Portugal in the Orient


Geneviève Bouchon*

CALICUT IS a privileged field of research, first as one of the most important ports of the old medieval world, and also because at the turn of the sixteenth century, during a period of intense activity, it is suddenly revealed to the historian of today as seen through Portuguese eyes. After the first contacts, the Portuguese presence triggered reactions which led to concrete transformations. Rather than dwell on events which are known to every specialist, I shall examine the data of recent research, ask a few questions, and try to go beyond the generally accepted facts. To begin with, it should be useful briefly to describe Calicut from Asian and European sources.

The appearance of Calicut is a recent phenomenon in the history of the Malabari ports of call which had known in turn, since antiquity, various changes. The winds of the monsoon used to carry the vessels of the Arab world onto this coast, which was the first country where they could renew their provisions and wait for favourable winds to sail to China. Kerala was also the country of pepper and ginger and a market for other products.

Until the twelfth century, Arab travellers only mentioned the name of Kollam (Quilon): Kollam, where the Christians of St. Thomas had at the time the monopoly of pepper. Towards 1100, after the destruction of the city by the Cola armies, a dark era began during which time one would think important changes took place. When written accounts reappeared at the end of the thirteenth century, they highlighted different landscapes and structures. Kerala had been divided into several Hindu kingdoms whose ports were dominated by more or less influential Islamic trading communities. Kollam was reborn from its ashes, but had found a competitor in Eli, north of Malabar, where a Muslim community was firmly established. In 1343, Ibn Battuta visited Calicut which suddenly appeared to be the most important port of Kerala, whose wealth had already overshadowed all the others.

It is interesting to dwell on the origins of Calicut, because they highlight the exceptional position later to be enjoyed by the Muslim communities of the city. Although Calicut appeared in the mid-fourteenth century in travel literature, according to the local tradition its foundation dates back to 825. The legend of the foundation of the city has been related for the first time by the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa seven centuries later (c. 1515). This legend has no historical value in itself, but reflects what one believed or was made to believe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the Muslims of Calicut were at the peak of their influence. As everywhere in India, the legend was meant to legitimize power -- in this case that of the Islamic community and to justify the support given by the reigning Hindu dynasty. The story went in Calicut that the last Cera emperor (Cheraman Perumal), after his conversion to Islam, had divided Kerala between his nephews before leaving for a pilgrimage to Mecca: the Calicut Raja had the mission of welcoming and protecting the Muslims and the promise of a prestigious future.

"Cristãos malauares que fez hobem auinturado Sant Tome" (Cod. Casanatense, ibidem).

As the city of Calicut was not fortified, it spread without constraint among large gardens. Warehouses and shops lined up behind the beach. Merchants lived beyond there in wooden or whitewashed houses roofed with cadjans, scattered in grounds planted with trees. These houses were enclosed in walls with high carved wooden doors. They were carefully guarded, as merchants stocked their goods there, because they were afraid of the fires which often destroyed the warehouses. The town had also many temples, mosques, numerous tanks to bathe and wells to drink from.

The merchant town was separated from the royal palace by coconut woods. This palace had been built a few kilometres away from the coast, on the slopes of the Ghats. Further away spread the large rural estates inhabited by the Nayars and the Brahmin Nambuttiris. The structures of Calicut were thus in keeping with the structures of its society. The hierarchy was respected: secluded castes on the coast, well out of the Nayars' sight; the service staff near the warehouses; the merchants' city divided according to faith and origin: the Raja, the Brahmins and the Nayars in their estates. The King, however, used to move to one of his residences, situated near the merchants' boroughs, in order to receive gold cash from the pepper trade. He took then the opportunity to welcome the merchants in four different audience rooms: for the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians and the Jews. This residence also had a belvedere from where he surveyed the movements of the ships. He had the title of Zamorin (Samuttiri, lord of the sea) and worshipped Kapalotta, the goddess of sailors.

This was his only interference in commercial business, although it brought him important taxes. The administration of the port was not part of his power, the charges of which had been entrusted to foreign merchants, already at the time of Ibn Battuta when the Shahbandar was an Arab from Bahrein. At the end of the fifteenth century, two Muslim dignitaries were responsible for all trading operations. One was the leader of the foreigners (Pardesi), the other was the Head of the Mappilas and in charge of the coastal trade. Administrative and judicial duties were not clearly defined. It is only known that the merchant communities had their own justice, most often based on the practice of the ordeal and that the death sentence could be only pronounced by the Zamorin after the previous agreement of their chiefs. These dignitaries were entitled to wear a brocade turban, to use palanquins, and used to go preceded by trumpets made of gold or of less precious metal according to their rank. The Pardesi enjoyed a privileged status provided they respected local institutions. Protection of the Brahmins and abstinence from bovine meat were the conditions of their rights of residence. In exchange, freedom of worship, exoneration from some land taxes and the inviolability of their private houses were guaranteed by the Zamorin. Such an organisation was based on the principle of the separation of some political and economic powers respectively assumed by the King and the merchant communities.

Open to all the businessmen of the Ancient World this society was in constant evolution. It was, however, marked by the permanent character of predominance of the Islamic community. According to the early Portuguese accounts, recent changes had occurred. In Calicut, people were still talking about the long-haired Chinese who used to visit the port sixty odd years ago. Their grandchildren could be met among the seamen integrated into the Mappila community. Mentioned by Ibn Battuta (1343), their active presence intensified with the successive expeditions ordered by the Ming. We shall see later why the Chinese deserted Calicut. Among other reasons, the growth of Malacca, where all the western products were routed by the Gujaratis, spared the Chinese the long voyage to Malabar which they had given up for good when the Portuguese anchored there.

At the same time, the character of the Arab presence was becoming different. The Karimi merchants who had controlled most of the networks of the spice route had to abandon the Red Sea, because they were molested by the Mamluk Sultans. It is known that an important number of them had settled in Calicut. Could one recognize them among those Arab residents whose activities were described by the Portuguese? Those 'Egyptians' equipped each year ten to fifteen ships built in the shipyards of Malabar without iron nails, according to the local techniques. These ships set sail in January towards the West, frequently taking on board pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Other ships coming from the Red Sea used to arrive between August and November in Calicut, carrying other Middle East merchants who settled there for a few months. Rich and influential, they led a high life in their splendid houses and occupied the prime position in the Pardesi society which also included other communities from Syria, East Africa, Khorassan, Persia and Maghreb. Most of them were Muslims, but there were also Jews and Christians. An Islamic name covered people of various origins -- refugees from Granada, the Balkans and Italian renegades.

The word Pardesi designated all the elements foreign to Kerala, even if they came from neighbouring kingdoms. The crowd of the Indian merchants included important groups from the sultanates of Deccan and Bengal, and powerful traders from the Vijayanagar Empire. The Chettis -- a Hindu caste from Coromandel enjoyed a prestigious status and were entitled to golden trumpets. They shared with the Brahmins the privilege of being respected by the armies and the highwaymen who let them carry cash and precious stones in their large shoulder bags. The Chettis had control over exchange, usury, jewels and pearls trade. Here we can only underline the growing influence of the Gujarati businessmen whose networks took shape during the fifteenth century. They took part in the prosperous trade of Malacca, establishing their predominance on the traffic of the Western Ocean. Although they contributed to the decline of Calicut, they owned large warehouses in the town.

Whilst, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the overseas trade was in the hands of the Pardesi, the Mappila were specialising in the Indian coastal and inland trade, more particularly in foodstuffs (rice and sugar, dried fish, coconut palm products). Such goods, together with a few textiles, were an evenhanded exchange with which they purchased pepper and ginger from the Nayar and Christian inland producers. They routed these species to Calicut following down the course of the rivers. Some Mappila merchants bought cinnamon in Ceylon and made profits up to 300%. Others went to the ports of the Gulf of Bengal to bring back goods from Western Indo-China, going at times as far as Malacca. Their coastal fleets distributed all these products in the Malabar ports. A strong solidarity linked them to the Mappila of Cochin and Eli.

The coast of Malabar in the early sixteenth century

It is difficult to know the organisation of the trading societies. Given the important social mobility of the time, later documents are not helpful. It is only known that commerce was based on strict practices. All the visitors who stayed in Calicut during the pre-Portuguese period were impressed by the probity of its brokers and the safety of its waters -- which was noticeable at a time when pirates were active in the estuaries of the western coast. Each time a ship arrived, goods were carried ashore in small boats, unpacked on the beach, then estimated. They were guarded day and night by a Nayar who was at the disposal of the foreign merchant, together with a Chetti or a Mappila broker. As usual, the whole cargo was loaded in the same port.

The Portuguese saw the merchant society of Malabar as groups of families whose members were posted at the key points of the network. They met a few businessmen but did not state if they acted as individuals or as members of any association. They have not said a word about the sea merchants' guilds whose existence had been known since the previous centuries by epigraphic documents. A recent study on Coromandel trading society states that the end of the fifteenth century saw the decline of the guilds and the growth of the independent merchants. Was the situation the same in Kerala? May we establish a relationship between the decline of the local associations and the hold of the Islamic communities on the international trade? Dr. Jean Aubin has recently studied a still fairly unknown letter from Francisco de Albuquerque which reveals the presence of the Korram, a merchant group in Cochin in 1503, which was probably a Christian one.

In the beginning, the Portuguese were in conflict with the Pardesi whom they wanted to eliminate from the spice trade, and were almost constantly at war against Calicut where most of them lived. Some light has now been thrown on these early clashes by recent research in relation to the attack of the Portuguese feitoria (1500) and reprisals ordered by Pedro Álvares Cabral.

Calicut Fort (from Gaspar Correia's Lendas da Índia)

It is generally believed that the eruption of the Portuguese fleet in Calicut-- seven ships -- created a new situation. However, two articles recently published by Dr Hariprasad Ray state that, around seventy years before, tragic incidents had taken place in Calicut due to the presence of a Chinese fleet. One can remember that, over thirty years, fleets with artillery aboard and composed not of seven but of over one hundred ships used to come regularly to Calicut to demand a tribute and claim a monopoly (1405-1435). Although the Chinese contributed to the Zamorin' s wealth by increasing the exchanges and the amount of the custom taxes, this was at the expense of the powerful Arab traders. Ray gives credit to Joseph de Cranganore's report (1501) that the Pardesi provoked rupture by slaughtering Chinese merchants and the Ming fleet retaliated. The Chinese deserted Calicut ever after. Ray's papers suggest why the Pardesi had a defensive reaction when they saw Cabral's fleet with guns aboard. They followed the same strategy as before, hoping for the same results.

The Portuguese who had been settled in the Chinakotta were slaughtered and the reprisal was the same. However, the comparison does not go any further. Unlike the Chinese, the Portuguese did not give up. They obstinately came back every year. Such perseverance was to decide the Zamorin to start again the war against the raja of Cochin in order to wipe out the small Portuguese feitoria which was under his protection. Clinging to the Cochin shore, the Portuguese were stimulated by the famous captain Duarte Pacheco. The struggle for Cochin (1503-1505) is part of the epic legend of Portugal and is depicted as such in the Lusíadas. For the historian, this war put a new light on four points.

Firstly, thanks to Portuguese sources, the strategy of the armies of Malabar and the techniques of the lagoon war are described for the first time, as well as the pieces of the network of alliances and dependence links. They also point out the importance of the Brahmins' role. Have these sources been already compared to the local inscriptions and military Nayar traditions? Has anyone identified, on the spot, the very deformed toponyms which appear in Portuguese documents, which should enable us to follow the movement of the fights?

Secondly, the Portuguese documents confirm what the Chinese sources mention regarding the considerable importance of Calicut. According to Ray, the loss of Calicut was one of the reasons why the Ming gave up the sea voyages in the Western Ocean. The Portuguese sources stress Calicut's influence all over the world and the power of its Islamic communities. The importance of their diplomatic networks was such that Gujarat and Mamluk Egypt very quickly took alarm and the movement was to spread and reach the Pope and the Catholic Kings of Castile. The Hindu political power appears fragile compared to that of the Islamic communities of Calicut. A failure was enough to make a raja retire to a sanctuary. The raja's sovereignty could be questioned by members of his own family whenever he was found to have failed in his honour. It could be challenged by his brothers who had been known to pass sentences of abdication and death. One can see how Afonso de Albuquerque was able to make such customs work in his favour. There was nearly always a prince conspiring in secret to win favour with the Portuguese. Thus in 1513, on Albuquerque's advice, Prince Nambiador poisoned the Zamorin in order to take his place and negotiate the first Portuguese fortress in Calicut.

Thirdly, in the light of these ancient texts, one can see why the Portuguese were less well accepted than the other foreigners. There was, of course, the military character of their presence (although it was restricted to a few spots), the constraint of the cartaz, the monopoly claimed on spices. Above all, unlike the Eastern Christians and the Muslims, they did not want to know anything about the local habits and the organisation of society. This is known to us through the correspondence of the kings of Kerala generally written in Arabic, now kept in the Torre do Tombo. They blamed the Portuguese for their lack of respect towards the Brahmins (Duarte Pacheco used to snap the Zamorin's messengers, and Vasco da Gama hanged them at the end of the main yard of his flagship); for slaughtering cows and eating their flesh; and for disorganising the caste hierarchy by enticing the converts from their duties towards the members of higher castes.

Lastly, prizes were for the Portuguese part of the privileges of naval war, but it was contrary to the maritime traditions of Calicut. The honour of the Zamorins was linked with the safety of their waters so that they will be seen, at the end of the sixteenth century, reluctant to tolerate the inevitable pillages of the naval war. It should be noted that most of the conflicts of this early period opposed the Portuguese to the Pardesi. During this time, the Portuguese kept contact with the Mappilas of Calicut and started business relations with the Mappilas of Cochin and Cannanore.

In 1513, Afonso de Albuquerque decided to favour Calicut at the expense of Cochin and Cannanore. He made peace with a Zamorin who granted him some place to build a fortress. Such alliance reversal was the origin of the first changes. The Arabs, and among them probably the last Karimis, immediately fled Calicut for the ports of Gujarat. The merchants from Maghreb (Cran, Tlemcen, Tunis, Djerba, Tripoli) remained in Calicut and tried to trade with the Portuguese. The beneficiaries of these changes were the Chettis because they were Hindus, as the Keling were in Malacca for the same reasons.

The Portuguese presence in Calicut had mobilised the Gujaratis who were trying to take advantage of the new conjuncture to take over the maritime routes from the Arabs. After the capture of Malacca by Albuquerque (1511) they had to find new routes and organise new networks with the support of whoever had been harmed by the Portuguese expansion. Thus the Ali Raja of Cannanore had diverted the spice trade through a direct route from Sumatra to Aden via the Maldives. The Mappila of Kerala began to put guns aboard their ships and paraos. They all managed to besiege and reconquer Calicut (1525).

"Calechut celeberrimvm Indiae emporivm" in Illustrorivm Hispaniae Urbium Tabvlae Cvm Appendice Celebriorvm Alibi aut olim aut nunc Parentivm Hispanis, Aut eorum Civitatvm Commerciis florentium. Amstelodami, ex officine Joannis Janssonii.

By the end of the 1520's, in what concerns Calicut, the set-up for the transformations to come was already in place. From then on, the Mappila occupied the first place in Calicut as the Arabs had left for ever. Until the end of the century, they fought the Portuguese for the control of the spice route. They developed their own military fleets and kept harassing the armadas without any regard for the periods of war and peace agreed by the Zamorins and the Portuguese Governors. Whilst fighting so for the control of the Indian Ocean, they found an opportunity to carry out their own politics. Thus, these reactions to the Portuguese interferences led a social group of mercantile origin to military functions, and to ambitions for political power. This transformation was achieved at the end of the sixteenth century. At this time, after the conquest of Gujarat by the Mughals and the temporary disorganisation of the maritime networks, the Mappila admiral of Calicut rose against the Zamorin and proclaimed himself Emperor of Malabar. With the help of his followers he launched a rebellion. Although a failure, this uprising appears as the Muslim community's final attempt to keep the control of overseas trade in the hands of its sea merchants.


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*Graduate of the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, Ph. D. in History from the Sorbonne. Research Director in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Author of numerous publications, Bouchon specializes in medieval India and Portuguese expansion in the Indian Ocean. Member of the Academia da Marinha in Lisbon and Vice-Chairperson of the Société Française d'Histoire du Portugal.

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