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A Note on Narsapur Peta: A "Syncretic" Shipbuilding Centre in South India, 1570-1700

Author(s): Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Source: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1988), pp.
Published by: Brill
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pays musulmans et non au reste d

ou aux Francs. Quant a la localisa
mentionnis et de la personnaliti d
en pays de droit malikite, il y a des
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orientaux vont
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etre symptomatiquement, sur le
Les principales questions traitees
d6dommagements d^fs, etc. II serait
cations donnees a ce que nous savo
Peut-etre est-il interessant de no
ment de cet opuscule, mais de dive
Ahkkdm al-Siq de Yahya b. 'Umar

Claude CAHEN



In a recent survey of literature on "late Medieval" Asian shipping and ship-

building, Pierre-Yves Manguin notes that, "the Bay of Bengal remains as yet very
much of a mare zncognitum"'l). It would be recalled too that it was a perceived paucity
of Information that kept W H. Moreland a half century ago from extending hi
analysis of the ships of the Arabian Sea in around 1500 A.D to the Bay of Bengal2).
Hence, the aim of this note must of necessity be modest, given the fragile
historiographical foundations one has on which to build; the Intention here is to
focus on one shipbuilding centre, Narsapur, in the period after European Influence
on Asian shipbuilding had begun to make itself felt. Narsapur Peta, in the West
Godavari delta, is here described as a "syncretic" centre, In the sense that it fused
"traditional" Asian methods to European techniques.
Recent surveys by Simon Digby and Archibald Lewis suggest that two broad
traditions of shipbuilding existed in the Indian Ocean in about 1500. To the wes
was what Digby terms the dhow tradition, and what are by Lewis termed ship
"constructed according to long-standing Indian design", and which can be traced
to an area extending from East Africa to the middle Indian Ocean. The eastern
Indian Ocean, on the other hand, is seen by Digby as dominated from 1100 to
about 1500 by the junk, which is closely identified by him with Chinese shipping.
Lewis in contrast talks of a "Chinese-Southeast Asian style" of junk, which could
be of 350 to 400 tons, carried multiple masts, and was generally built of teak3). A
division amongst the different types of ships characterised as "juncos" by the Por-
tuguese, latent in Lewis' writings, is developed explicitly by Manguin, who argues

Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. XXXI

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that the Chinese junk must be dif

waters, built in Borneo, in north
trast to the flat-bottomed, square
ended, V-shaped hull, assembled w
large (400 to 500 metric tons on the
ships from the West or from Ch
distinguish the Jong both from the
of these and other peculiar features
it is inter alia crucial to note that w
the nao mourisca), had at most t
mizzen-, the jong usually had a bo
to the mizzen5).
Turning to the Bay of Bengal in th
which of these traditions in fact do
various writers that after a period
defined "Kling", "Chola" and Sri
trade, the early 12th century sees t
(according to Digby) replaces the
logically advanced. Indeed, Lewis
Chinese junk was far more advanc
difficult to be certain (in view of t
By about 1500, however, Chinese-st
Bengal. In both Pegu and Bengal,
mourisca "in the style of Mecca"'7
shipbuilding area specialised in this
whether the other type of ship bel
Ocean rather than in the Bay of
In the early 16th century, the cen
trading scene in south-eastern India
and lower Burma, besides which the
Sumatran ports, as well as coastal
was the provenance of shipping u
no evidence in 16th century docum
building tradition. It thus appears
from Coromandel to Melaka were b
bable that these were Jongs built in
or-more likely- in Burma9). Indee
though we have references to trade
struction of importance at any sing
struction activity on a small scal
Nagapattinam, which were in the 16
from Malabar However, it should be stressed that the vessels constructed would
be of considerably smaller dimensions than the Jong or larger dhow, and may be
identified with what the Portuguese term a champana, and the Dutch a century later
designate by the diminutives scheepye and scheepken. All this makes the rise of Nar-
sapur Peta at the close of the 16th century of great importance, representing as it
does the first major shipbuilding centre in south-eastern India for several centuries
at a stretch1?).

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Narsapur was, through the late 16th a

the port of Masulipatnam to its south
in the period 1570 to 1700, some of
invariably had their ships constructed
second half of the 17th century, the
interested themselves in Narsapur a
English private traders too had sever
1650, and the Dutch Company, according to Daniel Havart, had several
"hoekers", shallops, tonis, and small ships constructed here in the 1670s and
1680s'2). In the extant literature, the construction of English shipping at Narsapur
has received disproportionate emphasis, and as a consequence, writers like A. J
Qaisar have suggested (to my mind Incorrectly) that Narsapur's period of
floresence was really the latter half of the 17th century'3). In fact, the "Golden
Age" of Narsapur, the period when the largest ships were constructed, was in all
likelihood from the late 1580s to the middle of the 17th century
Narsapur possessed two major advantages over most centres on the Coromandel
coast. The first was its plentiful access to teak, a factor stressed by the English
private trader Thomas Bowrey, writing in the 1670s. This teak was of the forests
of the modern-day West Godavari district, probably from the Marrigudem range
of the Bhadrachalam forest, and from the lankas of the Godavari delta. It was
apparently floated down the western arm of the Godavari (the so-called Vasistha
Godavari) to both Narsapur and Madapollam. The second advantage related to the
availability of iron. Moreland in his classic paper on shipping in the Arabian Sea
had suggested that the relative absence of the use of nails in ship construction in
the area could be attributed to the high price of iron. In the case of the Krishna-
Godavari region, where iron was imported from Interior Andhra, there was quite
clearly no such shortage. The Dutch even ran a small nail manufactory at
Palakollu, up river from Narsapur, and observers from the early 17th century
already stress that Narsapur ships were made of "very good timber and iron""4).
The earliest mention of substantial ships based at Masulipatnam comes from the
1580s, the period when the Sultans of Golconda began sending ships to the Red
Sea. It seems reasonable to infer that these large naus, as well as the others sent from
Masulipatnam to Pegu in the 1580s and 1590s were built at Narsapur In the early
17th century, when the Dutch and English take up residence at Masulipatnam, the
place of Narsapur is repeatedly stressed in their documents. Peter Floris writing In
1614 mentions very large ships built for the Red Sea run at Narsapur, and there
are numerous other references to substantial ships built there in the period upto
1650, many in the 600 tons plus range. One of the largest was a ship built in 1638
for Mir Muhammad Sayyid, of around 800 tons burthen, which was probably the
same on which the French traveller Tavernier voyaged from Bandar Abbas to
Masulipatnam in 165215). Still another, which was undergoing repairs at Narsapur
in the 1670s when it was inspected by Thomas Bowrey is described by him as being
in the range of 1000 tons'6). Nor were these exceptions. In the 1620s and 1630s,
Masulipatnam merchants like Mir Kamal-al-din and Mir Muhammad Murad
employed ships in the trade to Pegu, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, that were
frequently over 600 tons burthen. When a ship of Mir Murad was lost on the Pegu
run late in the 1620s, it was estimated that some 460 men perished with the vessel.

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The period upto about 1660 see

Masulipatnam shipping. Thereaft
size of individual ships seems to
seem to suggest that Masulipatnam
to 300 ton category, whereas earlie
to Arakan and Aceh, the other r
described earlier Further, the sh
in the 1670s and 1680s were larg
private traders, and there is eviden
designs and under European supe
then are the ships built at Narsapu
Masulipatnam based Asian shipow
ing to the Sultans of Golconda. W
manner of the western Indian Ocea
pean influence? We have already n
rule, and this seems to separate
"nothing made of iron aboard"18
influences of Pegu and Aceh-Mas
the period 1570 to 1620M Did the p
sent in considerable numbers at Ma
on their designs? Or did the builde
sian Gulf region, with which the
in the latter half of the 16th cent
We have noted that early in the 1
for building ships of the jong type
also frequented by western India
tuguese account states, "In Pegu, th
also juncos"i9). A new element is
Bayin-naung [1551-81] of the Toun
had been constructed at royal
encountered late in 1581 by a Po
tuguese noted with amazement th
seemed that it was a ship from Por
the same account, we are told that
and made in the manner of tho
presence in Burma of a large num
some with expertise in shipbuilding
several Portuguese on board, if o
The diffusion of Portuguese-style
been noted elsewhere too. As earl
chant based at Chittagong, had a ga
nossa usan a")-much to the annoy
in the case of 16th century Aceh,
which the merchants of the Sumat
until inspected closely-hard to dist
these the only cases: in 1612, John
made "Chnristian-like, with topps

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Is there evidence to show that N

superficially-on the large Portug
and a foremast (in addition to the
for goods, as occurred with the naus
while meagre, suggests a complex
consequently Masulipatnam) seem
Nicolau Pereira (in 1582) as a cham
in the sense of having multiple m
without the layers of holds characte
vessel built at Narsapur in the pe
highly fragmentary A reference fr
on the Red Sea run was captured b
tion as a "nao mourisca estroncad
Pereira to describe the large dhow
Some modifications must have been
carried cannon on board-even if i
effect. Some years later, in 1640,
Masulipatnam ship, this time on t
to have been rigged at least far mor
board it only recognised it as "Mo
in 1652, when Tavernier describes
further modifications seem to have
the ship could no longer be describe
as "estroncada"27). It is noticeable
at Narsapur in the late 1620s, 163
Indian Ocean, required Europeans
I may conclude then with a brie
tradition of building large ships in
at Narsapur in the late 16th and 17t
tions. Evidence is by no means conc
ping at Narsapur probably derive
dhow of the western Indian Ocean,
of the private Portuguese presenc
iron. In the period 1620 to 1670,
"European " traits-multiple deck
ging as well. It is in the light of th
ambience of the trade routes from
we may consider Tavernier's remark
the least knowledge of navigation--h
truth, more probably, was that rap
a "syncretic" centre such as Narsa
this case were the increasing use o
built, Ironically enough, in respo
In the two centuries preceding 1
termed by P -Y Manguln mn his
the maritime historian. In the 16th
and what is visible is a syncretic tr

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what Manguin himself has hypothe

ween 1200 and 170029). The circums
from the other, but both go som
Asian societies of the early modern

Sanjay SUBRA
Delhi School of Economics

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Pierre-Yves Manguln and Lotika Varadarajan

of whom are responsible for the views expressed here.
1) Pierre-Yves Manguin, "Late Medieval Asian shipbuilding in the Indian Oc
Reappraisal", Moyen Orient et Ocian Indien, Vol. II, (2), 1985, pp. 1-30, especiall
2) W H. Moreland, "The Ships of the Arabian Sea about 1500 A.D ", Journal
Royal Aszatic Society, 1939, pp. 63-74, 173-192.
3) Simon Digby, "The Maritime Trade of India, c. 1200 to 1500", In T Raych
and I. Habib, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume I, Cambridge
125-159, especially pp. 127-35; Archibald Lewis, "Maritime Skills in the India
1368-1500", Journal of the Economic and Soctal History of the Orient, Vol. XVI, 1973, p
esp. pp. 247-49; also Ashln Das Gupta, "Asian Shipping: A Note", Indian Ocean Ne
Vol. VII, (1), 1986, pp. 12-13.
4) See Pierre-Yves Manguin, "The Southeast Asian Ship: An Historical Appro
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. VI, 1980, pp. 266-76.
5) For the clearest comparison, see Jos6 Wicki, ed., "Lista de moedas, pesos, e
ca?bes do Oriente, composta por Nicolau Pereira S. J por 1582", Studia, No. 33,
1971, pp. 137-48, especially pp. 145-48.
6) Digby, "The Maritime Trade", op. cit., pp. 127-33; Lewis, "Maritime Skill
cit., p. 249
7) Digby, ibid., cites Duarte Barbosa on Bengal; on Pegu, also see note 19 below
for evidence of shipping from the dhow-family (ie. naus mouriscas) in 16th centur
port immediately to the south of Coromandel-see Jean Deloche, "Le Bateau d
putalmarutur (Sud de l'Inde)", Bulletin de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extrime-Orient, Tom
1983, pp. 1-11.
8) On Coromandel's trade in the early 16th century, see Sanjay Subrahmanya
Coromandel-Melaka Trade in the 16th Century- A Study of Its Evolving Structure
Orient et Ocian Indien, Vol. III, 1986, pp. 55-80.
9) Manguin, "Late Medieval Asian Shipbuilding", op. cit., pp. 13-14.
10) A reference from about 1520 to Kunjimedu (south of Pulicat) suggests that i
least a minor shipbuilding centre. Gaspar Correia notes that in "Canhuneyra", th
"grandes mercadores, e muytas naos que tratavato pera' outra costa de Pegu, M
Bengala. E avia no lugar muyto ferro e barato..." See Correla, Lendas da India
Lopes de Almeida, reprint Porto 1975, Volume II, pp. 567-68. Tarangambadi, on t
hand, is the source of a rare text on ship-construction dating from the seventeenth
on this, see N. K. Panikkar and T M. Srinivasan, "Kappal Sattiram: A Tamil Tre
Shipbuilding during the Seventeenth Century", Indian Journal of History of Science, V
1972, pp. 16-26. For the Coromandel traditions of building small (and especially
craft, also see Jean Deloche, La Circulation en Inde avant la rivolution des transports, T
(La Voie d'Eau), Paris 1980, pp. 181-88.
11) Ahsan Jan Qaisar, "Shipbuilding in the Mughal Empire during the seventeen
tury", The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. V, (2), pp. 149-17
Raychaudhuri, Jan Company in Coromandel, 1605-1690, The Hague 1962, p. 11, pas

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12) Daniel Havart, Op- en Ondergang v

III, pp. 19-20.
13) A. J. Qaisar, The Indian Response t
Delhi 1984, p. 26.
14) "Methwold's Relation", in W H. Mo
Century, London 1931, p. 36; also see
15) On Mir Muhammad Sayyid's ships,
Century Northern Coromandel, Ph. D
pp. 30-35; also Sanjay Subrahmanyam
of Masulipatnam Shipping in the West
Special No., forthcoming.
16) See Thomas Bowrey, A Geographical A
1679, ed. R. C. Temple, Cambridge 1
17) Cf. Qaisar, The Indian Response
Ondergang, op. cit. Vol. III.
18) Wicki, ed., "Lista de moedas", o
Ship", op. cit., p. 268.
19) Wicki, "Lista", ibid., p. 146, "Em
20) Diogo do Couto, Da Asia, D6cada
21) Cf. Joao de Barros, Da Asia, Decada Quarta, Parte II, reprint Lisbon 1974, pp.
22) W Foster, ed., The Journal ofJohnJourdain, 1608-1617, London 1905, p. 198; also C.
R. Boxer, "A Note on the Portuguese Reactions to the Revival of the Red Sea Spice Trade
and the Rise of Atjeh, 1540-1600", Journal of Southeast Asian History, Volume X, (3), 1969,
pp. 415-28, especially pp. 427-28.
23) For a clear description of the structure of decks in the naus da Carreira c. 1600, see Luiz
de Figuelredo FalcSio, Lzvro em que se contem toda afazenda e real patrzmdnzo ... de Portugal, Lisbon
1859, pp. 200-200A.
24) Wicki, ed., "Listas de moedas", op. cit., pp. 146-47
25) Letter from the Governor Fern~io de Albuquerque to King Philip of Portugal, dated
8th February 1622, in A. da Silva Rego, ed., Documentos Remetidos da India, Vol. VII, Lisbon
1975, pp. 422-23.
26) Arquivo Histdrico Ultramarino, Lisbon, Caixas da India, No. 20, Document 131, Livro
III, fl. 2v "... [E] chegando mais perto reconheceo ser de mouros"
27) Travels in India ofJean-Baptzste Tavernzer, Baron of Aubonne, ed. V Ball and W Crooke,
London 1925, Vol. I, pp. 422-23.
28) Tavernier, Ibid., paraphrased and commented upon in K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and
Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, Cambridge 1985, pp. 138-39
29) Manguin, "Late Medieval Asian Shipbuilding", op. cit., pp. 16-18.


It has often been assumed that the social structure in ancie

divided and compartmentalized in accordance with the four-f
with very little scope for mobility This picture, based solely on
Dharmaadstras, fails to take Into account the dichotomy and at
tion that existed between the ritual status and actual status, and the constant
attempts of the law-makers to reconcile the two. This is nowhere clearer than in
the theory of the mixed-castes propounded by the Dharmaadstras and the gradual

Journal of the Economzc and Social History of the Orzent, Vol. XXXI

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