Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trade, Religion and Politics: A Story from the Early Days of Colonialism

BUSINESS AND corporate rivalries in the Indian sub-continent are generally traced to the period when the British,French, Dutch, Danish and other East India companies started their operations in the Indies, with the launch of the British East India Company, known as the first multinational corporation in the world, in London in the year 1600. Ever since the Indian Ocean region, extending from the Near East to the Far East, has been a theatre of power struggles and business rivalries involving various European countries.

But historical records indicate that the global power struggles in the region date back much earlier, and even before Vasco da Gama launched forth with his fleet of ships that ultimately led him to the discovery of a new trade route to Malabar in 1498, rivals were planning to upstage and sabotage the Portuguese efforts. One of the very interesting, and less known incident connected with da Gama's visit to Calicut, was the mysterious missing of two engineers who came with him, who appear to have given the slip as they came ashore.

William Dalrymple, in his celebrated book, The White Mughals, makes a note of this incident: "Perhaps partly because of the Inquisition, a surprisingly large number of of Portuguese made the decision to emigrate from Portuguese territory and seek their fortunes at different Indian courts, usually as gunners and cavalrymen. Again this was a process whose origins dated from the very beginning of the Portuguese presence in India: In 1498, on his famous first journey to India, Vasco da Gama found that there were already some Italian mercenaries in the employ of the various rajahs on the Malabar coast; and before he turned his prow homewards two of his own crew had left him to join the Italians in the service of a Malabar rajah for higher wages." (The White Mughals, page 14.) Contemporary Portuguese chronicler Barros has said that by 1565, there were at least two thousand Portuguese fighting in the armies of different Indian princes.

Surprisingly, none of the major historians of Portuguese-Malabar relations like K V Krishna Iyer, who wrote The History of Zamorins of Calicut, makes a reference to the decampment of the two Gama crew during his first visit to Calicut in 1498. It is possible that the incident took place during a subsequent visit Gama made as he had returned to Malabar a few times in the next few years. In fact a book written in 1694, by an Anglican Church official on the history of Malabar Church, refers to this incident and enlightens us on the secret trade wars that went on from the moment Gama set foot on the eastern spice coast.

This book,titled The History of the Church of Malabar, is a unique contemporary record of the Portuguese efforts to tame the Malabar church and bring it to the Roman Catholic fold, dealing with the history from the "time of its being first discover’d by the Portuguezes in the Year 1501" to the incidents that led to the "Synod of Diamper,Celebrated in the year of our Lord 1599."

The book, written by MICHEAL GEDDES, chancellor of the cathedral church of Sarum, is printed for Sam.Smith, and Benj.Walford, London, at the Prince’s Arms in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1694.

The author who translates much of the records o the Synod of Diamper from Protuguese to English also provides "some remarks upon the faith and doctrine of the chieftains of St. Thomas in the Indies, agreeing with the Church of Engand, in opposition to that of Rome."

This 500-page book,which remained hidden in the storehouses of the Church of England for long, recently became available to researchers on Malabar history through the Google Books, which has photocopied a rare copy and made it available worldwide, to the delight of scholars.

Geddes traces the arrival of the Portuguese to the Malabar coast late in 15th century and goes on to describe the various incidents in the next one hundred years, when Portuguese power expanded in the entire region and their religious orthodoxy and methods of inquisition became a matter of great anxiety and violent confrontation with the local church and its laity, which they knew existed in Malabar even before they arrived here.

This ancient Malabar church was part the church in Eastern Roman Empire, and they claimed it was established by St Thomas, who they believed came to Cranganore in the early days of Christianity, and they adhered to the Patriarch of Babylon based in Antioch, who had the power to appoint their bishops. The tensions started as soon as the Portuguese discovered that the Malabar Chrisitians were in no mood to follow them and the Roman Church, which they were determined to propagate and impose upon the faithful in the east.

It appears that search for the lost church in the east was one of the primary concerns of the Portuguese as they landed at Kappad, near Kozhikode, on a summer day in 1498. As the ships had anchored off the coast, two moors were approached by a Portuguese sailor (most likely a convict who was serving in the ship) who came on shore and one of the first questions the moor, a person from Tunis who knew Castilian and Genoese and who was evidently in Malabar doing a brisk business in spices, asked was what brought them there. Then the Portuguese replied they came in search of spices and Christians...

The moor then ensured them that they had landed at a place they would find riches in plenty; as for the church, on their way to the court of Zamorin, they stop at a temple which they thought to be a holy place of worship dedicated to Virgin Mary. The Portuguese chronicler who accompanied Gama reports:

"The kutwal said it was a church of great holiness. These the general believed to be the case, fancying it to be a church of the Christians; which he the more readily beleived as he saw seven little bells hung over the principal door." (K V Krishna Iyer, The Zamorins of Calicut, Calicut University, Page 69.)

But there were people in the entourage who had their misgivings. The chronicler says: John de Sala, however. being very doubtful that this was not a Christian church, owing to the monstrous images on the walls, said, as he fell on his knees, "if this be the devil, I worship God," on which the general looked at him with a smile.

But the Portuguese very soon came across the Malabar Church as they built up contacts with various rajahs in Malabar, among them the Cochin king, in whose territories there was a large number of ancient churches with their special practices and ceremonies, which the Romans described as hedonistic. Micheal Geddes, in his book, describes the eventful half century from the mid-1500s to the end of the century, during which the Portuguese had a violent and tumultuous relationship with their religious brethren in Malabar, finally bringing much of the Malabar church under the Papal control, at the Synod of Diamper in 1599.

But the book is very important from another angle, as this is perhaps the earliest account of the Portuguese-Malabar relations and confrontations in the religious sphere, narrated from an outsider's point of view as so far what we have seen are the accounts left behind by the Portuguese as well as the Malabar church chroniclers.

Geddes is writing about the Portuguese aggression on Malabar church as a sympathetic chronicler, because his own Anglican Church was firmly opposed to the Roman dominance. He tells us that the first news of this ancient, but remote church was brought to Europe by Padro Alavares Cabral, who arrived in Cranganore in 1501. Cabral had set sail from Lisbon on March 9, 1500, and on his way to Malabar, a storm had driven his ships to the south American coast where he discovered Brazil. However, he got back to Cape of Good Hope and eventally landed in Malabar in September that year.

Cabral's efforts to establish profitable trade realtions with the Zamorin were a failure but he was successful in making contacts with the local chieftains of Malabar church in Cranganore where he arrived the next year. He persuaded two of them, who were brothers, to travel with him to Portugal. Writes Geddes: The eldest, whose name was Mathias, died at Lisbon; and the other, whose name was Joseph, went first to Rome, and from thence to Venice, where upon his information, a tract was published in Latin of the state of the Church of Malabar, and is printed at the end of Fasciculus Temporum. (Geddes, Histoy of Malabar Church, page 2.)

This was the first contact the Malabar church had with Europe and the next year Gama was in Cochin, in search of better contacts with the local rulers in the southern parts of Malabar, where the Cochin king was in perpetual conflict with Zamorins. The local Christian chieftains met Gama and told him that since "he was a subject of a Christian king, they beg’d the favour of him to take them under his Master’s protection, that so they might be defended against the oppressions and injuries which were done them daily by infidel Princes, and for a lasting testimony of their having put themselves under the king of Portugal, they sent his majesty a rod tipp’d at both ends with silver, with three little bells at the head of it, which had been the scepter of their chieftain kings."

Those were the early days of Portuguese contacts, and Gama, not in a position to do anything more, offered them all support and went his way. Soon, the Portuguese set up Goa as their headquarters and slowly built their pepper empire on the western coast; along with their rising power came the Inquisition and its powerful hold on the local church which became quite firm by the middle of the 16th century.

Still, trade and trade rivalries took precedence over religion in those early days, and Geddes gives very interesting insights into the various intrigues played by rival partners in the game. He reveals that planting a fifth column in the fleet of the Portuguese General was one of the strategies employed by their rivals based in the influential and wealthy European city of Venice, whose traders had been involved in a roaring trade in spices from the east with the help of Arabs.

In fact the first moor the Portuguese sailor met at Kappad in May 1498 had asked him the question, "Why do the king of Castile or the king of France and the seignory of Venice not send men here?"

And he replied that the King of Portugal did not permit them to do so. (Sanjay Subramaniam, The Career and Legend of Vaso da Gama, 2001, page 129.)

The King of Portugal, who had sent Gama to the east to find a route to Malabar to wrest control of the spice trade, had great powers over the waves because of his strong naval forces, but the wily Venetian traders were not fools either. Geddes reveals how they managed to plant their own men in Gama's fleet and get them to the east, to sabotage the Portuguese trade chances helping the Malabar princes to rebuff the Firangi guns:

"In the year 1505, two Christians, who were famous for their great skill in crafting great guns, and whom, for that reason, Don Vasco da Dama had taken along with him to Indies, ran over to Samorim, and were the first that introduc’d the use of artillery among the Malabars: For the Venetians foreseeing that their great Indian trade would be utterly ruin’d by the new passage that was discover’d to the Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, if the Portugueze shou’d once get any footing in those parts, are said to have sent those two Engineers, who were their natural born subjects, into the Portugueze service, on purpose to go over to the Indians, to teach them the use of great guns, and other fire-arms, that they might be the better able to oppose the Portuguezes." (Geddes, History of the Church of Malabar, 1694, page 3.)

The Venetians did their best to help their trading partners in the Indies to defend themselves against Portuguese aggression, but unfortunately that had little effect on the history of the sub-continent. But it is interesting to note that in the two centuries since then, most of the Indian princes did make excellent use of the skills these renegade engineers taught them, as we see in the naval skirmishes between the Kunhalis of Malabar and the Portuguse, the confrontation of the Travancore rajah Marthanda Varma with the Dutch, and the heroic fight of Tipu Sultan against the English in the Anglo-Mysore wars, though ultimately it was the western skills and superior firepower that carried the day.