Ottoman links to Medieval Calicut

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Pre Khilafat Turkiye Malabar Connections, ante 1919

Some years ago, I had touched on the connections between Malabar and Turkey in relation to the Khilafat movement of the 1920’s and how and why it all fizzled out, culminating with the terrible days of the 1921 uprising. But Ottoman Turkey did have a link with the muezzins of Calicut and the clergy at Ponnani even before all that. I may have touched on the subject while writing about the Fathul Mubeyin, but let’s now see how it all adds up.

Turki kappal ailasa….I am sure every Malayali can connect to this usage, even today. Some who have dabbled in history will remember of a period when the people of Malabar were battling the Portuguese and the Turkish Ottoman Sultan finally sent out reinforcements in the form of a naval unit to battle the Portuguese at Diu and support the Malabar efforts. Well, that was just one part of the whole story, for it all started much before that event, so let’s go back in time…

That the spice trade was lucrative was well known since time immemorial and the seafaring Arab as well as Jewish traders had tight control over it till the Portuguese mastered the art of long-distance sailing and discovered the route to the Indes after circumventing the Cape of Good Hope, around the start of the 16th century. The Franks took over and seemingly impacted the Red Sea trade by embargoing it and making restrictions using their cartaz or permit system, all aspects we covered in past articles.

16th Century spice trade, with pepper from Malabar as the main produce much desired in Europe, dominated the sea channels. The placid seas now saw a great many sailing ships churning the waters in an urgency to profit. New sailing techniques, innovative ship designs, lethal naval armaments, the concept of armadas, navigational aids, food storage and preservation methods, were all the byproducts of that era. But it was as you can imagine, not just the Portuguese and the Spanish plying the waters. Many others wanted a part of it and so, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the French and the Brits were watching and waiting to get their bite of the spicy produce from Malabar.

Back in Europe, especially at the Mediterranean and the Arabic fronts, there was much commotion due to the rising power of the Ottomans of Turkey. From the 14th century they had been consolidating and moving westward, decimating well entrenched Christian powers and taking over Constantinople in 1453. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that Sultan Suleiman extended its reach to control west and east. From an Indian point of view a critical phase was when Sultan Selim defeated the Mamluks and took over Egypt in 1516-17 as well its control of the Red Sea ports. Later, he conquered Hungary, other parts of Eastern Europe and Mesopotamia. Close to 900,000 miles in area, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents. The Ottomans had become a problem for the Portuguese who, in order to break free from Ottoman trade monopolies, had only just found a route to and opened the treasure chests at Malabar.

But if you have been to Istanbul and wandered around the golden horn area, the old historic part of Istanbul, you would not have failed to spend a few hours in the Misir Carsi or spice bazar (Egyptian spice market) and marveled at the spices from the orient, the sights and smells of all the spices we know so well such as chillies, coriander, pepper, cardamom and cloves. I remember that whenever I felt a little homesick during my 6 year stay in Istanbul, I would drive down and wander through the Eminonu area, never missing these areas and I would wonder about the times historic Istamboul teemed with traders from various parts of the world (Misir carsi itself was built only in the latter half of the 17th century).

The confrontation between the Ottomans and the Portuguese at sea was inevitable and its effects on Malabar is a topic not studied so much or detailed in Portuguese Indian chronicles, but has been finding some interest in recent times, from historians like Giancarlo Casale. His papers and a wonderful book, read together with Andre Clot’s works on Suleiman, detail these aspects to some extent and provides a good understanding of the situation. What I can do is help you get interested by providing a precis…

What is quite interesting is that the Ottomans actually brought in a concept of free trade, liberating the Red Sea channels from restrictive policies previously adopted by the Egyptian Mamuluks. But the Ottomans did want a bigger slice of the trade, for they needed money for their wars and expansions. They could try out various strategies with a boldness others could not afford, and they did. As Casale explains – These became progressively more sophisticated over time, until by the end of the 1560s a comprehensive infrastructure was in place, including a rationalized Empire-wide tax regime for regulating private trade; a network of "imperial factors" who bought spices for the sultan in overseas emporiums; and an annual convoy of spice gal leys that shipped cargoes of state-owned pepper from Yemen to the markets of Egypt and Istanbul. All of this, combined with natural advantages of geography and the goodwill of Muslim traders in the Indian Ocean, enabled the Ottomanss to mount a formidable challenge to the Portuguese "pepper monopoly."  

But was it just goodwill and a desire to profit by Sultans which triggered all this or was it a direct request for support from Malabar? In what way did the Pardesi traders of Malabar fit into the Ottoman circle? Here is where the concept of the Khalifa or the caliphate comes into the picture. During the period of Ottoman growth, Ottoman rulers claimed caliphal authority and formally became the defender of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Then again, one could also debate if the Ottomans just wanted to keep this all going and get a cut or if the Ottomans actually wanted to invade India and bring it into his Caliphate.

The Pardesi traders of Malabar who had all the support from the Egyptian Mamuluks were now under siege, fighting for their existence in Malabar, from the Portuguese intruders. The first half of the 16th century saw a huge turbulence in their fortunes, having to wage continuous skirmishes at sea and land with the accursed franks. Seeing that the Ottomans were getting powerful, the Muslim religious leadership at Calicut had to appeal to the Ottoman powers now in control, namely their new caliph – Sultan Suleyman. But Suleyamn had a problem, while he saw that he could sit back and get a fixed 10% of the revenue from the Kanuname (kanoon name) tax code, he had to be proactive and control the Portuguese at sea if that slice had to get bigger. But he had no real navy to boast of, so it was time to make one and be in control, not just depend on freelancing corsairs.

Let’s recoup a bit. Before the advent of the Portuguese, ships from Malabar, mainly Calicut left for Aden, sometimes escorted by armed ships maintained by the Yemeni Rasulids, to protect them from the ever-present sea pirates. The goods were trans-shipped at Aden and sent to Egypt on Rasulid al-diwan ships, to be sold at a much higher price in Alexandria. This next stage was Karimi merchant controlled, and things progressed to everybody’s mutual benefit until the Mamuluks insisted on their cut. Pepper prices continued to rise.

And then Vasco Da Gama, looking for Christians and pepper found the route to the land of black gold, and with that came a changed dynamic on the pepper trade. A large amount of literature make it seem that the Portuguese took over the entire business, but that is quite a wrong impression, for it is recorded that they held on to perhaps just about 10% of the business, in the 16th century. As the embargoes put into effect by Portuguese naval might began to bite, the crafty traders of Malabar recouped in different ways. They became bulk suppliers of pepper to the Portuguese, for there was no way the Frank could get to or influence the source, the hill and lay producer as well as the Moplah collector of the seeds.

Larger volumes were directly smuggled out through complex routes, partly overland and then by sea, through the Kayalpatanam or other Coromandel ports, or through Diu up North closer to Gujarat. In parallel a militant organization sprung up near Ponnani, backed by the Zainuddin Makhdum’s call for a Jihad. The Zamorin was firmly behind them in the wars against the Portuguese, small or big. It was important for him, for the Pardesi trader who held the purse strings and the connections in the Arab land was getting nervous and considering if they should leave or drift to safer environs to ports not controlled by the Franks. Many did move after the 16th century anyway and with that influential Moplahs supported by the Marakkars were slowly taking over the pepper trading business from the Pardesi, in Malabar.

The Northern Gujarati ports were well fortified, especially Diu which the Portuguese mostly left alone. But many naval encounters did occur and we talked about those in the past. As the trunk route to Egypt came under threat, the Mamuluk sultans assembled an offensive armada which sparred with the Portuguese in the opening decades off the seas of Calicut and Cochin, an interesting story which I will recount separately. Nevertheless, the Mamuluks lost the battles on the Arabian seas, and with it their power was on the decline. Meanwhile, at Cairo, the Ottomans who had been eyeing the pepper business or the spice trade, had arrived, conquered and taken over control.

Sultan Suleiman
Nevertheless, we can see that even before the advent of the Ottomans, the Qazi’s of Malabar were being amply compensated by Rasulid grants from Aden. In return, they invoked his name in the Friday prayers in Malabar mosques. Documents from that period detail the existence of various Pardesi groups, Turkish, Persian, Arab and so on at Calicut and we can see a mention that as the Rasulid’s were weakening by the 1440 time period, the Timurid’s attempt to get involved, evidenced by the visit of Abd-el razaq, Sharukh’s ambassador, to Calicut, which as we know was a fiasco.

Out West, the Ottomans had already made their presence felt when they repulsed a Portuguese attempt to take over Mecca and Medina. The Muslims of Malabar too respected them and the opposition of the Portuguese cemented their position as their new Khalifa.

It was around 1513 that Piri Reis (Ahmed Muhiddin Piri) the corsair made his famous map for Sultan Selim 1, and from that we find that though the Ottomans knew the seas through such corsairs, there was no direct state involvement in exploration or conquest from the waters. When Mamuluk resident Malik Ayyaz of Diu aligned himself with the Zamorin and the Pardesi traders of Calicut, he exhorted the Mamuluk’s of Cairo for support, they sent a 20-ship fleet captained by Hussein Al-kurdi, which was successful in thwarting the Franks at Chaul. But Al-Kurdi was in following years more interested in becoming the lord of Aden himself when asked to sail again in support of Calicut and Diu. Malik Ayaz lost faith in Hussein and decided to get into bed with the Ottaman’s (this was rumored to be one of the reasons why the Ottomans conquered Cairo and Aden) as overlords of the spice trade.
Sultan Selim ordered that 50 more ships be constructed to support the Indians, against the Portuguese ‘in order to push these perfidious troublemakers towards a destiny of blackness, and [with his troops] whose effect is like that of a tempest, he will cast them, soldier by soldier, to the winds of annihilation . . . then there will be safety and security’.

Albuquerque in Goa wrote to Lisbon for support, seeing what was to come, a potential Ottoman conquest of India. But that never happened, and matters were slow to develop, as the Egyptian ports teemed with carpenters and shipwrights working overtime to build the new fleet. Sultam Selim was busy with installing himself as the new Caliph and protector of Muslims worldwide, just as Dom Manuel in Portugal was trying to cement his role as the lord the eastern seas and the Estado da India. They were to face off soon, and that happened when Hussein el-Rumi was sent with a fleet to Yemen which unfortunately ground to a halt when Sultan Selim unexpectedly passed away in 1520. Suleiman the magnificent would soon take over in Istanbul. Ibrahim Pasha who had been appointed at the Egyptian administrator had in the meanwhile received a detailed report on the state of affairs in the Arabian seas and the pepper trade from a well experienced Ottoman corsair and naval hero, Selman Reis.

The rivalry between the Christians in the West, the Turks in the center and the Persians in the East would stretch for the whole of the 16th Century and Suleyman was right in the center, hemmed by his enemies. The Christians wanted to retake Constantinople while the Safavid Shias of Persia wanted to reign supreme, but Suleyman was on the march with his powerful guns and artillery and Hungary was soon taken.

As Albuquerque was presenting his report, the Portuguese ventured deep into the Red Sea and attacked the Arab ports to decimate many. The Ottomans decided to rebuild the Jiddah fleet to defend and if needed attack the Portuguese. It was also important to secure Aden, before it fell to the Portuguese. Suleiman Reis was tasked with rebuilding the fleet at Cairo as Ibrahim returned to Istanbul in 1525. His replacement at Egypt was a portly wizened eunuch, Hadim Suleyman Pasha. Already over 70 years in age, he was a veteran of many a battle. Selman Reis continued his fight with the Yemeni forces and after securing an acceptance of Ottoman suzerainty from the Emir of Aden, planted himself at the island of Kamaran. From 1527, all ships bound for and from India were to call on this port and pay a transit fee.
Hadim Suleyman Pasha

The Ottomans had arrived. Another Ottoman, named Hayrettin Rumi controlled matters at land. Selman Reis now had his sights trained on Yemen, and he proclaimed that a conquest of Aden would mean an inevitable destruction of Portuguese might. It was at this juncture, i.e. in 1527 that the Zamorin sent his embassy to the Ottomans for naval support against the Portuguese, just as Mamale Marakkar of Cannanore opened a new route via the Maldives, supported by Ottoman corsairs. In a cruel twist of fate, an argument between Hayrettin and Salman resulted in the murder of Selman in 1528, while he was playing a game of chess. Selman’s nephew Mustapha Bayram made amends by murdering Hayrettin, but he was no leader and the Ottomans withdrew from Yemen which descended again into leaderless anarchy. The Portuguese did not miss the opportunity, took control of Kamaran, made the Aden Emir submit now to King Manuel and established a fort at Den, manned by 40 Franks.

Mustafa Bayram and his followers (some 600 Turks and 400 Arabs) fled to Diu, with the blessing of the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul. Malik Ayaz had passed on, but his son Tughan was the new governor. Bayram’s timely arrival prepared the island thwart an attack by the Portuguese Nuno da Cunha. The Ottoman name which had sunk low in esteem after the debacles at Yemen was once again celebrated. Bayram and his men stayed in Diu to form what was the first and only Ottoman colony in the world.

Back in Egypt, Hadim Pasha, supported by Ibrahim in Istanbul were working on two ambitious schemes, one to reopen an ancient Pharoh Necho canal between the Nile and Tor at the Red Sea, as well as building a 60 ship fleet to patrol the Arabian seas. Curiously, both projects were shelved by 1531 and the Ottoman sultan decided to invade Iraq, while Hadim Suleyman Pasha was packed off to Syria, perhaps because the Turks had learned of Portuguese overtures with the Safavids against the Ottoman. These objectives were thwarted by the Ottomans when Iraq was taken in 1534 and the Persian Gulf states had been secured. Again, byzantine politics reared its head and in grand style the rising stature of Ibrahim pasha was curtailed with his execution in 1536, abetted perhaps by the intrigues of the bewitching red headed queen Roxelane.

Meanwhile, the old hand Hadim Suleyman was still waiting for his fleet and he was in regular touch with one Khoja Safar in Diu since Mustafa Bayram had defected to join the Mughal king Humayun. But before that, Bayram did establish a formal link with Calicut and made a tie up with the Marakkars in their ongoing attacks against Portuguese shipping. With Bayram’s defection, the Diu chief conceded to Portuguese authority, albeit temporarily as his confidant Khoja Safar got in touch with the Ottomans for further support. Hadim Suleiman then in Romelia, was reassigned quickly to Egypt and asked to prepare for a naval mission to Diu and Malabar. Was it a mercy mission to free Malabar shipping or was it a grand Ottaman plan to invade India by taking Diu and then unseating the Mughals? 78 ships and 20,000 men, including 7,000 janissaries manning a huge amount of armaments (There were nine huge cannons of extraordinary caliber that shot bullets 200 kg balls) make it likely that the mission was not to unseat the Portuguese, but to install Hadim Suleiman in Diu.

Hadim Suleiman had also perhaps cemented ties with Mamale and Pate Marakkar. Mamale controlled the Maldives route while Pattu marakkar had built a flotilla of some 50 fustas and was engaged in attacking the Portuguese continuously. Now it was time for the hammer to fall. As Casale explains - the most probable scenario seems to be that Hadim Suleiman, encouraged by envoys sent from Pate Marakkar and the Zamorin of Calicut sometime in 1537, dispatched Hamad Khan to Aceh at the same time as his own departure for India, with orders to harass Portuguese ships and, if possible, assist in an attack on the Portuguese fortress of Malacca….. By 1538, the pasha had managed to construct an enormous transoceanic coalition, linking Istanbul with allies across the entire breadth of the Indian Ocean from Shihr and Gujarat to Calicut and Sumatra.

The Ottoman fleet
The Ottoman expedition of 1538 followed, with the 70 armed vessels who laid a siege on Diu. But it was not to achieve any large amount of success as even before they left the Suez, Pate Marakkar was getting mauled by the Portuguese at the Ceylon straits and the Achenese attack on Malacca was repulsed by the Portuguese.  Pate (Pattu) marakkar and his fleet had been taken on by the Portuguese at Vedalai off the Ceylon straits, even before they could sail North to support Hadim Pasha. Martim Afonso de Sousa defeated them in Vedalai in early 1538, killing one of their three leaders, Ali Ibrahim, and subjecting the other two (Pate Marakkar and Kunjali Marakkar) to the humiliation of having to return to Calicut by land. We will cover that story also later, separately.

But as it all transpired, after intense bombing by the Turkish forces for all of 40 days, that too just as the Portuguese were about to cave in, Hadim Suleiman, decided to call off the siege and retreat to Yemen. Was it because he feared decimation by a rumored incoming Portuguese fleet from Goa, already on prowl since there was no Marakkar fleet to stop them? Perhaps so, nevertheless, the old admiral saw a possibility of ignominious defeat. But it was not just that, it was also so that he lost support from his Indian allies whom he did not inspire that he could ever take on the Portuguese, as an immensely rotund and aged (over 80 years in age) impervious man who had to be lifted by a team of four to just get off his seat for one, and secondly his people had immediately upon landing in Diu tried to loot and plunder the very city they had come to aid. Hadim Suleiman was not a man worthy of following, for he had at the start of the voyage first exhorted a large sum of money from the Governor of Jeddah, then invited the emir of Aden for dinner and hanged him on the ship’s mast. When his ships reached Diu, four of them had capsized to reveal a large number of saddles proving that the Ottamans indeed had plans to occupy lands, settle down and not just liberate Diu. As Casale puts it - Having lost most of his Indian allies through a combination of his own clumsy diplomacy and circumstances beyond his control, Hadim Suleiman could no longer be sure of his ability to keep possession of Diu even if he managed to conquer it.

It was therefore no wonder that the Emir Bahadur chose to quickly side with the Portuguese seeing that the Ottomans could be far more avaricious and cruel compared to the former. The Ottoman ships went back to Istanbul and Egypt, and entrenched themselves firmly in Yemen, with all Indian intentions forgotten. Hadim Suleiman was rewarded and installed as grand Vizier in Istanbul, at the age of 90 while Aden was retaken in 1551 by Piri Reis.

The Ottoman Sultans however continued the tradition of rewarding some 20 mosques in the Calicut region, and they in return perhaps invoked the Ottoman ruler now, in Friday prayers. This supposition is proved by a very interesting complaint of graft in a document (an edict that Soqullu Mehmed issued to his governor- general of Egypt in 1576) which tended to a complaint -

In times past, one hundred gold pieces [a year] were sent to the mosques of the twenty- seven cities located in the Indian port of Calicut for the Friday sermon. However, it has been reported that for the last few years only fifty gold pieces have been sent, and sometimes not even that amount […]. Be diligent in this affair and see to it that, in fulfilment of the requirements of my orders, one hundred florins are sent every year without fail and in perpetuity from the port of Jiddah for the above- mentioned sermons. As far as any payments that have still not been paid from previous years are concerned, these also should be paid in full from the revenues of Jiddah.

So we see that, the Ottomans, now controlling Aden, had also inherited the network of religious patronage which included the payment of the above mentioned stipends to Muslim communities on the Malabar Coast, cementing their links to the Muslim trading infrastructure as Caliphs. But interestingly, the Portuguese almost mauled at Diu and after suffering defeats at Aden and Hoimruz afterwards, sued for peace.

Diplomatic channels were also open in the meantime with Duarte Catanho who was sent to Goa by Sultan Suleyman, who met the Portuguese governor Nuno da Cunha and informed him that the Ottoman Sultan wanted to make peace with the Portuguese; for his palace needed 5,000 quintal (250,000 kg) of pepper. The Turks, in return, would promise not to fight against the Portuguese for between five and fifteen years, and to provide them with 5,000 moio (about 3,800 tons) of wheat.
Dom João’s III’s wanted the Ottomans to leave the Indian Ocean and leave unrestricted access for their own ships in the Red Sea and clearance to trade freely in Aden and Jiddah under the same conditions as Muslim merchants. In exchange Dom João would to compromise his monopoly over the pepper trade by granting the sultan permission to purchase up to three thousand quintals (roughly 130 metric tons) of Indian pepper every year.

The Ottoman Sultan as we can see, did not agree and countered in 1540 – That the Portuguese merchants could trade in Ottoman ports and agreed in principle, to limit Ottoman pepper imports to four thousand quintals a year, but at the same time insisting that this pepper was to be supplied by Muslim ships from the independent port city of Calicut. Wheat from Turkey could be supplied through French and Venetian intermediaries and the Portuguese were not to transport it with their own ships.

All this as you can see, is a very interesting and extensive subject, one which I can better appreciate due to my stay in Turkey, so I will get back in more detail to specific sections of the Ottoman influence on the Red Sea pepper trade, later.

But in conclusion I will repeat Clot’s quote from orientalist Armin Vambery. In more detail - Sultan Suleiman went much further; he aimed at the subjugation of the whole of the then existing Moslem East, hence his diplomacy in the Arabian and Persian seas, and his deep-laid plans for taking Ormuz from the Portuguese in order to obtain a firm footing in Gujarat. If this plan had succeeded, he would have broken the growing power of the successors of Baber and established himself as sole ruler of Hindustan. If Suleiman, instead of deluging Hungary and Austria with his janissaries, had put the conquest of India on his programme, his efforts would have been crowned with greater and more lasting success than that which attended them in the Danubian provinces. He had at his disposal a mighty, ever victorious fleet, while the descendants of Baber were entirely without one. His prestige was great and without parallel in Arabia, Egypt, nay even in the whole of the Islam world, and the victory which a handful of Central Asian adventurers could obtain over the Vishnu worshippers, would have been child's play to his disciplined, well-armed, valiant bands of Janissaries. The Ottoman rulers as masters of India would have played a far more important part in history than any of their predecessors on the road to conquest, and who can say what might not have been the fate of Asia under such conditions?

The Ottoman Age of Exploration – Giancarlo Casale
Suleiman the magnificent – Andre Clot
The Travels and Adventures of the Turkish Admiral Sidi Ali Reïs: In India - Seydî Ali Reis, A Vambery


  1. Rajith

    Thanks Maddy, very informative piece. This is an aspect of Malabar/India trade that is not talked about much. In your research did you come across of any instance where the Ottomans contemplated a direct attack on Portugal?

  1. Maddy

    hi Ranjith
    thanks. I do not believe the Ottomans had any such ideas, though they had many naval successes in the Mediterranean. Contrary to popular belief, the Portuguese controlled only a fraction of the spice business and the Istanbul markets did get their share of pepper, as I had mentioned.