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The Plunder and Massacre of 'The Meri'

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Off Cannanore - Northern Malabar Sept 1502

Vasco Da Gama is considered by many to be a great navigator, a shrewd leader and a diplomat in history books. But was he really that? Did he have a violent streak? If you dig deep into history books, you will find that he indeed had a violent streak and this was exhibited many times, though it was all far away from home and in trading lands, especially those he subdued with the power of the gun. This unlettered though crude and many a time sadistically violent sailor was nevertheless loyal to his king and proved fearless until his death. By today’s legal yardsticks and violence that Europe eschews, he would be rotting away in jails for his actions. Then again this was a long time ago, when might was perhaps, right and where it was proven by the power of a bigger gun and dishonest warring techniques. Vasco was after all, to summarize, as a detailed study of events that transpired after 1497 proves, brutal and single-minded, cunning, rash and suspicious. According to Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the "systematic use of violence at sea" was introduced after the arrival of the Portuguese.

Lets us first get some perspective. Gama had come to Calicut in 1498 and returned. A couple of issues caused his detractors to hound him, one being his declaration that Malabar was a land of Christians and second being the fact that some others in the kings court did not accept the discovery of Calicut a discovery, as Gama did, sailing close to land. But Gama rode the storm with aplomb and became a noted figure in Lisbon. In the meantime, Cabral was sent to assimilate the Portuguese positions in matters concerning trade. The old Zamorin whom Gama had met had passed away and the new entrant was a younger and more energetic person, who was up and about. Cabral quickly got his attention by an act of piracy, getting him a war elephant he desired, from a Gujarati vessel. Soon after a trade agreement was signed and the Portuguese built a factory in Calicut. But the Portuguese misinterpreted the broad aspects of the agreement thinking that they had priority over all spice loading. A laden vessel bound for Jeddah was thus seized by them, and the Muslims at Calicut reacted violently massacring the Portuguese, killing about 54 of them and destroying the goods stored in the factory. The Portuguese reacted in kind as they did not get any support from the Zamorin, by destroying 12 Arab vessels and bombarded Calicut and Pantalayani, before departing to Cochin where Unni Goda Varma seeing great possibilities welcomed them with more than open arms. The background and more is quite well explained in the many sources covering the Portuguese harassment of Malabar.

Things continued on for a couple of years and the hostilities between Cochin, Portuguese and Calicut continued as I had recounted earlier in other articles. In 1502, however, Vasco departed with 20 vessels to Malabar. The reason why Vasco Da Gama was deputed to Malabar in 1502 is not quite clear for the ‘regimento’ of the 2nd voyage has never been found. It is believed that the ongoing rivalry and politics between Alvarez Cabral and Vincent Sodre (Gama’s uncle – who was responsible for naval support to Cabral) resulted in the Gama drawing up on all his seafaring relatives and proceeding to Malabar to sort out the issues. Or was it personal greed? We shall soon see.

The story that I will now detail is about the callous massacre of some 300 people and the destruction of an inbound ship from Mecca carrying mainly Hajj pilgrims back to Malabar. It took place over 5 days between 29th Sept and 3rd Oct 1502.

Gama left Lisbon on 3rd March 1502 commanding 15 ships accompanied by his cousin Estavo Gama commanding another 5. Gama assumed the Captain Major title (it was a special decree granted by the King of Portugal that allowed Gama to assume the title whenever he wished!). The long voyage to Cannanore and Calicut was not uneventful, for at Sofala, his ship collided with another in his fleet commanded by Joao De Fonseca after which the latter had to be burnt and sunk. The Gama was obviously in a vile mood as he reached the shores of Cannanore around the 28th of Sept. They spent a couple of days trying to locate some inbound ships from the Red sea with intent to pillage, but it was not until the 29th Sept that they sighted the fully loaded Meri (also called ‘The Merim’ in some accounts).

The ownership of the boat is disputed. KM Panikkar states it belonged to Khoja Kassim’s brother settled in Calicut. KV Krishna Iyer mentions it was the Sahabandar Koya’s (port commissioner of Calicut) brother’s ship. According to Iyer, this Koya was Gama’s number # 1 enemy, so the intent from the beginning was clear. In some other sources the ship belonged to a rich Gujarati trader and yet others, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. Other accounts refer to this ship as the Meri or Miri and claim that it was owned by the Mamluk Sultan Qansawh al-Ghawri. Then again comes the issue with the names, for Koyas were not exactly Khojas as far as I know, since the Koya’s were Tharavadi Moplahs with Hindu ancestry (I will cover this interesting collection of Muslim subdivisions and caste divisions of medieval Calicut in another article). Anyway back to our story…but note here that this would come up later in discussions, for the Portuguese countered that they believed the ship was Gujarati. The ship was returning from Mecca (some accounts mention it was bound to Mecca, departing Calicut) and curving down in passage to Calicut.

The meeting of the Portuguese armada and the pilgrim ship resulted in an event that can perhaps be called one of the cruelest actions in history, though it has been glossed over by people of that time and many years thereafter. Upon seeing the Meri, The Portuguese ships fired warning shots, but the pilgrim ship did not retaliate even though it had artillery. The ship was loaded with very rich people and 10 of the richest Muslims of Calicut were on board, led by Jauhar Al Faquih. Gama proceeded to negotiate with this man, who first offered money & spices, which was refused by Gama. He then offered Gama one of his wives, his nephew as ransom and offered to load 4 Portuguese ships with spices. These discussions went on for 5 days. He also offered to arrange friendship between Gama and the new Zamorin. Gama refused and demanded all the wealth on the ship. The proud Al Faquih responded by asking Gama to ask for it himself as he had taken over command of the ship. Gama did that and obtained much money and jewels and in return first provided five boats of food items. He then disarmed the ship and boarded it, ordering his men to set fire to various parts of the ship and after it had caught fire, sailed away. The valiant pilgrims somehow put out the fire, but seeing this, the Gama came back to finish it off. The desperate pilgrims and women offered all their jewels and riches, if only they were allowed to leave with their infants and children.

Gama watched on impassively (or was he enjoying it?) through a spy hole as Thome Lopes noted; thoroughly perplexed for the riches left on the ship were so much that it could be put to great use. But let us pick up the event from his words..

The ship being taken after a vigorous resistance, the General went on board, and sending for the principal Moors ordered them to produce such merchandizes as they had, threatening them, otherwise, to have them thrown into the sea. They pretended all their effects were at Kalekut; but one of them having been flung overboard, bound hand and foot, the rest, through fear, delivered their goods. All the children were carried into the General's ship, and the remainder of the plunder given to the sailors. After which, Stephen de Gama, by Don Vasco's order, set fire to the vessel; but the Moors, having broken up the hatches under which they were confined, and quenched the flames with the water that was in the ship, Stephen was commanded to lay them aboard. The Moors, having been made desperate with the apprehension of their danger, received him with great resolution, and even attempted to burn the other ships.

" Night coming on, he was obliged to desist without doing his work; but the General gave orders, that the vessel should be watched, that the passengers might not, by favor of the darkness, escape to land, which was near. All night long the poor unhappy Moors called on Muhammad to help them, but the dead can neither hear nor succor their votaries. In the morning, Stephen de Gama was sent to execute his former orders. He boarded the ship, and, setting fire to it, drove the Moors into the poop, who still defended themselves; for some of the sailors would not leave the vessel till it was half burnt. Many of the Moors, when they saw the flames approach them, leaped into the sea with hatchets in their hands, and, swimming, fought with their pursuers. Some even made up to, and attacked, the boats, doing much hurt; however, most of them were at length slain, and all those drowned who remained in the ship, which soon after sunk. So that of three hundred persons, (among whom were thirty women,) not one escaped the fire, sword, or water."

Castenada another scribe and historian concurs

When the ship surrendered, De Gama went on board and commanded the owners and all the principal Moors to come before him, whom he ordered to produce all their goods on pain of being thrown overboard. They answered that they had nothing to produce, as all their goods were in Calicut; on which De Gama ordered one of them to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the sea. The rest were intimidated by this procedure, and immediately delivered up every thing belonging to them, which was very valuable; all of which was committed to the charge of Diego Hernando Correa, the factor appointed for conducting the trade at Cochin, by whose directions they were transported into one of the Portuguese ships. De Gama ordered all the children belonging to the Moors to be taken on board one of his own ships, and vowed to make them all friars in the church of our Lady at Belem, which he afterwards did.


All the ordinary merchandize belonging to the Moors was divided among his own men; and when all the goods were removed, he ordered Stephen de la Gama to confine the Moors under the hatches, and to set the ship on fire, to revenge the death of the Portuguese who were slain in the factory at Calicut. Soon after this was done, the Moors broke open the hatches, and quenched the fire; on which the admiral ordered Stephen de Gama to lay them aboard. The Moors, rendered desperate by this inhuman treatment, defended themselves to the utmost, and even threw firebrands into our ship to set it on fire. Night coming on, Stephen had to desist, but was ordered to watch the Moorish ship carefully that it might not escape during the dark, and the Moors all night long were heard calling on Mahomet to deliver them out of the hands of the Christians. When day appeared, the admiral again ordered Stephen de la Gama to set the ship on fire, which he did accordingly, after forcing the Moors to retreat into the poop. Some of the Moors leapt into the sea with hatchets in their hands, and endeavored to swim to our boats; but all of these were slain in the water by our people, and those that remained in the ship were all drowned, as the vessel sunk. Of 300 Moors, of whom thirty were women, not one escaped alive; and some of our men were hurt.

The author of Calcoen alludes to the monetary value of plunder thus - " We took a Mecca ship on board of which were 380 men and many women and children, and we took from it fully 12,000 ducats, with goods worth at least another 10,000. And we burned the ship and all the people on board with gunpowder, on the first day of October." Lopes declares that the wealth on board would have sufficed to ransom every Christian slave in " the kingdom of Fez," and even then to leave a handsome balance.

Sanjay Subramanian adds that the Meri tried some desperate tactics like ramming the Portuguese ship. In the middle of all this, one person escaped from the doomed Meri (in addition to the 20 children), this being the hunchback pilot of the doomed ship. He swam to the Portuguese ships and bargained for his life by telling the Gama where to place the charges to blow up the ship effectively. Gama did just that and brought an end to the 5 day misery of the Meri and its victims. He took a position later by telling the Zamorin that all this was done to avenge the events of 1500 in Calicut (which I had started with) and the death of one Portuguese sailor during the melee (crushed during the ramming event).

With that a curtain was finally brought down over one of the most barbaric acts by a cruel man, one that would draw a rigid line between the Portuguese and the Muslim traders of Malabar. As Kerr concluded, ‘Such a story as this is enough to make us deny De Gama's right to the epithet humane, which is frequently bestowed, did we not make proper allowance for the barbarity of his times. Besides, it amounts to a trifle compared with the atrocities which marked the course of some of his successors in their career of conquest and crime’.

Aftermath

The hunchback pilot became a mainstay for the Portuguese after this event. In fact a number of fine clothes that the Gama plundered from the Meri were, as an afterthought given to the pilot to dress himself. But he would not live long, for during a voyage to the Red sea with Sodre, Vincente Sodre himself was mysteriously killed. Sodre’s brother Bras then murdered the hunchbacked pilot, who incidentally considered as the best pilot in their service. And later, Bras also got killed mysteriously. All this is good stuff for a nice fictional story for the motives and events are all there to create a good fictional account.

The Zamorin was not going to take it lying down, he planned his revenge, and proceeded to lay a trap for the Gama, that story will be told in the next part.

The 20 children taken off the Meri became friars. According to De Faria, this was done in retaliation for the action of a Portuguese soldado who had turned Mohammedan. The 20 kids were attached to St. Mary's church, at Belem near Lisbon.

My copy of Sanjay’s book is a second hand purchase. On the page with the story of the Meri, the previous owner, a student obviously, had penned in ink “Da Gama is a Punk’. I agree with that young fella, with all my heart.

Gama did not hesitate in enriching himself during all this. During this trip he amassed a fortune of pearls by plunder and other jewels worth about 40,000 ducats. That alone established the extent of his horrible character. The 1502 trip was thus a family event where all of them quietly amassed fortunes at the expense of the people of Malabar. So was the 1502 trip just meant to enhance his retirement account and a peaceful passage to heaven? Not really, for some years later, he died a miserable death, about which I will write in part 3 of this article. As we know even after his death, his soul did not rest in peace. But naturally, he deserved that and more.

The story of the Meri has been used by a number of writers to spice up or pepper their books. The first fictional account was written around 1939 by Saradindu Bhandopadhyaya, in his short story Raktha Sandya. I read that with interest, a fine story, though kind of abrupt in its ending.

As somebody else remarked – That is Dom Vasco da Gama! There's no appeasing the devil in him; no chance of exorcism.

Concluding, let us read the words of KG Jayne - D. Vasco proceeded on his way, doubtless well pleased with this exploit, and anchored off Calicut on the 30th of October 1502. There can be little doubt that the burning of the Meri and similar achievements were regarded in Europe as laudable manifestations of zeal for religion. D. Vasco, had his conduct been challenged, would assuredly have answered, with honest and indignant surprise, that he was only doing his duty as a Christian in exterminating the vile brood of Muhammad ; that his acts of piracy and pillage were authorized by ‘ letters of marquee from God’

References

A general history of voyages and travels to the end of the 18th century - By Robert Kerr
History of the Discovery and Conquest of India - Hernan Lopez de Castaneda
The three voyages of Vasco de Gama - Gaspar CorrĂȘa
The career & legend of Vasco Da Gama – Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Vasco Da Gama and His Successors - K. G. Jayne

Notes

I have not yet seen the movie ‘Urumi’ which alludes to this story as a backdrop. It appears that the sword Urumi is made from the gold melted out of the ornaments of dead people - women and children - who were burnt alive in a massacre aboard this ship. But as we know, nothing is left of the 300 odd people and they sank with their jewels.

An Urumi made of gold would be a relatively worthless though symbolic piece of weaponry, gold being too soft for the purpose even if it were less than 20 carat. Then again the urumi was a weapon of choice for chekavar women (Unniarcha used one with great effect), so the prospect of that being the main weapon of Kelu Nayanar seems somewhat vague. But then again, Tatcholi Otenan had also mastered the use of the Urumi (a thin sword) from what I read. He was a master in the use of the Urumi and he could, by one sweep of it, graze the throat of a man without cutting and shedding a drop of blood. Interesting, eh??


Part 2 – The Trap at Calicut
Part 3 - Gama's death

10 comments:

  1. Nabeel

    Good writeup Maddy..A read of Tariq Ali's Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree can give a background to the mentality that drove the Portuguese to attack the Muslims(Moors). Its a really interesting read.

  1. Rameez P. P.
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    A good summary of the event. Miri was most probably returning from Mecca and the Portuguese knew that ships returning from Mecca were laden with gold. Those days there was no separate passenger service to Mecca (which was also an important spice trading centre, by the way - Mohammed himself was a spice trader before he received enlightenment). Pilgrims would travel in ships which transported spices from the Indies. The spices were paid for in gold only (remember, the Zamorin refused to accept any thing other than gold in exchange for spices during da Gama's first visit). Portuguese knew that Miri had a lot of gold on board, in addition to other merchandise including some spices not available on the Malabar coast.
    We think it is futile to look for historical accuracy in works of fiction. If Genelia will not remind one of that, what else will?

  1. Maddy

    thanks nabeel
    tariq ali's work is a quintet right? which one did you mean? the first book? I have to check it out...

  1. Maddy

    thanks rameez..
    i have no idea & have not seen urumi so far, i wrote about the urumi only as an aside..

  1. Maddy

    thanks CHF..

    the hajj ship story was indeed a sad reminder of gama's cruelty and greed.

    Ah Genelia..yes her face can launch a few if not a 1000 ships.. lovely lady..and then again, her lineage may perhaps lead you all the way back to the Lisbon of the 16th century..

  1. Nidheesh

    Good one maddy!!!

    As of Urumi, it is a good movie. It is more of a revenge story than about patriotism. Our hero hated Mr Vasco because the explorer murdered his father - and he wanted the explorer's head as a revenge. Also it is purely a work of fiction, as the director himself says that it is a story where fictional characters interact with real life characters. Even some real life charecters has been brought forward from their original timelines to suit the story.

    Nowhere else (except in Urumi) have I heard of Vasco da Gama's son being kidnapped by the Kolathiri's army or a Kolatiri Raja being shot and murdered by his own son as it happens in the movie.

  1. Nabeel

    Maddy, yes its a quintet. I've read only the one about erstwhile Spain of that era. Portugal wasn't very different. It was more or less the same kingdom, and within a few decades actually merged themselves into one.

  1. 0c527a6e-97e9-11e0-bd38-000bcdcb471e

    Nice writeup...Do you know if all the 20 children became friars? It would be interesting if some actually married and if their lineage still existed today. Or, if they preserved their own written account of what happened and how life was for them in Portugal. Anyways, that must have been really traumatic for all of them.

  1. Ashvin

    This story features in 'Lore and Legends of North Malabar', my English translation of Sri Vanidas Elayavoor's Malayalam work 'Vadakkan Aithihyamala' published by DC Books.

    The book is available at all DC Books Stores, DC Books online as well as on Amazon.in

    http://www.thehindu.com/books/In-the-%E2%80%98write%E2%80%99-direction/article16083312.ece