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


  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Sir, it is a very informative post regarding the Chinese connection. Mailapatnam was definitely Mylapore.But it is interesting to learn that China Patnam became Chennapattanam. I was under the misunderstanding that the Calicut coast being blunt, may not offer facilities for berthing of ships.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS - Mailapetam has troubled me a bit. Some scholars have alluded a connection to Malacca, but I am not still sure if it is Mylapore though I guess it is.
    In most of the cases, the Calicut port of Pantalayani Kollam (close to Quilandy) is the more exact location when one says Calicut port.

  1. Sarah

    Maddy, a quick Question.. Who exactly were the Kling/Kalinga Merchants? The word Kling is considered to be a very derogatory name among the Malaysian Indians and I have always wanted to know where it originated from. Sorry for going off Tangent

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Fascinating stuff, as usual! Some questions to ponder:
    - Zheng He was supposed to have installed in Calicut a stone monument to commemorate his visits. What could have happened to it?
    - The myth that Chinese stopped trading after the Ming dynasty is, as you rightly point out, just that - a myth. They must have left Calicut due to their persecution at the hands of the Arab-Mappila traders.
    -We need to investigate the geographical boundaries of Calicut during those days. There is much evidence to indicate that the principal port of Calicut was Panthalayini Kollom. Interestingly, there is still a 'Silk Bazar' in Kollom!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Sarah - The Coromandel traders from the coasts of Bay of Bengal used to carry on the trade between the East coasts and the SE Asian and Chinese ports, while the Malabar merchants concentrated on the Arabian ports. They were Tamils & Telegus from the Kalinga kingdom (Coromandel is a word that came with the British) and hence called Kalingas.. As you rightly said, it is these days a derogatory term used against descendants of the Indian settlers of the Malay region much like the brit usage ‘Paki’ for all Indo pak settlers. Typically Klings were Tamil Chettiars or chettys. The Klings were somewhat unpopular for the apparent reason that they even ‘outjewed’ the Jews in trade! In Malay, even the Moslem traders from Tuticorin were grouped with the Chettis under the ‘kling’ term (Some people say that Telinga from the Andhra Telugu coasts became Kalinga)

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKR. I am sure that stone must be lying under the roads near mananchira.Or it must have been broken up & used for some road construction..
    Yes, I agree with you - Pantalayani Kollam was I believe the real port of Calicut.

  1. Maddy

    this link will give you a better answer than mine..

  1. Sarah

    Maddy, thanks for the link.

  1. Unknown

    Hi Maddy, It was really interesting to know about the Chinese trade at Calicut. Is it true that the Chinese shifted their base to Cochin and then to Calicut. I was under the impression that the Cochin port came into existence much later (on account of a monsoon flood) and much of the trade from Calicut shifted to Cochin thereafter. Pl see the "Last Crusade" by Nigel Cliff also in this regard.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks abhilash..
    please read these articles which touch on the Chinese trade
    During the 14th century when Cochin was formed, the Chinese traders had just started to move northwards from Quilon. Cochin was a stop for them.

  1. Unknown

    Fascinating...I'm so glad I came across this, even if late. Here's a thought:
    could 'Mailapatnam' have been Masulipatnam? It was an important port on the Andhra coast in British India.

  1. Maddy

    could be- do you have any chinese traces in mailapatnam?

  1. Anoop

    Nice but there are inaccuracies. " ..malabar natives did not venture out to sea.." is incorrect. The "Periplus to the Erythrean sea" I think mentions that " the Chero ruled the Erythrean sea.." Chero = Cheras, erythreas sea = Arabian sea/indian ocean. There was a class of traders called 'naicker" who exclusively conducted overseas trade. Excavations at Bernike and Memphis have revealed south indian settlements there. The temple at Borobudur has based relief of Indian sailors in Ships. There are jataka tales which mention sea voyages to Babylon. A Pandyan kings representative ( one with ponool ? ) is mentioned at the coronation of Augustus. There are records of Indian people ( men and women ), indian cows and camels at a annual parade at Alexandria. The evidence is too extensive.
    Anyway enjoyable blog. Tnx

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Anoop..
    The statement was - why did the native of Malabar rarely venture out into the seas, during the medieval times?

    Yes, it is true that some Southern seafarers ventured out in the distant past, but by the medieval time it was rare, and yes there were some ship owners and they were captained and manned by locals. And yes, there were settlements in Egypt and many other places, no doubt about that.The Seras mentioned by Pliny are blue eyed characters, not Cheras.

    But by the time the Ming ships came, the sea lanes to the west of Malabar as well as seaborne trade was primarily controlled by the Arabs.