Following the Scent of Spices to Malabar
(Vasco da Gama’s route from Europe to Calicut courtesy wikipedia))
The Venetian, Marco Polo, arguably the pioneer of sea faring activities in the days of yore, was actually responsible for inspiring the likes of an entire tribe of daring, motivated sailors to locate the proverbial pot of gold at gold, at the end of the rainbow .The pot of gold, specifically, a treasure of spices at Malabaar, on the western coast of present day India .His tales of India and China chronicled in a form of a diary motivated another enterprising sailor and adventurer, an Italian by the name of Christopher Columbus, resident of the trading port of Genoa .It is incidental, that Columbus is remembered at times, more for his search of a faster route to India, than for his accidental discovery of the present day U.S.A. as many would agree .This may be trivia to some but the pertinent point is that Columbus was an ardent admirer of Marco Polo’s exploits and, wanted to if not, better his hero’s exploits, at least emulate him. He treasured, a much-thumbed copy of the pioneer’s diary, which detailed all his quests in great detail.
The diary mentioned in detail that Marco Polo had travelled all the way to the great Kublai Khan’s court. The first westerner to do so, feeding the hungry Western citizens with glorified and maybe at times a trifle, exaggerated! Accounts of the till then, mysterious East .To the people of the West who lived a staid life, ate bland food, and survived, living an ordinary life with no frills and fancies this was a veritable ambrosial nectar to parched throats. The riches, the treasures that would be heirs for the taking by monopolizing the lucrative trade in spices were enamouring. The Portuguese and their greed totally spoilt the peaceful commercial exchange that was prevailing till then, between the rulers of Malabaar, and the traders, the enterprising Arabs. Nicolo Conti, the Italian traveller, who, visited Kozhikode [present day Calicut] in 1430, many, many, years before Vasco da Gama is quoted thus “Calicut is the emporium for the whole India and the East”. This was sweet music to the Portuguese. Since, the Papal order had decreed that they would have the rights to trade with the East and the Spanish with the West. Vasco da Gama led the Portuguese, a proud and arrogant race. They brooked no interference at all. Da Gama proceeded to pay his respects to the ‘Samoodri,’ the Hindu ruler of Kozhikode& flooded him with a variety of gifts. A covert strategy, to monopolize, and take over the trading rights of all spices, from Kozhikode. One has to remember that with the fall of the Roman Empire, the rights of this coveted trade had been taken over by the Arabs, whose ancestors had trade ties with Kozhikode.
This left the Europeans in general, and the Portuguese, specifically, to seethe with fury and disgust. [Fuelled by the simmering remains of the Crusades and the Islamic Jihad]. On seeing the Saamoodri unmoved by their luxurious gifts, the Portuguese went on to do what they were best at. They waited with patience for two years before implementing their diabolical plan .1500 A.D. witnessed the arrival of Pedro Alvarez Cabral carrying with him the ‘royal order’ from the court of Portugal. This royal order issued by the ruler of Portugal addressed the Saamoodri to cancel the trading rights of the Arabs [Ironically, it was an Arab pilot who guided Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to Kozhikode, the last leg of his journey]. and hand over the trading rights of spices exclusively to the Portuguese, or else…. The quiet cold aggressive message was not lost on the Samoodri who stuck to his guns .The Portuguese armed with the papal order viewed this as an Islamic Jihad on the righteous rights of the ‘fair Christians’. As their wont, they went on to ransack Kozhikode. It is reported that da Gama personally led the attack on a ship carrying pilgrims from Mecca.
This brutal assault by the Portuguese turned the hitherto, peaceful purely commercial, trading of spices regardless of caste, creed, community, race and religion into a market where the jungle rule of” Might is Right” prevailed then on with various European powers engaging themselves in it from time to time.
Kozhikode, the port that was subject to the power of the Portuguese tearfully was relegated to being just another port .To understand the gross damage done to the fair name of this commercial port is best explained by Abdul Razzak who visited the place in 1442. He wrote thus “Security and justice are so firmly established in the city that the most wealthy merchants bring thither from maritime countries considerable cargoes, which they unload and unhesitatingly send into the markets and bazaars without thinking in the meantime of the necessity of checking the accounts, or keeping watch over the goods .The officers of the customs – house take upon themselves the charge of looking after the merchandise, over, which they keep watch day and night. When a sale is concluded, they levy a duty of one -fortieth part on the total value of the goods sold. In the case of the goods not sold, no charges are levied. This practice followed is in stark contrast to the happenings in other ports. When Nature forces a ship to seek sanctuary at the nearest port, the people of that region ransack the ship under the pretext that, divine forces have sent them this gift. But at Kozhikode, this is not only unheard of but in fact, the royal decree ensured that even ships not destined for this port, seeking sanctuary for some reason, was provided fresh drinking water and other provisions as needed.”
This statement might seem a little biased, as the author was an Arab. Since the Samoodri was known to grant special favours and concessions to Arabs .We can understand and thoroughly know of the motives of the Portuguese from this passage from the” Decadas da Asia”chronicled between 1496-1570 by a European himself, Baros. A great colonial historian who seems to have highlighted the covert and overt, machinations to usurp the trading rights in spices at any cost.”As we were masters of its seas, whoever wished to navigate, whether gentile or Moor, in order to do so securely and peacefully, asked for a safe conduct from our captains our there called Cartaz. If this infidel is found, not proceeding from places where we had fortresses which are in our friendship with just title, we may capture him as fair prize of war .For although by common right, the seas are common and open to all navigators… yet this law has force only in Europe among the Christian folk. But with respect to these Moors and gentiles, who are outside the law of Christ Jesus-which is the true law-since they are condemned in the principal part, which is the Soul, that part of them which it animates, cannot be privileged with the benefits of our Laws”. This meant that traders of spices who originated from Kozikode or from any port from the western coast of India had to inform the Portuguese the details of their navigation, consignment etc. This enabled them to get a permit to sail with the support of the many Portuguese patrol boats. Of course its another matter altogether, that these patrol boats waited for these spices laden ships based on the information supplied and, proceeded to plunder them -a clear act of piracy
As the times changed, the other colonial powers started evincing interest in this trade .The Dutch were the first on the trail of spices, following the Portuguese whom they expelled from Sri Lanka to start with in1658. By 1663, the Portuguese were totally expelled from their fortifications of Kollam, Kodunaanur, Kochi and Kannur.
The Dutch, though being a European maritime power as the Portuguese were not as fundamental as their continental cousins. They were the first foreign power to conclude a treaty with the Saamoodri in 1604.They too soon started meddling in the local affairs but suffered reverses, notably a severe mauling from Marthanda Verma of Travancore in 1741.They stayed on till almost 1781 but in the manner of of petty merchants.
But as early in 1615, the British had arrived with Captain Keeling landing off Kozhikode with three ships. The East India Company consolidated them in a short matter of time, and controlled the trade rights for another almost300 years. During this period, they became the base for Britain to rule the seas as the strongest naval force in the world at that time. The entire world had to pay obeisance to them, specially, in this lucrative trade of spices.
From the time that Marco Polo had travelled in a dugout down the waterways of Malabar looking for pepper and ginger to Kollam [whose rulers had trading ties with the Great Khan’s court somewhere in the 7th century. The evidence of these ties still adorns the coastline off Kochi, in the form of designer Chinese fishing nets. The trade has come a long way.
The pages of history only, contain names and achievements of personalities who were colourful and generated some news that people could lap up gleefully .In this manner, the silent achievers and contributors are relegated to the bin .The trail of spices to Malabaar would not have been possible for the Potugese, Dutch and the English without a book titled ”Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” authored by an unknown person somewhere in the 1st century A.D. .The origins of the author are still unknown. This book completely changed the eating habits in the West and also, changed the nature of trading of spices. This book featured first hand [trustworthy] accounts of the author’s trials and tribulations, lays down clear, crisp guidelines for later day sailors. The guidelines followed blindly, empowered the sailor with the knowledge on how to trade with the East, navigate the Indian Ocean. It further lists the ports to berth, at and the ones to avoid, measures to avoid pirates, increase profits. The listing of goods that are found on the West coast of India that can be shipped back home. He mentions of the availability of” ivory, fabrics, spices, butter, and also beautiful girls for the harems” from Bharuch, the port city of present day Gujarat.
The most important and noteworthy legacy he left behind was, the reference of “the Hippalus”; the monsoon winds that blew four months from Southwest to north east across the Indian Ocean, later to reverse direction in 3 months time. This enabled the traders from the West to make best use of the three months time they had on land to procure, in leisure all the commodities, needed. Then stock the cargo on the waiting ships with a definite departure time chalked out. Using these navigational guidelines, the traders would travel down the coast of Arabia and Oman; go north around the Gulf of Cambay to reach Bharuch. On reaching there, they could easily slip down to any port on the western coast of India normally, Travancore, Kozhikode or Kochi.
The next time all ye, gourmets in the West reach out for a packet of spices, purchased across the counter with plastic, pause… And stop to pay tribute to all those pioneering seafarers who braved the fury of the seas, the steel of the pirates, the dangers of the unknown to reach this precious packet that is taken for granted today. Remember, Emperor Akbar; favoured cardamom and even appointed a minister to keep a record of it. And another personality on this side of the planet, namely, another, Emperor Augustus whose weakness for black pepper saw ambassadors from the Malabaar pleasing him with gifts of black pepper. These were two royal gentlemen associated with spices, then the Gujaratis, the original seafarers who pioneered the trade by setting up bases in those days in places as far as in Aden, an important cross point on the Indian Ocean, The North African Jewish merchant Ben Yiju living in Mangalore on the Malabaar coast, whose trading activities are still recalled today from the medieval period.
They all engaged in this trade when the lingua franca, was a common selling rate to any trader of any nationality, race, creed, community or skin.
This is why the Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Egyptians and others all alike in those times co existed and traded harmoniously as one people for about 3000 years, from approx 1100-1500 A.D., till the advent of the greedy, hungry and avaricious Portuguese, Dutch, British, used their force for their own interests. Today the same forces control this trade in a magnified and diplomatic manner with front organizations such as GATT, WTO, etc.
Incidentally, Marco Polo was incarcerated till his death, in Genoa, as they called him a heretic talking of strange stories of the east. In fact, he brought back the concept from Kublai Khan’s court, of the world being round rather than flat, which was the prevailing concept in Europe. Columbus picked up this concept to accidentally discover the Americas.
Europe was always greedy. They conquered each other for land as they had no natural resources. The Crusaders, a collection of invading Germanic origin kings called Francs, were promised immense riches in the middle-east by Pope Alban and absolution of their sins, to recapture Jerusalem from the 400 year rule of the Muslims.
(spices photo courtesy pixels)