The factual evidence of the origin of one of Ceylon’s minority communities, The Ceylon Moors, is very little known. It has been suggested that the expression came into being in much the same manner that the early European historians and writers applied the name, Gentoo, meaning Gentile, to all the inhabitants of Southern India without distinction.
In its present form, the word “Moor” is traced through the Spanish Moro and the Portuguese Mouro, either to the Mauri, the ancient inhabitants of Mauretari, now known as Morocco, or as Tennent, the famous historian of Ceylon suggests, to Maghrib (Morocco).
The Ceylon Moors do not lay any claim to, possible, African origin, just as much as they, rightfully, resent the suggestion that they are of Dravidian (Tamil) extract. It is not that they feel any discredit or insult attached to being classified as Tamils, but being of Arab descent, they take a natural pride in tracing their ancestry to a race of people who were, in their day, the pioneers of civilization in the East. More than this, it must be remembered that the Moors of Ceylon are Muslims without exception and being attached to the race to whom Islam was first revealed is certainly a status of great pride and distinction.
The beginnings of Arab settlement in Ceylon appear to be shrouded in oblivion. With the exception of the fragmentary relics of the distant past scattered over a period of many centuries, the story of the present day Moors, who are the descendants off these settlers, has remained unrecorded.
However meager the material available, there is sufficient evidence to show, to the unprejudiced mind, that the Ceylon Moors had their origin from among the Arab traders and settlers of old who traveled across the seas in search of trade and barter during the earliest times of the history of Ceylon.
It has been recorded that the early Arab traders, who visited Ceylon, settled in the coastal belt of Ceylon concentrating mainly in the South Western towns of Puttalam, Beruwela and the Southern ports of Galle, Matara, and even Hambantota.
Although Nevill gives the date of the domination of Kalah (the Southern port of Galle) by the Maharajahs of Zabedj as 100 B.C. O 700 A.D. he adds:
“The truth, however, is that there were Arabs in Ceylon ages before the earliest date in these conjectures.”
The “conjectures” occur in a foot note on page 607 of Tennent’s History of Ceylon and read as follows”
“Mounstuart Elphinstone, on the authority of Agatha cides (as quoted by Diodorus and Photius) says, that from all that appears in that author, we should conclude that two centuries before the Christian Era the trade between India and the ports of Sabaea was entirely in the hands of Arabs.”
Nevill goes on to say:
“The whole north-west coast and Jaffna has from the most ancient times been peopled by the Tamils and the Moors, thus accounting for the districts being under the Maharajahs of Zabedj, who extended their empire and ruled the Malay Islands, Kalah and Travancore.”
This establishes beyond doubt the connections of Arabia with Ceylon over two thousand years ago.
Sulaiman, an Arab trader and explorer, recounts his visit to Ceylon in 850 A.D. and mentions a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak. One cannot think of an Arabian, ignorant of the language of the indigenous inhabitants of a country, unlike its people in every respect in regard to habits, customs, diet and observances, undertaking a long and perilous journey into the heart of an unknown country. This surely suggests that the Arabs had been in the country some time already, that they were known to the original inhabitants of Ceylon and wielded influence and were therefore permitted to travel far into the interior in safety and comfort.
Fifty years later, in the year 900 A.D. we hear of another Arab, named Abou Zaid, who supports the stories of Cosmas and Sulaiman and describes the still flourishing port of Kalah (Galle). Zaid’s narrations are based on the experiences of other travelers, one of whom was Ibn Wahab who included “Serendib” in his travels. Wahab like his predecessors made careful observations and collected much information regarding ancient Lanka for he is able to tell us that the Maya Rata or “Pepper Country”, one of the three oldest divisions of Ceylon, was situated between Kalah (Galle) on the coast and the Ruhuna Rata in the South East.
With no devastating wars, no politics and no intrigues, the Moors were able to concentrate their attentions on the accumulation of wealth alone. Meanwhile, the Tamils of the North made an occasional invasion into the territory of the Sinhalese Kings, only to be massacred and driven back later. This state of affairs continued, till in the Thirteenth Century, the Moors were in the zenith of their power. Trade had expanded on every hand and business flourished. Their influence increased proportionately and their Buddhist neighbours were beginning to receive them with cordiality and recognise the avowal and free performance of their religious rites.
The thriftless Sinhalese petty-trader and the improvident garden cultivator were disposed to overlook the Moorman’s sharp, bargain-making proclivities so long as the former realized that there was something to be gained by such forbearance on their part. For one thing, there was always the possibility of obtaining ready money from the Mussalman in an awkward and trying moment; the one against his crop of arecanuts or cinnamon the other in the form of a loan-of course at remunerative interest-when his rice-crop failed. As for the wealthier classes of Sinhalese feudal chiefs of the interior, they were satisfied to receive their supplies of salt from the coast and such luxuries articles of daily use which the Moors imported from abroad.
It was beneficial for both parties to live in peace, and this form of relationship was permitted to continue inndefinitely, since there was no clash of interests, the Sinhalese never having been a sea-faring race. The activities of the latter were confined to the mountain fastnesses, where they hatched their plots and schemed their intrigues. It was the northerners whom the Sinhalese had to prepare against, in the event of an inroad into their preserves in the North-Central Province, whilst the Moor made his profits and battened on the produce of the land.
The Moors of the Fourteenth Century, like their descendants of the present day, never missed the opportunity of driving a shrewd bargain. Where a Sinhalese country yokel still turned over a proposition in his mind, the Moorman saw at a glance, with the traditional instinct of his race, the business possibilities of an offer of any kind. The following historical incident which is related by Johnstone, besides illustrating this trait in their national character, throws some light on an obscure point in regard to the history of that community of the Sinhalese people who belong to the Salagama caste.
Up to the Fourteenth Century, the Sinhalese were not familiar with the art of spinning and the weaving of cloth. Of course, there were the primitive hand-loom and distaff, but the best articles produced locally were inferior in quality and coarse in texture, as insufficient to meet the wants of the whole population. Accordingly, they had to depend on India for their clothing.
Whilst things were in this state, a certain Sinhalese King issued proclamations offering handsome rewards to any person who would go over to India and bring some skilled artisans for the purpose of introducing the art of the manufacture of cloth in to Ceylon. About this time, a Moorman of Beruwella, in the Kalutara District-to the strong hold of the Moors and the Salagama people, respectively,-induced by the tempting offers made the voyage across Palk’s Strait and brought with him a bath of eight weavers of the Salagama caste, from a place call Saliapatanam.
There is a tradition that the eight persons referred to were drugged and bound and taken on board and that they only realised that were being transported to a foreign country when they had been many miles out at sea. It is stated that two of the victims rather than being the subjects of such deception, jumped overboard and were never heard of again.
According to others, these founders of the cloth-making industry in Ceylon were inveigled to the ship on the pretext that there was to have been an excellent opportunity of making a fortune by taking part in a particular game of chance which had been arranged, and that the vessel noiselessly slipped its moorings and sailed away whilst play was in progress.
However the case many have been, the weavers were accorded a cordial welcome upon their arrival in Ceylon. In due course they were presented to the King who treated them with every kindness in order to induce them to commence practising their craft locally. They were at the instance of the Court, married to women of distinction and given houses and lands. A manufactory was established for them in the vicinity of the Royal Palace and the highest honours were conferred on their chief. Amongst other things they were allowed the privilege of travelling in palanquins and were permitted to wear a gold chain on certain occasion.
By such methods as this, the Moors ingratiated themselves into Royal favour. This obtained for them a larger measure of indulgence which they in turn utilized in exercising their power to the fullest within their territory along the sea coast.
Prominent among the Moors of that period was Ibrahim, “the ship captain,” who entertained Batuta and his party at his mansion at Galle. The same historian in his referrence to Colombo, which he describes as “one of the largest and finest cities of Serendib” mentions “the Vizier, prince of the sea, named Djalesty” who had about five hundred Abyssinians.”
According to local legend, Djalesty was a petty sultan and had a band of powerful Moors and Africans who were alike valiant tighters on land with the scimitar, as they were pirates and plunderers, familiar with every creek and jungle fastness along the coast of Colombo. It is said that he lived in state, with all the pomp of a minor ruling potentate on an elevated headland overlooking the sea. A place called Rasamunakanda, in Mattkkuliya, in the north of Colombo is pointed out as the spot where he had his little fortress concealed behind the huge trees of the neighbouring hills. From this coign of vantage, the arch-pirate could spy an approaching merchant ship and his band of brigands always would be ready to swoop down in their small craft under cover of darkness and plunder the unsuspecting stranger.
It would appear that Djalesty is the individual referred to by John de Marignolli who was driven to Ceylon by adverse winds in the May of 1350 A.D. Marignolli, however, gives him another name. He states that he met a certain tyrant name Koya Jaan, “a enuch who had the mastery in opposition of the greater part of the kingdom. Marignolli must have been a Roman Catholic. His bitterness against the “accused Saracen” is easily explained, for he makes no secret of it that this sultan “in the politest manner” robbed him of the valuable gifts which he was taking to Europe, to the Pope.
When the early merchant sailors returned home to Arabia with ship-loads of rich merchandise, they undoubtedly spread the news of the productiveness of Ceylon and its natural beauties. The accounts of its wealth and the prospect of amassing fortunes attracted other adventurous spirits and yet other merchants followed in the trail of their sea-faring predecessors. In this manner many of their countrymen came to Ceylon, until in the course of time there was a small colony of Arabs in this country. Amongst those who made Ceylon their home was Hashim and his family who are mentioned by Denham in his census of Ceylon. Hashim arrived some time in the seventh or the ninth century according to this authority. It is said that Hashim was accompanied by his family and although the case is an isolated one, it is proof of the fact that there have been Arab women too in Ceylon at one period.
Denham’s story of this foundation of an Arab colony in Ceylon is supported by Johnstone who states that the Moors first permanently settled in the island in the Eighth Century, that they were of the house of Hashim and that they were driven from Arabia by the tyranny of the Caliph, Abdul Melak Ben Merwen.
The inauguration of a colony in this manner is not without parallel in history. There is a striking similarity between this incident and that of the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers inn America by the “Mayflower” in December. 1620. Like Hashim the heroes of the “Mayflower” left their home country for reasons of freedom and liberty; the one owing to religious persecution and the other owing to political intolerence, for we are left to infer that Hashim’s political creed was a danger to the tranquility of his country.
Had circumstances permitted the early Moors to continue indefinitely in the position which they held in Ceylon, it is possible that the subsequent history of this country would have been totally different. However, the appearance of Vasco da Gama in the East changed the trend of events completely. In 1498, the Portuguese navigator struck land at Calicut in South India, and this brings us to modern history. European dreams of colonial expansion had begun to materialise and when it had come to the day of navigators of the type of Columbus, Arab sea-power crumbled and disappeared.
The first Western nation to whom the Arabs had to yield pride of place as sailors was the Portuguese. With Arabia’s decline in naval importance, her foreign trade collapsed, and as a natural sequence the business of the local Moorish merchants suffered. Arab vessels ceased to call as frequently as before. Occasionally a fugitive pirate would show its sails on the dim horizon and disappear again in the distance. Those Arabs who had made Ceylon their home, with their children and grand children found themselves cut off from communication with Arabia, but their descendants have retained the religion and observances of their ancestors to the present day with that inward conservation which is a racial habit.
Under the altered circumstances, the less affluent Moors were driven to the land for a living. Many of them, nevertheless, continued to carry on a trade with South Indian ports in cinnamon and arecanuts. For this purpose they had to rely on the small coasting vessels or Champans (boats) and when opportunity offered, musk, cloth and brass were imported by them from the neighbouring continent. In the course of time, the Moors succeeded in establishing a fair trade with the Portuguese and later with the Dutch in regard to whom the Moor was the middleman. Those of them who had not the necessary capital to engage in export trade with India became pedlars and hawkers whilst a few made large profits through the exploitation of the salt pans on the Western and Southern sea-board. For many years afterwards, almost the entire inland trade in salt had been in the hands of the Moors. Just as their ancestors transported their merchandise overland by camel caravan, the local Moor in those days of difficult communication conveyed their salt from the coast to the Sinhalese Capital and other interior towns by means of the Tavalama or pack-bulls.
The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Aisatic Society, Vol:II, Part II, 1853, describes the Moors of the Chilaw and Puttalam districts as follows:
“They carry on a very extensive trade in rice, salt, indigo, chanks, cheya, etc. and by making advances to the natives for the purpose of repairing their tanks, were the means of keeping the northern part of the island inn a very prosperous condition. They are the most industrious class; they are traders, boutique-keepers, master-fishers, etc. They also deal largely in cattle and are frequent purchasers of Government taxes…They are for the most part confined to the immediate neighborhood of the sea; there are however Moor villages scattered about the interior……”
In reference to the civil rights of the Moors; it would appear that as early as 1804 they had so succeeded in enlisting the sympathy of the Britisher that a resolution was passed on the 5th August, publishing a code of Mohamedan Laws which were observed by the Moors residing in the area known as the Province of Colombo. It will be noticed that whilst the Portuguese and Dutch did everything that was possible to disregard the rights of the subjects of this history and wantonly wound their susceptibilities, the diplomatic Englishman took them under his sheltering protection, with that characteristic solicitude for subject races which distinguishes British rule in the most distant out-posts of Empire. Government’s attitude towards the Moors who were only a minority community even in those days could not have failed to impress the Sinhalese themselves who in thee territory of their own kings were not infrequently made the instruments of arrogant chiefs and intriguing ministers of the Royal Court.
The next outstanding event relative to the Moors of those pioneering days of British colonisation in Ceylon was the incident of 1814. In the November of that year, ten Moorish cloth merchants from the Coast who had gone into the interior for purposes of trade and barter were seized and punished on the orders of the Sinhalese King. They were so horribly mutilated and dismembered, that seven of them died on the spot. The three survivors managed to escape to Colombo, where their blood-curdling tales of the torture inflicted on them provoked the anger of the authorities. The Governor at the time, General Brownigg, considered the treatment meted to the Moors who were British subjects as an acts of aggression, and Major Hook immediately took the field and advanced as far as Hanwella. It is supposed that it was the commencement of hostilities on this occasion really that terminated in the overthrow of the Sinhalese kingdom and the annexation of the Kandyan Country. However, although the brutal massacre of the Moorish merchants is regarded by some as one of the immediate causes of the last Kandyan War, it is well known that there were numerous other contributory factors, the chief of which may be regarded as the long desire of the Britishers to be absolute masters of the whole of Ceylon. The Moors, of course, regarded the injury done to their kinsmen as the primary casus belli, and it is a noteworthy fact that whilst there have been a few petty insurrections on the part of the Sinhalese, since British conquest, the Moors, to the present day have remained loyal to the Union Jack.
It is about this time that Ceylon Moors were for the first time appointed to native ranks. One of the earliest of these was Hadjee off “Velassy” the distinguished, though little known Moor. A more popular individual was Uduman Lebbe Marikar Sheik Abdul Cader, the grandfather of the late I.L.M.Abdul Azeez, who in his day was a prominent member of the Moorish Community. “Sekady Marikar” by which name he was better known was appointed Head Moorman of Colombo by Sir Robert Brownigg, on June 10th, 1818. Several other appointments followed soon afterwards and the Moors were not only made chiefss in different parts of the maritime Provinces, but they were also admitted into the Public Service. The names of some of these with the offices which they held are to be found in the “Ceylon Calendar” of 1824 which was an official publication, published in book form those days. These names are mentioned here as indicating the status of the Moors a hundred years ago.
Head Moorman of Colombo, Uduman Lebbe Marikar Sheik Abdul Cader, Interpreter to the agent at Tamankaduwa, Mr. John Downing; Cader Shahib Marikar, Kariaper, or Head Moorman over the Temple at Welasse, Neina Marikar, Head Marikar of the Moormen in the jurisdiction of Tricomalie; Cader Sahib Marikar, Head Moorman under the collector of Galle; Pakir Mohadien Bawa Saya Lebbe Marikar and Samsi Lebbe Ali Assen, Head Moomen of Gindura; Slema Lebbe Samsy Lebbe, Head Moomman of Matara; Sekadi Marikar Sekadi Lebbe Marikar, Head Moorman of Weligama; Kasi Lebbe Sinne Lebbe Marikar, Head Moorman under the Collectors of Chilaw; Omer Marikar Sego Lebbe Marikar, Head Moorman of Puttalam; Neina Lebbe Bawa Marikar, Head Moorman of Kalpentyn; Sinna Tamby, Clerk and Storekeeper to the Deputy Assitant Commissary pf Hambantota; S.A.L.Munsoor Sahiboo, Storekeeper to the Assistant Commissary at Badulla.
In March, 1825, Sir Edward Barnes, Governor of Ceylon, appointed the first Moorish Notary Public, “Sekady Marikar,” “for the purpose of drawing and attesting deeds to be executed by females of the Mussalman religion.” The fact that there was not a single Moorish lawyer in the island in 1825 and that the community is today represented in all the learned professions and has two elected representatives in the Legislative Council, indicates the advancement of this section of the population during the intervening period of a hundred years. Again, it is worthy of note, that the Moors who had not one among their number in 1825 who was capable of holding a brief before even the Minor Courts of Justice, in the year 1904 weilded such influence as to be able to insist on the rights of their lawyers to appear in their Fez-caps before “My Lords.”
The regime of Sir Wlimot Horton, 1831-1837 which is notable for the establishment of the Legislative Council, the running of the “First Mail Coach in Asia,” the abolition of compulsory labour and the publication of the first news paper in Ceylon, also saw the repeal on June 1st, 1832 of the Dutch Resolution in Council of February 3rd, 1747, by which Moors and Tamils were prohibited from owning property or residing within the Fort and Pettah or Colombo.
Up to this time, according to the old order of things, various section of the public had separate residential areas allotted to them. For example, the Moors were, confined to Moor Street which is designated Moors Quarters in old maps of Colombo, the Colombo Chetties lived in Chetty Streett or Chekku Street, as it was also known, the brassfounders in Brassfounder Street, the barbers in Barber Street and silversmiths in Silversmith Street, whilst the “dhobies” lived in an area called Wahermen’s Quarters.”
The removal of these restrictions led to an influx of Moors into the business quarters of the City. Gradually they began to acquire property in the Pettah of Colombo and in the process of time nearly all the immovable property here, which originally belonged to the descendants of the Dutch passed into the hands of the Moors. It is significant that a large proportion of the shops and other buildings in Petttah today belong to this community, whilst all that remains to the descendants of the Hollanders who excluded the Moors from this area, is their ancient Kerkhof behind “Consistery Buildings.”
Having established themselves in business here, the Moors were now able to carry on a flourishing trade without any hindrance whatever, and strangely enough they count amongst their chief patrons, the Burghers who are the descendants of the Dutch. Although all professions and occupations were thrown open to this hitherto oppressed class of people, true to the instincts inherited from their Arab forefathers the Moors largely engaged in trade and amassed fortunes, whilst education suffered. It was in comparatively recent times that the efforts in this direction of the late Mr. A.M.Wapche Marikar, a building contractor; the Muslim Educational Society and the United Assembly were crowned with success. After more than a generation of patient endeavour, the Moors slowly began to realise the extent of the disadvantage encountered on every hand owning to a lack of modern education. The introduction of up-to-date business methods, strongly contrasted with the primitive systems of exchange and barter and it became necessary to be properly equipped in order to meet the competition from other quarters. Other communities were forgoing ahead in the march of progress and the Moors as a community were badly left behind. These considerations led to a wider interest in education, and the more progressive Moors sent their sons to the best schools at the time. Of these the most popular institution seems to have been Wesley College, due perhaps to the proximity of this institution in those days to Moor Street still the stronghold of the Moors. There had been no Muslim Schools at the time, with the exception of the small classroom attached to most mosques where the Muslim youth is instructed in the Koran and receives an elementary knowledge of the reading and writing of the Muslim Zahira College, at Maradana, although it was proclaimed with much gusto, did not for very many years rise above the level of an elementary school. It is only during the last decade that it has mushroom-like sprung into prominence under the energetic direction and untiring zeal in the cause of enlightenment by its present principal, the Hon. Mr. Jaya B.A.,London.
Of those Moors who engaged in trade, a large majority became shopkeepers. Their chief articles of merchandise were cloth, hardware, crockery, household goods and groceries. A few exported areca nut to South India and still continue to do so, and a fewer still became planters and made large profits in the days of “King Coffer” which preceded the tea-growing industry. Several continued to be dealers in precious stones, having gained distinction in this line since Dutch times when they were credited with an export knowledge of pearls and gems. To the present day the leading firms, which deal in jewellery and precious stones are conducted exclusively by the Moors. One of these had even found it necessary in order to provide a nearer depot for its numerous European patrons.