(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.
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.
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.
- Koenraad Elst has a review of David Frawley’s Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010),
- Anuraag mentions an Indian woman who ran an inn in Babylon in the 5th century BCE.
- A major motion picture which is running to packed houses in Kerala is Santosh Sivan’s Urumi, set in the period when Vasco da Gama made his third voyage to India. The movie, it turns out, is not historical, but belongs to a category called alternate history. Arun Mohan writes about the historical inaccuracies in the movie.
- The event which sets the movie Urumi in motion is the massacre of 300 Muslims who were returning back from the Hajj. Maddy writes about the less mentioned violent streak of Vasco da Gama
- Sriram writes about how Ravi Varma made a name in Madras, based on Rupika Chawla’s book Raja Ravi Varma, Painter of Colonial India
In Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010), American scholar and Hindu convert David Frawley sets out to clear up this confusion. He takes the reader through the basic data that set Hinduism apart from the others, and specific Hindu schools from one another and from Buddhism. He also discusses what it has in common with the world’s eliminated and surviving Pagan religions, and sometimes with forms of Islam and Christianity too. In his typical kindly style, he gives every practice and every belief its due, but keeps his focus on the potential of Sanatana Dharma to heal modern society as well as to lead man to enlightenment.
Kish was the site of another intriguing find. A bronze chariot rein ring, which probably seems related to the African giraffe or a species of deer from Iran. Called Sivathere of Kish, it has been object of many studies – an unknown hoofed mammal of the Middle East. Initially thought to be related to the Sivatherium – a large, short-necked giraffid, originally described for S. giganteus from the Siwalik Hills of India.
Likewise, the scriptwriters weren’t much aware of that, Guns and cannons were part of Kerala even when Portuguese first came to Kozhikode in 1498. Guns and cannons were introduced to Kerala, through Arab traders and Chinese. However the difference was, we had gun technology of 13th or 14th century even in 16th century as most of rulers didn’t invest much in improving new gunpowder technology. Rather focus and attention was developing on Kalaripayittu. In the movie, we are made to believe, Chirakkal Princess doesn’t know what to say for Gun and calls it as Thee Thuppi! Whereas the word Pirangi and Thokku etc were much in Malayalam dictionary even in 14th century. So why to use the word Thuppakki? In 1502, Zamorins had fired more than 1200 cannons against Portuguese ships. However the Portuguese had better range, more firing power and manuveourability which our cannons didn’t have that time.
The meeting of the Portuguese armada and the pilgrim ship resulted in an event that can perhaps be called one of the cruelest actions in history, though it has been glossed over by people of that time and many years thereafter. Upon seeing the Meri, The Portuguese ships fired warning shots, but the pilgrim ship did not retaliate even though it had artillery. The ship was loaded with very rich people and 10 of the richest Muslims of Calicut were on board, led by Jauhar Al Faquih. Gama proceeded to negotiate with this man, who first offered money & spices, which was refused by Gama. He then offered Gama one of his wives, his nephew as ransom and offered to load 4 Portuguese ships with spices. These discussions went on for 5 days. He also offered to arrange friendship between Gama and the new Zamorin. Gama refused and demanded all the wealth on the ship. The proud Al Faquih responded by asking Gama to ask for it himself as he had taken over command of the ship. Gama did that and obtained much money and jewels and in return first provided five boats of food items. He then disarmed the ship and boarded it, ordering his men to set fire to various parts of the ship and after it had caught fire, sailed away. The valiant pilgrims somehow put out the fire, but seeing this, the Gama came back to finish it off.
Ravi Varma became known to the citizens of Madras in 1874 when he entered his Nair Woman at her Toilette for display at the Fine Art Exhibition in the city. He was awarded a gold medal for this work and four years later, he arrived in the city, this time to attend the next Fine Art Exhibition where his Shakuntala Patralekhan (Shakuntala writing a letter) won a gold medal. The painting was also acquired by the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who was then Governor of the Presidency. Buckingham was evidently very impressed with Ravi Varma’s work for two years later, he sat for a portrait of himself by the artist. He was now to be amazed by the speed with which Ravi Varma worked and noted “though he had given no less than 18 sittings to an eminent continental artist, he had not produced half so faithful a likeness as the Indian artist had done”.
If you find interesting blog posts on India history, please send it to varnam.blog @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on June 15th.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus set of to Asia and reached the Americas. Six years later Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. Following these, Europeans made many such voyages, started trading companies and eventually colonized the world. But what was Europe like in those days? Movies like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and The Sea Hawk give us some images, but they do not present the complete picture.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has posted lectures given by Prof. George L. Mosse in the Fall of 1969. One of the lectures (mp3) deals with this question and the image of Europe of that period is not pretty.
By 1500, economic conditions were severe: a price revolution was starting, but it was also a time of bad harvests. 1500 saw a total crop failure in all of Germany that resulted in peasant uprisings, looting and pillaging, to such a proportion that in 1501 Europe for the firsts time saw a paid police force to maintain order. Additional scourges were diseases and epidemics. First and foremost, the Black Death: To the populations of Europe, this seemed like a willful and arbitrary punishment. Between 1499 and 1502, whole populations were decimated. A new disease, syphilis, joined the plague. This prompted preachers to call for repentance, penance and pilgrimages. The Plague was more frightening than the syphilis, because it occurred suddenly and greatly disfigured its victims. All of this leads to a heightened religious sensibility and a search for answers by all parts of the population.
To find answers, people turned to a kind of literature that had come down from the Middle Ages and was most popular: books of prophecies. Their content was simple, promising hope for the future: darkness would be followed by light, and after the Anti-Christ would come Christ. The roots of these books lay partly in the bible (which, Mosse tells the students, he is sure they have never read), especially in the Books of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is written in symbolic terms. Before the book of the seven seals can be opened, “the wine must be pressed and the harvest reaped” that means, before Christ’s return there will be bloody wars and mass the conversion of the heathens, especially of the Jews, to Christianity. Man lived in the expectation that the world was coming to an end; Luther believed it, and so did all protestant reformers and many of the intellectuals. With it came astrology. The stars were now in an evil conjunction. Saturn was “the evil planet”. The Anti-Christ would come up from the darkness; for a short while the Jews would rule the world before their conversion. Then the book of seven seals would be opened. (For example, Shakespeare firmly believed in astrology).[European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary]
Read the whole thing: European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary
An iconic scene during the Portuguese arrival in Malabar in 1498 is when the ex-convict Joao Nunes stepped into land and met two Moors from Tunis. The Moors greeted the ex-convict, “The Devil take you! What bought you here.” He replied, “We came to seek Christians and spices”.
While the Portuguese search for a direct trade route to India bypassing the Muslims is well known, less mentioned is this search for Christians. They searched for the Eastern Christians in Africa and India and interestingly found them everywhere they looked. They also encountered Muslims; encounters which did not go well. The joyous news of the discovery of Eastern Christians was duly reported to Dom Manuel.
Vasco da Gama’s king, Dom Manuel, over a period had developed a messianic streak, due to the death of a large number of people who had preceded him. He believed that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to confront the powerful. He wanted to take over the Holy Land and destroy Mecca to claim the title — the Emperor of the East. But he could not do it alone: to attack the Egyptian Mamluks, for instance, he needed help and for this the lost Christian kingdoms of Asia could become useful.
To understand this Portuguese obsession with finding Eastern Christians, we need to go along with Vasco da Gama on his first Voyage to Malabar and experience his encounters with people of other faiths.
In Search of Christians
After navigating the Cape, the fleet reached Mozambique Island in March 1498 where men belonging to the “sect of Mohammed” told them that Eastern Christians lived on a nearby island. The other half of the island where the Christians lived was populated by Moors and there were constant battles among them. Then they were told that Prester John — the mythical Christian king — lived nearby in the interior and he could be reached by a camel trip. Though they were happy to hear about Prester John, they did not attempt to visit him.
During a conversation, the Sultan of Mozambique asked Nicolau Coelho, one of the captains in Gama’s fleet, about Turkey and their religious books. Then Coelho realized that the Sultan had assumed them to be Turks and not Christians. The Portuguese wanted to conceal their identity since they did not know how the reaction would be. Hence for celebrating mass, they would go off to an island.
Continue reading “Gama's Eastern Christians”