Egypt and the Suez Canal

Egypt and the Suez Canal

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Egypt is where the two giant continents of Asia and Africa meet. South of the Jordan valley the landscape of West Asia changes to the harsh desert of the Sinai. Dust storms rise up in the desert, blowing their way through the wasteland, making it difficult for man or beast to survive. At Suez, this harsh land meets up with the equally harsh eastern desert in Egypt. It is barely a hundred miles, as the crow flies, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the mouth of the Gulf of Suez. Yet, these few miles have separated not just two bodies of water, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, but two distinct historical regions. The Mediterranean region has its own distinct history as does the Indian Ocean region, which jets into the Gulf of Suez through the Red Sea. South of Suez, the Sinai becomes a rugged terrain, rising into the lofty Al Ajmali Mountains. This was the land through which Prophet Moses wandered for forty years, and it was the land where God spoke to man.

The civilizations of the Mediterranean and those of the Indian Ocean have interacted and traded with each other through the centuries. Egypt, sitting astride two continents, radiated its influence westwards into North Africa, south into the Sudan, east into the Red Sea basin, and north into the Syrian highlands. With its strategic position, it commanded the trade routes to North Africa, Europe and Asia. Goods from the Mediterranean basin were unloaded at Alexandria, transported by land to Suez, and ferried again by sea to the littoral regions of the Indian Ocean, including Yemen, Persia, India, Indonesia and China. The rulers of Egypt, since the time of the Pharaohs, had pondered the possibility of connecting the two regions by digging a canal across the Suez area. The sheer magnitude of the task was overwhelming, and the dream remained unfulfilled until recent times when the use of machinery increased the ability of man to subdue nature.

With the European discovery of trade routes to the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope, the strategic importance of Egypt increased. Specifically, in the 18th century, as France and England fought for influence and colonies in the Indian subcontinent, Egypt acquired added importance. Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, ostensibly to free the Egyptians from despotic rule, but his eyes were further east, on India. The French contingent easily defeated the Turkish-Egyptian garrison under Murad Bey at the Battle of the Pyramids and occupied Cairo. Egypt was a province of the Ottoman Empire. In response to the French invasion, the Ottoman Sultan Selim III declared war on France. Britain, which was at war with France, supported the Ottomans. Napoleon was bottled up in Cairo and his fleet was defeated by the British at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon’s grand plan was to strike at India through Syria and Iraq. With this in view he started correspondence with Tippu Sultan of Mysore (India) and the Sultan of Oman. However, his attempts to punch through Ottoman lines in Syria were frustrated when Turkish forces held their line at the Battle of Heliopolis (1800). Meanwhile, the British had successfully stormed Srirangapatam (1799), capital of Mysore, and Tippu had died in battle. Frustrated, Napoleon retreated to France, leaving behind him a large number of scholars, administrators and French chefs.

British strategic interest in Egypt grew in proportion to the consolidation of the British Empire in India. The British tried both diplomacy and war to gain a foothold on the Nile. However, its initial attempts met with failure. After the withdrawal of Napoleon, the Ottomans returned, and with the Treaty of El Arish, the British were forced to withdraw their naval contingents from the Nile. In 1805, Mohammed Ali, an ambitious and capable Albanian in the Ottoman garrison in Egypt, rose to become the Turkish Governor. He instituted reforms in the Egyptian administration and built up the Ottoman-Egyptian garrison into one of the finest fighting machines in the Mediterranean. When the British attempted to capture Alexandria in 1807, Muhammed Ali successfully beat back the assault. To counter British ambitions, Muhammed Ali cultivated the French, and used their services in the continued modernization of Egypt.

As long as Muhammed Ali was the Ottoman Viceroy, British ambitions in Egypt were kept at bay. However, Egypt could not remain isolated from the expanding European colonial juggernaut. Napoleon’s invasion had shown the military vulnerability of the Ottomans. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the Mediterranean was the focus of rivalry between the competing interests of the European powers. The interests of Britain, France, Russia and Austria-Hungary converged in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, but collided as to who would pick up the pieces once the Ottomans had left. The British had their paramount interest in Egypt as the gateway to the British Indian Empire and the Indian Ocean. The Empire of Austria-Hungary was interested in the Balkans and kept up its steady pressure south of the Danube. The French occupied Algeria in 1830 and had ambitions in Morocco and Tunisia. The Russians were devouring Ottoman territories in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. Their geopolitical goal was the occupation of Istanbul and the control of the Bosporus Straits so that their navy would have access to warm waters. A projection of Russian power into the Mediterranean would threaten French and British ambitions in North Africa and West Asia. So, they cooperated in containing Russia even while they themselves nibbled at the Ottoman Empire from the south. Greece was encouraged to secede from the Ottoman Empire (1820), but when the Ottomans decided to challenge European naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, war ensured. Britain, France and Russia formed an alliance and their combined navies defeated the Ottomans in an engagement off the coast of Cyprus (1827). Thereafter, the Mediterranean became a European naval preserve.

In the year 1845, Egypt technically remained an Ottoman province although Mohammed Ali Pasha, through a series of diplomatic and military moves, had won increasing concessions from the Porte in Istanbul making the province autonomous. Notwithstanding the circumnavigation of Africa, and the diversion of Indian Ocean trade through the Cape of Good Hope, Egypt was still an important trading center between the Mediterranean region and South Asia. The Nile Delta produced a large amount of grain so that Egypt could feed its own population and generate a net surplus for the other regions of the Ottoman Empire. Mohammed Ali introduced the cultivation of cotton, sugar and tobacco, which brought cash into the treasury. Cairo was an important cultural center, as the former seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, and as a transit point for hajjis from North and Central Africa.

Things changed when Muhammed Ali Pasha died, and Abbas I became the Governor (1849). Alarmed at French ambitions in North Africa, Abbas I cultivated the British as a counterweight to French encroachments. Britain was only too willing to oblige. The British East India Company had, by 1845, consolidated its Indian Empire. The Sikhs in the Punjab were defeated, and British horizons had expanded beyond the Indus River to the Northwest Frontier and Afghan territories. Russian advances in Central Asia had caused an alarm in India, and the British wished to create a buffer state in Afghanistan. Preservation of the Indian Empire, and safeguarding the Indian Ocean trade, were the driving forces behind British diplomacy in the 19th century. To show their appreciation for the overtures of Abbas I, the British offered to build a railroad from Alexandria to Cairo, an offer that was gladly accepted. Construction of this railroad began in 1851 and was completed in 1854. By mutual agreement, it was then extended to Suez. Goods could now be transported by sea from the Indian Ocean up the Red Sea through the Gulf of Suez, unloaded at the port city of Suez, transported by train to Alexandria, reloaded on ships and transported to London and Liverpool. Britain had now won through diplomacy what it could not win through war, namely, the capability to transport merchandise to and from its Indian Empire, through the Egyptian railroads.

The French were upset at this advantage gained by Britain while it was they who had worked so hard since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte to cultivate influence in Egypt. Their opportunity came when Sait Pasha became the Viceroy of Egypt (1854). The French Engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps had cultivated the friendship of successive Egyptian governors, and in 1854 made a diplomatic coup when he won a concession from Ibrahim Pasha to construct the Suez Canal. It was to be a joint enterprise with shares in the Suez Canal Company held by the Egyptian governor and de Lesseps. The French were to supply machinery while the Pasha guaranteed an unlimited supply of conscripted Egyptian labor.

It is at this point that the story of the Suez Canal and the colonization of Egypt begin. Even while Sait Pasha and de Lesseps made their agreement, and celebrated it with tea parties in Cairo, international events were overtaking those in Egypt. Continued and uncompromising Russian pressure on the Ottomans had led to the Crimean War (1853-1856). The task of defending the Empire against relentless European encroachments had exhausted the Ottoman treasury. The Porte in Istanbul was forced to take its first public loan from European bankers in 1854 at an enormous discount. The debt continued to mount in succeeding years through accrued interest and additional loans. The noose was about to tighten on the Ottoman Empire. By 1875, Ottoman public debts were in excess of 200 million British pounds. At an interest of 6% per annum these debts required more than 12 million pounds per year to service them. This amount was almost 50% of all Ottoman revenues. The burden of debt made it more difficult to modernize the Empire through the Tanzeematreforms. The inexorable process of economic centralization in favor of the European bankers had begun, leading to an equally inexorable process of political and economic contraction of the Ottomans.

The merchant-barons of Europe were now armed with a silent weapon, credit, whose power was far greater than that of the mightiest cannon in Napoleon’s armory. They could walk in, take over entire nations, and dismantle empires, sometimes without even firing a single shot.

Ottoman financial troubles spilled over to Egypt, since Egypt was as yet an Ottoman province. The Egyptian Pasha could not pay the expense for the continued excavation of the Suez Canal. Work that had started in 1857 proceeded intermittently with frequent work stoppages. In 1863, Ismail Pasha succeeded Sait Pasha as the governor of Egypt. Educated, but vain and foolish, Ismail was the man who pushed Egypt into the arms of the European bankers. The European banks offered a loan to Egypt for the completion of the canal against a collateral of Egyptian long fiber cotton. Demand for Egyptian cotton was high because the Civil War in America (1861-1865) had cut off the supply of American cotton to world markets. The loan was pushed through; the Canal was completed, and was opened in 1869 with much fanfare by Queen Eugenie of France. But as it turned out, the celebrations were premature.

The inauguration of the Canal was to become the opening gambit in the colonization of Egypt. The American Civil War ended in 1865, and the bottom fell out of the world cotton market. The price of Egyptian cotton dropped 400% between 1865 and 1869. Quite oblivious of the mounting financial crisis, Ismail Pasha accepted from Ottoman Sultan Abdel Aziz (1861-1875) the burden of guarding the Ottoman harbors in Eritrea on the Red Sea. In addition, to gain the hereditary title of Khedive, the Pasha agreed to pay additional tribute to the Sultan. In 1875, the Pasha even attempted an unsuccessful invasion of Ethiopia. These misadventures, together with Ismail’s extravagant life style and his attempts to accelerate the modernization of Egypt, made Egypt bankrupt. Ismail tried increased taxation and public borrowings but these proved insufficient to meet the expenditures. In desperation, in 1875, Ismail Pasha sold off his shares in the Suez Canal Company to the British in partial payment of his debts. Even this desperate measure proved insufficient, and the mounting financial crisis forced Ismail to suspend all payments on foreign debt. The European bankers brought the matter before the mixed courts in Alexandria for arbitration. The courts ruled in favor of the bankers, forced Ismail to give up some of his personal assets, and to accept a Commission on Egyptian Public Debt with the power to confiscate revenues from tobacco, railroads and excise taxes. Egyptian finances were put under two controllers appointed by Britain and France. The emasculation of Egypt was complete.

England and France tried to leverage their hold on Egypt to strangle the Ottoman Empire. In 1882, they orchestrated an “International Conference” in Istanbul where they offered to relieve Egypt of its debt burden provided the Ottoman Sultan accepted the liability for these loans. Istanbul was already in debt up to its neck. In 1881, the European powers had set up the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, and in return for a reduction of debt from 191 million British pounds to 106 million pounds, had obtained concessions from Istanbul to attach specific revenues for debt servicing. The burden of the Egyptian debt would have completely overwhelmed the Ottomans. Sultan Abdul Hamid (1876-1908) wisely declined to take the bait, giving the Empire a new lease for a few more decades. The attempt to use Egypt as a bait to occupy the Ottoman Empire was not given up until 1885, when Sir Drummond Wolff was sent to Istanbul to transfer Egyptian control back to the Ottomans, provided the Sultan accepted the liability for the Egyptian debt. This attempt, too, ended in failure, thanks to the foresight of Sultan Abdul Hamid.

Financial control inevitably leads to political control. In 1878, the Europeans forced an “International Ministry” on Cairo headed by an Armenian, Nubar Pasha, with British oversight over the ministry of finance and French oversight over the ministry of public works. Resentment against foreign intervention built up and there was a mutiny in the Egyptian armed forces in 1879. A national movement sprang up, led by a political party, Hizb al Watan. It became the dominant political force in the Assembly of Delegates, an institution that had been established by Muhammed Ali Pasha as part of his reform processes earlier in the century. In response to the Egyptian outcry, the Europeans tightened the noose and made demands for the immediate liquidation of their loans. When Ismail Pasha demurred and attempted to replace the foreigners in the ministry with Egyptians, he was forced to abdicate in favor of his incompetent son, Tawfiq Pasha. To placate the Europeans, Tawfiq dissolved the Assembly of Delegates and attempted to rule by decree. Protests and street demonstrations erupted in Cairo and Alexandria against this arbitrary exercise of power.

Unable to control the political process, the Europeans made their military move. In 1882, a combined British and French naval force appeared at Alexandria. When this show of force proved insufficient, the British, acting alone without French participation, bombarded Alexandria into submission. From there the British force moved on Cairo. The nationalist forces put up a stiff resistance but were defeated at the Battle of Tel el Kabir (1882). Cairo was in British hands.

Control of Egypt meant control of the NileRiver. Using Egypt as their base, the British moved up the Nile to occupy the Sudan and Khartoum. Sudanese resistance to British penetration was led by the Mahdi (1884), but it was crushed by superior British firepower. Egypt remained under British occupation until 1912 when it became a British Protectorate. An Anglo-French consortium was set up to control and run the Suez Canal, and it continued to operate until Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Canal in 1956.

The construction of the Suez Canal and the colonization of Egypt bring out the sharp contrast in the horizons of the Sultans and emirs of Muslim lands and the merchants and bankers of Europe. The Sultans and emirs operated in the past and had no idea of the changed global paradigm in which Europe operated. With the exception of Tippu Sultan of Mysore (d. 1799) their vision was limited to their own environment and their own kingdoms. They were unaware of global currents that were shaping the destinies of nations. Certainly, they proved themselves incompetent in the fields of international economics and finance. By contrast, the Europeans had a global reach. They understood the economic and political interplay between developments in one part of the world and another. When Ismail Pasha committed himself to a loan for the construction of the Suez Canal, he overlooked the fact that the inflated prices for Egyptian cotton were a consequence of the Civil War in America. The Civil War would end one day and the inflated prices would surely collapse. Neither could he comprehend that the credit system that he was submitting to would ultimately devour his country. Europe had entered the post-mercantile era, and was run by bankers armed with the credit mechanism whose global reach knew no national boundaries. The Sultans and emirs were still operating in the age of the soldier-kings. It would take another hundred years before the Muslim world would wake up and make a serious attempt to understand the west and the internal mechanics of its institutions.

The Rise of the Global Credit Economy

The Rise of the Global Credit Economy

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Civilization moves in epochs. In each epoch, the rules of competition are different. What drives the global civilization today is economic centralization, and the aristocrats of this drive are the bankers. The merchant, the industrialist, the soldier, the teacher and the mullah are all beholden to the banker, and more specifically, to the global credit system.

There is a great deal written about interest and usury by Muslim scholars. It is a complex issue and continues to be the subject of much controversy. There is always the risk of oversimplification because modern banks discharge a variety of services and cannot be lumped into one category. Nonetheless, in the caldron of global ideas, the Muslim point of view about usury must be put forth as clearly as possible so that one may evaluate it on its merits. Islam maintains that usury is debilitating to civilization. It saps the strength of individuals and nations, encourages greed, and discourages trade. It works in the direction of economic centralization, makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, creates instability in the society and ultimately destroys it. (“Those who devour usury will not stand except as stands one whom Satan by his touch has driven to madness”, Qur’an, 2:275-276). Another way to state the Islamic position is that zero interest is the best guarantor of sustained economic growth. Islam is not the only religion that looks askance at usury. The Christian church also frowned upon usury in medieval times.

Interest and usury are not new to the modern age. They have been practiced in practically every civilization from times immemorial. In India, the village moneylender has been known for ages. The function of these intermediaries in the cycle of trade and commerce was well understood and accepted. In the village milieu, the moneylender provided liquidity to the poor farmers who offered gold and silver jewelry as collateral. A discount rate was agreed upon between the lender and the borrower. Since the borrower was usually in dire need of cash, the discount rate was exorbitant, sometimes as high as 8% per month. More often than not, the farmer was unable to pay the interest, and lost his jewelry to the lender within a year. The difference in the value of the jewelry and the original amount lent was the “profit” made by the lender. This “profit” was about one hundred per cent per year!

In the Byzantine world, where trade routes from many nations crossed, moneychangers were active in the temples down to the times of Jesus. Their primary function was to buy and sell currencies from the various kingdoms depending on the amount of precious metal in the currency. A discount was applied to the transactions. The moneychanger also provided cash at interest to merchants against the collateral of their goods. If the merchant was successful, he paid back the loan; if he was not, he forfeited his goods to the moneylender.

From the perspective of Islamic history, an understanding of the role of interest takes on importance because the economic institutions that grew up in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries accumulated further clout in the 20th century, and came to dominate the globe. The issue transcends the Islamic world, and affects it only because it is now a part of a global community of poorer nations. Whether it is coffee, coconut, spices or oil, the international banks have a major influence on the economic sinews of the world. Interest payments are a major factor in the enormous flow of capital from the poorer countries of the world to the richer nations. In our own times, between the years 1980 and 1990, no less than 1.3 trillion U.S. dollars were transferred from the poorer countries to the richer countries. The interest economy rules the world, and whether the mullahor the alim likes it or not, he is a part of it.

The rise in the power of commercial banks in the 18th century was directly related to the Industrial Revolution in England. It was a convergence of several historical events that transformed England from a mercantile society to an industrial society and finally led to the triumph of the bankers. The arrival of fresh capital from Calcutta and Oudh (1757-1767) enhanced the substantial wealth that was flowing in from the Atlantic slave trade, and enabled the funding of innovative ideas. Inventions need capital to see the light of day. Without it, they wither and die. The first thrust of British innovation was the replacement of cotton goods from India. The spinning jenny went through rapid modifications and was “perfected” in 1767 by Hargraves. The colonization of Bengal provided a large captive market of thirty million consumers. The British East India Company slopped on a hefty 70% duty on Indian made goods while opening the floodgates to imports from England. British cotton goods inundated the Indian market, displacing the traditional products of Bengal.

The use of coal and the invention of the steam engine speeded up mechanization. Economies of scale dictated that large farms were more efficient than small ones. The small farmers lost out in the economic competition and moved to the cities in hordes where they became maids, butlers and laborers manning the engines of the industrial revolution. Consolidation of capital intensified. Investment increased, industrial production rose driven by demand from the colonies, profits shot up and merchant entrepreneurs transformed themselves into industrialists.

Behind this profound transformation was a change in the social paradigm. The Battle of Plassey (1757) demonstrated that the age of soldier-kings was over. From times immemorial, the merchant had depended for his protection on the soldier. After the Battle of Plassey, the tables turned and the soldier was to be a servant of the merchant and his hired hand. Civilizational initiative passed from the soldier to the merchant. Robert Clive, the shrewd merchant, had outfoxed Siraj ad Dawlah, the soldier-king. Henceforth, money and manipulation would triumph over the sword, and the genius of the age would turn its attention to the accumulation of wealth, not the conquest of territory.

The British rapidly consolidated their hold on the Indian subcontinent after the Battle of Plassey. Tippu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali resisted the British for more than 40 years. But from a global perspective, it was only a rearguard action. The tide of power had inexorably turned in favor of Europe. Tippu fell in 1799 at the Battle of Srirangapatam, the same year that Napoleon occupied Egypt. By the year 1806, the Moghul court in India was all but a vassal of the East India Company. Tippu was the last soldier-king in Asia. He fell, defeated by merchants or their mercenaries, whose principal weapons were money, bluff, and duplicity, which were often packaged as diplomacy.

The wealth of Bengal did not stay in the hands of English entrepreneurs for long. Within a span of 50 years, the keys to the treasuries of capitalist England passed from the merchants to the bankers. This transformation was so profound that it affected not just Europe but the entire globe.

The Industrial Revolution and the acceleration of international trade required an increase in monetary liquidity. The value of a currency was determined by its gold or silver content. In the halcyon pre-industrial age, an international merchant, upon completion of his sale, would deposit his money in local currency with a banker and receive from him a note. Upon returning to his own country, the merchant would cash in his note from an agent of the banker. For his service, the banker charged a discount. Such banks were well established in the principal cities of Europe, in London, Antwerp, Paris, Florence, Venice and Genoa. Since currency was based on gold and silver, an increase in the amount of currency in circulation required an increase in the supply of the precious metals. The availability of gold and silver thus put a limit on monetary liquidity, and hence on the amount of trade.

New mechanisms were therefore devised to reduce the liquidity crunch and to enhance trade. The bankers had found from their experience that their depositors required only a portion of their deposits for their current use. The difference between deposits and withdrawals was available to be loaned to customers on a short-term basis. A banker could thus lend out a sum larger than the amount of deposits and earn interest on it. This was the origin of the credit system in England. The assumption in these transactions was that the depositors would not cash in their deposits all at the same time. If they did, the bank would be unable to pay them, and would go under.

Historically, the credit system was not a new invention. In the year 1280, Kublai Khan of China minted leather coins to increase liquidity and enhance trade. In 1335, Emperor Muhammed bin Tughlaq did the same in India. We know from the accounts of the Tughlaq dynasty that the Delhi experiment was a failure because the Indians, Hindus and Muslims alike, sabotaged the effort by minting bogus coins and flooding the market. The Emperor had to abandon his innovative idea and redeem the leather currency at enormous expense to the royal treasury.

The leverage on capital that the credit system provided the bankers was not popular with everyone. Not only could the banker lend out money that he did not own; he charged interest on it. One could see that it enabled the bankers to increase their wealth in relation to the merchants. The payments that were made to retire the credit came back to the banks as additional deposits. The process worked in the direction of economic centralization, with money gravitating towards the banks. Political battles were fought between the merchants and the bankers on the issue of whether credit instruments should have legal recognition. History was on the side of the bankers and provided them with plenty of opportunities to win their case.

The wars between Britain and France, fought on and off between 1689 and 1815 for control of trade routes, were enormously costly. England was broke and approached the bankers for financing. In 1694, by mutual agreement, the Bank of England agreed to offer a perpetual loan of 1.2 million pounds at 8% interest to the British Crown, in return for certain privileges. These included the authority to handle public lotteries, accept deposits, discount bills, and most important, put its own notes into circulation.

This was the first recognition of the negotiability of credit. In effect it meant that the Bank could create money, a privilege that had hitherto resided only with the kings.

Monetary policy passed on to the bankers who could either fuel an expansion by increasing the supply of money and easing credit, or cause a contraction by withholding credit. This was a fundamental paradigm shift. From times immemorial, one of the essential privileges of a sovereign soldier-king was his authority to mint coins. This privilege now passed on to the bankers, although they printed money in the name of their sovereign. While the expansion of credit encouraged spending and expanded trade, this very action could fuel inflation. Conversely, the withholding of credit, and a tightening of the money supply, made it difficult for debtors to make payments on their debt, and they were forced to sell their assets at a discount to meet their debt obligations. In addition, as long as the standard of currency was gold, the bank could demand payment in gold whose supply was affected by war and was subject to monetary manipulation by the bankers themselves.

This is what opens up banking to charges of exploitation. The merchant makes his money when the value of his goods relative to the money he has borrowed goes up over time. The usurer, on the other hand, makes his money when the value of the credit he has advanced goes up in relation to the goods that are held in mortgage. Thus it is in the usurer’s interest to ensure that your property is worth less tomorrow than it is today so that he can get more of it when payment is due.

A credit advance of 1.2 million pounds in 1694 did not solve the cash requirements of the British throne. The protracted struggle with France for control of trade routes in India and America required enormous funds. England tried increased taxation and lost the American colonies in the process (1776-1783). The French revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic wars (1797-1810) were enormously expensive and financially exhausted the nations of Europe. The countries of Europe borrowed heavily from the bankers who were more than willing to fund the wars with cheap credit thanks to the gold from India and the silver from the Americas. The system worked to the advantage of the bankers.

By 1810, the merchants, the landowners, the producers and the governments were all beholden to the bankers and at their mercy. But when the Mexican War of Independence erupted (1810-1813), the flow of American silver suffered a disruption, a scarcity of precious metals developed, and there was a credit crunch in Europe. The bankers demanded payment in precious metal, which was in short supply. Panic set in and individuals as well as nations were brought to their knees.

The merchants and the old landed aristocracy put up a fight against the gold standard. But the legislative battles in the English Parliament were finally won by the bankers with the Bank Act of 1846, which conferred legal recognition on the negotiability of credit documents.

For more than a century, until 1972, when the United States abandoned the gold standard, those who controlled the gold, controlled the monetary veins of the world. The concentration of wealth with a few bankers increased. The banks literally controlled the jugular veins of the economy. In principle, the process worked like this: First, easy credit enticed borrowers who received advances against collateral goods and real property. But when credit was tightened, liquidity suffered, and there was insufficient currency to make payments on debts. The debtors dropped prices on their properties, so that they could sell their real assets and continue to make debt payments. The economy thus moved in boom-bust cycles, in which each bust cycle devoured the fruits of human labor and created additional poverty. Major contractions in the British economy were recorded in 1815, 1825, 1847, 1857, 1866, 1893 and 1929. The last one caused a global depression and was a contributory cause for the Second World War.

The disengagement of the world monetary system from the gold standard did not change the fundamental relationship between creditor and debtor. Whether the standard is gold, the American dollar, the British Pound or the Japanese Yen, the process remains unchanged. Credit, with interest, works to the advantage of the lender in favor of economic centralization. The rich keep getting richer, while the poor sink deeper into poverty. Critics may suggest this position as too simplistic inasmuch as governments can and do tax concentrations of wealth. But taxation mitigates the concentration of wealth; it does not eliminate it. Interest and credit continue to favor the creditor at the expense of the debtor.

What is true for individuals and nations is also true at the international level. Bereft of capital, the emerging countries of the world turned to international bankers for loans after the Second World War. The credit system increased the span of control of the international bankers over the entire globe. New mechanisms of international credit were created through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Loans were offered against the natural wealth of the borrower nations (commodities such coffee, jute, oil, bananas, spices) as collateral. Commodity prices fluctuate in response to natural causes, war, pestilence, man-made disasters or political manipulation. Should commodity prices go down, the borrower nations couldn’t make payments on their debt. The result is the same should the bankers tighten credit. To encourage their exports, and earn foreign currency, the debtor nations drop the prices of their export goods. The richer nations move in and acquire more of the poor nation’s resources at bargain prices. To continue debt financing, the bankers often force the poorer nations to devalue their currencies and accept international oversight of their economies. The cycle continues. The poorer nations keep getting poorer while economic centralization proceeds at the global level.

The issue of credit and interest is a major element in the continuing negotiation between the civilization of Islam and the global economic system. Indeed, it is a major item of negotiation between the richer and poorer nations of the world.

The Battle of Plassey

The Battle of Plassey

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

“It is not too much to say that the destiny of Europe hinged upon the conquest of Bengal, wrote the historian Brook Adams in 1896. People who look at today’s impoverished Bangladesh cannot imagine that in the mid-18th century, it was the hub of the most prosperous region inAsia. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Dawlah, ruled a territory extending from Dacca (Bangladesh) to Benares (northern India). The province had a population of 25 million; about four times the population of England at that time. The Ganges delta provided abundant rice, fish and jute. The province was bustling with manufacturing activity. The fine muslin cloth of Murshidabad was sought after the world over. Bengal also produced the finest steel, using iron ores imported from Tanzania in Africa.

Within a span of ten years after its capture by the British, Bengal, once the richest province in Asia, became destitute. To understand how it happened, one must examine the broader political developments in South Asia in the early part of the 18th century. The death of Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb (1707) let loose the centrifugal forces that were kept in check by the indefatigable energy of the aging Emperor. Prince Muazzam, who was already in his sixties, was hastily called back from Kabul to Delhi, and ascended the throne in the Red Fort under the title of Bahadur Shah. By this time, the empire was in turmoil. The Maratha advance in the Deccan was in full swing. A truce between the Moghuls and the Sikhs broke down after the assassination of Guru Govind Singh (1708) and a full-scale uprising erupted in the Punjab under Banda Singh. Bahadur Shah spent a greater portion of his tenure in office containing the Sikh revolt. Although the Moghul armies recaptured the principal cities, the Sikhs continued their guerilla war from the hills in northern Punjab. Bahadur Shah, tired of these campaigns, died in 1712.

Court intrigue took over the Moghul court. Azim us Shan the heir apparent, and two of his brothers, were murdered at the instigation of Zulfiqar Khan, a general in the army. In his place, Jahandar Shah, a debaucher who spent all his time with his concubine Lal Kunwar, was hoisted as the new king. Enraged at the murder of his father, Farrukhsiyar (1713-1719), the eldest son of Azim us Shan, raised an army in Bengal, and marched on Delhi with the help of two Sayyid brothers, Hassan Ali and Hussain Ali. Jahandar and Zulfiqar were both killed. The two Ali brothers gained enormous power in the court. Hussain Ali obtained the regency of the Deccan as payment for his services. But a rift developed between Hassan Ali and the Emperor; the Ali brothers blinded Farrukhsiyar and imprisoned him until death. Raushan Akhtar, a grandson of Muhammed Shah, was made the king. Raushan broke the stranglehold of the Ali brothers by forging an alliance with Afghan and Irani nobles.

One of the Afghan nobles, Chin Qilich Khan, was given the title of Nizam ul Mulk and was made the divan. He tried to arrest the decay in the empire, but the rot was too far-gone. Disgusted, he left for the Deccan in 1723, where he founded the state of Hyderabad, which lasted until 1948. Similarly, Bengal and Oudh broke away in 1722. These provinces accounted for the bulk of Moghul revenues. Although the local rulers continued to acknowledge Moghul overlordship, they were all but independent. Meanwhile, the Marathas consolidated their hold on central India. In 1732, they occupied the province of Gujrat, cutting off the important trading center of Surat from Delhi. Under the leadership of Baji Rao, they moved north and reached the suburbs of Delhi in 1737. Alarmed at the Maratha advance, the Emperor recalled the Nizam from Hyderabad. But international events overtook the turmoil in India at this juncture.

The disintegration of the Safavid Empire and the occupation of its capital by the Afghans in 1722 invited intervention from the Russians and Ottomans. The Persians rallied under Nadir Quli, a general in the Safavid army, drove the Russians out, and won their territories back from the Ottomans. Nadir tried to interest the Safavid Shah Tahmasp II in the affairs of state, but finding him incompetent, dethroned him, and declared himself Nadir Shah of Persia (1736).

Once the Russian menace had been contained, Nadir turned his attention to the east towards Qandahar from where the Afghans had launched an invasion of Persia. Nadir Shah appealed to the Moghul Emperor Muhammed Shah for his help in preventing the Afghan rebels from escaping to Kabul. In the bureaucratic machinery of the Moghul court, it is not even certain that the Emperor was briefed on the full import of events in Persia and Afghanistan. The reply from Delhi was ambiguous. The irate Nadir Shah captured Qandahar in 1737, and in hot pursuit of the rebels, moved to Kabul in 1738. He would not overlook the indifference of the Delhi court to his appeal. He crossed the Khaiber Pass in the winter of 1738, and took Peshawar. Moving forward, in 1739, he occupied Lahore and sent word to Delhi that he “had arrived in India to punish the courtiers who had shown him disrespect”.

The gauntlet was thrown. The Moghul armies moved towards Karnal in Punjab to meet Nadir Shah. The Persians avoided the main Indian force. Instead, they raided auxiliary troops, which were being brought in by the Moghul generals, cutting down the Indian forces one by one. Camels loaded with gunpowder were let loose on the Indian formations, causing havoc on the infantry and elephant corps alike. In one of the skirmishes, the commander-in-chief of the Indian army, Khan e Dauran, was killed, and Burhan ul Mulk, governor of Oudh was captured. With the Moghul armies in disarray, the Moghul emperor sued for peace.

Once he was in captivity, the treacherous Burhan ul Mulk turned against his own Emperor, and advised the Persian monarch to demand an indemnity of twenty million rupees from the Moghul. He also demanded the position of commander-in-chief of the disarrayed Moghul armies. Muhammed Shah gave the job instead to Nizam ul Mulk. The irate Burhan ul Mulk advised the Persian invader to up the ante and move on Delhi. A face saving formula was arranged, and the humbled Moghul Emperor led the victorious Nadir Shah into the capital, presumably as his “guest”. While negotiations were going on about the indemnity, a rumor spread that Nadir had been killed. The ill-advised citizens of Delhi went on a rampage and killed several hundred Persian soldiers. Enraged, Nadir Shah gave orders for a general slaughter. Not since the invasion of Timur had Delhi seen such destruction. Over a hundred thousand citizens were butchered. Peace was restored after Muhammed Shah offered one of his grand daughters in marriage to the son of Nadir Shah. The peacock throne of Shah Jehan, together with the entire collection of gold, diamonds and rubies in the Moghul treasury was given away as “dowry”. In addition, Nadir’s soldiers tortured the nobles into giving up vast amounts of hoarded wealth. It is said that Nadir required 70 camels to load up the gold and the precious stones. So large was the amount of loot that upon returning to Persia, Nadir Shah forgave the collection of taxes in his vast empire for three years. He also annexed all the territories to the west of the Indus River, comprising most of what is today Pakistan.

Nadir Shah’s invasion destroyed whatever remained of the prestige of the Moghul emperor. The Marathas moved to fill the political military vacuum, advancing from central India towards Delhi. The Sikhs regrouped and rejoined their armed struggle in the Punjab. Bengal, Oudh, and Hyderabad practically became independent. Without the revenues of these vast provinces, the Moghul Empire became but a shadow of its old self. Its hold now diminished to a few square miles around Delhi.

With the Moghul Empire in ruins, the focus shifted to its successor states in the provinces. The Moghul Emperors had appointed nawabs (governors) to run each of the major provinces. With the empire in disarray, these nawabs became independent. The capable administrators Nawab Murshad Quli Khan and Nawab Aliwardi Khan governed the large province of Bengal (1722-1756). When Aliwardi died in 1756, his grandson Siraj ad Daula became the Nawab. This upset Mir Ja’afar, a brother-in-law of Siraj, who had hoped to be the next Nawab. The Bengali court in Murshidabad became a cobweb of plots and counter plots. These court intrigues provided an opening for the British who were not content with commercial expansion in Bengal, but wanted political control as well. When the East India Company reinforced Fort William in Calcutta against his expressed wishes, Siraj ad Dawla was furious. At his orders, 155 Englishmen were locked up in a small chamber barely large enough to accommodate half as many. Most of the hapless prisoners did not survive the summer heat of Bengal, and the British dubbed the death chamber the “Black Hole of Calcutta”.

The battle lines were now drawn. By 1757, Britain was by far the paramount sea power in the world. It had displaced the Dutch, outmaneuvered the French, and established itself in America and Asia alike. Its holdings included colonies in America, Canada, West Africa, India and Australia. The slave trade had made England rich and its horizons now reached out to the control of the great landmass of Asia and Africa. On the Indian subcontinent the British East India Company held the strategic ports of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Robert Clive, a shrewd and capable administrator who had outfoxed the French in southern India, led the Company affairs. Clive knew through his agents the intrigues in Murshidabad, and made a deal with Mir Ja’afar. In return for the latter’s support against Siraj ad Dawlah, Clive promised him the Nawabship of Bengal. The zamindars and bankers of Bengal also joined Clive’s camp.

On June 28, 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, a day marked with infamy in the history of India, the Bengal forces met the British. The Bengal army had 50,000 troops commanded by Mir Ja’afar. The British contingent was barely 3,000 strong. As soon as the battle began, Mir Ja’afar betrayed Siraj ad Dawla, and went over to the British with the bulk of his army. Siraj ad Dawla was killed in the first hour of combat. With Bengal at his feet, Clive appointed Mir Ja’afar the nawab. In return, Mir Ja’afar showered the British with untold riches. Clive himself received a million pounds in gold and precious stones. Taxes for the East India Company were forgiven. But when the wily Mir Ja’afar showed his reluctance to part with additional wealth, Clive replaced him with another satrap, Mir Qasim. The East India Company had by now a taste of the wealth of Bengal, accumulated over centuries of opulent Moghul rule. Unable to satiate the unquenchable greed of the Company, Mir Qasim traveled westward to ask for help from the Nawab of Oudh in expelling the British. Oudh, in turn, requested assistance from the Moghul court in Delhi. Without financial resources, the Moghuls could not sustain an army. Only eighteen years separated the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah (1739) from the Battle of Plassey (1757). The Moghul armies were a shadow of their former self. Nonetheless the Emperor sent a contingent to help the Nawab of Oudh. The Indian armies met the British at the Battle of Buxor (1764). By now, the British could field more than 10,000 troops plus an equal number of Indian Sepoys. The armies were well supplied with cannon and rifles. The Indians suffered a disastrous defeat. Under the terms of capitulation, the Moghul Emperor surrendered to the British the revenues from Bengal, Bihar and most of the United Provinces. The document signed at the termination of the Battle of Buxor became the legal basis for the British Raj (British rule).

What Robert Clive started, his successor, Warren Hastings completed. With the instincts of a cold, ruthless extortionist, Hastings used every administrative trick in his bag to extract the last ounce of gold from Hindus and Muslims alike. He imposed hefty taxes on Indian manufactures while flooding the Indian market with cheap cotton goods manufactured in Lancashire. He waged war on the Afghans of Rohilkhand, pillaging the northern territories as he went. He starved the Begums (princesses) of Oudh and tortured their servants using another traitor Asif ud Dawlah as his tool, until the Begums surrendered more than a million pounds in state jewels. Within a span of ten years, Bengal was on its knees. What was once the richest province of Asia was now broke. Famine set in in1765 and the streets of Calcutta were littered with corpses.

The transfer of this immense treasure from Bengal made possible the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It is significant that historians date the Industrial Revolution from 1758, one year after the Battle of Plassey. Capital is the energy that gives momentum to invention. Without capital, inventions have as much power as dead rocks. The infusion of capital into England accelerated innovation. Inventions appeared in rapid succession. The flying shuttle was invented in 1760, the spinning jenny in 1764, the steam engine in 1768 and the “mule” in 1779. Before the Battle of Plassey, the iron and steel industry in England was no more advanced than that in Bengal. Within a generation after Plassey, Europe had far outstripped Asia in technology.

Some scholars have dated the turning point in relations between the Islamic world and Europe from 1799, the year Napoleon landed in Egypt. This date misses the mark by more than forty years. By the time Napoleon invaded Egypt, the wheels of fortune had turned, and it was too late for the Islamic world. The Industrial Revolution had been in full swing for more than a generation. Napoleon’s triumph over the Turks in Egypt was only a symptom of the technological superiority achieved by Europe over Asia. The real historic hinge was the Battle of Plassey, fought on the sweaty swamps of Bengal in 1757.

The loot from Bengal heralded the onset of the capitalist society. Industrialization further consolidated the accumulation of capital. With the wealth of Bengal at their command, the British successfully fought off Tippu Sultan of Mysore (1770-1799) and subdued India. With the resources of the great subcontinent of India at its command, European colonization of Asia and Africa in the 19th century was only a footnote.

The Rise of England

The Rise of England

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

If a businessman was searching for one word that would describe the emergence of England from its feudal past, it has to be wool. And if he was searching for a second word to explain the rise of the British Empire, which dominated much of the Islamic world for two hundred years, it has to be trade. Along the road, England was helped by her geography, the cast of history, which seemed to throw the dice in her favor at critical moments, and a steady stream of capable, pragmatic and at times ruthless first-rung leaders.

Notwithstanding the Magna Carta (1215), England was, until the 15thcentury, a feudal society. Land was the principal economic resource, and it was divided into large estates, which had been bestowed by the king as a reward to his cohorts for riding with him in battle. Serfs worked each estate, consumed what they needed for their subsistence, and passed on the surplus to the landlord. The process for tax collection was simple but efficient. The Parliament had a say in raising new taxes. In times of peace, the landlords paid a portion of their income to the throne. In times of war, they provided the king with cavalry and foot soldiers. Land was relatively plentiful. The sprawling estates were separated by common land, which was used by the serfs to graze their sheep, generating in the process a little extra income for themselves. Almost everyone was either a landlord or “belonged” to a serfdom. This inefficient but stable social structure served England well for half a millennium, when Europe slept in the stupor of its Dark Ages.

The winds of change blowing in the western Mediterranean in the 15thcentury also swept across the English Channel. The first to wake up were the Iberians. Their long and bloody struggle with the Muslims in Spain brought them into contact with the more advanced culture and technology of the Islamic world. As early as 1085, when Toledo fell to the Crusaders, Islamic learning became available to Europe. Schools of translation were set up first in Spain, and later in France, England, Germany and Italy. By the mid-13th century, Christian forces had captured the entire Iberian Peninsula except for Granada, and Islamic learning became diffused into the citadels of Europe. During the following two centuries (1248-1415), the level of technological know-how was approximately equal in the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco and there was a military equilibrium in the western Mediterranean.

The first break in this equilibrium came with the Portuguese capture of Ceuta in 1415. Taking advantage of internal squabbles among the Moroccan emirs, a small Portuguese force sacked the city, slaughtered its population, and converted its mosque to a cathedral. This was the first European conquest on African soil. The pattern was to be repeated with increasing frequency in later years. The invaders were amazed at the wealth of the city, and the imported articles they found in the houses included porcelain from China, fine muslin from India, ivory and gold from Africa. The capture of Ceuta, and later of Tangier, provided the Portuguese with a springboard for raids along the Atlantic coast of Africa. After 1434 when Cape Bajador was successfully crossed, the Portuguese thrust forward into West Africa in search of ivory, gold, nuts, and slaves. In return, the Europeans paid the Africans with horses, iron bars, cowry shells, Andalusian ware and clothes. When Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to Sultan Mehmet II (1453), Pope Nicholas V declared a Crusade against the Turks. The Portuguese and the Spaniards responded, but instead of proceeding to the eastern Mediterranean where they would face the fierce Turks, they turned their wrath on North Africa. In 1471, the city of Arzila on the west coast of Morocco fell. Five thousand Muslims were enslaved and an immense treasure was captured. The discovery of America (1492), and the Portuguese onslaught in the Indian Ocean (1502-1515) brought Mexican silver and the highly coveted Indian pepper to the European market.

The arrival of products from Africa and India expanded trade throughout the North Atlantic. The Spanish set up a “factory” at Antwerp (Holland), which served as an outlet for their merchandise. The English were latecomers to this commerce, but they entered the fray and they soon became important players in it. England had very little gold or silver to buy the high value Indian pepper or the expensive Senegalese ivory. But there was one English product that was in demand. That was wool. As English participation in the North Atlantic trade grew, so did the demand for English wool. In addition to Antwerp and Lisbon, English traders were active in the interior of Morocco, trading wool, quicksilver and tin for sugar, gunmetal and gold.

The interests of England and Morocco converged at this time in history, as it was in their mutual interest to contain the Portuguese. This cooperation extended not just to trade, but also covertly to the supply of English cannon to the Moroccans. In 1541, it was English cannon that enabled the Moroccans to reclaim FortSanta Cruz from the Portuguese.

As demand for wool increased, so did the pressure on grazing land in England. The landlords, sensing the profits that were available from the sale of wool, expanded their holdings into the common grazing grounds that had existed for centuries. The serfs who had depended on this land for their sheep were squeezed out. Surplus labor from the serfdoms poured into London and Liverpool where it was deemed a public nuisance. The earls and the barons could not tolerate the multitude of these untidy peasants. Laws were passed in the Parliament (1535) making it a crime for any unattached serf to loiter in London. The first time a person was caught, he was punished with servitude for two years. The punishment for a second offense was servitude for life. For a while capital punishment was also tried.

The desperation of the London slums gave birth to organized piracy. A return to the land was not possible, so the sea provided an outlet for the vast energies of a seething population. Piracy was not an English phenomenon, nor was it invented in the Atlantic. It was prevalent in the Mediterranean and in the Persian Gulf throughout the Middle Ages. Piracy was made particularly attractive at this time by the mushrooming Atlantic trade. The exploits of the Spanish in America and of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean were well known in Europe. Spanish ships loaded with pillaged silver from the Americas, and Portuguese ships carrying Indian pepper were prime targets for pirates.

There was treasure on the high seas. The Spanish and the Portuguese divided up the world into their spheres of influence (1494) and maintained a monopoly on trade. The western Atlantic was polarized between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. The Iberians were the “haves” while the Moroccans, Algerians, English and French were the “have-nots”. These poorer nations became bastions of piracy, which was financed by the rich merchants of Europe and North Africa. On occasion, even the monarchs invested in these missions. The pirate ships would wait off the Atlantic coast of Africa and ambush vulnerable ships. The payoff was enormous. The silver looted from Spanish ships sustained the English pound during the Elizabethan era (1559-1602). The skills and talents developed in these adventures produced some of the best-known sea captains and admirals of the era. Names such as John Hawkins and Drake of England, and Khairuddin and Piri Rais of the Ottoman Empire became legends in history.

The infusion of wealth from this “trade” produced a rich merchant class in each of the participating states. Here we will focus on England. The newly rich merchants and successful pirates became the object of envy of the old feudal landlords. As the merchants made a dash for power, resistance from the feudal establishment was fierce. Until trade in the North Atlantic picked up momentum, political power in England had rested with the monarch, and it was supported by the landed gentry. With the entry of the merchant class into the fray, it became a three-way struggle. The Parliament became an arena for political battles. The forays were fierce but by 1680 the center of gravity of political power shifted decidedly in favor of the merchants. England had finally emerged from its feudal age.

The reign of Elizabeth I served as an historical hinge around which this transformation took place. In 1604, Queen Elizabeth I could look back on her long reign (1559-1603) and take satisfaction in her achievements. Principal among these were the consolidation of the United Kingdom after the defeat of the Scots (1587), the destruction of the Spanish Armada (1588), and the launching of the joint stock companies (1600). England demonstrated a burst of energy during this period as manifest in the creativity of William Shakespeare (1585-1618), and the voyages of Hawkins (d.1595) and Drake (d. 1596). It is true that most of her subjects lived in poverty in the slums of London and Liverpool, but this destitution served as a catapult to challenge the ocean and ultimately to conquer it. Prior to the year 1600, England was a marginal player in the affairs of the North Atlantic. After 1600, her influence grew steadily and inexorably.

It was the merchants of England who laid the foundation of the British Empire (1650-1799). The passage from a feudal society to an imperial power was not smooth, and we may identify only the major benchmarks in a broad-brush survey as they touch upon Muslim history. The Spanish and Portuguese monopolies lasted less than a century. Starting with the year 1530, the Ottomans challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. The Red Sea was cleared of a Portuguese presence, and the Ottoman hold on Yemen was consolidated. Ottoman navies raided Portuguese strongholds in Hormuz, Oman and Gujrat. By 1540, more Indian pepper flowed to Europe through Alexandria in Egypt than through Lisbon, Portugal. In 1578, Ahmed Al Mansur of Morocco, helped by the religious zeal of the Jazuliya Sufis, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Portuguese at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir. Sebastian, the young King of Portugal was killed. Two years later, in 1580, Portugal itself became a protectorate of Spain. Meanwhile, English and French corsairs continuously harassed Spanish shipping in the Atlantic. This nuisance, compounded by the Protestant religious views of the English, prompted a Spanish Crusade against England. The Spanish Armada set sail in 1588 with the best ships that Spain could muster, as well as ships commandeered from Portugal. The attempted invasion was a disaster. The English, under command of Charles Howard, destroyed the mighty Armada. Ten years later, in 1598, the Spanish attempted another invasion. This time they were thwarted by nature, and their navy was shipwrecked by a powerful storm in the Atlantic Ocean. Spanish naval power never recovered from these disasters.

These events opened up a window of opportunity in the northern Atlantic. The Dutch gained their independence from Spain in 1572, and became a magnet for enterprising mercenaries from the northern German counties. The Portuguese had long established a trading outpost in Antwerp and the Dutch learned the art of commerce from them. The Spanish had introduced shipbuilding into Holland. As Anglo-Spanish wars took their toll, and the losses were compounded by relentless piracy, a need arose in Spain to build more ships and to do it faster. Spain could maintain the rate of production only at the cost of decreasing quality. On the other hand, the Dutch focused on shipbuilding improvements, increasing the agility and gun carrying capability of their boats. The Dutch had the advantage of access to timber in the Rhine valley while the Spanish forests were becoming denuded by centuries of shipbuilding. As the Dutch ventured into the Atlantic, the Spanish responded by closing all ports on the Atlantic to their shipping. This only forced the Dutch to move out further into the ocean, thereby increasing the range of their shipping. Whenever hostilities took place, the Dutch won because of their more robust ships and the superiority of their cannon. Gradually, Portuguese and Spanish outposts in West Africa, Brazil and the Indian Ocean fell to the Dutch. By 1640, the Indian Ocean became a Dutch preserve and the lucrative Indian trade flowed through Amsterdam and Antwerp. Cape Town, the hinge around which the Indian and Atlantic waters flow, was established in 1652 and became the nucleus of Dutch settlements in South Africa.

The rise of the Dutch, and later of the British, and their triumph over the Spanish-Portuguese monopolies, was due in no small measure to the development of a new institution. The rise of the joint stock company, as an institution of trade, was the single most important political economic development of the 17th century. What enables common people to achieve uncommon goals is their loyalty to institutions that pool together and channel their energies. The joint stock company proved to be far superior in harnessing the energies of men and material than the monarchical hierarchies of Spain and Portugal, or for that matter the despotic centralism of the Muslim world at that time.

As we shall see, the eclipse of the Muslim world was due in large part to its failure to evolve institutions that could successfully compete with the joint stock company in a world that was increasingly shrinking. Among the most successful of these companies were the English East India Company chartered in 1600, and the Dutch East India Company chartered in 1602. Given a stake in the overall profits, British interlopers found it more advantageous to join the joint stock companies than to fight them.

The mercantile zeal of Western Europe must be looked at in the context of new ideas sweeping the continent. In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther expounded his religious philosophy, which in time came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther placed the center of salvation in faith based on the Bible. He conceived the Church to be a community of believers. These ideas are familiar to Sunni Islam where the Qur’an is the source of Divine Law guarded by the consensus of the community. Indeed, Sultan Sulaiman (1520-1565) gave protection to the Protestants in Hungary against the persecution of the Catholics. The support, while rooted in religious sympathies, was also motivated by a desire to weaken the Catholic powers. Luther’s ideas were welcomed by a growing merchant class in northern Europe who found in it an escape from the heavy taxation laid by the Church for performance of obligatory religious rites. The monarchs saw in it a vehicle for implementing their state and personal agendas. The ideas of Martin Luther in Germany and Calvin (1535) in Switzerland swept across northern Europe where the merchant influence was the strongest. Sweden became Protestant in 1527, Norway and Denmark in 1536, Scotland in 1567, while the counties of northern Germany, Holland and pockets of France and Italy experienced the transformation in the same period. In England, the pace was dictated by the vagaries of King Henry VIII whose obsession for a male heir to the throne of England led him to divorce and marry multiple times, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the Church. When the Church declined to oblige him on his serial marriages and divorces, Henry responded by declaring the Church of England to be independent of Rome and made himself the head of the Church (1534).

The Protestant Reformation freed the mercantile energies of northern Europe. Since the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders (1204), wealth had displaced faith as the motivation for the Crusades. Nonetheless, rituals and the talisman retained a strong hold on the imagination of northern Europe. The Church, as the sole keeper of the talisman and the dispenser of indulgences, maintained a stranglehold on temporal as well as religious affairs. Merchants begged and monarchs trembled before the heavenly power of the Church. The Reformation changed it all. No longer were the merchants bound by the constraints imposed from Rome. Money could be made-and kept-without buying indulgences from the Church. The Spanish and the Portuguese had sailed on the high seas with a dual burden of conquest and spreading Catholic Christianity. The Dutch and the English had no such pretenses. Their motives were entirely mercantile. If in the process of trading and capital accumulation they amassed world empires, it was a byproduct of their primary focus on money. Their cannons did not roar in the name of God. They bellowed out cannon balls in pursuit of profits.

The resolution of the dialectic between the Protestants and the Catholics was not without a fight. Religious warfare raged in Europe through much of the 16th century. When the dust settled, Norway, Sweden, England, Holland as well as the northern counties of Germany had become Protestant. In England, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England in 1534, and issued an edict that the clergy must submit to the crown. By 1540, most of the relics and shrines in England were destroyed. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a military alliance was formed between the English and the Dutch (1579) against the Catholic Iberian powers, Spain and Portugal. The alliance survived until 1650 when the British, alarmed at the growing power of the Dutch in the Indian Ocean (Sri Lanka, 1640; Cochin, India, 1641), and their occupation of the American mid-Atlantic coast (New York, 1626), switched sides, and a three-way rivalry between England, France and Holland began for control of trade with India and America.

The British East India Company was by far the most successful of the joint stock companies. Until the discovery of America (1492), the key to the riches of the world lay in the Indian Ocean trade. A look at a map of the world in the year 1500 would show that the Indian Ocean region was by far the most prosperous area of the world. Its combined output of raw materials and manufactured goods was many times that of the Mediterranean region. China, India, Indonesia and Persia were part of its littoral states as were the prosperous ports of East Africa and southern Arabia. Together, this region had a population in excess of three hundred million, while the total population of Europe and North Africa was about a hundred million. Black pepper from Malabar, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sugar from Surat, ginger from the Malaccas, ivory and iron ore from Mombasa were traded as far away as Alexandria, Egypt, and Venice, Italy. World class manufactured goods included fine muslin from Bengal, cotton goods from Gujrat, silk and porcelain from China, carpets from Persia, perfumes from Arabia, finished steel from Basra and Bijapur.

The great empires of China and India maintained embassies in the littoral states. Freedom of navigation and trade on the high seas was guaranteed by consensus. On occasions, the emperors of the great littoral states, China and India, sent fleets to visit the major ports and promote their manufactured goods. Such was the case with the mighty fleets from China (1402-1415) under the Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng Yi (also called Admiral Ho), who organized a series of expeditions to Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Calicut, Aden, Mombasa, Shofala and around the tip of South Africa. Sultan Muhammed bin Tughlaq of India made a similar attempt in 1335, but as it often happened with that hapless monarch, the fleet was caught in a storm off the coast of Malabar and perished. During the first half of the 15th century, the Ming dynasty of China maintained a merchant fleet of over 3,000 vessels, of which 300 were the giant multi-deck, multi-mast ships that dominated the Indian Ocean.

India, in particular, was a pivot to this multi-national trade. Jetting out into the Indian Ocean, its fine harbors at Calicut, Cochin, Surat and Chittagong provided natural anchor points for the east-west trade. Endowed with bountiful natural resources, its harvest of spices was highly sought after. Its manufactured goods included fine cloth, smelted iron, brassware, polished diamonds and carved ivory that were in high demand in the Mediterranean region and East Africa. The annual harvest of spices ensured that the balance of trade was always in favor of the vast subcontinent. Gold and silver accumulated in the treasuries of the Sultans and the maharajas, and these in turn attracted invaders hunting for gold, first from Central Asia and later from Europe.

The monsoons shaped the pattern of trade and commerce in the Indian Ocean. The word monsoon derives from the Arabic word “mausam”, meaning climate and weather, and has been incorporated into Farsi, Urdu, Swahili and Malay languages. (Some linguists contend that it derives from the Arabic word “maa-an-Chin”, meaning, water or rain from China). Celebrated in ancient ragas, in ballads of wandering dervishes, in songs of love and longing, as well as modern classics, the monsoons dictate the rhythm of life in South Asia. When the monsoons arrive on time, people rejoice. When they fail, they starve. In late summer, as the relentless sun bakes the dusty Indo-Gangetic plains, cooler air from south of the equator drives in. Moving roughly in the northeasterly direction, it is saturated with the moisture of the Indian Ocean. As it meets up with the majestic Himalayas and the high plateaus of Central Asia, the air rises, cools and parts with its moisture, drenching a parched earth. The floods replenish the soil, sustaining man and beast alike, and bring forth the fauna of the tropics. In January, when the northern hemisphere cools, the process is reversed. Cold air from the landmass of Asia pushes roughly in the southwest direction, bringing rain to the east coast of India. From ancient times, this drama of life and death has been played out, sustaining powerful empires and on occasions, destroying them.

In the year 1500, the Indian Ocean was an Islamic lake. Since the time of Harun al Rashid (786-809), merchants from West Asia and Persia had sailed forth, riding on the monsoons, to India, Africa, Sumatra and China. They had established themselves all along the rim of the Indian Ocean in an unending chain of trading posts extending from Shofala in Africa to Canton in China. Included among the more important towns were Zanzibar, Dar as Salaam, Malindi, Mombassa, Aden, Oman, Basra, Hormuz, Surat, Calicut, Cochin, Colombo, Tiruchi, Chittagong, Malacca, Acheh and Canton. By the end of the 15th century, this trade had matured into a stable interchange of men and material.

The Indian Ocean also provided the highway for pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj is obligatory on every Muslim, who is physically and financially able. Muslims from Indonesia, Malaya and China could only reach the shores of Arabia by sea. Although many Muslims from the northwestern provinces of India traveled to Mecca by land, many others traveled by sea from the ports of Surat and Cochin. The peace of the Indian Ocean and its open etiquette guaranteed the safety of the pilgrims.

Muslim political influence dominated the Indian Ocean. The islands of Indonesia had accepted Islam. In India, Sufi shaykhs had penetrated into the Deccan, while in northern India, the interaction of Islam and Hinduism had produced a rich amalgam. East Africa was dotted with city-states, ruled by African Muslims. So pervasive was the Islamic influence, that Arabic became the language of trade and commerce. Even the Ming emperors of China, in pursuit of their commercial interests, saw it fit to appoint Muslims as sea captains. Admiral Zheng Yi (commonly known as Admiral Ho), who led multiple voyages in the Indian Ocean (1402-1415), was a Chinese Muslim. Freedom of the seas was guaranteed by consensus. Africans, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Sinhalese, Malays and Chinese were all active in this trade. Even though Muslim influence was dominant, Hindu merchants from Malabar or Buddhist priests from Canton traveled in peace and competed for trade and influence on equal terms. Thriving commerce produced a rich culture, giving birth to new languages such as Swahili in East Africa and transforming old ones such as Malay.

The peace of this commerce was shattered by the European invasions. What had been an ocean of trade and commerce for a thousand years became an ocean of piracy and destruction. Vasco de Gama sailed to the coast of Malabar (1496) guided by an Indian mariner, Ahmed Ibn Majid, whom he had met in Mombasa. In the 15th century, the Muslims knew far more about the Indian Ocean than did the Europeans. As early as the year 1000, the Afghan historian Al Bairuni knew the shape of the tip of Africa. By contrast, European knowledge of the Indian Ocean was poor. They imagined that India extended all the way east of the Nile River to the Malaccas (Malaysia). They used the term “Greater India” to denote the Deccan. Northern India was called “Lesser India”. The territories in East Africa were called “Middle India”. Somewhere in Middle India, they imagined, there was a Christian King by the name of Prester John who was waiting for the Europeans to join hands with them in a holy war against the Muslims. The Portuguese and Spanish were not just out to find a new trade route to the Indian Ocean. Their aim, as explicitly stated in a letter from the Portuguese King Manuel to Sultan Qansuh al Ghouri of Egypt in 1507, was to invade Arabia from the territories of Prester John and destroy Mecca.

The Portuguese devastated the principal ports of the Indian Ocean (1504-1520). They succeeded in destroying the peaceful trade there, changing a life style that had existed for centuries. For twenty-five years, there was no answer to the Portuguese atrocities. Only after the Ottomans organized a credible naval defense did the Portuguese meet their match. In 1517, the Ottomans captured Egypt, moved the Caliphate to Istanbul and took on the burden of defending Muslim interests worldwide. Starting with the year 1530, the Ottoman navy challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. One by one, the important trading centers of East Africa were won back. By the year 1540, Indian pepper flowed both on Muslim and Portuguese ships. Towards the end of the century, events in North Africa and Western Europe had a direct impact on the power balance in the Indian Ocean. After the Portuguese defeat at al Qasr al Kabir (1578), and the destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English (1588), Spanish and Portuguese power waned, while the English and the Dutch entered the fray.

Armed with superior guns mounted on larger and more efficient ships, the Dutch quickly overran Portuguese outposts in the Indian Ocean. In 1616, the Dutch East India Company obtained trading rights in Japan. In 1619, it founded a colony near Jakarta (Indonesia). In 1615, the Dutch wrested the Straits of Malacca from the Portuguese. The island of Mauritius was reinforced and a settlement was established at the southern tip of Africa (1640). Trading colonies were established at Isfahan (Persia), Surinam (South America) and New Amsterdam (later renamed New York, North America). They drove the Portuguese from Brazil and cornered its slave trade, but the Portuguese recaptured the colony after they won their independence from Spain (1648). The Dutch were almost as ruthless as the Portuguese, especially in their dealings with the Indonesians and the Malays, but their focus was primarily trade. As long as they obtained their spices, they did not force their Christian views on the local, predominantly Muslim populations.

A Dutch monopoly of the Indian Ocean trade was no more acceptable to England and France than was a Spanish-Portuguese monopoly. Judging correctly that India held the key to trade in the Indian Ocean, King James I of England sent an ambassador, Thomas Roe, to the imperial court of Jehangir. This was in keeping with the English desire to establish trade relations with the principal seats of power in Asia. For instance, in 1581, Queen Elizabeth I had sent Harborne as her ambassador to the Ottoman court of Murad III who conferred trade privileges on the English because the Ottomans needed English tin for their bronze cannons. Roe arrived in Surat in 1615 and proceeded to Agra to present his credentials to the Great Moghul. Each applicant to the imperial court was required to present gifts befitting his rank. According to his own admission, Roe’s gifts were meager and consisted of frayed mirrors, moldy leather cases and faded velvet, some paintings and an old English coach. The Emperor politely accepted the gifts, showing a good deal of interest in the paintings, a field in which the Great Moghul was a connoisseur. As for the coach, the Great Moghul had it immediately repaired and reupholstered with gold brocade. There is no evidence to support the position taken by some English writers that Roe befriended Jehangir and the two together indulged in bouts of drunkenness and opium consumption. The Emperor considered “the Franks” hardly worth mentioning in his great memoirs. (The word Firangiin Hindustani derives from the word Frank, and was used derogatively to refer to Europeans during the colonial era). The closest the English Ambassador got to the Emperor was at one of the royal send off ceremonies for a military campaign, and even that was at several arms length. Emperor Shah Jehan was more explicit in his derision of the Ferangis: “The Franks would be a great people were it not for three things. First, they are heathens. Second, they eat pigs. Third, they do not wash after they use the bathroom”. Such smugness was characteristic of Asian rulers in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it prevented them from accurately assessing the capabilities of these “Firangis” from across the world. In the long run, it proved to be their undoing.

The goods that the English brought to Surat-wool, mercury, red lead, vermillion, and drinking glasses-hardly caused a stir in the merchant community of Surat which was accustomed to getting paid in gold and silver. Nonetheless, Roe’s observations are among the first by a European about life at the court of the Great Moghul. Roe records how Jehangir was weighed in gold and diamonds at one of his birthdays, and the gold was distributed to the poor. He notes that the royal military camp embraced a circumference of more than thirty miles, and was larger that any European city at that time. Roe stayed in India until 1619 and obtained from the Emperor a royal Farman (decree), giving the English trading privileges at Surat. The Farman of Jehangir was a turning point in history. It was the first instance of an Indian Emperor formally granting trading rights to a European company. It opened India to European influence.

A three-way rivalry between the French, English and the Dutch ensued. It was like the front-runner in a marathon race who is continuously challenged by two very versatile and agile competitors. The combined resources of England and France were far greater than those of Holland, even when the energies of the northern German counties are included in the Dutch effort. Moreover, the Great Moghuls preferred the English because they refrained from stepping on the religious sensibilities of the Indians. The Portuguese had instituted inquisitions in Goa, torturing Muslims and Hindus alike, and had captured many Bengalis to be sold as slaves in far-away Brazil. In 1635, Emperor Shah Jehan ordered the Governor of Bengal, Qasim Khan, to give the Portuguese a taste of their own medicine. Qasim Khan destroyed the Portuguese fortifications on the River Hooghly, captured several hundred of them and sent them to Agra, where they recanted, asked for mercy, and were pardoned by the Emperor.

The English demonstrated their sea prowess soon after they ventured into the Indian Ocean. In 1615, one year before Roe landed in Surat, an English fleet defeated the Portuguese off the coast of Bombay, and Roe could boast to Jehangir that the king of England would soon control the mighty Indian Ocean. Having surrendered mastery of the ocean to the Europeans, the land powers of the Indian Ocean had to depend on the European powers to ensure safe passage for pilgrims to Mecca. Until 1615, Indian pilgrims had to obtain a “passport” from the hated Portuguese, pay them a fee, and have their papers stamped with a presumed likeness of Jesus and Mary, for safe conduct through the Indian Ocean. Muslims honor Jesus as a great Prophet, and Mary as the mother of Jesus, and drawing their pictures is considered sacrilegious just as much as drawing a picture of Prophet Muhammed (p) or Prophet Moses. Ships that did not have a Portuguese passport were liable to be sunk. It was in part to offset the influence of the Portuguese that Jehangir had given the English trading rights in Surat.

Yet another opportunity presented itself to the English in 1622. Shah Abbas of Persia, fresh from his victories over the Ottomans in the silk producing district of Tabriz and his capture of the trading post of Qandahar (Afghanistan) from Emperor Shah Jehan of India, desired to get rid of the Portuguese who had remained in their fortress at Hormuz since 1515. They had bottled up trade in the Persian Gulf, harassed merchant shipping and tortured pilgrims to Mecca. The Portuguese Fort at Hormuz was impregnable from land, and the Shah did not have sufficient naval power to challenge the Europeans at sea. A deal was struck with the English East India Company. In 1622, Persian cavalry attacked from land, as the English bottled up the Portuguese from the sea. Hormuz was recaptured, and Portuguese power in the Persian Gulf came to an end. In appreciation of their service, Shah Abbas granted the Company preferred trading rights throughout the Safavid Empire. As the Company had already acquired trading rights in Surat, the events at Hormuz consolidated the Company position throughout the Arabian Sea.

Sri Lanka was the next major theater of operations. The Portuguese had ruined the economy of the island during their years of occupation. Its agriculture was stagnant, dams broken, plantations in disarray. Some of the Sinhalese had been captured and forced to serve as mercenaries in the Portuguese wars off East Africa. Raja Sinha of Colombo ardently desired to get rid of these unruly foreigners. Meanwhile, the Dutch had arrived on the scene and they saw in the island an ideal place to establish a colony. Raja Sinha, unaware of Dutch ambitions, appealed to them for help. In 1640, a Dutch expeditionary force defeated the Portuguese off Colombo and that city became a Dutch colony. The Dutch were as ruthless as the Portuguese in pursuing their commercial interests, which lay primarily in increasing the production of cinnamon and other spices. But they refrained from forcing the Sinhalese to convert. It was in Sri Lanka that the doctrine of apartheid(a Dutch word, meaning separation of races) was first practiced extensively. Colombo served as a transit point for ships of the Dutch India Company on their way to Indonesia and Japan. Dutch women were few, so some of the Dutch men took Sinhalese women as wives. However, any Dutch woman caught with a Sinhalese man was flogged, put in jail for life, and her children enslaved. The Dutch followed up their victory in Sri Lanka by establishing a presence at Cochin on the Malabar Coast (1641) and Masulipatam on the east India coast (1642). The Dutch held Colombo until 1795 using German mercenaries in their armed forces. During the Napoleonic wars (1795-1812), the English bribed the German mercenaries and their commander Pierre de Meuron to switch their loyalties, and Colombo surrendered to the English commanders sent from Madras (1798) without a fight. The fall of Colombo also tightened the isolation of the Kingdom of Mysore under Tippu Sultan, which fell a year later (1799).

The English position improved both in America and India as the 17thcentury rolled on. In 1620, the Pilgrims, Puritan refugees from a doctrinaire England, landed at New Plymouth, Massachusetts, after spending more than ten years in the tolerant social climate of Holland. In 1629, the Colony of Massachusetts was established. In 1639, the East India Company obtained the permission of the Nawab of Arcot to establish a factory at Madras. The following year, with the permission of Emperor Shah Jehan, they established Fort George near Calcutta. In 1651, the English felt strong enough to declare a monopoly on the lucrative slave trade with West Africa. Soon thereafter, they overran the Dutch colonies in America, seized New Amsterdam and renamed it New York (1664). In 1668, Charles II who had received the island of Bombay as a dowry when he married Princess Catherine of Portugal sold it to the East India Company for ten British pounds. By the year 1700, with Portugal defeated at sea, and the Dutch tiring, England was well positioned to dominate the Indian Ocean. The only rival left was France. While the Europeans fought for domination of the seas, and of world trade, the great dynasties of the Moghuls and the Safavids were exhausting themselves while expanding their land empires, and paid scant attention to building credible sea forces. Even the mighty Emperor Aurangzeb, in his advance towards Bijapur, Golkunda, Poona, Mysore and Arcot (1675-1707), bypassed the Portuguese stronghold of Goa.

An event of historical consequence occurred towards the end of the 17thcentury (1696). With the help of soldiers from Baluchistan and Punjab (modern Pakistan), the Sultan of Oman laid siege to the strategic Portuguese Fort Jesus of Mombassa (Kenya). The siege started in 1694. Resistance was desperate. So was the determination of the Baluchis to expel the hated Portuguese who had terrorized East Africa for over a hundred years. Reinforcements arrived for the attackers from Oman and Baluchistan and for the defenders from Goa. The Sultan of Oman was determined to re-establish his sway over trade in East Africa. After a series of determined assaults, the Omani, Baluchi and Punjabi troops triumphed. Since the troops came from the territories of India, it may be inferred that the Emperor Aurangzeb knew of the attack and condoned it. Following this victory, Omani control over the East African coast was consolidated and it remained so until displaced by the British in 1850. The Sultanate of Oman played a key role in the decisive confrontation between the English and Tippu Sultan of Mysore (d. 1799). The fall of Fort Jesus signaled the end of the Portuguese Empire in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese hung on to Goa, as an appendage of the British Empire, until the Indian Army evicted them in 1962.

By 1713, the Dutch were exhausted, and competition between the English and the French sharpened. The rivalry was bitter both in India and in America. At stake was the wealth of Asia and America, perhaps the mastery of the world. The French and the British East India Companies both intervened in the wars of succession that raged in India after the death of the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb (1707) in which the Moghuls, Afghans, Rajputs, Marathas, Sikhs and Indian Muslims were all involved. In anticipation of the spoils, the British and the French fought each other on and off throughout the first half of the 18th century. The battles raged at sea and on two continents, in America and in India. Initially, the French held the advantage. With capable generals like Dupleix (1742-1754) in Pondicherry (India), they appeared to be winning the contest. But the British proved more resourceful, and generals such as Robert Clive proved to be more than a match for the French officers. The six year war of 1756-1763 was a disaster for the French. By the terms of the treaty that ended the hostilities, France ceded to England almost all of its holdings in India and most of its privileges in America.

The English triumph over their adversaries was due to several interrelated causes. In the ruthless competition for trade and slaves, the Joint Stock Company provided a far more efficient structure than the hierarchical structure under which the Portuguese and Spanish operated. The Portuguese governors had to refer every major decision to Lisbon. Sometimes, it took more than a year for a decision to arrive. By then, circumstances would have changed. By contrast, the governors of the East India Company enjoyed enormous leverage for local initiative, as evidenced by the activities of Robert Clive in India. Secondly, the Portuguese and the Spaniards were saddled with a religious burden, which worked to their disadvantage. Wherever they went, they brought with them their Inquisition, and their intense hatred of Muslims. In their dealings with the Sinhalese, Indians, Malays, and Africans, they were ruthless, cruel and merciless. They obliterated the civilizations of America, and would have done the same to the civilizations of Asia, were it not for the powerful dynasties of the Great Moghuls, the Safavids and the Ottoman Turks.

The English and the Dutch had no religious hang-ups. They were in the Indian Ocean strictly for profit. As long as their companies made money, they left the local populations alone. Exceptions were West Africa and Mozambique, which served as conduits for slaves. The English had the advantages of greater manpower and material resources over the Dutch. The population of England in 1600 was approximately five million while that of Holland was less than one million. The Dutch had to hire German mercenaries who could be bribed to shift allegiances, as happened during the British conquest of Colombo. The English demonstrated greater cohesiveness, resourcefulness, administration and military acumen over the French. And lastly, history itself seemed to cast its vote for the English, as it did when the Spanish Armada was twice destroyed (1588 and 1598) and Robert Clive won over Siraj ud Dawla (1757) in Bengal against heavy odds.

The acquisition of Bengal turned the wheels of fortune in favor of England. Until 1757, the balance of trade was invariably in favor of Asia. The gold and silver captured from the Incas and the Aztecs flowed to Europe through the slave trade, and from there it found its way to Asia in return for spices and manufactured goods. Bengal opened for Europe the gates to the wealth of Asia. An immense booty was transported from Calcutta to London between the years 1757 and 1765. In addition, the East India Company imposed a heavy tariff of seventy percent on all cloth produced in Bengal, while flooding the Indian market with cheaper goods made in Manchester and Liverpool. Within eight years, what had been one of the most prosperous regions of Asia fell into depression, and famine set in 1765. The enormous capital acquired from Bengal triggered the Industrial Revolution, commonly dated with the first invention, the steam engine, in 1758.

The British position in India was not consolidated until the fall of Mysore (1799) and the end of the Napoleonic wars (1798-1812). But with the resources of America and the wealth of India at their command, the odds were increasingly in favor of the British. The loss of the American colonies (1776) allowed the British to focus on India. Within two years after Tippu Sultan of Mysore died fighting in battle (1799), and Napoleon was forced to withdraw from Egypt (1799), the British had defeated the Marathas (1802) and advanced towards Delhi.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic Slave Trade

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

It is ironic that what started as a religious Crusade ended up in the enslavement of a continent. The cruel and inhuman Atlantic slave trade was a culmination of religious, political and social developments in Western Europe and North Africa. The literature on this subject is vast and has been extensively analyzed both from European and African perspectives. Here we look at it through the prism of Muslim history, examining how the slave trade was influenced by events in North Africa and how it influenced Muslim societies in West Africa.

Nothing in human history compares with the Atlantic slave trade (1441-1840) in its magnitude, cruelty or sustained brutality. Slavery was not a new institution invented in the Middle Ages. In ancient times, the losing side in war was enslaved and made to pay for its misfortune with servitude. Slavery was common in the Roman world. In the 10th century, the Vikings captured men and women in their raids in northern Europe and sold them off in the bazaars along the Volga River and the Caspian Sea. The Turks (900-1200) acquired European slaves, trained them in the arts of war and made them a part of the standing Turkish armies. Some of the slaves rose to become kings and ruled as Mamlukes of Egypt and India. Most of the Ottoman Janissaries (1300-1600) were recruited as bonded men from Europe. In the 9th century, a large number of slaves were imported into southern Iraq from Zanzibar and put to work to clear the local swamps. These were called the Zanj. (The word zanjir, meaning an iron shackle or chain, used in Farsi, Urdu and Central Asian languages derives from the word zanj).

In the 15th century, the Crusades were very much alive in the western Mediterranean. The elimination of the Muslim presence in Spain was a prime objective of these Crusades. The Muslims maintained a toehold in Granada, on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Gradually, as political and social disintegration enveloped the Maghrib, the Iberian Christian powers expanded their horizons. In the first stage, important coastal towns in Morocco were occupied and trade was monopolized. In the second stage, the Maghrib was bypassed along the Atlantic coast, the slave trade began, and direct trade relations were established between Europe and West Africa. In the third stage, Granada was conquered, America was discovered, Africa was circumnavigated and direct European trade was established with India. In the final stage, slavery reached its peak, robbing Africa of millions of men, women and children. In the process, the political landscape of Europe went through successive transformations from feudal to mercantile to an industrial setting, paving the way for the colonialism of the 19th century.

It is not commonly appreciated that the first target of slavery in West Africa were the Moors (the Portuguese and the Spanish referred to all Muslims regardless of racial differences as Moors). A description of the first raids has come down to us through the writings of the Portuguese writer Azurara. In 1441, a certain young Portuguese captain Golcalves sailed along the coast of southern Morocco and Mauritania gathering ivory, animal hide and sea lion oil for sale in Lisbon. In a chance encounter, he met up with a Muslim couple, wounded the man with a javelin and took them both aboard ship as slaves. At that time the jurisdiction over the Portuguese colony of Tangier was with Prince Henry, an enthusiastic supporter of a naval thrust along the Atlantic seacoast to outflank the Maghrib. The couple was presented to Henry. Sensing an opportunity to capture more slaves, he authorized an ambitious raid the same year under a seasoned and experienced captain Tristao who was familiar with the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

Captains Golcalves and Tristao netted more than a dozen Muslims and enslaved them. Elated, Henry wrote to Pope Eugene IV who gave a decree that capturing the Moors as slaves was a part of the Crusade and whoever sailed south in this pursuit would receive ablution of his sins (1442). This was the origin of the slave trade, which began with Portuguese piracy on the Moroccan coast in 1441. The process was systematized in 1444 when the Portuguese Lagos Company was chartered under the patronage of Prince Henry.

At first, the capture of a few slaves did not cause a stir in Lisbon. There were already many Muslim slaves in Portugal and Spain, just as there were Christian slaves in North Africa, captured in the frequent wars between the Christians and Muslims. The slaves on both sides were kept as domestic servants, subject to the norms of the respective cultures. But as the benefits of owning slaves became obvious to the richer merchants of Lisbon, and with the trade sanctified by the Pope, investment in slave ventures increased. In 1443, an expedition was financed and organized explicitly to capture more Muslims. The Maghrib was in an advanced state of political disintegration and the presence of these predatory ships was hardly noticed in the palaces of the Emirs, busy plotting against each other. By 1465, Portugal was transporting more than a thousand slaves a year from southern Morocco, Mauritania and Sene-Gambia.

The Portuguese continued their relentless advance along the African coast. In 1456, they were at the mouth of the Gambia River. Here, they exchanged Andalusian silk, crude arms and horses for African gold, ivory and slaves. To protect their shipping, they built strong forts in Sene-Gambia, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Sao Thome, Sao Jorge and Accra, Ghana. These were the first of the Portuguese forts that were to ring the Indian Ocean in the early part of the 16th century, including Goa (India), the Straits of Hormuz (Persia), and Malacca (Malaysia). The delta of the Gambia River was an important outlet for products of the Mali Empire. Many of the inhabitants of the area were Muslim who carried on a thriving trade with North Africa along the trans-Saharan routes. Now, the trade flowed directly to Europe, bypassing the Maghrib and contributing to its decay.

In the Sene-Gambia delta, the Portuguese heard about the rich lands further south. The Ivory Coast lay along the shores of the modern nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Further south, along the shores of Ghana, lay the Gold Coast. By 1465, Portuguese ships traversed these shores and appeared at the important trading post of Benin, in modern Nigeria. Benin was a major supply point for black pepper (the Benin pepper) and slaves. Within the next ten years Angola was visited. Slaves were bought in Sene-Gambia, Benin and Angola in return for horses and Andalusian garments.

By 1490, more than 3,000 slaves a year were transported to Portugal from Africa. Most were kept in Lisbon, but some were transported to Spain. Many of these helpless men and women were Muslim. We base this observation on the fact that the entire coast from Mauritania to the delta of Sene-Gambia lay in the Islamic belt. Further south, the predominantly Muslim Fulani and Hausa tribes carried on a brisk trade with Benin at the mouth of the Niger River, and were often caught in the web of the slave trade. In 1455 the Portuguese could boast that it was possible to buy eighteen Moors in West Africa in exchange for one Andalusian horse!

The news of these Portuguese exploits was heard in neighboring Spain, which felt left out of the spoils. Spain was hampered at this time by internal convulsions. There was friction between Castile and Aragon. The war with Granada was ongoing. So strong was the Portuguese position in relation to Spain that in 1468, King Henry of Portugal laid claim to the throne of Castile. After some skirmishes, open warfare was avoided by the intervention of the Pope. The kingdom of Spain was consolidated with the marriage of Ferdinand of Castile and Isabella of Aragon. In 1492, Ferdinand conquered Granada, and in a voyage financed by Isabella, Columbus discovered America. Spain now felt strong enough to challenge Portugal for the African trade. However, since the Portuguese were the first on the scene, the Papal Bulls solidified their claims to the shores of West Africa. Tensions between Spain and Portugal increased leading again to intervention by the Pope.

The medieval Popes claimed the right to dispose of conquered Muslim territories as well as the lands newly discovered by Europeans. The legal basis was the Donation of Constantine. Under supervision of the Vatican, Spain and Portugal negotiated a treaty dividing up the world into spheres of influence. A Papal Bull sanctified the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). It placed the line of demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese territories 370 leagues (approximately 800 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. West Africa, the Indian Ocean and Brazil were allocated to Portugal. Spain received Europe, the Mediterranean, East Asia and the Americas (except Brazil).

In spite of its strong Crusader underpinnings, there was nothing unusual about the African slave trade until 1492. It fit a pattern that had existed for centuries wherein slaves from Europe were sold in Egypt, Central Asia and India, while slaves from sub-Saharan Africa were sold in North Africa, Spain and India. The slave trade declined towards the end of the 15thcentury because the European market was saturated. Lisbon had about ten thousand Muslim and African slaves and could use no more.

The discovery of America changed this picture. It transformed what was up till then a small trade in ivory, gold and slaves into an intricate global web of trade, piracy and politics. The initial objective of Spain in her American colonies was gold. In their hunt for precious metals, the Spanish obliterated the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayans of Guatemala and the Incas of Peru. Ninety percent of the men were killed while the women died as a result of slavery and diseases brought in by the Europeans. Within a span of ten years, from 1500 to 1510, the population of Cuba decreased from about one million to twenty thousand. When the Mayan gold was exhausted, the Spanish went after the silver mines of Mexico. The residual indigenous population was enslaved and put to work in the silver mines. Working conditions were so harsh that by 1520, the American colonies were almost drained of their native manpower.

It was about this time that a new crop, unknown in the Americas up until then, was introduced into the New World. The discovery of America had resulted in a vast interchange of agricultural products between the New World and the Old. The potato, tomato and red pepper traveled from the Americas to Europe and Asia, while sugar and cotton went in the other direction.

The introduction of sugar transformed America, Europe and Africa alike. Its impact on history was far greater than that of Mayan gold treasures or the rich silver mines of Mexico. To understand how it happened, it is important to know the process of sugar extraction. The word sugar derives from the Sanskrit word su-ka-ra, meaning a sweet substance. Sugarcane is a tropical crop, which originated in the Indo-Gangetic plains in ancient India. Until the 16th century, it was imported in small quantities into Europe by Muslim merchants and their Venetian partners, and found its way to the dining tables of the rich. When direct European contacts were initiated with India (1496), it became more readily available. Demand multiplied. The islands of the West Indies, and some in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa, were ideally suited to grow sugar cane, a crop that is labor intensive. Native American labor had been exhausted. Moreover, the Native Americans were not suited for the kind of backbreaking work required on the sugar plantations. So, labor had to be imported.

At first, Muslim slaves from Portugal and Spain were imported, but it was soon realized that Europe could not meet the increasing demand for labor. African labor was ideally suited for this task. A two-way exchange of sugar for labor began. As demand for sugar increased, so did the demand for African slave labor. The first shipload of sugar from Cuba arrived in Spain in 1515. In 1518, the first shipload of slaves arrived in Cuba from West Africa.

Sugar processing yields molasses as a by-product. Fermented molasses yield rum. Molasses were processed into rum in the factories that sprang up in New England, as well as in England, Holland and France. Much of the rum was consumed in Europe. From there, some of it found its way to West Africa. European merchants paid for the slaves with rum, guns, horses, and industrial products from southern Spain, and fine muslin cloth imported from India. Guns were in demand by the African slave agents who used them to hunt for more slaves. Both guns and rum were destabilizing factors in West Africa. It was a recipe for men to get drunk and kill each other. There were enormous profits to be made at each stage of the sugar-molasses-rum-gun-slave transaction. In the process, Europe and America grew rich as Africa bled in agony.

The slave trade was not a business for the common man. Since it required enormous capital, it remained the privilege of emperors, noblemen, interlopers and scoundrels. Portugal wanted to keep a monopoly on this trade and sought justification of its position in its early discoveries as well as in the Papal Bulls. But the lure of profits was too great to keep interlopers out. French and English pirates were active against Portuguese shipping throughout the 16th century. Rich merchants in London, Liverpool, Paris, and Amsterdam financed the expeditions. On occasions, even their monarchs participated.

To simplify the complex interplay between the Muslim Maghrib, Christian Europe and Africa, we have divided the slave trade into seven periods. The first period started with the Portuguese capture of slaves in southern Morocco (1441) and ended with the discovery of America in 1492. The second period lasted until 1541, when Sultan Muhammed al Mahdi of Morocco recaptured the powerful fort of Santa Cruz and drove the Portuguese from the Atlantic coast of his country. This event slowed the growth of Portuguese power but did not eliminate it. The third phase lasted until 1578 when the Moroccans crushed the Portuguese at the Battle of al Qasr-al Kabir and brought an end to Portuguese ambitions in North Africa. The period 1578 to 1640 was marked by Dutch ascendancy in the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. During 1640-1713, there was a bitter struggle between the Dutch, the French and the British for control of trade routes; it ended with the ascendancy of the British. The last period 1713 to 1818 saw the Atlantic slave trade at its height and the systematic transfer of millions of Africans to the Americas.

The coast of Guinea was known as Ghenoa in Arabic and its geography was well documented by Leo Africanus, a North African Muslim who was captured by the Crusaders, brought to Rome, baptized and who rose to become one of the most respected historians of the era. The initial products sought by the Portuguese were fish, palm oil, silver, indigo, cotton, silk, amber, wax and hides. By 1470, the slave trade on the Guinea coast had come alive. In 1486 the coast of Benin opened up for the supply of Benin black pepper and slaves. The Benin black pepper stayed in great demand in Europe until 1506 when the supply of black pepper from India overwhelmed this trade. The Portuguese made few inroads into the interior of Africa, staying close to the coast and establishing strong points on the islands off shore.

The Portuguese claimed a monopoly on trade with the areas they had discovered and the Papal Bulls sanctioned this monopoly. Prince Henry, who was the Governor of the Portuguese colony of Tangier, provided the encouragement for the exploration of the African coastline. Henry died in 1460; King Alfonso in Lisbon was less interested in Africa than was the Prince. He gave a contract out to one Fernao Gomes for trading with Guinea with the stipulation that he was to explore at least 300 miles of coastline beyond the coast of Sierra Leone each year. Gomes did a good job and expanded Portuguese explorations all the way to the shores of Angola.

The Portuguese monopoly was challenged by other European powers. In 1474, the Genoese, who were active on the Mediterranean coast of the Maghrib, made it to the coast of Guinea. But the most determined challenge came from Spain. In 1454, Castile laid a rival claim to exclusive trade with Guinea. The rival claims were submitted to the Vatican for arbitration, which went in favor of Portugal. The Spanish claims were revived in 1475 under King Ferdinand of Castile who built a powerful fleet in Seville to wrest control of the Canary Islands. War ensued (1475-1479) and in the outcome Spain obtained rights to the islands while trade with West Africa remained a Portuguese monopoly. The rivalry heated up again after the discovery of America (1492) but was resolved by the Treaty of Tordisillas (1494) dividing up the world between Spain and Portugal.

The first batch of slaves for transportation to the West Indies was purchased in Lisbon in 1510. The conquest of Granada (1492), and the brutal Inquisition that followed, had generated many slaves and no doubt many of the early slaves exported to America were Spanish Muslims.

In both Portugal and Spain, it was the kings who had titles to the trade monopolies. The Spanish monarch instituted a registration process in 1475 to keep newcomers and interlopers out. In 1481, the King of Spain personally administered the contracts. The slave trade was highly profitable for the monarchs because they derived a duty from every slave ship. It provided more steady income than trade in gold, ivory or Benin pepper.

By 1540, the export of slaves from West Africa reached 10,000 annually. The island of Sao Thome served as a major slave depot until 1578. Some African captives were shipped directly from the Guinea coast to the West Indies and Brazil. Others were brought to Seville and Lisbon and processed for reshipment. In addition, the Portuguese engaged in local slave trade, taking slaves from Benin in Nigeria and selling them further south in Angola, and vice versa, in exchange for rice and other supplies. The forced migration of men, women and children caused enormous human suffering in the coastal regions.

The period 1541-1578 was characterized by increasing armed conflict and social dislocation in West Africa. The Sambas, a warlike tribe, ravaged the land (1540-1570). The resulting social dislocations made it easier for rival chiefs to capture men, women and children, bring them to the coast of Sene-Gambia and sell them to the Portuguese. Further to the interior, the powerful Songhay Empire extended its borders northwards into Mauritania occupying the important salt mines of Tagadhir. This led to skirmishes between the Moroccans and the Songhays, increasing the social dislocations in northwest Africa.

Portuguese power along the Atlantic coast of the Maghrib was arrested by the victory of Sultan Muhammed at the Battle of Santa Cruz (1541). The English, whose interests lay in the reduction of Portuguese influence in West Africa, helped the Sultan in this battle by supply him with artillery. Following this victory, the Portuguese were expelled from the Moroccan coast except for the port cities of Tangier and Ceuta.

During the same period, the determined resistance of the Ottoman navies contained the growth of Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese did not have the resources to protect their possessions extending over 10,000 miles, from Brazil to Indonesia. The English and the French exploited this weakness, each motivated by different social and political impulses. France was allied with the Ottomans against a coalition of the Hapsburgs of Vienna and the Empire of Spain. Interlopers regularly embarked on missions against Portuguese shipping while official France looked the other way. Meanwhile, the English cities of London and Liverpool, seething with migrant farmers from the interior, became havens for enterprising pirates. The rich merchants and noblemen financed the piracy. London, Liverpool, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Nantes emerged as principal finance centers of Western Europe. The cities of North Africa also participated in this trade, although financiers from Genoa and Venice supplied the capital for North African participation and were its principal beneficiary.

Between 1500 and 1530, hundreds of Portuguese ships were captured and looted. As early as 1530, William Hawkins of England raided the Ivory Coast. The raids were repeated in 1553 under Thomas Wyndham, and in 1554 under John Lock. On occasions, the English and the French cooperated with each other. King John III of Portugal tried both diplomacy and war to stop the piracy. He wrote to Queen Mary of England (1555) and King Francis of France (1559) demanding reparations for the seized ships. When that did not work, he allied himself with Emperor Charles V of Spain, who sent armed convoys to protect the Portuguese merchant fleet. The Pope also applied pressure. None of these approaches worked. In 1565, John Hawkins raided as far south as the coast of Sierra Leone, collected 150 slaves, added 300 more in alliance from a local chieftain and returned to Liverpool.

The English, to further their trade interests, maintained good relations with the Sa’adids of Morocco and helped them in their frequent skirmishes with the Portuguese. Ambassadors were exchanged and trade relations were established between Sultan Muhammed al Sa’adid and Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Moroccans exported salt, sugar, pepper and nuts to England while importing English wool, guns and cannon. When Portugal threatened war, Queen Elizabeth I, who had her hands full with the Scots at that time, temporarily put a stop to attacks on merchant ships (1568-1571), but the slave trade continued.

The lure of pepper from India, of slaves from the Guinea coast and of silver from the Americas was too great, and the potential for profits too large, for any monopoly to work and to keep the interlopers out. The breakdown of the monopolies accelerated after 1559, a trend accentuated by religious wars in France, Holland and northern Germany between the Catholics and Protestants.

It was at this time that the Dutch entered the competition for slaves. Holland was a part of the checkerboard of dukedoms in northern Germany and was nominally under Hapsburg control. In 1519, the Spanish King Charles V was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope and assumed titular control over Christendom. Taking advantage of internal rivalries between various dukedoms, Spain had acquired Holland as a colony. In 1572, the Dutch threw off the Spanish yoke and became independent. Antwerp was a major trade depot for both Spain and Portugal, and the Dutch inherited the trading legacy as well as ship building technology from the Iberians. When a power vacuum developed in the Mediterranean following the destruction of the Spanish armada by the English (1588), the Dutch were in a position to move in.

Spain tried a blockade of Dutch ships around the coasts of France and Portugal. This only forced the Dutch to extend the reach of their raids. By 1630, the Dutch had destroyed the Portuguese stranglehold on the East Indies trade, and had driven Portugal from strong points in West Africa, North America, Brazil, India, Malaya and Indonesia. Later, in 1640, Portugal gained its independence from Spain, and was able to recapture some of these trading posts as well as its old colonies in Brazil.

By 1600 the Atlantic slave trade had taken on the character of organized international trade. As sugar plantations grew in the Americas, so did the demand for slaves. Indeed, slaves had become a “commodity” wherein profits depended on timeliness and speed of delivery. The European slave traders had their counterparts on the African coast. The coastal chiefs controlled the trade, employing slave catchers who raided several hundred miles into the interior and hauled in the captives. Competition was intense. The demand was met by tribal wars, which generated a steady stream of slave captives. After the disintegration of Songhay (1592), slave raids were conducted along the Niger River as far inland as Timbaktu and Gao. There were many Muslims among the slaves. An examination of Mexican records shows the names of Mandigoes from Guinea, Yorubas from Nigeria and Bambara from Niger. Thousands were also brought in from East Africa. These included Kaffrarians from Mozambique, Melin from Melindi, as also Muslims from Shofala and Kilwa. Some were captured as far away as Malaya, Sumatra and China. Many were bought and sold several times.

The slave trade was paid for by barter. The Europeans brought in tobacco, rum, firearms, steel bars, beads and re-exported linen from India. The transactions on African soil were peaceful and on equal terms. But once the captives boarded the slave ships, the treatment changed. Ownership was inscribed by red-hot iron on the chests of men or the breasts of women to designate whether they belonged to the British, French or Dutch companies.

Although English pirates raided the West African coast as early as 1434, and harassed Portuguese and Spanish shipping throughout the latter part of the 15th century, it was not until 1640 that England entered the Atlantic slave trade in earnest. Initial raids on Spanish shipping had yielded valuable silver which helped prop up the English currency. Indeed, much of the rivalry between European powers in the 16th and 17th centuries can be explained by their desire to protect their currencies. At the time, gold and silver were the international standards of exchange in Europe and Asia. Commodities were exported in return for gold and silver. Exports increased the supply of precious metals, which backed up the currencies. Imports had the opposite effect. Spain had grown rich and powerful on the supply of Mexican silver. England, by comparison, had lost much of its silver to imports from Morocco and Holland. By 1560, when Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England, the pound had lost much of its value. The English pirates temporarily saved the day for England, and the British pound regained its value. A replenished currency made it possible for England to expand its ambitions towards the lucrative Indian Ocean trade.

The same logic and the same forces were operational in the 17th century. The Dutch had displaced the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. The English and the French had to buy their pepper from the Dutch. In the process, Holland accumulated more silver while the supply of precious metals in England and France diminished.

Trade with India, West Africa and the Americas required enormous capital. Ships had to be built, soldiers hired, fortifications erected and depots maintained in distant lands. The overhead was high. Initially, only the kings, noblemen or rich merchants could supply this capital. The Dutch were the first Europeans to open up this trade for broader participation.

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed which enabled a broader spectrum of merchants to invest in the profitable Indian Ocean trade. The evolution of this one institution, the joint stock company, was the single most important development in the world in the 17th century. It enabled Western Europe to harness its energies towards the development of trade with Asia, Africa and America, while the rest of the world remained bogged down with disputes about kingship and land turf. Ultimately, it proved to be the means by which Europe conquered and colonized much of the world. By the year 1660, the Dutch had already accumulated the experience of sixty years in the formation and operation of trading companies. The British and the French realized that in order to compete they too must form similar trading companies. The French West India Company was organized in 1664. England organized the Royal African Company in 1672.

The period 1670 to 1713 was marked by intense rivalry between the Dutch on the one hand and the English and the French on the other. The Dutch suffered from the same handicap as had the Portuguese in the previous century, namely, their resources were insufficient to hold a vast world empire. England and France had more manpower and more material resources than the Dutch. Individual merchants as well as pirates found it profitable to beat the Dutch monopoly and transport slaves directly from West Africa to the West Indies.

The English came up with further innovations in the organization of trading corporations. The Dutch trading companies had displaced the monarchs of Spain, but they too tried to maintain a monopoly on this trade. By contrast, the English opened up their trading companies to all merchants. This had the effect of discouraging piracy. Given a stake in the overall profits, British interlopers found it more advantageous to join this new company than to fight it. In 1750, the old Royal African Company was dissolved and replaced by a new corporation called the Company of Merchants Trading in West Africa.

By 1713, the Dutch were exhausted and many of their holdings on the coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean had fallen to their enemies. England established itself on the southern coast of Guinea in West Africa around the modern nations of Ghana and Nigeria, while the French won the northern coasts around Senegal and Gambia. In 1713, the British and the French won concessions from Spain to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in America. Between 1713 and 1763, France and England fought for the possession of trading routes and for colonies in America and India. The British, with their superior business acumen, triumphed. In 1757, the Battle of Plassey near Calcutta sealed not only the fate of the French effort in India but of India itself.

As the British gained dominance of the oceans, the Atlantic slave trade gathered momentum. English and French immigration to the American colonies increased, and with it the cultivation of sugarcane and cotton. Demand for slaves outpaced their supply. Whereas the total number of slaves shipped from West Africa to Portugal between 1441 and 1500 was about 30,000, the number between 1700 and 1800 was close to seven million. The total number displaced from all of Africa between 1441 and 1840 exceeded ten million. Untold numbers died at sea. The sick were cast overboard; women abused. In the 19th century, when the British navy imposed a search and impound policy towards slave ships, entire “cargoes” were thrown overboard to prevent the ships from being impounded. Many more millions were killed in the tribal wars that were fought in Africa to capture the slaves. When all these numbers are added up, a conservative figure for the total casualties of the Atlantic slave trade would be fifteen million. (To bring these numbers into perspective, the total population of England around the year 1600 was estimated at six million.)

More than 60 percent of the captives were from West Africa, a region under Islamic influence for centuries. The others came from Angola in West Africa and Mozambique in East Africa, which became the primary sources for slaves sent to Brazil. It may be deduced that up to twenty percent of all slaves transported to the Americas were Muslim. Africa was denied the energy of its young men and its young women. Instead, they became a line item in the enormous capital-accumulation taking place in Europe and the Americas.

The capture of slaves was not without resistance. The indomitable human urge for freedom does not give in easily. In 1502, the Africans attacked Fort Sao Jorge. In 1536, there was an African revolt on the island of Sao Thome. In 1570 the Fort of Sao Jorge was again attacked and would have fallen had it not been for the cannon of the Portuguese. There are numerous recorded cases of Muslim slaves organizing resistance to slavery in Brazil, in the West Indies, and in the southern United States.

History itself was a casualty of the Atlantic slave trade. The hapless men, women and children, chained, stuffed like sardines in ships, marked with red hot iron like cattle to be sold in the bazaars of Charleston and New Orleans, changed the self-image of Europe and Africa alike. Conflicts between slave and master were inevitable in this inhuman environment. Attitudes hardened, perceptions were corrupted, and images were distorted. Just as Europeans thought of Africans as cannibals, the Africans thought they were being transported to America to be roasted and eaten. In this crucible was bred the doctrine of racial superiority of Europe.

Oppression cannot be institutionalized without moral justification. A sociology of domination emerged in 18th and 19th century Europe and America, condemning the black man to an inherently inferior position and providing a moral justification for his enslavement. The oppressed and the oppressor both suffered. The casualty was the slave, the slave catcher and the slave owner. Christian and Muslim together paid the price.

The slave trade broke down African social structures. Until the 15thcentury, East Africa was a part of the iron culture linking the lands of the Indian Ocean. West Africa was linked to the Mediterranean by trade routes across the Sahara. The slave trade interrupted the natural evolution of African culture. The captured Africans were not the savages and cannibals that they were portrayed to be. They were masons, carpenters, jewelers, and scholars like the people of Asia and Europe. Centralized empires existed in Mali, Songhay, the Congo and Rhodesia. No such centralized authority could emerge after the European intervention.

From a Muslim perspective, the slave trade destroyed trading patterns in the Maghrib, enslaved many Muslims both in West and East Africa, marginalized West Asia by circumventing its trade routes, and ultimately led to its colonization.

The importance of the Atlantic slave trade decreased as the industrial revolution gathered momentum. Unit labor costs became much lower for machine labor than they were for human labor. The overhead for the transportation of slaves was high and profitability of the trade decreased. The slave trading nations realized that there were more profits to be made by colonization and by peaceful trade than by the slave trade. Towards the end of the 18th century, a minority opinion in England and in the United States spoke up against this inhuman trade. They were helped in their cause by the Industrial Revolution. The British Parliament abolished the slave trade in England in 1772. Denmark passed similar legislation in 1803. The United States abolished it in 1808, and Holland in 1818.

Even as the curtain fell on the Atlantic slave trade, a scramble ensued for colonies and raw materials required for the industrial infrastructure of Europe. Illegal traffic persisted until 1840. To stop it, Britain entered into mutual search treaties with other maritime nations of the Atlantic to search America-bound ships for human cargo. This effort was only partially successful, so the British navy undertook to patrol, search and confiscate any ship with contraband slave cargo. It was not until 1850 that the Atlantic slave trade finally came to an end. Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in America in 1863. The survival and prosperity of Africans in the New World is a testament to the triumph of human endurance and of the indomitable spirit of humankind.

The Destruction of Timbaktu

The Destruction of Timbaktu

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The ransom received by Ahmed al Mansur al Sa’adi from the Portuguese at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578) provided him only temporary financial relief. The traditional sources of income for the emir, namely trade and agriculture, were increasingly out of his reach. In the north, the Mediterranean trade was monopolized by the city-state of Genoa (Italy). A few of the Maghribi merchants worked in partnership with the Genoese and grew rich but the benefits did not accrue to the general population or to the emir. To the west, the Portuguese and the Spanish bypassed the Maghrib and established direct trade with the coast of Guinea. To the south the powerful Songhay Empire had flexed its muscles and had occupied the salt mines of Taodini on the borders of Mauritania. The Maghribi Sultans were cut off from the tax revenues on the salt mines. The Berbers in the Atlas Mountains and the settled farmers in the valleys owed greater allegiance to the local Sufi zawiyas than to the emirs who were engaged in constant power struggles. The money that the poor people gave the Sufi shaykhs as ziyara was a form of voluntary tax. This was money that was not available to the emirs. The absence of a central authority strong enough to collect taxes and pay a standing army, created a vicious circle. A strong central power was required to collect taxes, which were needed to sustain a strong central power. This vicious circle created a tension between state and society. The armed forces of the emirs became an instrument of coercion to force the rich merchants on the Mediterranean and the poor farmers in the Atlas Mountains to pay taxes. Coercion destroyed what little legitimacy the emirs enjoyed in the eyes of the population.

This issue, the legitimacy of rule, is a key element in understanding the unfolding historical events in the Maghrib, which influenced the struggle between the powers of the western Atlantic coast and ultimately had an impact on world history. In search of new revenues, Emir Ahmed al Mansur cast his eyes southwards to the Sudan. Historical Sudan, which was the traditional supplier of gold to the Maghrib, embraces the entire African belt south of the Sahara and should not be confused with the modern state of the Sudan. Since the 8th century, North Africa had carried on a peaceful and thriving trade with the lands south of the Sahara exporting metal ware, fine cloth, and horses in return for gold, ivory, cola nuts and Benin (Nigerian) pepper. In the 11th century, tribesmen from the Savannah, the Murabitun had burst forth and captured all of West Africa and Spain, a territory extending from Ghana to the borders of France. The trans-Saharan trade fostered the introduction of Islam and the Africans became a part of the universal community of Muslims. Muslim Sultans who occupied an honored place among the emirs of the world ruled the powerful empires of Mali (14th century) and Songhay (15th century). Askia Muhammed, also known as Askia the Great, during whose reign the Songhay Empire reached its zenith (1493-1528), was a patron of Islamic learning and sought to rule his kingdom in accordance with the Shariah. He performed the Hajj with a large entourage in 1496 and was appointed the spiritual head of the western Sudan by the Sharif of Mecca. Askia Muhammed sought and received the advice of the well-known scholars, among them the celebrated al Maghili (d. 1504) of Algeria. The trading cities of the Niger River, Timbaktu, Gao, Jenne, Kumbi, Tekrur, and Dendi, became centers of learning with extensive libraries. Well-known and respected scholars taught at great mosques. Scholarly interactions between Timbaktu, Sijilmasa (Morocco), Cairo (Egypt), and Mecca and Madina were common. The peace of these scholarly interactions was about to be shattered by the cannons of Ahmed al Mansur.

The occupation of the salt mines at Taodini and Taghaza by Songhay was unacceptable to the Sa’adid emir. At first, Ahmed al Mansur sent a scout to reclaim the salt mines (1580). But distances were large and he could not hold the towns against raids from Songhay. The hostilities only served to further disrupt trade between the Sudan and the Maghrib. Trade caravans avoided the westerly route through Morocco and moved eastwards through the central reaches of the Sahara to the Tunisian coast. A desperate al Mansur now decided to invade the Songhay Empire, which he believed would yield him the gold he needed to pay his army. A strong force of more than 4,000 soldiers was assembled consisting of Berbers, Tuaregs, Turks, Arabs and Portuguese prisoners of war. The force was well armed with muskets and supplied with cannons. The firearms were new weapons not known in the Sudan at that time and played a decisive role in the ensuing encounter.

The planned invasion was opposed by the ulema in Morocco as well as by the merchants. The ulema took a position based on the inadmissibility of a Muslim ruler invading the territories of another Muslim. The merchants were concerned that the invasion would increase social disruptions and further disrupt the trade. But al Mansur was so strapped for cash that he saw no choice but to proceed with this ill-advised adventure.

The Moroccan force crossed the Sahara and appeared on the borders of the Sudan in 1592 under Judar Pasha, a Spanish Christian who had accepted Islam. The Songhay Empire was far from the well-knit power that it once was under Askia Muhammed. Following the death of the great Askia, the empire experienced a long period of instability under a succession of monarchs. Songhay was not a monolithic kingdom inhabited by a single tribe, but a conglomerate of tribes who owed their allegiance to the emperor, some willingly and some by coercion. As instability increased, the Mossi tribes in the southern Sudan and the Hausa tribes to the east rebelled. In spite of these disturbances, the reigning Askia Ishaq II raised a large army and met with the Moroccan force at Tondibi. The Songhay soldiers were well disciplined but the muskets and cannons of the Moroccans carried the day. Facing defeat, Ishaq withdrew eastwards to the Songhay home base of Dendi. From here, the Songhays continued to wage guerilla war. The Sa’adids took Timbaktu and Gao and fanned out along the Niger River to occupy Jenne. There was a great deal of destruction and mayhem. The great towns along the Niger were looted. Libraries were burned. Scholars perished.

The legacy of this invasion was profound in its impact on Muslim West Africa. Ahmed al Mansur was only partially, and temporarily, successful in solving his revenue problems. The great cities of Timbaktu, Gao and Jenne were so thoroughly destroyed that they never regained their former glory as world-class centers of learning. The trans-Saharan trade along the western routes through Mauritania and southern Morocco was severely disrupted, further impoverishing both the Sudan and the Maghrib. Although Ishaq II continued his rearguard action, the Songhay Empire, which derived much of its power from the thriving trade centers along the Niger River, never regained its former importance. Agriculture suffered, and social disintegration increased, opening up Songhay territories to invasions by the Mossi from the south and the Tuaregs from the north. Many of the learned men of Timbaktu migrated further east along the Niger River to the prosperous kingdom of Kanem-Bornu providing an impetus to Islamic learning in Katsino and Kano (northern Nigeria).

The Sa’adids could not hold Songhay for long. Although reinforced by additional contingents, they were too few in number to conquer all of Songhay or to police the trade routes leading from the gold mines of Ghana through the Niger valley to North Africa. They soon tired, and by 1618 had given up their efforts to subdue the Sudan. The local Sa’adid governors in Timbaktu, Gao and Jenne were given the grandiose titles of Pasha, and left to their own wits to manage their affairs. These governors intermarried with the local population. The children of these marriages came to be known as Arma. The Arma continued to rule in cooperation with the power brokers of the Sudan until 1700 when they lost their power and were absorbed into the African milieu.

In historical hindsight, the primary beneficiary of the Moroccan invasion was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The collapse of the Songhay and Mali empires multiplied inter-tribal warfare in West Africa. These wars gained in intensity as the Europeans fueled them with firearms and rum. The soldiers on the losing side in each tribal war were captured as slaves; some were transported to the Sene-Gambia region and sold to the Europeans. Among the slaves were a large number of Muslims.


The Battle of al Qasr al Kabir

The Battle of al Qasr al Kabir

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The battle of al Qasr al Kabir must rank with the great battles in world history alongside the battles of Ayn Jalut (1261), Lepanto (1571), Plassey (1757), and Stalingrad (1942). At immediate stake was the fate of Morocco. But when the battle was over, the might of Portugal had been crushed, the Portuguese king killed, and its empire lay in shambles. Two years later, Portugal itself became a colony of Spain and remained so for more than fifty years. In turn, Spain tried to leverage the wealth it had looted from Mexico and Peru to hold onto its trade monopoly with the Americas as well as preserve the Portuguese trade with West Africa and India. Like all monopolies, this effort was doomed to failure. It attracted interlopers from England, France and Morocco.

Economics and religion both played a role in the next sequence of events. Spain appealed to England to stamp out piracy but the English throne was not responsive. Meanwhile, Pope Sixtus V authorized a Catholic Crusade against England in response to its Protestant leanings (1587). Armed with a Papal edict, and seething with resentment at continued English piracy, King Phillip II of Spain resolved to conquer England. A mighty armada was assembled under Admiral Madina Sidonia and sent into the English Channel (1588) and up the Thames River. There it was met by an English fleet under Charles Howard and was destroyed. Spain made a second attempt in 1598, but this time the ill-fated Spanish fleet was caught in a storm in the Atlantic and sank. Spain bled and its hold on global trade weakened. This opened the door for the entry of Holland and England onto the world stage.

Following the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the struggle for the control of North Africa entered a new phase involving a four-way struggle between Spain, Portugal, the Ottomans and the Sa’adids of Morocco. Spain briefly occupied Tunis, but the Turkish army reclaimed it in 1572. By 1576, the Ottomans had advanced through Algeria and had taken the ancient city of Fez in Morocco as well as the important trading center of Tlemcen on the outskirts of the Sahara. The Sa’adids who wished to remain independent did not welcome this. The Sa’adid Sultan Abdulla al Ghalib conspired with the Spanish to attack Tlemcen but died before he could reach the city. Ghalib’s son Muhammed became the Sultan and continued the advance. The Sa’adid court was divided between those who supported the Turks and those who sought an alliance with Spain. Two of Ghalib’s brothers, Abdul Malik and Ahmed, were among those who supported a Turkish presence. Muhammed’s moves to align himself with Christian Spain were unpopular with the people. Abdul Malik and Ahmed easily overthrew Muhammed with the help of the Turkish army and Abdul Malik was proclaimed the Sultan. The overthrown Muhammed Sa’adid appealed to King Phillip II of Spain for help. Phillip had his hands full with the Turks in North Africa and Europe. Realizing that he was over committed to the defense of the Italian coast as well as helping the Hapsburgs in Vienna, he declined to intervene. Muhammed Sa’adid then turned to King Sebastian of Portugal.

The Portuguese were very active on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and in West Africa. They captured the strategic port of Tangier in 1471, and used it as a base to scuttle Moroccan trade in the . In 1505, they captured Agadir and built the powerful fortress of Santa Cruz there. This fort commanded the entrance to the Atlantic and provided a strong base from which to terrorize the Moroccan coast. This was the first of a series of forts that the Portuguese were to build around the coast of Africa as well as in India and Malaya. The port of Safi was occupied in 1507, Azempour in 1513, and Mazagan near the ancient Al Muhaddith center of Tit in 1515. In addition, the Portuguese intervened in the politics of southern Morocco, playing off one emir against another and hastening the political disintegration already under way.

The Portuguese military activity was not confined to the political arena. Slavery was also on their agenda. Portuguese piracy along the coast was not unnoticed in Morocco. However, the Maghrib at this time was in an advanced stage of social and political disintegration, which precluded any central organized resistance. The challenge was therefore taken up by the Sufi orders, which had found a welcome home in the social and political vacuum.

Organized around local zawiyas, the Sufi brotherhoods provided social cohesion and spiritual fulfillment at the local level. Led by Shaykh al Jazuli (d. 1465) of the Jazuliya Sufi order, resistance to Portuguese raids gathered momentum. Shaykh Al Jazuli occupies a position in Morocco similar to that held by Shaykh Moeenuddin Chishti of Ajmer in India and Baba Fareed in India and Pakistan.

One of the emirs in southern Morocco, Muhammed al Sa’adi became a follower of the shaykh, organized a resistance to Portuguese encroachments and founded the Sa’adid dynasty. His two sons Ahmed and Muhammed consolidated their holdings in southern Morocco. In 1541, Muhammed al Sa’adi drove the Portuguese from the fort of Santa Cruz, their principal base commanding an entrance to the Atlantic. Within two years (1541-1543), the Sa’adids had recaptured all the fortresses along the Moroccan coast except Tangier and Ceuta. The prestige of the Sa’adids and of the Jazuliya movement rose, while Portuguese trade with the coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean suffered a blow.

It is against this background that the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir must be examined. In 1576, when the ousted Muhammed al Sa’adi sought Portuguese help, King Sebastian saw a golden opportunity to crush the “Moors” and win the Crusades in North Africa once and for all. Extensive preparations were made, and Sebastian landed on the African coast with a seasoned army of more than 20,000. Included in this were the most capable generals, noblemen and men of war that Portugal could muster. The army was well supplied with cannon. The moment for an historic decision on the fate of the Maghrib had arrived. The gravity of the moment was well understood by the Moroccans and the Crusade was answered by the Jazuliya Sufi order. A proclamation of jihad went out. Soldiers gathered from far and wide. Religious fervor rose. Preparations were made and muskets and cannon were acquired from the Turks and the English.

The two armies met just south of the city of Arzila on the plain of al Qasr al Kabir. The Portuguese cannon opened up its salvos. Emir Abdul Malik fell in the first salvo. Immediately, the Jazuliyas appointed his brother Ahmed al Sa’adi as the new emir and charged forth. The burst of Moroccan cannon shook the valley. The fervor of the Jazuliya Sufis carried the day. The Portuguese army was crushed. Of the more than 20,000 invaders, only a few hundred survived to tell the story of this defeat. Sebastian was killed. Ahmed was given the title of al Mansur, the victorious. A large amount of war material and booty was captured. Ahmed al Mansur, always short of money, used the captives to good advantage and ransomed them for gold and silver from Lisbon.

There were three kings involved in this battle-King Sebastian of Portugal, Emir Abdul Malik al Sa’adi and Emir Ahmed al Mansur al Sa’adi. For this reason, the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Three Kings.

The Battle of al Qasr al Kabir was a major event in world history. It marked the end of the western Crusade. Christian ambitions in North Africa were frustrated. The Maghrib remained in the Muslim camp and did not suffer the same fate as Granada. Portugal was crippled and within two years became a vassal of Spain. Taken together with the destruction of the Spanish armada ten years later (1588), the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir marked the end of the Iberian trade monopoly with Asia and America. The Spanish Monarch took over the Portuguese trade monopoly with West Africa and India. Spain tried to guard this monopoly using the resources of the New World. In this effort, she failed because the span of control was too large for the available resources. The navies of Spain and Portugal could not patrol the vast reaches of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Pirates, profiteers and interlopers from France, England and Morocco successfully challenged the monopoly. Although Spain still enjoyed considerable power with its holdings in Mexico, Peru and the Philippines, the Spanish Empire was past its zenith. The wheels of fortune turned, a historic window of opportunity presented itself, and history waited for new players to take the center stage. It was at this juncture that the Protestant nations of northern Europe, the Dutch and the English, entered the world stage with a nascent resilience and made a dash for the trade routes linking Europe, America, Africa and India. The center of gravity of world power was moving towards northern Europe.


The Portuguese Devastations in the Indian Ocean

The Portuguese Devastations in the Indian Ocean

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The discovery of America and the circumnavigation of Africa were logical consequences of the religious-political rivalry between the Christian powers of Iberia and the Muslim powers of North Africa. As the Maghrib disintegrated, the Christian powers of Iberia, with the cooperation of the maritime powers of Italy, consolidated their positions and projected their power far beyond the borders of the Iberian Peninsula.

Religion and profit were the principal motivations for the Portuguese-Spanish thrust. Christian fanaticism expressed itself through the Spanish Inquisition. Abu Abdallah (Boabdil), the last emir of Granada, had agreed to surrender under a comprehensive treaty, which guaranteed freedom of religion to the non-Christians. But no sooner had the ink dried on this treaty than it was abandoned. The Inquisition was let loose, first on the Jews, then on the Muslims. There was sustained resistance but it proved fruitless. Some of the Muslims hid in caves in the hills of El Pujarra near Granada to escape the Inquisition. They were hunted down and exterminated. In 1502, the Spanish monarch issued a decree to expel the Muslims.

The conflict was not confined to the Iberian Peninsula. It spilled over into North Africa. The Christian Iberians dreamed of conquering North Africa for their faith. Pope Alexander VI divided the world into two spheres of influence, one for the Portuguese and one for the Spaniards. In accordance with the Pope’s edict, the Portuguese moved along the Atlantic coast, while the Spanish focused on the Mediterranean coast.

The profit motive was not far behind as a driving force. Europe had long dreamed of opening trade routes to India and East Asia. The products of Asia-spices, silk, cloth, brass work, ivory, iron-were in great demand in the Mediterranean, and the trade was highly profitable. Since the 8th century, Muslims had controlled the trade routes to India, Sumatra, and China, and the wealth of such cities as Alexandria in and Basra in Iraq depended to a large extent on this trade. The city-states of Italy-Venice, Genoa, and Naples-bought these products in Alexandria, and sold them to the rest of Europe, making enormous profits and growing rich in the process.

The Portuguese were the first European nation to realize the dream of reaching India. They were helped in this undertaking by technology and geography. First, there were major technological advances. The winds around the coast of West Africa change direction from south to north around the Cape of Bajador. Until the second half of the 15th century, neither the Christians in western Europe nor the Muslims of the Maghrib possessed the technology to sail against the wind. This was so even though the technology was known to the Venetians and was also widely used in the Indian Ocecan. The absence of such ships had prevented the people of the Maghrib from venturing further south along the coast. The Portuguese and the Spaniards acquired this technology, circa 1450, from the Venetians.

Second, the cannon made its appearance in the Ibeerian Peninsula in the 15th century. The Muslims of North Africa had learned the technology of gunpowder from the Turks and had introduced it into Spain. Now, the same technology in the hands of the Christians was turned against them.

Third, the economic and political disintegration of the Maghrib precluded any coherent Muslim response to the military challenge from the north. The Muslims of the Maghrib had lost the trade routes in the western Mediterranean (1350-1400). The Trans-Saharan trade was sporadic because of the unsettled political conditions in the region. The emirs were in constant warfare with one another. In contrast, the consolidation of Christian Iberia steadily gathered momentum. Even though the Iberian political structure was feudal and despotic, it proved to be more cohesive than the prevailing political chaos in the Maghrib.

Fourth, historical developments and its own geography helped the Portuguese. The location of Portugal on the Atlantic seacoast gave it access to the coastline of West Africa. Portugal emerged as a unified country after the Crusades of 1236-1248, more than 200 years before Spain was unified under Ferdinand and Isabella and Granada was conquered. Political cohesiveness gave the Portuguese a leg up on their rivals in their race to the Atlantic Ocean. Contacts with the Muslims of North Africa had taught the Iberians that there were thriving African communities south of the Sahara, where gold and ivory were plentiful. The tales of Timbaktu were heard in the soukhs (markets) of Tangier and Ceuta.

The lure of African gold beckoned Europe. If the Maghrib could be bypassed by sea, it would benefit the Iberians in their strategic military confrontation with the Muslims, and at the same time, eliminate them as middlemen in the lucrative trade with the Sudan (the vast stretch of territory from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans south of the Sahara was called the Sudan). In both Lisbon and Madrid, the exploration of the Atlantic coast of Africa received the highest priority. The Portuguese Captain Tristao successfully crossed Cape Bajador in 1434. This was a benchmark achievement. In 1441 Portuguese ships raided the coast of southern Morocco. In 1443, the island of Tristao, later to gain notoriety in the Atlantic slave trade, was captured. In 1456, Senegal and Gambia were visited. In 1472, the Portuguese Captain Sequira reached Benin in Nigeria. Thereafter, Portuguese excursions thrust them forward in a relentless quest for the southern tip of Africa.

The route around the southern tip of Africa to the Indian Ocean was not unknown. As early as 1406, the great Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng Yi had sailed the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope to the western coast of Africa. But he had turned around before navigating northwards to Morocco and Europe. In 1496, Vasco de Gama achieved what Admiral Zheng Yi did not. He circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope, and, guided by a Muslim sailor Ahmed ibn Majid who was a resident in East Africa, sailed with the northeasterly monsoons to reach the coast of Malabar (India).

The events of the last decade of the 15th century, namely the conquest of Granada (1492), the discovery of America (1492), and the successful voyage around Africa (1496), released the energies of Europe. The Muslim presence in Spain had bottled up Europe for 700 years. Not only had Europe escaped the juggernaut of the Muslims, it had in turn drawn a circle around the Muslim heartland in West Asia and North Africa. It was only a matter of time before the noose would tighten. History had changed.

East Africa was a part of the wider Islamic world. The Indian Ocean was an open sea plied by Arab dhows, Indian multi-mast sails, and giant Chinese ships. The littoral cities of the ocean provided open markets for the exchange of goods from the far-flung corners of Asia and Africa. The African seaboard carried on a brisk trade with the coasts of Arabia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China. Exports from East Africa included gold, ivory, cola nuts, palm oil, rhino tusks and iron ore. Imports included spices from Malabar and Indonesia, finished iron products from Bijapur, cotton goods from Bengal, silk from China and Persia, marble and incense from Arabia. As an illustration, iron ore was exported from Kilwa (Tanzania) to Gujrat and Bijapur (India) where it was smelted into iron. Al Masudi records that the Indians made excellent swords with this iron. Some of the smelted iron was exported to Basra from where it was shipped to the metal working industries of Iraq and Syria and processed into “Damascus Steel”, an alloyed product using the high temperature super plastic properties of steel.

Islam forged together a brotherhood and sisterhood in East Africa transcending the barriers of region, race and ethnicity. Trade and travel resulted in intermarriage among the people of the Indian Ocean seaboard. Malabar (India) and the Sahel (Africa) had large populations resulting from such intermarriages. This melting pot produced a rich, cosmopolitan Islamic culture, which fused the ancient cultures of Persia and India with the energy of Africa and the doctrinal restraint of Arabia. Cities such as Dar es Salaam (doorway to peace), Shofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, Pemba, Malindi, and Mogadishu grew up with stone fortresses, paved streets, great mosques and imposing palaces. Al Masudi refers to Shofala (Mozambique) as a city of gold. A new language, Swahili was born, combining Bantu grammar with Arabic and Persian vocabulary.

The cannons of the Portuguese broke the peace of Dar es Salaam. Vasco de Gama saw a thriving civilization in East Africa and western India, and what he saw whetted his appetite. As soon as he returned from India, the Portuguese drew up plans for the subjugation of East Africa and the capture of Muslim trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Historical currents favored the Portuguese. It was a period when major political realignments were taking place in the Islamic world. In Persia, Shah Ismail was busy consolidating the Safavid Empire. In Egypt, the Mamlukes were a spent force. Cairo, as the seat of the Caliphate, was unable to defend itself, let alone protect the Muslims worldwide. The Ottomans, active in Europe, had not yet firmed up their boundaries with Persia and Egypt. In India, the Lodhis were a distant echo of the powerful Sultanate under the Khiljis. The Maghrib had just lost Granada, and was in total disarray with rampant warfare among the local emirs.

Sensing an historic window of opportunity, both Portugal and Spain moved to expand their positions around the globe between the years 1500 and 1530. The mandate of the Portuguese from their king was to cut the trade routes, subjugate the African trading cities and destroy “Moorish” influence. The Portuguese and the Spanish used the term Moors to refer to all Muslims, whether they were Arabs, Africans, Persians, Indians or Malays. These cities had minimal fortifications, because they had no natural enemies; their relations with the African hinterland were peaceful, and they looked with open arms to the blue ocean for free trade. So, when the Portuguese cannon boomed and rained death and destruction, the trading centers around the Indian Ocean were totally unprepared.

Vasco de Gama’s first voyage was an intelligence gathering one. He returned in 1502 at the head of a flotilla of twenty-five ships armed with the most powerful cannons in the Portuguese inventory and bombarded the city states all along the east African coast. His first encounter with shipping in the Indian Ocean was a vessel carrying 700 returning hajjis from Mecca to India. An Indian Muslim from Malabar, Merim, owned the ship. Disregarding pleas for mercy, de Gama burned the ship with all of its occupants, women and children included. When the Portuguese arrived off the coast of Calicut, the Raja of Calicut, Manna Vikrama, sent an emissary, a Brahmin of high repute, to negotiate peace. The ambassador arrived on board the Portuguese flagship with his two sons and a nephew. De Gama cut off the hands, nose and ears of the ambassador, and had the three young men nailed to crosses. The bombardment of Calicut began in earnest, wreaking havoc on that ancient city. He then turned his attention to the ships in anchor. He treated the captured Hindus the same way he had treated the Brahmin ambassador of the Raja, cutting off their hands, noses and ears and piling them up in heaps on board his ships. But the most sadistic treatment was reserved for captured Muslims. One Khwaja Muhammed, a noted merchant from Egypt was captured, beaten, his mouth stuffed with pig refuse, and then set afire. Such atrocities were repeated wherever the Portuguese went on the Indian coast.

The first Portuguese raids established a fortified position in East Africa. Shofala, a trading center established by Muslim merchants as early as 957, was captured. More powerful thrusts followed. In 1505, the Portuguese captain Almeida raided Kilwa and shot his way along the East African coast to Somalia, returning with a rich booty. In 1507, Bab el Mandap, at the entrance to the Red Sea fell. The Portuguese made an attempt to capture Aden (Yemen) but failed. In 1508, they appeared on the coast of India, and captured Diu and Daman. Shortly thereafter, the port of Goa was captured from Sultan Adil Shah of Bijapur, who was betrayed by a renegade Adil Shahi sailor, Timoja. All of its Muslim male inhabitants were slain and the women were enslaved. The splendid port of Goa gave the Portuguese a commanding base from where to expand their operations, and it became the seat of their fledging empire in the Indian Ocean.

In 1511, Albuquerque was appointed the governor of Goa and was given command of operations in this sector. Ambitious, determined, and ruthless, Albuquerque vowed to turn the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese lake. In 1512, a powerful fleet sent from Goa arrived at the Straits of Malacca (Malaysia). Malayan resistance was valiant, determined and desperate but the greater firepower of the invaders proved decisive and Malacca fell. The control of Malacca gave the Portuguese a stranglehold on trade routes between the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific (China). In 1515, Albuquerque captured the Straits of Hormuz in Persia at the entrance to the Persian Gulf and completed his conquests by occupying Muscat and Bahrain (1516).

Within a span of fifteen years, the Portuguese had destroyed the thriving city-states of East Africa, captured strategic naval posts all along the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, occupied the entrances to both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and disrupted the trade that had flowed from India, Sumatra and China to West Asia and East Africa. Once thriving cities on the African seaboard became ghost towns. Violence, greed, enmity and ruthlessness took over trade and cooperation. Portuguese hatred of Muslims was unbounded. Wherever they landed, their first targets were the Muslims. The Inquisition was instituted in Goa against both Hindus and Muslims, and instructions were passed out by the Portuguese governor that no Muslim was to be hired, even though the territory of Goa had been a part of the Sultanate of Bijapur, and had a large number of Muslims in it.

The global Portuguese challenge did not go unanswered. In the period 1261-1517, the Mamlukes of Egypt were the custodians of Mecca and Madina. The Caliphate resided in Cairo. The Mamlukes, as custodians of the Caliphate, were duty bound to help Muslims worldwide. When East Africa and Gujrat (India) cried for help, Mansuh al Ghalib, Mamluke Sultan of Egypt sent a powerful fleet from Yemen into the Arabian Sea, despite the fact that the Mamlukes themselves had serious financial difficulties. In 1508, this fleet defeated a strong Portuguese force off the coast of Chaul (near modern Karachi), and proceeded to lay siege to Diu (in Gujrat). The Portuguese held on; however, the Mamluke fleet was caught in a monsoon storm and had to moor at Surat, which was ruled by the Sultan of Gujrat. This episode shows that in the early part of the 16th century, there was close coordination between the Muslim states of East Africa, India and the Mamluke Caliphate in Egypt.

The battle at Diu was a turning point in history. The inability of the Mamlukes to expel the Portuguese solidified their hold on Goa, Diu and Daman. They stayed there for almost 500 years until the Indian Army ejected them in 1962.

Events in West Asia overtook this initial thrust of the Mamlukes. Following the Battle of Chaldiran (1514), the Ottoman Turks advanced into Egypt and took Cairo (1517). The Caliphate moved to Istanbul and the responsibility for the protection of the Muslims passed on to the Ottomans.

In 1525, Sulaiman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan and Caliph, sent his Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha to Cairo to reorganize the administration of Egypt. One of the accomplishments of Ibrahim Pasha was to energize the Egyptian (now Ottoman) navy in the Indian Ocean. In 1535, Sulaiman Pasha, Governor of Egypt, set out with a powerful fleet from Suez, drove the Portuguese from Yemen, and arriving in India, laid siege to Diu (Gujrat) in cooperation with the Sultan of Gujrat. The siege was, however, unsuccessful, and Sulaiman Pasha returned to Egypt.

The defense of the eastern trade routes took on added importance to the Ottomans when they captured Iraq and the Port of Basra (1546) from the Safavids. The Portuguese commanding the Straits of Hormuz blockaded Basra. Sulaiman the Magnificent ordered the blockade to be broken. The celebrated Admiral Piri Rais, sailed from Suez in 1551, inflicted heavy damage on the Portuguese garrisons in Hormuz, Muscat and Oman and made his way to Basra Leaving his command in Basra, he returned the following year. However, he was unable to drive the Portuguese from Hormuz and the blockade of the Persian Gulf continued. The following year, another admiral, Ali Pasha, fought his way through the Portuguese blockade and laid siege to Diu together with the Sultan of Gujrat but had to abandon it due to a storm. Soon thereafter, Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) captured Gujrat and made Surat a principal port of export for the Moghul Empire. Akbar, although acknowledging the Ottoman Caliphate as one “in the tradition of the four rightly-guided Caliphs”, had his own ideas about how to deal with the Portuguese.

The Portuguese started negotiations with fellow Christians in Ethiopia to deny the Ottoman navy access to the Red Sea. To pre-empt this possibility, the Turks occupied Masawa (Eritrea) in 1557. In 1560, a Turkish force was assembled to recapture the Straits of Malacca (Malaysia) from the Portuguese, but the effort was abandoned due to the internal political situation in Malaysia. Nonetheless, through his determined efforts, Sulaiman the Magnificent broke the back of the Portuguese blockades by the time he passed away in 1565.

The war between the Ottomans and the Portuguese for control of trade routes continued throughout the 16th century. Admiral Ali Beg sailed from Yemen in 1580, and turning south from the coast of Somalia, raided Portuguese forts in Mombasa, Kilwa (modern Tanzania) and Malindi. In 1589, he repeated this feat again, but this time he was stopped south of Kilwa by a strong Portuguese fleet sent from Goa. This naval engagement had the far-reaching effect of preserving the East African coastlines in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania for Muslim influence. However, the Portuguese held on to Mozambique, which became a Portuguese colony for 400 years, and an important source of slaves for shipments to Brazil.

The Portuguese threat subsided towards the end of the 16th century for four important reasons. First, the Portuguese had neither the material resources nor the manpower to monopolize the Indian Ocean trade. The limited land area of Portugal could not produce the timber required to support a large navy. By 1565, more trade flowed on Muslim ships than did on Portuguese ships, and Alexandria in Egypt was once again a flourishing trading post. Second, Portuguese trade was monopolistic, with the king of Portugal holding all the cards, and monopolies are inherently inefficient and do not survive for long. Third, the Portuguese ruling structure was feudal, with the governors beholden to the king, and little latitude for local initiative. And fourth, Ottoman resistance in the Indian Ocean broke the back of the Portuguese monopoly. The littoral empires of the Great Moghuls in India and the Safavids in Persia became so powerful that the Portuguese became no more than a nuisance. A more potent European challenge was to emerge in the following centuries, first from Holland, and then from England.

The Ottoman naval activities were global, and were not confined just to the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Arrayed against the Ottomans was the combined might of Europe involving Spain, Portugal, Venice, Austria, Russia and the Vatican. In 1552, when the Russian Czar Ivan IV captured Astrakan and Kazan, Sulaiman the Magnificent ordered a fleet into the Black Sea to recapture Astrakan. Sultan Sulaiman had a grand vision to dig a canal linking the Rivers Don and Volga so that Ottoman troops could bypass the opposing Safavids in Persia, and move through the Turkoman territories around the Caspian Sea to the friendly territories of the Moghul Empire in India. This dream persisted until the First World War (1914-1918) when the Ottomans made a desperate plan to strike at the British in India through the region of the Caspian Sea and link up with the large pro-Turkish, pro-Caliphate Muslim populations of Afghanistan and what is today Pakistan. Sulaiman’s efforts were unsuccessful in 1555, and the Ottoman efforts were frustrated in 1914 by Russian advances into eastern Turkey and northern Persia.