The East India House - Casa da India

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The offices that controlled the Estado da India

It was as if fate decreed it, in return for the plunder of Malabar for 250 years. A Deeply religious Lisbon, locked in rituals like the inquisition, then Europe’s 4th largest city, was planning a merry start of the All Saints day on Saturday 1st, Nov 1755. As the sleepy city woke up, a massive earthquake (9.0R) shook Lisbon for all of 10 minutes, bringing it down to dust and then proceeded to light it with fires which burned for a whole week destroying much of what she had made with the trade money. The city which was defined thus – “He who has not seen Lisbon has seen nothing”, was not visible any more. Many tens of thousands of people were killed and their fortunes destroyed, bringing the once proud country rapidly to its knees with a thud, for perhaps it was the wrath of God!

Well, if one had done a trip to medieval Lisbon and got through to the commercial and political heart of the city on the banks of the Tagus, or the Palace square - Terreiro de Paco, you would have noticed the large palace or Paco da Riberia to the left of the square, a handsome building designed by architect Terzi, remarkable for its grandeur, tapestries and riches therein. An extension of the original building actually housed the Casa da India where all the goods from Malabar were destined to and which the king standing on his balcony could watch being loaded or unloaded, with a lot of reassurance. The pepper that came from the vines near the hills, dried and blackened in the sun, carried over to Calicut, fought over by the many people eager to trade it to the white man, passed hands finally and found its way to the hulls of the ocean going ships belonging to the Portuguese and vying for valuable space with other spices, articles of plunder and sometimes even slaves. These articles were the ones being unloaded and taken to the building they called Casa Da India.

We have all heard and read so much about the East India company, but how many of you know about the much powerful office that existed even earlier called the India house of Lisbon? That is the Casa da India that decided the futures of Goa and Malabar, let alone many other acquisitions of the Portuguese in India, between the 1500-1800 timeframe. The bureaucrats of the building decided and guided the kings in what was to be done and what was not though actually in existence even before Vasco Da Gama set out to Calicut. Let’s take a look at the organization which started out as the Casa de Guine, Mina e India.

Business representation in overseas locations became a necessity when the trade links grew and that was how the Portuguese factor or feitor came into existence. If you recall we saw this usage many a time in books covering the medieval periods in Malabar when it came to the Portuguese, Dutch French or the English. The concept is hardly new; in fact we saw the same in our studies of early Jewish traders in India and the Arabs. The factor or Feitor was slightly different, for he was not only the Portuguese ambassador, but also the person who had a ruling command over the Portuguese community in such far flung locales. Such a community was called the feitoria and this term morphed sometimes to the word factory and as you can see, it did not mean the building was a manufacturing unit. They usually had their own chapel and burying place and in the case of the Portuguese, not only decided quarrels between merchants but also represented the Crown.

As Portugal’s King Joao II came into power after Henry, he inherited the lucrative African trade and the first feitoria was established in Arguim Island. The second was at Sao Jorge da mina (Elmina) on the Gold Coast. The third was at Wadan. As trade increased, new feitoria’s were established on the African east coast. The next step of course was to establish them at the Malabar Coast and Cabral was entrusted with the responsibility after Gama had discovered the route to the wealthy Indian West Coast. We read about the story of the first Portuguese factory in Calicut in the previous article covering Koya Pakki where Ayres Correa and the others were killed. Eventually, Cabral settled an agreement in Cochin and Gama established the first formal working fetoria there. Later many more were established, to formalize Portuguese representation in India.

But the organization back home in Portugal which implemented the crown’s capitalism as Diffie and Winus explain, was the Casa de Guine, Mina e India or as it came to be called the Casa da India. Basically it started out as the warehouse, storage sheds and the customs post, serving to outfit and receive the many ships that were sent out in the name of trade. They also served to collect the percentages of royal duties from authorized merchants. Interestingly there was another separate organization, the Casa dos escravos to handle buying and selling of slaves. Henry’s early organization in Lagos was moved by Joao II to Lisbon in 1481-82 to serve as the home office, clearing and accounting house of the Feitoria’s. Not only did it do that but also the powerful function of setting prices for purchase and sale as well as issuing licenses and certificates for personnel. Interestingly it also handled postal services for the outposts. The most important position in the Casa was that of the treasurer or the provedor, the king’s most trusted.

In 1508, King Manuel I started expansion works on the palace, which ended in 1510, and appointed Diogo de Arruda as head architect of the project. The King was an absolutist in all manners, and sought to concentrate all his powers in Ribeira Palace, by holding the Portuguese Cortes and installing the Casa da Índia, the imperial administration, in the palace's walls. The hallmark of the palace, not just in the Manueline era but in all it's history, was its Tower of the King, in the southern wing. During the Manueline era, the Casa da Índia was installed in the tower, which hoisted a large sculpture of the Royal Coat of Arms of Portugal on the exterior of the tower, facing the river.

Joao was not too savvy a merchant, and had his own problems dealing with the system of financing fleets. Initially he had private companies from other countries of Italy, Spain and Germany as partners, paying a 30% duty, but all this ended up in quarrels on prices till the Fugger’s became a major player in what was to become a formal monopoly during Manuel’s reign. As all this was going on in the 1520’s the hub of business slowly moved to Antwerp where the goods supplied from Lisbon were sold at very high retail price levels. An Antwerp merchant syndicate was formed and as major purchasers from the Casa da India, wielded immense power over Lisbon, taking over from the German banking houses. Trade in Antwerp was routed through the local feitoria there. Portugal soon found itself in a state of indebtedness as the syndicate increased its grip on King Joao III’s neck. Anyway let us not ramble on about the business sense or ethics of the Portuguese monarchs, but concentrate on the Casa da India which as you saw was essentially the market for Indian spices, and as some opine, slaves as well. Suffices to note that in a hundred years the Portuguese fortunes were going downhill, so to say but still large enough to be prominent in medieval Europe.

The Casa da India also facilitated the flow of goods from Europe to India, items such as copper and silver ingots, and also tried a hand at controlling the saltpeter trade. As we see, it grew from the Casa da Cueta (1434) to Mine e Guine and finally to Casa Da India. The Casa da India was popularly known as the India house and started receiving formal orders from Joa II in 1509.All imports and exports were stored there for registration, customs, freight expenses were met, sales were arranged, ships were chartered, loaded and unloaded at the Armazem da India or the India dockyard in Lisbon, inspection for contraband was carried out and crew payments were made. All registers were held there for safekeeping, so also all routes and maps, in strict secrecy. In addition, it was also a premier center for cosmography and cartography (Barros whom we came across in our studies was the factor in 1532). Just imagine what the records from 1490-1755 would have revealed, for the records were voluminous and meticulous.

The palace was remodeled later - The highlight of the Philipine renovations was the reconstruction and enlargement of the Tower of the King, which transformed a three-story Manueline tower, which housed the Casa da Índia, into a five-story Mannerist tower, complete with an observatory and one of the largest royal libraries in all of Europe.

What a powerful organization it must have been, not that such organizations do not exist today, but to imagine this amount of discipline and controlled from Lisbon, was unimaginable in the minds of one in mediaeval Malabar. Every scrap of valuable history the building housed was consigned to the roaring flames, obliterating the stories of voyages, pioneering, trade, adventure and avarice, as well as destroying a valuable resource on the history of Malabar. But some accounts of how the house looked and functioned exist as secondary sources, so let us take a trip to Lisbon in the 17th century, even though it was a time of decline for the once famous Casa da India.

 As we saw, when it was first established on the river bank of the Terrario do Paco, it was housed at the ground floor of the royal palace so that the king himself could see the loading and unloading of the ships. The Casa da India collected duty and tolls on all merchandise from overseas and sold the pepper on the king's account; while its officials supervised the loading and unloading of the ships, inspected them for contraband, and paid the crews. The East India House (Casa da India), as it was also known, was thus responsible for fitting out sails and the trade in monopoly products of the crown. While at the Lisbon end, trade and to a certain extent administration of it was supervised by Casa da India, at the Indian end, the Estado da India with its headquarters at Goa was the principal seat of power. Later the king established a general royal monopoly over the spice trade, and had it regulated by the official Casa da India, but after a couple of hundred years of existence, the India House’s fortunes took a trip south when parts of the building had to be sold to pay dues to the royal army. But during the heydays, the India house incomes were used to maintain the Fidalgo’s of Portugual, just imagine amounts to the tune of 18 million reis, which incidentally was just a fifth of the income of the India house!!

Borrowing the words from ‘Lisbon before the earthquake – Panoramic view’ –

Following in the same direction as the sea current, starting at the new customs house and store house, there is a wide open space, closed on the northwest by beautiful constructions and to the south by a colonnade that is worth seeing, the oriental side opens out into the sea. In the western corner of this space is the Casa de Seuta. Not far from this building in a sequence of adjoined buildings stands the sixth monument, a magnificent and marvelous work. In this building known as Casa da India, there are abundant collections of combat bounty, spoils of war with many peoples and where, thus the name matters about India are dealt with. I am of the opinion that it should be called the emporium of aromas. Pearls, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones are brought here every year from India. Perhaps it would be truer to call it a warehouse of silver and gold, stored both in bars and artifacts. There exhibited for whoever want to see, divided into numerous compartments, distributed in an ordered and artful manner is all the precious stuff – and mark my word, it has to be seen and touched to be believed, this accumulation of marvels.

Early in the 17th century, the Casa Da India had been moved under the Conselho da Fazenda (council of finance) which had responsibility for fiscal, juridical and administrative aspects of royal government. During the times of Spanish authority, the Casa da India was supervised by Spanish officials as well. Can you imagine how much the monarch made from all this business with the Eastern lands? In 1510, the figure almost a million cruzados per annum from the spice trade alone. This was how King Manuel I of Portugal got to be called "le roi épicier", that is, “the grocer king”.

Royal monopolies were also leased out sometimes by Casa da Índia to private traders for a certain period. As we see - After 1570, the monopolies were abolished, except for the purchase of spices and the trade in copper and silver. By about 1560 the income of the Casa da Índia was not able to cover its expenses. The Portuguese monarchy had become, in Garrett Mattingly's phrase, the owner of "a bankrupt wholesale grocery business." But it was also the time when pepper ruled.

But interesting things which benefitted the world also took place in the Casa da India, such as the first versions of the nautical map of the world called the Padrão Real, and in 1709 the Jesuit priest Father Bartolomeu de Gusmão demonstrated the principles of hot air ballooning by levitating a ball indoors at the Casa da Índia in Lisbon. He narrates - His Majesty invited us to the Casa da India for a royal dinner. The reception was held in the grand saloon, where shafts of the last remaining sunlight shone through its tall narrow windows then I made a second balloon which landed on the palace roof, and finally I made a third balloon, which went out through a window of the Casa da India, never to be seen again. He later fled from Portugal to Spain, for fear of being accused of performing magic by the Inquisition. This was also the location where the famous Elephant Rhino fight took place in 1515, one that I will detail some other day the event when the two animals confronted each other in a courtyard enclosed by high walls between the Paço da Ribeira and the Casa da India.

Quoting David Bressan wiring in Scientific American - At 9:40 all the bells of the city began to ring simultaneously and only seconds later the first buildings collapsed. Three major shakes followed in the next 10 minutes, most people were killed by the collapse of the churches, full of believers attending the second mass of the day. People fled in the direction of the seaport where the large squares of the royal palace promised shelter from the debris of the collapsing buildings. It was there that they witnessed a strange phenomenon: The Sea had vanished and the riverbed of the Tejo was dry. At 10:10 a 12 meter high tsunami-wave reached the city and destroyed the entire harbour, thousands of people standing along the shores were swept away and killed. After the earthquake and the tsunami a terrible fire broke out; raging for five days, it destroyed what earth and water had left over.
What actually happened after the Earthquake hit Lisbon? Did the buildings catch fire or did they get inundated by the Tsunami that followed?  To get to that story which is not usually told, one has to take a look at a number of private letters that were sent and published in England – in magazines such as the Gentlemen’s. One such letter testifies that the Casa da India was actually set afire by a French deserter. The letter goes thus -

Several villains have been apprehended and executed, mostly foreigners, and to our reproach, among other nations, some English sailors, for robbing and plundering the palace. The others were French and Spanish deserters, and some from the common prisons, which, in the general havoc (except those under the ruins) let forth their contents in common with other edifices. A Moor, who got out with the rest from the Calleas, where the galley slaves were confined, confessed, before he was hung up, that he set fire to the city in seven places, after the cessation of the first shock. A French deserter confessed he did the like in three places, one of which was to the India-house adjoining to the palace.

So that was how the India house, perhaps the most powerful gate keeping institution of the world, met its end, consigned to smoke by an irate Frenchman.

The Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, coordinated a massive rebuilding effort. The Royal Palace was not to be rebuilt, and the square was given a regular, rational arrangement in line with the reconstruction of the new Pombaline Downtown, the Baixa.

The royal family abandoned the Ribeira area and moved to palaces in the areas of Ajuda and Belém. The old Palace Square (Terreiro do Paço) gave rise to a new square, the Pombaline Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio). The two towers at the corners of the square are still reminiscent of the old tower of the Ribeira Palace. The Alfandega Grande on the S. side of the Rua da Alfandega, became the new fire proof custom-house of Lisbon built on the very site of the Casa da India. Fittingly it maintained its high bureaucratic past, they say it took no less than 16 signatures (1874)to clear something through it!!

But Portugal had by then become a minor player in the world arena. The renaissance glory had faded away and the last vestiges were lost with the Earthquake. Brazil left its clutches in 1822 and the Industrial revolution overtook the vastly illiterate Portugual which was still trying to get a firm foothold in Africa. Finally in 1961, Goa was liberated under VK Krishna Menon’s orders and Lt Gen Candeth’s actions, to end the 460 odd years of Portuguese presence in India, ironically under the leadership of these two people from erstwhile Malabar!


Wrath of God – Edward Paice
A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion 1400–1668 - Malyn Newitt
Gentleman’s magazine Vol 83, part 1
History of Portugal: vol. 2, António Henrique R. de Oliveira Marques
Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume I: The Century of Discovery- Donald F. Lach


  1. Premnath.T.Murkoth

    God turns the wheel of fate and fortune constantly

  1. Maddy

    thanks Premnath..
    This was one of those cases! But sometimes i sit back and think, what if Vasco Da gama found his way someplace else? e.g. Gujarat

  1. Nisha Dev

    The destruction of 'Casa da India' made very interesting reading. The Portuguese had it coming!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Nisha Dev
    glad you enjoyed it

  1. Ramu Ramakesavan

    Very well researched; excellent writing style. A few points/questions: 1) I was unable to understand the start of the blog, "It was as if fate decreed it, in return for the plunder of Malabar for 250 years" I thought the trade between Malabar and Portugal was fair trade. I am sure the Malabar kings made handsome profits too. I had also read spice trade with Arabs continued, albeit on a smaller scale. 2) Any idea how the Portuguese pay for the spices? Was it in gold, silver, copper, horses? 3) Did Malabar trade in anything besides spice, like timber, sandalwood, silk? Thanks

  1. Maddy

    thanks a lot for your comment. hopefully you will find a lot of answers in these pages. Nevertheless, these questions merit a detailed answer, so pls bear with me as I formulate it in the form of another article.

  1. K.V.Narayanmurti.

    Respectfully submit there is much misunderstanding among people. As one from the family of the first group of migrants to Kerala in the 15th century (we are josiers) let me say that Kalpathy (Old first and New next) was the first settlement, followed by Govindarajapuram, Vydyanathapuram, Chokkanathapuram, Mukkai in that order. All these villages run parallel to the river bank, all straight with wide roads and contiguity to river bathing, like they used to enjoy on the Kaveri basin. Chathapuram, Sekharipuram, Kumarapuram, Lakshminarayanapuram, Puthiyangam, Ramanathapuram, Vdakkanthara, Nellissery, Tarakad, Pallipuram, Tirunellayi, Nurani and Tondikulam came into being at least two centuries later. Lakshmi Ammal, who donated the Bana-lingam and funds to build the Kundambalam belonged to Kalpathy and, as ordained by her, the villagers in the two Kalpathys continue to pay the interest to this day i.e. on Sivarathri day.

  1. K.V.Narayanmurti.

    A lot of misunderstanding will get cleared when the well-authenticated book THE SAGA OF KALPATHY by M.K.Das (formerly Editor of The Indian Express) is released for sale. I had the opportunity to go through a proof-copy, was immensely satisfied with the logical handling of the subject and his positive comments on our current identity across the World.

  1. Maddy

    KVN thanks
    Pls note that the comment is on the wrong post
    I have moved it to this article