On the history trail: The Portuguese establish themselves in the Malabar Coast

Six months after the return of Vasco da Gama, another fleet of thirteen armed ships sailed for India in March 1500. This fleet was commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral who had a torrid time on his way to Calicut. Some ships were blown off course to South America while four ships sank in a storm at the tip of Africa. The remaining six ships managed to reach Calicut on 13 September 1500.


The newly appointed Zamorin, a successor to the one who had received Vasco da Gama in 1498 allowed the Portuguese to set up a trading post called then as a factory. This was done in view of the letter sent by his predecessor to the king of Portugal to establish firm trade ties.


Calicut and its adjoining coast were predominantly Hindu, but also housed many Muslim merchants from Arabia with a few Moplas. Calicut was not the best harbour but had proven itself indispensable to traders from various nations because it offered safe, secure and cheap facilities.


The disputes continued between the Portuguese and Arabs over the right to buy pepper with the Portuguese claiming that they had been given the sole right while the Arabs vehemently opposed this claim. Events spiralled out of control with the Portuguese seizing an Arab ship in the harbour.


A riot ensued in which thirty to forty Portuguese were killed. Cabral ordered his fleet to bombard Calicut forgetting that he had been invited to trade in Calicut by the Zamorin. He also ordered the seizure of some ships in the harbour and their goods which included three elephants that were slaughtered and salted for their homeward journey and killed all their crews.


The city was bombarded for two full days with many people losing their lives and several wooden houses destroyed. The people of Calicut were unable to retaliate and sought cover. The unwarranted attack on Calicut left a bitter taste in the mouth of the residents. Fortunately, the violent recoil of the guns began to damage the ships forcing Cabral to stop his attack.


Like a coward, Cabral left Calicut under the smoke and headed one hundred miles south to Cochin. The Raja of Cochin, a rival of the Zamorin of Calicut was mindful of the advantages of extending a friendly hand to the Portuguese. He permitted them to buy spices and establish a factory. Cabral’s ships were loaded with Indian goods within a fortnight of his arrival, when news came in that a fleet of the Zamorin of Calicut was heading towards them.


Cabral slipped away at night leaving about thirty of his men at the factory. The following day, the fleets of the Zamorin and Cabral came into sight of each other. The turbulent winds prevented a battle and Cabral fled with his fleet.


The Portuguese stopped at Cannanore, eighty miles north of Calicut and were invited by the ruler to stay. They picked up more spices and headed back to Portugal. Cabral reached Lisbon on 31 July 1501 with only five of the original thirteen ships. The spices that were loaded in the ships were of immense value and more than covered the losses incurred.


The friars who had accompanied Cabral on this journey observed the religious differences between Hindus and Christians. Cabral also shared the same observation with the king stressing upon the need to win over the Hindu rulers of the Malabar Coast if Christianity is to be spread in this part of the world.


Though Cabral had destroyed relations with the Zamorin of Calicut with his rash actions, he had made good of his meetings with the Raja of Cannanore and the Raja of Cochin. While Calicut did not have a good harbour, the one at Cochin was excellent. The Raja of Cochin was keen to cement their new trade relations with the Portuguese and was willing to offer attractive incentives.


Vasco da Gama set sail for the Malabar on 10 February 1502 with fifteen ships. The king had instructed him to ensure that the Indian rulers on the Malabar Coast would only trade with Portugal henceforward. Though, the mission appeared to be solely commercial, the friars were determined to establish their religious beliefs in the Malabar Coast.


While the fleet was sailing down the Malabar Coast, the Portuguese intercepted a ship, Miri carrying pilgrims returning from Mecca. The Portuguese boarded the ship, confiscated 12,000 ducats, goods worth about 10,000 ducats and torched the ship with 380 men, women and children onboard with gunpowder.


The Portuguese fleet anchored off Calicut. The Zamorin sent a message of peace to Vasco da Gama and wished to know what had happened to the Miri. Vasco da Gama sent a curt reply demanding compensation for the goods Cabral’s men had lost and the expulsion of all Arab traders. The Zamorin replied saying that Calicut had suffered inestimable damage and the goods that the Miri carried was worth far more than Cabral had lost. He also turned down the demand to expel the Arab traders.


Vasco da Gama, then announced his intention to bombard Calicut the following day if the Zamorin did not comply with his terms. The Portuguese captured a number of small boats and their crews. At midday, on 1 November 1502, they began to hang their prisoners. Thirty-four sailors were executed and their hands, feet and heads were cut off as the bodies were taken down.


The Portuguese then piled up the body parts in a boat that was floated into the harbour with a message attached that the killers of Cabral’s men would die a painful death. The bodies of these innocent sailors were thrown into the sea so that the tide would carry them ashore.


The Zamorin on being apprised of the barbaric actions of the Portuguese rallied his men. He had erected a barrier of palm tree trunks after the bombardment of Cabral. However, he possessed very little artillery. Vasco da Gama was able to take his ships very close to the shore and began bombarding Calicut. He left behind six ships to block the port and sailed for Cochin.


As he departed, a message was sent by the Raja of Cannanore to intercept an Arab merchant who had left the port without paying his dues. Da Gama sent one of his ships to capture the merchant. The merchant was caught, beaten senseless and sent back to his ship with his mouth gagged and stuffed with excrement and bacon.


Vasco da Gama charmed the Raja of Cochin with praises and sweet words. The Muslims were wary of him and continued to maintain a hostile attitude towards the Portuguese. A cow sold by some Muslims for slaughter to the Portuguese was saved by Vasco da Gama after the Raja protested. The Muslims again returned to sell another cow to the Portuguese only to be arrested and then executed.


Vasco da Gama continued to display his arrogance and barbarism to both Muslims and Hindus. A Hindu priest sent by the Zamorin of Calicut was burnt with embers and sent back to Calicut with his lips cut off and ears cut off and replaced with ears taken from one of the ship’s dogs.


The Portuguese bought spices and repaired their ships. They used Cochin as their base to collect spices from Quilon and other ports. They went up to Cannanore and arrived at an agreement to use their port in future. Vasco da Gama entered into a formal agreement with the Raja of Cochin to build a factory and left behind men with instructions to buy pepper for future expeditions.


He left Cochin and headed to Cannanore to buy ginger. He was attacked by a large fleet sent by the Zamorin. The heavy guns of the Portuguese began to rain fire and many of the Zamorin‘s ships sunk. Some caught fire and drifted to the Calicut harbour. Da Gama loaded his ships with spices in Cannanore and left behind some men to operate a factory and buy more spices. He also left behind five ships under the command of his uncle, Vicente Sodré to guard their interests at Cannanore and Cochin. He left for Portugal on 28 December 1502 leaving a trail of devastation in the Malabar Coast.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)

* Information about The Portuguese Invasion and Inquisition is taken from archives

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