Was there ever a Chinese settlement at Calicut?

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The coastal ports and towns of Malabar (in this respect we go from Kayalpatanam - Tuticorin to Mangalore) have had numerous trade contacts over centuries with other countries and kingdoms. In the case of Arab traders, they just lived and traded at the various ports, passing on commissions, brokerages or customs duties to the local chieftains. Later they bonded with local women to create offshoot communities that supported their trade and later forked inwards connecting up with other traders and tribes to source the spices and wood they traded in, though not directly participating in it, at least in the earlier years. They were mainly working as individuals, but sometimes parts of some family guild or the other.

One of the earliest and most powerful kingdoms to establish bonds and tributes with the kingdoms in Malabar was China. So you can note, the Chinese were different, they tried to establish more formal relations with the rulers and administrators of the land and create longer lasting trade and perhaps even attempted monopolies, though we will see that for various reasons it did not quite bear fruit in the long run, due to the changes that took place at the ruling levels in China and the retaliation from the better-established Arab traders.

In related articles, we talked about the Calicut connections with Zheng He (Cheng Ho) and the Ming dynasty; we also talked about trade previous to that. But the question has always remained, why do we not see any material or genetic traces of the Chinese in Calicut? We know also that a number of Malabar ambassadors went to mainland China starting well before the Cheng Ho voyages. We know that some of them lived for extended periods in the port cities of China where even Tamil temples could be seen. And we know that there was flourishing trade between the South Indian East coast and the SE Asian countries. We know also that Malabar traders set up outposts in Malacca and other parts of Malaysia, Sabah and so on, of course in Indonesia and Bali.

We do know of a silk street, we do know of the China Kotta and we do know for a fact that the Cheng Ho voyages touched Calicut. We also know that the Chinese had even stronger links with Kollam or Quilon, but still not a trace of it today (I must add here that there is perhaps a small trace of it in the building structures here and there and the boat industry). If you look at the Far East, you see their temples and lifestyles in vogue even today. Just like China rejected foreign systems and methods inland, did we also reject them after a major event, eventually borrowing only a few food habits and clothing styles?

From trade perspectives, we know that historic trade meant that the foreigner had his representative in Calicut (See article on hubs of medieval trade). It was the same with respect to the Chinese and so they did have a representative settlement of sorts in Calicut, somewhere to the West of the City. But why did they leave, where did they go and when? Why do we not see the physical characteristics in any of the descendants, if some remained? Did they go to Chennaipattanam or Malacca? Was it after the turmoil as stated by the Malayalee priest Joseph? I myself see no reason to suspect Joseph’s words, for he had no reason to falsify it and a lack of purpose.

Yet, we have so many Chinese related implements, practices and food. Logically, for it to have permeated even into the nobler levels of society in many of these places of Kerala, including Calicut, would have meant a longer than sporadic relationship than one of a trader touching a port and sailing off. So it is a mystery, just like the mystery of the Namboothiri or Nair advent into Kerala. The answer may be right in front of us, under our nose, but we cannot dig it out, I suppose.

Some might ask the question. Did the Chinese ever come to Calicut or any other port? Did they just remain in the China seas and the people who came this side were the Malay-Chinese? Interesting question that, a question which can be refuted using the evidence from the Chau Ju Kha, the Ma Huan accounts and so on. There are other Chinese accounts and add to that the accounts of Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, to establish the fact that large ships, owned by a state organization plied to Calicut. Even a trader of Mithqual’s stature could not own 20-30 such massive ships, and note also that these large ships mentioned were not the trading dhows of a few hundred tons.

Let us take a deep look at what Joseph the Indian had to say. Some historians mistrust him, perhaps because of some less factual mentions that are attributed to him, while others look at his words and find answers. Should we take him seriously? Was there any fact in all he said? Where the mentions of an evangelical nature inserted into his accounts by the translators and those who published his accounts? Let us not stray in that direction and concentrate on what he had to say about the people and trade, for that is our focal point today.

Joseph was apparently born in 1461 and was in Lisbon around 1501, having gone there with Cabral. I had written about all that earlier, so those interested in his story may refer that. At 40, he was of sound mind and considered a very honest person by his interlocutors. The accounts were published around 1510-1520.

He is clear in stating that there are many types of traders in Calicut amongst the countless moors, and makes it amply clear that the trade had declined somewhat from the times when the White Chinese with long hair, fez and head ornaments were present in Calicut. He also mentions that 80-90 years ago (which places that around 1410-20) the Chinese had a factory at Calicut. He states – having been outraged by the King of Calicut, they rebelled and gathering a large army came to the city of Calicut and destroyed it. Now this could mean that they lived at a distance, was it at Pantalayani where they usually stayed during the monsoons (winter)? From that time and upto the present day they have never come to trade in the said place and they go to a city of a King Naisindo which is called Mailapet about 90 miles East by way of the Indus river. These people are called the Malasesnes/Malasines….hailing from a place 6,000 miles away from Calicut. He also mentions a trade fair at certain times of the year in Calicut which is attended by the merchants from China, India, Syria, Egypt and Persia. Was he talking of the Mamankham?

The Italian version of course inserts additional sentences such as the Chinese are Christians etc… but the others do not, so we can discount some of the words from the Italian version of Joseph’s accounts. Nevertheless, it is possible that some of the traders were Christians though my feeling is that Calicut as trans-shipment and a pilgrimage boarding point as well as a concentration of Arab traders would have necessitated a majority settlement of Chinese Muslim traders. It is exemplified by the leadership of Muslim Zheng He in the voyages, the large numbers of Muslim Chinese and Muslim scribes such as Ma Huan with him in his voyages. We also saw that they always used Calicut as a boarding point to go to Mecca, so I would assume that some of the larger ships carried rich Muslim pilgrims from China, not just traders. But that creates yet another question. If Zheng he and all the other traders from China were Muslim, would that have fought with the Arabs? Perhaps they did, for the needs of the rich man’s goods (spices) in China were quite high at that time and profit rivaled religion.

What is key is certain place names. Mailapet - 90 miles to the East of Calicut. While Greenlee places that as Malacca, the distance is greater and a sea has to be crossed. So was it Mylapore or was it Masulipatam? The place was ruled by the King Narsindo. Elsewhere Narsindo is considered to be the Vijayanagara King. So it was inland, on the East coast, and thus perhaps Masulipatam or Mylapore is right. In both places we have seen Chinese settlements and even temples. We will get to this again, later.

Now let us look at the period. Joseph mentions that the Chinese were active during the 1410-20 periods. This would mean that much of what is written about the Zheng He voyages makes sense, that his voyages jump-started the trade with Calicut, and that they peaked in the 20’s. This will also lend credence to the fact that the cessation of the Ming Voyages resulted in the departure of the Chinese from Calicut. Was it precipitated by a conflict with the Arabs, aided by the Zamorin? How long did the Chinese remain?

Much earlier, around 1280 or so - We see that Marco Polo speaks of the merchants and ships of Manzi, or Southern China, as frequenting Kaulam, Hili, and now Malabar, of which Calicut was the chief port. Yule adds - This quite coincides with Ibn Batuta (this was around 1327), who says those were the three ports of India which the Chinese junks frequented, adding Fandaraina (i.e. Pandarani, or Pantalani, 16 miles north of Calicut), as a port where they used to moor for the winter when they spent that season in India. By the winter he means the rainy season, as Portuguese writers on India do by the same expression. He stated - As far as this place (Hita in Malabar) come the ships of China, but they do not go beyond it; nor do they enter any harbour, except that of this place, of Kalikut and Kwalam. He also mentions that these ships were made in El-Zaitan in China. The Chinese are also mentioned in the Unnayi Charitram, which states that Chinese attended these bazars as early as the 14th century.

Back to the question of where the Chinese went from Calicut The Latin historian Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza wrote, in his History of the Kingdom of China, that the local residents of Calicut had told him that the many fruit trees in Calicut were planted there by Chinese immigrants– They went to the Kingdom of Narsinga. Let us look at another record to clarify this - "So that at this day there is great memory of them in the ilands Philippinas, and on the cost of Coromande, which is the cost against the kingdom of Norsinga towards the sea of Cengala (bengala): whereas is a towne called unto this day the soile of the Chinos, for that they did reedifie and make the same. The like notice and memory is there in the kingdom of Calicut, whereas be many trees and fruits, that the naturals of that countrie do say, were brought thither by the Chinos, when that they were lords and gouernours of that countrie." (Mendoza, Parke's transl._ pg. 94-95). This explains that they moved to the Philippines and a coastal port town on the Coromandel.

As I wrote earlier, the question was where is this port town of Mailapet? Is it Masulipatanam in Andhra or Chinapatam or todays Madras. Hobson Jobson concurs that it is perhaps Madras. Quoting the entry under Chinapatam, but some historians also mentions that the Portuguese confused China with Jaina, when it comes to Jain temples around Malabar.

Chinapatan was borne by the place previously. It will be seen under MADRAS that Barros curiously connects the Chinese with St. Thome. To this may be added this passage from the English translation of Mendoza's China, the original of which was published in 1585, the translation by R. Parke in 1588:—"... it is plainely seene that they did come with the shipping vnto the Indies . . . so that at this day there is great memory of them ……. on the cost of Coromande, which is the cost against the Kingdome of Norsinga towards the sea of Bengala (misprinted Cengala); whereat it a towne called unto this day the Soile of the Chinos for that they did reedifie and make the same. I strongly suspect that this was Chinapatam, or Madras.

Abdur Razzak came to Calicut in 1442-1443 and mentions the tough but adventurous Tchini Betchagan. What he meant by that phrase has not been well understood as yet, but learned men state that they were the Chinese offspring. In fact all this prompted later Portuguese voyagers to be given specific instructions to find out as much as they could about the Chijns and their trade, after hearing about Chinese trade at Calicut and Malabar and the mentions of the large ships from China.

Then again there is the Portuguese account that places Chinese arrival in Malabar of the Chinese many centuries earlier, close to 1400, the time when Calicut started to flourish and the city was laid out. Gaspar Correa's account in the Voyages of Da Gama has a curious record of a tradition of the arrival in Malabar more than four centuries before of a vast merchant fleet "from the parts of Malacca, and China, and the Lequeos" (Lewchew); many from the company on board had settled in the country and left descendants. In the space of a hundred years none of these remained; but their sumptuous idol temples were still to be seen (Stanley's Translations, Hak. Soc, p. 147). So the Chinese remnants, temples (perhaps Jain) and so on were seen by travelers even as later as in 1500-1530.

Anyway the Ming voyages stopped after Cheng ho’s death and due to many other reasons, perhaps due also to the shifting of the capital from Nanking to Peking and the Northern barbarian menace. We will discuss that in greater detail another day.

Mr Vasisht in his Kerala Calling article mentions discovery of some remnants of the Chinese at Pantalayanai. He states - Famous Japanese historian Nebro Karashima along with Dr. M.R. Raghava Warrier have discovered many Chinese implements at Pantalayani Kollam. I am not sure what they found, but I believe they are pottery shreds, implements etc

Were there ever any kind of interaction with the locals and the creation of a group of descendants? We do know that the Ming voyages had families traveling together, but it was not the norm, so there would have been plenty of local partners for the Chinese, in Calicut, much like the Arabs. Yes, it seems to have been the case, as borne by the interview with Coya Veetil Koya in 1830 or so. Let us refer the Col Mackenzie manuscripts - A catalogue raisonnée of oriental manuscripts in the library of ..., Volume 3 - William Taylor (orientalist, missionary.), Government Oriental Manuscripts Library (Tamil Nadu, India), Section 5.

Account received from one named Coya Vettil Coya, an inhabitant of Calicut.

According to this person's statement, the ancestors of his tribe came with some banners, or distinctions, by way of the sea, in a ship or bark from China-Kribala: and, in eonseqehce of rendering essential services to the Samudri raja of Calicut, the class received from him distinguishing immunities and banners.

There is nothing further of any importance- I find, on inquiry, that the class of people referred to, are most probably Chinese; as my informant says they are the same kind of people with the Chinese at Madras; except that the former do not wear the long queues, which the Chinese regard as tokens of honor. By consequence, the people in question may be Malays, or other persons, from the eastern islands.

I am not inclined to assume that it was a Malay Muslim. We do know of Malabar kakas in Malaysia and especially Malacca. It could be so that one of them came back to settle down in Calicut. But the mention of the Chinese Kingdom (Kribala) and the titles provided by the Zamorin makes me lean towards the mainland China.

But these hypotheses are in no way conclusive as Calicut Heritage forum states in clear tones. Much more has to be done, such as excavations in certain specific areas, genetic sampling (Calicut & Madras) and so on, continuation of studies such as that of Dr Liu Yinghua and more focused and formal studies on the subject. Perhaps a shift of focus to the Chinese community in Madras will reveal those links, instead of concentrating on Calicut. An anthropologic study of the food culture, the various items of food and cooking utensils can be done to determine the impact of the relationship and its movement from the trading to the nobler communities of that medieval period.


India in 1500AD – Antony Vallavantara CMI
The book of Ser Marco Polo – Henri Cordier
Kerala Calling – March 2006 Trade Contacts – MC Vasisht
Madras Journal of Literature and Science, Volume 8 - Mackenzie manuscripts
Historic Alleys – See label Malabar – Chinese trade
Calicut Heritage forum article
Hubs of medieval trade
Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza, The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China reprinted from the translation of R. Parke; edited by Sir George T. Staunton

Pics - bloomingcalicut, wikipedia


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    There is considerable evidence of Ming Chinese settlement in Panthalayini Kollom. According to Dr. Raghava Varier ( who was a member of the Karashima team) this medieval port was the main ship repair centre and all Chinese ships had to dock here.He explains that during test digging in Elayedath paramba and Illath paramba in Panthalayani Kollom, he obtained Chinese ceramic sherds at a depth of 1 metre. Taisho University Press has published the findings of Karashima in 2004. Incidentally, Karashima identifies the Chinese Gulifo with Panthalayani Kollom (and not Calicut, as some of us had erroneously assumed).

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF.. I hope there is a paper or something on the P Kollam finds. Do you have any details of the TUP dcument?

    The mentions of Calicut in almost all these cases can be considered as or together with pantalayani, especially when it comes to larger ships like the Treasure fleet. Mainly flat bottomed boats plied the Calicut area, but it is still vague & fuzzy.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    The book is entitled IN SEARCH OF CHINESE CERAMIC-SHERDS IN SOUTH INDIA AND SRI LANKA edited by Noboru Karashima (2004) published by Taisho University Press. Their email ID is : Taisho-up@mail.tais.ac.jp

  1. drtejnaik
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  1. drtejnaik
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  1. drtejnaik

    some interesting info on the topic-

    In 1430 the young emperor (Xuan De) empowered Admirals Zheng He and Wang Jinghong to act on his behalf, issuing them a specially minted brass medallion, in a mix of Zhuanshu and Kaishu scripts, inscribed'authorised and awarded by Xuan De of The Great Ming.

    this voyage to 'instruct' foreigners was the zenith of Admiral Zheng He's great career. before dparting ,he had two inscriptions carved in stone to document his achievements. the first inscription, dated march 14,1431, was placed near the temple ofthe sea goddess at Taicang, downriver from Nanjing near the estuary of the Yangtze.
    "from the time when we,Cheng Ho and his companions at the beginning of the Yung Lo period (1403) recieved the Imperial Commission as envoy to the barbarians, up until now,seven voyages have taken place and each time we have commanded several tens of thousands of govt soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels.starting from Tai Tsang and and taking the sea,we have by way of the countries of Chan-Cheng, Hsienlo, Quawa, Kochih, and Kuli (Calicut) reached Hulu mossu (Cairo) and other countries of the western regions, more than 3000 countries in all"

    ---from the book 1434, by Gavin Menzies.

  1. drtejnaik


    The northeast monsson starts in late december, after which the wind gradually abates intil April, when the cycle begins again. ships sailing between China,India,and Africa took advantage of these monsoons to sail before the wind,returning on the next monsson to their resp contries. for ex, by the time Indian ships arrived in the Malacca st with the southwest monsson winds, Chinese junks had not yet departed their home ports. by the time Chinese arrived, Indian ships were gone, hence the need for harbors around the Indian ocean where goods could be stored between two monsoons.

    in Zheng He's era, ocean trade was dominated by the Arabs and Chinese. the Chinese made goods that the rest of the world craved- principally ,porcelain and silk. chinese junks carried these valuable cargoes to Malacca, India and Cairo. Malacca was virtually a Chinese colony. In Calicut, Chinese and Arab traders met in equal no.s

    in Cairo the Chinese were an established minority and there was an Arab quarter in the Chinese port of Quanzhou

  1. drtejnaik

    more about Calicut..

    Mma Huan, the historian aboard Zheng He's fleet, describes Calicut in detail. almost a tenth of Ma Huan's book is devoted to this city-state,which had become a very imp fwd base for Zheng He's fleets. Ma Huan, a muslim, was delighted to find there were more than twenty mosques for a Muslim population of thirty thousand. he gives a detailed account of how trade was conducted between representatives of the treasure fleet and local merchants and brokers. after negotiations,all parties would clasp hands and swear that the agreed prices would never be repudiated.

    these fascinating accounts are mirrored in those of Niccolo da Conti who reached Calicut in 1419.

    Ibn Battutah also described the xchange of slaves among the potentates: "the king of China has sent to the Sultan [of India] a hundred Mamluks and alve girls,five hundred pieces of velvet cloth...the sultan requited the present with an even richer ones...a hundred male slaves,a hundred Hindu singing and dancing girls"

    sample this about quarters and genetics
    "there was a very substantial Chinese and Mongolian in Florence in the decades after 1434,which Olschki describes here- by the slave trade the Mongolian type became very familiar in Northern Italy and esp in Florence where the most conspicuous families such as the the Adimari,Alberti,Cavalcanti,Medici,Strozzi,Vespucci and many others had their servants 'de genere Tartarorum' and were emulated by notaries,priests ,physicians,merchants and finally craftsmen and artists..an ancestor of Alesso Baldovinetti bought three of those exotic girls whose portraits he drew on the margin of his still unpublished journal...the Mongolian slavegirls seem tohave been attractive enough to the florentine male folk to become a disruptive element in family life and general morality of the town. it is symptomatic that a lady of the rank of Alessandra Macinghi Sstrozzi wrote jocosely,in 1464,about a girl slave flirting with her son and behaving like a lady of household. there is evidence enough for the imp part played by these women in the amorous life of the town. among 7534 infants delivered between 1394 and 1485 in the Florentine foundling hospital upto 32% were illegitimate children of oriental slaves. in this way a large influx of Asiatic blood penetrated into the Tuscan population during this most brilliant epoch ..

  1. drtejnaik

    ohh...i see you've already touched upon Gavin menzies book in 'Zheng Ho in Calicut'....i hope all my effort hasnt gone in vain..:)

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Drtejnaik,
    I had posted a few artciles previosuly on tehtreasure fleet and Zheng he. If you click on the linked references under malabar chinese you will find them. Calicut Kuli or Guli was always a stop over for Zheng he.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF -
    Tried getting the book or the article, no luck so far!!

  1. Maddy

    worry not.more the merrier to this folk. Gavin's book has some way out theories in it, but not too farfeteched to be termed outlandish. It has supporters & detractors

  1. drtejnaik

    i agree...not in the league of 'thoroughly researched works', patched and put up kind...but, an interesting take indeed and a novel way of seeing things...a welcome departure frm the west centric vision.

  1. parwatisingari

    amazing maddy I'm looking for evidence of chinese settlement and influence Kerala, I find your posts a treasure. But my question remains unanswered, there were 7 voyages by Zheng He, there is should be anthropological or genetic evidence. Unless we consider one family in Thiruvella where sino-tibetan feature traces and skin tone are seen. Including straight hair.