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Surviving a Medieval Shipwreck

When mariners head out into the ocean, one of their greatest fears is to fall victim to a shipwreck. Countless stories from history tell of how ships have succumbed to the sea, and how dangerous the oceans can be for fishermen and sailors. One of these stories comes from the tenth-century.

Trade between the Middle East and Eastern Asia grew steadily during the eighth and ninth centuries, as maritime routes became more common. Ships from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula would navigate the Indian Ocean as far as China, returning home with cargoes of spices and silks. The voyages of these mariners were recorded in the middle of the tenth-century by a sea captain named Buzurg ibn-Shahriyar. In his work Kitab Aja’ib al-Hind (The Book of Wonders of India) he gives a glimpse of how life was for those who sailed the oceans in the Middle Ages.

In one section Buzurg retells an account given to him by a merchant who survived a shipwreck in the year 919. He was part of a fleet of three ships with 1200 men that were heading to the west coast of India. According the the merchant these were extremely large ships and well run by their crews. It only took them 11 days for them to sail from the Persian Gulf to India, and then they spotted the country’s mountains and landscape.

“We had never heard of this voyage being made with such speed before,” the merchant explains, “so we rejoiced and congratulated each other on our safe crossing, and we began preparations for landing because we presumed we should reach land next morning.”

However, trouble soon emerged:

But then the wind came upon us from the mountains, and we could not handle the sails, and we were caught in the gale and the rain and thunder and lightning. The ship’s officers and sailors proposed to jettison cargo, but Ahmad (the master of the ship) forbade them saying, “I shall not jettison until after things are beyond my control and I know that I shall perish.”

The merchant added that conditions were just as bad on the other two ships, and that his companions were pleading with the Ship Master to throw over the cargo. He still refused, and the situation grew worse over the next few days:

On the sixth day when the ship was almost sinking he gave order to jettison, but it was impossible to throw out anything because the sacks and bales were heavy with rain, so that what had contained a weight of 500 manns now contained 1500 because of the rain. The situation was now urgent; the lifeboat was put on the water and thirty-three men went down into it. Ahmed was pressed to go down into the lifeboat, but he said, “I shall not leave my ship, for there is more hope of it being saved than the lifeboat; and if it goes down, I go down with it, for I have no interest in returning after the loss of my capital.”

The merchant and those on the lifeboat remained in serious danger:

We stayed in the lifeboat five days without food or drink, until we had not the force to speak a word, from hunger and thirst and our sufferings on the sea. The boat was so tossed by waves and wind that we did not know whether it was under the sea or not. And in our intense hunger and distress we made signs to each other that we should eat one of our number. There was among us in the boat a fat boy, not yet of age, whose father was in the company that had remained behind on the ship: so we decided to eat him.

The situation was now at its darkest:

The boy felt what we were up to, and I saw him looking up to heaven and moving his lips and his eyes in silent prayer. But in less than an hour we saw signs of land. Soon the land became clearly visible; then the boats ran aground, capsized and filled with water. We had no strength to stand or move. But at that moment behold! – two men running down the shore to the boat. They asked us where we came from; we told them from a certain ship, which we named. They took us in their arms and brought us ashore. There were fell on our faces as if we were dead. One of the two men ran away; I asked the other where we were and he answered, “This smoke which you see is from al-Tiz. My companion has gone to the village, where we have food and water and clothing.” Then they carried us to the town.

In the end of the 1200 men who were onboard the three ships, the only survivors were from this lifeboat. The merchant added that the loss was devastating for the region “because of the great quantity of wealth and the number of important shipmasters and captains and merchants in them.”

You can read more excerpts from Buzurg ibn-Shahriyar’s writings as part of the book Arab Seafaring: In the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, by George F. Hourani (Princeton University Press, 1995)

Top Image: A medieval shipwreck depicted in the 14th century – from British Library MS Royal 20 D I f. 177



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