The Mamluk – Calicut - Jeddah Equations

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And an event which happened ‘out there’ – at Calicut

For the Arab merchants, traders and rulers, Calicut was the place in Al Hind where they had established a lucrative trade, where they had families and representations, and a relationship with the benevolent king, the Ox-worshipper Al-Samiri. For most others who benefited from the trade in Europe, it was just a place out there. For the crusaders, it was perhaps the general region where a potential supporter, the Prestor John came from. Later authors, who never even set a foot there, equated it to Utopia. From the inimical Arabian nights story of Abu Hasan’s fart, you know that Calicut was a place where you went to in order to start afresh and make a new life. In a way it was akin to the Dubai of Malayali’s today, it was the Dubai for the Arabs those days.

We will now get into the story of two interesting individuals, one who daringly transferred trade from Aden to Jeddah and the other, a senior official of the Mamluk establishment who severely tested the diplomatic abilities of the Zamorin. And along the way, we will talk about the interesting relations between the Mamluk administration in Arabia and Calicut, while dwelling upon the interesting event which occurred some decades prior to the arrival of the Portuguese at Calicut.

With humble slave origins, the fierce warrior class which went on to establish the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt were eventually successful in the crusades and firmly in power by 1302. Towards the end of the 14th century, the Burji dynasty was established and they ruled Egypt 1382-1517. A number of sultans ruled during this turbulent period, until the Ottomans came roaring in 1517. But there was one constant which thrived for a period, the trade relations they established with Calicut. The reigns of Sultan Barsbay’s as well as Jaqmaq’s and a few others show a clear intent to monopolize or corner a large amount of the spice business with Malabar.  We will see that Barsbay established measures during the years 1425-27 to ensure the Sultanate's exclusive control over the trade route through the Red Sea, hitherto in the hands of Karimi merchants.

This was a period when merchant caravans which met Indian ships started to face security issues and consequently the trade volume by sea to the Mediterranean increased. Red Sea ports were losing popularity due to security issues in the Nile Valley and land caravans were not efficient. It was also a period when the port of Aden started to become unpopular due to high tariffs, especially during a period of political upheaval in Rasulid Yemen. Alternatives were thus to be explored. Meloy explains - The primary trade route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean passed from Bab al-Mandab, at the southern end of the Red Sea, to Jeddah, Mecca's seaport, where goods were transshipped to vessels that made their way north against the prevailing northerly winds or, alternatively, to caravans that followed the pilgrimage route in the Hijaz to destinations in Egypt and the Levant (Hijaz or Hejaz is the SW region of Saudi Arabia extending from Jizan through Jeddah to Tabuk in the North. Levant on the other hand covered present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and a bit of Turkey)

This was the practical reason why Mecca and Jeddah suddenly became important names in the spice trade and how the holy city also became an urban locale frequented by merchants and traders of many nations. As time went by, the Mamluks became somewhat avaricious and used various coercive means to manipulate the marketplace and drove the prices of spices way higher, sometimes as high as 130 dinars or 160% higher than the prices at Cairo of 50 dinars per load. Other difficult demands were imposed, such as purchase mainly from Egyptian merchants, transit through Cairo, payment of additional duties, appointment of special overseers to monitor trade at ports of trade, departures quickly after a trading season, transport of Jeddah goods through Cairo, sale of pepper by traders only after the Sultan had completed his trade, arrest of traders who bypassed Cairo and traveled to Syria, and of course outrageous prices.

The Mamluk Sultan Barsby also banned Karimi merchants from selling to the Venetians in Alexandria, and forced them to buy pepper from the government, at a much higher price. Thus, the Karimi, a champion of free enterprise, ceased to be the main merchants and over time, nevertheless, they did not quite fade away, but remained agents and government employees.

Particularly complex was the situation in Mecca because of the presence and friction between of the local rulers, the Hasanid Sherifs and the Mamluk Sultans of Cairo. Note here that these politics and restrictions were all local to Mecca and Jeddah, and did not quite have any effect on Calicut, which continued to be the supply center offloading merchandise at Rasulite managed ports of Aden and Aydhab.

But one trader, the Nakhuda Ibrahim was to change the whole equation due to a tiff with the Yemenite Rasulid ruler Nasir Ahmed. In 1422, he took his ship directly to Jeddah, but this ship was quickly impounded by Hasan the Sheriff of Mecca and Ibrahim left back empty handed to Calicut, in a huff. In the following year Ibrahim tried the ports of Sawakin and Dahlale but was quite dissatisfied with those as well. Meanwhile, Barsby seeing an opportunity ordered the Sheriff to compensate Ibrahim, but when that was not heeded to, he deposed the Mecca Sheriff Hasan Ali. In 1424, Ibrahim and his ships were cordially invited to Jeddah by Amir Qarquamis and Ibrahim sold his goods off at a decent profit.

With that single move, large portions of Indian trade moved to Jeddah. But Barsbay was clever in ensuring that all Ushr (10% tax) proceeds from those imports were sent to Cairo and not retained at Mecca, and he ensured this by appointing a Saad, his personal representative and customs inspector in Jeddah. This man had the responsibility of going to Jeddah yearly when the dhows arrived from India, supervising the unloading, collecting the customs duties and transporting these revenues back to Cairo. From 30,000 Dinars, this ushr amount rose to over 200,000 in 2 ½ decades showing you how the India trade ballooned.

When Aden bristled at the loss of its revenues, and planned to use force to prevent further loss of revenue in 1425, Barsbay retaliated by sending his armed vessels to ensure this did not happen and the Yemenite ruler held off. Thus, you can see that Barsbay appropriated an ushr amount of 70,000 dinars from Indian traders to Cairo in 1425, a situation resented bitterly by the Mecca sheriffs, who also gained little from the whole enterprise. Over the next few years that figure galloped to many hundreds of thousands as larger numbers of ships docked at Jeddah, especially so after the destruction of Aydhab in 1426 by Barsbay. Jeddah’s fortunes ascended after this and it became the main port of India trade. When the Mecca Sherrif’s complaint became too loud, Mamluk sultans increased the sheriff’s share first to a third of the duties, then a half. But we can see that this fluctuated depending on the man in Cairo and the relations between Mecca and Cairo.

It was in 1432 that the Chinese junks from Cheng Ho’s fleet also after docking at Calicut, sailed off with Calicut representatives to Jeddah, bypassing Aden. But that was not to continue and we will at the tail end of this article discuss why. By 1433, we observe that Barsbay’s greedy officials had started to harass the Calicut traders who were forced to pay more than the usual ushr, and were also being forced to buy coral and copper from them at high prices. The protesting Nakhudas decided to move their trade back to Aden, but Barsbay personally intervened in time and stopped the harassment.

That all this would have helped rebuild Egypt which was severely struck by famine and plague in 1430 is apparent. In 1438 the greedy and bad tempered Barsbay died and he was succeeded by Sultan Jaqmaq who did not support any kind of extra charges from the traders, for a time. But naturally, when Al Zahir Jaqmaq rose to the throne, Janibak, the powerful Saad of Jeddah instated by Barsby was replaced by one Timraz al-Baktimurt al-Mu'ayyadi, known as al-Musadri', the Wrestler.

Timraz was originally purchased as a young slave by the Circassian Sultan al-Mu'ayyad Shaykh after whose death he entered the service of Amir Tanbak the Syrian governor. When Tanbak passed on, Timraz entered the service of Sultan Barsbay. He advanced rapidly in rank, eventually becoming a member of the sultan's inner circle and his bodyguard, the kbassakiyya. An accomplished wrestler, he also earned the epithet “al- Musari”. It was however, during the reign of the succeeding sultan, al-Malik al-Zahir Abu Sa'Id Jaqmaq (842/1438—857/1453), that the Amir Timraz reached the pinnacle of his career, and came to play an important role in the history of the Hijaz.

After an initial tenure in Jeddah, Timtaz was not reappointed as Saad and moved back to Cairo in 1444. Whether it was a punishment of sorts or a demotion, we do not know, but he cooled his heels in Cairo for 4 years and it appears the personal relationship between the Sultan and Timraz had soured somewhat in these years. In 1448 he was appointed as a governor in Jerusalem, but was dismissed after 6 months and exiled to Damascus. After further turbulence, appointments and dismissals, Timraz was stripped of tax collection powers in 1450 by Sultan Jaqmaq. In the meantime, Saad Janibak fell out of favor and for inexplicable reasons, Jaqmaq replaced him with the previously out of favor Timraz. The upstart Timraz saw a chance of quickly amassing a personal fortune and abscond to other friendly patrons.

Taghribirdi tells us that Timraz, now the superintendent of the port of Jeddah, dutifully collected the tax some 30,000 dinars, purchased a boat ‘Murawwas’ from a Turk Yusuf Al-Bursawi, loaded it with men and armaments, and pretended to sail to Egypt with the tax collection, but instead sailed off towards Yemen and thence to India. He found out however that no West Indian port was willing to help him, for almost all of them had merchants who had invested heavily in trade at Mecca, so did not want to alienate the Mamluk Sultan. As he shuttled from port to port around India’s west coast for over six months, and neared (or was already around) Calicut, he simply decided that this was the best bet and docked at the port of Calicut, without permission.

Now Tagghribirdi explains that the Calicut king was an al-Samiri (an ox worshipper) and the people were Samara (ox worshippers) but that there were a number of Muslims as well. Anyway, the traders quickly met the Zamorin and explained that this Timraz was the fellow who had absconded with the Mamluk money and that if asylum was granted to Timraz, their fortunes at Mecca and the trade would be severely affected.

One should also note that in the meantime, Sultan Jaqmaq had recalled the previous Saad Janibak to look after affairs at Jeddah and entrusted with him the responsibility to track down Timraz and the loot. That Janibak was back made any merchant who was planning to join Timraz’s scheme and profit from it, acutely wary, for this Janibak incidentally had cordial relations with the Zamorin of Calicut as Taghribirdi explains – Janibak had received a number of letters from the Zamorin which were great examples of poetry and prose (beautifully inscribed on palm leaves in Malayalam – or Manipravalam) testifying either to the literacy of the Zamorin or his scribes!

Anyway, the Zamorin decided to arrest Timraz based on the advice from his Muslim merchants, but Timraz reading the situation preempted this by gifting a large present to the Zamorin. When the Zamorin summoned him and asked him about the loot, Timraz replied that he had brought the money to Calicut, only to buy pepper for his patron Sultan. Boxed in, the Zamorin then demanded that he buy pepper right away and load it onto his and other merchant ships and return to Jeddah. Timraz had no choice but to obey, so he purchased pepper, loaded two merchant ships as well as his own. Timraz sailing westwards, stopped at the Kamaran island near Aden, where the Al Hudaida were revolting against the ruling Yemenis.

From here he decided to negotiate a return to Jeddah - As the story goes, explained by Mortel  - In Ramadan 855/Sept.-Oct. 1452 he sent 500 tukras of spices to Jeddah for the sultan, and further promised to forward the rest of the cargo he had acquired in India if Jaqmaq would, in return, acknowledge him as the governor of the Yemen, under ultimate Mamluk sovereignty. Jaqmaq's response to this proposal was not considered acceptable by Timraz: the sultan agreed in principle to his request, but demanded that the rebellious Amir come in person to the court at Cairo, or at least to Jeddah, where he would then be formally awarded the governorship he sought. According to Timraz's point of view, Jaqmaq's response was, at best, ambiguous, and, at worst, merely a pretext to entrap him; he therefore decided to remain in the Yemen.

In Ramadan 855/Sept.-Oct. 1452 Timraz decided to support the Al Hudaida revolt against the Yemeni ruler but in the bloody fight, Timraz and his men were all killed in 1451-1452 save one individual with the same last name Timraz. Janibak who was tracking Timraz and learning of the situation deputed Amir Tanam Rusas to Yemen to reclaim the ship and Timraz’s possessions which the honorable Al Hudaida people returned to the Mamluk’s. From that time onward, Janibak's career advanced rapidly and he had proven himself again, to be indispensable to the sultan.

The above passages show you some examples of the lucrative trade, the relations between the Mamluks and Calicut, their trading partners - the Khawaja’s of Jeddah etc., in the 15th century.  Close to 40% of Mecca’s Khawaja merchants traveled to Gujarat and Calicut ports often. Many of these Khawajas amassed large fortunes personally on this India trade, often traveling frequently to the ports including Calicut, the source of much of the merchandise carried. The items carried in these ships list a number of luxury goods small in size, high in price, destined for the markets of Egypt, the Levant and western Europe, and included cotton and silken cloth, all kinds of spices, predominantly pepper from Calicut, camphor, musk, amber, sandalwood, Indian Ocean pearls, precious and semi-precious stones, such as agates, various medical substances, as well as goods trans-shipped from East.

But all good things have to come to a close, and the Mamluk greed certainly brought this about. As the 15th century came to a close, we witness Jeddah trying to tax the ships even more, sequester their belongings as security, and as a result we see the Indian ships moving away to Aden once again.

Stanley Lane-Poole (The story of Cairo) summarizes this perfectly - Until the discovery of the Cape route in 1498, and its subsequent development, they enjoyed the monopoly of the entire volume of Indian trade with the Levant; and Venice, by her commercial capitulations with them, was their sole agent on the continent. Let us try and estimate what this monopoly meant. An Arab merchant like Sindbad the Sailor, buys £10,000 worth of raw silks, nutmegs, pepper, indigo, cloves, and mace in Persia or at Calicut and lands them at Basra or Suez. The sea route up the Persian Gulf would be shorter than the voyage up the Red Sea; but the caravan road short journey across Egypt. At landing, the customs would amount to some £4000 (this is much above the mark], and the goods would then be worth, say, £20, 000. A second Arab merchant on the Medi terranean coast (or perhaps at the wharves of Bulák] would sell the consignment for £30,000 to the Venetian, who would have to pay another £5000 customs dues before he could clear his cargo. Thus, whether in customs or in tolls, or in presents to local governors and escorts, a quarter of the £35,000 paid by the Venetian would go to the mamlúk sultan and aristocracy merely for the privilege of transit. It was not the government alone that made the profit. The Cairo merchant who brought the precious bales from India and the Spice Islands, or at least bought them from the Indian traders at the Red Sea ports, made his fortune too. The Thousand and One Nights are full of such successful ventures.

You may have observed that I touched upon the arrival of the Chinese ships at Jeddah. Well they were part of the last of the Zheng He voyages to Calicut in 1432 (The Chinese did visit Mecca in 1416, and the voyage was very long, so in 1433 they traveled in convoy with the Calicut ships who knew a shorter and safer route assisted by monsoon winds). Thagribirdi writes - A report came from Mecca that a number of junks had come from China to the seaports of India, and two of them had anchored in the port of Aden, but their goods, chinaware, silk, musk, and the like, were not disposed of there because of the disorder of the state of Yemen. The captains of these two junks wrote to the Sharif Barakat ibn Hasan ibn 'Ajlan, emir of Mecca, and to Sa'd al-Din Ibrahim ibn al-Marra, controller of Judda, asking permission to come to Judda. The two wrote to the Sultan about this, and made him eager for the large amount that would result if they came. The Sultan wrote to them to let them come to Judda, and to show them honor.

Whether this was planned or whether the Chinese coerced the Nakhudas of Calicut to take them to Jeddah is not known, but what we do know is that the two Chinese ships at Jeddah hastened back to Calicut and thence to China hearing of the untimely demise of Zheng He at Calicut (Zheng’s ships had quickly left Calicut without waiting for the Mecca ships) after he passed away. In fact, the Chinese were to go farther, to the Levant and the Mediterranean and touch Florence. Perhaps it was the revenge by the traders of Calicut when they realized that the Chinese were ready to usurp the Jeddah trade route.

How did Zheng He die? Was there a battle between the Chinese and the Arabs at Calicut which the Zamorin turned a blind eye to? Did the Chinese demand a monopoly and pay for it? Were irate Arab traders the ones who put an end to the Chinese trade, did they get upset when the Chinese ships tried to open up a trade link with the lucrative buyers in Jeddah? It is plausible for the Chinese ships were larger and could be a huge impact, in fact they could have destroyed the links, especially since the sailors and the admirals were Muslim eunuchs. Did the Pardesi Arabs of Calicut take preemptive action and finish off  Zheng He? With that, all overtures to the West and Calicut ceased and Ming China closed its sea borders.

So, we see that during the dying parts of the 15th century, Indian, especially Calicut trade swung back and forth between Aden and Jeddah, but the situation for the buyers in Alexandria, was far from satisfactory. With very high and fluctuating prices as well as a wavering supply chain, the Venetian and Portuguese buyers at Alexandria and the Mediterranean ports were quite disturbed. And that is how and why they pushed for a direct control of the spice trade with Calicut by sending their own ships with Portuguese royal sponsorship, in 1497, signaling the Vasco Da Gama epoch. Of course, it was also a revenge to the Christian loss against the Mamluk’s during the crusades.

Tail note – Curious isn’t it? Pepper a simple spice totally natural, requiring little investment and care, a product delivered by nature, a pungent spice hardly used in those days where it was produced, went on to become dearer than gold – the black gold, a spice which not only enlivened a dish, one’s tongue and senses but also made its traders and buyers greedy. Every regime or dynasty who tried to greedily make more and more from it suffered or failed in the long run, be it those in Aden, Egypt, Turkey, the levant – the Portuguese!


History of Egypt – 1438-1453 ABU QL -MAHASIN IBN TAGHRÎ BIRDÎ Translation - William Popper

Imperial Strategy and Political Exigency: The Red Sea Spice Trade and the Mamluk Sultanate in the Fifteenth Century - John L. Meloy

The Spice Trade in Mamluk Egypt: A Contribution to the Economic History of Medieval Islam - Walter J. Fischel

Grand "Dawādār" and Governor of Jedda: The Career of the Fifteenth Century Mamlūk Magnate Ǧānibak al-Ẓāhirī: Richard T. Mortel

A study of the politico-economic conditions and administrative structure of the Meccan emirate during the Burjt period (784-923 a.h./1382-1517 a.d) Mohammed Said Abdullah Al-Siddiqi

Aspects of mamluk relations with Jedda during the fifteenth century: the case of Timraz al-Mu'ayyadl - Richard t. Mortel

Researchers who want to understand this period are advised to read Richard Mortel’s detailed studies on this fascinating topic, so also the papers of John Meloy, Walter Fischel and Patrick Wing.


  1. Nidhin Olikara

    A lovely article again Maddy.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Nidhin, hearing from you after a long time!

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Two quick points on your observations made in this excellent study of a less well-known facet of Calicut's history.
    Firstly, your speculation that Zheng He probably died during conflict echoes similar views expressed by Prof. Tansen Sen (see his comments to this post- However, other records mention that he died of illness ( some say infectious disease which was the reason for disposing of the body at sea rather than carrying it back to China). Mahuan at least does not mention any conflict between Calicut and China.
    Secondly, you have made a very interesting observation on pepper. We in Kerala who still produce pepper (despite suffering loss due to dumping of Vietnamese pepper), do not realise the importance of pepper in a pre-chillies era. It is said that Portuguese introduced chilli pepper to India mainly to wean the Indian palate away from pepper which was costlier than chilli pepper. This is borne out by recipes from the Mughal court which used only pepper for even items like organ josh! An instance of culinary colonialism, if you may.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF..
    I will investigate the Zheng He death and revert, but the sea burial must have resorted to because they had to flee in a hurry and according to Muslim tradition, the disposal has to be carried out with the passage of a day. Sea burial is not favored unless the circumstances are extraordinary. If he was gravely injured (or ill) and died at sea, then a sea burial is allowed.

    Yeah, the arrival of cheaper kappal mulaku (chilies from the ships) not only reduced local consumption but also increased imports! how clever. Just mentioned it in an upcoming article on Maddys Ramblings