Connected Histories

Ibn Battuta Describes Chinese Ships on the Indian Coast

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The hajj became a thirty-year journey of 75,000 miles for a fourteenth-century Moroccan Muslim, Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304–69 CE). Born in Tangier, Morocco, and trained  in Islamic law, he set out on the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325. He would not complete his travels—which would include a diplomatic mission that took him from India to China—until 1354. This excerpt from the multivolume Travels of Ibn Battuta describes the pilgrim’s journey to India’s Malabar Coast, on the Arabian Sea. He had been serving at the court of the Delhi sultanate when ruler Muhammad bin Tughluq decided to dispatch him as an ambassador to China. Ibn Battuta describes culturally rich seaports on the Indian coast where merchants and other residents mingled and prospered, even though they were of diverse faiths and ethnicities. Also notable are his descriptions of the great Chinese trading vessels and the vast wealth of merchant entrepreneurs. Ibn Battuta is one of the explorers and adventurers featured in Stewart Gordon’s When Asia Was the World, a title on the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf.


We travelled to the town of Qāliqū [Calicut], which is one of the chief ports in Mulaibār. It is visited by men from China, Jāwa, Ceylon, the Maldives, al-Yaman [Yemen] and Fārs [Persia], and in it gather merchants from all quarters. Its harbour is one of the largest in the world…. We entered the harbour in great pomp, the like of which I have never seen in those lands….. Every one of us was lodged in a house, and we stayed there three months… awaiting the season of the voyage to China. On the sea of China travelling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements….
The Chinese vessels are of three kinds: large ships called junks, middle-sized ones called zaws, and small ones called kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited like mats…. A ship carries a complement of a thousand men, six hundred of whom are sailors and four hundred men-at-arms, including archers, men with shields and arbalists, that is, men who throw naphtha [a flammable liquid]. ….
In the vessel they build four decks, and it has cabins, suites and salons for merchants; a set of rooms has several rooms and a latrine; it can be locked by its occupant, and he can take along with him slave-girls and wives. Often a man will live in his suite unknown to any of the others on board until they meet on reaching some town. The sailors have their children living on board ship, and they cultivate green stuffs, vegetables and ginger in wooden tanks. The owner’s factor [representative] on board ship is like a great amir. When he goes on shore he is preceded by archers and Abyssinians with javelins, swords, drums, bugles and trumpets. On reaching the house where he is to stay they stand their lances on both sides of the door, and continue thus during his stay. Some of the Chinese own large numbers of ships on which their factors are sent to foreign countries. There is no people in the world wealthier than the Chinese….
When the time came for the voyage to China, the Sultan al-Sāmarī equipped for us one of the thirteen junks in the port of Qāliqū. That night the sea struck the junk… and all on board died. In the morning, we went to the scene of their disaster; I saw the infidel, the Sultan of Qāliqū, wearing a large white cloth round his waist, folded over from his navel down to his knee, and with it a small turban on his head, bare-footed, with the parasol carried by a slave over his head and a fire lit in front of him on the beach; his police officers were beating the people to prevent them from plundering what the sea cast up. In all the lands of Mulaibār, except in this one land alone, it is the custom that whenever a ship is wrecked all that is taken from it belongs to the treasury. At Qāliqū, however, it is retained by its owners, and for that reason Qāliqū has become a flourishing and much frequented city….
[The junk having been wrecked,] I set out therefore by the river, and hired one of the Muslims to carry the carpet for me. Their custom when travelling on that river is to disembark in the evening and pass the night in the villages on its banks, returning to the boat in the morning. We used to do this too. There was no Muslim on the boat except the man I had hired, and he used to drink wine with the infidels when we went ashore and annoy me with his brawling, which made things all the worse for me. On the fifth day of our journey we came to Kunjī-Karī, which is on top of a hill there; it is inhabited by Jews, who have one of their own number as their governor, and pay a poll-tax to the Sultan of Kawlam....
On the tenth day we reached the city of Kawlam [Quilon], one of the finest towns in the Mulaibār lands. It has fine bazaars, and its merchants are called ūlīs [Chulia, South Indian Muslim traders]. They are immensely wealthy; a single merchant will buy a vessel with all that is in it and load it with goods from his own house. There is a colony of Muslim merchants there, the chief of whom is ‘Alā’ al-Dīn al-Āwajī, from Āwa in al-‘Iraq…. The cathedral mosque is a magnificent building, constructed by the merchant Khwāja Muhadhdhab. This city is the nearest of the Mulaibār towns to China and it is to it that most of the merchants [from China] come. Muslims are honoured and respected there.


Ibn Battuta, Abu Abdullah Muhammad (H. A. R. Gibb translator). The Travels of Ibn Battuta A.D 1325–1354 (vol. 4, pp. 812–817). London, England: Hakluyt Society, 1994. Image: “Print of a 14th-century Yuan Dynasty Junk,” Wikimedia commons at

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #84: Ibn Battuta Describes Chinese Ships on the Indian Coast", January 18, 2018


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