The Trap at Calicut
As we saw in the previous article, Vasco was in a very disgruntled and violent mood when he arrived at the shores in Malabar. However, the plunder of the Meri did indeed give him a good amount of satisfaction; he had after all decimated a number of heathen and amassed riches from the burning ship. The cries and death throes of the dying were of no concern to him and he now decided to take his bearings and head south, hugging the coast line. His first port of call was Cannanore where he summoned the Kolathiri chieftain to the dock and conducted the interview in the most uncivil and arrogant fashion, but we won’t get into that, for it is not quite important and we have already determined that Vasco was not the most diplomatic or civil of persons. The ensuing trade agreement did not satisfy the Gama and he was upset not only with the prices, but also the fact that Mappila merchants were being sent to negotiate with him. It was an exhibition of fiery tantrum which followed, which was quickly quenched by Paio Rodriguez who arrived to continue relations with the merchants.
The infuriated Gama departed the shore, and bombarded a small port on the way in anger (more like a tantrum) thinking it was a locale under the Zamorin’s protection, only to realize later that it was not. By this time Paio explained to the Kolathiri king that the Gama was acting on his own and this made the Kolathiri write a letter to Vasco stating that while he valued friendship with Gama, his intention was to lodge a formal complaint to Don Manuel about his actions.
Anyway the irritated admiral was by now wondering what to do to the Zamorin, for he had professed peace in a recent missive. The Zamorin requested a compromise and he agreed that the Gama had reasons to retaliate against the attack on the Portuguese factory and the Gama had retaliated in kind by destroying the Meri. The Zamorin’s letter indicated that they now had a clean slate from where the two parties could continue negotiations. Gama of course would have none of it, he wanted the entire 4,000 or so Arab (Cairo) Muslim population of Calicut, ‘the firangi traders’ expelled immediately. The Zamorin naturally refused to do that and Gama petulantly threatened to bomb the shoreline of Calicut (If one could check Vasco’s BP now, you would have recorded exceedingly high readings, possibly exacerbated by the intake of large amounts of salt on the voyage).
And so the Gama commenced bombing the Calicut shorelines and created mayhem. The trees were alone in resistance while the gentry watched. As bad luck would have it, some ships laden with rice were coming towards the harbor (I assume near Kallayi) and the Gama plundered them too. All the sailors on those ships were chopped up and hung to dry or cast into the waters. Temporarily satiated, he left for Cochin leaving his uncle Vincent Sodre to continue the blockade. This was about the time Vasco wrote the first of his abusive letters to the Zamorin in Malayalam (now this is interesting and we will get back to it another day for the other letters exchanged with the rulers were mostly in Arabic)
Now comes the prelude to the story of the purported trap which historic chronicler KD Madan introduces in a lovely choice of word play, to be – ‘a lean vein of history enveloped in thick and myriad layers of legend’. To get to the story, we start at Cochin.
Vasco had just mediated and impaled to death a local trader for selling beef, acting on the complaint of the Kochi raja. The Muslim traders were by this time aware of the atrocities done by the admiral and were not too keen to work with him. Rumors were strife that people of Cochin, Calicut and Cannanore were planning to rise up in arms against the Portuguese and Vasco was getting angrier by the minute. The capitulation that he expected after his show of force was not happening. By now it was January 1503.
On one of those troubled days, Vasco was surprised to meet a contingent of three people, a Brahmin (it appears this was Talappanna Namboothiri who knew Gama from his first visit - the person who conducted Gama to the Zamorin's chamber May 1498), his son and accompanied by two Nair bodyguards. He carried a letter from the Zamorin offering to settle the old argument by compensation of the goods lost in the Portuguese factory. The Gama was impressed with the choice of a Brahmin for negotiation and was even more surprised when the Brahmin asked to return to Portugal with the Gama. He had even brought along jewels worth 3000 Cruzados for the trip. He also requested to load about 12 bahars of cinnamon that he could trade in Portugal in his own account to which the Gama agreed.
The attack happened that night when a group of 70-80 small Zambuchi attacked the Flor de la Mar. That was the first and possibly only time Vasco was ever attacked with an intent to kill and destroy. The ship tried to flee but found that the Zamorins flotilla had secretly attached another anchor to the ship and made it immobile. Fighting raged, but the gods and luck were with the Portuguese. Just at that moment, Sodre arrived with his ships from Cannanore and with that the attackers fled.
The Gama hung the envoys (some say the Brahmin, some say his son) on the mast and went up and down the shoreline and wrote another blunt and threatening letter in Malayalam to the Zamorin, promising revenge. In some other versions it is said that the trap was detected not by Gama but by Koya Pakki and upon hearing this, the Brahmin was made to stand on hot embers till he confessed to the Zamorin’s plot. Afterwards, his ears and lips were cut off and parceled to the Zamorin.
The event is described thus in ‘the three voyages’ - Then, the captain-major commanded them to cut off the hands and ears and noses of all the crews, and put all that into one of the small vessels, into which he ordered them to put the friar, also without ears, or nose, or hands, which he ordered to be strung round his neck, with a palm-leaf for the King, on which he told him to have a curry mad to eat of what his friar brought him. When all the Indians had been thus executed, he ordered their feet to be tied together, as they had no hands with which to untie them: and in order that they should not untie them with their teeth he ordered them to strike upon their teeth with staves, and they knocked them down their throats; and they were thus put on board, heaped up upon the top of each other, mixed up with their blood which streamed from them; and he ordered mats and dry leaves to be spread over them, and the sails to be set for the shore, and the vessel set on fire; and there were more than eight hundred Moors; and the small vessel with the friar, with all the hands and ears, was also sent on shore under sail, without being fired. These vessels went at once on shore, where many people flocked together to put out the fire, and draw out those whom they found alive, upon which they made great lamentations.
Following this, the first organized retaliation took place. The Portuguese were attacked by about 32 local vessels, each with 400 men but they were quickly rebuffed by the Portuguese according to the various accounts. Gama captured a boy from one of the ships who recounted the background behind the attack. It appears that this was the first time the Mappilas (remember that all the previous engagements were primarily with the Arab trading community in Calicut) rose up in arms against the Portuguese, after being told to do so by the Zamorin. He had ordered about 7000 of them to go up in arms in a Chaver style suicide attack against the Gama. The Mappailas were not quite prepared for that as the Vasco had declared enmity only at the ‘moors of Mecca’, not the local Moplahs. But they finally decided to. The Zamorin as it appears had a palace near Kallayi on a hill from where he watched the event, which sadly ended in defeat and much devastation and loss of life.
The Dutch narrative Calcoen describes it thus - On the 12th of February we fought with the king of Calcoen, who had thirty-five ships, besides the rowing boats. In each of these boats were about sixty to seventy men, and we had no more than twenty-two men, and with that, thanks to God, we beat them; and we took two large ships, and slaughtered all the people that were in them, and burnt the ships before the town of Calcoen, where the king was present; and the next day we sailed for Cannaer, and prepared everything to return to Portugal, That happened in 1503, the 12th day of February.
In another article I will tell you the story of this Koya Pakki, but before that I cannot rest in peace till I tell you about the death of the Gama which will conclude the story of Gama and his atrocities in Malabar. That summer did not go well for the Zamorin as well, for he lost close to 20000 people to twin attacks of Cholera and Smallpox. Interestingly the events surrounding Gama’s second and third visits are not found in the Tuhfat Al Mujahidin and I wonder why.
Vasco and his ships sailed back, to be received in Lisbon to much fanfare by Sept 1503.
The curse of Calicut lies over the Flor de La Mar.
Life and travels of Vasco Da Gama - K. D. Madan
The career and legend of Vasco d agama – Sanjay Subrahmanyam
The Three Voyages of Vasco de Gama H. E. J. Stanley
Pics –Maritime Museum, replica of the Frol de la Mar ship, Malacca – Malaysia (Portrugral Luzo)