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Girolamo Sernigi and Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

We have spent a lot of time on the Portuguese presence in Calicut in previous articles. It was possible mainly due to the wealth of text written by those people about the new lands they discovered. In those passages, we came to know of the conditions in Malabar from Correa, Barros, Gaspar Gama, Barbosa, Varthema and so on. But we missed mention of one person who was one of the important ones, none other than Girolamo Sernigi (1453-1510). While not many people know about him, he was responsible not only in projecting Calicut’s name to the European public, but also in financing many a voyage to India and Melacca, as an interested trader. Sernigi was of Italian extract and readers of the Portuguese voyages and trade would of course remember that the Florentine merchants were the main financiers of these voyages. After Marchionni, Sernigi was perhaps one of the most prominent merchants of Florentine origin residing in Lisbon and financing trade voyages to Malabar and Malacca.

As we read before, not only was he involved with the many ships of Cabral and the voyage of Gama previous to that, but also the spread of news after the voyagers returned, even before the chroniclers had written out their more detailed accounts. So it is important to note that he recorded and transmitted the first accounts, which possibly had more truth than most and before the spins were added. Sadly early mentions attributed his letters to Amerigo Vespucci even (who was actually away sailing towards W Indies in 1499 when Gama’s ships returned to Lisbon). The first letter dated July 10th 1499 (published 1507) was written after Nicalau Coelho’s ship touched Lisbon, the second after Gaspar Gama had arrived. Interestingly his letters have the first and only mention of Chinese in Calicut (though the author initially ascribes them to be German or Russians) and the fact that the Zamorin welcomed the Portuguese thinking them to be the White Chinese!!

Sernigi’s father, Cipriano di Chimenti, was a member of the Clothiers' Guild, and was held in high respect by his fellow citizens, but by 1680 the Sernigi family had become extinct. Girolamo lived in Lisbon, where he had settled down as a merchant, even before the time Vasco da Gama's expedition set out for India. He remained in Lisbon for many years afterwards, and in 1510 commanded a vessel which went out to Malacca with the fleet of Diogo Mendez de Vasconcellos.

His accounts are certainly interesting. Some excerpts from his three letters are recounted below for those interested.

Calicut - In this city are churches with bells, but there are no priests, and the divine offices are not performed nor sacrificial [masses] celebrated, but in each church there is a pillar holding water, in the manner of the fonts holding our holy water, and a second pillar with balm. They bathe once every 3 years in a river which is near the city. The houses in this city are of stone and mortar, in the Moorish style, and the roads laid out and straight. Gaspar Gama provided this information to Sernigi - At Calichut there is a temple and whoever enters it before noon on a seventh Wednesday dies because of diabolical apparitions. The Jewish pilot affirms that this is most certainly true, and that on a certain day of the year some lamps in this same temple begin to burn spontaneously and cause many deformities of nature to appear.

Zamorin’s palace - And the king of this city is waited upon in grand style and keeps regal state, having his chamberlains, doorkeepers, and barons, as also a very sumptuous palace. When the captain of the said vessel arrived at the city the king was away at a castle at a distance of about 6 leagues, and having been informed that Christians had arrived he at once came to the city attended by about 5000 persons. Having entered, he (Gama) proceeded to a chamber where the king reposed upon a low couch. The whole of the floor was covered with green velvet, whilst around it was drapery of variously coloured damask. The couch had a very fine white coverlet, all worked with gold thread, and above it was a canopy, very white, delicate and sumptuous.

Moors - In this city there reside many very wealthy Moorish merchants, and all the trade is in their hands. They have a fine mosque in the square of the town. The king is, as it were, governed by these Moors because of the presents which they give him; and owing to their industry the government is wholly in their hands, for these Christians (Hindu’s) are coarse people.

Coins - The coins most in circulation in this city are serafins of fine gold, coined by the Sultan of Babylonia, which weigh 2 or 3 grains less than a ducat, and are called serafins. There also circulate some Venetian and Genoese ducats, as also small silver coins, which must likewise be of the coinage of said sultan.

Chinese at Calicut - It is now about 80 years since there arrived in this city of Chalicut certain vessels of white Christians, who wore their hair long like Germans, and had no beards except around the mouth, such as are worn at Constantinople by cavaliers and courtiers. They landed, wearing a cuirass, helmet, and vizor, and carrying a certain weapon [sword] attached to a spear. Their vessels are armed with bombards, shorter than those in use with us. Once every two years they return with 20 or 25 vessels. They are unable to tell what people they are, nor what merchandise they bring to this city, save that it includes very fine linen-cloth and brass-ware. They load spices. Their vessels have four masts like those of Spain. If they were Germans it seems to me that we should have had some notice about them; possibly they may be Russians if they have a port there.

The commentator adds - This information was apparently never asked for. The "strangers" were undoubtedly Chinese. Marco Polo (Yule, I, p. lxvi, and 11, pp. 197, 327) already mentions their four-masted vessels. In his time, Chinese vessels regularly visited the west coast of India. The vizor in the guise of a mask, distinctly points to the Chinese, and the sword attached to a spear is a Chinese weapon. Up to the introduction of pig-tails by the Manju, in 1644, the Chinese wore their hair long. A punitive fleet of sixty-two Chinese vessels was sent to Ceylon in 1401. In 1417 an embassy was sent from Mu-ku-tu-su (Magadoxo) to China (Bretschneider, On the Knowledge possessed by the Ancient Chinese of the Arabs, London, 1871), and in 1431 Chinese junks might be seen at Jedda (Hirth, Verhandlungen, Berlin Geographical Society, 1889, p. 46).

Clothing - All or most of these people are clothed in cotton-cloths from the waist down to the knee, but from the waist upwards they go naked. Courtiers and men of condition dress in the same manner, but make use of silk-stuffs, reddish or scarlet or of other colours, as seems good to them. The wives (ladies) of men of condition are clothed above the girdle in very white and delicate linen; but the wives of lower degree are naked above the waist. The Moors dress according to their custom in jubbi and balandrau.

Law and order- Justice is strictly administered in this city. Robbers, murderers, and other malefactors are incontinently impaled in the Turkish fashion; and whoever defrauds the king's excise (customs) is punished by having his merchandise confiscated.

Food - Corn in abundance is found in this city of Chalichut, it being brought thither by the Moors. For 3 reals, which are smaller than ours, bread sufficient for the daily sustenance of a man can be purchased. Their bread is unleavened, resembling small cakes, which are baked daily in the ashes. Rice, likewise, is found in abundance. There are cows and oxen. They are small, but yield much milk and butter. Oranges of indifferent flavour are plentiful, as also lemons, citrons and limes, very good melons, dates, fresh and dried, and great variety of other kinds of fruit.

The king of this city of Chalichut eats neither of meat nor fish nor anything that has been killed, nor do his barons, courtiers, or other persons of quality, for they say that Jesus Christ said in his law that he who kills shall die. For this reason they refuse to eat anything that has been killed, and it is a great thing that they should be able to support themselves without eating meat or fish. The common people eat meat and fish, but they do not eat oxen or cows, for they hold these animals to be blessed, and when they meet an ox on the highway they touch him, and afterwards kiss their hand, as a sign of great humility. The king lives on rice, milk and butter, and so do his barons

Trade - In payment they only take gold and silver; coral and other merchandise of our parts they esteem but little, linen-cloth excepted, which I believe would find a ready market, as the sailors bartered some of their shirts very profitably for spices, although very fine white linen cloth, probably imported from Cairo, is found there. There is a custom-house in this city as elsewhere, and merchandise pays a duty of 5 percent.

Moorish ships - The Portuguese remained three months at that town, namely, from May 21 to August 25, and during that time there arrived about 1,500 Moorish vessels in search of spices. The largest of these vessels did not exceed 800 tons.They are of all sorts, large and small. Having only one mast they can make headway only with the wind astern, and sometimes are obliged to wait from four to six months for fair weather [the monsoon or season]. Many of these vessels are lost. They are badly built, and very frail. They carry neither arms nor artillery. The vessels which visit the islands (Ceylon, Lacadives) to carry spices to this city of Chalichut are flat-bottomed, so as to draw little water, for there are many dry places (shoals). Some of these vessels are built without any nails or iron, for they have to pass over the loadstone. All the vessels, as long as they remain at this city, are drawn up on the beach, for there is no port where they would be safe otherwise

Kasavu Broacaded clothes - There is abundance of silken stuffs, namely, velvets of various colours, satins, damask, taffetas, brocades worked in gold, scarlet cloth, brass and tin ware. In fine, all these things are to be found in abundance, and it is my opinion that the cloths worked in gold and the silks are brought thither from Cairo.

Some of the observations are pretty interesting. The comment about two pillars in the temple and the temple with apparitions is to be studied. Was the temple the very same temple that is mentioned in other Vasco’s accounts?

The fact that the reception hall of the Zamorin is covered in green velvet is also interesting. That is a color hardly used by the rulers of that time, red would have been preferred. Strange! Was it something the Zamorin got as a gift from the Persian or Egyptian rulers?

As we know from previous discussions, the confusion was that the world to the South East of Europe was Christian, with Prestor John as a leader. This of course led to the conclusion that the Hindus of Calicut were Christians practicing different ways. We will howver not dwell further on this.

The fact that fanams and other local currency were missing in the report is strange. Perhaps foreign traders by default used other acceptable currency or Gold and Silver. It is interesting also to note that customs duty was declared as 5%, whereas previous mentions stated 15%. How did this reduce during 1498?

Meting out justice by impalement is not really mentioned elsewhere, and it was always dipping one’s hand in boiling oil as stated by other historians.

Corn cake for food is also something that is not quite clear. What could it have been?

The fact that gold brocaded cloth was being traded is interesting, and the mention that it perhaps originated from Cairo is also curious. Was the idea borrowed from the clothes of the Egyptian gentry or the Pharaoh’s? Perhaps they came from the weavers of the Coromandel anyway.

The other item of interest is the Chinese trade in Calicut. That they kept to themselves and that they were seen during the visit of the Gama is in some contradiction to what Joseph stated. Joseph mentioned that they ceased to come to Calicut by 1500, however Sernigi mentions it as a regular practice, though a practice purely of trade and matter of fact. Nevertheless, there are no mentions of Chinese after this, so perhaps they finally ceased to live in and trade with Calicut after the arrival of the Portuguese. This is also the first time a color differentiation was made with respect to the Chinese in any kind of writing, where Sernigi projected the color differences between the moors, Indians and others, after noticing the pale skinned Chinese.

Sernigi also lays the foundation to the later observed fact that Gama amassed a fortune for himself and quietly diverted his ship to his town instead of Lisbon, with Gama stating that he was taking his sick brother to his village. He came back to Lisbon only after Coleho had arrived, and without any plunder to declare…

So much for Sernigi’s letters. The full texts of those can be found online, in the first reference. What became of Sernigi? If you recall, the entry of the Florentine associations with the Portuguese broke the Venetian control of the spice trade. In fact most ships had their representatives in the ships that travelled to the Indies. Their notes of the trade and the locales as we saw from the example above provided much insight to the benign culture and conditions in Malabar, to the people of Europe and encouraged their forced entry into Malabar. According to Moacyr Scares Pereira, the first nau to return to Lisbon, Nossa Senhora Anunciada, belonged to D. Alvaro de Braganca and his associates, Italian merchants Bartolomeo Marchioni, Girolamo Sernigi and possibly Antonio Salvago. So had it not been for people like Sernigi, Gama might never have landed in Calicut.

Andrea Strozzi, another prominent trader was Sernigi’s first cousin. As mentioned previously, Sernigi commanded Joao Da Nova’s fleet under the name Fernando Vinete. He then got involved in financing the 1503 expedition. His major involvement howver, was with the 1510 fleet as one of its financiers and as factor under the name Vinet Cerniche destined towards Malacca. However this fleet encountered problems after reaching the Malabar Coast when the governor Albuquerque marshaled the services of all of the Europeans and ships in an attack to capture Goa.

We note from Strozzi’s letters that they were all attacked by the locals with poisoned arrows and had some problem with them, but had much admiration for the local merchant’s knowledge of numbers and their ability to do large mental calculations.

After the success at Goa, the ships tried to sail off to Melacca as contracted with King Manual, but Albuquerque would have none of that as he wanted to get to Malacca first. In the meantime the friction with the Sernigis (both brothers were present in this voyage) increased and the Sernigi’s were branded as profit seekers. Nevertheless, the ships tried to leave without the governor’s approval upon which Sernigi was arrested, clapped in irons and sentenced to perpetual exile at the island of Sao Tome in the Atlantic. All others were sentenced to exile in Brazil. It is not clear if Sernigi ever had to serve his sentence and apparently returned to Portugal, where his large influence on the king perhaps led to the substitution of Albuquerque by Lopo Soares. The ships of Sernigi however returned with large fortunes and laded with riches and the voyages were very profitable for the Florentine merchant.

So that friends was a ready reckoner on a merchant who was instrumental to the Portuguese voyages to India and Melacca and one who played behind the scenes with the the Portuguese royals. Strangely he never visited Calicut…


A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama – A Velho, Joao de Sa, EG Ravenstein
The economy of renaissance Florence – Richard A Goldthwaite
Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking - Michael Keevak
The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama - Sanjay Subrahmanyam
The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700: A Political and Economic History - Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4 - Joseph Needham
War at Sea in the middle Ages and Renaissance - John B. Hattendorf, Richard W. Unger