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The Astrologer and the Gama

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Why did the Kolathiri’s of Cannanore welcome the Portuguese with open arms? Was it because of the rivalry between the Kolathiri’s and the Zamorin? Or was it something else? This is yet another interesting story. Read on my friends. How an astrologer or an Arab may have been the cause of the change of fortunes of an entire region and later the country of India.

I got intrigued reading this account which said, ‘300 years before the arrival of the Portuguese, there lived a Kanian in Cannanore who was so famous that many of his predictions were documented for posterity. One of these related to the arrival of the Europeans from the West and their supremacy thereafter.’ (Padmanabhan Thampi narrates thus in an article - Calcutta Review 1901). Thampi actually derives this information from the Lendas da India written by Correa. This Kanian predicted that Europeans would arrive at the shores of Malabar and would reign supreme. According to Thampi, this was the reason why Gama and later captains received a favorable reception from the Kolathiri’s of Cannanore and this was probably the reason why the Portuguese got a strong base to continue their trade in Malabar even though Calicut was hostile. Now all this sounded somewhat vague, so I decided to check this out further. As I read the Correa rendition, I found the connections dubious & circumstantial, to state the least.

But then I found this corroborated somewhat by Nagam Aiya in his Travancore State Manual, Vol 1, Page 270. He says – Gaspar Correa the historian of Portuguese India, gives the story of a kanian or astrologer living at Cannanore three hundred or four hundred years before the arrival of the Portuguese, who had a great reputation for astrology that his predictions were committed to writing, one of which related to the arrival of Europeans from the West, who would attain superiority of India. Now, many historians debate the credibility of Gaspar, so what did he actually have to say?

I decided to check out the Book of three voyages (Correas book translated by Henry Stanley –Hakluyt Society) which indeed confirms that soothsayers have been trying to convince the King of Cannanore to accept Gama and they should be friendly with the Franks unlike the Zamorin of Calicut. At the bottom of the subject chapter, the book also refers to a possible reason for the input

Here is what Correa had to say, in Chapter XVIII

How the Portuguese went to the port of Cananor, and saw the King, and of what happened with him, and what they settled.

While the Portuguese were at Calecut, the King of Cananor always knew all that happened to them, because he had sent people for that purpose to write to him everything.


The Moors of Cananor, who received information from those of Calecut, in order to indispose the inclination of the King, used to tell him many lies about the Portuguese, that they used violence and arrogance in Calecut, and many other false tales with respect to which the King knew the truth.

For which reason, one day that the Moors were thus relating these things to him, he said that no one should tell him lies, because he would order his head to be cut off for it. The King said this because he had already settled in his heart that he would establish as much peace with the Portuguese as they might be willing, because he was always talking to his soothsayers, who continually repeated what they had said to the King, and they said to him that the evils done in Calecut caused by the Moors would doubtless grow, and that the Portuguese would always do much harm to Calecut, and would destroy the Moors throughout India, and would turn them out of India, and they would never again possess the navigation which they now had. The King said that if that came to pass, that he also would receive great losses to his kingdom. The soothsayers said to him and gave great assurances that so it would be, because the Portuguese would be masters of the sea, and that no one would be able to navigate upon it unless they were friends of the Portuguese, and that whoever were their enemies would be destroyed at sea and on the land, and that they were telling him the truth, and he should take counsel and do what appeared to him to be for the best. (Footnote)

The Portuguese, then, running along the coast with land and sea breezes, Avhich was in November of 1498, found themselves one morning in sight of Cananor, far out at sea, and the King had kept boats out at sea lest they should pass by night; the land breeze began to fall and the ships became becalmed until there sprung up a change of wind from the sea which brought them to land, and they came before the port of Cananor." When the ships were sighted, the King at once sent to them a large boat, which they call a parao, with a good crew, in which he sent a Nair of his with a message to the captains, begging them much and supplicating them by the life of the King their sovereign, not to pass by without going to his port to see him, because it was very necessary for a great good, and also for them to refit themselves, for he already knew the evil which had been done them in Calecut, which he regretted very much.

(Footnote) The following lines from a Persian Kasidah, or ode of Niamet Ullah Wely, written in the year 570 a.h. or 1174 A.D., may be given as an instance of the sayings of the soothsayers referred to in the text. The nation of the Christians shall seize upon the whole of Hindostan. Then, when tyranny and innovation shall have become a custom among them, The King of the West shall fight against them victoriously, Between them there shall be great wars, …………..


Now how did one become the other? Correa talks of soothsayers and astrologers advising the King. Thampi and later Nagam Aiya talk about the prophecy of a famous Kanain in the 1100 A.D. period. However, the Correa book’s translation by Stanley attributes all this to the prophecies of a Sufi saint. There was definitely no mention of a Kanain who said something 300-400 years ago. Where did Aiya and Thampi get this idea in the first place?

To get to their conclusions, one must check another source, the writings of Fr Jordanus, quoted by Thampi. Jordanus says in a letter written in 1323 ‘the people (of Malabar) are in continuous expectation of Latins here, which they say is clearly predicted in their books’. Naimatulla Shah Wali Bukhari incidentally is considered the Muslim Nostradamus, he was a Sufi saint who lived in the Kashmir Valley around 900 years ago and provided many such prophecies in his Qaseeda. However the question of whether the input was from Malabar astrologers or the pilot of Gama’s ship Ahmad Ibn Majid (based on the Sufi saint’s teachings perhaps), is not yet clear, for Fr Jordanus account is relatively independent of all this. Camoens says in his Luisids that the Gama was told by his escort (Ibn Majid, I assume) that the sages of Malabar had predicted a conquest against which ‘no human resistance shall prevail’.

KM Panikkar in his ‘Malabar & the Portuguese’ mentions that it was purely rivalry with the Zamorin that made the Kolathiri’s decide to shake hands with the Portuguese – ‘my enemy’s enemy is naturally my friend’ kind of situation. Logan provides a bit of mystery as he explains the event. The Kolathiri king decided to meet the Gama face to face and had a long wooden bridge constructed and clambered on to the ship Sao Gabriel. The Gama’s greeted him and gave him many gifts (he details the various gifts in Page 301). Now how is it that the Gama had so many gifts for the Kolathiri but had pleaded that he had none for the Zamorin? History tells us that he did not really have anything of importance to offer the Zamorin. Anyway the visit ended with the Kolathiri providing the Gama a golden leaf with a trade agreement.

Correa continues ‘Thus it was because the King of Cannanore thought that these pale-faced strangers were the people spoken of by the soothsayer, that he welcomed them so kindly’. But he was wrong for they would be succeeded later by the Dutch and later the English as real rulers, as history was to prove.

Anyway the real reasoning of the Cannanore king was probably self preservation & trade and his enmity with the Zamorin. It was to be emulated again by the Cochin king who did exactly the same to get his revenge on the Zamorin.

Nevertheless, in fairness to the repute of the Kanian, it is also true that in medieval times, astrological inputs were very important in Kerala (as it is now) when it comes to decision making, while it’s connection to the Gama event is at best tenuous.

Notes:

Kanian, kanisan is the Malayalam equivalent of Ganika (saskrit for astrologer) or Malayalam Kani. The caste is covered in detail in Edgar Thurston’s book

Funnily, the Portuguese themselves had based their entire trip on the blessings of a famous mathematician and astrologer named Abraham Zacuto. He explained to Gama how they could cross the Cape of Good Hope and avoid fierce storms. It was his convincing argument to King Manuel that got a nod to Gama’s voyage, in reality.

References

Christopher Columbus and the participation of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries. By Meyer Kayserling, Charles Gross
The three voyages of Vasco da Gama, and his viceroyalty Gaspar Correa – Translated by Baron Henry Edward John Stanley Stanley
Travancore state manual – Nagam Aiya
Calcutta review Calcutta review, Volumes 112-113, Pg 207
Mirabilia descripta: the wonders of the East By Jordanus

Pic – Ahmad Ibn majid – Saudi Aramco World, Gama ship – Wikimedia commons

6 comments:

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    "self preservation & trade and his enmity with the Zamorin" This was perhaps the only reason. Sooth sayers do play an important role. Thanks for this interesting insight.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Skillful bringing together of diverse sources and weaving a good story! Congrats!! Somehow, CHF and you seem to focus on more or less the same topics. This has happened twice before!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS.. the mystery is still not solved though..

    CHF - thanks a lot. yup - i guess there is somehow a convergence at times, since both focus around calicut and malabar and historical events & persons concerning them, however I hope the study & treatment differs sufficiently for both to evince interest.

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for this fantastic blog. It's a honest compliment from another Malabar Mallu in LA who also loves history.

    Since I'm not familiar with Kerala history, this blog has been a revelation.

    Keep up this fabulous endeavor !!

    - Ratheesh Raghavan

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Ratheesh, I hope i have set you on the right road for it is mostly the knowledge of history that explains some of the present.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    A clarification. 'Same topics' was in the sense that both CHF and Historical Alleys seem to be writing on similar topics around the same time. Eg: Burton, Zamorin's priority for trade etc.This is purely accidental and perhaps proves again that great minds think alike!