1488 - The Royal Spy arrives in Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Many years ago, in the cool winters of the latter part of the year (November 1488), a Moorish ship set anchor at Calicut. Amongst the various merchants from Arabia who alighted, there was one who looked and spoke like an Arab. He was a spy in their midst, on a commission from the King of Portugal. His name: Pero De Covilha. Pero who was trained at Morocco and Moorish Spain, spent many months, probably close to a year touring Calicut and Goa, recording the spice trade in and around Calicut. Pero a fluent Arabic speaker was astounded by the many sights of the splendid port and its people. It was a full eight years before the Vasco De Gama and his ships reached Calicut to change history. Perhaps, it was Covilha who laid the very keel for the ships journey; however like most spies he received no public credit for his work though his story proves a very interesting read.

It was a part overland trip that started in May 1487. Pero Da Covilha and Alfonso de Paiva, great friends themselves, were dispatched by King John II, to record the routes and happenings at various places in the Malabar area and primarily to find the mythical land of Prestor John. Barthalomeow Diaz on the other hand was sent to find the routes by sea. Traveling through Naples, Rhodes, Alexandria and Cairo overland, they blended with Arab caravans before reaching Aden at the mouth of the Red sea. Pavia left for Ethopia and Covilha left for India. Alas, the great friends were never to meet again. Pavia fell ill and died during his travails in Ethiopia.

Pero da Covilhã eventually reached Calicut (modern Kozhikode) and Goa on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India, where he witnessed a prosperous trade in Arabian horses, spices, fine cottons, and precious stones. After completing his assessment of the European trade with India, Covilhã sailed for home in February 1489. He passed through Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf and the port of Sofala opposite Madagascar before traveling north to Cairo in 1490. While in Cairo, two Jewish emissaries(Rabbi Abraham and Shoemaker Joseph – or was it Jose Lamego?) from King John II gave Covilhã a letter instructing him, if he had not already done so, to travel to the kingdom of Prester John to gather intelligence and promote an alliance. Before he left, Covilhã induced a messenger José de Lamego to carry a letter to King John II that described all he had learned of Arab seafaring and the Indian markets. Six years after leaving his home in Portugal, Pero da Covilhã reached Ethiopia in 1493, where he discovered a land ruled by Alexander, "Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and King of Kings." Covilhã so impressed the Ethiopian monarch that Alexander considered him a "Portuguese Marco Polo" and refused to let him leave. Covilhã married and settled down to live the rest of his life in the once mythical land of Prestor John.

Peter Koch notes - Calicut at that time was one of the richest ports of the world. It was the commercial hub for Arab Muslim and Asian traders. Fleets of junks from China and the Indies sailed to its crowded ports, and once docked, unloaded their abundant cargoes of precious gems, silks and spices that were to be sold at destined local markets. Anxiously awaiting their arrival were numerous Arab traders willing to pay a handsome price for just about any goods shipped from the orient. Once purchased, these were shipped through the Persian Gulf or Gulf of Aden, and from there, they were distributed to markets in Africa, Middle East and Europe.

Pêro da Covilhã, while in Africa, noted and informed Paul II that if the extreme south tip were rounded by Portuguese mariners they could easily reach Calicut from Sofala or Malindi and take possession of the spice trade. In ten years’ time, this observation by Pêro da Covilhã would convince Vasco da Gama to sail from the east coast of Africa directly to Calicut. In 1487, financed by a letter of credit from the Florentine banker Bartolommeo Marchioni, he was sent by João II of Portugal to investigate a northerly route to India . Covilhã continued to Socotra and Cannanore (in India) in an Arab dhow, then to Calicut (1488), Goa and back to Hormuz (winter 1489)

Arriving at Calicut in Nov 1488, Covilha was astounded seeing gentle elephants on the streets carrying burdens, presumably wood. Here is an account of his notes

He makes friends with an Indian merchant, telling him that he was an emissary from the sovereignty of Fez in the Maghreb, on a journey to India to investigate the possibilities of entering the spice trade. The merchant shows him the city, not only its opulent palaces, temples, gardens and artificial lakes but also an immense settlement of thatched huts, a disease-ridden pocket of the city where the pariahs, the lowest of the low, are dying from sickness and starvation. The Zamorin (ruler) still practises the Hindu religion but is already surrounded by many Muslim advisers. The merchant guarantees that the majority of spices produced in India, plus those that come from the East, pass through Calicut, which is what causes the city to be so busy. Pêro is surprised, as he thought that all the spices were produced in India.

“No, that’s not true,” says the merchant. “For example, cinnamon comes from Ceylon, an island to the south of India, while nutmeg and cloves come from Malacca.”
“The capital of the Kingdom of Malaysia.”
“Where is that?”
“It is in the east, 40 days’ journey from here, if the wind is in the right direction.”
“So Malaysia produces nutmegs and cloves?”
“No, no, they are produced in Ternate and the other Spice Islands, which are even further to the east. They are produced there but concentrated in Malacca, which exports them to India, mainly to Calicut.”

The Spice Islands will later be called the Moluccas, a corruption of the Portuguese word for malucas (crazy). They will be given this name because, owing to local alterations in the earth’s magnetism, it will be difficult to fix their co-ordinates; they appear to be here, they appear to be there, hence the crazy islands. But this will only happen later. For now, Pêro da Covilhã is just learning about the existence and produce of the Spice Islands, the locality of Ceylon and Malacca, the supremacy of Calicut in the Indian spice trade. He is surprised by such supremacy:

“I don’t know how it is possible - a navigator told me and ascertained that this is a dangerous port, with many sandbanks.”

“That’s true,” replies the merchant, “but in spite of them, that’s how it is - you’ll see.”
And see he does. He visits Cannanore, Goa and Ormuz,(An island close to Iran actually) magnificent cities on the Malabar Coast, but there the commercial activity is much less than in Calicut.

Pêro da Covilhã notes, “The majority of the spices leave Calicut for Cairo, crossing the Red Sea. From Cairo they go on to Venice. If one day we want to take on this trade for ourselves, we simply have to block the Moorish ships’ access to the Red Sea.”
The information provided in Pero’s letter complemented the information from the sea expedition of Bartholomew Diaz and convinced John II that it was possible to reach India by sailing around the southern end of Africa. When B Diaz returned to Lisbon the Portuguese had mixed feelings, because the trip around Africa had turned out to be so much longer than expected. Was his eight-month journey worth repeating? Could anyone make a profit over distances like these? It took the news of Christopher Columbus discovering new lands across the Atlantic to decide the argument; if Spain could find a fortune overseas, Portugal could too.

Later, in 1493 a Genoese, Geronimo de Santo Stefano, a private entrepreneur, arrived at Calicut from Aden. His journey continued to Ceylon, Burma, Malacca and Sumatra. On his return trip he passed through the Maldives, Cambay and Ormuz. He wrote a woeful account in 1496 of his travels, physical hardship, financial disaster and the life around Calicut. I must also mention here that two other noteworthy people visited Calicut before Covilha, they are Afanasii Nikitin around 1460 and Venetian Nicolo Conti in 1419.

And with that the plans for formal plunder of the East Indies, started. Manuel I assumed the throne in 1495 and completed the preparations for the voyage to India. On July 8, 1497, a fleet of four ships commanded by Vasco Da Gama set sail from Belém on the outskirts of Lisbon, bound for Malabar.

Noteworthy is the fact that these were people who arrived and lived at Calicut before Vasco Da Gama, who unfortunately takes most popular credits for being the first of the Europeans to reach Indian shores.

Picture of Covilhas route – from CNN

Beckingham: The travels of Pero da Covilham and their significance
Diffie & Winius – Foundations of the Portugese Empire
The History of Portugal By Edward McMurdo


  1. prabhu purnan

    mr maddy your tag on malabar is really informative, being part of nilgiris, really enlightening to know about these facts

    regards prabhu

  1. sanjeev

    maddy i liked your blog very much, i would like to share some things with u , how do i do that.

  1. Biju Parameswaran

    If only the lady who won half a crore at the Kodeeswaran programme on Kerala's Asianet channel this week
    had read this, she would have walked away with a full one crore!

  1. Maddy

    well fsblo.. tough luck for the lady i suppose, perhaps she should have read this, won the contest and passed on a portion of the proceeds to me? that would have been even better!!!!

    anyway what was the question??

  1. Biju Parameswaran

    :) The question that the winner Shyla safely 'quit' without attempting was 'Who was the first Portuguese explorer to come to India? - Biju Parameswaran

  1. Kabir

    An online tourism article on the Mother of God Church in Calicut mentions that the church houses the tombstone of Pedro de Covilhany.

    However when I looked him up, I chit upon your blog on Pero De Covilha which was fascinating.

    And both of them seem to have visited Calcut pretty much around the same decade prior to Vasco Da Gama.

    I presume these are two different individuals.

    Dr Jagdish

  1. Maddy

    Dr Jagdish
    This Pero Covilha did not die in Calicut and was buried in Africa.

    According to Jim Silva - The emissaries ( who later met Covilha in Africa) now offered to take Covilhã home with them but he refused the invitation. He knew that he would now be a stranger in his land of birth and would not fit in anymore. Moreover, he had a second wife and family in Ethiopia and complications would arise over his first wife and family in Portugal.

    Covilhã died a pioneer and respected Patriarch in his home in Africa. He was buried accompanied by the basic Christian rites – with somewhat different ceremonies from what would otherwise have been had they taken place in Portugal.

    To my knowledge a second Covilha did not visit Calicut during this period (late 15th century)and the church of Calicut was built much later.

  1. Soul

    I think more than seeing those places, I must see you. I have read some of your stories but this I knew of only now as I read a query on the name & searched in the internet. I found your story. I went to Mother of God church, Calicut long ago but did not know of the other name sake's tomb. I must ask the church to help with details of the tomb. I am sending your story to adults & children among my relatives & friends.

  1. Soul

    I think more than seeing those places, I must see you. I have read some of your stories but this I knew of only now as I read a query on the name & searched in the internet. I found your story. I went to Mother of God church, Calicut long ago but did not know of the other name sake's tomb. I must ask the church to help with details of the tomb. I am sending your story to adults & children among my relatives & friends.