A General History of the Memons

The Memons are perhaps one of the most widely dispersed peoples. This erstwhile mercantile community having its roots in Northern India have gone far and wide in search of greener pastures, settling down in new lands and founding colonies, not by force of arms like the conquerors of old but in pursuit of that rare business acumen so characteristics of this enterprising and industrious race.

Memons are today found in large numbers in Karachi, Pakistan and Mumbai, Surat, Madras, Dhoraji and Hyderabad in India. Sizeable communities are also found in South Africa, particularly Pretoria, Pietersburg and Pietermaritzburg, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Yet others are scattered over the United Kingdom, United States and in various parts of Western Europe, particularly Portugal.

The total Memon population in the world is estimated at over 1 million persons with the vast majority living in the Indian subcontinent, i.e. modern-day India (550,000), Pakistan (415,000) and Bangladesh (3000) followed by South Africa (25,000), the United Kingdom (22,000), Sri Lanka (6000) and Burma (5000).

We propose to give here a brief sketch of the origins and the early history of the Memons as a community before proceeding to follow them on their sojourns to distant lands including that fair isle the Arabs of the old knew as Saylan. It was Saylan, now known as Sri Lanka that the forbears of the modern-day Memons of the island flocked in days gone by, here again in pursuit of their favourite calling – trade.


Sri Lanka – Pearl of the Indian Ocean

We may ask what lurked so many Memons to Sri Lanka, not only for tade but also for the purpose of permanent domicile. The answer in not a difficult one given Sri Lanka's immemorial. The Arabs of yore who resorted to the island called it Sarandib or Saylan while the Greeks and Romans called it Taprobane and the Indians Sihala-dvipa. To the people of the Island however it has always been known as Lanka which nowadays is often rendered as Sri Lanka, the name given to it when it became a sovereign Republic on 22nd May1972.

The island, occupying as it does a central position in the waterways of the East, strategically placed as it is between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, would have no doubt attracted many foreign peoples who made it their home. Not least among them the Sinhalese led by Prince Vijaya of Bengal who arrived here around the 5th century B.C. thus giving rise to majority community of the Island today – the Sinhalese. The Tamils of South India Cola Kingdom looked upon the island as an attractive destination and arrived here in considerable numbers in the mediaeval period, particularly about the 13th century. Their descendants form the largest minority in the island.

The Arabs too resorted to this fair isle beginning from about the 6th century or perhaps even earlier mainly for purposes of trade. There were others who visited the island to pay homage to a giant footprint widely believed to be that of Adam which could still be seen at the summit of Adam's Peak, a lofty mountain in the central highlands of the country. Yet others would have resorted here for a peaceful life of meditation amidst its calm caves and sylvan surroundings. Many eventually settled down here, giving rise to the Moors, a sizeable Muslim community who continue to exert a considerable influence on the country's national life.

There were besides other peoples from various parts of the Indian subcontinent who visited the island for trading purposes with some eventually settling down here, among them, the Sammankarars or Indian Moors originating from places like Kilakkarai in the coastal region of Tamil Nadu, the Chetties who also hailed from South India and the Memons, Bohras and Parsis from Gujarat in Western India.

This lure of trade in nothing new. It has been so for ages past. Cosmas Indicopleustes, the 6th century author of the Topographia Chrisana could thus observe of Sielediba or Taprobane as the country was known to the Greeks: "From all India and Persia and Ethiopia many ships come to this island, and it likewise sends out many of its own, occupying as it does a kind of central position. And from the remoter regions, I speak of Tzinista and other places of export, the imports to Taprobane are silk, aloes wood, cloves, sandal wood, and so forth, according to the products of each place. These again are passed on from Sielediba to the martson this side, such as Male where the pepper is grown and Kalliana, whence are exported brass, sisam logs, and other wares, such as cloths; also to Sindu, where you get the musk or castorin, and androstachya; also to Persia, Homerite and Adule, and the Island receives imports again from all those marts that I have been mentioning, and passes them on to the remoter ports, whilst at the same time it exports its own produce in both directions".

Besides serving the purpose of an entrepot for transit trade between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean, the island's natural products such as gems, pearls and spices also meant that it became as important centre for exports. Among the local products mentioned by the famous 10th century Muslim writer Istakhri are spices, rubies, medicinal herbs and a treacle known as dhushab. Ibn Shahryar's Ajaib Al-Hind also of the 10th century refers to cinnamon as a product of the island, while Kazwini of the 13th century tells us that the island produces wonderful things, among them are sandalwood, cinnamon, cloves and various spices.

Indeed so famed was the cinnamon of the Sarandib that it even finds mention in the Alf Layla Wa Layla, that great compendium of mediaeval Arab stories commonly known as the Thousand and One Nights. The island's precious stones, particularly its rubies known to the Arabs as yaqut were also well known and in the story Sinbad the Sailor we have Sinbad telling us that King of Sarandib sent as a present to the Caliph Harun Ar-Rashid a cup of ruby a span high and adorned with precious pearls

However just as this resplendent island produced certain valuable products, it also lacked certain indispensable commodities which had to be imported and this is where the trading communities such as the Memons came in.