Sir John of the Cross – The First Malabar Envoy to Portugal 1513-14

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The Chetty or Nair, the Paravas, and the Paniyaram

The other day, my wife made some nice Paniyaram - a type of fried savory rice cakes. As I was munching away happily, a tidbit from history rose up to my conscious mind, creeping out from some dark and cavernous storage spaces in my brain, reminding me that my study of Da Cruz, the Chetty or Nair from Malabar was not complete ( my earlier article had too many errors, as I found out following this recent study) . It was an event that started a number of events that rapidly cascaded to result in the reformation of a clan. But through this all, one person remained in obscurity, interestingly the very first knight from Kerala. There were perhaps a few others as time went by, at the tail end there was Sir C Sankaran Nair and in between, close on the heels of the first, there was possibly one Manuel Nair, a Portuguese scribe at the Cochin palace.

Let us dwell upon the person I wrote about some years back, Joao Da Cruz or John of the Cross. I thought we must shed some more light on his story, and as I am in possession of some more documents, the article by UB Nair and some of the papers of Rev Schurhammer which I did not, when I first wrote about the torn earlobe and the horse trader. I do not think very many other than an odd Parava here and there know about Joao Da Cruz, and most of them would have anyway confused his name with their first Jati Talavan. So let us go about the task of rousing his self from centuries of hiding in the anals of history.

For that we have to go back some 500 years, to the times when a breed of lighter skinned people hit the shores of Calicut and made it an unhappy period for the darker. They did not come in peace, as Vasco Da Gama and Cabral made it clear, they came to monopolize the spice trade and eventually colonize these faraway lands. Almeida later opened the routes and created a base in Cochin, enabling stability with the arrival of Alfonso Albuquerque. Much happened after the latter came, we read about Coutinho’s attack on Calicut, the miraculous escape and maiming of Albuquerque, and his subsequent patch up with the Zamorin in 1510. By 1510, the capital of the Portuguese had moved to Goa from its first location of Cochin after much irritation created by the Moplahs and the Zamorin, but Cochin was still key to the sourcing of pepper and other spices for the needy in Europe. Back in Calicut, a Portuguese fort had been built and a factory was just starting to function.

One of the results from that peaceful interlude was the deputation of an emissary by the Zamorin to Lisbon (It is also interesting to note that while the emissary was on his way, Joseph the Indian was already in Europe, talking to anybody who listened about the ways of Malabar). The Zamorin for some strange reasons chose a lad aged just 15 for this purpose. Various mentions careen from Nair to Chetty when mentioning this boy’s caste, for it was a period where caste was taking a firmer grip, where the Zamorin’s Samanthan status itself was being questioned by the Cochin king, acting in spite. Did the Zamorin send out a favored and trusted relative or did he select somebody else? Deputing an upper class Hindu to cross the tabooed oceans would not have helped the Zamorin’s fight with the priests. So he perhaps chose somebody who was not a Nair, but from some family of good standing known to his court. Probably the Moplah would not go (actually one did - Koya Pakki, but only after Da Cruz), perhaps the Gujarati was on the fringes of the court; so the choice rested among the others who were important in trade, the Chetti’s of Calicut. Nevertheless, there is still a chance that it was a relative of his, a Nair boy.

While UB Nair believed strongly when he wrote his paper in 1928, that the envoy was a Nair, related to the Zamorin, a mention many others agreed with for a while due to oblique references from Portuguese sources including St Xavier, it was disproven by orientalist Rev G Schurhammer, an authority on matters related to St Xavier, with access to the archives in Lisbon and various other documents. I will come to it soon, but the confusion arose from St Xavier’s letters which mention that the envoy was a Nair, a Malabar prince and a nobleman. Could it be so, could there have been any subterfuge in this? We do not know, for the envoy, his real name or face not known to this date, the lad of 15, stated in a letter to King Manuel that he belonged to the Chetti class.

King Manuel as you will recall, reigned at Lisbon until his son Joao (John) III took over in 1521. His reign was characterized by many a discovery, the colonization of India, enrichment of the Portuguese coffers, alliances with China and Persia, an increased stature in Europe and great popularity in Rome & Vatican, in spite of the fact that it was also a period of inquisitions and Jewish persecution.

Chetti’s on the other hand, owned many trading ventures in most trading town and cities of S India since historic times. They were the links to the produce, artifacts and trading goods from the South East parts of India and themselves originated from the Sivaganga - Karekudi parts of Tamil Nadu, today famous for their Chettinad cuisine, based very much, again interestingly, on the black pepper from Malabar. Using road (through the Palakkad gap) and sea routes, the grains, textiles, gems and stones, were brought to the trade emporia on the west coast, and readied for export to China and Arab ports. Now that the Europeans were there, the sourcing of such material ‘in time’ was even more important. The Chettis posed no issues to the local populace, lived by their own culture, and did well. They were very important to the local nobility as a source of finance if and when required and were favored in the courts. The situation was no different in Calicut, in the Zamorin’s court. It is possible that one such family volunteered a bright lad for the voyage to Lisbon.

Perhaps it was a boy from a favored Nair family, perhaps not, but the fact that he was a relative of the Zamorin is borne in the Lendas Da India written by Gaspar Correa. TK Joseph in his Kerala Society papers states that Gaspar mixed up things and he was an old person when he wrote Lendas Da India, but that is not right, for he was only 30 years old when he wrote Lendas. Correa came to India when he was 16, around 1520 as a secretary of Albuquerque and not much after Da Cruz returned from Lisbon. In fact Correa would definitely have come across Da Cruz at Lisbon, where he was very much a show piece, seen walking about the street wearing Indian clothes, perhaps a dhoti and a tunic!

The young Chetti or Nair departed sometime around 1513 from Calicut, based on a decision taken by the Zamorin to send this representative to Lisbon in 1512. He was to stay in Portugal for three years before his return to Calicut in 1516. As we see from Schurhammer’s papers, this boy became popular with King Manuel and decided after a couple of years living in Lisbon to convert to Christianity. Accordingly he was baptized a Catholic, and renamed as Joao Da Cruz or John of the Cross. He also learned to read and write Portuguese was later (around 1515) knighted, made a fidalgo (noble) of the house, receiving the habit of the Order of Christ and a life grant that went with it.

It is at this juncture that the first of his letters (some 8 of them still exist at the national archives of Lisbon – I have attached one of the letters to show you his cursive writing in Old Portuguese) peeks out from historic archives, this one from the Cartas de Affonso de Albequerque. In this letter, written after his baptism, he applies for/seeks from King Manuel, higher honors and graces such as the ones he received in 1515. The plan was for Joao to return to Calicut and build the first Catholic Church there and this return date is evidenced by Diogo De Morais ( a priest who came back with him and one who proved to be an absolute disaster) writing to King Manuel from Calicut. This is actually a very interesting point to note, for we see here that the situation in Calicut (in 1516) is not bad for the Portuguese as yet, and that Da Cruz and his friends did establish themselves in Calicut, possessed a factory there and built a chapel attached to the factory.

We note the following from the Matri Dei Cathedral Calicut site - In 1513 A.D, a treaty was concluded between the Portuguese and the Zamorin of Calicut by which the Raja allowed the Portuguese to erect a Factory (Feitoria) at Calicut. A Chapel dedicated to Matre de Deo was attached to this Factory. It is believed to have housed a stone Cross struck in bas relief on granite with a Portuguese inscription. This stone Cross, worshiped by the thousands every day, was installed in the Holy Cross Chapel, attached to the Matre de Deo's Church, established more than hundred years ago. It is perhaps not known to them as yet, that a Malayali was responsible for this.

Two years later, Da Cruz’s fortunes do not seem to have taken off, and his natural leanings towards trade seem to have asserted themselves. It is seen that he writes another letter to King Manuel in 1518 asking for an Alvara or rights and privileges to become a supplier of pepper to the Portuguese. In fact he also asks for a monetary advance and receives one, of 7,400 pardaos. It is even more interesting to note here that he was so much in the good books of King Manuel that he becomes one of the earlier private traders attempting to ship pepper to Lisbon, a venture that unfortunately did not work out, as we shall soon see, perhaps due to intrigues with the other Portuguese gentry in Cochin and Goa (Albuquerque forbade the entry of private citizens into the lucrative spice trade). After Albuquerque’s death, the man in power was Lopos Soares, one from the Almeida clique, one who slightly relaxed trade rules. This was the time when the Marakkars shifted from Cochin to the Zamorin and the Casados entered the trade domains. But Lopos was very ineffective and could not control the seas like Albuquerque and soon, in spite of the Cartaz system, there was much chaos in the western seas. Piracy was on the rise and captains including Portuguese tried to enrich themselves instead of serving ‘only’ their King. Those final years of King Manuel until Joao III his son took over, were days of bad governance, and Lisbon was fortunate to cling to superiority.

So much happened in those days, the attempt by the Mamuluk Egyptians to free themselves from the Portuguese yoke, the voyage of the sea fleet of Suleiman Reis, the attack of Aden followed by and attack at Jeddah and the attempts of Adil Shah against them. In fact the turning point in Malabar was when Sequeira instigated the Cochin Raja to fight the Zamorin and the attack failed. Life soon became precarious for the Portuguese in Calicut. But let us get back to our friend Da Cruz.

By 1520, Da Cruz had settled down in Calicut. Da Cruz had already been dismissed by the Zamorin from his services as he had changed caste (this indicates that Da Cruz was not just from a trading family but perhaps a relative for the Zamorin to take this action) and it also appears that some of his property, worth quite a bit had been appropriated by the Zamorin or someone else close to him. His next efforts are aimed at securing a source for the pepper which he planned to send to Lisbon via Cambay. He soon locates a Moplah (Koya pakki) Cojabequi who would provide him the necessary goods and had identified the people in the Zamorin’s court who would help him with the effort. He reports all this in a letter to King Manuel in 1520. As you can see, he is trying to work outside the known channels, in defiance to the Zamorin and the Portuguese governor/Viceroy. But it is obvious that he has the confidence of the King of Portugal. How funny, that these so called petty aspects had to be cleared by somebody as high as the King!! Well, perhaps such was the importance of spice and the height of the stakes involved!! Soon he has a companion Lopo Diaz who lives with him at his house in Calicut and he has also married (a Portuguese Christian according to UB Nair. Is that likely as Portuguese Christian children would have hardly been 13-15 or less in age at that time? Perhaps so, since the marriage age in those days was in the teens). Da Cruz writes again in Nov 1521, to his benefactor (King Manuel, who however dies in Dec 1521) providing a recommendation for Lopo Diaz.

In 1525, he moved to Cochin on account of ‘ill health’. But from Scurhammer’s notes, it comes to light that he was injured during the siege of the Portuguese fort in 1524/1525 by the Zamorin and had lost his ships and investments worth about 60,000 cruzados (some 35,000 worth was earlier confiscated by the Zamorin). The ships were presumably scuttled by Henrique Menezes to avoid them being taken over by the Zamorin. Da Cruz sailed away in a row boat to Cochin with his wife and children, but then again fate intervened, and the ship sank with all his belongings, leaving him and his fate floundering in the waters. The penniless Da Cruz reached Cochin and was promptly jailed by the Portuguese for not paying up his debts to the crown. The fights between the Portuguese and the Zamorin continue and the Portuguese finally erect another fort named Santa Maria De Castello, at Chaliyam after allying with the Tanore raja by 1532.

Da Cruz next writes to his benefactor in Lisbon in 1533, explaining his sad state, he even complains of being imprisoned and put into chains together with the black heathen. It appears that he then fled to Quilon to escape the authorities in Cochin. Quilon then was supplying pepper to the state of Vijayanagara and Bengal, and Da Cruz seizing the opportunity, offers to stop this and requests that he be made the factor at Quilon (did not happen). He also requests permission to take up the horse trade (the Portuguese Crown had the monopoly then). In 1535, he gets a reply extending his loan repayment by two more years and permission to trade horses. Accordingly he gets a hold of some 12 horses, goes to the southern kingdoms, sells them to the Sultan of Ma’abar, but never gets paid. What took place between then and 1537 is interesting. In 1537, he writes his last letter, accounting for the conversions of the Paravas, to the king and stressing his involvement in it.

Back at Tuticorin, things were not going well for the Paravas. They had been used to fishing for oysters and pearls and paid a small subsidy to the kings of Quilon/Travancore, Kayattar and Tumbichi Nayak. In 1516 it appears that Muslims took over the whole pearl fishery on a lease from Udaya Marthanda Varma. The Portuguese wanting a share of the profits managed to wrest out a share of the by way of a tribute from the local kings against threats of attack. Joao Froles was sent to take control of the area and with that what followed was a long 14 year war on the pearl fishery coast between the Muslims and the Portuguese. In 1528, following a defeat of the Moors by De Mello, retribution had to be paid to the Portuguese. The Moors forced the Paravas to pay additional tributes from the pearl fishing. The Paravas were soon reduced to virtual slavery, and the situation had become very tense indeed, for it was after centuries and for first time in history that the Paravars had lost their right over the pearl fishery.

It was on such a tense day in Tuticorin during 1534, when as usual, a Parava woman went out to sell her home made Paniyarams. As it appears from the texts of Teixeira, a Muslim insulted her and the lady promptly went home and complained to her husband. The enraged man went out and a fight ensured with the Muslim, during which the Muslim cut off an earlobe of the Parava, a great insult indeed for they wore large ornaments on their ears which extended down to their shoulders. So the honor of the entire community was compromised, as Schurhammer reports. The two groups went at each other’s throats and a great many were killed. The Muslims of neighboring towns joined the fracas and the Paravas were systematically decimated (in fact a bounty of 5 fanams per head were initially paid to the mercenaries, but as the heads piled up, this was reduced to one fanam). The Paravas had nowhere to go and were in a dire situation with no hope (A little exaggeration can be seen in these accounts - since the Muslims needed the Parava to eventually go out to sea and continue with their business and pay them the taxes).

It was into this mess that the indebted Joa Da Cruz strayed. The Paravas talked to him and explained their desperate plight. Seeing an opportunity to redeem himself, Da Cruz suggested that they convert and get allied to the Portuguese to save themselves. The Paravas, seeing no other alternative, agreed.

As the Portuguese patrol boats returned to Cochin, Cruz and 15 Parava patangatins (3 prominent chiefs and other seniors) sailed with them. Meeting Pedro Vaz the captain at Cochin, they requested for protection, agreeing to conversion and asked for more priests to effect the conversion of their people back home. Pedro Vaz was leery about the whole thing, perhaps considering Da Cruz’s precarious relationship with the Cochin bureaucracy and agrees only after the Paravas returned with another 70 of their people. Miguel Vaz, the friar from Goa was at Cochin at that time and quickly did the baptisms. Many of the people who converted including the chief took the name of their savior the Chetti/Nair Joao Da Cruz (resulting in confusion for historians who thought Joao da Crus went and settled among the Paravas as their headman).

The Moors getting wind of what was going on tried to prevent the conversions. They sent two of their heads to Cochin with eight expensive pearls, cotton goods and 20000 fanam to bribe the captain against it, through Cherina Marakkar who was a popular moor in the Portuguese good books. Pedro Vaz would not budge, and obtained further support from his boss Nuno Da Cunha at Diu. In Feb 1536, two ships sailed back to Tuticorin with Da Cruz, Miguel Vaz, the converted paravas and other priests. During the course of the next year, the entire caste of Paravas of many thousands had been converted, mainly by Miguel Vaz and his helpers Pedro Goncalves and some others from Cochin (Not St Xavier who came years later). The Paravas contributed 75000 fanams per annum to the Portuguese for protection; a figure considered exorbitant by Miguel Vaz, who complained and got it reduced to 60000.

As Teixiera was to write – And that is how our lord saved so many souls by means of one torn earlobe!!

Joao returned back to Cochin around 1537, stopping at Travancore on the way offering the King of Travancore horses if he would consent allowing fisher folk in his area also to convert like the Paravars. As you may recall the Travancore kingdom was soon going into war against the Vijayanagar king and desperately needed horses.

The Marakkars were not happy about the situation and their final desperate retaliation involved all three Pate, Kunhali and Ali Ibrahim. The resulting sea and land fight off Cape Comorin was an interesting one and best recounted another day, for that is not today’s topic. The Zamorin involved at the tail end died a broken man, in 1540.

Francis Xavier came to the Paravars in 1542-44, to work amongst them and go on to become a saint.

Whatever happened to Joao da Cruz? Did he live the rest of his life in Cochin with his family? Did he go and settle down in Portugal? He was not too old, just under middle age in 1537. What became of his children? Of course in his letter to the King of Portugal, he asked for some compensation, but we do not hear of him or see any more correspondence, anymore. All we know is that before setting out to the land of the Paravas, he had discharged his loan to the King by selling a piece of his land in Cochin to the Persian Khwaja Shamsuddin, treasurer of Asad Khan. So perhaps one of you is living on that land, the last known belonging of Joao Da Cruz, the first envoy to Portugal. Joao was not popular with the establishment, and perhaps that was due to his direct links with the monarchy, but that did not help him either in later life. Portuguese accounts of Da Cruz are not very respectful and Joao is called a Clergio – a secular priest, getting hardly any credit for all his missionary work while Friars like Miguel Vaz gets some mention compared to a lot that St Xavier did after his later work amongst the Paravas.


Francis Xavier, His life and times, Volumes 1,2 Rev Schurhammer
A history of Christianity in India – GM Moraes
Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society By Susan Bayly
The Portuguese Indian Ocean and European bridgeheads Ed Pius Malekandathil
The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama By Sanjay Subrahmanyam
A Nair Envoy to Portugual – U B Nair Indian Antiquary Sept 1928
Jesuits in Malabar – D Ferroli

Da Cruz letter image - Courtesy Lisbon Archives

Pearl fishing

Extracted from The British colonies: their history, extent, condition and resources By Robert Montgomery Martin

The crew of a boat consists of a Tindal or master, ten divers, and thirteen other men, who manage the boat and attend the divers when fishing. Each boat has five diving-stones (the ten divers relieving each other); five divers are constantly at work during the hours of fishing. The weight of the diving stone varies from 15 to 25 lb., according to the size of the diver; some stout men find it necessary to have from 4 to 8 lb. of stone in a waist-belt, to enable them to keep at the bottom of the sea, to fill their net with oysters. The form of a diving stone resembles the cone of a pine; it is suspended by a double cord.

The net is of coir-rope yarns, eighteen inches deep, fastened to a hoop eighteen inches wide, fairly slung to a single cord. On preparing to commence fishing, the diver divests himself of all his clothes, except a small piece of cloth; after offering up his devotions, he plunges into the sea and swims to his diving-stone, which his attendants have slung over the side of the boat; he places his right foot or toes between the double cord on the diving-stone— the bight of the cord being passed over a stick projecting from the side of the boat; by grasping all parts of the rope he is enabled to support himself and the stone, and raise or lower the latter for his own convenience while he remains at the surface; he then puts his left foot on the hoop of the net and presses it against the diving-stone, retaining the cord in his hand. The attendants take care that the cords are clear for running out of the boat.

The diver being thus prepared, he raises his body as much as he is able; drawing a full breath, he presses his nostrils between his thumb and finger, slips his hold of the bight of the diving-stone, and descends as rapidly as the stone will sink him. On reaching the bottom he abandons the stone, which is hauled up by the attendants ready to take him down again, clings to the ground, and commences filling his net. To accomplish this, he will sometimes creep over a space of eight or ten fathoms, and remain under water a minute; when he wishes to ascend he checks the cord of the net, which is instantly felt by the attendants, who commence pulling up as fast as they are able. The diver remains with the net until it is so far clear of the bottom as to be in no danger of upsetting, and then begins to haul himself up by the cord hand over hand, which the attendants are likewise pulling. When, by these means, his body has acquired an impetus upwards, he forsakes the cord, places his hands to his thighs, rapidly ascends to the surface, swims to his diving-stone and by the time the contents of his net have been emptied into the boat he is ready to go down again.

A single diver will take up in a day from one to four thousand oysters. They seldom exceed a minute under water; the more common time is from fifty-three to fifty seven seconds; but when requested to remain as long as possible, they can prolong their stay to something more than eighty seconds. They are warned to ascend by a singing noise in the ears, and finally by a sensation similar to hiccup."

The divers have much faith in a person called the shark-charmer, and many of them will not descend unless he be present: he is therefore paid by government.

One-fourth of the oysters taken up belong to the divers, the remainder are disposed of by public sale. The number of large pearls found is very limited compared with the mass of seed and defective gems, which are frequently pounded and used as an ingredient in a highly-prized electuary. They are also burnt into chunam or lime, and masticated by the wealthy with betel-leaf and areka-nut.

Taxation - The regulation of this fishing was with diving stones and taxes thereupon. Paravas had an allocation of 185 diving stones. They were classified Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The 185 were Christian stones! Another 166 were in circulation, of which 106 were Muslim stones. The Muslim stones had the highest tax rate.