Why did Magellan choose to sail so far north of the Moluccas? In Magellan's Voyage around the World, author Charles E. Nowell notes that a copy of a book possessed by Magellan offers the answer. The explorer's copy of Duarte Barbosa's geography labels, in Magellan's own writing, the region north of the Moluccas and south of China as "Tarsis and Ofir."
He was referring to the Biblical lands of Tarshish and Ophir to which Solomon and Hiram were said to have sent trade missions. Pigafetta states that Magellan turned north to reach the port of Gaticara, which is the far eastern trading port of Cattigara mentioned by the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy. Evidently Magellan thought that Cattigara and Ophir were one and the same.
While sailing on this course, the ships reached Limasawa in the Central Philippines where Black Henry was able to converse with the locals.
If we study the history of maps, we can note that a significant evolution occurs in the 14th century starting with the Yuan dynasty maps of Chu Ssu-Pen. These culminate in the spectacular Kangnido map from Korea.
Kangnido map showing Africa, Asia and Europe, Korea, 1402
Not long after this we hear of the map discovered by Don Pedro of Portugal during his world travels. The same map credited with lauching the great age of European exploration.
So the development of these maps takes place well before the voyage of Zheng He.
When looking at the activities of the Nusantao in the centuries leading up to this period, we know they were very active in trading off Africa. The Muslim writer Buzurg ibn Shahriyar in his Marvels of the Indies mentions an unsuccessful naval invasion by the Wakwak in the year 945 off the southern coast of Africa.
The Wakwak nation appears to be the same one known to the Chinese as Toupo located to the southeast of southern China and Sanfotsi.
According to Shahriyar, the invading fleet consisted of 1,000 ships and the journey to Sofala in present-day Mozambique took about one year. So we can see that the Wakwak were able to muster a huge fleet of ships even larger than those mentioned 460 years later during Zheng He's first treasure voyage.
Ibn al-Wardi states that the Wakwak were known for their large ships, so we might expect that some vessels in the thousand ship fleet were of the kind mentioned by Manguin. These would have been up to 200 feet long carrying as many as 1,000 people. Much larger than the 87 foot long Santa Maria of Columbus, but smaller than the massive 450 foot mahogany and teak treasure ship of Zheng He.
A few centuries later, in 1154, the Arab geographer Idrisi wrote in Kitab Rujjar about trade missions from Zabag and Komr to Africa:
"...the people of the isles of Zabag come to the land of Zanj on small and large ships...for they understand one another's languages."
"The residents of Zabag go to the land of Sofala (near Beira, Mozambique) and export the iron from there supplying it to all the lands of India. No iron is comparable to theirs in quality and sharpness."
"The people of Komr (Khmer) and the merchants of the land of the Mihraj (ruler of Zabag) come among them (the Zanj) and are well received and trade with them."
Zabag had a massive trading empire that dealt with, among other things, the movement of spices. Here is is what the geographer al-Mas'udi has to say about Zabag in the 10th century:
"In the sea of Champa (eastern South China Sea) is the empire of Maharaja, the king of the islands, who rules over an empire without limit and has innumerable troops. Even the most rapid vessels could not complete in two years a tour round the isles which are under his possesssion. The territories of this king produce all sorts of spices and aromatics, and no other sovereign of the world gets as much wealth from the soil."
Note that Shahriyar mentions the one year voyage from Wakwak to Sofala, while Mas'udi says the circuit of the empire of Zabag took more than two years. This gives an indication of the area involved.
However, it was in the centuries to come that the ancient Nusantao trade routes came under pressure from Muslim expansion. I believe this was the first real threat to these routes in their long history. Not only the Clove Route, but even the Cinnamon Route to the south was increasingly coming under control of new Islamic kingdoms and empires.
It was during this time that we hear of the first missions of Prester John to Europe, at a time when the Christian kingdoms too were in great crisis. Not long after these missions, the invasions of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan brought relief to Europe. Although Europe itself was threatened for a period, they never were subjected to the same destruction as the Muslim empires.
However, Genghis' conquests did not so completely alter the situation along the spice routes. They had no effect on Islamic expansion in Africa and only minor consequences for India and Southeast Asia.
The Samudera Darussalam house of Aceh was the first powerful Muslim empire of Southeast Asia. Apparently Aceh was site of Islam's entrance into this region. The Samudera empire gained influence over Malacca and some believe it Islamized the kingdom of Patani in Thailand.
It was during this period of unprecedented foreign influence of a militaristic persuasion, that we see the great development of navigation and map-making in many lands.
In the next blog, we will examine why the Nusantao would have liked other parties to become involved in the spice routes "crisis."
Paul Kekai Manansala
Henry the Black, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_the_Black
The Kingdom of Prester John, http://asiapacificuniverse.com/pkm/presterjohn.htm
The Kangnido Map, http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/LMwebpages/236.html