(ORDO NEWS) — In 1836, William Selenso, a Christian missionary from English Cornwall, first came across a mysterious Tamil bell in a remote Maori village in New Zealand. The locals used it as a cooking pot and told a fluent Maori speaker that it was found under the roots of a large tree that was uprooted by a hurricane years ago.
Upon examination, Selenso discovered a number of signs and runes in an unfamiliar language. Realizing the strangeness of the find, he exchanged it for a cooking pot, and deposited the curiosity in the Otago Museum in Dunedin. It was later bequeathed to the Dominion Museum, which is today the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.
Deciphering the Strange Inscriptions on a New Zealand Tamil Bell
In 1870, the ethnographer J. T. Thompson came across the bell and, puzzled by the strange archaic writing, took photographs and sent them around India in the hope of getting a translation. Just two months later, Thompson received responses from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and Penang, a settlement on the coast of the Malaysian Strait.
The incomprehensible inscriptions have been identified as an ancient Tamil language that has not been used for hundreds of years. The primitive words that adorned the outlandish metal curiosity were Mohoyideen Buks, which in translation meant “Bell of the ship of Mohaidin Bakhsh.”
This led to several interesting discoveries. It turned out that the owner of the ship was a tall Tamil Muslim and probably a representative of a well-known Indian shipping company based in Nagapattam, in the southeast of India. This was due to the fact that his name was Arabic, and the surname came from a Tamil phrase meaning “owner of the ships.”
Later, in 1940, the age of the Tamil bell was estimated at 400-500 years old and dated between 1400 and 1500 AD. This was a surprising surprise, indicating that external contact with New Zealand had been established hundreds of years before English Captain Thomas Cook landed on the windswept coast of Misery Bay in 1769. But was it really so?
Evidence of a Tamil colony in New Zealand
Just 7 years later, another mysterious find further puzzled New Zealanders, leading to a possible explanation for the misplaced artifact.
In 1877, a shipwreck was discovered between the ports of Raglan and Aotea, half buried in the sand. At first it was thought to be a modern ship, as New Zealand’s coastline was notorious for being extremely dangerous and accidents were common. But this was different.
The ship turned out to be of Asian origin and very old. C. G. Hunt noted that the ship was built from teak beams arranged diagonally and secured with wood screws, suggesting that it was built in Southeast Asia. Inside was found a brass plate with Tamil inscriptions and a wooden plaque bearing the familiar name of Mohoyd Buka.
Inexplicably, both enticing pieces of evidence have disappeared in Auckland, and experts have never been able to compare them to time-worn Tamil bell letters.
However, historians of the time put forward a few early theories. Some argued that this was evidence of the existence of an early Tamil colony in New Zealand. Others have argued that the skillful construction and experience of the Tamil navigators made it possible for them to sail to New Zealand.
On the other hand, evidence for such arguments remains scarce. As far as can be judged from historical data, the easternmost border for Indian navigators was the island of Lombok, located near Bali in modern Indonesia.
Moreover, the spice islands in western New Guinea, where only nutmeg, mace and cloves can be found, although they were in use, were never controlled by the Tamils, but remained in the hands of the local magnates Ternate, Tidore and Amboyne. To this it should be added that no other Indian relics have ever been found in New Zealand.
Lost Portuguese merchant ship?
Another theory put forward is that the Tamil Bell was originally Portuguese and belonged to a lost ship sent as part of the Portuguese Emperor’s fleet to guard the Spice Islands.
From the 1490s, the Portuguese became a major player in the Indian Ocean trade network, supplying Asian goods for the growing demand in Europe. In 1511, the Portuguese even established trading colonies in the Strait of Malacca and in many places on the Indian mainland.
One such place was Goa, and in 1521 the Portuguese Viceroy sent a fleet of three caravels under the command of Cristovas de Mendonca to explore the lands beyond the Spice Islands. Only Mendonca’s caravel returned, the other two were lost at sea and never seen or heard from again.
In 1877, it was determined that the wreck found on the coast of New Zealand was built in Goa, exactly where the Portuguese ships had departed from. In Goa, the Tamil language was widely used, which fully explains the Tamil inscription on the bell.
However, all this is incredibly unlikely. There is no direct evidence that the bell was on a Portuguese caravan. Finally, the Portuguese had already established an incredibly lucrative trading system, which meant they had no motive to explore further, as the known world of the Indian Ocean already provided enough for them.
One of the most famous and controversial theories was put forward by Robert Langdon in his book The Lost Caravel, in which he claimed that the Tamil bell was brought to New Zealand by a group of Spanish sailors from the East Indies who became disoriented and eventually settled in New Zealand for hundreds of years before the arrival of Thomas Cook.
He wrote that in 1524 the King of Spain ordered an expedition to the Spice Islands, sending a sally of six ships there. A whirlpool of disasters followed: two ships were wrecked off the coast of Patagonia and the Philippines, one reached Mexico, another returned to Spain, and the remaining two disappeared. One of the wandering caravels, the San Lesmes, which carried a Tamil bell, was last seen in 1526 while sailing in the Pacific Ocean.
After running aground off Amanu, an atoll in French Polynesia, where four guns were later discovered, the crew repaired their ships and sailed on to the Ana and Raiatea atolls, where several of them settled and married local women. Later, eager to return to Spain, weary sailors set off west, discovering New Zealand along the way and deciding to settle on its verdant shores.
The descendants of the sailors traveled further, discovering new lands as far as Easter Island, and brought to the Polynesians a new culture, customs and languages, influenced by their Basque origin. Langdon was convinced that an additional find of a 16th-century Spanish helmet in Wellington harbor in the 1880s gave his hypothesis more credibility.
However, like the Tamil and Portuguese ship proposals, Langdon’s arguments have been heavily criticized for extravagant interpretations of the available evidence. Bengt Danielsson, a scientist from French Polynesia, called it “anthropological science fiction”. Throughout his story, Langdon ignores all of the existing archaeological and historical literature of the Pacific, which often contradicts and refutes his ideas.
The existence of Caucasoids with fair skin, red hair and blue eyes on many islands of the Pacific Ocean was considered proof of his hypothesis. While it is certain that these traits existed even in the earliest contact with Polynesian natives, Langdon argued that the Spanish castaveans were the sole source of these genes, which is impossible given that there were only 20-50 castaveans in the forgotten group. It is equally unlikely that they visited all the Polynesian islands.
Langdon went on to point to linguistic anomalies as a sign that Spanish words had entered local dialects. However, there is not a single Spanish word in the East Polynesian languages that can be identified.
With no proof, Langdon explained that this was because the children only learned the language of their mothers, which led to the decline and eventual extinction of the Spanish, Basque, and Galician languages of their fathers. He even suggested that the lack of sounds in Polynesian meant that Spanish words could easily be changed beyond recognition in a day or two.
On the other hand, in all other cases of mixing of European and local languages in Polynesia, European languages have adapted into local speech. A variety of English words that entered the Polynesian languages 200 years ago remain in them today. For example, in the Pitcairn Islands, where only one Englishman lived with eight local women, his descendants still speak English!
In addition, Langdon believed that the indigenous beliefs of the Polynesians originated from the Christian faith of the Spanish diaspora. He used an 1874 source from the Catholic missionary Albert Montiton, who noted how Christian the religion of the natives seemed to him. However, Langdon completely ignored the widespread conversion of natives to Christianity that occurred from 1817 onward, which is a more reasonable explanation.
Finally, Langdon refers to Easter Island’s “talking boards,” a series of stone tablets discovered in the 1860s with archaic runes as a type of writing invented by the Spanish castanets.
However, his main source in this matter was a native guru named Hapai, a man who claimed that Europeans inhabited Easter Island, and whose evidence was later found to be fabricated. In the end, Langdon’s far-fetched argument was systematically refuted, and the confusion surrounding the Tamil bell persisted.
Abandoned ship theory: Did a Tamil ship drift to New Zealand?
After several years of fantastic hypotheses, Brett Hilder entered into a discussion with a theory more rooted in reality. His so-called ownerless theory revived the earlier claim that the bell came from a Tamil ship. Hilder’s theory attacked the prevailing assumption in most theories that the carriage that wielded the Tamil bell was alive. In the restless, capricious oceans, there have been many cases of undamaged wooden ghost ships without sailors.
The most famous example is perhaps the Flying Dutchman, which was discovered with full sails and no one on board. Closer to the Pacific Ocean, on a voyage from Apia to the Tokelau Islands, not a single person was left on the sunken sailing ship Joyita when she was found half-submerged in the sea.
Such “orphan” ships usually stayed afloat even after many years at sea due to the buoyancy of their hulls. Hilder put forward the idea that the “Tamil Bell” originated from a Tamil merchant ship caught in the eastern sea current between Antarctica and the southern parts of the continents.
In the late 1400s and into the 1500s, when the bell was dated, Tamil seafarers dominated the trading networks of the vast Indian Ocean. The Muslim Tamils were especially skilled seafarers and brought their goods by sea as far as the east coast of Africa. Indeed, contemporary examples of the strength of the great South Current, which stretches from New Zealand to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, support his idea.
For example, in June 1973, the Nautical Magazine of Glasgow reported that an unmanned lifeboat traveled 7,000 miles from the coast of East London, South Africa, to Princess Royal Harbor in Albany, Australia.
Thirty tins of barley, sugar and lifeboat biscuits were found in perfect condition, sealed in two compartments. It is therefore more likely that a similar fate befell the Muslim Tamil ship, and that the preservation of its wooden hull helped carry the Tamil bell to the wild new frontier of the world.
The Enduring Mystery of the Tamil Bell
Since its discovery in 1836, most of the theories surrounding the Tamil bell have been highly speculative and lack sufficient evidence to be taken seriously.
Unlike others, Brett Hilder focused on the Great South Sea Current, a real geographical phenomenon, and presented a case for the Tamil bell that finally made sense without the mental leaps made by other theorists like Langdon, the only proof that the crew ship “San Lesmes” reached Amanu and married a native woman, there was the fact that four rusty old cannons were found there.
However, even Hilder’s theory has weaknesses. All theories included the 1877 shipwreck as key evidence that determined whether the bell was brought by the Tamils, the Portuguese or the Spanish. However, by 1890, the wreck, said to have been half-submerged in the sand, mysteriously disappeared and was never seen again. Subsequent attempts to re-find the wreck, until 1975, were unsuccessful.
“The problem with all these and other ‘mysterious’ items, such as ancient shipwrecks on the wild beaches of the New Zealand west coast, which are rumored to be discovered briefly during storms, is that in the absence of hard evidence to explain their existence and context , numerous bizarre interpretations are often imposed on them according to certain plans,” explained Katherine Howe, summarizing the situation beautifully. Thus, the mystery of the Tamil bell lives on.
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