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The Infamous Portuguese Cartaz

Posted by Maddy Labels:

In many of my previous articles, I mentioned in passing the so called Cartaz or pass system instated by the Portuguese who controlled Malabar and Indian west coast trade. Perhaps it is time now to get into some details of what exactly it was and how the Cartaz policy and system was introduced and enforced.

Its name could have been derived from the Arabic "qirtas" and may have had a previous use in both the Indian Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean seas, many centuries ago. Perhaps it even had Indian antecedants, for Ibn batuta mentioned it as present in Barkur or Faknur.

Quoting Ibn Batuta – The Hindu ruler of Barkur (“Fakanur”) “possesses about thirty warships, commanded by a Muslim called Lula , an evildoer who robs at sea and plunders merchants on the sea.” The passage continues: It is a custom of theirs that every ship that passes by a town must anchor at it and give a present to the ruler. This they call the right of the harbor [haqq al-bandar]. If anyone omits to do this, they sail out in pursuit of him, bring him to the port by force, double the tax on him, and prevent him from proceeding on his journey for as long as they wish.

As Prange explains - This system of enforced tribute can be seen as an indigenous precedent of the Portuguese Cartaz system. The similarities are striking: both systems forced ships to call at specific ports in order to tax them; both claimed a legal underpinning; and both were ultimately founded in the threat of maritime violence. Earlier studies have pointed out that the Portuguese Cartaz had indigenous precedents in safe-conduct passes issued sporadically by coastal rulers in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean,in fact, Cartaz is likely a loanword from the Arabic qirtas, meaning “paper” or “document.

The Portuguese Cartaz system seems to have started with Vasco Da gama’s second voyage in 1502. The first two Portuguese voyages of Gama and Cabral were mainly related to reconnaissance and small trade as well as making a nuisance of themselves with the local rulers with intent to impress them with their naval might. During the second voyage, Gama defeated the king of Bhatkal and declared that the Portuguese were lords of the ocean and that anybody who used the ports controlled by the Portuguese should pay them tribute. Some other conditions were that the ports or ships should not trade in pepper, should not admit ships of Turks or ships from Calicut. The Bhatkal king agreed to pay 1500 bags of rice per annum and that was when the first Cartaz was issued to the king of Bhatkal. A series of papal bulls mainly the Romanus Pontifex of Nicholas 5 in 1454 gave Portuguese the power to impose the system.

The Cartaz was typically a permit valid for one year and obtained after paying a fee for its issue. The fee varied depending on the ships destination, and was obviously higher for overseas trade. Overseas Cartazes were issued only in Goa (after the ship reached there with a coastal Cartaz) and Cartazes for coastal trade could be obtained from any Portuguese fort or factory or possession. The Portuguese armada controlling these seas had absolute control and every king, lord or emperor followed the rules, except of course the moors of Calicut and Ponnani who never agreed with the policy (Cochin, Quilon and Cannanore agreed). The Portuguese used the system effectively on all Indian rulers, until the other western powers like the Dutch and English made their appearances in the 17th century. The Portuguese argument was that the rules were only for infidels and not for followers of Christ and thus the british and the Dutch were not required to take Cartazes ( this was actually because the Portuguese did not want to have any clashes with the other naval powers).

The Cartaz was a detailed document detailing the ship, name, masts, its owners, the tonnage, sailors and officers, guns etc. The Cartaz also detailed the rules the sailing ship had to follow such as – not to carry royal monopoly articles such as pepper and horses, Christian slaves, should not be destined to an enemy port of the Portuguese, and could not change destination. Copper and iron as well as naval stores were sometimes prohibited. In any case, an application for a Cartaz by kings were not always successful, it was quite difficult to obtain one and there are instances where Adil Shah was refused Cartazes until heavy bribing was resorted to. Sometimes the Cartaz was granted only for political expediency and as a favor for somebody whose support was desired by the Portuguese. This was common after Angre and Shivaji appeared on the scene and the Portuguese needed support from Adil Shah. Ships plying the Arabian Sea without a Cartaz were captured and frequently burnt. This set of ships that checked the others plying the sea for trade were classed as the high sea armada and the red sea armada. The Gulf armada, the Malacca armada, and a few others protecting the northern and southern ports of India were the others who patrolled the seas. So as you saw, when an escort was provided, it was in the form of a convoy or cafila while travelling to the Goan or Malabar coasts and beyond.

However, Correa states that the first Cartazes were actually issued in 1502 to ships from Quilon, Cochin, Cannaore etc, i.e. those ports friendly to Portuguese. Later, the Cartaz or permit system actually routed ships to Portuguese ports so that it became a revenue generation system (Sanjay Subramaniam – Portuguese empire in Asia) by way of customs duties. And as we saw it became a diplomatic instrument and later, even as a perquisite by officers to raise irregular incomes for themselves.

The amount charged for a Cartaz varied from nominal to exorbitant as we saw while talking about the Rahimi and other Moghul ships. The customs duty charged at Goa varied from about 6% ad valoreum until 1569 to 7.5% later. It was higher in Chaul and lower in Diu. In Malacca, a 7% amount was charged for any ship passing through the straits. The main payers of Cartaz to the Guajarati’s who without support of their rulers, decided that the amount charged was not worthy of argument. However it turned out from ledger records that this was actually the only profitable part of the Portuguese trade administration, otherwise the trade vessel was a very leaky one with corrupt officers, parallel trading and rampant dishonesty..all traits they taught the people who worked with them and we see all too often in India.

What if a ship did not have a Cartaz? It was confiscated; the crew put to death or sent o the galleys, or set afire. If indeed a ship disobeyed the conditions of its Cartaz, it was again raided and retained at the Portuguese port till penalties were paid. This was also a very lucrative trade because the captain and the crew of the ship seizing such an errant vessel were entitles to fair shares of the booty. In one case a Gujarati ship was raided because it had 6 Turks on board.

The free Cartaz was the diplomatic Cartaz that was granted to a local ruler. Some had as many as four or six, such as the king of Bijapur, whereas Akbar the emperor had just one. It is not exactly clear if a ship carrying pilgrims really needed a Cartaz, for one was needed only for merchant ships. The armada varied between about 50 ships in the early 16th century to about 120 and finally averaging to some 90 ships in the late 16th century. The cafilas or convoys were herding or escorting many hundred small ships during the 17th century.

It is apparent that while the cost of Cartazes was a few rupees in most cases, the Moguls had to pay much more. In fact in their case, even pilgrimage ships were taxed, presumably due to the fact that they carried traders who brought back returns from trade or carried even a small amount of expensive goods like gems and jewels for sale to the high and mighty in Arabia. The rate was as high as 3000-8000 mamudis. In 1573, Akbar finally got one free Cartaz after agreeing not to shelter or encourage Malabar ‘pirates’. And that was how the Portuguese patrolled over 15000 square miles of coast lines to safeguard their trade returns, mainly due to disinterest from the coastal rulers who did not quite take to the sea, perhaps due to the age old rule of staying away from the ocean waters. The losers were the Guajarati and other konkan traders as well the Arab traders of Malabar and the supporting moplah entourage and the marakkar sea captains.

The captain majors of the ships reported directly to the viceroy, and the east coast was also monitored by the armadas or harmads as they were called in the east coast. It is also sad that to administer rteh rule of the Cartaz, the Portuguese were incredibly cruel, killing, maiming the sailors in any captured ship. In one case an island names Bet off Diu was captured by the Portuguese and every person butchered. It was since then, called the island of the dead.

JR Mohammed opines - The Mohamaden ships were special objects of Portuguese fury. Even with Cartazes, their ships were not safe. The Portuguese sea-men demanded heavy bribes; if it is not given the ships were confiscated". To quote an example a ship captured at the port of Kayalpattanarn in 1526 by Manuel de Gama, then the captain of Coromandel, was confiscated and the Muslim Nagudha and his family sold to slavery.

Not that the Armada ships were fully manned by Portuguese. They had Gujarati pilots, local lascars who sometimes sailed with their family. As we saw they even had a number of Malabarese soldiers in their ranks as time progressed.

The Portuguese stronghold could have been broken with ottoman intervention, but the situation was too complex for that. While the Malabar kings such as the Zamorin petitioned their support through Arab traders, the Mughal emperor Akbar was anti ottoman. The ottoman sultans therefore were half hearted in their support for the Zamorin rebellions against the Portuguese. Akbar, as you may recall, disgusted by the disagreement between various Muslims, brought in what was known as the infallibility decree whereby the Sultan or caliph was not recognized as the absolute power. The person who had the deciding authority in Islamic matters was the emperor and not the ulma. Interestingly the ottomans sued for peace and sent a diplomatic delegation asking for his support in their fight against the Hapsburgs. However it was at a juncture where Akbar had just signed the agreement with masceranhas about the free Cartaz and not supporting Malabar. Akbar imprisoned the entire ottoman delegation and banished them to a jail in Lahore, bound in chains. However the ottoman call met with some support in Surat and some other locations and that was when the first plan to build a Suez canal came up in the ottoman council. But then that is another story.

So how did the Cartaz system survive legal requirements valid in the western world? To get to that one has to understand the Grotius 1609 Mare Clausum (the Right and Dominion of the Sea). While the world acted in general according to the Grotius theory – which argued that the sea was openly navigable by all countries for trade, British John Selden as well as the Portuguese countered that the sea was as subject to a country’s private dominion as land. Ultimately, the inexorable growth of global trade favored the cause of Grotius. Well, anyway the Portuguese by virtue of quasi possession of the maritime are of the Estadio Da India, declared the area to be mare clausum. Newitt in his accounting also mentions that before getting a Cartaz, traders had to leave a security for payment of duties on the return before the onset of the main voyage.

It is not that the Cartaz was a big problem for traders, for they were in those trading with commodity that had a ready market and thus a price increase on the account of Portuguese taxes by about 5% (or was it 20% or a fifth – I am still not sure, it sounds too excessive) did not really upset the applecart. The buyer paid up easily. The problem was only for independent ships operated by Arab owners and those in Malabar who were considered Portuguese enemies. Gujarati ships quietly agreed and purchased the Cartaz, but once outside the Portuguese armadas control operated in a way they chose. Anyway the situation was somewhat complex and with the methods of hawala, hundi and so on for effecting payments and recording values, it was not very easy at the end. Maybe that is when undervaluation became a norm.

One could summarize that the system resulted in institutionalized plunder under the legal pretext of the Cartaz system as time went by and the Portuguese at Goa became very corrupt, but on the whole, the Portuguese looked on Cartazes as giving them a right of intervention for violations (Now you can decide who was the pirate and who was pirated), a right to regulation, acknowledgement of their Sovereignty and so on over the sea. Vineeta Shankar concludes - As a result by 1530 or so a new alternative system of trading routes connecting those points not controlled by the Portuguese emerged. Hence while Portuguese ships called at Malacca, others specially the Muslim traders went to Johor or Aceh.

In 1612, however, the Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) allowed the English to establish a trading post in Surat, and in 1620 a similar concession was made to the Dutch. Then we saw that Mughals in 1632 conquered Ahmednagar, and this was to bring the Portuguese forts at Chaul, Bassein, and Daman under their protection. Later, in 1637 the English and the Dutch strengthened their presence by setting up factories in neighboring Bijapur. However, the most serious blow to the Portuguese Estadio, both in terms of finances and prestige, was the conquest in 1622 of Hormuz by Shah Abbas of Persia, who thereafter allowed English and Dutch companies to establish trading posts in Bandar Abbas, the port of Isfahan (in present-day Iran).

Interestingly, corsairs or pirates as defined then, such as Kanhoji Angre also issued Cartaz’s to ships and when he prowled the seas, it was prudent to have one of them…But Kanhoji’s story is best recounted in more detail another day.


Commercial Policy (Essays on Indian history – HVS Moorthy)- BS Sastry
Essays In Goan History edited by Teotónio R. de Souza
Studies in Indian History: Historical Records at Goa - By Surendranath Sen
Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700: A Political and Economic History - By Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580 - By Bailey W. Diffie, George D. Winius
Merchants and Rulers in Gujarat: By Michael Naylor Pearson
History of the Portuguese Navigation in India, 1497-1600 - By K. M. Mathew
The Ottoman Age of Exploration - By Giancarlo Casale
The First Portuguese Colonial Empire - By M. D. D. Newitt
A Trade of No Dishonor : Piracy, Commerce, and Community in the Western Indian Ocean, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century – Sebastian Prange

Text of a Cartaz (from Studies in Indian History referred above Page 64) – An example