On the 11th of July 1881, Prince George of Wales, his elder brother and their tutor were sailing off the coast of Australia. Their voyage was allegedly interrupted by a strange red glow floating across the water; a glow that was attributed to the Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship that was doomed to sail the oceans for eternity.
The nautical myth is neither the first nor the last tale to take inspiration from the sea. Scholars, writers, poets, and artists have long had a fascination with maritime life. Promises of treasures to be discovered, underwater cities buried and forgotten, and sirens bringing unwitting soldiers to their demise have imbued folkloric tales from the four corners of the globe. Religious scriptures laud and warn of the sea’s prophetic, liberatory, or dangerous (s)traits.
With every story penned, myth heard, and religious text read, the sea becomes vaster and more amorphous. Yet the bodies of water that cover nearly 70% of the Earth’s surface are also a tangible source of living for fishermen and a preferred mode of transport for merchants, whose trade routes have been key mediators of political and diplomatic ties.
The Sea in Islamic History
Islam is a religion often associated with the land, given it was founded in two notable desert cities: Mecca and Madina–that is until the new theories about other potential location for Mecca are confirmed. Its role in transforming the desert routes was essential, but the role of Muslim warriors, preachers, and merchants who took to the Mediterranean, Red Sea, African Atlantic and Indian Ocean were also key in spreading the religion.
The Qur’an includes several passages that refer to voyages across the sea, as well as stories of prophets that revolved around waves: from Noah and his ark, to Jonah, a prophet and preacher of the message of God who fled from his mission to the sea, only to be swallowed by a whale.
The advent of Islam and Arabs’ vibrant sea trade was a threat to the Byzantine Empire, a power struggle that unfolded as a series of naval battles. During the Medieval Ages, the Islamic Caliphal capital shifted towards the rich waters of Baghdad, whereby two notable Muslim voyagers emerged: the legendary Sinbad and Ibn Battuta. Sinbad, a sailor from Basra, is forever immortalized in the fantastical tale One Thousand and One Nights, even if possibly a later addition, the story crossed many tongues, and inhabited sea routes, claiming Indian origin.
As famous as Sinbad are the tales of Ibn Battuta, an adventurer and traveling scholar from Tangiers who crossed more than 70,000 miles in his lifetime. Though he journeyed on land to the Irano-Semitic regions of Islam, his ventures in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean occupy a large part of his tales.
Oman in East Africa
The sea has long been a maker of ties, namely economic ties and trade relationships that have brought nations together. It has also been a site of struggle for empires fighting for power. And this is true of the history of Oman, one of the most interesting countries on the Arabian Sea, that transformed into a powerful raiding naval power and center of wealth.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese were colonial rulers of the East African coast, following a “scramble” for Africa that divided the continent among European powers.
The Portuguese influence was on the decline by the 1580s with pockets of Swahili resistance threatening European colonial power. Pate, a center for Arab and Indian shipping, emerged as the main challenger to Portuguese rule. Its insurrection was synchronous with Omani expeditions into East African waters, forging a strong trade relationship the Gulf Sultanate and several Swahili states.
By the early 18th century, the Portuguese were largely expelled from East Africa and an Omani dynasty, allied with Swahili merchants, began establishing its rule. Under Muscat’s rule, the East African coast experienced somewhat of an economic “renaissance", with new trade routes bringing ivory and slaves from the interior to the coast.
The Peacock Travels East
Oman’s trade relations extended past the Arabian and Red Seas’ waters. A museum in Salem, Massachusetts holds letters exchanged between American sailors and the Sultan of Oman in 1835, reflecting an important correspondence that established trade relations between both nations.
In 1832, the USS Peacock- a warship-turned-exploration fleet- set sail from Boston for its voyage around the world. Over the course of 370 days and 38,230 miles, the Peacock sailed the seas with the aim of extending America’s diplomacy to the various countries at whose ports it docked.
President Andrew Jackson appointed Edmund Roberts as his agent aboard the ship under the title of Captain’s Clerk. Roberts’ mission was to extend commerce of the United States in the hopes of establishing trade treatises that allowed the US free liberty to buy and sell, as well as pay duties to the ruling power that were equal to what other nations paid.
Roberts was successful in establishing a treaty between the United States and Said Ibn Sultan, the Sultan of Muscat and Zanzibar in 1833.
The agreement stipulated perpetual peace between both nations, free liberty for the US to enter all the Sultan’s ports, and mutual most favored nation trade status. The following year, Edmund Roberts sent a letter back to Washington D.C. confirming the singing of the treaty and highlighting the many possessions the Sultan held, from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.
The Peacock Journeys Home
The treaty signed and trade relations established, Edmund Roberts and the Peacock’s crew were ready, in 1835, to set sail back to America. Their plans were soon to be thrown off course, as in September of the same year, a disaster befell the ship. It became stranded near Masirah Island off the coast of Oman and after failed attempts to heave the vessel into water, Edmunds and a team of seven headed to Muscat.
In a letter to John Forsyth, Secretary of State at the time, Roberts detailed his perilous journey to Muscat. He wrote of a pirate ship that followed them in the night, of the difficult waters they faced, and of a journey that lasted a total of 101 hours.
Arriving in Muscat, the Sultan of Oman ordered the Sultana ship, accompanied by four armed dhows for protection, to head towards the stranded Peacock and assist it with armament, cables, and provisions. In his letter, Roberts highlights the benevolence and hospitality of the Omani Sultan, forging an unlikely friendship brought together by economics, trade, an unfortunate incident, and - most importantly- the sea.
The sea has long been a fascinating place, full of intrigue and tales untold. Besides stirring the imaginations of writers and poets, the waters played a crucial role in establishing trade routes, political ties, and unlikely friendships in the Islamic world and beyond.
Sources:The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC) in Washington, D.C.; Sheriff, Abdul. Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar (1987); Fromherz, Allen. “Islam and the Sea”. Oxford Islamic Studies Online; Gilbert, Erik (2002). “Coastal East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean: Long-Distance Trade, Empire, Migration, and Regional Unity, 1750-1970"; www.indianoceanhistory.org