Meeting 13
 


September 09


                                                Abraham bin Yiju,  the Jewish entrepreneur in Malabar – 1130 AD

Calicut Heritage Forum welcomed Sri Ullattil Manmadhan (Maddy) on 3rd September 09. Sri Manmadhan, who works in the USA is an amateur historian with strong interest in the history of Calicut. He blogs at http://historicalleys.blogspot.com. He unfolded the fascinating story of Abraham bin Yiju, a Tunisian born Jew of the 12th century who was running a flourishing brassware industry in Malabar during the 12th century. He had settled down here and had even married a Nair woman of North Malabar.

The story of how Yiju’s tale came to light is the stuff of detective fiction. It all started in a synagogue in Fustat, the old capital of Cairo, Egypt. In 1896, a Cambridge University scholar Prof. Schechter discovered a secret vault (called Genizah) containing a large dump of documents dating from 900 AD to 1250 AD. This consisted of notes, private correspondence, old contracts and business-related material as well as some religious manuscripts. Jewish custom forbade the desecration of paper in which the name of ‘God’ was written. Thus, even private letters which started with an invocation to God came to be preserved in the Genizah. Among the 250,000 fragments were around 70 dealing with the story of Abraham bin Yiju, the Malabar trader and entrepreneur who was running a bronze factory in the Malabar coast.

Yiju, a young Jew from Al Mahidiya moved to Aden and from there travelled to India to seek a fortune in trade. He settled down on the Malabar coast (Goitien who transcribed the Yiju papers calls the place Manjarur which he interprets as Mangalore. The novelist Amitav Ghosh endorses this). He reached Malabar coast around 1130 AD and his prolific letters speak of his hardship during the journey to Malabar, his marriage with a Malabar Nair girl called Ashu, the birth of his three children and the early death of a son in India.

What exactly was Yiju doing in Malabar? His factory produced brass utensils, locks and lamps to order, after importing old and broken brassware from Aden and beyond. Besides this, he exported iron, spices, medicinal herbs, copra, betel nuts and timber to his Jewish partners in Aden. He also imported arsenic, tin, paper and African ivory into India. The scrolls also speak of Yiju’s assistant Seshu Chetty, one Nambiar and a Nair, apart from his slave-apprentice  Bomma (who was celebrated by Amitav Ghosh in his writings). Yiju returns to Aden in 1149 after staying in Malabar for 17 years, to get his daughter married.

The significance of the new findings does not appear to have percolated into the precincts of academic historians of Malabar, as one has not come across many studies of Malabar/Calicut history based on the Genizah fragments.

CHF thanked Maddy for highlighting the importance of looking for new sources to fill significant gaps in our knowledge of the history of Malabar prior to the rise of the Calicut power in the 13th Century. The full presentation can be accessed here.