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

What is a woodcut
Hindu Article
Low Res images extracted from the web


  1. C.K.Ramachandran

    Seeking a clarification - the text says that the woodcuts were made before 1530. Yet there is a reference to 'English bows and arrows'. Did we have English bows and arrows in 1530 Malabar?

  1. Maddy

    Good point - that was how the 20th century translator of the woodcut verse put it- obviously the Englishman imagined about the bows of Robin Hood or the Knights of Nottingham - I presume...