The Thrissur Riot of 1921

Vadakkumnathan Shiva Temple at the center of Thrissur Town (Photo by author)

February 27, 1921, was a tense day in Thrissur town in Kerala. Around 3 PM, around 1500 Christians loyal to the British government, accompanied by the police superintendent, officers, and constables, started a ‘royal loyalty’ procession to publicly demonstrate support for the British Government. Starting near the East market, they moved to a mosque near the Southern gate of Vadakkumnathan temple.

This march was not benign. It would complicate the relations between the British, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Within days mobs would be waiting for instructions to burn Thrissur to the ground like Lanka. Just a few months later, the relationship among the Hindus and Muslims would transform. Was this the starting point of the Mappila lahala of 1921? How did the Thrissur riot, which has mostly remained unheard, resolve eventually? Why did this event not become prominent? This article goes into the history of this unheard event.

To understand the events of Thrissur on that day in February, we have to go back a month. It all starts in Malabar in the north of Kerala.

Malabar, January – February 1921

From January 1921, Advocate K Madhavan Nair had an enormous responsibility. He had come back from Nagpur Congress of December 1920 where it was decided to combine the princely states of Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore to form a state called Kerala. As a follow-up, Congress expanded its activities and formed both Congress and Khilafat committees in Malabar. This was due to Gandhi’s strategy of elevating the Khilafat movement as a thank you note for the support he got in previously failed attempts to become a national leader. Following a Congress committee meeting in Kozhikode on January 1921, Madhavan Nair took on the challenge along with Advocate U. Gopala Menon, who had put a lot of effort in Khilafat activities.

District Collector E. F. Thomas sensed that this would not end well. He had extensive knowledge of Eranad taluk and knew the dynamics among the people. He warned that the Khilafat movement would cause the uneducated Mappilas turning not just against the British, but also against the Hindu landlords. This would cause disruption of peace, and also of the loss of life. Fear is typically more of a perception than an actual threat, but what raised his awareness was the association of a person named Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, who was from a family known to be traditionally associated with such incidents. Another red flag for him was the association of lawyers, like K. Madhavan Nair, who had given up their profession to join this Congress-Khilafat movement.

Ernad Taluk where the 1921 Hindu genocide happened

Thomas decided: these meetings had to stop. K Madhavan Nair or Gopala Menon or Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, should not be allowed to speak.

This edict surprised Madhavan Nair. He had never heard of this man called Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji. Also, though the Congress-Khilafat committees were active for a few months, there was no violence. This was also a time when the Maulvis were giving speeches exhorting Hindu-Muslim unity. Though these speeches would control violence, Madhavan Nair agreed with the fear expressed by Thomas about the Mappilas. He thought that the District Collector was influenced partially by truth and partially by rumors.

Thomas wanted to enforce curfew in the entire region. He asked for permission from the Madras Government, but they replied saying it suffices to ban specific meetings. Thomas decided that if that’s the case, he would do so.

Madhavan Nair felt that this high-handed approach was going to inflame the situation. He felt that if people did not have a channel to vent out, it would cause disaster. Harassing suspects and leaders and imprisoning and beating them up, was just going to trigger a bigger catastrophe. He took on the District Collector by organizing Khilafat meetings in Parappur on February 14th, Thanoor on the 15th, and Kozhikode on the 16th.

They also invited Yakub Hussain from Madras for the Kozhikode meeting. Yakub Hussain had been a member of the Madras Legislative Council and city corporation. He had also visited England in 1919 as a member of the All India Khilafat Conference and met some Bolsheviks. He came back with the opinion that Bolshevism was the last hope for India.

Since Yakkub Hussain was arriving on the 15th, which was one day earlier than the Kozhikode meeting, Madhavan Nair invited him to the meeting on the 15th too. He went with Gopala Menon and received Yakkub Hussain at Thirur station. On their way, they received information that the meeting scheduled for that day at Thanoor was banned by the Government. The organizers of the Thanoor meeting asked Madhavan Nair for guidance. Thousands were gathered there. They also had spent a lot of money to get people — around 20,000 —- from faraway places to come and attend.

Madhavan Nair was clear – the meeting cannot happen.

Since the Thanoor event was canceled, Madhavan Nair, Gopala Menon, and Yakub Hussain focused on the steps for the next day’s events at Kozhikode. They decided that Yakub Hussain should speak about maintaining peace even when the Government was preventing these meetings from happening. Madhavan Nair argued that if a leader disobeys the law, how can he then convince the followers from maintaining the law. It was then decided that Yakub Hussain alone would break the law and speak at the meeting, while others would comply with Thomas’ edict.

The Kozhikode meeting too did not happen. By noon the next day, Madhavan Nair, Yakub Hussain, Gopala Menon, and a Moitheen Koya were taken by the police to Collector E. F. Thomas, the head of Malabar police Mr. Hitchcock and the Government advocate Govinda Menon. All these people would play a major role in the events to happen later in the year. This was their stage entry.

Thomas looked troubled. Maybe he was upset by the idea that command by the powerful Collector was disregarded by an ordinary Indian. Mr. Thomas read the charges against them and asked if they were planning to disobey. Yakub Hussain told Thomas about this plan to speak about non-violence. He also mentioned that the others in the room would obey the rules. Thomas asked what was the guarantee that they would obey. Madhavan Nair replied that their word was the guarantee.

Thomas gave them one hour to re-think, but they did not change their stance. They were sentenced to 6 months in prison. Thus, instead of speaking to a large audience in Kozhikode, they spent the evening in Kozhikode jail and were sent to Kannoor the next day. This would then trigger a set of events that would result in a tense situation in Thrissur.

Thrissur, February 1921

In Thrissur, a meeting was held on the 16th to commend the bravery of the arrested Congress and Khilafat members. Hearing this, a group of Christians, who supported the British disrupted the meeting and burned down the benches and chairs. The procession by these royal supporters on the 27th was a continuation of this. The Congress and Khilafat committees observed 17 February as the day of protest. Shops were closed, students boycotted classes, and lawyers refused to attend court. In various public meetings, speakers denounced the authorities.

On 26th February, four Muslims of Eranad— Pottayil Kunjahammed, Pottayil Abubaker, V.V.Hassan Kutti Sahib, and Kallarakkal Ahmed — were arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for refusing to abstain from political meetings and delivering speeches. This followed the same pattern as the case with Madhavan Nair and Yakub Hussain. Enraged Mappilas gathered in large numbers, armed with knives and sticks at a Calicut mosque. The mob dispersed only after a two-hour confrontation with the District Magistrate and police.

It was amid this tense situation that Christians took out the loyalty procession supporting the British on February 27th in Thrissur. Muslims stopped this loyalist procession, and a fight broke out. The marchers burned four Muslim houses and destroyed many houses and shops along their path. The police remained a mute spectator. By around 5:30 pm, the procession reached a hospital and to an audience comprising prominent citizens, a lawyer gave a speech on the need for devotion to the royals. Following this loyalty procession, the Muslims and Hindus formed one group against the Christian loyalists.

Dr. A. R. Menon of Thrissur realized that something had to be done to protect the Hindus. He gathered around 600 people to stay and protect Hindu homes. Christians did the same for their homes.

Dr. Menon watched the next day on how the situation would turn out the next day. He was pulling the load of an ox and walking on eggshells. Schools and shops remained closed. People converged at Thekkinkad Maidan and the situation started turning tense. The Diwan arrived and along with that, the police started firing blanks at people. People responded with stones. Seeing that the situation was going out of control, the Diwan started pacifying the people. Dr. Menon gave a speech on how women were insulted and after that people dispersed. A crisis was averted.

The loyalty people stuck again and decided that they would attack their countrymen to prove allegiance to a foreign ruler. The loyalty people had support from the Government and had to show this visibly. They attacked homes and shops. They destroyed bank records. They threw firecrackers filled with glass pieces and nails.

Soon people started leaving Thrissur town. Around 1500 women and children took available transportation to other parts of the state. With a shortage of food and other essential goods, this seemed like a better plan. Finally, the Hindus came up with a plan – get Mapillas from Malabar to deal with the issue.

It is not clear who sent the telegram. The Mapillas, who were incensed with the arrest of Khilafat members, soon arrived in the thousands from Malabar at Thrissur railway station. Most of them did not even buy tickets. They stayed at an inn near the Thiruvambady temple. On hearing this the Diwan and the Resident also reached the town in the morning. By noon around British reserve police also reached there. By then around 1800 Mapillas chanting Allahu Akbar took a procession around the town, drowning the town with their voice.

It was a tense situation. All that was left was to just light the match. The mob waited to hear instructions to destroy the town. Dr. A R Menon knew that his beloved town stood on the precipice of destruction. He along with Marayi Krishna Menon held these people back. The Resident and Diwan held a meeting with the concerned parties. The Mapillas were soon pacified and sent back. A huge disaster was averted. Before leaving, they took out a victory procession, chanting Allahu Akbar, and went to the railway station.


While reading accounts of the Mappila lahala, the Thrissur riot does not come up a lot. This is a critical missed story in almost all narratives because it raises many unpleasant questions. Three events were going on at the same time – revolts against landlords, the Khilafat movement, and the Non-Cooperation Movement. If for example, Mappila lahala was primarily a revolt against landlords according to Communist narratives why did the Mappilas come en masse to Thrissur based on the request of Hindu landlords? If the Congress-Khilafat movement unified the Hindus and Muslims, why was there a genocide and massive conversion of Hindus a few months later? That too in Malabar, from where these Mappilas came from? What was the differentiating factor?

One account written about this time by Gopalan Nair mentions this – “There was a feeling in Malabar that Yakub Hassan episode was the turning point in the Khilafat movement and it was from about that point that the attitude of the Khilafat became deadly hostile and aggressive”. Just see what happened at Malegaon a month later.


  1. Malabar Kalaapam – K Madhavan Nair
  2. Khilafat Smaranakal – M. Brahmadattan Namboothirippad
  3. Islam and Nationalism in India: South Indian contexts by M.T.Ansari
  4. The Mappilla Rebellion, 1921: Peasant Revolt in Malabar by Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr

Malegaon 1921 – a precursor to the Moplah Riots

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

On March 15th, 1920, a Khilafat committee was formed in Malegaon to conduct lectures and religious sermons. Nine months later, one of the Khilafat leaders, Shaukat Ali, visited Malegaon and political activities got a religious boost. A month later, Khilafat proponents, who supported Gandhi’s non-violent, non-cooperation movement turned violent and the poor residents of Malegaon were the targets of their anger. This is an intriguing story of a Mahatma, who signed a pact with a bunch of pan-Islamists with disastrous consequences for the weavers of Malegaon and eventually the Hindus of Malabar.

Khilafat 101

There were two Muslim schools in Malegaon — Beitujullum and Anjuman — which received grants from the Government. The Khilafat members, who at that point in time were supporters of Gandhi’s non-violence and non-cooperation decided not to take the aid in reaction to the events in Turkey following World War I

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

At the end of World War I, Turkey ended up on the losing side and was carved by the victors. Some Muslims considered the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph and were distressed at his future as well as the future of the Muslim holy sites. Muslims living in Britain petitioned their government to let Turkey have only Turkish majority regions, but let the others like Armenians and Arabs have their freedom. Indian Muslims had a bigger ask. Though Turkey lost, they wanted it to be restored to pre-war status. According to them, the Armenians and Arabs could live under Turkish rule.

The supporters of this movement were Muslim League members Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali who argued for Muslim interests over Hindu interests. They were people who found issues in common with Muslims of Algeria and Tripoli instead of their own countrymen. After the Balkan wars, they changed their stance and aligned with the Hindus due to the hatred of the British government. To compound that, the brothers were arrested and jailed and that aggravated their hatred.

Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were quite clear and unapologetic about their strategy. They told a judge that as per their religion, they were compelled to do certain acts and any law which prohibits them from doing those acts had no validity. By this, the Ali brothers were claiming that they only be judged by the Koran and nothing else. The goal of the brothers was definitely Swaraj, similar to Gandhi. But the second step of their plan was Mohammedan domination of India.

Gandhi supported this Khilafat dream of pre-war Turkey being restored. He seemed to ignore the fact that even the Turks did not want dominion over Arabia. But someone had to be more Islamic than the Caliph and that was Gandhi and his Khilafat supporters. The argument was that it was not just a Turkish question, but a question concerning all Mohammedans. So who the heck was the Caliph to make such unilateral decisions. Either Gandhi did not know this and just went along to get Muslim support for himself or he used this for channeling Mohammedan anger against the government.

There was another dynamic at play as well. When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, he quickly rose to prominence in the nation. Gandhi promised support for the Khilafat in exchange for the support of the Ali brothers and the Muslims of India for his non-cooperation movement. This Muslim support helped him be a national leader in just four years.

In 1921, the Khilafat Conference, with Ali brothers as the moving force, passed a resolution to declare Independence. In the speeches at the Conference it was declared that Islam was opposed to non-violence, but had to go along with it, so that they could get Swaraj. Gandhi had promised the Khilafat supporters Swaraj by 1921 and hence it was a temporary move just for a year.

Malegaon 1921

Coming back to Malegaon, the boycott of Government funds created a problem. If the schools had to survive without Government aid, then money had to be raised. The Khilafat committee proposed the idea of a “paisa” fund. Every person selling a sari — every weaver in Malegaon — was to pay quarter of an anna to the fund. Anyone who objected to this were persecuted.

The first step in persecution was commercial boycott. The paisa committee called a public meeting on 27th February, where this decision was announced. Matters did not end there; the commercial boycott was enforced by picketing their shops. Businesses which did not co-operate faced hostility and were halted. Seeing how this issue was going to get out of hand, the Sub-Divisional Officer called a meeting on March 13th to discuss the issue of enforced collection. One of the suggestions was to put collection boxes. The leaders of the fund collection were asked to issue statements supporting non-violence of Gandhi.

No agreement was reached and at the same time lectures and religious sermons, raised the feelings of hostility. This was aggravated by the fact that some of these Khilafat volunteers were roaming around carrying swords and cudgels. The District Magistrate, sensing a law and order disaster in the making banned the carrying of weapons on March 30th.

On April 1, the non-violence agreement was published. Just three days later, one of the signatories publicly apologized for having signed it and he was pardoned. The boycott of the shops continued as usual, but this time a case was registered against the violators. With the establishment cranking up the heat, more provocations started. On 24th April, a speech was given by a leading Mohammedan with the ominous words, “May god give the volunteers the strength to promote their religion”

The next day, the case came up before the magistrate. Six volunteers were fined Rs. 50 or 4 weeks in prison. Obviously the fines were not paid, but served as the the adhan for violence. The mob that had collected shouted “Allah-ho-Akbar”. They assaulted all the police found in Malegaon. They killed the Sub-Inspector of Police, burned a temple, and looted the houses of all the people who were opposed to the fund. The rest fled to save their lives. This was the non-violence of the Khilafat.

The disaster called Khilafat movement is downplayed in our history books. It did not turn out well for Gandhi. The Ali brothers, whom he supported, publicly humiliated him. Mohamed Ali even said that a Muslim thief was better than Gandhi, simply because of the thief’s faith in Islam. Originally intended to be a show case of Hindu Muslim unity, it turned out to be something else. It resulted in the massacre of Hindus all over India, especially in Kerala.


  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462.,
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram

How Gandhi became a Congress Leader in Four Years

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

In January 1915, a 46-year-old Mohandas Gandhi relocated to India after spending 20 years in South Africa. He wanted to be the leader of the Independence movement, but it was challenging, as Indians knew him as a foreigner. known for his unconventional social activism in South Africa. But in four years, he became a national leader of the Congress, surpassing leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose, Abdul Kalam Azad, and Annie Besant, who had earned battle scars in India. What were Gandhi’s tactics? How did he win against constant opposition to his each and every move? How did he overcome his blunders? At the end who held the ladder so that he could ascend the throne?

The Initial Activities

Though Gandhi had fame from his activities in South Africa to the Indian leaders of that time, Gandhi looked “queer and quixotic, an eccentric specimen of England returned educated Indian.” He was not liked by many people. At that time there were two camps in Congress — the moderates and extremists. The moderates were an earlier generation of leaders like Gopalkrishna Gokhale and his followers who believed in a constitutional approach like appealing to the British Government. The extremists — Aurobindo, Tilak — believed in radical approached, like violent rebellion. Both of these groups did not like Gandhi.

A series of unfortunate events happened to some of the key players. Gokhale and Pherozha Mehta passed away in 1915. Tilak, who was released from prison was lying low. Lala Lajpat Rai was in exile. Aurobindo Ghose had moved to Pondicherry. The Khilafat supporters, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were imprisoned.

The disappearance of these leaders did not give Gandhi an automatic path to leadership. Annie Besant and C. R. Das were still there. Also, Indians had not seen Gandhi’s skills in action in India. Naturally, Gandhi’s first course of action was to build on what he knew well – satyagrahas. He launched satyagrahas in Champaran, Ahmadabad, and Kaira — small scale ones at local level — to show his agitational capabilities. He was able to mobilize people who were considered politically irrelevant and enhance both his following and reputation. These were good activities but did not have enough importance to catapult him to the national level.

Then an opportunity came in 1917. Gandhi’s competitor Annie Beasant was interned and he wanted to launch an all India agitation to release her. This was scuttled by Gokhale’s protege, Srinivasa Sastri and Gandhi lost another chance.

In the next year, 1918, which marked the end of World War I, the Montague Chemsfold report was published. This was a package for the gradual development of self-governing institutions. These institutions would be part of the British Empire though. To get some support for this report, Annie Besant was released, but that did not help. The nationalists felt that the report was inadequate and unsatisfactory. Annie Besant thought it was unworthy of India to accept it. Tilak called it sunless dawn. But Gandhi felt this was perfectly acceptable. Gandhi was ignored.

Next came the Rowlatt Act bearing the gifts of summary trial and detention. Even Gandhi flipped and thought this was perfect for launching a national agitation. On 24th February 1919, he announced that he was going to launch a nationwide satyagraha. Annie Besant warned that any such act would release forces that cannot be controlled. Gandhi still went ahead and on April 6th, the whole country observed a hartal — a testimony to Gandhi’s leadership.

Soon violence erupted in Delhi, Bombay and Ahmadabad and the worst of all happened at Jalianwala Bagh. Gandhi realized the importance of Annie Besant’s warning. Calling it a Himalayan blunder, Gandhi suspended the satyagraha on 18th April 1919. It was yet another failure as a leader. Thus from his arrival in January 1915 to the events of 1919, he had no major national success to show. But Gandhi was not a person who would melt away like ice cream on a hot day.

Soon a cause arrived that helped him. He could promise an unattainable goal to a set of people, who overwhelmingly supported him. That was the Khilafat movement, triggered by the events following World War I.

The Khilafat Movement

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

During World War I, the countries of the world were all aligned with one Asuric force or the other. Turkey was a German Ally and fought against the British. Indian Muslim soldiers in the British Army were tasked against fighting the Germans and their allies. The problem was not fighting Germany, but Turkey, whose sultan was the Caliph. This was a problem for Indian Muslims who looked up at the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph (Tipu Sultan had appealed to the Turkish Sultan for recognition of his Mysore sovereignty).

Knowing the sensitivity of Indian Muslims, the British administration promised them that the Caliphate would be respected in the peace treaty at the end of the war. But this promise turned out to be like a line drawn in the sands of Arabia. Not only was Ottoman Turkey broken up, but as per the Treaty of Sèvres, Islamic holy places were ceded to the Arabs. Upset by this, Indian Muslims returned medals, declined appointments and boycotted government institutions. They also formed committees to petition and pressure the British Government.

Soon, the Khilafat issue was going out of control. Muslims decided to boycott peace celebrations, British goods and refuse cooperation with the British unless the issue of Caliphate was resolved. They even warned of boycotting the British Amy. At the same time, Gandhi persuaded Congress to support a program of a boycott. He was channeling the widespread anger over Jalianwala Bagh and now the Congress was willing to go with him.

Seeing the energy around the Khilafat movement, Gandhi argued that if Hindus and Muslims united and did satyagraha, then there would be a victory. Gandhi entered into a pact with one Abul Bari that Hindu politicians would support the Khilafat issue if Muslims stopped slaughtering the cow. Mohammad Ali , a Khilafat proponent, agreed to support Gandhi in return for Gandhi’s promise of Swaraj in a year. This was the same Mohammad Ali, who said that if the Amir of Afghanistan invaded India, it was the duty of Indian Muslims to join him and fight the Hindus if they refused to co-operate.

Gandhi’s promise to deliver the Khilafat was equivalent to saying that he had a bridge to sell. The Arabs or Egyptians did not want to be ruled by a Turkish Caliph. Come to think of it, even the Turks did not want a caliph. They were the ones who got rid of him and converted to a secular democracy. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and some of the lands were under French control. There was no way a few petitions would cause France and Britain to sit and undo the damage they did. None of this mattered to Gandhi. He went so far as to suggest that Indian swaraj activity could be postponed if Khilafat ask could be advanced. Thus from a Swaraj which meant self-rule for India, it got converted overnight to support for an imaginary Caliphate in faraway Turkey.

This got Gandhi massive Muslim support — much more than the Hindu followers. Gandhi was invited to preside over the Khilafat Conference in Delhi in November 1919 and the annual session of the Muslim League in Amritsar in December 1919. He was able to get the Muslims to pass a resolution expressing gratitude to the King-Emperor and offering a hearty welcome to the Prince of Wales. The Khilafat committee also adopted his Non-Cooperation program. At the same time, Congress decided to postpone the adoption of the Non-Cooperation program. The resolution related to the emperor and prince of Wales also was met with considerable opposition.

Based on the resolution passed by the Muslim leaders, an ultimatum was sent to the Viceroy and the non-cooperation movement was started on August 1, 1920. Life came to a standstill on August 1 and it confirmed a mass approval for Gandhi. In the special session of the Congress that met on September 1920 in Calcutta, Muslims gave him the required majority to consolidate his leadership. Saifuddin Kitchlew, the Ali brothers, and the entire Muslim bloc supported Gandhi. Annie Besant, C. R. Das, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Madan Mohan Malavya opposed Gandhi. The resolution was passed by 1886 to 884 votes. Muslims seconded and defended the motion and voted for it en masse. 161 delegates from Madras voted for the resolution; 125 were Muslims.

At the annual session of the Congress in Nagpur in 1920, Gandhi consolidated his position. Muslims stood by Gandhi. They turned up in such large numbers that it looked like a Muslim session. The resolution passed at Calcutta was now ratified in Nagpur, making Gandhi an undisputed leader. While World War I removed the Turkish Sultan, it helped Gandhi become the Sultan of Congress.

Swaraj came back to the Congress agenda only in 1929. But in 1921, the Hindus of Malabar paid a price for this capitulation by Gandhi. Exactly, one year to the date — Aug 1, 1921 — at which Gandhi had promised Swaraj to the Ali brothers, the Muslim uprising started in Malabar.


  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462.,
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram

In Pragati: Holy War by Nigel Cliff

"Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal," by John Henry Amshewitz (via Wikipedia)
"Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal," by John Henry Amshewitz (via Wikipedia)

(This book review was published in the September 2012 issue of Pragati)
Urumi, a Malayalam historical film released last year was set in 1502 CE, the year Vasco da Gama made his second voyage to India. The turning point in that movie is when Gama captures Miri- a ship filled with pilgrims returning from Mecca- off the coast of Kerala and barbarically murders 300 Muslims including women and children over five days. The rest of the movie is about how one of the boys, whose father was killed in that attack, gets his revenge during Gama’s third and final voyage. Though the movie was a work of fiction, filled with historical inaccuracies, it brought to attention an important point: Gama had an agenda much bigger than finding a new trading route.
Nigel Cliff’s book expands on that less mentioned detail. He argues that Gama was serving the apocalyptic agenda of King Manuel who wanted to find the Eastern Christians, destroy the power of Islam, and lead Portugal in conquering Jerusalem. This was essential for the Second Coming and the Last Judgement that was to follow. The voyage to Kerala was just one step in this plan.
15th century values

To understand the primary motivation behind Gama’s dangerous voyage circumnavigating Africa and across the Indian Ocean, we have to understand the state of the world in the 15th century. Portugal was ruled by a religious fanatic whose wedding gift to his wife was the expulsion of the Jews settled in Portugal. Since the year 1500 was approaching, he thought the apocalypse was around the corner and he had to conquer Jerusalem. Since Portugal neither had the wealth nor the power for such a task, the plan was to acquire wealth by entering the lucrative spice trade and gain power by forming an alliance with the Eastern Christians. Once the Islamic power was weakened- by eliminating them from the spice trade- the troops could march to Jerusalem and capture the Holy Land.
The Portuguese knew that India was a rich place from where all the spices came. They also knew that it was the home of Prester John, a supposedly Christian king who had unlimited precious metals and a vast army at his disposal. Once the alliance was formed with the Eastern Christians and their rich and powerful king, the march to Jerusalem would be the next logical step.
To put context into this obsession with capturing Jerusalem, Cliff starts off by examining the relation between Islam and Christianity. As a reaction to the violent expansion of Islam from the 8th century till the 10th, the Pope authorised the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem, which went on for centuries. The Crusades had to be halted following the Mongol invasion and the Black Death that followed, but the feelings behind them never really died out. Those feeling were revived following the fall of Constantinople, Christendom’s glorious city, and something had to be done urgently. For that Vasco da Gama set off to find a new route to India bearing the Crusader’s Cross- the one used by the Knights Templar- as his flag.
Disrupting the spice trade was not the first trick the Portuguese tried. After building a naval fleet, they conducted raiding missions down the coast of Africa, planting crosses wherever they landed. When that failed to yield sufficient revenues, they ventured into slave trade. Since this was a war against the Infidels and the unbelievers, it got the stamp of approval from the Pope who issues various Papal bulls and went so far as to divide the world between Portugal and Spain so that peace is maintained between the colonisers.
Apocalypse Now
King Manuel (via Wikipedia)
King Manuel (via Wikipedia)

After a terrifying voyage, Vasco da Gama’s fleet reached Calicut where he found a large number of Muslim traders. He also observed that the ruler belonged to some other religion. By his worldview- in which he had never encountered Hindus- Gama assumed that naturally the Zamorin had to be Christian. But the Zamorin was unimpressed by Gama and the gifts he bought. Gama kept away from the Muslims to be safe, but eventually was disappointed on two counts. First he assumed that the Eastern Christians would be delighted to see their Western counterparts and the united front would expel the Muslims. Second, he thought that Indians would hand over the spices in exchange for the trinkets they had bought but compared to the richness of Calicut, Gama looked like a beggar. Gama in turn blamed his failure on the Muslims, displayed some basic brutality, and returned back to Portugal where he was received as a hero.
Though Gama did not bring back spices or find Prester John, his voyage sent shock waves across Europe. Manuel wanted to ride on this wave of success and sent another mission under Pedro Cabral with a strong warning for the Muslim traders. Cabral wanted the Zamorin to expel all the Muslims traders or face the wrath of the empire. When their demands were not met, the Portuguese went on a rampage. The destroyed the Arab ships in the port and fired shots at the Zamorin’s palace causing him to flee. A later mission under Joao da Nova escalated the religious war and went back without much progress. Manuel needed a strong willed captain who would force the Indians into submission and for that Vasco da Gama was pressed into service once again and it resulted in the Miri incident.
This time the action was not to be restricted to the Malabar coast. Once force was used to subdue the Indians, the fleet would split into two. One part of the fleet would enforce a blockade of the Arab shipping to the Red Sea area and cripple Egypt’s economy. After Egypt was weakened, the Portuguese would sail up the Red Sea and meet land troops who would have marched across Egypt; together they would conquer Jerusalem. But this plan did not work quite as expected.
Gama once again asked his old nemesis, the Zamorin, to expel the Muslims and yet again the Zamorin refused to comply to the Portuguese pirates. An irate Gama went around hanging Muslims and firing cannons towards the coast. The dead people were mutilated and sent on boats off to the shore as a part of the shock and awe strategy. The Portuguese strength came from their naval superiority and since they did not have sufficient strength to fight the Zamorin’s troops, they left. This voyage was considered a great success compared to the others.
The next captain Francisco Alameda, dispensed with the niceties completely and precipitated such a crisis which resulted in major naval battle in the Arabian Sea. After attacking various African countries and butchering people there, Alameda reached Calicut. Remembering the Passion of Christ and motivated by a rousing speech by a priest, the Portuguese attacked Calicut leaving around 3600 dead. Meanwhile another Portuguese fleet cut off the Egyptian supply chain. Based in Muscat, they terrorised all around and took control over the Western destination ports of the Arab ships. The Egyptians, whose business was seriously affected, sent a fleet to the Indian Ocean which defeated the Portuguese, the first naval defeat for them in the Ocean.
The Colonisers
But the Egyptians were no match for the Portuguese; they scored and easy victory over them as well over the Zamorin and finally a fortress was built in Calicut. It looked as if Jerusalem was within grasp.In fact Manuel sent a fleet towards the Suez, but they came back without attacking Jerusalem. Once Goa became a lucrative market for the Portuguese, they were more interested in settling down and plundering the region by enforcing a pass system. Matters like forced conversions and setting up the Inquisition became more important than capturing Jerusalem.
Though the Malabar coast has been part of a global maritime network since the Roman empire, there was an explosion of trade since 1000 CE due to improved navigational aids, better ship building, better map making and new legal arrangements. Places like Quilon (Kollam), Melaka, Quanzhou, Futsat and Aden became the nerve centers of this network where people and goods moved with ease. According to Manmadhan Ullattil who wrote about the Hubs of the medieval trade (Pragati, June 2009), the arrival of the Portuguese changed the rules of the game as they used force to control trade and establish monopolies.
John Keay in “India: A History” has few lines about the Portuguese and Vasco da Gama; he mentions that when Portugal declared a Viceroy for India, it betrayed the true nature of their ambition. “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present” (Third Edition) (Vol. 2) by Robert Tignor et. al which is used to teach world history at Princeton University, describes the Portuguese brutality in the Malabar coast. But both these books fail to make a connection between the Portuguese voyages to India and the Crusades. Cliff makes a valuable contribution by putting the piety and plunder of the spice trader into a global context.

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2)

Zheng He’s map (via Wikipedia)

Read Part 1

Turning Inward
After the death of Zhu Di, China turned against naval expeditions for which there are many reasons.

The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

Confucius thought that foreign travel interfered with family obligations. In Analects he said “While his parents are alive, the son may not go abroad to a distance. If he does go abroad, he must have a fixed place to which he goes.” Since this was the moral code for the upper class, government service and farming were considered noble professions

Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transportand other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century’s end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral

Then things took a turn for the worse. The ships were let to rot in the port and the logs books and maps were destroyed. A major attempt at erasing history was done. Then as they say, life finds a way.

Unlike Agathocles, whose memory survived only through coins, Zheg He’s traces were scattered around for it to be erased quickly. In some countries he was worshipped as a god. The chronicles of Zheng He’s translators Ma Huan (Overall Survey of the Western Shores) and Fei Hsin (Overall Survey of the Star Fleet) survived. So did a few imperial decrees and some maps. Zheng He died in the seventh voyage and was probably buried at sea; his tomb contains his clothes.

Though Zheng He’s voyages were meant to be a peaceful projection of power, they often interfered in local politics and projected force. A Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi who was active in the Sumatra was captured in a battle in the Straits of Malaca and taken to Nanjing and executed. Michael Yamashita mentions that the Chinese put a new king – Manavikarma – on the throne of Calicut. The Sri Lankan king Alakeswara refused to be a tributary to the Chinese; he was captured and taken in chains to Zheng He’s boss.
If the Chinese were a naval power during the ascent of the European powers, the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean would have seen a different geo-political equilibrium.
References: This article was motivated by the lecture on China by Prof. Matthew Herbst in MMW4 series. By then Maddy had posted his well researched article on Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut. Michael Yamashita got paid to travel along his path for a year resulting in the book Zheng He (Discovery) which has amazing photographs. I did not read Gavin Menzies’ book, but picked the PBS documentary 1421: The Year China Discovered America (PBS)? based on it. When China Ruled the Seas devotes few pages to what they did in Calicut. Maddy also has a comprehensive article covering the Chinese trade in Calicut.
Postscript: A British submarine commander, Gavin Menzies, in a best selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered America argued that Zheng He’s fleet reached America in 1421. A PBS documentary by the same name put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (1/2)

Chinese treasure ship (via Wikipedia)

In 1498, three ships — Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, and Sao Miguel — appeared in Calicut heralding a new era in geopolitics and world trade. Vasco da Gama would become immortal for finding a route from Europe to India, avoiding the Muslims who had a monopoly on overland trade. But for the residents of Calicut, this was not a major event. They were used to foreign traders and many foreigners lived in the Malabar coast. Even da Gama’s ships and crew of less than two hundred people was not a jaw dropper since they had seen huge Chinese ships with larger crew in Calicut port.
Much before Europeans became major players in the Indian Ocean, traders routinely sailed from the Malabar coast to the Swahili coast. During that time the Chinese built the biggest ships of the era and under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Jung Huh) made seven voyages reaching as far as the Swahili coast. With such technology, the Chinese could have dominated trade, instead of the Europeans, but they did not. It is interesting to see why.
Ming and Zheng He
This story begins on September 10, 1368 when Ukhaantu Khan of the Yuan dynasty fled to Inner Mongolia unable to face the rebels under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang. These rebels would establish the native Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor Zhu Di, wanted to improve trade, enhance the empire’s prestige, and encourage a tribute system for which he ordered an armada to be built.
Zhu Di’s admiral for the mission was Zheng He, a six and half feet tall two hundred pound man. This 34 year old Muslim originally named Ma Ho, was captured as a child by the Ming army from the Mongol village of Yunan. Like the Egyptian Mamluks, these slaves had career paths, but only after castration and so Zheng He eventually became the Grand Eunuch.
Even before the Ming dynasty, huge Chinese ships were spotted in Kerala. In 1340, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut, saw 13 Chinese junks wintering in the port. Ibn Battuta who had traveled in various type of ships and dhows in his travels from Morocco to India never mentioned much construction details in his accounts, but the Chinese ships impressed him so much that he wrote about three types of ships — the large junks, middle sized zaws, and small kakams. Ibn Battuta also expressed happiness at the privacy offered in their cabins that he could take his slave girls and wives and no one on board would know about it.
In 1330, Jordan Catalani, a Dominican monk saw them in Quilon and wrote that they had over 100 cabins and 10 sails. They were triple keeled and held together not by nails or metal structures, but the thread of some plant. Ibn Battuta wrote that these ships carried thousand men of which four hundred were soldiers.
Zhu Di’s ships, under the command of Zheng He sailed in 1405. There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships held lacquers, porcelain, and silks. They carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.
Under his leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast and in the process he visited the Champa kingdom, Cambodia, Sumatra, Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Maldives. One item which Zheng He took back to China was a giraffe; how the giraffe was transported on a ship passing through a rough ocean is not documented well, but it certainly amused the king. So did zebras which were called celestial
They called Calicut, “a great country” and people as “honest and trustworthy”. They had good opinion of the Zamorin and observed that Calicut had a highly structured society, well trained army and a harsh system of justice. In Calicut they traded using the language of the fingers.
(Read Part 2)

Indian History Carnival – 11

The Indian History Carnival, published on the 15th of every month, is a collection of posts related to Indian history and archaeology.

  1. As Tamil Nadu politicians and film stars are protesting against the killing of innocent Tamils without uttering a word against the LTTE terror, Priya Raju explains the relationship between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils.
  2. A two hour climb on a hill in Nijagal near Bangalore takes you to a once-impregnable fort which has a story to tell. Sandeep has a gripping account of how Madakari Nayaka of Chitradurga captured Hyder Ali’s fort with the help of among other things, Giant Monitor Lizards.
  3. Did the Portuguese have a part in “cementing the dowry system and color consciousness into the Malabari cultural fabric?” Maddy writes about various Portuguese customs in Malabar.
  4. Calicut Heritage has a story about the Kerala Soap Institute, “which used to supply soaps to the Viceroy, among other dignitaries.”
  5. The Muslim community in Malabar had a monopoly in trade as “exporters of pepper and ginger, importers of horses and necessary produce for the great Vijayanagar empire that controlled almost all of the Deccan.” Soon they faced competition with the arrival of the Portuguese and the conflict between the Portuguese and Moplahs is the topic of Mamale of Cannanore: An Adversary of Portuguese India by the French Indologist Geneviève Bouchon. tangentialia has a translation.
  6. Search Kashmir has a detailed account of the nautch girls based on the accounts of various western travelers.
  7. Writing about the Divide and Rule policy of the British, Disjointed Laptop says, “If somebody asks me, about the British Divide and Rule policy, I would say it was purely Made in India.”

If you find any posts related to Indian history published in the past one month, please send it to jk AT varnam DOT org or use this form. Please send me links which are similar to the ones posted, in terms of content.The next carnival will be up on Dec 15th.
See Also: Previous Carnivals