2000 years on, the mystery of an ancient Bell remains unsolved

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But this masterpiece rings the glory of Tamil Language

Anbunirai Jayaseelan
Auckland, April 8, 2020

An enduring mystery lingers in New Zealand.

Many have attempted to unravel the intricacies of this mystery but in vain.

Theories abound but origin remains a mystery-The Bell donated by William Colenso

The mystery started in 1836 when William Colenso, a young Christian Missionary visited a remote Maori village near Whangarei in Northland.

He was also an able Botanist, an expert in Printing technology and popular in political circles.

By the time he retired, many plant species were named after him.

He was also one of the distinguished witnesses to the famed Treaty of Waitangi.

In 1836, he was 26 years old and energetic. He met people from all strata of the society, especially the marginalised, in the pursuit of representing their cause for better living standards.

Vessel for potatoes

He was the first European to set foot in the village, where he saw a Maori woman using, which looked like a metal vessel, to cook potatoes. This indeed was a strange sight. Maori were not known for metallurgy at that time.

Colenso enquired as to what that metal vessel was. The answers he received were vague but good enough to instill in him that this metal vessel was used for several generations.

On close examination, he found that it was actually the top portion of a Bell, made of bronze.

The villagers told him that many generations ago, at least seven or more, there was a fierce storm that uprooted a huge tree. Hiding beneath its roots was this Bell.

It has since been used to cook potatoes and kumara.

The Bell had lost the lip portion possibly due to constant cooking in fire for numerous generations. The stronger top portion was all that remained.

While the Maori narration of incidents was straightforward, Colenso knew that there was much more to be learnt. The fact that this Bell was discovered buried under a tree in itself warranted further study.

The Maori had the custom of burying the possessions of an accomplished man after his death and planting a sapling over it. Instances such as these have been recorded all across New Zealand.

This is the principle of protecting the Mauri (life force) of an object.

It is a bit like hiding a sacred talisman. Since this Bell was found under a tree, it would only mean this object was revered by Maori at some point in time.

Medieval Tamil, markedly different to the modern version

Inscription on the Bell

There was an inscription on the Bell that appeared like writing. Colenso had no clue as to what that could be or the language the inscription. He was determined to find out.

In order to trace the origin and the owner of the Bell, he had to acquire it first. He  arranged for a large iron pot to be handed over to the Maori community of that village in exchange for the Bell.

After a few years and interactions with linguistic scholars in different parts of the world the writing became clear to him.

The inscription was in Tamil. Not how Tamil is written today, but in an ancient form. The writing confirmed it was a ship’s Bell.

The English translation of the inscription goes like this, “Mohaideen Bakhsh’s ship’s Bell” (or) “Bell of the Ship of Mohaideen Bakhsh.”

How did a ship’s Bell with Tamil writing get to New Zealand?

Colenso was intrigued and was thirsty for answers.

A replica of the Bell-Tangatawhenua16 website

About Tamil Language

Tamil is the oldest and the first of the six Original (no foreign phrases) in the world. The other five are Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Chinese.

There are more than 70 million Tamil-speaking people residing in 50 countries, rich in heritage, culture, language and literature. In many cases, their unity has been consolidated by struggle, suffering and aspiration for a brighter future for their successive generations.

Tamil is spoken in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Seychelles and in many other countries.

They have been known to be seafarers from ancient times.

Was there an unrecorded meeting between Tamil seafarers and the Maori long before Europeans arrived on the scene?

Abel Tasman is credited as being the first European to have sighted New Zealand in 1642. However, he did not come on to the shores of Aotearoa due to Maori aggression and sailed away to Tonga.

After 127 years, it was James Cook and his men in 1769 who are credited with being the first Europeans on New Zealand soil.

Who was Mohaideen Baksh?

Although no one has been able to trace this person, it is clear that around the 13th, 14th, 15th centuries and even later, wealthy traders based in Nagapattinam, a port city in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu were sailing their ships for trade purposes to ports in the Middle East (to the west of India) and to several islands up to Lombok (next to Bali) to the East of India.

However, there is no known historical account of Tamil seafarers to New Zealand.

There have been many theories propounded so far and one such is from Robert Langdon.

An expert in Pacific manuscripts, Langdon wrote in his book ‘The Lost Caravel’ (published in 1975) stating that the Bell may have been a gift from Indian traders to their Spanish counterparts who are known to have had brisk trade relations with the Tamils in South India.

The Bell must have been first taken to Spain and then found its way on another ship that eventually made landfall in Wellington around 1570-1580.

From there, it is anybody’s guess as to how the Bell found its way under a huge tree in Northland.

Langdon criticised

However, Brett Hilder an Australian photographer and traveler called Langdon’s theory ‘utterly farfetched’. He attributed the arrival of the ‘Tamil Bell’ to New Zealand to a derelict ship.

Derelict ships, also known as ‘Ghost’ or ‘Phantom Ships,’ are abandoned vessels left to the mercy of the mighty ocean waves.

In his article titled, ‘The story of the Tamil Bell,’ that appeared in a publication, Hilder said, “Most stretches of coast are littered with driftwood from damaged or wrecked ships, including hundreds of vessels which have gone missing through the centuries without a trace and without any survivors to tell the tale.”

Could one of Mohaideen Baksh’s ships have met the same fate? Could it have been attacked and plundered by sea pirates? Could the abandoned ship then have drifted all the way to the coast of New Zealand to be discovered by the Maori?

The drift to Australian coast

Hilder provided an example in the article.

“Someone in the Koscivsko, a ship of the Aberdeen White Star Line, threw a bottle overboard in Cape Horn, Chile on March 30, 1890. For 2½ years it drifted on the ocean, carried by currents until it was recovered on the Australian coast near Portland, Victoria in October 1892. It has been calculated that to cover the distance of 9585 miles (15425.5 kilometers) in 934 days, the bottle drifted about 10.3 miles (16.5 kilometers) each day.”

Is this what happened to one of Mohaideen Baksh’s ships? Did it drift all the way to New Zealand bringing the Bell along? Or could it be simply a case of theft from the ship when it was plundered, and the Bell changed hands several times until it reached New Zealand?

The writing in Tamil

Although no thermoluminescence dating technique (to determine the age of metal) has been employed thus far to determine the time it was made, there are other clues with which we can attempt to determine this – the Tamil inscription itself.

The way Tamil is written today is very different to the writing found on the Bell.

Tamil is broadly classified into three categories. Old, Middle and Modern styles of writing.

Old Tamil may have been in use as early as the 6th Century BC up to 8th Century AD.

Middle Tamil was in use from the 8th Century AD until about the 13th Century AD after which, modern Tamil came into vogue.

Where does the writing on the Tamil Bell fit? Experts say that the inscriptions carry the traits of Middle Tamil (between 8 AD and 13 AD). This does not in any way prove that the Bell reached New Zealand as early as this period. However, it only adds on to the mystery and intrigue.

Now in Te Papa Wellington

The Bell in the possession of the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa) in Wellington, since it was bequeathed by Colenso in 1899, the year of his death.

Was the Bell brought to the shores of New Zealand by a ghost ship or by a non-European traveller who simply happened to have possession of it or was the truth something very different altogether? Was an Indian connection played out on the shores of New Zealand long before the Europeans arrived in New Zealand only to be forgotten by time? ­­­­­­

We may never know the answer to these questions but this mystery with all its intrigue continues.

Anbunirai (Anbu) Jayaseelan is an IT professional based in Auckland. He was a film journalist for many years in his native Tamil Nadu, India.


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