The story of 'The Rahimi'

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

When the fortunes of the Portuguese nosedived

Many years back, Sheik Zainuddin, writing about the problems (created by the Portuguese) faced at Malabar wrote - The Muslim sultans and emirs did not take any interest in the Muslims of Malabar …..Generous help has been provided only by the Zamorin, from the very beginning…Why would Zainuddin say this? What could have irritated him so much? The linkage came to me only lately, when I put my head deep into the musty pages of the early 17th century documents. It actually surfaced when I researched the sorry story of the royal ship Rahimi.

Some time back we read the story of the Meri and how the Vasco Da Gama and the Portuguese pirated and plundered that ship near Calicut in 1502 and eventually set fire to it. This Portuguese arrogance was to continue even though they were only tangentially involved with Calicut after that, while focusing their efforts at Cochin. The Meri event was soon to set a trend of organized piracy in the Arabian seas by the Portuguese and later by the English and the Dutch. Mind you, I am now talking about a time before the Dutch and the English laid legal control over the terrains of India. Soon afterwards, the Portuguese introduced the system of issuing Cartaz’s or permits for safe passage, through the seas they controlled, for this helped establish their monopoly over the region and certain aspects of trade and religion. The Portuguese by virtue of this control, continued to prosper or decline, whichever way one wants to put it, centered at Goa. As the story goes, another incident took place about a century later which was to create a huge diplomatic furor, and this was during the autumn of 1613.

The North of India as we know was being ruled by the Mughals and Jahangir was on the throne. Down south the various principalities and kingdoms continued their usual ways, warring at times, or maintaining a somewhat low profile. The coastal port towns North of Malabar (except Cochin down south where the Portuguese had a presence) were controlled by the Portuguese, who had an iron grip on the shipping lanes. They controlled it, as I mentioned, with their infamous Cartaz system and their naval might.

First let us see how the Mughal relations stacked up with respect to the Portuguese. Akbar had annexed Surat in 1572 and finally got their access to the western seas. He had no intention of fighting the Portuguese and the Portuguese did not want to either. So after some negotiations (actually Akbar tried to fight the Portuguese indirectly a few times, but failed), the Portuguese accepted Mughal compromises and sent an ambassador to the Agra courts. Akbar tried to buy superior arms to counter the pressure, but could not and finally acceded to their demands for not paying customs at Cambay, and even ordered the Gujarat chieftains not to use Malabar corsairs against the Portuguese (Now you see why Zainuddin & the people of Malabar initially got irritated). In return Akbar was told that his family could go freely to Mecca every year to perform hajj and send one ship to the red sea ports without paying customs at Diu. Even so, the Portuguse hijacked a royal ship in 1577 but returned it quickly. So an uneasy treaty was in place, but by 1605 Akbar was gone and Jahangir had taken his place.

The Portuguese on the other hand were slowly and surely losing their grip and monopoly of the Indian Ocean trade. It resulted from their eagerness to claim even more territories such as Ceylon and Mozambique, but at the same time not possessing the immense military resources or the wealth to invest in the operations. So by 1600 the situation was looking more opportunistic for the British and the Dutch and the Portuguese had to contend additionally with continuing revolts from the chieftains at Malabar as well as the others up north, such as the Marathas, the Mughals and so on. By 1602 the Dutch EIC was created and their voyages to the Indies started. By 1619 the Portuguese shipping was virtually in ruins, so much so that even the rulers up North routinely used Kunhali’s Malabar flotillas ( hence their trips to Malabar hills – I was not aware of this while writing the previous article) effectively to disrupt the Portuguese shipping and policing. The Estado Da India was listing and badly at that. The heavily armed Dutch ships which came later created further havoc on the remaining Portuguese ships with their heavy 24 and 9 pounder guns. In the 17 years between 1602 and 1619, only 79 small Lisbon ships reached India and many of them did not even have trained gunners. The Portuguese were however still holding strong at their land bases and the HQ at Goa was in their firm control. By 1612 the British were also fighting sea battles with the Portuguese, intent on getting a foothold at Surat.

Jahangir continued the same policy that his father adopted. In fact one of his chief advisors was a Portuguese Friar. There were many other political issues and problems that caused Jahangir to fret, not only relating to the Portuguese but also concerning the Persian Shahs, Shia influence in Deccan, the Sultans of Istanbul, his own family etc, but we will not get into all that presently. Even the powerful Mughals had to put up with the Cartaz system as we saw and Jahangir like his father Akbar believed in keeping a balance in the name of peace and harmony, but was biding his time. The British on the other hand were looking for an opportunity to get a foothold at the Western ports. They had their eye at Calicut and Surat. About Calicut we had read about the trip by Keeling to Calicut, but as far as Surat was concerned, all their hopes rested on getting support from Jahangir. It was at about the end of the first decade that the English finally found a foothold in the region thanks to an enterprising young fella named William Hawkins who had burst upon the scene.

Captain William Hawkins led the first voyage of the English East India Company to India and sailed into the Gujarat port of Surat on 24 August 1608. He had with him 25,000 pieces of gold and a personal letter to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir from King James I seeking trade concessions. He had a perfectly miserable time at first and was quickly robbed by the franks or the Gujarat governor. Hawkins later travelled to Jahangir’s palace, impressed the emperor no end, speaking Turkish and all that and was offered an Armenian Christian wife (I will recount this story another day) in return by the pleased Badshah. Hawkins hung around in the Mughal courts for many months but failed to get a trading license for the British and finally left back for England in 1611 after getting fired by Jahangir for various reasons. But during these two years he enjoyed great rapport with Jahangir and that made the Portuguese very nervous. The Portuguese were getting worried as Hawkins was close to the emperor and there was every chance that the British would be granted trading rights, rather than temporary firmans(decrees). The Portuguese had to act to change the mind of the king.

Meanwhile, Indian merchant ships and pilgrim ships who did not comply with the cartaz requirements were routinely plundered on the high seas. But then again, a Cartaz did not always guarantee safety; often the Portuguese attacked even these ships, especially pilgrim ships, on some reason or another. As Ellisson Findly puts it, the situation had become so serious that a leading alim of Akbar's court issued a fatwa (later investigations reveal that this was only discussed but not issued) that the hajj was no longer obligatory for Indian Muslims, owing to the persecution suffered at the hands of the Persians by pilgrims going by land, and at the hands of the Portuguese by those going by sea. Perhaps that would have irritated Zainuddin even more though it is not clear if this fatwa discussion occurred after Zainuddin’s demise.

The tenth voyage (1612–1614) on behalf of the English East India Company was led by Captain Thomas Best. After reaching Surat in September 1612 Captain Best had planned to send an emissary to the Emperor asking for permission to trade and establish a factory at Surat. If refused he planned to quit the country. This may have been possibly because King James I had extended the EIC’s charter in 1609 on the basis that it would be cancelled if no profitable ventures were concluded within three years.

The attack by the nervous Portuguese went the wrong way for them for they encountered the determined Capt Best. This signaled the start of the English-Portuguese skirmishes. The first naval Battle of Swally which took place in November 1612 off the coast of Suvali (anglicized to Swally) a 7 mile beach port stretch near Surat resulted in a victory for the four English East India Company galleons over four Portuguese naus and 26 barks (rowing vessels with no armament). This relatively small naval battle turned out to be historically important as it marked the beginning of the end of Portugal's commercial monopoly over India, and the beginning of the ascent of the English East India Company's presence in India. This event sufficiently impressed the Sardar (Governor) of Gujarat, who reported it to Jahangir. Thereafter it appears that the Badshah was more favorable towards the English than the Portuguese.

On 6 January 1613, Captain Best received a letter from Jahangir ratifying the trading treaty, which was presented by the Gujarat Governor. Captain Best then ordered one of his men, Anthony Starkey, to leave for England, via land through Sind and Persia, carrying letters of their success. He and his companion, however, died shortly after, near Aleppo in Syria, their deaths being ascribed (probably without any foundation) to being poisoned by two Portuguese friars. The letters they were carrying fell into the hands of Luiz Perrera Cotta, a Portuguese (courier) and were later delivered to Spain. The Spanish king forwarded copies to Goa asking what the $%^& was going on and pressed for rigorous measures to be taken against the English and the Moguls. Multiple copies of papers had however been sent back to England by Capt Best and one set finally reached the EIC in London by Dec 1613.

But other troubling events were unfolding meanwhile, in Surat.

The Portuguese had to act. The viceroy in place was none other than Jeronimo de Azevedo de Ataíde Malafaia and he had just been moved from Ceylon to Goa. The not so wise man wanted to make his mark and foolishly decided to take on the emperor Jahangir himself. And so, one fine day, the Portuguese decided to carryout an audaciously stupid act, an act of high piracy, to blackmail the emperor. They hijacked a ship named Rahimi belonging to the Jahangir family, which naturally had a hand in the lucrative business of red sea trade & ferrying persons to Mecca.

The turning point

With this background, let us get to the story of the ship named Rahimi. Rahimi, was certainly large and conspicuous, and known as the biggest pilgrim ship (a monsoon ship as they were termed, perhaps built for the purpose of ferrying pilgrims and manned by Dutch and other sailors) of the times. It could carry 1500 passengers and displace some 1700 tons, was 52 meters long and 15 meters broad. Incidentally the tax that the ship had to typically pay each time was some 15,000 riyals. Piracy was rampant during the period and It was common practice for western pirates to attack red sea ships during their return run as they had disgorged all the goods and were laden with Gold and silver.

The significance of the piracy act was due to the ship and its ownership. So in September 1613 the Portuguese, thinking that they could blackmail Jahangir to force a decision favorable to their interests, hijacked the Rahimi, despite the fact that it possessed the required cartaz, while returning from the Red Sea with pilgrims and cargo, the value of which was estimated to be 300,000 Pound sterling or more, later arrested all the pilgrims and took the ship to Goa.

The owner of the ship was none other than the prodigious lady trader Maryam Uz Zamani, the mother of Jehangir. Maryam was the Hindu princess from Amber who had married Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605) in 1562 as part of a political alliance between her father Raja BiharI Mall Kachhwaha and the emperor. Many people are/were under the impression that she was a "Jodh Bai," a lady from Jodhpur, as suggested by some historians, but this is not apparently correct (Jahangir himself, however, married a Jodh Bai. She was mother to the future Shah Jahan and died in 1619.The capture of her ship was as you can imagine an insult to the reigning emperor’s family.

Findly explains - Maryam was a member of the court and the only woman to have the rank of 12,000 Calvary (suwdr), and was known to receive a jewel from every nobleman "according to his estate" each year on the occasion of the New Year’s festival. Like only a few other women at court, Maryam-uz-Zaman was granted the right to issue official documents (farmans), usually the exclusive privilege of the emperor. So you can see that she was very powerful and had the emperor’s ear at all times.

But her ship had given her no end of trouble. In February of 1609, Maryam’s ship was being readied to carry goods to Mocha, an Arabian port south of Mecca at the entrance of the Red Sea. The Portuguese threatened to confiscate the ship and take it to Diu unless she paid an enormous sum for a cartaz or pass; eventually, to forestall violence, the two sides were able to compromise on a much smaller payment. As the records put it - About this time there was a great stir about the queen mother's ship, which was to be laden for Mocha. The Portuguese fleet of twenty-two frigates then rode off the bar of Surat, and demanded 100,000 mamudies for her pass, and at last agreed to take somewhat more than 1000, together with sundry presents, which the Moguls were forced to give them.

There was trouble again in late 1610/early 1611 when Maryam-uz-Zamanl's ship was being loaded for an-other trip to Mocha. She had sent one of her agents to buy indigo in Bayana to be put aboard the ship for sale in Mocha. Just as the deal was being completed, however, the English trader William Finch arrived and did what no Indian would dare to do-he offered "a small matter more than she should have given," got the indigo, and made off with it. Then there was the English hijacking of Rahimi - Some moths before Best arrived, in 1612; six English ships hijacked about 10 ships coming from red sea ports. One of them was the Rahimi and the British promptly plundered all of them after taking them to a nearby anchorage. The Rahimi was ransomed for Pounds 4,000.

Maryam-uz-Zaman was furious about the English acts and complained to her son the emperor who made the English representative at Jahangir’s court, William Hawkins; suffer for some long time after that.

Why did the Portuguese choose Rahimi? One they knew that the English were planning to ally with the Mughals and secondly they wanted to make an example of stopping the pilgrimages to teach the Muslim Moguls a lesson. It was not for the booty, for the Rahimi’s pilgrims were not let go. As Findly explains, the outrage was compounded by the fact that the ship's owner was a woman and no one less than the revered mother of the current emperor. As a patron of such stature, the court would argue, she should have had a special immunity against such acts of piracy, rather than a special vulnerability.

The outcry at the Mughal court was unusually severe and, when it became clear that the Portuguese had no intention of returning the ship, Jahangir ordered the halt of all traffic through Surat, the major Indian port for sea-going trade, the seizure of the Portuguese town of Daman, the closing of the Jesuit church in Agra, and the suspension of all allowances to Portuguese priests in Mughal India.

So well, as you can imagine, the Portuguese played right into the English hands. When the English themselves had hijacked Rahimi earlier, they had wisely ransomed it off for a measly 4,000 Pounds. After the Portuguese seized it, they wanted the English to be thrown out and Daman returned to them. Jahangir did not agree and the matter was disputed for a long time. The fortunes of the Rahimi did not go well either, and it was never returned to the emperor’s mother. In 1614, the Portuguese frigates burnt about 120 ships in Goa and among them were 10 great ships. It appears that one of them was the queen mother’s Rahimi. A compensation of about 3 lakhs was eventually paid by the Portuguese to Jahangir, to settle the case. But the damage was done. The Portuguese were upstaged by the English in the Mughal court and the Franks ceased to be a major player. And thus the tide turned in favor of the British.

Whatever happened to the Viceroy who carried out all these audacious plans? He tried to find fresh pastures…In 1615 he backed an audacious expedition to Pegu to loot the Moon imperial treasures in Mrauk-U, an enterprise that ultimately did not succeed. Also in 1615 Azevedo led a huge fleet that tried to take on EIC ships under the command of Downton off Surat, but after a series of engagements he ultimately failed - an incident which demonstrated that Portuguese Goa had lost the capacity to protect its monopoly of trade on the west coast of India. On his return to Lisbon in 1617, Dom Jerónimo de Azevedo was held in custody and put on trial on several accusations, including that of not fighting the Dutch. He died in March 1625.

As for Surat, it became the British EIC headquarters till it was sacked by Shivaji in 1664. The British moved to Bombay after Catherine got it as a gift in 1874. After many misfortunes and turns of the tide, life stabilized in Surat and it is now a prosperous manufacturing city of India.

As for the East India Company, the threshold was finally crossed, profits were made after the extension for charter and the receipt of a trading treaty from Jahangir put a nice legal stamp on their activities. The EIC and the crown clung on for another 300 years to signify the ascendancy of the British Raj.


The capture of Maryam-uz-zamani's ship - Ellison B. Findly
Moguls, Ottomans, and Pilgrims: Protecting the Routes to Mecca in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries - Naim R. Farooqi
Britain and the Islamic World, 1558–1713 - By Gerald Maclean, Nabil Matar
The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 - By Geoffrey Parker
A history of modern India, 1480-1950 - By Claude Markovits
Medieval India: from Sultanat to the Mughals, Volume 2 - By Satish Chandra
NurJahan, Empress of Mughal India - By Ellison Banks Findly
The Feast of Roses: A Novel - By Indu Sundaresan
Early travels in India, 1583-1619 - edited by Sir William Foster
The voyage of Thomas Best to the East Indies, 1612-1614 - By Thomas Best, William Foster
Royal Mughal ladies and their contributions- By Soma Mukherjee

Post script

I cannot marvel at how one story leads to another. As I researched this event, I stumbled upon another fascinating story, the story of the first Indian who visited England. That is some story, my friends and I will get to that one, shortly.