Pioneer Oceanographer,
Master Arabian Navigator

Self Titled: The Lion of the Sea
(c. 1430-1500)

All in the Family

According to historian Sidi Celebit of the mid sixteenth century, it was in Julfar, in the northern part of Ras al-Khaimah, that Allah blessed the Mjiid family descended from Bedouins from the Najdi highlands with a birth. Their progenitors sometime in the past had moved to the coastal area of Trucial, Oman. God did so continue His providence by adding another boy to their generations of scholarly seafaring navigators, or mu'allim. His father was so proficient that he was nicknamed Mu'allim al-Barrain. But could they guess that their son, Shehab Al Din Ahmed Bin Majid would eventually write the definitive book on sailing in their part of the world, and who would be famed even into the nineteenth century? He learned the ancestral navigational skills with the dhows, the traditional sailed vessel of the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, while also studying and memorizing the Koran, other Arabic literary writings, as well as geography and astronomy.

While Europeans' learning fell behind after the dissolution of the Roman Empire, Arab scientists studied Ptolemy, and even improved upon his lack of knowledge concerning the Indian Ocean's connection with the Atlantic. The lateen sail developed by the Arabs was particularly adept at sailing against the wind, but nails, for the dubious reason of lodestones in the sea pulling them out, were not used in construction. But, probably precious iron was absconded by sword makers and the like so planks were held together, without even help from resin, with coconut husk ropes, and tradition through time won out. The downside was their fragility and lack of longevity of such hewn vessels.

From Unfurled Sails to Scrolls

In 1462 he published his masterpiece, based on real sailing experience, his voluminous poem, sea epic and theory comprising more than a thousand verses: Hawlya --and added to his prolific contribution of well over more than three dozen works of verse and prose. His and their parents wrote poetry and navigational works, as well, and from whom he quotes, and it was he shared their earlier experience of the Red Sea in his writings. He achieved fame in the Arab world from these works, but most important among these is his Kitab al-Fawa'id, (or The Benefits and Principles of Oceanography) from 1498. This work segmented (fa'ida) into a dozen parts is considered the superlative Arab piece of this genre, especially interesting noting that further north some Islamic warriors never took advantage of the Mediterranean Sea during their conquest of lands around its rim. Along with minutia of the Indian Ocean, its ports, its best routes crossing, it has a history of this endeavor too. It discusses compasses and astronomical triangulation; it examines the Red Sea and islands, including Madagascar and the Comoros. In his writings, as well as relaying that he spent fifty years of navigational experience, he confesses that the role of the mu'allim meant parting with his family. Perhaps he with or without them lived in one of the ports on the Indian Ocean one of which might have been Ra's al-Hadd in Oman. In the Fawa'id he also proudly boasts his Qais 'Ailan background. Not surprisingly, he is honored with an island on the Red Sea named in his honor.

His last poem, Sofaliya was written when he was around seventy years old and was published in 1500, but lost to practically everyone until the middle of the twentieth century. We learn in this of the lament of the late intrusion by aggressive competitors now amongst them:

Oh, Had I known the consequences that would come from them! People were surprised by what they did.
He further muses that, of course, it was fated from the Will of Allah.


Will the Real Guide for Vasco da Gama Please Stand Up?
(But please don't rock the boat!)

In 1498 a strange large ship made it around Africa's Cape Horn to the East African port of Malindi. This Portugese ship bearing Vasco da Gama was a harbinger of irony and fate. It had the lateen sail, the stern rudder, and was guided by the stars: all innovations borrowed from the Arabs in the Mediterranean. Though many were surprised someone had made it from the south of Madagascar, Ibn Majiid studied the pioneer geographer from the eleventh century, Al-Biruni, and his theory of Africa linked with the Atlantic. Many Arabs did not sail there because the lack of shipbuilding materials did not justify building larger craft, but Al-Biruni explains:

The Southern Sea commences at China and flows along the shores of India towards the country of the Zendj {Zanzibar}. ... Navigators have not passed this limit, the reason being that the sea on the north-east penetrates into the land ... while on the south-west, as if by way of compensation, the continent projects into the sea. ... Beyond this point, the sea penetrates between the mountains and valleys which alternate with one another. The water is continually set in motion by the ebb and flow of the tide....so that ships are broken in pieces. {The} Ocean {goes} through a gap....along the south coast {of Africa}....although no one has been able to confirm it by sight.


The question as to why the Arabs did not push for further explorations is also answered by the fact that their network of commerce and culture was already completely sufficient.

How Vasco da Gama then made it across the Indian Ocean with unknown currents, winds, including to the Indian harbor of Kappad, Calcut has three versions. Although certainly Ibn Majid's navigational contribution was involved in some way, as he taught others, the question is: did Ibn Majiid directly pilot Vasco da Gama's traverse? One retelling contains bitter remorse and it comes from those that endured hardship from the consequential and eventual colonization by the Portuguese, who became notoriously harsh taskmasters over their Indian coastal territory of Goa. Indeed, Malindi, too becomes a Portuguese port for a while as well -- Vasco da Gama's original cross still to this day is erected at the bay's entrance. One can visit the first Christian church and other relics (in what is a predominantly Islamic part of Kenya.) Vasco da Gama in his journal does not give the name or nationality of the man, but the title, Malemo Cana, means Navigator Astrologer, could have been misconstrued, or in mythical oral tradition. substituted generically as the Navigator or Mu'allim most famous to the locals, Ibn Majiid. However, the Portuguese basically said in their reports that they had paid for the navigational information and help. Some tales emphasizes the point that whoever did help these conquistadors was a wretched traitor. The Ottoman and Meccan author, Qutb al-Din al Hahrawali, writing decades later following his people's conquest of Yemen, tells us in his al-Barq al-yamani fi'l-fath al-'Uthmani that Ahmed Ibn Majiid was the skillful sailor that helped the Portuguese cross the Arabian Sea. Another source citing Qutb al-Din tells the story that Majiid supposedly got drunk with a Frank, Almilindi, and then spilled his guts answering the continued queries about this route warning:

Do not approach the coast on this part {near Malindi}, steer straight for the open sea; you will then reach the coast {of India} and be sheltered from the waves.


There are theories that have this imbibed condition as the reason for Majid's collusion with the despised Europeans, but the under the influence excuse would not suffice, so alternatively the concept of family or business feuds fuels the motive behind what would slander Majib's heroic name.

Other legends tell of the king at Malindi's cooperation with the Portuguese who had gone about the area asking for help in finding India. This Malindi royalty had an ancestor who had established ties with the last great Chinese explorer, the eunuch Admiral Zheng He.

Doctor Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi of Sharjah has put the final answer to all this lore:

It was not Ibn Majiid but a man from Gujarat state in India who actually took Da Gama to India. ... What made me write this book was an incident where I was giving a lecture in Sharjah University and I happened to say that an Indian took Da Gama to India, just then, one of the students said the researchers refused to accept this fact and continued to maintain that Ibn Majid has shown the Portuguese explorer the way to India.

Realizing that in schools and elsewhere teachers would continue telling students that Ibn Majid showed Da Gama the way the India, I decided to search for proof that it was not Ibn Majid but another man who had shown the way. Finally, in a very old library in Portugal, I found an old dairy describing the trip of Ibn Majid and Vasco Da Gama. The story revealed how they found the way to India and clearly mentioned that another man - not Ibn Majid - had shown them the way to India.
The story that a stranded Indian Moor was more than glad to obtain for himself and his people an advantage helping these "Franks" makes more logical sense.


Also according to Gunavant Ray Acharya there is Gujarti legends of Knaji (Kano) Malam that was the guide that helped Da Gama, but as discussed above those words are actually titles, not a name.

Whoever provided the needed data to avoid disaster, they succeeded in aiding the Portuguese adventurers in getting this coveted foothold in this part of the world.

In 1836 Majid's name comes up in a report from James Princep's interview of a Maldivian navigator, yed Hosein Sidi, who claimed to be able to provide documentation.

http://merawatan.com/watan/indarbsultan.htm, Gulf Today November 2nd 2000, "Who guided Vasco Da Gama to India ? Not an An Arab!"
http://members.tripod.com/jedi33/stories/ibn_majid.html, "About the Discovery of the Ocean Route to India:" With excerpts by G.R. Tibbetts.
http://wvintranet.wvi.org/africa.nsf (Book Reviews)
The Discoverers; A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, Daniel J. Boorstin; Vintage Books: New York, 1985.
The Challenge of the West, ed. Lynn Hunt et al; D.C. Heath: Lexington, MA, 1995.

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