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Maritime History and Traditional Knowledge

By: Dr. Radhika Seshan

  • The paper is broadly divided into three parts, covering historiography, sources, and knowledge systems.
  • The sea was ‘open to all’ but was nevertheless peripheral to the lives of most Indians— one manifestation of this attitude was the greater importance of land revenue, as opposed to that from trade by sea.
  • Rivers existed but the tendency in colonial historiography was often to focus on the sacredness of the rivers, rather than on their significance in day-to-day life.

How do we study maritime history? An equally important question would be, why should we study maritime history? Yet another question, which links both these, is what do we learn by studying and understanding maritime history? There are many answers to these questions, some of which are given below. The paper is broadly divided into three parts, covering historiography, sources, and knowledge systems.

Historiography and its focus are perhaps the starting point, and to my mind, the answer to the first question of how to study maritime history. Here, a crucial factor has always been the many ways in which, during and since colonial rule, India’s engagement with the sea has been at best side-lined, and at worst ignored. Colonial historiography has, unfortunately, handed to us two myths that are constantly reiterated – so much so, that they are now accepted as ‘fact’. The first is that Indians feared the loss of caste that necessarily followed the crossing of the seas, and the second, a corollary to this, is that Indians therefore had nothing to do with the sea. To this, is added the second ‘fact’ – that the caste system and its rigidity meant that, while trade existed, traders were generally ignored by the upper castes and the rulers, and so, lived in a separate world.

“Perhaps here would be a good place to quote yet another of the colonial era shibboleths – of east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet— except that they did meet! And if, instead of the words east and west, we use traders and rulers, again, the fact is that they did meet, interact, and help each other!”


Historiography, as I said, is a key to understanding maritime history, and here, in the global context, we must start with Fernand Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean world. As part of this work, he stated that it was not possible to talk of land alone, for it was necessary also to look at the influences of the oceans on land, and said that the effect of the Mediterranean could be felt far inland in Europe and across much of North Africa. A key question in Indian history and historiography is the relationship of this country to water. How has water been thought of, or imagined? One of the major themes of colonial historiography was the supposed ‘indifference’ of Indians to the sea, which was then touted as a reason for the British success in India, and this, despite the length of India’s coastline. Indians, it was said, were distant from the sea, even if some of the communities did live by and off the sea and its resources. But given the size of the country, a larger number of people were distant from it, and so, most just barely knew of the existence of the sea. The sea was ‘open to all’ but was nevertheless peripheral to the lives of most Indians— one manifestation of this attitude was the greater importance of land revenue, as opposed to that from trade by sea. When nationalist responses to such perceptions began, some of the colonial perceptions were challenged, but the idea of the sea being, by and large, unimportant was never seriously questioned, even though scholars like Nilakanta Sastri pointed out the significance of the sea to the Cholas in particular, and to peninsular rulers in general.

It should perhaps be pointed out here that water, generally, did not find much place in academic works. Rivers of course existed, but the tendency in colonial historiography was often to focus on the sacredness of the rivers, rather than on their significance in day-to-day life. Travellers had earlier pointed to the abundance of lakes and gardens in the 17th century, but these were apparently just taken for granted later, and it continued to be assumed that they had cosmetic and religious value, and perhaps some practical value, by way of irrigation, but nothing more. Water thus remained outside the purview of Indian life. Marx in a sense added to such constructions, when he talked of the hydraulic bases of the Asiatic mode of production, where water was harnessed in large scale irrigation projects – such as the Grand Anicut, built by the Cholas, or the Hissar canal built by Firoz Shah Tughluq, both of which are still important. 

Fernand Braudel had emphasised that trade follows those waterways that bring together the greatest variety of peoples, lands, and products. By this logic, the Indian Ocean world is perhaps the best placed, bringing together, as it does, west and east, as well as some of the most populated regions of the world. Historically, this is the ‘old world’, in which the networks of trade had long been well established and well traversed. Milo Kearney has argued that “the region represents the largest single chunk of exploitable wealth on earth, with such lucrative products as spices, gems, oil, gas, uranium, gold, tin, manganese, nickel, bauxite and zinc.”

The entry of the Portuguese into Asian trading waters has long been understood to have marked a dramatic change from past methods of trade in the region. One of the major concerns of historians is about the actual extent of the impact of the Portuguese. C.R. Boxer called it the Portuguese sea-borne empire and A.J.R. Russel-Wood called it a world on the move. The Portuguese dominated the trading networks of the Indian Ocean world for a century and when their dominance was challenged, it was primarily by the Dutch. Historians such as K.M. Panniker pointed to this entry as marking the beginning of western dominance, for with the Portuguese came methods of war at sea that had until then been unknown in Asian waters. While it is necessary to reiterate that such thinking had its roots in the colonial world and its legacy, it is also necessary to study the impact of the Portuguese and the Dutch in their own time as well, and to examine the ways in which the European entry was perceived.

““Historians have long debated the reasons for these voyages. Why was almost a century spent on thrusting down the West African coast, and why was it the Portuguese rather than some other European power who undertook these voyages? The much-quoted answer tells us that a member of da Gama’s crew, when asked in Calicut ‘What brought you here?’ replied ‘We seek Christians and Spices.’ Such a reply was actually a cliché even in the fifteenth century; Portuguese kings in their letters explained not only the discoveries but almost everything else they did as being designed to ‘serve God and make a profit for ourselves’. Some later Portuguese explanations, flying even further in the face of both facts and probability, stress solely religious motives.””

Later historiography tended to stress the economic aspect – thus, Portuguese expansion into Asian waters was often portrayed as a conscious and carefully crafted attempt to expand into areas which would provide both grain and other kinds of produce, which could be either absorbed locally, or sold for a sizable profit elsewhere in Europe. Pearson has also pointed to the ‘political imperatives’, including the steadily declining seigneurial revenues from land, as being causes for the voyages of exploration. Since the 1970s yet another dimension of historiography has emerged which has been primarily of Asian scholars who have emphasised the continued Asian participation in Asian trade as well as the methods used by these trades to subvert European monopolies. For example, the Portuguese domination through Melaka was subverted by the emergence of Aceh as a hub for Asian traders.

It is to be remembered that the Asian trading world, contrary to traditional European notions, was not ‘created’ by the Europeans. The Asian trading networks, as is now well known, were dominated by spices, cotton cloth, horses, and silk cloth. The Europeans interposed themselves into these networks and while they did change some aspects, probably failed in transforming them totally until the establishment of colonialism.

While Sardar KM Panikker’s Asia and Western Dominance, published in the 1960s, in which he argues that the ‘Vasco da Gama epoch’ was when Indians realised the role of the sea has been widely accepted, R.K. Mookerjee’s earlier History of Indian Shipping has by and large not been read. That said, it was in the late 1960s and 70s that historians really started studying India’s maritime connections. MN Pearson, an Australian historian, wrote a book called Merchants and Rulers in Gujarat: Indian Merchants’ Response to the Portuguese. Another important historian, Ashin Das Gupta, wrote Malabar in Asian Trade, earlier, Tapan Raychaudhuri had written Jan Compagnie in Coromandel. Prakash studied the Dutch Company in Bengal. It is with such historians that the study of India’s maritime history begins, but much remains to be done.

In 1992, Ashin Das Gupta remarked that the coming of Vasco da Gama in 1498 was a landmark “wherein we do not quite know what it marks”. The Europeans did enter, but did they control the entire Indian Ocean network so early? Asked differently, the question also addresses an old concern – were Indians as unaware of the importance of the Ocean and its economic potential as has traditionally been accepted? The answer would have to be ‘no’.

There are, here, two points that I think need to be underlined. The first is that, while historiography has emphasised the importance of the land-based powers, the sea was also a matter of concern for these powers. Access to the sea was important both to the peninsular powers and to the Mughals – for instance, the premier port of the Mughals, Surat, has been extensively studied. The second is that, in the Indian context, we do not have any record of assertions of sovereignty over the sea itself. Access to the sea, through control of the coast, was crucial, and so, what we should perhaps underline is the existence of coastal polities. It needs to be remembered that in the Indian context, there is historically no clear-cut attempt to claim sovereignty or jurisdiction over both ports and the sea. Ports were undoubtedly very important to the land-based sovereign powers from the point of revenue, but most of the kingdoms did have more than one port within their territories. Except for the Zamorin of Calicut, and in the 18th century, the kingdom of Travancore, both on the Malabar coast, there is no Indian power that based its entire control on just one port.


So let me go back to my first question, to again ask how we study maritime history, and this time, the answer is the sources of the times that we are studying. These sources, contrary (yet again) to ‘received’ wisdom, are multiple, but as with many other aspects of India’s past, need to be understood in the context of their own times and spaces, and the information then teased out of the records. As always in the Indian context, sources are in multiple languages – Tamil, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French and Italian, to name just a few. These can further be divided into groups – poetry, prose, epigraphic, numismatic, visual, and again, many more.

Aspects that can be studied through the maritime lens are again innumerable, and here I will list only some that I feel have not been explored at all.

Environmental history

One set of records that has probably never been utilised for any study of the environment is the European factory records. The English factory records of just one area, the Coromandel Coast in the 17th century, provide a wealth of information on this. For example, the cyclones that hit the Andhra coast or the south Coromandel Coast can be studied with the help of these records. Following such cyclones, the records also give details of changes in coastal features, such as receding coastlines or salination – the records mentioning Armagon, the earliest settlement of the English on the Coromandel Coast, talk about the problems of high saline content of the water on the activities of the weavers in the later decades of the century, as well as of the problems of shifting sand bars and increase in the size of such sand bars after a cyclone hit the coast in the mid-1650s.

Two texts I would regard as of potentially immense use for the study of environmental history. One is Thomas Bowrey’s ‘A Geographical Account of the Countries around the Bay of Bengal, 1650-1669’, and ‘The Diaries of Streynsham Master’. Bowrey’s is the account of a seafaring man and pilot. He has almost nothing to offer in terms of information about the land, but is a fount of information on tides, winds, and currents of the Bay of Bengal. Without being called a ‘pilot’, his can be regarded as the first such ‘pilot’, books that were published more or less annually by the British Royal Navy, and giving details about navigation and hazards to be encountered along shipping routes across the globe and near ports. Even today, such manuals remain the basic texts for navigation in many parts of the world.

The Diaries are to the Coromandel Coast in particular, what Bowrey’s work is to the Bay of Bengal. Streynsham Master was the President of the factory at Fort St. George, Madras, and had under him all the factories of the Coromandel Coast. He undertook an overland journey from Fort St. George to all the settlements on the coast, and his diaries include all the details of the journey. In his account, he provides information about the rivers that he crossed, the methods of crossing, the depth, and the velocity of the current, along with details about when they had water, the areas that were prone to flooding, and the irrigation network linked to these rivers. Along with this, was information about weavers, dyers, and painters, and the comparative value of different of the waters of different rivers for bleaching. All of this can be used to flesh out our knowledge of both the environment, and man’s relation to the environment, in the 17th century.


This is perhaps the least explored aspect of the maritime history of India. The late Dr. Lotika Varadarajan and the late Dr. B. Arunachalam, pioneers in the field of both maritime and technological history, have contributed detailed studies of the types of boats that are to be seen in parts of the Indian Ocean world. What needs to be underlined is that different parts of this world have different types of boats that are typical of the region. Thus, along the Konkan coast, we find references to gurav and galbat, while on the Coromandel coast and the Malaysian coast, we find mention of catamaran and prahu better known to us through the English rendering of these names – grab, gallivat, prow, and of course catamaran. The point that I am making here is that each of these was typical of, because uniquely suited to, the conditions of wind and water that prevailed in the regions where they were most used. The catamaran, for example, as a lightweight boat, was geared to the surf of the Coromandel coast, and would ride the surf without capsizing. The ubiquitous dhows of the Arabian sea were geared to the winds and currents of particularly the northern Arabian Sea. The thoni, on the other hand, also known as the coracle boat, could not be used in the open sea, and was instead a river craft alone. In terms of boat building, we could go back to Thomas Bowrey, and perhaps even further back to travellers like Marco Polo and others, all of whom commented that the ships in the Indian Ocean did not use iron. The reason they gave for this, that Indians did not know how to make iron nails with a head, can be dismissed, but the use of coir, and of tongue and groove joints rather than of overlapping planks which were held together by nails needs to be emphasised.

A 13th century text that is of great value in understanding craft is the Yuktikalpataru. A text in Sanskrit, it has one section on ship and boat building, which concentrates on the properties of wood in relation to use in water. So, for example, some types of wood are described as being too light to use in open waters, and the exact opposite, too heavy to use in the same waters. Others are said to be of use only in rivers, while some are identified as being most suitable for coastal shipping.

All this indicates a range of knowledge and practice, honed over centuries of use. Colonial constructs, rooted as they were in the European renaissance and the later ‘enlightenment’, emphasised the supremacy of science (as laboratory science in particular) over technology, but we need to remember that through history, technology and science were inseparable, and were rooted in community practices. It is these community practices that constitute what is today beginning to be called ‘traditional knowledge’. And I will end by making a plea to go back to using the term ‘community’ rather than ‘traditional’ knowledge.

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About The Author

Dr. Radhika Seshan

Dr. Radhika Seshan retired as Professor and Head of the Department of History, Savitribai Phule Pune University, in August 2019. She is now Visiting Faculty at the Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts, Pune. Her area of specialisation is Medieval Indian History, within which she has concentrated on economic history, especially maritime and urban history. She is the author of three books, Trade and Politics on the Coromandel Coast (Primus Books, 2012), Ideas and Institutions in Medieval India, 8th to 18th centuries (Orient Black Swan, 2013), and The Constructions of the East in Western Travel Narratives, 1300-1800 (Routledge, 2020). In addition, she is the editor /joint editor of 11 books, including Indian Ocean Histories: The Many Worlds of Michael Naylor Pearson, jointly edited with Rila Mukherjee(Routledge, 2019/20), Wage Earners in India 1500-1900: Regional Approaches in an International Context, jointly edited with Jan Lucassen, Sage (Sage Series on Politics and Society in India and the Global South), 2021, and most recently, Connecting the Indian Ocean World – Across Sea and Land, jointly edited with Ryuto Shimada (Routledge, 2023). She has numerous research papers to her credit in national and international journals.