Buzurg ibn Shahriyar Persian sea captain
(Kitab aja'ib al-Hind) (955)

(The book of the wonders of india)
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The text is taken from
-Selected documents: Freeman-Grenville.
-The book of the marvels of India: 1928 Peter Quennell.
-History of the Swahili coast: Freeeman-Grenville
-The encyclopedia of Islam 1984 E.J. Brill
This is a book of sailors tales collected by Buzurg at Siraf (Persia) and Sohar (Oman), with little historical value. Every now and then the land of the Zanj gets mentioned. Here the list.

Sailors tale 9:
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(second part) The ship's captain told me that the fish abounds in the sea of Zindj and in the Ocean of Herkend (the ocean on the west coast of India) It is called wak and amuses itself by ramming ships. When sailors encounter it, they do their best to frighten it away by shouts, by beating drums and thumping together two pieces of wood. Each time it blows water, you see a spout rise tall as a lighthouse, and from the distance, you would swear it was the sail of a ship. Also when it frolics with its tail and flukes, you might take it for some great ship under sail.

Sailors tale 31:
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Ismailawaih told me, and several sailors who were with him, that in the year A.H. 310 (A.D.922) he left Oman in his ship to go to Quanbalu. A storm drove him towards Sofala and the Zanj coast. Seeing the coast we had reached, the captain said, and realizing that we were falling among cannibal Negroes we were certain what our faith would be, we made the ritual ablutions and turned our hearts towards God, saying for each other the prayers for the dead. The canoes of the Negroes surrounded us and brought us into the harbor. There we cast anchor and went ashore. They led us to their king. He was a young Negro, handsome and well set-up. He asked us who we were, and were we were going. We answered that we had come to his land. You lie, he said. It was by no means here you meant to land. It is only that the winds have driven you here in spite of yourselves. When we had admitted that he spoke the truth, he said: Bring ashore your goods. Sell and buy, you have nothing to fear.

We brought all our bales ashore and began to trade, a trade which was excellent for us, without any restrictions or customs dues. We made the king a number of presents to which he replied with gifts of equal worth or ones even more valuable. There we staid several months. When the time to depart came, we asked his permission to go, and he agreed immediately. The goods we had bought were loaded and business was wound up. When everything was in order, and the king hearing of our intention to set sail, accompanied us to the shore with several of his people, got into one of the boats and came out to the ship with us. He even came on board with seven of his companions. When I saw them there, I said to myself: In the Oman market this young king would certainly fetch thirty dinars, and his seven companions a hundred and sixty dinars the lot. Their clothes are worth twenty dinars at the lowest. One way or the other this would give us a profit of at least 3,000 dirhams, and without any trouble. Reflecting thus, I gave the crew their orders. They raised the sails and weighed anchor.

In the meantime the king was most agreeable to us, making us promise to come back again and promising us a good welcome when we did. When he saw the sails full with the wind and the ship began to move, his face changed. You are off he said. Well, I must say good-bye. And he wished to embark in the canoes which were tied up to the side. But we cut the ropes, and said to him: You will remain with us, we shall take you to our own land. There we shall reward you for all the kindness you have shown to us. Strangers he said, When you fell upon our shores, my people wished to eat you and pillage your goods, as they have already done to others like you. But I protected you, and asked nothing from you. As a token of my goodwill I even came down to bid you farewell in your own ship. Treat me then as justice demands, and let me return to my own land. But we paid no attention to his words. As the wind got up, the coastline disappeared from sight. Then night wrapped us in her veils, and we reached the open sea. When the day came, the king and his companions were put with the other slaves whose number reached 200 head. He was not treated differently from his companions in captivity.

The king said not a word and did not even open his mouth. He behaved as if we were strangers to him and as if we did not know him. When he got to Oman, the slaves were sold, and the king with them. Now, several years after, sailing from Oman towards Quanbalu, the wind again drove us towards the coast of Sofala on the Zanj coast, and we arrived precisely at the same place. The Negroes saw us, and their canoes surrounded us, and we recognized each other. Fully certain we should perish this time, terror stuck us dumb. We made the ritual ablutions is silence, repeated the prayer of death, and said farewell to each other. The Negroes seized us, and took us to the king's dwelling and made us go in. Imagine our surprise, it was the same king that we had known, seated on his throne, just as we had left him there. We prostrated ourselves before him, overcome, and had not the strength to raise ourselves up. Ah he said, here are my old friends. Not one of us was capable of replying. He went on: Come, raise your heads, I give you the aman (save conduct) for yourself and for your goods. Some raised their heads, others had not the strength, and were overcome with shame. But he showed himself gentle and gracious until we had all raised our heads, but without daring to look him in the face, so strongly did remorse and fear affect us. But when we had been reassured by his save conduct, we finally came to our senses, and he said: Ah traitors. How have you treated me after all I did for you! And each one of us called out: Mercy, oh King! be merciful to us!


I will be merciful to you, he said. Go on, as you did last time, with your business of selling and buying. You may trade in full liberty. We could not believe our ears, we feared it was nothing but a trick to make us bring our goods to shore. None the less we disembarked them, and came and brought him a present of enormous value. But he refused it and said: You are not worthy for me to accept a present from you. I will not soil my property with anything that comes from your hands. After that we did our business in peace. When the time to go came, we asked permission to embark. He gave it. At the moment of departure, I went to inform him. Go, he said, and may God protect you! Oh king, I replied, you have showered your bounty upon us, and we have been ungrateful and traitorous to you. But how did you escape and return to your country? He answered: After you had sold me in Oman, my purchaser took me to a town called Basrah,- (and he described it). There I learned to pray and to fast, and certain parts of the Koran. My master sold me to another man who took me to the country of the king of the Arabs, called Baghdad-( and he described Baghdad). In this town I learnt to speak correctly. I completed my knowledge of the Koran and prayed with the men in the mosques. I saw the Caliph, who is called al-Muqtadir (908-32). I was in Baghdad for a year and more, when there came a party of men from Khorasan mounted on camels. Seeing a large crowd, I asked where all these people were going. I was told: To Mecca. What is Mecca? I asked. There, I was answered, is the house of god to which Muslims make the pilgrimage. And I was told the history of the temple. I said to myself that I should do well to follow the caravan.

My, master, to whom I told all this, did not whish to go with them or to let me go. But I found a way to escape his watchfulness and to mix in the crowd of pilgrims. On the road I became a servant of them. They gave me food to eat and got for me the two cloths needed for the ihram (the ritual garments used for the pilgrimage). Finally, under their guidance, I performed all the ceremonies of the pilgrimage. Not daring to go back to Baghdad, for fear that my master would kill me, I joined up with another caravan which was going to Cairo. I offered my services to the travelers, who carried me on their camels and shared their food with me. When I got to Cairo I saw a great river which is called the Nile. I asked: Where does it come from? They answered: Its source is in the land of the Zanj. And where? Near a large town called Aswan, which is on the frontier of the land of the blacks.
With this information, I followed the banks of the Nile, going from one town to another, asking alms, which was not refused to me. I fell, however, among a company of blacks who grabbed me. They seized on me, and put me among the servants with a load which was to heavy for me to carry. I fled and fell into the hands of another company which seized me and sold me. I escaped again, and went on in this manner, until, after a series of similar adventures, I found myself in the country which adjoins the land of the zanj. There I put on a disguise.

Of all the terrors I had experienced since I left Cairo, there was none equal to that which I felt as I approached my own land. For, I said to myself, a new king has no doubt taken my place on the throne and commands the army. To regain power is not an easy thing. If I make myself known or if anyone recognizes me, I shall be taken to the new king and killed at once. Or perhaps one of his favorites will cut of my head to get in his favor. So, in prey of mortal terror, I went on my way at night, and stayed hid during the day. When I reached the sea, I embarked on a ship; and after stopping at various places, I disembarked at night on the shore of my country. I asked an old women: Is the king who rules here a just king? She answered: My son, we have no king but god. And the good women told me how the king had been carried off. I pretended the greatest astonishment at her story, as if it had not concerned me and events which I knew very well. The people of the kingdom, she said, have agreed not to have another king until they have certain news of the former one. For the diviners have told them that he is alive and in health, and safe in the land of the Arabs.

When the day came, I went into the town and walked towards my palace. I found my family just as I had left them, but plunged into grief. My people listened to the account of my story with surprise and joy. Like myself, they embraced the religion of Islam. Thus I returned into possession of my sovereignty, a month before you came. And here I am, happy and satisfied with the grace God has given me and mine, of knowing the precepts of Islam, the true faith, prayers, fasting, the pilgrimage, and what is permitted and what is forbidden: for no one else in the land of the Zanj has obtained a similar favor. And if I have forgiven you, it is because you were the first cause of the purity of my faith. But there is still one sin on my conscience which I pray god to take away from me. What is this thing, oh king? I asked. It is, he said, That I left my master, when I left Baghdad, without asking him his permission, and that I did not return to him. If I were to meet an honest man, I would ask him to take the price of my purchase to my master. If there were among you a really good man, if you were truly upright men, I would give you a sum of money to give him, a sum ten times what he paid as damages for the delay. But you are nothing but traitors and tricksters. We said farewell to him. Go, he said, and if you return, I shall not treat you otherwise than I have done. You will receive the best welcome. And the Muslims may know that they may come here to us, as to brothers, Muslims like themselves. As for accompanying you to your ship, I have reasons for not doing so. And on that we parted.

A western ship in the early days of exploration

Sailors tale 32
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As for soothsayers, they say that, in the land of the Zindjs, there are those who are extremely skilled in the art of divination. Ismailouia tells me that a ship's-captain once told him the following story: I was with the Zindjs in the year 332 A.H., and a soothsayer of the country asked me: How many ships are in your company? Sixteen, I replied. Very well he said. Fifteen of them will return to Oman safe and sound. The sixteenth will be wrecked and only three of its crew will be saved. After much hardship they will regain their native land.
Our sixteen vessels put to sea that same day. Mine was in the rear, and I made the best speed I could to catch them up. But, on the third day, there appeared before us a massy shape, like a sort of black island. In my hurry, I neglected to let out the sails as I should have done, for navigation in that sea is a troublesome business, and unaware we were carried towards this mass, which run against us violently. It was a sea-monster. With a single stroke of its tail, it demolished the ship. I and two others escaped the catastrophe in a little boat. The sea threw us ashore on one of the Didadjat islands, where we were stranded a year. We did not leave the island and return to Oman till we had undergone many sufferings. As for the other ships, by the grace of the Most High they all got back to port safe and sound.

Sailors tale 33
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(second part) A sailor of the land of the Zindjs told me that, in the palace of the king of Sira, he saw a quill (central part of a feather) which held twenty five skins of water.
Note: this remark is the only one we have so far that the Zanj were sailing the high sea, not only the coastal trade in E. Africa. In the original French translation (Devic) the word Captain is used instead of sailor.

Sailors tale 35
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Many is the ship's master, who has told me that he has heard tell, how, at Sofala of the Zindjs, are birds which seize an animal in their back or claws, carry it up into the sky and let it drop again, to kill or break it; then they swoop down and devour it. In this same country of the Zindjs, there is, so they say, a bird which falls on huge tortoises, seizes them, carries them up into the air, and drops them against some rock, where they are broken. And, it is affirmed, that they eat as many as five or six in a day, if they can come by them. What is more, this bird flies away in terror, if it sees a man, so hideous are the men of that country.
(Note: these birds might have been a bird called Rukh in Arab, with official name Aepyornis maximus, now extinct, found so far only in Madagascar. The bird was 10 feet high and could not fly.)

Sailors tale 36
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In the highlands of the Zindjs country are rich yielding gold mines. There, I am informed by captain Ismailouia, men search for gold by digging into the soil. And this work sometimes brings them to ground, excavated as if it were an ant-hill, whence, straightway, issue a horde of ants, big as cats, which devour and tear them in pieces. (second part of this story unrelated)

Sailors tale 60
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Sailors generally agree that the sea of Berira (Berbera), which stretches for seven hundred parasangs and is on the way to the land of the Zindjs, is among the most dangerous of seas. On one side is a range of big islands, where the current runs very strong. Ships cross it in seven or eight days. When a ship goes ashore in the confines of Berira, the blackamoors geld it company. And, when merchants journey to Berita, each of them, according to his means and the position he occupies, takes with him an escort for his protection, lest the natives seize and geld (castrate) him. These Negroes make a collection of the proceeds of such onslaughts upon travelers. They keep them, and flaunt them about to excite one another's envy. With them, a man's prowess is judged from the number of travelers he has dealt with in this fashion.
(Note: this habit stayed alive till the 20th century)

Sailors tale 74
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The same Mohammed son of Babisad taught me that on the island of Lamery, there are zarafa who are taller then can be described. It is reported that survivors of a shipwreck who are forced to walk long distances from Fansur to Lamery did not walk during the night by fear of the zarafa. Because that animal does not show itself during the day. When evening came the people would take refuge in a big tree; and during the night they heart them passing around them. During the day they would recognize their tracks of them passing in the sand. (the rest of the story is unrelated)

Note; This must come from a Sanskrit story of the “Carabha” mythological animal with 8 feet (from India). This story learns us that the sailors of Basra where Buzurg collected his stories were only traveling to the islands of the Zanj; otherwise they would have known the Zarafa.(Giraffe)

Sailors tale 92
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Yezid of Oman, captain of one of the ships which make the voyage to the land of the Zindjs, said to me: In that country, I saw two great mountains, and a defile between them, which bears the traces of fire and is strewn with calcified bones and charred hides. When I made inquiries, they told me that, at certain periods, this valley is swept by fire. If there are any sheep or other beasts pasturing in the defile, or if there are shepherds, who let themselves be surprised by the fire, they are burned up, one and all. This fire happens on certain days, and comes running along the ground like a torrent.

Sailors tale 115
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An informant, who had scoured the seas, once told me that he had seen, at Sofala of the Zindjs, a beast proportioned like a lizard and much like it both in color and in shape. The male is doubly male and the female is doubly female. Their bite can not be cured: the wound they inflict continues open and never heals up. This creature particularly frequents the plantations of sugar-cane and durah (sorghum).
But it is with serpents and vipers that this country swarms. And a passer-by is sometimes attacked by as many as three or four at the same time, which rend him in pieces. Does he drive off one of them, two return in its place.

Sailors tale 116
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A traveler, who had made his way among the inhabitants of Waqwaq, once described to me the bigness of their towns and islands. By the word bigness, I do not mean that their towns are of vast extent, but that they are thickly populated. The waqwaqians have a certain affinity with the Turks. They are most industrious artisans, while as for their morals, they are treacherous, crafty, and deceitful, the lowest and most ill-intentioned set of people you could find anywhere.

Sailors tale 117
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Ibn Lakis has imparted to me some extraordinary pieces of information concerning them.
It is thus that in 334 AH ( 945-6) they came upon Kanbalu in a thousand ships and fought them with the utmost vigor, without however achieving their end, as Kanbalu is surrounded by a strong defensive wall around which stretches the water-filled estuary of the sea, so that Kanbalu is at the center of this estuary, like a fortified citadel. When people of the Wak-Wak subsequently came ashore there, they asked them why they had come specifically there and not somewhere else. They replied that this was because among them there were to be found products sought after in their country and in China such as ivory, tortoise shell, panther hides and ambergris, and because they were seeking out the Zanj, on account of the ease with which they endured slavery and on account of their physical strength. They said that they had come from a distance of one years sailing, that they had pillaged islands situated six day journey time from Kanbalu and had taken possession of a certain number of villages and towns of Sofala of the Zandj, to say nothing of others which they did not know. If these people spoke the truth and if their account was accurate, this would confirm what Ibn Lakis said of the islands of the wak-wak: that they are situated opposite China.

Sailors tale 118
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(second part)I am told by the same informant, that he had heard say by a ship's captain how vessels, which have started out of Sofala of the Zindjs, often land on a coast, where dwell cannibal Negroes. It happens by accident, winds and currents diverting the vessel from its course and drawing it this way, in spite of all that the captain can do. The cannibal tribe are some fifteen hundred parasangs distant from Qabila. God's wisdom is over all. As for the place, at which the ships touch, it is a thousand, or, by the very lowest estimate, eight hundred parasangs beyond Qabila, and a voyage of about forty-two zama.
Note: 1 parasangs or farsakhs = 2.8 nautical miles

Sailors tale 119
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Ibn Lakis has related to me how, happening to be at Sofala with one of the kings of the Zindjs, in ran a fellow, who said to the king: Such and such a bird. Ibn Lakis had forgotten its name, has alighted in such a wood, captured and torn in pieces an elephant, and was making a meal of it when it was taken. Whereupon the king of the Zindjs rose and hurried off to the wood among a throng of his people, said Ibn Lakis, and I went with them. We arrived, and there the bird was struggling upon the ground, and there lay the carcass of the elephant, of which it had eaten a quarter. The king gave orders that the bird's wing plumage should be plucked; it had twelve large feathers, six to each wing. Others were secured, as well as the beak and a part of its talons, and a small
piece of the creature's entail. The quill of one of these feathers contained two skin-full of water. They said that it was a bird of the country, which, as it was passing over the wood, had caught sight of the elephant, seized it in its claws, carried it up into the air, dropped it again, and swooped down to devour it. Some people, who happened to be in the vicinity, had attacked it with a flight of poisoned arrows, and had thus overcome and slain it.

Sailors tale 120
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Between Thabia and the Island of Ghilemi is a little sea, called the Sea of Saifou, which takes six days to cross. All ships which cross it, must keep to thirty fathoms of water; for if a ship gets into water of twenty fathoms, there is it whelmed, the bottom being of a fine mud, which is the destruction of ships that touch it, seldom does a ship escape.
Note: according to Freeman-Grenville Thabia is situated on Pemba