Charles (Claude) Gabriel Dellon, the Frenchman in Malabar

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On his travails and misfortune – Also the governor’s mistress and the inquisition

Dellon was certainly an interesting person, one who was subjected to much misfortune because he was rumored to have seduced another’s wife, a lady who was at the same time the mistress of the Governor of Goa and lusted after by a Goan priest. There lies the story of the person and the only one who recorded to paper his personal experiences related to the dark days of the Goan inquisition, after he finally got back to his hometown in France around 1677 (10 years after he set out to Malabar)and got his mind set to the task.

But nothing is as simple as it looks, for the intrigue behind it covered the rivalry between the Estadoa Da India and the French East India Company and the race for supremacy in the Oceans and the Spice trade. And above all, if Dellon is to be believed, all this was mainly was due to the Governor Furtado’s (and perhaps his) ‘sangue nas guelras’, or super active libido……….

Charles Dellon (a.k.a. Gabriel Dellon/Dillon and Claude Dellon in various books) was a French Catholic physician and traveler to the East Indies. As his bio goes, he was a physician by training, and in 1668 Dellon sailed to India with the Compagnie des Indes (q.v.), travelling by way of Madagascar and the Seychelles. But let us go back a little and see how the French came to Malabar. The Compagnie Fran├žaise des Indes Orientales was established by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to King Louis XIV. It had difficulty gaining the financial support of French merchants, and by 1668 the King himself was the biggest investor, and the company was to remain under his control.

The company sent expeditions to the Indes which were often harassed and seized by the Dutch. The French East India Company flourished briefly from 1670 to 1675; nevertheless was not very profitable and by 1680 did not look very healthy, even the ships were in need of big repair. Our friend Dellon was with them during those hey days, the days when they were the biggest threat to the Dutch and the Portuguese.

Dellon, a physician spent some time in North Malabar and was operating out of the French factory in Tellicherry for five years after which he left the French services. Six months later, he was in jail In Daman, labeled a heretic by the Inquisition of Goa. How did that happen? Let us take a detailed look

Dellon though complaining of sea sickness and a troubled voyage followed by a brief stay in Madagascar, had no difficulties at Malabar. He settled down famously, observing and penning his diary with good accuracy. If you read his accounts, you would be amazed at the seriousness with which he went about the task of understanding his new world. His study of the flora, the fauna, the people, the animals were outstanding, be they the Tiyas or the Nairs, or the coconut tree, which he rightly termed the greatest tree of the universe. He observes that pickles are called achar and toddy called exactly as it is today, but sees so many parrots, peacocks and wild boars and so on in Malabar, now all gone.

He is surprised that the Malabar Nair lady does not use perfumes and uses just coconut oil for the hair, not even adorning flowers unlike the women of Surat. He is mystified that North Malabar men eat animals like boar, but never a rabbit. The elephant amazes him, with its intelligence and he testifies to the same with a couple of interesting stories. Some of the aspects of his account especially the guard/escort systems provided by the Nairs, excommunication and outcastes, the Zamorin’s chief lieutenant etc. have been hardly mentioned in such detail by other writers so I will perhaps cover them later in a more factual essay. In fact he mentions that the Nairs of 1670, were sharp shooters carrying both muskets and the ball making molds, firing them with the rifle butt on the cheek, unlike Europeans who kept the butt on the shoulder. They had other arms too like the six foot bow and arrows, scimitars and lances. But then again, according to Dellon, even though courageous, the Nair’s never maintained order while marching, and were not structured or disciplined during combat. He spends a few paragraphs on the Moplah’s and states clearly that a tenth of the proceeds of their piratical endeavors were submitted to the prince of the land.

An interesting story of his stay pops up in an article (SG Goodrich) about tigers - It appears that Dellon kept a tiger for several months, which was secured by a strong chain. This animal was cunning enough to scatter a portion of the rice that was set before him, as far round the front of his den as possible. This enticed the poultry to come and pick it up. The tiger pretended to be asleep, in order to induce them to approach nearer, when he suddenly sprang upon them, and seldom failed to make several of them his prey.

The French factory is permitted by the prince Onotri (Kolatri) and the place given to them in Cannanore is called Tatichery, renamed Tellicherry by the French. Dellon and Flacour set about getting things started up. The Zamorin facing problems with the Dutch decided to approach Falcour to discuss an alliance. The French agreed and were provided a place at Aticote near Cochin to conduct their business from the Zamorin’s kingdom. But as it happened, the Zamorin lost the battle with the Dutch and the French ended up going back to where they were before, to Tellicherry. Dellon was then deputed together with Flacour to Srinipatanam (Srirangapatnam in Mysore) though it was the monsoon season and not ideal for travel, with a palm tree leaf umbrella common in Malabar. The trip was not very nice, with bad weather, leeches, and all kinds of other issues. It was a difficult ordeal and Dellon decided to return taking the support of Kunhali the most famous corsair of the time, at Badagara. He then visits Calicut and Tanore and makes the usual observations, some quite interesting. Eventually Dellon goes back to Tellichery, but by then he was weary and bored and asked to be relived from Malabar duty. The following January he left Tellichery bound for Mangalore and later for Goa…

As he passes Goa, he mentions ‘Just opposite to the Cathedral in a great square stands that famous house, whose very name makes many thousands tremble in those parts; this is the Court of Inquisition, called by the Portuguese, Santa Casaou Casa d’osanto Officio’. Little was he to know what was in store for him or what his stars foretold..

As is reported - In January 1672, Dellon sailed from Tellicherry on his return to Surat: the ships stopped at Mangalore, at Mirzeou, from whence they withdrew the factory, at Goa, Atchara, and Rajapore, and arrived at Surat in the middle of March. From hence he sailed in November in a ship of force, sent to convoy home another of value from Gombroon. The two were met in their return, off Diu, by four which were cruizing for them, and all together put into Bombay in January 1673, from whence they arrived at Surat in the beginning of February.

He arrived at Daman (Damao) a Portuguese colony in 1674, where his future was to change. His first days were very pleasing, spent in the company of many a woman. Dellon says – ‘I must confess that I never passed three weeks more pleasantly than these, in all my life time’. So much so that he decided to find himself a house and settle down there, finding good medical practice and many patients. As Abbe Carre puts it, Young, good looking, intelligent and knowledgeable in Latin, he soon won local prestige, but all of Dellon's science consisted in knowing how to bleed. On the first of January 1674 he sailed from Daman, and having touched at Bassein, arrived at Goa on the 14th. In this city he continued two years, and sailed for Lisbon and France in January 1676. Soon thereafter, he was arrested by the Inquisition and taken to Goa, where he was imprisoned for two years.

So why did he get into trouble with the inquisition?

"The jealousy of the Captain ( Furtado) was motivated by my frequent and innocent visits that I made to a lady that he coveted:; I was equally greatly loved by her, a circumstance which until then I ignored; and as he judged things by light appearances, he learnt soon that I was his most beloved rival"

"An ecclesiastic, a native, secretary of the Holy Office, who lived in front of the house of the said lady, also nurtured a strong passion, like that of the captain-governor, citing her infamously even in the tribunal of penitence, as was revealed to me by herself. This priest, observing my visits, had become as jealous as the captain, and even though until then he was one of my best friends, grateful for the important services rendered by me, nevertheless he made a common cause with Captain Manoel Furtado to provoke my ruin".

As the story is told by Abbe Carre --------------

M. Vidal had been married in Daman for 15 years and had amassed great riches and honour by the annual voyages which he made to Eastern kingdoms as commander of both Moor and Portuguese ships. Nevertheless he was not better off on this account as his wealth, wife and family were at Daman and he could never remove any of them from Portuguese territory. By this wife he had only a small son, now 8 years old and his chief consolation next to his wife, who was very handsome. Until now he had always thought her virtuous because she had so well hidden her love affairs, of which he had only slight suspicions. But this year, on his return from a 10 months voyage to Mozambique, as captain of a vessel belonging to Manuel Furtado de Mendoza, governor of Daman, he was much astonished to find his wife seven months gone with child. He learnt with extreme displeasure that she had led an immoral and disgraceful life, both in her own house and also that of the governor, where she went every night. The governor, who was a near relation of the viceroy, thus set a fine example. Not only had he a wife and a twenty-years-old son with him but also a troop of concubines and besides he now debauched the wife of an honourable man...

About this time there was a young Parisian Frenchman, a M. Dellon, who in 1668 had left France for India in the ship La Force as surgeon's mate. .. He was considered to be the cleverest doctor in India... Being French, he freely visited the family of M. Vidal, where he became like the son of the house. The Portuguese governor, madly jealous of him, resolved to do something unexpected to prevent his visits to this house where the governor's own affections were deeply involved...

So knowing the habit of this young surgeon to argue about our religion, he asked him civilly to bleed his son and laid a trap for our young doctor by attaching an ivory figure of St. Antony to the boy's arm. This Portuguese plot succeeded as they had hoped, for before the doctor began to put a ligature on the arm of the governor's son he asked the boy to take off his St. Antony as it hindered the operation. Thereupon the boy replied that he would not do so as St. Antony would prevent any mistakes or accidents that might happen during bleeding. The young doctor did not fail to say that it was an absurd superstition to imagine that St. Antony had any effect on the operation. So from these and other words there arose a sharp quarrel on the merits of St. Antony and M. Dellon spoke a little carelessly, though without malice. The witnesses, who had been placed there for the purpose, went at once, on behalf of the governor, to the Father Rector of the Paulists, who was also the local Commissary of the Inquisition at Goa. They accused the French doctor of heresy and uttering words against the Holy Faith..." Dellon was imprisoned, transferred to Goa where the Inquisition imprisoned him for a further two years and then condemned him to a further five years on Portuguese galleys.

Archbishop of Evora while providing a statement later in Lisbon confirms that this was commonplace – “The Inquisitors even attained the infamy of sending to their prisons women who resisted them, there satisfying their beastly instincts and then burning them as heretics."

I will not write about Dellon’s accounts of the inquisition, and they are available freely on Google books. It is somewhat chilling when looked at with the medieval timeline, but in today’s world, even more terrible state sponsored activities do take place.

In the account, we read about his terror of being picked up for death for burning at the stake, of his immense relief in escaping it, his excommunication and later pardon, confiscation of goods, five years solitary confinement. He was also sworn to secrecy and to keep silent about all he had seen and heard at the court. Eventually he is allowed to leave Goa (1677) and he goes to France via Brazil and Lisbon. At Lisbon, he applies for mercy and finally gets a release towards autumn 1677 and sails off to France for good.

Upon returning to France he continued medical practice and accompanied Prince Conti on his trip to Hungary in 1685. The description of Dellon’s misfortunes, first published in 1685 in Paris (under title "Relation de l’Inquisition de Goa" in 1688, Leyden and Paris) "proved a considerable success, particularly in Protestant Europe, where it ran to numerous editions. Although long regarded as a work of propaganda, recent research has testified to its accuracy". When asked why he remained silent so long, Dellon remarked that he took his secrecy oath seriously until it weighted down his mind and he decided to tell all. The book was however banned for a number of years in the catholic world, including India.

The Portuguese and their descendants unfortunately continued to be metidos em saias – entangled in skirts, and of course in religion, even in defeat. As Mario puts it, their cause in the name of religion eventually became their undoing.


A voyage to the East Indies – M Dellon
Dellon’s account of the inquisition at Goa - Dellon
Legends of Goa – Mario Cabral E Sa
Distant lands and diverse cultures - Dellon and the Goa Inqusition – Glen Ames
Medicine in Goa, a former Portuguese territory SK Pandya
Memoirs of Claudius Buchanan
Inquisition in Goa – Alfredo DeMello
Land of the Great Image: Being Experiences of Faiar Manrique in Arakan - Angel Manrique

This was a light introduction. Part 2 will cover the details of his observations of Malabar and its people.