RSS Feed

The Zamorin’s Italian mercenaries

Posted by Maddy Labels:

We go back today to the balmy days of autumn 1503. The palace intrigues at the Zamorins palace in Kottaparamba (today’s mananchira area) were running wild. The relationship between the Kolathiri’s in the north were improving but the relationship with the ageing Cochin king Unni Goda Varma was as bad as it could be. The Zamorin Manavikaram (1500-1513) was fighting the Portuguese who had increased their attempts at gaining monopoly of pepper & spice trade. The Mopilahs were troubled, the Arabs and other Pardesi merchant groups livid at the possibility of their trade being taken over by the Parangi. An astute reader will note here that we are talking about two groups of Muslims in Malabar, the Moplah & the Paradesi (even though other foreigners were also called pardesi’s, I am referring here to the Muslim pardesi). In the course of the study of history of Malabar, you will see that the second group was the one with more to lose and did their bit to manipulate the former in the name of brotherhood, religion & ancestry.

But we will look at the story of two unlikely candidates who had strayed into the maelstrom of the bitter politics that was underway, they were two Milanese gem cutters, who had run away from the Portuguese at Cochin and found sanctuary of the Zamorin’s employ at Calicut. They were in the course of history to get termed as siege engineers, gunsmiths, lapidaries, bombardeiros, armorers, renegados and so on… The two persons bore the names Joao Maria (John or Giovanni Mario) and Piero Antonio (Peter Anthony) respectively. While many people had alluded to their presence in Cochin and Calicut, Varthema the Milanese spy in Moorish disguise visiting Calicut who eventually left his famous travelogue, came across them and documented their sad state of affairs.

They had originally come with Vasco Da Gama on his second voyage of 1502 and were based in Cochin. Their relations with the Portuguese soured in 1503 and they absconded to Calicut. One thing surprising is that they took this chance to break away from the Portuguese knowing fully that it becomes far more difficult to get back to Italy without the Portuguese ships offering transit. Did they leave for monetary reasons? Yes, it could be as the Portuguese solados were paid only on return to Lisbon, usually. Or was it something else? Yes, they did make money from the Zamorin. But history is mum in those areas.

Nevertheless, they found their way up to Calicut and quickly found employment with the Zamorin. He had learnt from previous skirmishes with the Gama and Cabral that without guns, their cause was lost. Soon the gem cutters were put to work at casting field guns (many books also mention small cannons) and shells for the same. Until then all that the Zamorin had were two cannons that nobody knew how to load, aim or fire (Whiteway citing Thomas Lopas an eye witness). During their stay at Calicut the Italian craftsmen cast 400-500 ‘brass’ field guns & cannons. Some of these guns were mounted in Moplah ships that sailed the waters.

KV Krishna Iyer in his book “Zamorins of Calicut’ (page 160) mentions that the two married Moplah women (this is indeed surprising, I somehow feel it could be outcaste Hindu Women) and eventually trained the Moplah’s under command of the Zamorin (I believe that the head of these could have been the chief armorer Mamally Marakkar) to load, aim and fire the guns in a disciplined and quick fashion.

C Achyutha Menon in his ‘Cochin state manual’ mentions that the guns made by these stone cutters only fired stones as fast as one could throw them and these were no match for the Portuguese artillery.

In the meantime the Portuguese keep on asking the Zamorin for the return of the two Italian deserters. The Zamorin did not budge.

Let us see the most exhaustive of the accounts by Varthema – Adventurer Varthema is now back at Calicut after traveling the Coromandel and the SE Asia, sometime around 27th August 1505 (aged 35 years or so). He is all this time disguised as an Arab Fakir named Yunus. Here he goes around clad only in a dhothi, bare-chested, around the streets of Calicut. And he eventually meets the two gunners and become friends. The gunners state that they meet the Zamorin every day & that they were his chief men. However they were stuck in Calicut since they had no way of going back across the seas. Varthema tells them that the only way is to go back with the Franks (Portuguese) after getting a pardon more so as they were now outlaws but also that he Varthema would discuss the pardon with the Voceroy. The Gunners confirm that they had trained 15 people of the Zamorin on how to fire the ‘Spingarde’. Varthema tells them that they are committing terrible acts against the Christians, hearing which the Antonio weeps and Mario states that it does not matter where he dies, Rome or Calicut.

Later, when Varthema hears that Portuguese are ships were on the way to Cochin, he forgets his one year traveling relationship with the moors and proceeds to Cannanore, meets Lourenco & travels thence to Cochin to explain to the Portuguese about the Zamorin’s armaments and massive preparations (with Turkish support) against them. He then requests that the viceroy Albuqurque pardon the two Italian gunners promising him to bring them over and thus weaken the Zamorin. He then proceeds to communicate the next plans with the Italians through a spy, after moving to Cannanore. The spy goes back & forth 5 times.

As we found earlier, both were married locally and Mario has a son and a slave at home whereas Antonio has no issues. Varthema cautions them not to speak about the escape to their wives or child and to come on an appointed day with only their money & jewels. The Italians planned to pack & take with them a 32 carat diamond, a 24 carat pearl, 2000 rubies of 1 to 1.5 carats weight, 64 rings, assorted jewelry, jewelers wheels & animals ( 7 birds, 3 apes & 2 cats) etc. Mario’s slave who saw these preparations knew immediately that they were trying to escape and went to the Zamorin with the news. The king did not believe him and instead sent 5 Nair’s to guard the Italians quarters. The slave is frustrated and then goes to the Calicut Kadi and tells him about the flight and that the Italians had betrayed the Zamorin by telling the Portuguese about the preparations for war. The Kadi and the merchants of Calicut Valiangadi decided to take preemptive action.

At that time, March 1506, in Calicut there were a band of traveling Gioghi’s (I guess Gypsies) and their king. The Muslims go to the head of the Gioghi and contract him to kill the Italians. The man sends 200 of his men to take care of the matter. A fight ensues, 40 of the Gioghis are injured, and six killed, finally they manage to murder the two Italians with their trademark weapon, the swinging iron bit cast from a sling.

Thus ended the life of the two Italian mercenaries who laid their lives for the battles of Malabar, albeit unwillingly.

Joao Maria’s wife and child escape. Varthema buys the boy for 8 gold ducats and christens him as Lorenzo, but the boy dies soon after in 1506 of ‘French disease’ – VD, ulcer or cancer (something that Varthema concludes was introduced after the Portuguese arrival). Varthema then goes to Cochin and remains there until Dec 1507.

Richard Burton, not otherwise known for his accuracy states - For correctness of observation and readiness of with, Varthema stands in the foremost rank of the old Oriental travelers.

Many other historians have remarked about a lack of consistency in Varthema’s writings and missing parts as though he had something to hide or that he had lifted certain parts from other sources. Some contend it was due to his life as a Muslim spy. Now I wonder after all this, what a stone/gem finisher has to do with casting cannon, just like Varthema’s wild claims that he himself could cast cannon, maybe the tradesmen learnt different trades in those times.

If you look at Varthema’s notes, they do sound a bit silly today; especially the Malayalam lines & their translation about a trader who wanted this Italian and his friend to deflower his wife (a Chetty wanting that? Unbelievable!). One wonders how the text is taken for granted by so many over the many generations that have gone by. So to extract out the fact in these volumes compiled by mere travelers and not historians, takes much cross reading. On the other hand, it does lend great brevity to those troubled times.

Pearson the eminent historian confirms that these two Milanese did make 500 cannon out of which 200 were fitted on the Zamorin’s ships.

Castenheda confirms the Gunners skill and leadership qualities - There were at this time in Cochin two Milanese lapidaries belonging to the factory, named John Maria and Pedro Antonio, who had been brought to India by Vasco de Gama. These men deserted to the Zamorin, to whom they conveyed intelligence of the consternation which reigned among the inhabitants of Cochin, and of the small number of men that remained with the rajah. These men also made offer to the Zamorin to make ordnance for him resembling those of the Portuguese, which they afterwards did, as will appear in the sequel of this history, and for which service they were highly rewarded.

In the course of the night, by the advice of the Italian lapidaries who had deserted to the enemy, the Zamorin caused a sconce or battery to be erected directly over against the place where Pacheco was stationed, on which five pieces of ordnance were placed, from which great service was expected in the ensuing battle, owing to the narrowness of the pass. Before day, the van of this prodigious army arrived at the sconce of the Italians, and began immediately to play off their ordnance against the caravel, which was so near that it was an absolute miracle that not a single shot did any harm. But our cannon were better served, and every shot did execution among the enemy: and so well did they ply their guns, that before sunrise above thirty discharges were made from our caravel. Sixty-six of these were paraws, having their sides defended with bags of cotton by advice of the Italians, to ward off our shot; and each of these had twenty-five men and two pieces of ordnance, five of the men in each paraw being armed with calivers or matchlocks.

The two Italian deserters, while they acknowledged the valor of the Portuguese in the late action, represented that it would be impossible for them to continue to bear up long against such vast odds without reinforcements, and recommended the frequent reiteration of assaults, under which they must necessarily be at last overthrown. All those rajahs and chiefs who were for continuing the war, joined in opinion with the Italians.

Later on, the Zamorin’s desire to make even more guns for defense increased. Varthema also recounts of a Jew in Calicut who had built (for the Zamorin) a beautiful galley in which were four large iron cannon, who according to him, by an act of providence drowned while taking a bath in the pond. Around 1505 - 1507 four Venetians are seen to settle down in Calicut making cannons for the Zamorin and finally it is recorded by Gaspar Luis De Viega (1546) that a number of corrupt ‘casados’ had started to supply artillery & gun powder to the Zamorin’s armies. The Venetians in 1508 contributed carpenters, caulkers, artillery and two whole galleys to a fleet sent out in support of the Zamorin.

History of the Discovery and Conquest of India 1497 and 1505- Hernan Lopez de Castaneda.
The travels of…. Ludvico Di Varthema
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Malabar & the Portuguese – K M Panikkar
The Cochin State Manual – C Achyutha Menon
Portuguese in India – F C Danvers
Malabar Manual – W Logan
Rise of Portuguese power in India – RS Whiteway
Portuguese in Malabar – K Ramunni Nair

Pics - Web sources, ack with thanks


  1. Anonymous

    Very interesting and informative. Have not come across much history about Kerala written for public consumption (other than text books for universities, which most of us don't read).
    Thanks for the references also


  1. CKMadhusudan

    The Italian gem-cutters made their unfortunate presence in the midst of an intrigue; the complexities of the situation were beyond their comprehension. They were so naïve that when Varthema told them they were committing a sacrilege by their terrible acts against Christians, they cried. Some how I feel their acts do not fit in with the term mercenaries used by you in you article. Terming them as mercenaries would be doing injustice to those unfortunate souls.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Unny..Do keep coming by & feel free to read & comment.

    CKM - Thanks a lot for your comment. When I wrote out the title I did have second thoughts. Were they mercenaries or poor souls? As I was studying the story, it became clear that they were only after money and were prepared to flee with apes & birds and money, but not their kith and kin. That hardened my approach & i decided to call them just that.

    Geneva convention rules define a mercenary thus

    A mercenary is a person who takes part in an armed conflict, who is not a national or a party to the conflict, and is "motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party"

    They satisfy all the said requirements!!

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    A very good story. But how to sift the truth from fiction - this appears to be a problem in medieval history. But, we have no other means. In those days, there was a strict regulation on the number of crew allowed on board, as cargo was more important. A crew member who was injured would be shifted to the kitchen for cooking meals, and if he was a lousy cook, he was put on the duty of keeping the ship's journal! Most of the stories that we read now were probably written (in many case invented) by disgruntled soldier-turned cook-turned historians!!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKR - very right indeed - especially the tales related to the highly colorful writings of the Portuguese scribes. This tale too had many colorful moments which I had to strip out helped by the many references which I followed for the purpose.