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Cabral's Hostages

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Idakkela Menon and Prangoda Menon were two hostages that Portuguese commander Pedro Alvarez Cabral took back with him to Lisbon after a fight with the Zamorin’s troops on 16th Jan 1501, or so I read in the Cochin state Manual.

Whatever happened to them? The quest for an answer proved to be a very interesting research and took all my experience from reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in finally arriving at a plausible explanation.

As the story goes, Idakkela Menon returned to Cochin and was employed as a chief interpreter, obviously learning the Portuguese language during the voyage and the short stay at Lisbon. But Parangoda Menon vanished from the records. Some books mention that these two were originally employed by the then Cochin Raja Unni Goda Varma. (‘Ships of Discovery and Exploration’ by Lincoln P. Paine P.8 and ‘The Career and legend of Vasco Da Gama’ Sanjay Subramaniam P.181)

I wondered - This seems unlikely as Menon’s were honorary positions given by the Zamorin and usually remained in the employ of the Zamorin, and not his rival the Cochin Raja, but well, I guessed they were probably Nair’s and not Menon’s in the first place. Logan confirmed in Malabar Manual (p.305) that they were indeed working for the Cochin Raja, who incidentally was indignant that his subjects were ported away to Lisbon. Cabral later stated that they were accidentally taken by him into the ship

Further study of the Cabral voyage revealed that he had two other Malayalees and that these two were Joseph and Mathai, two Nazrani’s from Cranganore. The waters were muddled though. Most other books mentioned only Joseph and Mathai. Some confused the priest Joseph with a converted Yogi. Some books said that Mathai died on the ship, some said he died at Lisbon. But the story of Joseph is well recorded. He is none other than the illustrious Joseph the Indian.

Joseph the Indian…

In the Cabral ship that departed Cochin on 10th Jan 1501 was the 40 year old Joseph, ‘a man with a benevolent reception’ and his brother Mathias (Mathai). Fr Joseph was a St Thomas Christian Nazrani who hailed from Cranganore (Kodungallur). Mathias died enroute (or at Lisbon). After reaching Lisbon in June 1501, and meeting King Manuel, he stayed in Lisbon for 6 months as a royal guest (as the first Indian Christian to visit Europe) before proceeding to meet Pope Alexander VI in Rome. Then he left for Venice in 1502 and remained a guest of the Signoria of Venice and from there went on ‘probably’ to Jerusalem and Persia (Aramea and Babylon). Some say he came back to Lisbon from Venice. The various interviews he gave at Venice, Lisbon and Rome became known as the ‘Narratives of Joseph the India’, the very first accounts of India by an Indian. Strangely the identity of the person who recorded the interviews is unknown to history.

It appears that Joseph came back safe and sound and is identified as the Chief priest at Cranganore in the mentions of Pentaedo around 1518. Anyway Joseph is stated to be 40-ish, dark in complexion, of medium build, very ingenious, truthful and honest, remarkably friendly and of blemishless faith. Joseph himself had traveled extensively before, having been ordained at Babylon by the bishop of Babylon. In Novus Orbis the original account of his narratives – Joseph briefly describes Cranganore, Calicut, the customs of Kerala, the majestic war ships of China which had twelve sails and innumerable rowers etc for the first time from a Malayali perspective. The language people spoke in Kerala was termed ‘Malanar’ by Joseph!

All above Information from: India in 1500AD by Anthony Vallavanthara and Voyage of Pedro Alvarez Cabral – William Brooks Greenlee I consider the efforts of Fr Anthony Vallavanthara in providing an English translation after studying at least three versions of the narratives of Joseph, invaluable.

Eventually I came across a short book ‘Kerala Coast The Portuguese contributions’ by PJ Tomy, Retd professor of Kerala Agricultural University. He cleared up the story somewhat with a personal comment. The names were not Idakkela Menon and Parangoda Menon in the first place. They were according to him, Ittikoran and Peringodan, two typical Malayali Nazrani names!! He believed that Ittekkoran and Peringodan were perhaps the local names of Joseph & Mathai. Well quite plausible indeed. So that accounted for two Malabari’s in the ship, out of the total four we started with…or were there four?

But Prof Tomy helped clarify the case somewhat. He also transcribed the following from Padmanabha Menon’s Cochin Manual - about the people who aspired to go to Portugal on the Cabral ship in Jan 1501.

Attracted by information from the persons who returned from Portugal, an ascetic, (Some ascribe as a Brahmin Yogi) approached the friars while at Calicut, and expressed his desire to see Portugal. The friars said that he could be taken only if he embraced Christianity. The Yogi agreed to get baptized. He was baptized as Michael (Miguel) Vaz. It was the first Baptism by the Portuguese in Kerala.

The king of Kochi, pleased with the Portuguese, sent one of his relatives - a Nair youth, with Cabral to Portugal. He carried a letter from the king of Kochi to the king of Portugal written on a gold platter. During the journey the Nair youth studied Portuguese. Cabral presented him before the king in the costume of a Nair soldier. King Emmanuel was very much delighted and provided him a house to stay at Lisbon. The Nair youth desired to get baptized. The King arranged his baptism through Bishop Calcaditha. He was given the name of the king ‘Manuel’. Vasco da Gama and Cabral were his god fathers. Manuel was engaged in the palace of the King of Portugal as an interpreter and also to write letters to the king of Kochi. He was very zealous in religious matters and was a bachelor throughout. When he died, he was given a royal burial in a Cathedral. Manuel had left behind a good fortune. His wealth was divided between the churches and his associates as he had desired in his will. (Kochi Rajya Charithram - Padmanabha Menon, p. 132)

CP Achyuta Menon in the Cochin state Manual (p.79) states the following based on the MS translation of Gaspar Correa’s Lendas da India thereby corroborating Padmanabha Menon – There was a Nair youth as well, on the ship. He became friendly with King Emmanuel while at Lisbon and later became a Christian. A house was presented to him and he received a handsome pension. He lived like a Fidalgo and used to conduct correspondence with the King of Cochin regularly. He died in Portugal and was by the kings order honorably buried in the Cathedral of Evora, his wealth being divided between they churches and his servants as provided in his will.

Om Prakash concurs in his book ‘Encyclopedia history of Indian Movement’ that you can still see Manuel’s tomb at the Cathedral grounds. So much for Manuel, the first wealthy NRI!!!.

I then recalled that a Miguel Vaz, the Vicar General, based on a recommendation by Dom Jao da Cruz (see my previous blog) baptized many thousand Paravas in Cochin and Tuticorin around 1532. Later St Xavier came in 1542 to look after those Parava converts. So that is how the Miguel Vaz who went with Cabral reappeared in history books. Miguel Vaz rose up the ranks of Indian clergy and went to Goa while remaining a great friend of St Xavier.

It was this Miguel Vaz who continued his missionary work in Japan in 1563 after learning the Japanese language (correction – I discovered later, that this M Vaz was a later day abbot).

And that accounted for the Yogi convert.

The jigsaw puzzle of the Cabral hostages had finally been resolved; each hostage finding a proper niche in history except for the poor Mathais. My research on the Menon hostages from Malabar had reached a satisfactory conclusion. There were no Menon’s on board, in the first place, but the Malayalees were Joseph, Mathias, Miguel Vaz and Manuel. The only unknowns were the original names of Miguel and Manuel. It is also not clear why they were all termed hostages when all of them asked to accompany Cabral.

Pedro Alvarez Cabral – Succeeded Vasco Da Gama in establishing Portuguese links with the Malabar Coast. His commission was to establish permanent commercial relations and to introduce Christianity wherever he went, using force of arms if necessary. Starting with 13 ships he went on to formally (a clandestine operation, it seems) discover Brazil and Madagascar before reaching Calicut. Here he, if you ask me, made a nuisance of himself, bombarding various towns and creating mayhem in the pretext of establishing Portuguese supremacy. In this voyage, he lost 9 out of 13 ships and many sailors. Cabral got back to Lisbon in 1501 with the above Malayalees on board, little wealth, and soon fell out of favor with the King, never to be in the limelight again or commanding any ship. Cabral however was the first to manipulate the enmity between the Zamorin and the Cochin Raja to Portuguese benefit.

Another interesting snippet - Vasco Da Gama sailed off to Portugal on 28th August 1498 holding 14 (others say 4, 5 or 6) Malayalee captives on board. What happened to them? Food for thought.

Photos – Wikipedia and the Cabral ship pic from Guardian - A replica of the caravel of the 15th century Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral sails past the Belem tower in Lisbon at the start of a regatta celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil by Cabral.


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    The story of Joseph mentions that Cabral landed in Cranganore in 1500 and allowed Joseph and his brother to board the ship at the 'port of Cranganore'. Was there a port of Cranganore in 1500 after the flood of 1341 had silted the mouth? It seems Cochin or Mattancherry came up after Cranganore has been silted. There is a reference that Cranganore was 15 miles from the shore! How do we reconcile these blatant anachronisms?

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF..
    Actually the various records mentions that Cabral loaded his ships from Cochin in 7 days and did find time to send smaller boats through the river to Cranganur for some goods and perhaps, these people..