The Portuguese attack on Calicut – 4th Jan 1510

Posted by Maddy Labels:

This is one of those interesting stories, mainly because it has been written into history books in differing ways, some flippant and others very serious. It is difficult to figure out exactly what happened. But let us come to conclusions after we check out the various versions. This is a story that takes you back some centuries back, to 4th Jan 1510 to be precise when the senior most officer of Portugal decided to take on the Zamorin of Calicut and capture his palace when he was away fighting another war.

Many of versions relied fully or partly on the commentaries of Albuquerque. In retrospect the English writers added embellishments. I am still not sure which is correct as even Krishna Iyer relied on Albuquerque’s dairies and reading the test of those diaries plus the feeling that Albuquerque was by & far a more ‘prim and correct’ person, I would tend to go with his version.
KV Krishna Iyer – A History of Kerala (pg 243) Informed by the Koya Pakki of the absence of the Zamorin at Chetway (Chettuva) and of his ministers at Palghat, Coutinho attacked the capital. Early morning on Jan 4th 1510, he (Albuquerque accompanied by Francisco Coutinho) landed on the Northern bank of the Kallayi river. Burning the Jamiat mosque, his men slowly advanced through the narrow streets, guided by the Koya Pakki and at last penetrated the outhouses and offices of the Zamorin’s palace. But the ‘Akampatijanam’ known as the 10,000 Nair’s whom the Zamorin had left behind drove back the intruders killing Marshall Coutinho who had boasted before his master, the king of Portugal that he would capture the Zamorin’s capital. Albuquerque escaped to his ships with a wound on his shoulder.

Sheikh Zainuddin – Tuhfat Al-Mujahidin (Translation - SMH Nainar) – Clarifies that the Kuttichira mosque is the Mitqual mosque built by the Arab Nakhuda. Also that 500 Portuguese soldiers were killed in this battle. Many drowned (wearing heavy chain armor) while fleeing to the ships. Clarifications & comments provided by Nainar add that Koyapakki who was the local Portuguese trade agent had requested this confrontation to be avoided but had been overruled and put into prison. This enraged Koyapakki who subsequently went against the Portuguese.

Malabar and the Portuguese – KM Panikkar (pg 75-76) explains roughly as follows - The Marcheal F Coutinho was a rash & reckless warrior. He insisted on war whereas Albuquerque wanted peace with the Zamorin and he was in correspondence with the Eralpad (heir apparent). Coutinho disagreed and stated that Manuel had sent him to India with the specific purpose of attacking Calicut. The Cochin raja provided a diversionary attack. The Brahmin spies in the Cochin Raja’s service were utilized as to provide information on troop movements. The raja reported that the Zamorin was away fighting, that there were only a few 100 Nair’s guarding the palace. They landed on Jan 3rd and Albuquerque captured the jetty while Coutinho stood by fuming at the temerity of Albuquerque in taking credit. He then marched to the palace which they began to pillage and ransack. The nair militia received news and counter attacked. Albuquerque escaped to the beach injured. The cut off Coutinho ordered that the palace be set fire and fought valiantly. Some 70 key ‘fidalgos’ lost their life in the fight and Coutinho was also killed. The marhsall’s banner as well as Albuquerque’s flag were captured by the Nair’s.

Zamorins of Calicut – KVK Iyer (Pg 172) provides more details - states that Albuquerque was the one who had planned in 1503 itself to destroy Calicut. Timoja and the Cochin Raja excused themselves from an attack, but the latter sent his Brahmins to Calicut to sow seeds of discontent amidst the ranks and to report on the situation in Calicut. They together with the Koya Pakki suggested landing locations in Kallayi. 20 ships and numerous paros, all put totaling to 2000 set a sail to Calicut. Koya Pakki was the guide through the labyrinths of Calicut streets. The landing was not smooth due to the ebb in the tide and so the soldiers did not land together. The armed Jetti was captured by Albuquerque, much to the anger of Coutinho. The troops were well armed and clad in heavy armor. Seeing the sword and shield clad nairs, Coutinho remarked that all he needed was a skull cap & a cane to capture Calicut. They overwhelmed the 200 nair guards and entered the premises to see the lure & riches of the Zamorin. The army scattered to loot & plunder. But by this time Coutinho was tired and he lay to rest on a large stone(and went to sleep for 2 hours). The alarm was already raised and the nairs grouped by then and attacked the plundering Portuguese. Coutinho woke up and ordered a diversionary fire on the wooden palace framework, but this was too late. Albuquerque got involved firing his field gun, but it was of no avail. Albuquerque then ordered his men to flee back to the ships seeing the ferocity of the fight and the hopeless situation. While fleeing Albuquerque was injured in his shoulder by a lance thrust (the Portuguese stated that they lost only 80 but that some 1000 Nairs were killed, the Muslims reported that some 500 Portuguese were killed). Coutinho and his soldiers died fighting within the palace.

The English writers added more flavor – Logan states in Malabar Manual (317, 318) that the request for destruction of Calicut went to Europe from the Kolathiris of Cannanore & the Cochin Raja. Logan adds the tidbit that Coutinho had aged by then and that being a very hot day, Coutinho had no helmet on. They killed the palace guard and two other chieftains guarding the palace. The Portuguese then set about the plunder of emblems, and treasures, even picking precious stones from idols. Logan states that Coutinho then reclined on a stately couch to rest for 2 hrs. He woke up to the sounds of the attack by the ‘akambadi’ soldiers who had recouped. They were killed by arrows & javelins. The palace was on fire by then, Albuquerque reached too late to save his cousin & friend, and himself escaped with great difficulty. He was hurt by a bullet on his foot (did he fire it himself in his haste) and a stone that knocked him out. He was carried off thus on shields by his men. Captain Robello set off back to Cochin with them, leaving over a hundred of their people behind (Were they massacred?). The fleeing soldiers had difficulties clambering & finding their way across the various mud embankments (mathil’s) of the Calicut town.

Other writers such as Egerton (Indian and Oriental Amour) state that the Palace guard uttered a cry that drew in over 30,000 well armed Nair’s in the defense of the palace. Apparently they fired arrows from roof tops. Stephens in his book on Albuquerque states that the weight of the armor and the heat had made his men weary and that he had ordered Noronha to remain at Kallayi with 300 men. Coutinho finally sees about 20-30 shouting nair and ridicules Gaspar Perira the Jewish secretary to India who was with him – Is this the Calicut that you terrify us with in Portugal? Gaspar did not agree and warned of trouble from the naked little blacks if they penetrated the palace. The rest of the story is as previously stated. In this book, it confirms that Albuqurque did indeed burn about 50 vessels (quoting Zainuddin) that were docked in Kallayi as Logan had stated. Murray (History of British India) opines that it was a clever trap by the nairs to draw Countinho and his troops into the palace.

Some writers mention that Coutinho had the filed gun and thus was slowed in the retreat and bore the brunt of the nair retaliation, to be killed. This contradicts the versions that mention Albuquerque had the gun. Nevertheless, he may have left it with Coutinho though records indicate that Coutinho told Albuquerque to get lost and take charge of his own charges instead of advising Coutinho.

Diffie and Winus – Foundations of Portuguese empire - however provides the juicy tidbits – Had Albuquerque been in sole command, the attack would probably had carried. But Coutinho despite repeated warnings from Albuquerque plunged deep into the city from the Portuguese beachhead and was happily pursuing the goal of prying loose a pair of famously ornate doors from the Zamorin’s palace when a counter attack cut him off. Then in the narrow streets he and his lieutenants had cast off some of their heavy armor and were panting for breath under their heavy souvenirs when they were overwhelmed and killed. In attempting to relive the Marshall, Albuquerque himself suffered a painful wound to his shoulder from a roof top snipers arrow.

The commentaries of De Albuquerque themselves provide a wealth of Information – Volume 2 confirms that Coutinho was using Periera to sound out Albuqurque, and Periera states that Albuquerque himself had always fancied destroying Calicut. Albuquerque then tells Coutinho that he had no other opinion & that he was fully in support of an attack. The Cochin king provided 20 smaller ships and many more small boats for the attack. According to details 2 Brahmins were deputed by him for the spy work. Some details of the slight disagreement between Coutinho & Albuquerque is explained where Albuquerque calls for a meeting & pre war debate, much to Coutinho’s displeasure. In the meantime the spies return with the reconnaissance report on Kallayi and the fact that the Zamorin and his troops were fighting elsewhere. Thus start the ill fated campaign in undue haste.

Koya pakki is summoned and imprisoned in the ship and asked to show them around Calicut after they land inKallayio/Beypore. Coutinho then orders everybody in writing that he would be the one to take the jetty and that anybody else who did it would get his head cut off. But as we read before, Albequerque and party landed first and secured the Kallayi jetty (This had a reason - The marshall and his men had to land far away due to the tide and walk in their heavy amour, thus tiring themselves out even before the start. Also there was a beach battle with the Mopla’s at the jetty and as a result Albuquerque and his troops were drawn into the fight even before Coutinho could reach there) They then had a mighty argument on those shores. Coutinho is furious and sets of to the palace even though entreated by Albuquerque to take some rest. Coutinho refuses and says that he knows Albuquerque wants to cheat him again of the glory of capturing the palace. Albuquerqe follows half heartedly fearing about the success of the campaign, but after telling Noronha to set fire to the Moorish ships and hang around the beach with 300 men. Confirmation that Coutinho had the previously stated conversation with Gaspar Periera and setting fire to the mosque is also provided.

However by then Coutinho was too tired and two men had to support him with their shoulders. They force their way into the palace. At the start 80 Portuguese are stabbed and killed by the palace guards. Coutinho is by now unable to walk and rests on the stone within the courtyard, while others pillage and plunder & the remaining nair’s scatter, but raise a hue & cry outside. Albuquerque arrives, firing the gun to disperse the fighting nairs. Then he requests the Marshall to retire, but Coutinho is still angry and does not. The screaming Nairs had already drawn a crowd and it was probably a wise decision to get back to the ships. Albuquerque had decided then that the attack was doomed. But Coutinho would not listen and asked him to go back to the ships, commanding his troops instead and that he would remain to fight. Then he orders the burning of the palace which is when the Nairs besiege them and kill him (struck by an arrow while venturing through a narrow passage) and some 12 more senior leaders of the group.

Hearing about the attack, Albuquerque turns back to help but gets injured twice in the shoulder and shoulder blade and is hit on the chest by a large stone and is stunned. He is carried to the beach. Somehow the survivors reach the boats and board them, remaining there for the night. The nairs & moors did not venture any further (assuming that the boats were burnt and the moors were without boats & ships).

The Zamorin hearing about all this a day or two later stopped his fight (with presumably the Valluva Konathiri (at Chettuva – near Trichur) the hill king) and hastened back, with the konathiri hot on his heels taking advantage of the situation. By the time he reached Calicut, four days have passed and Albuquerque is already on his next mission. Seeing the destruction of his palace and the loss of 3,000 people (and only 80 enemy dead - according to Albuquerque) he is overwrought and screams at the Moplahs for failing to defend the city in his absence and even threatens to get rid of them from Calicut.

So this is the tale of that attack – Was it just a tale of a person who stole the Zamorin’s highly ornate palace doors and found it a tough task fleeing with it (due to the immense weight of the teak, rose wood or whatever it was plus the overlay of brass and gold), was avarice just the reason for Coutinho’s death or was it his impudence and arrogance or was it his ill fated decision to spend time setting the palace on fire instead of fleeing with Albuquerque? The reader can decide. I have led you to the battle scene.

The gauntlet was laid. The Portuguese war with Malabar had started in right earnest. The Moppilah’s, the Kolathiri’s, the Zamorin’s, and the Kochi Varma’s were all now being ably manipulated by the foreigners.

Krishna Iyer adds - Later Albuquerque appealed to the Krishnadevaraya (with whom Almedia had concluded a treaty) of Vijayanagar for help and in the subsequent attack, the Raya’s troops came in via Palghat, but they are all hounded back by the 10,000 Nair troops of the Zamorin. So much for those who venture to say that the Nair’s possibly originated from the Naidu’s of the Raya’s Vijaynagara kingdoms.

The players
Marshall Manual Fernando De Coutinho - Cousin of Albuquerque, strong of arm, great of belly and weak of brain, the Marshall of Portugal. His responsibility was to get rid of Almedia and establish Albuquerque as Viceroy.
Dom Manuel 1 - 14th king of Portugal

Koyapakki (Cosabequim) – Portuguese trading contact & informant in Cochin, a Moplah merchant of Calicut origin. He also became an envoy to Lisbon after Joao Da Cruz returned in 1513. He had an ongoing fight with the traders in Egypt and later broke away from the Portuguese after they set fire to Moplah ships in Calicut.

Afonso DAlbuquerque- Generally considered a world conquest military genius due to his successful ocean strategy; Governor/Viceroy of India, then he was installed as the first Duke of Goa (a duke not from the King’s family)
Zamorin – The suzerain of Calicut, Manavikrama from the Padinjare Kovilakom

Eralpad – Heir apparent to the Calicut kingdom, friendly with Portuguese, later (disputed notion) poisoned the Zamorin in 1513 at the behest of Albuquerque and deputed Joao Da Cruz & Koya Pakki to Lisbon as envoys. Died in 1522.

Cochin king – Goda Varma – died later in 1510

Timoja – Or Timmaya possibly a moor, who was befriended by Almeida and who had been in contact with Gama as well in 1502 and later became an ally of the Portuguese in conquering Goa. "This man," it is said in the Commentaries of Albuquerque, was a Hindu by birth, very obedient to the interests of the King of Portugal; and being a man of low origin had, as a corsair, raised himself to a position of great honor."

Location of Calicut attack – Zamorin’s palace - Mananchira – The commonwealth offices, LIC, SM street etc are located there these days . You can also picture or imagine the walk in the heat & humidity from Beypore to Mananchira, if you know the terrain.

Notes – Magellan was also around in the fleet when this happened, but what he did is not clear- See my previous blog on Magellan. One of the survivors of this attack, Antonio Correo who was at that time a small boy was involved in later expeditions. Albuquerque could never use his arm properly ever again due to the said injury. Young & brave Noronha was killed later in 1510 in a fight with Adil shah adding to Albuquerque’s miseries. Many books clarify that the town’s inhabitants also attacked the Portuguese with stones & whatever they could find, the battle was not fought by just the armed Nairs. As you recall Albuquerque was stunned by a stone. According to Alexander Chalmers notes Albuquerque was not even expected to recover from his wounds, but that he did at Cochin.

Malabar manual – Logan
Portuguese in India - F Danvers
Zamorins of Calicut – KVK Iyer
Malabar & the Portuguese – KM Panickkar
Tuhfat Al-Mujahidin - Sheikh Zainuddin
Commentaries of Albuquerque
History of British India - Hugh Murray

The Sunken Ruins of Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

I was intrigued by mentions of sunken ruins of an old part of Calicut city in a few history books. Having lived there for many years and not having heard of any such ruin perked my interest. Also I have been out into the sea having undertaken a dhow trip two miles into the waters to board a merchant ship captained by my uncle, many years ago. I had certainly seen no underwater ruins at that time. So what where these historians talking about??

Varthema first stated in 1503 that the city of Calicut had no wall around it and that houses extend for a mile or so from the shores. In town the houses are built close together, and he then explained that larger houses with a compound could be seen for another 6 miles. He also states that if you dig about 4-5 spans, water can be found and thus large houses were never built. For this reason, the Zamorin’s palace in the middle of town was low and insignificant. (Strange to note: This shows that Calicut did not change much until the 20th century).

Hamilton stated that around mid Feb 1703, when he visited Calicut, as he stood and looked, he chanced to see some of the ruins of the sunken town (on Coote’s reef off Calicut) and the remains of a fort built by the Portuguese in former times. He is not sure if the town was undermined by the sea or swallowed by an earthquake. This devastation apparently happened in the 1550-1585 time frame.

Forbes in 1772 confirms having seen underwater temples & minarets and explains all these in greater detail in his accounts.

Stanhope confirms in 1785 that he had heard about an event in 1585 where there was a sudden uprising of the sea that killed all the local inhabitants. He claims to have anchored at the spot where the old city stood and saw the foundations of the old city with naked eyes!!

Newbold confirms in 1846 that he saw the ruins of the Portuguese factory underwater as well. Local people also mentioned of underwater ruins some 12km north towards Kappad.

Let us now look at the geography – At the south extreme part of the Calicut reef somewhere close to the Kallai - Beypore entrance of the Chaliyam river is what is called the Coote’s reef (about 1.5 miles from the lighthouse). This was called Coote’s reef due to the loss of an EIC ship (sloop of war) of that name which ran into the reef and was destroyed at that location on 1st Dec 1855. (A detailed coast survey of the Calicut shores can be read on Page 148 of the Manual of administration of the Madras Presidency Vol 2, 1885). This was also the reef that Hamilton’s ship struck and where he stepped aside to see the ruins.

Logan believed circa 1900 that there definitely was sea encroachment to the shores of Calicut, but that reports of a Portuguese fort was found among sunken ruins at the location of Coote’s reef is not conceivable (Malabar Manual – page 75) though affirms that Sheikh Mammu Koya’s tomb probably stood at that location.

According to Logan, the said Portuguese fort was square in shape (see picture in MGS – Calicut the city of truth page 29) facing the sea and built in 1513 & designed by Thomas Fernandez. This was abandoned after hostilities, in 1525. If this was located at the reef and was overrun by the river or sea, the foundations may have been visible. The general conjuncture however was that this kind of rising of the sea has not taken place, for many other parts of inhabited Calicut would also have had reported flood situations consequent to this event.

However, let us now look at Danver’s accounts for more details on the fort’s construction – It states that the Zamorin of 1513 expelled the Arab traders who would not trade with the Portuguese and assisted the Portuguese in the construction of a fort in Dec 1513. He states that the foundations of the fort were laid underwater at the reef, close to the shipping anchorage. The fort was of the same size as the one at Cochin. Albuquerque placed Francesco Nogueira in charge with a sizeable force to protect it (The story of this Zamorin is interesting – He was apparently the Eralpad who poisoned the reigning Zamorin at the behest of the Portuguese and ascended to the throne – Also the person involved in deputing Dom Joao Da Cruz (refer my blog - The torn earlobe and the horse trader) to Lisbon as his envoy)

Looking at Earthquakes & Tsunamis of that period, it was determined that a small one occurred in 1524 (recorded in history by Vasco Da Gama and some others). Subsequently small quakes were felt in Calicut in 1881 and 1882. However this was not the cause of any event outlined above and from a different period as you can see.. In 1887 Lt RN Helby and party surveyed the region between Beypore & Calicut thoroughly and the reefs were mapped. I must however admit that I have myself heard many people admit that there has been considerable sea encroachment at Calicut

One may thus conclude with evidence available that the underwater city of Calicut is basically a myth and that there was no great erosion or cataclysmic event that inundated Calicut underwater around1500-1600. It is also clear from Danver’s accounts that the ruins seen were actually the real foundations of the Portuguese fort at the edge of the reef.

But well – the one thing that survived a long time was the British built screw pile at Calicut. One end stood close to the customs Bungalow (see picture from 1903) and the other end went as far as 4km in the mid 1800’s. This is the screw pile ‘Kadal Palam’ or sea bridge. The pile or Jetty as it thence got termed was shortened to some174 yards (500ft long). This screw pile pier of Calicut was built in 1871 at the cost of Rs 64,000/- . (pg 23/24 MGSN ‘Calicut City of truth’). Until it was fully operational, the pier built to receive the Prince of Wales at Beypore was used, even for transporting & boarding troops. Today the historical cast iron Jetty is lost and only a few forlorn pillars are testament to the lost glory of that great trading port that once dictated the fortunes of medieval Malabar.

Note – When the HMS Coote ran into the reef, a lot of effort was made to salvage it, but it was of no avail. The hull was sold for Rs 10,000/- to a local merchant who unfortunately lost his entire investment due to the fact that it could not be towed ashore.

Himalaya & Tibet (Study by Bendick & Bilham) – Allison Mcfarlane, Rasoul Sorkhabi, Jay Quade
The Portuguese in India : A.D. 1481-1571 Frederick Charles Danvers

Pics – Thanks to the BEM Calicut archives, District website

Chinese trade at Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The Indian sub continent, as Abu Lughod puts it ‘was in the way to everywhere’. And one such stop over in medieval times was the Malabar port of Calicut. It was always the key link in the Indian Ocean and the Indo China sea trade system. Picture a 15th century day at Kozhikode - The big bazaar (Valiyangadi) just off the Calicut beach resounded with multiple languages, and a teeming populace consisting of so many races. Nairs, Tamil Chettiars, white & black Jews, Arabs, Persians, Syrians, Christians, Turks, Somalis, Chinese, Malays, Italians and many more nationalities rubbed shoulders with each other speaking a score of languages and dialects. Thinking back I wonder, where did they live and what did they eat???

Some time back I had written about Cheng Ho’s arrival in Calicut, the Chinese treasure ships and the ambassadors they took back. I had also mentioned about the trade as such and the way Chinese traders conversed (see links below). Let us now try to understand how it started and how it ended.

Normal maritime links between Arabia and China and the Far East existed some 1200 years ago. That presumption is proved by the recent discovery of a sunken Dhow filled with trade goods, near Indonesia. Arab dhows piloted by fearless Middle Eastern traders continued what they excelled in, sailing with the winds, taking their time, with minimum fuss, plying at the ports of Calicut, Zeytoun (Quanzhou – Citong city - S China) and Basra to offload and exchange trade merchandise. The porcelain and silk continued to reach Basra & Europe through overland and sea routes. The Spices went up North to China and West to Europe. The Kling or Kalinga (Chettiar?) merchants from the Coramandel also sailed their great ships to Chinese ports.

Chinese trade originally started with both Coromandel (Chola) Nagapatinam and Malabar ports during the Sung dynasty between 967-1279. Quilon was where the Arabian coast trade with China really started, and as the geopolitical scene and export power base shifted, the Chinese moved up the coast from Quilon to Cochin and finally Calicut. During this period the Chinese ships ventured out from Zeytoun and Canton usually until Malabar (the lure was pearls from the Ceylon straits) and not beyond to the Arab ports. It was only in the 13th century that Chinese ships frequented the Arabian ports. Suleiman in his writings around 852AD state that ships leaving Muscat stopped at Quilon on the way back, a time when they had to pay a very heavy customs duty of 1000 Dinars! In 1282 we even had Quilon Envoys at Zeytoun. It must have been during these periods that the Chinese fishing nets landed up in Travancore & Cochin, a period when Kublai Khan ruled. The Chinese king/queen, the ruler of Venad, was titled Penate (Venadan) by the Chinese. The Quilon royal residence was called Apuhota. It was in 1294 that Marco Polo visited Quilon, while in the service of Kublai Khan. Quilon ginger & pepper were in great demand in China.

Somewhere around 1310, as documented by the Roman Friar John of Monte Corvino (Quilon was called Columbum then by the West) the Arabic missionaries and Mopilah merchants stepped into Quilon and started to strengthen their religious bases and their numbers, eventually wresting away the local trade from the Chinese. Around 1340, Ibn Batuta visited Quilon and Calicut. This is just about the time that the Calicut port’s supremacy starts. The Chinese trade in Quilon is by now on the decline, the Arabs, Moors and the Moppilahs are taking over the trade at the other ports as well. The first reports of the flourishing trade came when Ibn Batuta came in 1343 he wrote about seeing some 13 Chinese junks in the Calicut harbor.

The 14th & 15th Century was the period when trade with the Chinese rose dramatically owing to the visits by Cheng Ho and the warm relations between Kuli (Calicut) and the Ming China. The decline of the Chinese trade in Calicut started when the Bahrami traders took an upper edge at Calicut, according to Ashin Das Gupta. The advantage the Moors had over the Chinese was numbers and their willingness to help the Zamorin in his conquests. Ashin Das Gupta however mentions in his books that the Chinese trade virtually ended with Quilon and mentions only a few visits by Chinese Junks to Calicut which I believe was erroneous considering Mahuan’s writings and the Cheng Ho saga.

By the 15th Century the Chinese shifted their focus to Malacca. Curiously the Arab trade route also restricted itself to the Arabian Sea resulting from the fall of the Abbasiud Caliphate. Thus, Indian ships plied the routes between Malacca and Malabar ports. Let us now look at the 15th Century trade. In 1402, during a devastating civil war, Zhu Di seized the throne from his nephew. Since he had seized the throne by force, Emperor Zhu Di was especially anxious to demonstrate and prove his legitimacy.In 1403 Emperor Zhu Di ordered construction of an imperial fleet that was to include trading ships, warships, the so-called "treasure ships," and support vessels and ordered the fleet, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, to embark on a major voyage that same year. The emperor and Admiral Zheng He had been friends since the admiral was in his teens, and they trusted one another. Since Zheng He was a Muslim, he would be able to establish good relations with Muslim trading communities as well as with Chinese traders in the ports the ships visited

Zheng He (Cheng Ho) voyages - Zheng He commanded a fleet of 317 ships, almost 28,000 men, their arms and supplies. He oversaw seven voyages that touched upon Calicut between 1405 -1433. Multi lateral trade prospered and formal relations between the Ming dynasty and several Indian, Middle Eastern and South East Asian countries were established. Zheng He or Cheng Ho dies at Calicut in 1433. The Ming emperor orders a halt to wasteful spending on treasure ships and thus the Chinese sponsored maritime trade comes to a complete halt. After 1439 there is no further evidence of any envoys from or to Calicut. (See my blog on Zheng Ho)

Malabar was one place where all the products from the East or the West could be purchased or sold. As a free port, administered under the benevolence of the Zamorin, Calicut prospered. Many nationalities coexisted in harmony, crime was minimal and honesty in trade was well documented.

Now you, the reader may question – why did the native of Malabar rarely venture out into the seas, during the medieval times? Why was it that this was done only by the Arabs and probably the Moppilas – the Maraikkar community (with Sri Lankan Origin perhaps). The answer is very interesting and comes from the deep rooted belief that if one leaves the shores, then you lose caste. That is the story of Kala Paani. The old Aryan myth goes as follows – The Ocean is the resting place of the great God and any human activity on it will disturb the tranquility. Doing so would mean losing your caste, possible excommunication and banishment from society. Thus the oceans were called Black water or Kala Pani and the English had a tough time getting labor across to the West Indies, Africa and other places. Read a separate blog on this subject.

What did the Chinese do at Calicut? They picked up spices of course, but only on the Journey eastwards back to China. They did stop over in Calicut on each of the voyages, recuperated, replenished their stores and continued on frequently to the west. For the westerly trade, they bartered in Calicut with gold coins, spices from SE Asia and mainly rice that they had picked up at Orissa, to purchase Silver for the trip to Zanzibar. Ian Blanchard gives the reasons in detail in his book on Mining. Curiously in Zanzibar, they bartered the Silver for Rhodesian native gold and more spices!! Another item traded by Calicut merchants was Arabian Opium that was purchased at a third of the price in Canton, by Chinese traders in Calicut. It was something the Chinese considered very important and needed for their medicines

Here the reader should note that the Opium story again takes a funny course. The Malabar people never got hooked on drugs like Opium, however it is mentioned in the annals of history that the people around Dutch Cochin were habituated for a period after the Dutch who controlled the Opium trade, used Opium to barter for spices during their supremacy. Then after the British came, they cultivated Opium in Bengal (George Orwell’s father headed the department) for delivery to China….

According to traveler Ma Huan’s notes, the only people the Chinese had any regard for was the people of Kuli or Calicut. The rest were typically barbarians. The reasons are amply explained in this description.

This is the great country of the Western Ocean. In the fifth year of the Yung Lo, the court ordered the principal envoy, the grand eunuch Cheng Ho and others to deliver an imperial mandate to the king of this country and to bestow on him a patent conferring the title of honor and the grant of a silver seal, also to promote all the chiefs and award them hats and girdles of various grades…..The people are very honest and trustworthy. Their appearance is smart, fine and distinguished. Foreign ships from every place come there, and the king of the country also sends a chief and a writer and others to watch the sales, thereupon they collect the duty and pay it to the authorities.

Where did the Chinese live in Calicut? Look no further than in a westerly direction from the environs of the Big Bazaar, the Northwest port area. Calicut of the 14th Century was built as a model city, following the Hindu grid formula based on the image of a sacred man Purusha. The axis and energy centre was dictated by the position of the Tali temple, and all trades and people had a place. The Chinese lived in the Chinese street now called the Silk Street. This was later occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English (the Portuguese fort was located there). The Mappilas lived South West. South East was Tali temple, the palace and the kalaris. Northeast was the commercial quarter.

It is also interesting to note that in one of the Zheng Ho voyages; he participated (and probably even helped) with the installation of a Manavikarma Zamorin.

Chinese Arab rivalry - The instigation of the Zamorin by Arab traders who were envious of the competition from the Chinese started the process. Various references indicate sharp rivalry between the Arab and Chinese traders and OK Nambiar in his book reaffirms that a Chinese village was set fire upon by the Arabs of Calicut. Joseph the Indian, visiting Europe in the 16th century, accompanying Cabarl (Read the linked Cabral’s hostages) on his voyage back to Lisbon states that the Moppilahs armed with the Zamorin’s backing destroys a Chinese settlement in Calicut over some trade dispute. While this may have happened in the 16th century, during the 13th century, the Chinese had frequent visits at Zeytoun by Marakkar Muslims and during 1291 even gave asylum to Bouali (Abu Ali, I guess a Marakkar), from Tuticorin until he died and was buried there in 1299)

There is a belief that many of the Chinese shifted base from Calicut to rival Cochin as a result of these attacks, but after taking revenge (Ashin Das Gupta confirms it as well, based on Joseph’s notes). Joseph also states that the Chinese have remarkable energy and conducted a first rate trade in Calicut. According to Jospeh, the Chinese left Calicut after this slaughter and after taking revenge on the people (late 14th century) finally shifting base to Mailapatam under King Narasinga towards the sea of Cengala (also recreating dwellings and scenery like Calicut – De Barros) and leaving behind only a colony of half castes (Chini Bachagan referred to in Malabar Manual & AbduRazzak) and some Chinese temples (??). The one apparent problem was, I understand, the desire of exclusivity that the Chinese demanded in bilateral trade relations. The Zamorins could never grant that, considering the Indian Ocean trade with Arabs, the large Europe trade and considering that Calicut was after all a free port.

By the time Gama reached India, the Chinese trade was just a matter of tradition, and not a flourishing one. The Chinese had their temples in Calicut and had a settlement including half caste progeny, that’s all.

They were not alone and all this time, they had stiff competition with the Arabs and Moppliah’s of Malabar, whom the Zamorin favored. Even though the shipping stopped after 1435 and the edict by the Mings not to continue trade links, the overland routes prospered. However they continued in Calicut till the Portuguese came. That was the final nail in the coffin and once the massacre of everything that did not fall into the Portuguese line of thought started, the Chinese left. They probably moved on to other new trade centers like Calcutta which the later day English favored, or to Malaysia, Indonesia etc which was more conducive to unthreatened existence.

The Portuguese and the Dutch ensured the fall of Calicut from trading grace, shifting it first to Cochin and Goa. A casual English visitor to Calicut in the late 17th Century mentions a thriving port that once bustled with activity and bristling with trading rivalry had declined to looks presented by a modest and peaceful fishing village. However one must bear in mind that the only reason for Portuguese success in the late 15th century was the abrupt removal of the Chinese from the maritime scene by the Ming dynasty due to problems at home. The Portuguese next shifted focus to Malacca and it was by 1521 that the Chinese broke off relations with them once and for all.

Who are the Chinna Kribala, another type of Koyas of Calicut – William Taylor feels that they came by sea and were probably of Chinese origin. But he also infers that they could be Malay. It is one of those half castes who became Marakkar’s confidante – Chinali.

Incidentally the port frequented by the Chinese in Calicut was Pantalayani Kollam and was termed Fandaraina. Here was where their ships docked during the monsoon months.

Some words about where the Chinese departed to - They shifted base to Mailapatam under King Narasinga of Vijayanagara towards the bay of Bengal (also recreating dwellings and scenery like Calicut – De Barros). Further research shows that this China Patanam is Chennapatanam or today’s Chennai, yesterday’s Madras (Hobson-Jobson – Chinapatam)!!

But there is also a comment in history books that the Maraikkar’s (KM III) captured somewhere near Goa a Chinese treasure Junk laden with goods in 1592 (corroborated by many writers & historians). That’s funny – according to other information the Chinese had stopped shipping around the early 16th century?

Note – The Compass was apparently invented by the Chinese circa 1110AD, with that, sea navigation became easier. In the very early days when Arabian Dhows reached Chinese shores of Zeytoun, the Chinese always met the incoming ships at the straits to conduct trade and only a few were allowed in, in which case trade was carefully supervised. The five major ports in the world according to Ibn batuta (1304-1377) were Alexandria, Quilon, Calicut, Zeytoun and Soldaia or Sudak in Crimea. All five were fed with the Indo-China trade.

Tail Note – In the 15th and 16th centuries, Calicut was reportedly larger than Lisbon (Hope Diamond – Richard Kurin) Can you believe that?

Links & References
Cheng Ho in Calicut
When Fingers talk
Enterprising Malayalees
Cabral’s hostages
Beyond Price - R. A. Donkin
Mining, Metallurgy and Minting in the middle Ages - Ian Blanchard
Quilon – An Indian port of former Days – Padmanabhan Thampi
Before European Hegemony - By Janet L. Abu-Lughod
History's Great Untold Stories - Joseph Cummins


Chinese junk photo - Wikimedia
Big Bazar - Time
Cheng Ho map of route to Calicut - Wikimedia

Kunhali’s revenge

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

For Malayali’s the Kunjali’s of Kottakkal or the Malabar Marakkar family are very familiar. These sea captains of the Zamorins were very famous for their commando style raids against Portuguese shipping. There were four Kunhali or Kuttiali’s in the 1600 - 1700 time period. Kunhali IV who was executed by the Portuguese did not leave any offspring and apparently died a bachelor. In another blog, I willtry and cover the origins of the Marrakars and their relationships with the Marakkayars of Kayal Patanam in Tuticorin.

But this is not about the Marakkars, this is about a young lad who like the Hyat Sahib and Joao Da Cruz, was converted by force. His story too is interesting and continues to hide in the deep annals of history. He eventually became the tool for Kunhali’s revenge against the Portuguese who had tricked and killed him.

When Furtado together with the Zamorin’s forces defeated the Kunhali’s forces in 1591, he took away with him a 13 year old youngster named Ali, a cousin of Kunhali IV. Many years later, Ali saw Kunhali his uncle, once again, for the very last time. He was, I understand, taken at the age of 22 (in 1600) to witness Kunhali’s execution.

Ali, Kunhali marakkar’s cousin was later baptized in the Goan church and renamed Dom Pedro Rodriguez after the King Peter or Pedro. Later Dom Pedro Rodrigues who had become a fidalgo in the Goan society was married off to an Orpehus Del Rei (orphan girls from Portugal – Their story was covered earlier in another blog) and they lived an uneventful life in Goa until fate intervened. As Kunhali was captured and sentenced to death, many notables were invited to watch this horrible execution in which Kunhali was dismembered and his head salted. Ali was one among them. He watched, transfixed and horrified.

What would you think happened to the lad? He rose in revolt, against the people who killed his uncle. The revolting sight brought back sense in the mind of the Dom Pedro and he decided to go back to his old Islamic fold of Marakkars. OK Nambiar (Kunjalis - Admirals of Calicut) and Newitt say that he escaped with his family one night from Goa and proceeded to join the traditional activities of the Marakkars in Malabar. He decided to take revenge and renamed himself Ali Marakkar. For the next 18 years he assumed leadership of the Marakkar troops and continued the incessant fight in the shipping lines frequented by the Portuguese effecting major & frequent losses.

His major exploits included capture of five Portuguese fighting vessels (Portuguese in India – page 203 Frederick Charles Danvers) in 1618 and making off to the islands of De Las Vacas and Tristao Golayao (Laccadives I suppose). Dom Constantine de Sa sent a force out of Colombo comprising 58 ships to these islands to recapture the five vessels. However they were not successful, and though they managed to evade a clever trap when they were invited to go to a house and pick up the goods that Dom Pedro had secreted out there, they lost later. While departing, a sea fight ensued where Dom Pedro defeated the galleon (18 ships sunk, 300 people killed) and escaped again and attack more Portuguese fleets during the third decade of the 17th century. Teotonio says that Dom Pedro Rodrigues, harassed the Portuguese relentlessly, looted their ships frequently, and was feared by the Portuguese, after all he was trained by the Portuguese and knew many of their methods and secrets.

What finally became of Dom Pedro a.k.a Ali Marakkar and his half Portuguese family is not known, but he was the final of the Marakkar’s clan even though not a direct relative of the Kunhali.

Note - The Kunhali legend and lineage stopped with Kunjali IV. It may be interesting for some that Kunhali in his later years, as I understand, adopted a Nair lady and had her married off to a rich Mappila or Surati ship owner. This act was utilized by the Portuguese (together with many other rumors) to create animosity in the mind of the new Zamorin. The Zamorin also got incensed when he heard that Kunhali IV had declared himself the king of the seas. For the Zamorin this was the last straw and he joined forces with the Portuguese and went against the Kunhali. This sounded the death knell for the marakkar, and after a long drawn fight with the twin forces of the Zamorina nd Portuguese, he surrendered, the Portuguese beheaded him and then followed the above revenge by the Ali Marakkar.

A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668 - By M. D. D. Newitt
Essays in Goan History By Teotonio R. De Souza
Charithrathile Marakkar sannidhyam – S V Mohammed Vatakara
Portuguese in India – Frederick Charles Danvers
Pic - Kunhali IV - thanks to jaihoon

Hindus and the Ocean taboo

Posted by Maddy Labels:

It is very interesting to note that in India’s medieval maritime history, the real seafarers were rarely Hindus. There were many mentions of sailors from Malabar, Coromandel, Gujarat and Bengal in earlier times though. In those days the concept of borders was not definite and people of many nations intermingled, primarily at the ports of India. Calicut and Gujarat (Cambay) were considered great ports. Vedic text recounts the sea farers and recent discoveries cement that line of thought. Like the ports of Muziris and Calicut, Mahabalipuram was a port where the Kalinga ships ventured out into South East Asia and perhaps even the Pacific. From early times the inhabitants of Gauda in (Murshirabad) Bengal were known as seafarers. So ancient Hindus had a very good knowledge of the oceans, possibly even magnetic compass and star charting, resulting in brisk maritime trade. But with the Indian Ocean trade that continued, and focusing on the Arabian Sea ports, it is again curious that the trade & sailing was carried out by Chinese or various types of Moors and low caste Hindus. The question why has a simple answer – religious taboo. So how and when did the ocean taboo come about? Pires was one of the first to confirm its existence in Malabar in his Suma Oriental.

I must however mention though this taboo gained support in the medieval periods, the richer merchant (banias or vanias) had no qualms about sea crossing (albeit not too often) and on return carried out the required ‘prayaschita poojas’ to retain caste, according to many accounts. It was finally sometime around1850 the taboo lost support due to many Bengalis traveling abroad.

The first thing to note here is the belief in Hindu mythology that the Ocean is a resting place for gods and they shall never be disturbed. So one may not venture out into the oceans and incur their wrath and thus face fierce demons & monsters. Both Manu Smriti and the Baudhayana Dharma Sutra specifically dissuaded Brahmins from sea travels, and the penalties and penances if one did so were very severe. You could lose caste on that one account and the expenses incurred in doing the required penance were imposing to say the least. Manusmriti (written circa 200BCE, Chapter 3, verse 158) mentions the rules - if a Brahmin did cross the waters, he is to be denied a Shrardha (the annual appeasement of spirits - Shrardha - serves to remind one at important times throughout one's life that death does not severe the link between the present and the past, between the living and the dead). Such an offender is grouped with prisoners, sellers of soma, one who eats food given by the son of an adulteress, a bard, an oilman or a perjurer. Now if you do read the Manusmriti you are sure to find it pretty rigid and sometimes preposterous compared to today’s laws!!

However these rules formally applied only to the highest of castes and thus the lower ones were allowed to cross the seas. Nambuthiris in Kerala later instilled similar rules on Nairs, not even allowing movement out of ones districts!! It was even more strictly applied to women who could not even leave their general dwelling area.

With these strictures in place, noblemen and higher castes lived well away from water. Looking at Malabar, you would see from historic days that only houses of Muslims, Mukkuvars and foreigners were located close to the beaches or coastline.

Some who have incurred religious wrath for crossing the seas are notables like Tagore, Gandhiji, Vivekananda and Ramanujan. However it must be pointed out that this became a noteworthy issue only around the time when white foreigners came to India and trade contact ensued. This was probably when (13th to 20th century) the Hindu clergy started to impose the strictures of religion on the masses. In the later part of the 17TH and 18th century, the English suffered in their attempts to get labor across to Africa and West Indies due to this reason. They finally took large cauldrons of Ganges water on board to keep these men contended. The crossing of the seas was termed crossing the dark waters or Kala Paani. The taboo was in force till the end of the 19th Century when the Bengali elite broke it, which was ‘avante garde’ in many respects

A Brahmin explained the taboo as follows - This because one cannot perform his daily ‘pujas’, the three time ‘sandyavandans’ because the sun and moon was "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Moreover, people lived only within their community and did not "touch" anyone else. If one goes out, he would have to compromise on those religious practices, ‘touch’ many unclean people and eat food prepared by "mleccha’s (non Aryan or non Vedic follower)". Another reason stated was that India is a "Punyabhoomi (Holy land)" and the rest of the world is “karmabhoomi (Land of duty)”. Furthermore, such a departure from this land entailed the end of the reincarnation cycle, as the traveler was cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges (thus the English solution of carrying Ganges water on ships). It also meant the departure from family and social ties, besides caste dissolution especially among the higher spheres of society.

KM Panikkar the historian however does not concur that this taboo had any real effect, "Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic between the west coast of India and Babylon, as well as the Levant." He goes on to assert that Hindus had in use a matsya yantra (magnetic compass) and possessed the skills to construct ocean-going ships, sturdy enough to venture into the distant reaches of the Arabian Sea. Debunking the commonly held belief that all Hindus had a religious objection to crossing the seas, he says, “It was never true of the people of the South." Panikkar then recounts the continuum of colonisation as well as cultural and religious osmosis by sea from India's east coast to SE Asia. Starting with the Mauryan emperors, he traces Indian maritime activism through the Andhra, Pallava, Pandya, Chalukya and Chola dynasties. He concludes that Hindu influence could not have prevailed so far from home from the 5th to the 13th century without resolute and substantive maritime sustenance from the mother country.

Rig Vedic references to early seafarers - The oldest evidence on record is supplied by the Rig Veda, which contains several references to sea voyages undertaken for commercial purposes. One passage (I. 25.7) represents Varuna having a full knowledge of the sea routes, and another (I. 56.2) speaks of merchants, under the influence of greed, sending ships to foreign countries. A third passage (I. 56.2) mentions merchants whose field of activity known no bounds, who go everywhere in pursuit of gain, and frequent every part of the sea. The fourth passage (VII. 88.3 and 4) alludes to a voyage undertaken by Vasishtha and Varuna in a ship skillfully fitted out, and their "undulating happily in the prosperous swing." The fifth, which is the most interesting passage (I. 116. 3), mentions a naval expedition on which Tugra the Rishi king sent his son Bhujyu against some of his enemies in the distant islands; Bhujyu, however, is ship wrecked by a storm, with all his followers, on the ocean, "where there is no support, no rest for the foot or the hand," from which he is rescued by the twin brethren, the Asvins, in their hundred-oared galley. The Panis in the Vedas and later classical literature were the merchant class who were the pioneers and who dared to set their course from unknown lands and succeeded in throwing bridges between many and diverse nations. The Phoenicians were no other than the Panis of the Rig Veda. They were called Phoeni in Latin which is very similar to the Sanskrit Pani.

This is just an introductory article on the medieval taboo and not one covering details on the seafaring Indians. Those exploits will be covered later. And all this is again in the news with the discovery of the reed boats from the Indus valley civilization.

Food for thought - There are some kinds of parallels for this sea taboos in Ming dynasty of China (My previous blogs on Zheng Ho – Cheng He) where the Confucian bureaucrats forbade overseas travel, Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom at one time and Tokugawa Japan had also banned overseas travel.

Hindu Wisdom – Seafaring
At Sea about Naval History – Adm Arun Prakash
Some thoughts of crossing the Ocean – AVN Murthy
A history of Indian Shipping – R Mookerji

Pics – Wikipedia & Mookerji’s book cover