Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 26
When the Russian merchant Athanasius Nikitan first came ashore at Chaul, a port city some 30 miles from Bombay to the north, he recorded that:
People go about naked, with their heads uncovered and their breasts bare, the hair tressed into one tail, and thick bellies. They bring forth children every year and the children are many . . . When I go out many people follow me and stare at the white man. Women who know you willingly concede their favours for they like white men.229
The Malabar coast of southern India was one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Palm trees swayed in the ocean breeze. Pristine white beaches stretched endlessly, embraced by the surf of the Indian Ocean. The not distant mountains were shrouded in clouds set against an azure sky. Numerous small lakes were strung out like a necklace. Calicut and the nearby towns lay surrounded by fields of rice in their watery plots. When the monsoon came, the urban areas were islands in the flooded lands. The taking of life was forbidden, so the native animals thrived even about and within the towns, especially venomous snakes, which exacted a steady toll on the population.
Only with difficulty was Nunes, shielded by the men who had rowed him ashore, able to make his way slowly through the pressing throng that awaited him as he stepped on to land. Although this was a Hindu part of the Vijayanagar empire, trade was primarily under the control of Muslims, so he was taken directly to the house of two Arabs from Tunis ‘who could speak Castilian and Genoese’.230
Word had surely reached these men by this time that unusual and large ships had arrived. They would have speculated between themselves as to who these newcomers might be. Ships of this sort were foreign to these waters and could only have come by passage around the tip of Africa. Still, there would have been doubts until the moment Nunes was shown into their presence. One of the Arabs all but shouted, ‘May the Devil take thee! What brought you hither?’
Nunes then uttered what were to become the most quoted words of this epic voyage. ‘We come in search of Christians and spices.’ Realizing at once that he was Portuguese, the Arabs then asked, ‘Why does not the King of Castile, the King of France or the Signoria of Venice send hither?’Nunes was ready with his reply. ‘Because the King of Portugal will not permit it.’
Arab hospitality now asserted itself and Nunes was taken back to their lodgings and given wheaten bread and honey. After eating and some discussion he returned to the São Gabriel accompanied by one of the Arabs whom the Portuguese called Monçaide, probably a corruption of the Arabic words for ‘the happy one’. He was clearly not concerned about the implications of the Portuguese arrival or its threat to his position. No sooner was he aboard the ship than he said to Vasco, ‘A lucky venture, a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds! You owe great thanks to God, for having brought you to a country holding such riches!’ Most astonishingly, the words were spoken in Portuguese, something none of them aboard ship had anticipated ‘so far away from Portugal’.231 Although the Christians and Moors were great enemies, here was someone Vasco could understand; in a strange way so distant from home this was a familiar face.
Following the usual formalities of hospitality Vasco inquired after the local ruler. Monçaide, who proved to be unusually forthcoming, answered that the Zamorin was at Panane, a coastal town 28 miles south of Calicut. Vasco immediately dispatched two men: one of them presumably Nunes, who had acquitted himself so well thus far; the other Fernão Martins, in whom he had great confidence. Monçaide agreed to accompany the pair. They bore the message that Vasco da Gama was an ambassador who had arrived from the King of Portugal with important letters and that he was prepared to travel to the ruler to present them.232
News had already reached the Zamorin of the arrival of such unusual ships manned by fair-skinned men. He consulted at once with his diviners to determine the implications. He learned of a 400-year-old prophecy which said that the day would come when India would be ruled by a distant king whose subjects were white and that he would harm those who were not his friend.
After some consideration the diviners told the Zamorin that the Portuguese had arrived in fulfilment of the prophecy, but that neither he nor his kingdom would suffer if the Zamorin behaved towards them in a friendly manner. ‘The people on land would have to obey those who were masters of the sea’, he was told. One diviner went on to say that if his words had not come true within a period of five years, he would forfeit his life.
This was sobering news. The Zamorin next consulted with his advisers, who made light of the prophecy and the likelihood that it was now being fulfilled. Thousands of ships had come to the Malabar coast, yet not one had so much as attempted to conquer India by sea.
The Zamorin was still in a quandary about how to proceed when the two Portuguese arrived with Monçaide. The message he received from them through an intermediary was that these strangers were servants of a powerful Christian king, and that these three ships had become separated from a great fleet of fifty such ships which they expected to soon join them off Calicut. These newcomers sought to trade for pepper and other spices and were prepared to exchange gold and other merchandise.233
Hearing this, the Zamorin decided that he would engage the Portuguese in a friendly manner and await the unfolding of events. The source of his wealth and power was, after all, trade and a new outlet was not to be scorned. He presented the Portuguese emissaries with ‘much fine cloth’ and asked them to convey word to their captain bidding him welcome on his behalf and announcing that he would immediately return to Calicut. In fact, he set out almost that moment with his vast retinue.234
When Martins and Nuñes rejoined Vasco aboard the São Gabriel and reported the ruler’s words, they were accompanied by a pilot sent by the Zamorin to direct the relocation of the three ships to a safer anchorage. The ships moved slowly south through the anchored fleet of trading ships and assumed station directly off Pandarani, a small town near by and closer to Calicut, inside a protective barrier of banks and reefs. This place was better, the pilot said, commenting that there was a stony bottom where they had been. The anchorage was much closer to the city of Calicut and here they would have readier access to trade. Vasco cooperated but still exercised caution, declining to anchor his ships as close to shore as the pilot urged.
By the time all this was accomplished the Zamorin had already arrived at his palace within Calicut and summoned Vasco through a wali, a chief of police, attended by some 200 armed men. It was late in the day, so Vasco replied he would come ashore the next morning.235
This was an auspicious beginning, which was not to last. Ships were arriving from east Africa with word of events there. While this would have been of little interest to the Zamorin, who was Hindu, the Arab traders would have received the news with keen interest. Vasco was now claiming to be part of a great fleet, but no one reported having seen one. Some historians have speculated that this attempt at deception branded the Portuguese as liars and, in the minds of Arabs, little more than pirates.
Logic suggests there is some truth in this, but it ignores the basic reality. Despite the assistance of one Arab, whose motives could as easily have been espionage as beneficence, the fact was that Muslims controlled a substantial majority of the local trade and any interloper, especially the hated Christians, was going to be opposed by every means. What had occurred in Africa meant nothing. These Portuguese were a clear threat to the Muslims and had to be destroyed.
The king of the Vijayanagar empire expected the regular payment of taxes and port duties from the Zamorin. In Calicut his representatives carefully scrutinized all events and dispatched independent reports to the capital. It was important that the Zamorin should maintain good relations with the source of this income, that is, with the Arabs already in place. While newcomers were welcome, since the Muslim monopoly on movement of trade into Europe worked to keep prices lower than they might otherwise have been, the Zamorin must not upset the relationships that already existed. The representatives of the local Arabs had the ear of the Zamorin, and most
Time and the pace of life moved slowly in the heat of southwestern India. Events consumed just over a week since they had arrived, so it was on Monday 28 May 1498 that Vasco da Gama ordered his ships to be decked out in full pageantry. His officers and men were directed to wear their finest clothing. He and those who were to go ashore with him were splendidly attired. He ordered ‘many flags’ and gave instructions for bombards to be placed in the longboats and carried in them, as well as trumpeters to sound fanfares.
Vasco was turned out in his best apparel, probably selected before he departed from Lisbon. He wore a long brocaded satin cloak over a tunic of blue satin, and fine white calf-high boots. On his shoulders rested a lace collar, and placed in his sash was a decorative dagger. On his head he wore a cap with lappets of blue velvet, crowned with a white feather fastened by an exquisite hasp.236
The Portuguese had little doubt they were among corrupted Christians, and it was through this lens of belief that they saw Calicut. Indeed the Roteiro, written contemporaneously, records that Calicut was ‘inhabited by Christians’. It notes that they were of tawny complexion, many of them with beards and long hair, others with their hair clipped short or a shaved head. It observes how common were moustaches. While the well-to-do wore skimpy clothing, ‘the others manage as best they are able’. It goes on to say:
The women of this country, as a rule, are ugly and of small stature. They wear many jewels of gold round the neck, numerous bracelets on their arms, and rings set with precious stones on their toes. All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant.237
Vasco selected thirteen men to accompany him ashore, one of them fortunately the author of the Roteiro, so this source constitutes a firsthand description of events. Left behind were his brother, Paulo, who commanded the ships, and Nicolau Coelho, who remained with the longboats and a guard of men on shore to await Vasco’s return. Both Paulo and Coelho were given direct orders to retreat should disaster fall and sail at once to Portugal with the vital information they had gained of how to make the successful passage to India. No attempt was to be made to rescue their captain or his men.238
As the longboats set off, the ships’cannon fired in salute. The wali and his men greeted the Portuguese ashore with naked swords, as was customary, although their manner was quite friendly. They had brought with them a palanquin carried by six men for the Captain-Major, as the custom called for men of distinction to travel in such a fashion. In fact, local merchants paid the Zamorin for the right to be carried about in this manner.
A vast, curious throng crowded the streets to witness the procession. The Portuguese were taken some 7 miles to the house of a man of rank, where they were provided with food ‘consisting of rice, with much butter, and excellent boiled fish’. Too nervous, or perhaps fearing poison, Vasco elected not to eat. The men were then taken to the nearby Elatur river, where they boarded two boats that had been lashed together. Numerous other small boats, crowded with onlookers, joined them, while those watching from shore were ‘infinite’in number. As the procession made its way upriver, they observed many large ships drawn up on the banks for servicing.239
After being rowed about 2 miles Vasco and his men were taken ashore, where once again the Captain-Major entered a palanquin. The road here was also crowded with a great multitude anxious to see the newcomers. The Portuguese found it reassuring that smiling women came out from their huts bearing small children in their arms, then eagerly followed along.
The procession arrived at a Hindu temple or pagoda, which they immediately took to be a church of the corrupted Christian faith of the Hindus. It was constructed of carved stone and covered with tiles. At the entrance was a pillar of bronze ‘as high as a mast’, on top of which was perched a bird, ‘apparently a cock’. (By coincidence, the cock is the national symbol of Portugal.) Within the building ‘rose a chapel’built of stone, with a heavy bronze door and stone steps leading up to it. ‘Within this sanctuary stood a small image which they said represented Our Lady. Along the walls, by the main entrance, hung seven small bells.’240
Here Vasco stopped what had become a tour and in the outer portion of the structure, as only certain Hindus were permitted within the inner sanctum, led his men in prayer of gratitude. One version has the Hindu priests joining them, chanting over and over the words ‘Maria, Maria, Maria’. If true, what they were actually saying was probably ‘Maha Maja’, one of the many Hindu gods. Another source suggests the words may have been ‘Mari’or ‘Mariamma’, a local deity, goddess of the much-dreaded smallpox.
It was a time of festivity for the Hindus. The tall pillar was actually of wood covered with copper, and the cock was the symbol of the war god, Subraumainar. The bells were there to be struck when the priests entered the most holy portion of the temple. About the interior were many representations and images of various Hindu gods, a number of whom were depicted wearing crowns, which the Portuguese took to be the Indian version of Christian saints, though some possessed ‘four or five arms’.
The similarities must have been striking, since weeks earlier Hindus aboard Vasco’s ship had taken a Christian carving to be Hindu. Also, as Muslims forbade the use of depictions, the Portuguese were inclined to accept any religion that worshipped before carvings and drawings as being Christian in origin, if not immediately identifiable as such. The situation was further compounded by the interpreters, who tended to use a Christian word in place of the Hindu one originally spoken. Still, not everyone was convinced. One of the men kneeling in prayer before the statues muttered to Vasco, ‘If these be devils I worship the true God.’Hearing these words, Vasco allowed one of his infrequent smiles.241
Following the prayers the priests presented the Portuguese with ‘some white earth’, then threw holy water over them. The ‘earth’ was a concoction of cow dung, ashes, dust, sandalwood and other materials mixed with rice water. It was to be placed on their foreheads and breasts, about their necks and on their forearms. Vasco graciously allowed he would put the earth on later.242
After leaving the temple the colourful procession advanced slowly into Calicut, where the Portuguese observed another Hindu temple as they passed. Word of the strangers had spread and the crowd grew in size until it ‘became next to impossible’for them to make progress. These strangers had generated tremendous interest and excitement. The wali put Vasco and his men into a nearby house while he sent word ahead of the difficulty.
A short time later the wali’s brother, identified as a lord, arrived to accompany the Portuguese. With him was a body of men who beat drums, blew anafils and bagpipes, and fired matchlocks in the air to clear the way. Vasco himself was treated with the greatest of courtesy, being given more respect ‘than is shown in Spain to a king’. The procession and mob had grown immensely. ‘The number of people was countless, for in addition to those who surrounded us, and among whom there were two thousand armed men, they crowded the roofs and houses.’243
The number of onlookers continued to grow as they approached the palace of the Zamorin. As they drew near, ‘men of much distinction and great lords came out to meet the captain’ and joined the procession. It had taken the entire day to come this distance, and nightfall was just an hour away as they reached the courtyard of the palace. The procession was directed through four gateways before, at last, reaching the door where the Zamorin waited. Then ‘a little old man’, taken to be a royal adviser, stepped forward and embraced Vasco in welcome.244 So great was the throng it had streamed into the courtyard with them and formed a barrier through which the procession could not advance those last steps. Upon command the Hindu escort drew daggers and several Indians were stabbed in order to clear a path and gain entrance.
The Zamorin was waiting within a small court, reclining on a couch covered with green velvet. To his left, he
The Zamorin wore only a white cloth from his waist down, this garment ending in points on which were fastened gold rings, set with rubies. On one of his arms he wore a gold bracelet of three strands, beset with a diamond ‘the thickness of a thumb’. About his neck was a strand of pearls, each the size of a hazelnut, twisted in triplicate, falling to his waist. One emerald amid the pearls was the size of a bean. The Zamorin’s hair was arranged in a knot, which was wrapped by another string of pearls and a pendant with a single pearl shaped like a pear. In his ears were studs of gold.246
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