B.C.E


Some of the highpoints of maritime tradition before Independence:

1612: First squadron of British fighting ships arrives in Surat. Formation of the Indian Marine, also known as the Honourable East India Company’s Marine. Indian Marine defeats Portuguese in sea battle.

1614: Indian Marine emerges victorious in second sea battle against the Portuguese.

1635: Four pinnaces built at Surat, Gujrat. First record of ship building activity.

1700: Maratha Admiral Kanhoji Angre comes to power, and establishes formidable fleet.

1858: On transfer to Crown, Indian Navy redesignated Her Majesty’s Indian Navy.

1877: Service restored to combatant status and named Her Majesty’s Indian Marine.

January 6, 1928: The first Indian to be commissioned in the Royal Indian Marines (RIM) - Engineer Sub. Lt. D.N. Mukerji.