The torn earlobe and the horse trader

Posted by Maddy Labels:

A friend of mine recently changed names from Jayan to John, after five decades of existence on this planet…There was some talk amongst us classmates as to why, how etc especially since it involved just that, a change of name…and that reminded me of a fascinating character from the old times, one who hobnobbed with the gentry of Portugal, Malabar, the Vatican and what not…A boy from Calicut who later changed his name…

Here my friends is another pearl from Malabar history – the story of how a scorned Malayali changed the course of history, starting from a lowly position as the son of a trader Chetty in Calicut, then to a lofty position as the Zamorin’s envoy to Lisbon, a drop to becoming a lowly horse trader in Travancore, to involvement in an incident of a torn earlobe, then providing salvation for the pearl collecting Paravas of Tuthukudi, lending a big hand in the attainment of sainthood for St Xavier, and speeding the decline of the suzerainty of the once powerful Zamorin of Calicut..

When I first read 20000 leagues by Jules Verne, I stopped for a while at the description of the fisher folk south of India, fishing for pearls. Verne tells us of the way Capt Nemo saves the poor chap from a shark attack and that part stuck in my mind. Later on, while reading MGS Narayan’s book Calicut Revisited, I read briefly about Da Cruz, a very interesting but rather unpopular guy in Malabar history. Only later did I get more details about how this guy’s path crossed with these fishermen that Verne talked about. Later I read that Dimitri Mascarenhas a Brit cricketer, whom I used to enjoy watching, is of Parava extract.
In Chapter 6, Verne tells us - It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time. I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head. He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cut in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more quickly to the ocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment. Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random. Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.

So who are these fishermen? They are the Bharatar or the
Paravas. Parava pearl (incidentally pearl fishing was done only for 20-30 days in March, every year) fishermen inhabited the sandy coast from Kanyakumari to Rameswaram in South India, concentrating around Thoothukudi - Tuticorin. Early in the 16th century, they were virtually reduced to slavery by Muslim rulers who took over the pearl fishing rights, and the Hindu rulers who did not quite support their cause, till finally the Portuguese came to their salvation. They were the first to embrace Christianity in the 16th century, and the path to their conversion by St Xavier was laid by a horse trader John (Joao) Da Cruz. The story is interesting.

It was in the year 1534 that an incident occurred which threatened to throw the coastal people into the throes of a violent religious conflict. In a scuffle between a Muslim and a Parava at Tuticorin, the Parava had his ear torn out by his adversary, who out of sheer greed for the earring it bore, carried it away with him. The incident sparked off a civil war between the Paravas and the Muslims, and it was soon apparent that the Paravas would be beaten in the struggle. The local Muslims, rich and mighty, now swore to exterminate the Paravars. The distraught Parava leaders chanced on a person called John Da Cruz, who was waiting to get paid for the horses he had sold, at Cape Comorin. Da Cruz, considered a local due to his ancestry, but important due to his Portuguese connections, convinced them that they could get Portuguese aid should they convert to Christianity, which the Parava leaders agreed to do as they had no other resort.

About 80 Paravas were initially baptized by the clergy in 1535-36 at Cochin. They also had to pay out 60,000 Panams to Portuguese as protection money. The Portuguese moved their ships to the Cape & Tirunelveli, the matters came to head with the Muslim army soon retreating, fearing fierce punishment by the Portuguese.

Dom Joao Da Cruz then went to Goa to convince St Xaveir (it was 6-8 years later that St Xavier arrived - in 1542 – to carry out the mass conversions) who traveled on to the south coasts and began the conversion of some 20,000 Paravas, some days baptizing so many (over a period of 15 months) that he could not raise his arm from fatigue. The Paravas later became known as the Fernando’s.

So, let us now get to Da Cruz. John Cruz was a fair skinned Malayali Chetty according to Damiao Da Gois a Portuguese historian (it is mentioned by the Portuguese historian Gaspar Correa however, that Cruz was a relative of the Zamorin and a Nair) from Calicut, whom the Zamorin deputed to Portugal in 1512-1513 as his envoy and emissary to sign a treaty with Albuquerque. He was 15 years old then. At Portugal, he decided to become a Christian, changed his name to Joao Da Cruz and by 1515 he was raised to the Knighthood with the insignia and privileges of a Chevalier of the Order of Christ, becoming the first of the ordained ‘fidalgos’. He learnt Portuguese, married in Portugal and returned to Calicut in 1515-16. The Zamorin was furious about the whole affair, especially Da Cruz’s conversion and disowned the newly ordained Cruz and banished him from Malabar. Da Cruz moved his field of operations to Cochin and the south coast of Travancore, far away from the powers of the Zamorin, vowing revenge in his mind.

After a series of misfortunes thenceforth at Cochin and Chaliyam, where he lost his trading stock, boats and his family, Cruz got arrested by the Portuguese authorities themselves owing to nonpayment of heavy debts. King John III of Portugal pardoned him and he then became a horse trader who went to Cape Comorin with 12 horses to trade. There it was that he met the Paravas who told him their tale of woe…Cruz brought the first batch of 15 people to Cochin for conversion, and another 70 later since the initial group and Da Cruz himself were not taken seriously at first. Da Cruz pleaded the case of the Paravas before Nuno da Cunha, the Governor, and it was decided that they be helped against their Muslim opponents. Accordingly a Portuguese squadron appeared before Cape Comorin (Kanya Kumari).

Following all this a fierce naval battle was fought on 27th June 1538 (A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 By Stephen Neill) between the Zamorins, his moor supporters and the Portuguese at Vedali in which the Zamorin and the Kunjali moors were defeated. With that defeat the final vestiges of power that the Zamorin held, receded like the tides from those shores….The king of the seas, the Zamorin, never wielded the immense power he once had, ever again. After this event, the Zamorin’s position was largely ceremonial and secondary to the Dutch and the English rule that followed in Malabar..

What became of Dom Joao Da Cruz? Having used every opportunity from 1515 onwards to get back at the Zamorins who had once ridiculed him, he had finally obtained his revenge. Da Cruz had in the meantime persuaded St Xavier of Goa to go in 1542 to Tuticorin for the mass conversions (some 20,000) and thus recorded his name in history books and Christian folklore. Xavier went on to attain sainthood for the efforts over 15 months in converting the Parava lot and others in Asia & SE Asia.

But was Da Cruz the eventual Jati Thalaivan of the Paravas (1543-1553) according to Susan Bayly? If so, he headed the long line of Thalavar descendants that the Paravars had after this him. It is stated in the book ‘A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990’ that the Paravas actually borrowed his family name in gratitude and used it thenceforth for their leaders and nobles.

Just like his early childhood days (even his real name is unknown), no reliable information is available about Cruz’s days after the events at Tuticorin and Goa. The problems faced by the fishermen and the eventual conversion of the pagan Paravas by St Xavier was big news in Europe and this was how Jules Verne knew about them.

But well, the wheel turned again - Curiously it was a Malayali from Calicut who finally erased the last vestiges of Portuguese rule and heavy handedness in South India. It was VK Krishna Menon who moved his army to liberate Goa from the Portuguese in 1961 thus closing the Portuguese chapter in Indian history. Krishna Menon was however, not related to the Zamorin’s.


1. The one person who studied Da Cruz the most was VB Nair when he presented his article ‘A Nair envoy to Portugal’ (Indian Antiquary 1928) and there was Georg Schurhammer – Letters of D Joao Da Cruz (Kerala Society papers). The original Da Cruz letters are available at Goan or Lisbon archives. I have not seen these letters or VB Nair’s article. If somebody can help me obtain copies of these I would be obliged.

2. The Zamorin is a title. Roughly 139 Zamorins ruled between the 826AD and 1940. The Zamorin during 1513- 1522, Elankoor Nambiathiri Thirumalpad who was supported by the Portuguese, after he (disputed fact) poisoned his predecessor, sought peace with the Portuguese and deputed the said Da Cruz as his envoy to Portugal.

3. Joao Da Cruz is considered to be a Chetty. What is a Chetty? Is it Seth, Shettu, Shetty, one of the Waynad castes or the Chettiar community? Who were those that existed in Malabar in those days? Was he of North Indian Vaisya extract? Could very well have been. Could also have been a trader Tamil Chetty, but well, he mastered Tamil, Malayalam and Portuguese, looked very South Indian, and was of fair complexion. His original name and ancestry are unknown.


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  1. Bodhi

    This is an interesting blog. I like researching colonial history in south Tamil Nadu and your blog corroborates what I have read.

    I chanced upon this today; perhaps sometime in the future I can come back to read leisurely.

    The narrations are excellent :)