The EIC factory in Calicut – Early days 1616-1618

Posted by Maddy Labels:

William Keeling is certainly an interesting fellow, and I observe so with purpose, for no other would perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet during an ocean voyage to get rid of idleness and to prevent his sailors from playing unlawful games, but then again that is not the subject of this article. So let us try to see what he was upto, sailing eastwards, and trying to work out new business frontiers for the EIC in those early days of the 17th century.
The Portuguese and the Dutch were in control over various parts of their domains in Malabar and Goa. The local rulers like the Zamorin and the Cochin kings were at each other’s throats fighting petty wars, the Venad rajas were eyeing the Northern parts with increased predatory interest and Malabar was thus a murky place to be in, at best, especially for one trying to secure trading permits. It was into this mess that Keeling ventured on his sailing ship, with winds behind him.

The 26 year old William Keeling had received his first position of responsibility when he was given command of the ship Susan in 1604. The EIC were headed towards wealthy Javan ports where the Dutch and the Portuguese were making merry and amassing fortunes. It was the second EIC venture destined for Indonesia, and on the return journey, Keeling was asked to take over another ship Hector. The return journey was indeed eventful as the laden Susan sank, and from Hector’s crew only Keeling and 13 others survived. Next he was destined to the domains of the great Mogul of Agra, as commander of the fleet, but commanding Dragon with Hawkins in Hector in 1607. It was during this trip that the sailors enacted Hamlet and Edward II perhaps making it the first amateur Shakespeare performance. The mission was completed; Hawkins remained in Delhi while Keeling sailed around Indonesia and discovered the Cocos Keeling islands in the bargain, just keeping out of the hair of Portuguese and Dutch traders. After he got back in 1610, he spent five years at home before venturing out into the Indian Ocean and Arabian seas again in 1615, this time headed for Surat and Bantam Java aboard the Dragon. This time, he was not too keen on Shakespeare though, and he tried hard to get EIC to permit him to take his wife on board, but the efforts were in vain. He landed Thomas Roe in Surat as ambassador to the Mogul court and sailed down the Malabar Coast, meeting resistance from the Portuguese at Goa. While most books, especially the English sources state the date as March 1615, Sanjay Subrahmanyam mentions March 1616.

Francis Day states that Keeling came to Calicut, and discovering that the Zamroin wanted to meet him, went on to Cranganore where the Zamorin was warring, whereas others mention that the summons came near Cranganore. It is thus unlikely that Keeling ever visited Calicut. The fancifully worded and somewhat ridiculous agreement signed between him and the Zamorin is recorded a little later in this article. Underacon chete as mentioned is the Kunnalaconathiri or Punthuresa or Punthura Conathiri, the title used by the Zamorin. The whole incident is very interesting and provides much insight into life in Calicut during that period, as we shall soon see.

Francis day concludes with very one sided remarks- The Samorin in forming this alliance, appears to have been actuated, by a wish to obtain European assistance, against the Portuguese and this treaty, offers Cranganore, and the whole island on which it stands, as far as Chetwye, to the British: as well as Cochin which he asserts, was formerly his own, and which he promises to make over, as soon as captured. Captain Keeling, much to the Samorin's annoyance, declined, remaining with his vessels, to join in the attack on Cranganore: but left ten Englishmen, who after the war was over, were to found a factory at Calicut.

But to get to the real details, one must read the record left by Roger Hawes. To a certain extent he appears truthful since he is also critical of his own colleagues, involved in this affair. However his reading of the Zamorin’s intent and demands as depicted are quite circumspect and not with any understanding of the situation or the consideration that the British were the people asking and the Zamorin as the one considering the proposal..

Proceedings of the Factory at Cranganore,Jrom the Journal. of Roger Hawkes

On the 4th of March 1615, we chased a Portuguese frigate, which ran into a creek and escaped. While on our way a Tony came aboard of us, with messengers from the Zamorin to our general, Captain William Keeling. Next day, the governor sent a present, and entreated the general to proceed to Cranganore, which we did next day, taxing with us the messengers sent from the Zamorin, who requested the general to come on shore to speak with him. But, while he was doing so, some frigates came and anchored near the shore, by which he was constrained to go on board the Expedition, Captain Walter Peyton. On this occasion some shots were exchanged, but little harm was done. The general went ashore on the 8th, accompanied by Mr Barclay, the cape merchant, and several others. They were well used, and agreed to settle a factory in the dominions of the Zamorin, the following being the articles agreed upon:—

"UNDERECON CHEETE, great Samorin, &-c., to James, King of "Britain, &c. Whereas your servant and subject, William Keeling, "arrived in my Kingdom, at the port of Cranganore, in March 1615, "with three ships, and at my earnest solicitation, came ashore to see "me, there was concluded by me, for my part, and by him for the "English nation, as followeth:

"As I have ever been at enmity with the Portuguese, and propose "always so to continue: I hereby faithfully promise, to be and "to continue, in friendship with the English, both for myself, "and my successors, and should I succeed in capturing the "fort of Cranganore, I engage to give it to the English, to possess as "their own, together with the island belonging to it, which is in "length along the sea coast, nine miles: and three in breadth: and "I propose to build thereon, a house for my people, to the number "of one hundred persons.

"I shall hereafter endeavour, with the aid of the English, to conquer the town and fort of Cochin, which formerly belonged to my "crown, and kingdom: and shall then deliver it to the English, as "their own; provided that the charges of its capture, be equally "borne by both parties, one half by me, and the other half by the "English Nation. And in that case, the benefit of the plunder thereof, "of whatsoever kind, shall belong half to mo, and half to the English. And thereafter, I shall claim no right, or interest, in the "said town, precincts, or appurtenances, whatsoever.

"I also covenant for myself, my heirs, and successors, that the "whole trade of the English, in whatever commodities, brought in, "or carried out, shall be entirely free from all customs, imposition, "tax, or other duty, of any quality, or description.

"To these covenants, which the shortness of time, did not permit "to extend, in more ample form, I, the Samorin have sworn to perform, by the great God whom I revere, and not only for myself, "but my successors; and in witness thereof, I have laid my hand "upon this writing, &c." And the said William Keeling promises to acquaint the king his master with the premises, and to endeavour to procure his majesty's consent thereto."

The Samorin's sign 'manual', consisted in placing his extended hand, over the written, or more properly speaking, the engraved ollah, or palm leaf, on which most deeds were executed. It is unclear if this was executed in Sanskrit or Malayalam on palm leaf or in English though the latter is unlikely, with the above words recorded from some ‘one sided draft translation’…..

This being agreed upon, a stock was made out for a factory, such as the shortness of time would permit, and three factors were appointed. These were, George Woolman, chief, Peter Needham, second, who was one of the general's servants, and I, Roger Hawes, third; together with a youth, named Edward Peake, as our attendant, who was to learn the language. John Stamford, a gunner, was likewise left to assist the Zamorin in his wars. On the 10th the ships departed, leaving us and our goods in a shrambe at the water side, together with a present for the Zamorin. We continued there till the 13th, at which time the last of our goods were carried to the Zamorin's castle; whose integrity we much suspected, after having thus got possession of our goods. On the 20th, he insisted to see Mr Woolman's trunk, supposing we had plenty of money, Needham had told him we had 500 rials; but finding little more than fifty, he demanded the loan of that sum, which we could not refuse. He offered us a pawn not worth half, which we refused to accept, hoping he would now allow us to proceed to Calicut, but he put us off with delays. He likewise urged us to give his brother a present.'

On the 28th, the Zamorin came into the apartment where we were, and gave Mr Woolman two gold rings, and one to each of the rest; and next day he invited us to come to his tumbling sports. That same night, Stamford went out with his sword in his hand, telling the boy that he would return presently. The next news we had of him was, that he was in the hands of the Cochin nayres. He had lost his way while drunk, and meeting with some of them, they asked where he wished to go; he said to the Zamorin, to whom they undertook to conduct him, and he knew not that he was a prisoner, till he got to Cochin. This incident put us in great fear, but the Zamorin gave us good words, saying he was better pleased to find him a knave now, than after he had put trust in him.

We had leave in April to depart with our goods to Calicut, where we arrived on the 22nd of that month, and were well received; but had to remain in the custom-house, till we could get a more convenient house, which was made ready for us on the 6th of May, with promise of a better after the rains. We were very desirous, according to our orders from the general, to have sent a messenger with his and our letters to Surat, to acquaint our countrymen that we were here; but the governor would not consent till we had sold all our goods. On the 18th of June, one was sent. On the 26th, part of our goods were sold to the merchants of Calicut, by the governor's procurement, with fair promises of part payment shortly. But it is not the custom of the best or the worst in this country to keep their words, being certain only in dissembling. Mr Woolman was desirous of going to Nassapore to make sales, but the governor put him off with divers shifts from time to time. The 3rd July, our messenger for Surat returned, reporting that he had been set upon when well forwards on his way, and had his money and letters taken from him, after being well beaten. Among his letters was one from Captain Keeling to the next general, the loss of which gave us much concern; yet we strongly suspected that our messenger had been robbed by his own consent, and had lost nothing but his honesty. A broker of Nassapore told Mr Needham, that our dispatches had been sold to the Portuguese, and when the governor heard of this, he hung down his head, as guilty. We here sold some goods to merchants of Nassapore. (Nassapore is Narsapuram in W Godavari AP)

Mr Woolman died on the 17th of August. We could not procure payment of our promised money, and were told by our broker, that some one of our debtors would procure a respite from the governor, by means of a bribe, on which the rest would refuse till they all paid. On the 24th, the Zamorin's sister sent us word, that she would both cause our debtors to pay us, and to lend us any money we needed; but we found her as false as the rest. The queen mother also made us fair promises, and several others made offers to get letters conveyed for us to Surat; but all their words were equally false.

Thus wronged, Mr Needham farther wronged himself by his indiscretion, threatening, in presence of a nayre who attended us, and who revealed his threats, that he would go to the king of Cochin, making show of violent revenge to put the governor in fear. He behaved outrageously likewise to a scrivano who is the same as a justice with us, taking him by the throat, and making as if he would have cut him down with his sword, for detaining some of our money which he had received. Our broker also told Mr Needham, that it was not becoming to go up and down the streets with a sword and buckler; and indeed his whole conduct and behaviour more resembled those we call roaring-boys than what became the character of a merchant. For my admonitions, he requited me with ill language, disgracing himself and injuring the affairs of the company.

A Dutch ship, which had been trading in the Red Sea, arrived here on the 23rd of September, with the intention of settling a factory, and they were referred by the governor to the Zamorin, promising to carry a letter for us, but went without it; so that our delays continued. Mr Needham went himself to the Zamorin on the 4th November, and returned on the 25th, having got a present of a gold chain, a jewel, and a gold armlet, with orders also from the king to further our purposes; but the performance was as slow as before. The 20th December, a Malabar captain brought in a prize he had taken from the Portuguese, and would have traded with us; but we could not get in any of our money, due long before. We also heard that day of four English ships being at Surat. The governor and people continued their wonted perfidiousness; the former being more careful in taking and the latter in giving bribes, than in paying our debts.

We used a strange contrivance of policy to get in some of these; for, when we went to their houses, demanding payment, and could get none, we threatened not to leave their house till they paid us. We had heard it reported, that, according to their customs, they could neither eat nor wash while we were in their houses; and by this device we sometimes got fifty fanos from one, and an hundred from another. They would on no account permit us to sleep in their houses, except one person, with whom we remained three days and nights, with three or four nayres. They were paid for watching him, but we got nothing. The nayre, who had been appointed by the king to gather in our debts, came to demand a gratuity from us, though he had not recovered any of our money. He would go to the debtor's houses, taking three or four fanos, and then depart without any of our money.

On the 9th of Januarys 1616, Mr Needham went to demand payment of a debt, and being refused permission to pass by a nayre who struck him, as he says, he gave the nayre a dangerous wound in the head with his sword, of which it is thought he cannot recover, and others of the natives were hurt in the fray. Word was presently brought to us to shut up our doors, lest the nayres should assemble to do us some mischief, as feuds or kindred-quarrels and murders are common among them, having no other law or means of vengeance. Our nayre with his kindred, to the number of thirty or more, with pikes, swords, and bucklers, guarded Mr Needham, home, on which occasion we had to give a gratuity. Our house had to be guarded for three or four days and nights, none of us daring to go out into the streets for money or other business for a week, though before we used to go about in safety. After that, our broker advised us never to go out, unless attended by a nayre, as they had sworn to put one of us to death, in revenge for him who was slain.

The 20th, the Portuguese armado of thirty-four sail passed by from the south, of which fourteen were ships, and the rest frigates or grabs. They put into the harbour, in which three Malabar frigates lay at anchor, and a hot fight ensued, in which the Portuguese were forced to retreat with disgrace, having only cut the hawser of one of the frigates, which drove on shore and was stove in pieces. This belonged to the governor, who was well served, for he remained like a coward in the country, keeping four or five great guns that were in the town locked up, except one, and for it they had only powder and shot for two discharges. Before the fight ended, some 4000 nayres were come in from the country, and several were slain on both sides. Nine or ten Portuguese were driven ashore, and two or three of the chiefs of these were immediately hung up by the heels, and being taken down after two days, were thrown to be devoured by wild beasts.

On the 28th of January, we were told by a Pattemar, that the governor was only our friend outwardly, wishing rather to have the Portuguese in our room, as we did no good in the country, bringing only goods to sell, whereas the Portuguese did good by making purchases. The 8th of February we had letters from Surat; and on the 4th of March, the Zamorin wrote to us, that if our ships came, he wished them to come to Paniany, and that we need not be anxious for our money, as he would pay us, even if he were forced to sell his rings.

R Kerr concludes - This is a very imperfect and inconclusive article, yet gives some idea of the manners and customs of the Malabars. In other words consider the words with a pinch of salt.

So as we saw, the Portuguese had control over the seas, the Dutch did nothing much for the Zamorin and the Zamorin made an appeal to the EIC for support against the Portuguese. Some months previously, Malabar Moplahs had also made a submission to the EIC at Mocha for support against the Portuguese.

The English promised quicker support, unlike the Dutch. By 1616 they moved to Calicut and established a factory there with George Woolman as the factor with a lot of tin and benzoin to trade. George after studying the populace and their requirements promptly declared that these were good presents but bad merchandise.

Keeling returned to Britain in 1616 after a short (he was severely ill as well) stay at Java and after losing 62 more sailors. Some rewards awaited him, for James I made him a groom of the chamber and captain of Crowes castle at the Isle of Wight. Kelling died a wealthy man in 1620 with much gold and jewels ‘collected’ during his travels. So much for Keeling, now let us look at Woolman’s & Needham’s later days in Calicut from Subrahmanyam’s perspective.

As the English settled down, frictions started. The Zamorin had wanted military support, the English only wanted to trade (mainly sell, not buy) and profit as the mandate of the EIC went. Some English textiles were purchased by local merchants after the Zamorin exhorted them to, but Woolman found procurement of Malabar spices to be too expensive. Moreover the Zamorin found the English too timid to even write to their superiors in Surat about for military help fearing that the Portuguese would find them and set upon them. In August 1616, Woolman died and his assistant Needham ran away to Cochin to set up private business. The furious Zamorin took over the factory and the assets. The factory was wound up by the Surat authorities in 1617 and the British left Calicut nursing a grudge against the ‘beggarly false Zamorin’, eventually writing off a 3,000 rials of eight loss. The Zamorin on the other hand concluded them to be unreliable and timid, worse than the Dutch. In 1621, the English mulled over asking the Zamorin for a return of the 3000 rials or even attacking Calicut vessels to recoup the losses but wisely decided against it.

The British kept this grudge in mind for close another two hundred years and as we saw earlier worked steadily till the entire Malabar was theirs. The 3000 rial account was to prove too costly for the Zamorin to settle, in hindsight…

A study of the Hawe's notes

1. The dates recorded by Sanjay and others vary by a full year, I have not been able to concur with Sanjay’s dates but he on the other hand refers to the EIC company letters archive.

2. Logan hardly mentions this account and passes it off in a couple of sentences

3. Imbibing alcohol seems to have been pretty popular even in those days as is clear from the antics of Mr Stamford, the gunner. What happened to him thence, in the hands of the Portuguese, is however not clear.

4. The governor appears to be the port Shabandar. As we see from the happenings in Calicut, they needed appeasement even in those times with bribes, if Hawes is to be believed. So by then the honesty standing of the port seems to have deteriorated.

5. The Zamorin’s demands in the agreement were clear and distanced from trade. It was strangely not referred to as a matter of fact; the EIC interpreted it as a trade treaty. It was also subject to consent from King James1 and I am not certain that James countersigned the agreement at any time. In any case the British did not provide the required war support.

6. Mentions of the Zamorin wanting to see Woolman’s box, taking charge of a sum of 50 riyals, giving presents of golden rings and visiting the room of the English himself appear very fanciful. It could have been one of the lesser officers of the Zamorin.

7. We see that the textile traders in Calicut were mainly from West Godavari regions.

8. We see that the Shabander or governor had responsibility for repayment of goods sold. Dubious practices of him needing to be bribed can be seen as a lack of law and order, and more consistent with activities today. We also see that he had authority to decide who got control of the goods cleared through customs.

9. We note for the first time the involvement of the sister and mother of the Zamorin in the trade activity, which has no precedence. We also note that they had already been provided gifts of European mirrors by the factory personnel.

10. As we read, Needham threatened all and sundry and even mentioned going to the Cochin kingdom, which would have destroyed any chance of a proper settlement of the EIC affairs in Calicut. However we see that he met the Zamorin who compensated him and EIC losses with much jewelry. Whether Needham appropriated it for himself or not, is unclear, as the EIC did not use these to offset any balances.

11. We see that by now even the Nairs who were sent as akamabadi (body guards – armed representative) were keen on improper payments and bribes. The Koodipaka tradition is exemplified once again in the Needaham incident.

12. We see that people were already fearful of the rigors of caste system which the British used to effect by waiting out in their house till they were paid, for the landlord would not eat until the outcaste visitor had left and the place was cleaned up.

13. We also see that the Nair guards employed by the British, defended them from the koodipaka revenge attack due to Needham killing a nair.

14. We see that the Portuguese were not very successful with their frigates and lost out easily to the Malabar seamen, perhaps the marakkar ships. On the other hand the Portuguese did pay properly for their purchases and did a two way trade.

15. We also see that the Zamorin sometimes wanted the ships to dock in Ponnani rather than Calicut – why? Was he coerced by the marakkars or is it to avoid problems with the Portuguese?

16. Capital punishment meted out to the Portuguese were similar to what they did to the moors in the past, but the bodies being cast away to be devoured by wild beasts appear a little farfetched.

17. We find mentions of the 4 guns (perhaps the ones completed by the Italians) but also the mention of a lack of gunpowder and shots. Begs a question, why did the Zamorin not venture out in filling that shortage? He certainly knew about gun powder since the Chinese arrival in the early 1400?.... Food for thought.

18. As a backdrop one must note that it was a breach in the agreement in 1614 between the Cochin raja and the Portuguese that the Zamorin took advantage of. With that he attacked Cranganore and lay siege to the fort & town. This particular Zamorin died in 1617. He was succeeded by a new Zamorin about whom CHF will be talking about shortly.

Who’s who in Shakespeare’s England – Alan & Veronica Palmer
The political economy of commerce: Southern India, 1500-1650 - Sanjay Subrahmanyam
A general history of voyages Vol 9 – Thomas Kerr
Malabar Manual – Logan
Zamorins of Calicut - KV Krishna Iyer