Itty Achutan and the Hortus Malabaricus

Posted by Maddy Labels:

It was many months ago, while trawling the internet that I came across the mention (in a search result) of a young drummer from my hometown of Pallavur. The Chenda drummer’s name is Pallavur Sreedharan. I saw his name mentioned together with a popular IMAX movie and an audio CD. Later I met him at the temple the other day and mentioned it in passing, only to see him flummoxed. He recalled the visit of an American Sayip to Trichur and talked about the two days spent getting a lot of drumming filmed, but had not heard from him ever since. After I mentioned about the movie and the CD, he tried again to contact the producer, but has not succeeded to date. I tried to help him, but the tracks had faded out by then. But naturally, I thought, this is typically what happens to the humble enthusiastic toiler from a village.

This fortunately did not happen to Itty Achutan. Not only did this Ezhava Vaidhyer (doctor) collaborate with higher caste Brahmins in the two year effort, he rose to become the lead doctor and certifier in the team led by Van Rheeede when he set out to compile the legendary Hortus Malabaricus during the 17th century. Nevertheless, one must add, without the sponsorship of Van Rheede, and his formal certification and acknowledgement of Itty Achutan’s efforts, we would never have known about this master Vaidyar. Even after all this, the results of these stupendous efforts were unknown to India for many hundreds of years after Van Rheede left, and it was only a few years back that Dr Manilal completed the English and Malayalam translations of the magnum opus after a 35 year effort, working at the Calicut university.

This blog had been pending for a long time, and though I had been communicating with Dr Manilal on other matters, I had no access to numerous articles on this specific subject and related papers authored by him. I was also not aware that Dr Manilal had written a book about Itty Achutan’s role in creating much of the text and inputs for the Hortus Malabaricus, but alas that is also not available here for reference. Anyway, I had some time today and got into the research mode, trying to dredge out at least sufficient information for a blog post. The additional stimulus came while talking to my brother in India who is suffering from Kidney stones and who complained of the resulting renal colic. I recalled my own affliction some years back and my introduction to a popular capsule that not only reduced the possibility of infection, but also aided in the flushing out of the stone. It was made entirely of herbal oils, camphor & stuff like that, in Germany and the concoction must have been prepared ages ago. I recommended it to my brother and after I hung up, got thinking about the history of spices and their introduction in Europe, which as you may recall was primarily for medicinal purposes & preservation of meat. And all this reminded me once again of Itty Acuthan, the person behind the Hortus Malabaricus.

First let us read the chastising reminder from Al Beruni many years ago – The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, and no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner.
But then, looking at the relationship between Rheede, Achutan and their team, it was not so, they formed a group of like minded individuals who were compelled to document their knowledge for posterity. Yes, one could debate if the Dutch planned to steal the knowledge for themselves in pursuit of profit, but at least from the Indian part it was a very co-operative effort. Or if you think back to those days when the caste system rigors were at their extreme, it could have been an act of rebellion, the Ezhava Vaidyer working with the foreigner who trusted him more than the upper castes who kept him and his clan apart, never respecting his knowledge. But it must also be remembered that the Cochin king was in full support of the project and must have goaded Itty Achutan into joining the team. Van Rheede’s acknowledgment and thanks to the king (I think it was in Vol3) is testament to this.

It also resulted in another first –Malayalam text was printed (note here that a facsimile was produced on copper plates and not printed as is done today using movable type) on paper for the first time. Incidentally, Itty Achutan not only spoke Malayalam, but also a bit of Portuguese, which he used to converse with the Dutch team (and an Italian missionary Fr Matthew) while preparing the book.

So what is Hortus Malabaricus?

Quoting excerpts from Wikipedia with some corrections, Hortus Malabaricus (meaning Garden of Malabar) is a comprehensive treatise that deals with the medicinal properties of the flora in the Indian state of Kerala. Originally written in Latin, it was compiled over a period of nearly 15 years and published from Amsterdam during 1678-1693. The book was conceived by Hendrik van Rheede, who was the Governor of the Dutch administration in Cochin at the time. The book has since been translated by Dr. K. S. Manilal into English and Malayalam. Prominent among the Indian contributors were the Ezhava Itty Achudan and three Gouda Saraswat Brahmins named Ranga Bhat, Vinayank Pundit and Appu Bhat. The ethno medical information presented in the work was extracted from palm leaf manuscripts in the possession of Itty Achudan. The entire effort was managed, promoted and financed thanks to the Dutch governor Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein. The Hortus Malabaricus comprises 12 volumes of about 500 pages each, with 794 copper plate engravings. Over 742 different plants and their indigenous sciences are considered in the book.
As part of the project, all the country around was diligently searched and fresh specimens brought to Cochin by Achutan and his team, where the Carmelite Fr Matthews and others sketched them, with striking accuracy. A description of each plant was written in Malayalam and thence translated into Portuguese, by a resident at Cochin, named Emmanuel Carneiro. The Secretary to the Government, Herman Van Douep, translated it into Latin. The whole seems then to have passed under the supervision of another learned individual named Casearius, a personal friend of Van Rheede.

I must also add here that the book was actually a collective effort of a number of Viadyar’s of the area, North & South Malabar and some Dutch, Portuguese and Italians. To get to the work itself and how van Rheede came about planning it, please check out an earlier blog.

Quoting historian Richard Grove - Van Reede's father had been a Chief Forester in the Netherlands and the emotional and aesthetic impact of the Malabar forest environment played a vital role, according to Van Reede himself, in encouraging him to embark on a project on the enormous scale of Hortus Malabaricus. He was astonished to find out that the medicines coming from Europe for the Company were made from the plants sent from Malabar to Europe through Persia and Arabia. These involved high expenses which he felt were a mere waste. Van Rheede was fascinated about Malabar and went on to extend the metaphor of the palace out into the garden. Indeed, he actually conceptualized Malabar as a garden. 'Every land and field' he recalls, extending into the plains abounded so much with plants and trees of every kind, and radiated such fertility, that indeed every piece seemed to have been cultivated by the careful hand of some gardener and planted in a very elegant order. Indeed even the pools, and one may wonder about this, the marshes, nay the very borders of the rivers which carried salt water displayed several plants with which they were almost completely covered. There was no place, not even the smallest, which did not display some plants. Malabar, then, was a garden for Van Rheede and, more than just that, a 'garden of the world'.

Van Rheede now looked for a man who could provide information on and help make precise drawings of these plants, describe them, including their medicinal use, since this could reduce the medical expenses of the Company. Thus he found the local expert Itty Achutan and then went on to form a team for the task.

Strangely some original western viewpoint inputs (Viridarium orientale) had come from Fr Matthews which Rheede rejected just like he had rejected Arabic classification of plants. He decided to rely instead on the local Ezhava classification as outlined by Itty Achutan. It is also quite interesting to note that Fr Matthews accepted the decision and continued on in the new team as illustrator. Rheede had also decided that the Brahmin classification was unreliable, more academic and based on re-stated and weak foundations, passed on through ancient texts (Richard Grove). When questioned, the Brahmin ‘scholars’ always depended on the vaidyars or field workers for precise answers, so Rheede decided to take the lead from Itty Achutan. You can only imagine the consternation created by this decision, but it is also interesting to note that full co-operation continued to be extended by the King of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut for this enterprise.

Karappuram Kadakkarappally Kollattu Veettil Itty Achuthan
The Hortus Indicus Malabaricus speaks in its preface about Vaidyar (doctor) Itty Achuthan, a reputed vaidyar of the Ezhava Chekavar community as the main force behind the book.

Richard Grove introduces Itty Achutan aptly - among them were families of Vaidyar traditional doctors, highly esteemed Ayurvedic medical practitioners, whose occupation was passed down in a lineage from father to son, along with bulky collections of books and papers (in palm leaf format) containing hundreds of years of accumulated medico-botanical knowledge. Itti Achuden was probably the best known of these low-caste Vaidyar physicians.

After having selected his field staff led by Itty Achutan, Rheede split the team (varying widely according to historians as constituting 25-100 in all) into many groups of three who were sent into the forests. Three or four illustrators (not Fr Matthews as I originally thought) stationed with Rheede made a sketch of the plant as soon as the specimen was brought to them and Van Rheede personally certified the accuracy of each of them.

Now we come to the interesting part of the team effort carried out in the two tumultuous years between 1674-1676. Rheede was under pressure to leave and Van Goens and team were ramping up the political pressure from Ceylon. The work moved at a rapid pace, as the inputs were tabulated, sketched and collated, editorial analysis was done by a board of 15 scholars, physicians and botanists. Donep who translated to Latin was also a product of the Kottayam school of 1674 that I mentioned in a previous blog (Hasencamp’s school in Kottayam where Dutch, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Latin were taught). Carnerio incidentally was a Parangi Tupas of mixed race. Rheede was very happy with his motley group which collaborated with a single purpose, Brahmins (Ranga Bhatt, Vinayaka Pandit & Apu Bhatt) and non Brahmins, each were trying to win favor with their results. They did their best to ensure that they did not disgrace themselves and the competition between them was fierce. The debates were vehement, with the Brahmins referring to old texts and quoting sages and medical works, but with the team eventually arriving at acceptable conclusions.

Mohan Ram in his paper provides the following additional information about Itty Achuden as he understood from Dr Manilal.

Itty Achudem was born in the Collada family, famous for hereditary physicians in a place called Codakkarapalli of Carappuram, situated about 25 km south of Cochin. He belonged to the Ezhava caste, who were then treated as untouchables by the Malabar Hindu community. The head of the family who practiced medicine was known as Collatt Vaidyan. When a Collatt Vaidyan died, his practice and title went to his (eldest) son. The Collatt Vaidyans maintained a family book consisting of several volumes of palm leaf manuscripts in Kolezhuthu Malayalam, in which were recorded names of medicinal plants, methods of preparation and application of drugs and the illnesses for which they were used. The family book not only served as a guide, but was in turn constantly enriched by recording the experiences of the individual physician of a new generation.

Looking at the published certifications, one may wonder …Why did Itty Achutan write in Vattezhuthu while Carneiro used the Ariezhuthu script during the same period? It appears that the Ezhava caste used traditional old script as they were not formally lettered (in those cruel days only upper castes had traditional schooling) whereas the Tupas Carneiro used the formally taught and modern Ariezhuthu. Emmanuel Carneiro, the interpreter of the VOC, was born, married and residing at Cochin, educated at the Kottayam School. The Carneiro certificate in the original book also states that the original text was dictated in both Portuguese and Malayalam by the team.

Grove opines that the selection of the plants and shrubs were made by Itty though his modest certification does not say so. This is also confirmed in Carneiro’s certificate which refers to the book in Itty Achutan’s possession. Grove points out - In practice Achuden and his team actually selected the plants that were to be drawn and so included in the book, disclosed their names for the plants, and so contributed their knowledge about the virtues and uses of the plants. The plant names also give us a considerable amount of incidental sociological material. In Onapu 'Onam' is the harvest festival in which this particular flower would be used. More importantly according to Grove The names thus preserve the true social affinities of the plant name, instead of isolating them in a context-less arbitrary category, as well as allowing, probably, a truer affinity in terms of pharmacological properties.

The plants were arranged at the University of Leiden garden exactly as prescribed by Achuden and his fellow Ezhavas in the Hortus (This recreation of the arrangement lends some credence to the rumor that Achutan went to Amsterdam). Linnaeus subsequently adopted the same Ehzava method of classification in 1740, as did many other scientists who followed.

The Itty Certificate can be translated as follows

As intended by the hereditary Malayalam physician born in Kollada house in Kodakarapalli village of Karappurma and residing therein. Having come to Cochin fort on the orders of Coomodore Van Rheede and having examined the trees and seed varieties described in this book, the descriptions of and the treatment with each of them known from our books and classified as in the illustrations and notes and explained in detail to Manuel Carnerio, the interpreter of the Hon company, clearing doubts thus supplied the information as accepted without any doubt by this gentlemen of Malabar (attested 20th April 1675)

Carneiro states in his certification as follows

As intended by Emmanuel Carneiro, the interpreter of the Honourable Company, born, married and residing at Cochin. According to the Command of Commodore Henrik van Rheede, the trees, shrubs, twines and herbs and their flowers, fruits, seeds, juices and roots and their powers and properties described in the famed book of the Malayalee physician born at Carrapurram, of the Ezhava caste and of the name Colladan, have been dictated separately in Portuguese language and Malayalam language. Thus, for writing this truthfully, without any doubt, my signature ... (attested 19th April I675)

Note: many translations provide the date of 20th for Carnerio's certificate but it is actually the 19th as confirmed by Dr Manilal.

However a detailed analysis of the Malayalam names from the book by Dr Manilal and Govindan Kutty actually reveal that the names came from various parts of Malabar and various Malayalam dialects, not just the understanding of Itti Achutan from the Chertalai region. Note here that a third certificate by the Bhat’s can also be found in the book.

Another famous Botanist of the past who acknowledges Achutan’s contributions is Johan Jacob Scheuchzer who lists in his book Bibliotheca Natural history an entry which starts thus - Dr Itty Achudem who in 1670 put in efforts to produce the Hortus Malabaricus.............

And as it turned out, Rheede who had also planned a Hortus Africus died in 1691 without starting this next project. The last volume of Hortus Malabaricus was published in 1693.

A few words about the illustrators - Many articles mention Fr Matthews as the illustrator or as a member of the team.While the first draft of the HM had a few pen sketches provided by Fr Mathews, they were found to be innacurate and substandard by Van Rheede and others. As Rheede himself explained, the old father provided much input and association to the work, but the pen sketches provided were woefully inadequate. The final illustrations were made by a team of artists most notably Antoni Jacobs Goedkint and Marciles Splintjer.

But whatever happened to Achutan?

Mohan Ram states in his paper – Nothing is known about the date or year of Itty Achuden’s birth or about his descendants. All efforts by Manilal to trace Itty Achuden’s life after the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus have failed. It is said that Itty Achuden put the family book in a cane (rattan) basket and passed it on to a Konkani Brahmin neighbor for safe keeping, as he was leaving his home for a long time. There is a story in his village that he was taken to the Netherlands by the Dutch. This has yet to be verified, as the Dutch kept accurate records of all passengers arriving or leaving their ports by boat. It is also believed that the Konkani family returned the cane basket and its contents to the head of the Collatt family. There were no more physicians left in the family and the priceless treasure of the documentary record of medicinal knowledge (Some say the book is titled Keralaramam) got destroyed some time in 1963 or thereabouts. Curiously the basket still survives! Manilal informs me that members of Itty Achuden’s family had maintained a small thatched hut called Vilakku Maadam for several generations, to worship their ancestors by lighting an oil lamp every evening. As Itty Achuden was probably the last of the ancestral vaidyans, a lamp continues to be lit even today in his memory.

Today Linnaeus and Burman are extolled as fathers of modern botany whereas the man behind much of it, the Vaidyer Itty Achutan has passed into oblivion. Or, maybe not since Karl Ludwig Blume, a botanist of renown decided that Achuthan should be honored and thus named an entire plant family in his name during the 19th century. The Achudemia family is named after Itty, and seems native to China and Japan, though found worldwide.
In Kerala, not many know of Achutan or his inputs, though the practice of Ayurveda continues with increasing awareness. There are many Ayurvedic institutions and colleges formed to pass on the knowledge to the future generations. Even so, you can find Ayurvedic herbal medicines like Dashamoolarishtam promoted by contemporary medicine houses like Dabur and advertised with popular film actresses.

So when you see Juhi Chawala chirp on TV about this medicine or when some global drug company patent a ‘kashayam’, give forgotten stalwarts like Itty Achutan a thought…..


Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins - Richard H. Grove
Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) and Hortus Malabaricus -J. Heniger
Asia in the making of Europe, Volume 3 - Donald F. Lach ((), Edwin J.Van Levy
The Dutch power in Kerala, 1729-1758 - M. O. Koshy
Asia in the making of Europe, Volume 3, Book 2 - Donald F. Lach
Indigenous Knowledge and the Significance of South-West India for Portuguese and Dutch Constructions of Tropical Nature: Richard Grove
On the English edition of Van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus by K. S. Manilal (2003) - H. Y. Mohan Ram


Dhatura pic – tribune
Hub pages

Those interested can visit the Hortus Malabaricus Art Gallery designed at the Hill Palace Museum. Readers may also recall that the governor van Rheede had a laboratory in the palace during his time, which I believe is the location detailed below, by Sivadas Verma reporting for Indian Express

And of course there is the Malabar botanical garden in Calicut- The garden has a herbal garden, Hortus Malabaricus garden and `star forest’ apart from water plants. It has a total area of 40 acres and has been dedicated to the memory of Itty Achuthan Vaidyar, who helped in the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus.

Interestingly, the first volume of HM bears an engraving of a large garden and a summerhouse bearing a tablet reading `HORTUS INDICUS MALABARICUS', so much so that, the area in Fort Kochi where the garden was cultivated is still referred to as `Odatha' (Malayalam version for the word Hortha) and vestiges of the wall still remain

Sprenger, Burgkmair and the Savages of Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Many years ago when the Francisco De Almeida came to Malabar as the new Portuguese Viceroy, his fleet and people also had two Germans (history books call them super cargoes), namely Balthazar Sprenger and Hans Mayer. They were from Augsburg, a place in Germany well known for the trading Fugger banking family, numerous artists and publishers like Guttenberg. Sprenger was supposedly a gunner (or clerk) in the fleet. How did his voyage have any effect on history? It so happened that Sprenger documented his travails in a diary which was later attributed to none other than Amerigo Vespucci, the man who supposedly discovered America and who claimed through these papers to have visited Calicut as well, in his fourth voyage.

As you saw the story took a strange turn since Sprenger’s account turned up in the press as Amerigo Vespuci’s voyage to India. This was of course not possible (for Vespuci apparently never left Spain between 1505 and 1512 or accompanied Almeida), but I will not get into the story of how all this happened; I can however list in the reference section a book that explains the piracy of authorship. Let us thus conclude that the contents of Vespucci’s diary were doubtful to say the least and that he never visited Malabar. Sprenger was one of the first to document a visit to Malabar, but one of the last to get published, years after Camoens and Correa.

And so the story takes us back to 1503 when a company called ‘Der Teutschen Societat’ was created in Augsberg to handle trade in the new Portuguese possessions in Malabar & Africa. The company and the traders reached a deal with the King of Portugal in 1504 to finance the trip to India, by providing three merchant ships (I will cover the Fuggers and Malabar in a later blog). The Fuggers and other traders who financed it placed their representatives on the fleet, namely Sprenger and Meyer. One of the ships of the fleet was the San Rafael where Hans Mayer served as the factory clerk. The ship on which Sprenger traveled was the Saint Leonard. It was a very profitable trip for the Germans, resulting in a profit margin of 175% after all royalties were paid to the Portuguese king.

And how did the Fuggers and other Germans get into the picture? Johann Fugger, a weaver of Augsburg, entered into overseas trade about 1380 on a very modest scale. In less than one century his successor, Jacob Fugger II (Jacob the Rich) (1459-1525), controlled vast real estate holdings, fleets of merchant ships, rich gold and copper mining interests, and the largest and richest banking business in Europe. He was able to lend huge sums of money to Emperor Maximilian I (1499-1519) in exchange for certain commercial favors. By using this money to bribe the Electors, Maximilian was able to assure for himself the election to the Imperial throne. In return, he ennobled the Fugger family.

Balthazar Sprenger, or Springer, the author of the narrative, was a Tyrolese, from Vils, in the employ of Anton Welser, and who joined the expedition of Francisco d'Almeida as supercargo, or factor, on board the St. Leonard, one of the three ships fitted out at the expense, as we have said, of the Welsers, Fuggers, Hochstetter, Imhof, and other rich merchants of Augsburg and Nuremberg. Sprenger returned to Portugal with the second home-bound squadron, again on the St. Leonard, arriving at Lisbon on the I5th of November, 1506, six months after the first ships sent by Almeida. Sprenger kept a daily journal of all the events of which he was an eye-witness in the course of that memorable voyage. Being a German by birth, and writing evidently for ready reference, we assume that this diary was written originally in his mother tongue. Sprenger, upon his return to Germany, embodied those two accounts in a sort of memoir addressed, at their request, to personages whose names have not reached us. These were very probably the wealthy merchants of Augsburg who had employed him, particularly the Welsers.
The Sprenger story was quickly pirated in Amsterdam. To place his account within the reach of the reading public in Germany, goaded on perhaps by the Antwerp piratical version, Sprenger prepared, himself, for the press, apparently at Augsburg, an edition of his own original narrative, and in the German language. But a Hindu article says Sprenger’s book was published in 1609, which places the publication after his death.
As we read on, in the book, the accounts themselves did not arouse the same fascination as the illustrations that were added. Sprenger got in touch with Hans Burgkmair the celebrated Augsburg artist, a woodcut specialist who created pictures of the new world on wood. The most famous of these pictures are the King of Cochin series (Christening of the King in1509) and the Savages (warriors) of Calicut. The former accompany Sprenger’s book and the latter the Maximillian triumph series.

Here is where the famous artist Hans Burgkmair and the German Monarch Maximillian step in. Maximillian (1459-1519) was an ardent supporter of printing in Germany. In order to glorify his achievements, he sanctioned great artists and writers in the region to produce a series of woodcuts and verse glorifying his reign, for posterity. Burgkmair, who had just returned from Venice, was one of them, a master in woodcut artistry. The triumph of Maxmillian, a huge series of 137 woodcuts was still unfinished when the emperor died in 1519. This collection included two pictures of Calicut and five from Cochin which are detailed below. The ‘Triumph of Maximillian’ has been described as one of the world’s richest and most unusual monuments of art. Over half of the woodcuts were made by leading painter and draughtsman Hans Burgkmair of Augsburg (1473-1531). Burgkmair spent much of his time working on commissions for Maximilian until the Emperor’s death in 1519. This was first executed in miniature, on 109 pieces of parchment, and then engraved in wood.

Although Sprenger's account circulated at an early date in manuscript, it was in the form of engravings that he may be said to have first called the attention of the public to his adventures in Africa and the East Indies. He furnished data to Hans Burgkmair, the celebrated Augsburg artist, who designed and published, in 1508, a large plate composed of four or five sheets, pasted together, and forming a whole, which measured in breadth one metre ninety centimetres, in height twenty-six centimetres. That fine engraving represents groups of natives in various attitudes, such as they had been seen by Balthazar Sprenger in those distant regions.

Imagine for a moment the police illustrator who bases a picture on words uttered by the informer. He listens and imagines, extending the imagination to a portrait using pencil or computer applications. But he knows it is a man, for example, Caucasian, with black hair, blue eyes and so on, thus creating an output between certain defined extremes. This is therefore much easier compared to creating pictures of the unknown. How did Burgkmair create pictures of people and animals he had never seen, just by listening to Sprenger? Once you imagine this you can come to terms with relative inaccuracies in the picture when viewed today. Some say that there was a water color painter in the Almeida entourage who did pictures which Burgkmair then as his base sketch. The more accurate parts of Burgkmairs paintings are the elephant and the umbrella used by the King of Cochin which cannot really be imagined from verbal mutterings made after many years of the voyage. So it does appear that watercolors were made by an artist and others hasten to mention that they could perhaps be found at the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome. Anyway the woodcuts proved immensely popular and German published works with woodcuts became very popular in Europe.

Burgkmair probably had additional visual access to at least some of the artifacts and ethnic groups (some Africans & Asians, perhaps Indians) portrayed in the frieze through his trip to Italy and the extensive merchant networks of his native Augsburg, but art critics stress that Burgkmair did not merely duplicate Sprenger's report, but instead disciplined it to make Sprenger an eyewitness worth believing.

The Savages of Calicut

The emperor in his warlike pride, conquering nations far and wide, has brought beneath our empire’s yoke, the far off Calicuttish folk, therefore we pledge him with our oath lasting obedience and truth..Then shall come the people of Calicut…dressed in moorish fashion.

Now when and how did Maxmillian have Calicut in his empire? Not really, readers may be reminded here that the concept of the Holy Roman Empire which Maximillian had conceived around 1505 even covered the lesser known parts of Asia & America. Jay Levenson in his book Circa 1492 opines that in Maximillian’s time, the term Calicut covered all newly explored colonies such as Malabar and the America’s. This was because until Magellan’s trip, America was considered part of the Asian continent.

These are some of the verse under the woodcuts

A savage of Calicut, naked (having a girdle round his loins, mounted on an elephant), wearing the crown of honour on his head and carrying a tablet, on which is written, "These people are subjects of the thrones and houses mentioned above."

Following are the savages of Calicut. A rank armed with targets and swords. A rank armed with pikes. Two ranks with English bows and arrows. They are all naked, or dressed in the Indian or Moorish fashion, and decorated with the crown of honour.

The King of Cochin

This series of woodcuts do not belong to the Maximillian triumph. They were prepared by Burgkmair while presumably working for the Welsers of Augsburg. These are directly linked to the Sprenger book and the events depicted therein, unlike the Calicut woodcuts. This ceremonial procession in Cochin was witnessed by Sprenger.

Looking at the pictures, one could see how the artist struggled with the depiction or one could conclude that the memories of Sprenger had deteriorated by the time he got together with Burgkmair. Depicting a dhoti to a grass skirt (in the Calicut series) meant that Sprenger could never describe the garment properly to the artist or that Burgkmair relied more on earlier depictions of Asians in Venice or Rome. But some others mention that these portions depict Africa and even partly America. However in the Cochin series, the Dhoti makes an entrance, though tied in an unnatural and untidy way. The Elephant is reasonably well done, compared to some terrible images of that period which likened the animal to a massive but short cow with horse’s cloves and an elevator fitted on it for the rider. The men and women look pretty muscular and of similar height, but then, for all you know they may have been so in that period. The kings ‘olakuda’ is quite authentic, so also his Pallak or Palanquin. The drum or Chenda is well depicted, but the horns are not, usually they have the semi circular ones in processions. The sword looks pretty unnatural, not typical of Malabar and the earrings look awful and guaranteed to wrench the ear off.

Sprenger’s comments about the people of Malabar coast (he stayed there between Aug 1505 and Jan 21st, 1506, of which two months were in Cochin but reached Lisbon only in Fall 1506 after enduring storms) – He says - while it is winter in Europe, it is summer in Malabar, and it is hottest around Christmas (!!). He is impressed with the use of Elephants as draft animals. The people are brownish black in color and both the sexes have long black hair. He contrasts the relative nudity of the native population with the flowing robes & turbans of the Arab merchants. He calls each city the residency of a king and describes the ceremonial procession of the king of Cochin. He comments on the king’s despotism and notes that the common farmer has to pay a portion of his produce to the king. He is also taken aback by the rings he saw on men’s arms and feet in Malabar. For Sprenger, it was the "burning heat of the sun which makes the moors as black as coal." In the woodcut a black man is throwing a wooden spear with his left hand and is holding two more spears in his right. He is totally naked & they are without shame, according to Springer, but wears five gold rings on each arm. The woman, an infant, and a dancing boy have rings in their ears and wear necklaces. Springer also mentions trade beads exchanged by the Portuguese, where he lists mirrors, brass rings, and beads, which are bartered for goods. Pepper grows on the vine like wine grapes. Arriving in Cochin with the fleet of d'Almeida in October 1506 and staying two months in Cochin, he noticed the presence of Jews in Cochin, to whom he referred as "a foreign element among the pagan population of the city of Cochin," an observation which also substantiated the evidence concerning the Jewish wife of Gaspar da Gama.

In Calicut, four Portuguese ships were loaded with pepper, and the ships began the return voyage. Storms struck the ships which became separated from one another. The ship carrying Springer reached and anchored in what was later called Mossel Bay on the South African south-east coast where fresh water was taken aboard and then they sailed on to Lisbon.

Meyer also wrote a book, but it was never published. A final clarification, was Balthazar Sprenger German? It appears not, though he is considered one. He is Austrian by definition.

Sprenger and Magellan

Why did Magellan enter the fray? Magellan’s visit to Malabar was covered earlier by me, but the story is as follows quoting from Paul Hermaan’s book

When Magellan got back to Lisbon, he met the two Germans who had by then made a fortune selling the spices they brought on the three German ships. When Magalhaes landed in Lisbon he saw three well-known ships moored to the quays: the Rafael, the Leonhardo and the Hieronymus. These three ships, all traders, had gone out with the fleet of Francisco d' Almeida, but although they had been under his command, they did not belong to the Crown of Portugal; they were owned by the mighty German Welser family, who had equipped the ships and also undertaken to maintain the crew for eighteen months. Of course, Magalhaes knew the two German merchants who had gone along to India with these ships: Balthasar Sprenger from Vils on the Lech, who was later to write a faithful little book about his sea-voyage on the Leonhard, and the scriva dafeytoria, the clerk Hans Mayr from Augsburg, who had sailed on the Rafael. A few days later he met the two Germans, bursting with rage. Balthasar Sprenger told him that he and the cargo of his ships were being detained in Lisbon. After the terrible slump in the pepper and spice market following the return of Vasco da Gama's fleet, the Crown had held up the two German trading ships to prevent them selling their cargo of spices either in Portugal or in Antwerp or Frankfurt, thus allowing the Portuguese to make the best of a bad situation. Had he, Balthasar Sprenger, loaded much spice? Well of course he had! The well-fed German, whose face was becoming more and more contorted with fury, told Magalhaes of his successes. He had twelve thousand quintals of pepper on board. Of this the Crown was to have an agreed 30 per cent, leaving eight thousand four hundred quintals. Since the price of pepper was twenty crusados per quintal, the eight thousand four hundred quintals which were his by right would have sold for 168,000 crusados. Furthermore he had been thinking of buying direct from the Moluccas! Naturally he would deal in cloves, and he exhorted his new Portuguese friend to listen. On the Ilhas das Especierias one hundredweight of cloves cost two ducats, in Calicut as much as fifty and in London more than two hundred ducats. This was real business, against which everything else was insignificant.

Magalhaes was breathless with excitement. Quickly he calculated what profit the German merchants would make on selling their pepper. Almeida's fleet had not touched on the Moluccas, and had bought its cargo from middlemen. What profits could be made by buying directly from the Moluccas themselves! And since Magalhaes came from Oporto and was as poor as a church mouse, he was to remember these things, just as he was to remember Lodovico Varthema's colourful tales.


Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume 1& II: Donald F. Lach
The Discovery of Ceylon by the Portuguese in 1506 (1908) DW Fergusson
Americus Vespuccius; a critical and documentary review of two recent English books concerning that navigator: Henry Harrisse
The Renaissance Print: 1470-1550 - David Landau, Peter W. Parshall
Innocence abroad: the Dutch imagination and the New World, 1570-1670 - Benjamin Schmidt
Triumph of the Emperor Maximilian I - By Hans Burgkmair
The great age of discovery – Paul Hermann

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