Comment: Ages of ice and spice

In his book The Maldive Mystery, Thor Heyerdahl mentions the discovery of neolithic pottery on Male atoll. The shards were sourced to northwest India where they had been manufactured around 2000 BC or earlier, and many assumed that people from the subcontinent carried the original pots to Maldives.

It is more likely any traders visiting Maldives at that time were Indonesians using an ancient network of sea routes emanating from the Indonesian Spice islands and servicing markets in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

After analysing recent research in the diverse fields of ‘oceanography, traditional histories, physiology, genetics, geology and vulcanology, ship hydrodynamics, global climate history and palaeodemography,’ Charles and Frances Pearce in their book Oceanic Migration claim that seafarers from Halmahera island in Indonesia developed trans-oceanic vessels and navigational and horticultural skills during thousands of years of spice trading. This lucrative business led them to harness major sea currents in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and to colonise uninhabited islands. They were the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The Pearces assert that these trader-settlers discovered routes to Japan, Hawaii and the Americas by exploring West Pacific Warm Pool sea currents. Halmahera was directly on the equator in an ancient sea between the Sunda and Sahul continents. When the last Ice Age covered much of the northern hemisphere with massive ice sheets and freezing tundra, this area remained warm and fertile, supporting the most diverse plant and animal life on the planet.

Halmahera was not only a centre for the development of spice trade maritime technology and navigational expertise; it was also a hub for migration and the intercontinental transfer of plants, animals and horticultural knowledge, according to the Pearces. Around 5500 BC, when Sunda and Sahul lost their lowlands in a devastating flood, the new geography created by higher seas provided even more demand and opportunities for Halmaheran skills.

Maldives would have looked very different before the flood. The southern equatorial lagoons, shallower than those in the north, had been exposed for tens of thousands of years. Vegetation would have flourished in these sheltered basins and on the surrounding coral ramparts formed during previous high sea level periods. The rocky walls of Maldives must have been visible far out to sea, and equatorial atolls were excellent environments for the cultivation of large coconuts and other plants useful to the Indonesians and their customers.

Twenty thousand years ago during the peak of the last Ice Age, when sea levels were over 120 metres lower, Sri Lanka and India formed a single landmass and Gujarat extended far out to the west. The Persian Gulf was a fertile valley draining down into open lowlands. Dry land linked Africa and Arabia around a long lake in the deepest part of the Red Sea.

Halmaherans must have discovered the westerly route to Maldives and Chagos while following the southern equatorial current flowing from Indonesia to Africa past Madagascar. The current churns both north and south after hitting the African coast. The northern section splits again, offering spice traders the alternative of cruising straight home on the easterly Indian Counter Current, or striking out northwards along the Monsoon Drift to Arabia, the Middle East and eventually India. All these return journeys take them past Maldives.

After an Ice Age of cold winds up to 70 percent stronger than today, and equatorial sea surface temperatures as low as 25 degrees celsius, ocean sailing became more comfortable about ten thousand years ago, according to research cited by the Pearces. Conditions were particularly pleasant from 4000 BC until 1000 BC – a three thousand year period when underwater volcanic activity in Indonesia raised some sea surface temperatures to 35 degrees celsius.

This was ideal for long distance maritime trading and the Indonesians linked with ports supplying expanding markets in Egypt, the Middle East, India and China. Halmaherans were remarkably adapted for long voyages. Their genetic resistance to cold and famine exceeded even that of the Eskimos. The Pearces believe the hardiness of the Halmaherans and their Polynesian descendants was the result of many thousands of years of Ice Age sea travel.

Indonesian spices were readily available in the Middle East by 1721 BC and probably much earlier. Before 1000 BC, seven American plants, including maize, lima bean, phasey bean and Mexican prickle poppy, were introduced to India via routes that often bypassed China. Custard apples and pineapples also appeared in the Middle East no later than the 700-500 BC. At least forty useful American plants had been established in India by 1000 AD.

Halmaheran visits to the Maldivian atolls are a likely source of legends about ancient seafarers called Redin who preceded the Dhivehi speakers. The Redin often returned, appearing from a variety of directions to cruise through the atolls. Sometimes they stayed on an island before sailing off again in fast vessels.

The Pearces suggest that the Halmaherans also helped supply the Old World elite with American drugs such as coca leaves (or a derivative) and tobacco. Tests on nine royal Egyptian mummies, dated from 1070 BC to 395 AD, revealed that all nine had taken coca and cannabis while they were alive, and eight had used tobacco.

Though royalty may have partied on their wares, no powerful kingdom supported the Halmaherans. They survived primarily through their sailing, trading and horticultural skills. When Arab, Indian, Chinese and Malay pirates invaded the Spice Islands in 76 AD and established rival trading stations, the Halmaheran monopoly disappeared.

Before that invasion, spice trading had boomed along land and sea routes between the Roman and Chinese empires. Indonesian adventurers could earn a livelihood by simply riding a raft loaded with cinnamon along the southern equatorial current to Africa. Roman writer Pliny the Elder described their exploits two thousand years ago:

‘They bring their cargo over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them or oars to push or pull them or sails or other aids to navigation; but instead only the spirit of man and human courage. What is more, they put out to sea in winter, around the time of the northern winter solstice, when the east winds are blowing their hardest. These winds drive them on a straight course… they say that these merchant-sailors take almost five years before they return, and that many perish. In exchange, they carry back with them glassware and bronze ware, clothing, brooches, armlets, and necklaces.’

Cinnamon barges might be useful for one-way deliveries, but Halmaheran outriggers were much faster and capable of sailing almost anywhere. In 2003, Englishman Philip Beale and a team led by Indonesian shipbuilder Saad Abdullah on the Kangean islands north of Bali constructed a nineteen metre double outrigger inspired by 8th century AD relief carvings of Halmaheran vessels on the Borobudur temple. Beale and fourteen crew sailed the bamboo and wood ship, built without nails, from Java to Seychelles in 26 days. From there, they went south around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Ghana.

Cultural and economic change swept over Maldives in the first centuries AD. It transformed a frontier visited by Indonesian traders and subcontinental fishermen into a thriving export economy replete with monarchy, militias, slaves, monks and temples. Sri Lankan shipping and Buddhist business culture were the sources of much of this transformation, and its basic drivers were Bengali and Chinese consumer demand.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: The inappropriate history of early Maldives

Maldives National Museum, a multi-million dollar gift from the Chinese government, had only just been opened in 2010 when a local visitor protested loudly to staff that its Buddhist era sculpture was a modern forgery. A few days before, this writer had difficulty finding a Maldivian official willing to be photographed in a museum storage room full of Buddhist/Hindu sculpture awaiting installation in the exhibition hall.

Maldivians are not alone in finding their history uncomfortable. Take for example the current efforts in some states of the USA to suppress and distort history textbooks concerning American slavery and the Civil War, or the refusal by many European Australians to accept the reality of the attempted genocide of the Aboriginal people. In the UK, the crucial story of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War has been sidelined, and the importance of slavery for the British empire and its aristocratic investors has only recently been acknowledged.

Responsibility for local ignorance of Maldives’ history lies in part with the country’s writers.  Indigenous historians such as Hassan Maniku and Naseema Mohamed have written detailed English accounts of Buddhist era Maldives based on historical records and archaeological research, but little of their work has been translated into Dhivehi. Excellent books about the origins of Maldivian culture by Clarence Maloney and Xavier Romero-Frias cannot be purchased in Maldives, and have not been translated for Dhivehi readers.

Only the British colonial administrator and archaeologist H. C. P. Bell has been given official recognition. This was due to Bell’s collaboration and friendship with Atirige Ibrahim Didi. He and his descendants and relatives basically ruled Maldives until the middle of the 20th century.

Bell’s research in 1922 verified the Buddhist nature of many Maldivian ruins, but formal recognition of his findings did not occur until the 1980s as part of a government effort to cultivate support among Ibrahim Didi’s descendants, who remain an important and respected part of the modern Male’ elite.

Recognition of Bell’s work was not accompanied by digestion of his findings and, for many Maldivians, the pre-Islamic past remains as mysterious as it was in 1922. It is still possible to read contemporary articles that claim Maldivian history is ‘lost in the mists of time’ – a hollow phrase since those mists began to clear ninety years ago.

The six hundred year period before the official Islamic conversion of 1153 seems to have been a prosperous period, and it is likely the country experienced strong population growth. Despite the collapse of the Roman empire, the economic sun was still shining in the Indian Ocean. Sea trade between the Middle East and China boomed, and Persian and Arab navigators were not afraid to sail the mid-ocean routes to Indonesia and China through Maldives.

The recent discovery of what has become known as the Tang treasure ship in Indonesia finally silenced historians who claimed there was no real evidence of these trade routes. The shipwreck also adds weight to written records that traders utilised Maldivian island ports and channels between the atolls.

Arab navigator Ahamad Ibn Majid, writing in 1490, traced the sources of his Indian Ocean sailing knowledge to the South Indian Chettiar navigators who preceded the Persians and Arabs. Arab navigators gave sailing directions to many ports in Maldives, as far south as Huvadhu atoll, Fua Mulak and Addu. Since the Pole Star was once higher off the northern horizon than it is now, early Indian Ocean navigators could find latitudes for these atolls without difficulty.

Modern research supports those few historians who have suggested that Indian Ocean trading extended back at least to the era of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamian civilisations. Cloves have been found inside a kitchen pottery jar at the home of Puzurum, a land-agent living in Syria on the Euphrates river around 1721 BC. This spice must have come from Indonesia, or more exactly, from five tiny islands off the west coast of Halmahera.

Charles and Frances Pearce, in their book Oceanic Migration published in 2010, assert that spice traders based on islands between the ancient land masses of Sunda (Asia-western Indonesia) and Sahul (New Guinea-Australia) have been crossing the open sea for at least 40,000 years. For much of that time, scientific research indicates the oceans were lower, the currents stronger and the sea surface temperature up to 5 degrees celsius higher.

Over the last ten years, according to the Pearces, ‘genetic research has established… Halmahera as the ancient Polynesian homeland.’ They argue that Spice Island traders following ‘three of the four major fast warm currents flowing out of what oceanographers call the West Pacific Warm Pool were able to traverse vast ocean distances. In two periods, separated by a global cold period between 1000 BC and 400 BC, they followed these currents west to Madagascar and East Africa, north to Japan, Hawaii and America and south to New Zealand.’

The Pearces’ thesis has similarities to Thor Heyerdahl’s claims that ancient seafarers crossed the globe, with the important difference that they were based in Indonesia rather than the Americas. This has interesting implications for the Maldives, and suggests that people from Indonesia were visiting the atolls, and perhaps living here, well before its settlement from the subcontinent.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]