Maritime Economy of Coromandel Coast. -Tamil Muslims in Salt Trade in 19th Century

The European trading companies, the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French and the Danes entered in to commercial sphere of South India in the early 16th century. In due course of time they encroached the trading rights both in the West Coast and East Coast-  the Coromandal Coast –  of the Peninsula. The economic invasion opened the gates for political ascendency of the European Powers. The European trading companies were fighting themselves to establish their supremacy in India and as well as the local ruling powers to acquire territories.  By 1801, the English East India Company (the British) emerged victories and became the political masters of  India1.

            South India being a maritime zone was dependant on the marine based economic activities beside agricultural products. Soon after consolidating the political stability, the English East India Company stepped up to increase its revenue for which  many administrative measures were undertaken.    

            The ports along the stretch of the Coromndel Coast were improved to felicitate coastal and seaborne trade.  Textiles, the staple commodity of export and agricultural products were procured in large quantities for export to South East Asia, West Asia, Ceylon and other South Indian ports. The colonial administration indentified marine products like salt, pearl and chank fisheries to augment their economic condition. In that the Company declared  monopoly in the  trade of salt. Pearl and chank fisheries were also regulated to pour more revenue.

            The native traders and the maritime people including the Tamil Muslims utilized the opportunities open to them and integrated themselves in the system and continued their inland and oceanic commerce.

             About the Tamil Muslims:  Islam touched the South Indian soil right in the later part of the 7th century and Islamic Society started blooming. Really it became possible as a continuation of the Arab Commercial contact with the South Indian ports from the ancient times, as attested by Sangam Tamil Literature of the second century, C.E.

            The Arab merchants, who frequented the West Coast and the East Coast of the peninsula after the birth of Islam, came as “Arab Muslims”, embracing the new faith of Islam.  Since the Arab maritime trade brought considerable revenue to the South Indian States, the local ruling powers extended their patronage and concessions to them.  Some among the Arab traders, who stayed on the Coromndel port towns for a long time, married the native women  of the land  in accordance with the prevailing customs.  The children born from such alliance belonged to the mother’s stock and thus the Tamil Muslim social order   was inaugurated on the Coromndel Coast and the Arab Muslim traders were the progenitors of the Indian Muslims in the early period.

            The Arab Muslim merchants themselves were missionaries and moved close to the people and preached the message of Islam. The principles like universal brotherhood, equality and path for social mobility was attractive to the people in the then caste ridden society, particularly the oppressed classes. A section among them embraced Islam and became Muslims.  The conversion process continued and Muslim colonies sprang up on the coastal towns on the Coromndel, later in to the hinterland. They are  the Tamil Muslims, who had mingled with the Tamil society with separate identity. Tamil is their mother tongue.

            The people converted to Islam in the coastal belt were the people who were engaged in different maritime activities such as shipping, pearl and chank diving, fishing  and manufacture of salt etc.,  From this humble beginning many of the Tamil Muslims rose to opulence, became ship owners, maritime traders, pearl and chank traders, manufactures of salt etc., They plied their own ships across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal and established trade contacts in South East Asia, Ceylon, Persian Gulf with the help of their co-religionists. The trading activities of the Tamil Muslims brought more revenue to the East India Company. One such marine product handled by them, was salt. The Tamil Muslims took up this traditional profession and exported salt to various destinations and also supplied for local consumption.2

            Salt, being one of the treasurers of the Ocean, very valuable commodity and absolute necessity for  human life. The manufactures of salt and  salt  trade has played a key role in the history and economic development of the regions so also the Coromndel. Salt had been a tool in determining the political power since it was an essential part of revenue of the State.  It also brings to light the relationship between the State and Society.3 From the ancient times, the men who were in salt manufacture and marketing in the Tamil country, were known as umanar (in Tamil). (The records of the East India Company give a class of people ‘Koravas’, as traditional salt traders. It may indicate this ancient salt traders) A considerable number of people who were converted to Islam were also associated with salt production and trade and it was continued in the succeeding period.  The Tamil Muslims in many of the coastal towns such as Tuticorin, Kayal Pattinam, Kilakkarai, Tondi, Nagapattinam, Nagore and Portonovo, to mention a few, were owners of salt pans and were also traders in salt.  There were many small Muslim traders in the minor port areas of the Coromandel Coast.  They transported salt, along with dry fish, grains etc.,   in their dhoneys and Vallams., from one port to another and  sold to the small traders on the  shore.  Thus the salt was carried for the consumption of the people in the hinterland.  The commercial records of the English East India Company shed much light on such Muslim traders.  Big merchants and ship-owners exported salt to South East Asia and other countries4. Thus the Tamil Muslim traders  continued the trade in salt in 19th century.

            The British East India Company was keen in matters relating to salt production and  salt trade. Tax on salt was increased which was very high. The monopolistic attitude of the company resulted in many regulations, acts and laws. Production, sale and export of salt by natives was forbidden in 1805.  Trade in salt requited a pass. The number of salt pans along the Coromndel coast (Madras presiding) was reduced. The native people were put in to much hardship5.

            The introduction of salt monopoly by the Company deprived the Muslims of  Thanjavur, Ramanathapuram and Thirunelveli  districts in this field.  Salt pan renters were forced to vacate the pans and had to hand over the stocks on hand to the Company in 1833 by a regulation. To cite an example, the Marakkayars, Kilakkarai were renters of salt pans.  According to the regulations 1833, they handed over the stock of salt to the company authorities.  Those who possessed some quality clandestinely were penalized and the monopoly price of salt was collected for the quantity in their possession.             Allah   Pichai Marakkayar, Meera Sahib Marakkayar, Abdul Kadar Marakkayar were some of the renters of salt pans at kilakkarai during the period6.

            However, in view of the regulations of the company, the Tamil Muslim traders adjusted themselves to the changed situation and continued their trade in salt.  They were engaged in coastal trade transporting salt between the ports of South India.  They also entered in the joint ventures with English private merchants and carried salt belonging to them in their vessels.  The Tamil Muslim vessels were the main source for the supply of salt for home consumption.7

            The trade in salt met a new turn, when the production in Bengal decreased. The company decided to transport salt from madras presidency to Bengal. The company preferred the native vessels for this purpose than the company vessels or that of the English private merchants.  They entered in to an agreement with the native ship-owners for this purpose.  The reason for the preference of the native vessels was based on revenue generation.  The native vessels carried rice, grain and pulses from Bengal to the Coromndel ports during the return trip which was an added source of revenue to the Company. The vessels of the Tamil Muslims in Nagore, Nagappattinam and PortoNovo utilised such opportunities.8

            A referee to the company records during 1810 to 1830, show that a number of Tamil Muslim traders and ship owners were engaged in transport of salt to Bengal.  Kadar Mohideen Bux, Meera Hussain Sultan Ahamad Bux, Mohamed Bux, Kadar Bux  were some of the names of the ships of  Tamil Muslims from Nagore and  Nagapattinam. The  owners and as well as the Nagudhas of the ships were all Muslims. These ships undertook one voyage in a year. Salt was also sold by  the Company  to the Tamil Muslim merchants with sufficient capital. Credit  facility was also extended to them up to 50% on the condition  that it should be  repaid on return from Bengal.  The commodities brought from Bengal to Coromandel were rice, pulses, sugar, and molasses which were exchanged to salt, course cloth and other items.9

            Salt was one of the export commodities to South East Asia in Muslim ships.  The ship Mohamad Bux carried salt to Penang and Achin10. Salt was exported to South East Asia in the succeeding decades also.

            The English administration ensured adequate supply of salt to interior areas in the hinterland of the Madras Presidency. Besides the Muslim traders’ supply through water ways, the authorities encouraged the traditional salt, Koravas to stay in the trade and a number of concessions were extended to them.  Salt waa sold at manufacturing rate by system of maniam and were asked to supply in the interior villages. By dupaty maniam, clothing were provided to them11.

            The price of salt was increasing day by day due to the policies of the government.  The Tamil Muslims, who were exporting salt to Bengal, will keep away whenever the price of rice and grains was higher at Bengal. Hence salt was in short supply to Bengal.  English records tell that salt could not be exported to Bengal due to non-availability of vessels.  It is to be pointed out that Muslim vessels were more in number in the traffic. When trade in salt became less profitable Tamil Muslim small traders and whole sale dealers moved to other commodities12   A statement of capitalists in salt trade in the coastal region    in the Madras presidency in the last decades to 19th century shows that it was dominated by Chettiar and English Private merchants. We could find only a names of Muslim.  Kadar Mohideen Marakkayar in Adirampattinam, Mohamad Aliar, Muthu Vaver Mohamad, Mohamad Mohideen, Mohamad Abdul Kadar Markakkayar and Ahamad Hussain Marakkayar  were leading  salt merchants in Tirunelveli district13.

            The Tamil Muslim merchants utilised the opportunities provided by the East India Company and participated in the trade in the marine based products.  Such type of commercial ventures made them to with stand in the system when changes intruded in the market. Further salt trade with Bengal was easier for a single Muslim trader to procure and dispose it and to procure rice and grains for home ward voyage.  Tamil Muslims were free from the European private merchants, in this trade. Thus   the Tamil Muslims traders managed to stay in this traditional profession throughout 19th century14.


  1. J.Raja Mohamad, Maritime History of the Coromandal Muslims – A Socio – Historical Study on the Tamil Muslims – 1750-1900, (Chennai 2004) PP.99-110
  2. For a full discussion on the Tamil Muslims and their maritime activities, please see J.Raja Mohamad, op.cit.
  3. D.C.Alwin , A Parmphlet on salt Trade in India, (London 1846)
  4. Tamil Nadu Archives (TNA), Tanjore District Records, vol. 4252.pp.148-1949; Thirunelveli Gazette, Vol.VI No.194, p.8.December, 1862; vol.vol.VI No.240, 10, 470 21 october 1871, vol.XIV, No 622, October 1871, p.470
  5. TNA Thirunelveli District Records, Vol.3584 March 18, 1809, pp.186-90
  6. TNA Madurai District Records, vol. 1154/1808 p.143; vol.468, 1933, pp.83, 88-89; vol.4684-b/1833, pp.33-35
  7. TNA Madurai District Records, 1180/1810 pp.133-35; Dodwell.H,(ed) The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai in 12 volumes (1928 (Rpt. New Delhi 1971) Vol. II, p.09, 143
  8. S.Arasaratnam, Maritime Commerce and English power – South East India 1750-1800 (Sterling, New Delhi 1996) PP.265-270.
  9. TNA, Tanjore District Records, vol.No.3269, Auguest 17, 1811; Board of Revenue consultations vol.583, September 1812, pp.10703-5; vol.804, September 21, 1818, pp.10613-15; vol.924, p.8503, September 6, 1822; Tanjore District Record vol.3202, pp.65-65 April 22, 1801.
  10. TNA Public Consultations, Vol.No.340 April 1808, pp.2450-60;
  11. TNA, Tanjore District Record, Vol.No.4326, June 27, 1881 p.1823.
  12. TNA Tanjore District Records, Vol.3269 August 17, 1811.
  13. TNA Board of Revenue Consultations, Separate Revenue, August 1887, p.23
  14. Sundara Srinivas Rao, Merchants in Transition: Maritime Trade and Society of Tamil Muslim in the Indian Ocean world.c.1780-1840, unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin 2016.

(Paper presented in the 26th Annual Session of Tamil Nadu History Congress, Dindigul, 11,12,13 October 2019)

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