Orientation, navigation and seafaring in Malay Islamic Historiography from the 14th to 19th centuries

Publication type Article
Status Published
Occupation: Professor
Affiliation: University Technology Malaysia,
Address: Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Journal nameVostok. Afro-Aziatskie obshchestva: istoriia i sovremennost
EditionIssue 6

Southeast Asia with the Malay world being a part of it, is one of the most

important center of human civilization, known by many names: Yavadvipa, Malayadvipa,

Suvarnadvipa, Suvarnabhumi from Indian Ramayana and Jataka text; Jabadiu, Chryse, Argyre,

Golden Khersonese, in Ancient Greek and Latin tradition; Ch’ih-t’u, Shih-li-fo-shi, Tun-Sun, Ko-

Lo etc, in early Chinese historical sources. The Nusantara, being composed of an archipelago and

a long, relatively narrow peninsula with many navigable rivers, was provided with thousands of

miles of coast line, which made it one of the ancient world’s ideal locations for local and long-

distance trading. The involvement of Malays in the world trading system would be impossible

without the existence of some well-developed tradition of seafaring, navigation, shipping and

boat-building. The spread of Islam led to the fundamental changes not only in religious, but also

in the economic life of the population of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago. Gradually the

Malays became a part of the world system of free trade and international seafaring developed

within the framework of Islamic civilization. A significant amount of information regarding

seafaring, ships, navigators and navigation may be found in Malay Islamic historical texts, including

mentioning regarding toponyms, natural subjects, weather, monsoons, references to the special

fields of knowledge related to the seafaring and navigation, travels and travelers etc. This essay

explores this information to show that navigation and seafaring was a very important part of the

Malay Muslim tradition from very early time until now.


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KeywordsMalay world, Malay Muslim historiography, seafaring, navigation, monsoons, toponyms, malims.
Publication date11.12.2020
Number of characters36773
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1 Southeast Asia with the Malay world being a part of it is one of the most important centers of human civilization. This region was known since very early times and was mentioned in different ancient historical sources with various place-names: Yavadvipa, Malayadvipa, Suvarnadvipa, Suvarnabhumi from Indian Ramayana and Jataka text; Jabadiu, Chryse, Argyre, Golden Khersonese, in Ancient Greek and Latin tradition; Ch’ih-t’u, Shih-li-fo-shi, Tun-Sun, Ko-Lo etc, in early Chinese historical sources.1] According to R. Braddell commercial and cultural links between Nusantara and Mesopotamia existed from 1400 BC. [Braddell, Douglas, 1980, p. 324]. The geographic position of the Malay Archipelago was fundamental in its development. Located on the convergence of two major sea routes, it was linked to the great markets of India and China by the annual monsoon wind systems [Andaya, B.W., Andaya L.Y., 2001, p.11 - 12]. D.G.E. Hall mentioned that “the people of this culture develop high skill in navigation and boat-building; they are hardy seafarers with some knowledge of astronomy. They travel far and wide as merchants, and it is interesting to note that some of their trade names for weights and measures (like tahil and kati) are still used in India and China [Hall, D.G.E. 1995, p.8]. Fig. 1 1. More regarding ancient toponyms from different historical sources see: [Wheatley, 2010
2 Prof. Kenneth R. Hall wrote about the Malay sailors as follows: “They sailed thousands of kilometers from their homes, navigating by means of swell and wave patterns, cloud formations, winds, birds and sea life. This sophisticated and complex knowledge was passed orally from generation to generation. They measured their peoples by ‘boatloads’, and on the slightest pretext boatloads would leave islands where they were already concentrated and sail off to set up new communities on uninhabited islands, so that these ‘Malayo-Polynesian peoples eventually stretched halfway around the globe, from Madagascar on the East African coast to Eastern Islands in the Pacific. … They were prime movers in the link created between larger centers, as well as potential impediments to those links once they were created. Exactly WHEN this far-reaching maritime activity began is unknown, but ‘Malay” (Kunlun) sailors were known in China by the third century BC, and there is evidence that they were settling along the East African coast by the first century BC. By the time of the Roman Empire, there were permanent communities of Malay-Polynesian speaking peoples on the coast of Malagasy, where they remain to this day” [Hall, K.R., 1994, pp. 185 - 186].
3 This detailed description of the Malay sailors affirms their role in the early history of seafaring and navigation. According to Chinese records some of these old Malay ships Kun-lun-po/bo was very big: around 50 meter long. They could carry from 250 to 1000 tons of kargo. It could be on board up to 500 sailors and up to 1,000 passengers. Fig.2
4 The spread of Islam in the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago radically changed the economy and political life of the Malays. Among the elements of these crucial transformations2 should be mentioned the appearance of new economic realities, i.e. free trade and new trade rules, equal for all segments of society; new system of loans and trade receivables; new system of taxation; new forms of investments etc. The development of free trade spurred the growth of art and craft. It inevitably led to the emergence of new non-agrarian population and increased the level of urbanization of the Malay society. Urban development, in turn, contributed to the socio-political, cultural and economic progress of the local community. Gradually the Malays became a part of the common Islamic civilization. Fig. 4.


2. Regarding the contribution of Islam into the socio-economical development of the Malay – Indonesian Archipelago see also: [Richards, 1970]; [Denisova, 2011].
5 A significant amount of information regarding seafaring, ships and navigation may be found in Malay Islamic historical texts (Hikayat Raja Pasai3, Sejarah Melayu4, Undang-undang Laut5, Hikayat Aceh6, Taj as-Salatin7, Bustan as-Salatin8, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain9, Hikayat Bayan Budiman10, Peringatan Sejarah Negeri Johor11, Hikayat Siak12, Tuhfat al-Nafis13). These old texts contained information on the various aspects of life of the Malay community, including seafaring and navigation. It should be emphasized that these texts are not some kitabs devoted directly on navigation and seafaring. They reflect the general public level of knowledge in this field, rather than some special works of professionals: captains or navigators. 3. Hikayat Raja Pasai (HRP, 13th – 14th century). [Jones, 1999].

4. Sejarah Melayu (SM, 16th century). [Salleh, 1997].

5. Undang-undang Laut (Maritime laws of Malacca, UUL, 15th c.). [Liaw Yock Fang, 2003].

6. Hikayat Aceh (HA, 17th c.). [Iskandar, 2001].

7. Taj al-Salatin (The Crown of Kings, TS, 17th c.). [Roorda, 1827].

8. Bustan as-salatin (The garden of Kings, BS, 17th c.). [Harun,2004].

9. Hikayat Iskandar Zhulkarnain (HIZ, 18th c.). [Hussain, 1986].

10. Hikayat Bayan Budiman (HBB, 14th century). [Winstedt, 1966].

11. Peringatan Sejarah Negri Johor (Memorials of the history of Johor State, PSNJ, 18th century). [Kratz, 1973].

12. Hikayat Siak (HS, 19th c.). [Hashim, 1992].

13. Tuhfat an-Nafis (The Precious Gift, TN, 1865). [Matheson, 1998].
6 The information regarding seafaring and navigation may be classified under the following headings:
  • toponyms (names of places) and geographical objects (seas, gulfs, bays, straits, rivers, lakes, etc.)
  • weather and natural phenomena (winds, monsoons, storms, typhoons, calm etc.)
  • the time of travel
  • special fields of knowledge (ilmu nujum, ilmu falaq etc.)
  • travelers and navigators
  • stories about episodes, incidences and other events that happened during the travel

Toponyms and geographical objects:

8 All old Malay texts are full with toponyms and the information of different geographical objects. Names of places in old Malay chronicles are often mentioned in context of travel description. Based on textual analysis we can divide it into following groups:
  • local toponyms (Aceh, Fansur, Jawa, Johor, Lamri, Lingga, Melaka, Pasai, etc )
  • neighboring toponyms (Campa, China, Keling, Kemboja, Siam etc.)
  • alien (outlandish) toponyms (Badar, Belanda, Darab, Farsi, Hindustan, Inggeris, Irak, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kaaba, Kabul Kandagar, Khurasan, Ma’abri, Madinah, Mawar al-Nahr, Mekkah, Mesir, Mokha, Musykat, Peransis, Peringgi, Portugal, Semerkendi, Turkistan, Yaman etc.)
Majority of these toponyms was well-known entrepots of international trade net system from 13th to 19th cc. They are referred to in the texts as the start, intermediate and end points of navigation:
Malay text Paraphrase
“Beberapa lamanya dia di laut, maka sampailah ia ke Jambi, setelah itu lalu ia mudik ke hulu Jambi; setelah sampai ia ke hulu Jambi, lalu ia naik ke darat Periangan”. [Jones, 1999, p. 67] He arrived at Jambi after sailing for a long time, and then from the upstream of Jambi he went to ashore of Periangan.
“Maka Maha Indera Bahupala pun berlayarlah dari Benua Keling. Berapa lamanya di jalan maka sampailah ia ke Singapura[Salleh, 1997, p. 35] Maha Indera Bahupala arrived at Singapura after sailing from Benua Keling for a very long time.

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