Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 27
Vasco stepped gravely forward and saluted the ruler with his joined hands raised. He opened them and then quickly shut them, in the manner he had observed among the Indians. The Zamorin bid the rest of the Portuguese be seated near by on a stone bench where he could see them more clearly. He gave instructions for water to be poured over their hands and for them to be served with jack fruit and bananas, food unknown to the Portuguese. They dived into it with unseemly gusto. The Zamorin watched the men with a smile at their behaviour and instructed servants to provide the men with a supply of betel nuts since they had enjoyed the fruit so much. Through the two interpreters – one translated his words into Arabic, which Vasco’s interpreter then translated into Portuguese –he said that he could discern the Portuguese were ‘men of much distinction’. He bade Vasco to tell him of his voyage and his purpose in coming.
Vasco replied that such information could only be delivered personally and not before such a large gathering, probably a reference to the Muslim traders present. The Zamorin consented and withdrew with a few of his advisers into a nearby chamber, where he met alone with the Portuguese Captain-Major. Here the ruler reclined on another seat ‘embroidered in gold’.247
Darkness had fallen as Vasco now related the story of the Portuguese discoveries, of their decades-long probing for the passage to India, and of how he and his ships had finally succeeded. The King of Portugal already possessed great wealth and had no need of more. They had come in peace to find fellow Christians and to trade for spices. His king had personally charged him with success and ordered that he was ‘not to return to Portugal until he should have discovered this King of the Christians, on pain of having his head cut off’. Vasco concluded with these words:
Manuel, a prince of vast dignity and aspiring soul and great curiosity, having heard much of India, particularly of the empire of Calicut, was struck with admiration at the ingenuity of the people as well as the dignity and grandeur of their sovereign, and was extremely solicitous to enter into a league of friendship with so renowned a monarch. For this purpose he, Gama, had been sent into these parts, nor did he doubt but such a league would greatly tend to the mutual advantage of both princes.248
Vasco told the Zamorin he had letters for him from the King of Portugal, which he would deliver the next day. He had also been instructed ‘by word of mouth’to tell the ruler that his king ‘desired to be his friend and brother’.249 The Zamorin was deeply touched by the presentation and was very gracious in his reply. He welcomed Vasco to his court, saying ‘he held him as a friend and brother, and would send ambassadors with him to Portugal’.
It was now quite late and the Zamorin asked if Vasco and his men wished to spend the night with Christians or Muslims, as it was the custom for traders to reside within their own community when in port. Vasco said neither, that they desired to lodge by themselves. The Zamorin agreed and then returned to the court, which was lit by a huge candlestick, where he graciously bid the other Portuguese goodnight.
Vasco and his men returned to the procession, where he again entered the palanquin. The Portuguese noted that the immense crowd that had followed them throughout the day was not visibly reduced in size. They were now led by the Zamorin’s factor, a Moor. As they made their slow way back along the course they had earlier taken, a violent thunderstorm struck and the streets ran with water, quickly turning to mud. The going was difficult and the procession had lasted so long that Vasco was visibly tired. The Portuguese were given shelter on the factor’s veranda until the storm abated. Carpets were spread about and heavy candlesticks mounted with lamps gave them light. At last they were able to leave and reached the house arranged for them, only to find to their pleasure some of their shipmates, along with Vasco’s own bed from the São Gabriel, already prepared; also placed in his sleeping chamber were the gifts to present the next day to the Zamorin.250
The momentous day had gone exceptionally well and had met Vasco’s very best hopes. More was to come, not the least of which was establishing a permanent trade mission in Calicut, but this was an auspicious beginning. He surely knew he was hampered by the short-sightedness of the royal planners in Lisbon. Although there was much poverty in Calicut, there was also incredible wealth. He had seen the degree of ostentation and affluence to which the Zamorin was accustomed and the meagre gifts he was preparing to offer would surely have been troubling.
Such gifts were an honorific which was more than simply a bribe. They also signified at least temporary subordination or, as the Portuguese elected to see it, ‘rendering service’, to local authority, and those Vasco had were scant for such a purpose. The gifts to be presented were twelve pieces of striped cloth, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, a supply of hand basins, a case of sugar, two casks of oil and two of honey.
It was the custom for such gifts to be observed first by the royal factor before being formally presented to the ruler. The next morning the factor arrived, accompanied by Arab merchants who ostensibly represented the Zamorin. When shown the gifts, the factor laughed aloud, saying that none of this was appropriate to give to the ruler. Such gifts, he said, would not be offered by the poorest merchant from Mecca or any part of India. The only gift suitable to the occasion was gold.251
Much has been made of the Portuguese failure to observe the customary courtesies for such an occasion, and that failure has been used to explain the difficulties they were soon to encounter. While it was true that Vasco’s gifts were of such inferior quality that his mission might have been better served had he not even offered them, it is highly unlikely they had anything to do with the events that followed. The three Portuguese ships were far superior to, and larger than, any vessel in regular use in the Indian ocean. The Portuguese possessed more advanced weaponry and armour, and they had the means to sail the extraordinary distance around the flank of the Muslim-controlled Middle East, which blocked direct trade with Christian Europe. They were certainly men of substance and there was no question they were men of great power. In the face of such sobering realities their failure to observe certain trading niceties, while a modest affront, was not especially significant in the greater course of events.
Vasco expressed his dismay to the factor and explained that he brought no gold; but then, he was not a merchant but rather an ambassador. He claimed that these modest gifts were his own and not from the King of Portugal. They were such as they were because he was not a man of independent wealth. Should he be fortunate enough to be sent again to India, he would surely return with rich gifts of gold from his king.
Nevertheless, the factor declined to allow such gifts as he now had to be presented to the Zamorin. The other Arab merchants in turn disparaged the items he had brought, as was to be expected. These meagre offerings were nothing less than an insult, they snorted. Vasco relented and said in that case he would forego the gifts, but he still needed to speak with the ruler as he had letters from his king to present. The men promised to return later that day and take him to the Zamorin but, although Vasco waited patiently throughout the afternoon, they did not come back or send word.
Vasco was ‘very wroth’at being treated in such a way by ‘unreliable’ people. When it became apparent the Arabs would not return, he resolved to go to the palace on his own but quickly reconsidered and decided it was best to wait until the next day.
The general mood at their new quarters was very different, however. Those of his crew with him were taking the opportunity to explore Calicut and, though there is no direct record of it, to enjoy the pleasures of the prostitutes and women of easy virtue who frequented all such ports throughout the world. There had been little opportunity for such diversions along the coast of Africa. In addition, the sights of this exotic city could have been nothing less than fascinating to the Portuguese, raised on the fables and legends of the mythical East. They observed three elephants arrive by sea and noted that the creatures served in many ways. Working along the shore were other massive elephants employed in the dragging
The wonders of Calicut were an amazement, but the Portuguese were most deeply moved by the plight of the poor. Never before had they witnessed such poverty. Everywhere they went both adults and children pressed against them begging for money or food.252
The greater part of the day was probably occupied with pleasures and enjoyable sightseeing, for despite the indignity their Captain-Major was suffering, they arrived back at their quarters in a festive mood. The author of the Roteiro records of that evening, ‘we diverted ourselves, singing and dancing to the sound of trumpets, and enjoyed ourselves much.’ He does not record how Vasco in his black mood took such behaviour.
The following morning the Muslim advisers returned and without explanation escorted Vasco and his men to the palace, where they found the environs ‘crowded with armed men’. Once there, Vasco was forced to waited ‘four long hours outside a door’. No inquiry he made produced any progress, and he was left fretting at the delay and what he came to understand was a deliberate affront. New merchants always presented lavish gifts to the Zamorin and by now he had been informed of the paltry gifts brought by the Portuguese. More significantly, there had also been ample time for the Arab traders to make their own version of events.
A number of these came to this region from the Mediterranean and understood the profound significance of Portuguese ships in this port having arrived by sailing around the tip of Africa. No greater threat to their prosperity existed than the one represented by the holds of the three ships at anchor. We know the gist of the arguments they put forward while Vasco was cooling his heels at his quarters and just outside the door.
According to one unattributable source, the Muslims told the Zamorin that this Portuguese captain was a ‘cruel, bloody-minded pirate’. The Arab merchants pointed out their long association and claim to friendship with the Zamorin. ‘The increase of your revenues from our trade is apparently so considerable that we shall but just mention it.’ They suggested he consult his bookkeepers for the sums. They reminded him of their long ‘attachment to this country’and how they and their predecessors had been ‘ever dutiful and loyal to the kings of Calicut’. They urged him not to ‘allow this agreeable harmony, this ancient friendship to be dissolved by a set of abandoned wretches lately arrived in these parts’.
The Arabs went on to acknowledge that they understood that the Zamorin had no prior experience with men of this sort, with Franks,
but we have known numberless instances of their perfidy and villainy. They have destroyed nations; they have ravaged countries –and all this without provocation, merely to soothe their ambition and gratify their lust of power. Can you then suppose that men of such a stamp would come from regions so remote and encounter such horrid dangers only to engage in commerce with your people? No, it is incredible. . . . They have fallen upon Mozambique with their hostile arms; they have made great slaughter at Mombasa.
If the Zamorin had ‘any regard for the welfare’of his kingdom, he must ‘destroy these pernicious wretches’and ‘put an end to this dangerous navigation and prevent the rest of the Portuguese from coming into these parts’.
The Arabs acknowledged they possessed ‘an utter aversion’to all things Christian but that for their friend the Zamorin ‘your all is at stake’. If he elected to do business with these men, the Arabs could move on to new opportunities ‘and settle more advantageously . . . Wherever we go we shall be enabled to carry on our trade with equal gain and advantage.’ The same could not be said of the Zamorin. ‘[I]f you do not immediately exert yourself with spirit . . . in a few years not only your crown but your life will be in the greatest jeopardy from a people so covetous, so ambitious, so warlike.’253
These were surely sober words from men the Zamorin had come to know and from whom came the greatest measure of his prosperity. He owed allegiance to the king in Vijayanagar and if there was a serious disruption in the flow of revenue from the Zamorin to him, the Calicut ruler knew his own throne, and life, would indeed be in jeopardy. His court was riddled with spies and no one knew better than he that his every action was under close scrutiny. This was a situation to be handled with the greatest care.
Despite the serious implications, there was no simple answer. The Hindus definitely chafed at the Muslim wall that controlled the trade to Europe, viewing it much as the Christians there did. They knew the Arabs restricted the price paid for spices in India and that they in turn made great profits from their resale. The Portuguese presented the Zamorin with a highly desirable development as they represented another outlet for spices and placed the Hindus, and in particular the Zamorin, in a much improved position. Another trading source would probably mean better prices. Even if no meaningful commercial relationship was established with these newcomers, their presence was a powerful card that could be played to the Zamorin’s advantage. While local relations with the Muslims were congenial, this does not necessarily mean that he trusted them. The history between Hindus and Muslims had been long and bloody, and the ruler owed the Arabs no undue loyalty.
The ships the Portuguese possessed were formidable, and recent events in east Africa had demonstrated that these newcomers were prepared to use violence if they judged it to be in their interest. Moreover, while these three ships might present no great threat to the Zamorin, the Portuguese had demonstrated their ability to reach his shore from Europe, and who was to say how great a fleet might next arrive? He potentially stood to lose as much by making Vasco his enemy as by embracing him as a friend.
But reality was reality, and there was probably some truth in what the Arab advisers told him. Better the situation he knew than the risk of the unknown. The ruler decided to throw in his lot and that of his kingdom with the Arabs.22
Such was the situation when Vasco and his men were finally readmitted to the presence of the Zamorin.
The Zamorin’s intermediaries informed Vasco that only two of his men could accompany him for the audience. He selected Fernão Martins, who would interpret, and his secretary, Diogo Dias, who also served as comptroller of the voyage. Those who remained outside waited apprehensively, fearing after such a long delay that this separation would end badly. There had not been a moment since they reached the coast of east Africa when the Portuguese had not understood that they could be overwhelmed in moments.
Among those present for the meeting were four Arab advisers to the Zamorin whom Vasco now viewed with deep suspicion, as well he might. The favourable climate in which the Captain-Major and the ruler had previously parted had clearly dissipated. The Zamorin began by saying he had expected to see Vasco on Tuesday. Rather than point out that these very Muslim advisers had not returned to escort him as promised, words that would almost certainly degenerate into mutual accusations, Vasco responded that his long journey had tired him and that was the reason he had not come.
The Zamorin said that, though Vasco had told him earlier he came from a ‘very rich kingdom’, he had brought no gifts for him. He had also said he bore letters from his king but the Zamorin had yet to see them. Vasco replied that he had not brought suitable gifts because the object of his voyage was to make discoveries and establish contact, but that when other ships came he would see to it they brought with them lavish gifts. As for the letters, it was true he had them and would deliver them now, if that was desired.
But the subject of gifts was not so easily dismissed. Had Vasco come to discover stones or men, the Zamorin wanted to know. If he had come to discover men, why had he not brought anything suitable to give? The ruler had been told that Vasco carried with him the golden image of the Santa Maria. Why not give that, if he had nothing else? Vasco explained that the Santa
One of the messages was written in Portuguese; the other was a copy in Arabic. Vasco begged a favour of the ruler and explained that the Moors now present wished him ill and could very well misrepresent the contents of the letter. He asked for a local ‘Christian’ who spoke Arabic to be summoned to read it. This was done, but it transpired that while the Hindu could speak Arabic he could not read it. The impasse was resolved by having the four Muslims read the letter written in Arabic, then translating its contents for the Zamorin aloud in Malayalam, the local language. The Zamorin’s interpreter translated this back into Arabic for Martins, who repeated what was said to Vasco, who matched the words to the letter written in Portuguese.254
In fact, the content of the letter was of such a general and harmless nature there was no difficulty in its translation. The King of Portugal had written of trade, so the Zamorin wanted to know what kind of merchandise was to be found in his country that could be traded. Vasco answered they had much ‘corn, cloth, iron, bronze and many other things’.
The Zamorin asked if any of these were within his ships now. As there had been no room in the original four ships to carry a sufficient quantity of such trade items, Vasco replied that he had little of each, only enough to use as samples, and that if he were permitted to return to his ships he would see that what he had was landed. In the meantime he would leave four or five of his men behind at the lodgings provided to him. To this the Zamorin strongly objected. Vasco was to take all of his men with him. He should offload his merchandise and sell it to the city merchants as best he could. He was to leave no one behind in the city.
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