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Saturday, August 8, 1998

This above all
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Vasco and the ‘renegades’ of Malabar

By G.S. Cheema

A READING of the journal of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage leaves one astonished at the apalling ignorance that prevailed in Europe about India at the time. It was quite unlike Columbos’s discovery of the New World, for India’s geographical location was reasonably well established. After all, Alexander the Great had been there, and 250 years earlier, Marco Polo had written extensively about it in his voluminous travelogue. There were also the accounts of Ibn Batuta and Alberuni, and the Portuguese who had once been ruled by the Moors.

In the 12th century, even before the Polos, a Spanish Jew by the name of Benjamin of Tudela, had travelled to Ceylon, India and the beyond. His main object appears to have been to report on the Jewish Diaspora worldwide, but he has, incidentally, recorded some fairly accurate information about India. Then in 1444, a Venetian by the name of Nicolo de Contin returned to Italy after a long voyage to the East. He had lived some years in Damascus as the representative of a Venetian trading house, before setting off with his family to visit India, Ceylon, the Spice islands and South China. An account of his travels is given by Poggio Braccionlini, secretary to Pope Eugenius IV, to whom he narrated his adventures. His account is surprisingly accurate: he wrote about the priestly class of the Brahmins, Malabari matriarchy and polyandry, the kingdom of Vijaynagar and its polygamous ruler, the custom of Sati, elephants and mangoes, besides other matters of commercial interest. He also notices the presence of Christians, and was shown the tomb of St. Thomas at Meliaur. But these accounts were probably not very widely known at the time.

Vasco imagined that India was inhabited only by ‘Moors’ (i.e., Muslims) and Christians. When he and his companions were taken to a temple in Calicut they thought it was a church and they offered prayers before an image which they took to be that of the Virgin Mary. "Many other saints were painted on the walls of the church, wearing crowns," notes the writer blandly. Some of these saints had "teeth protruding an inch from the mouth, and four or five arms," but even so they did not suspect anything amiss.

Goes, another early writer, says that the priests pointed to the image, and said, "Maria, Marial", upon which the natives prostrated themselves, whilst the Portuguese knelt, in adoration of the Virgin. Amateur scholars have over the centuries puzzled over whom the image actually represented. The most plausible explanation is that the temple might have been that of Mariamma (or Yellamma), the small-pox goddess, famous as Mata in the North.

There is a list of 14 kingdoms to the south of Calicut’ appended to the journal. There is a brief description of each of them; two are mentioned as having Moorish rulers, but the rest were all (if the author is to be believed) Christian. Some of these kingdoms have also been described by Marco Polo, but the Venetian is more accurate. He has noted the presence of St. Thomas’s Christians in and about Quilon (still the main concentration of this branch of the Syrian Church), as well as the Jewish community of Cochin, showing how perceptive a traveler he was as compared to the Portuguese. But, on the other hand, he had the advantage of a long residence in the Orient, while Vasco’s entire sojourn in Indian waters did not exceed five months. But ironically, Marco’s massive book was for a long time regarded as largely fabulous. Between Polo and da Gama lie two and a half centuries, and during that period there must have been any number of European visitors, for India was never a closed country like old Tibet, or pre-Meiji Japan. As a matter of fact, the very first person whom the Portuguese met when they landed at Calicut addressed them in Spanish. Small world indeed!

Joao Nunez, a converted Jew, was first sent ashore because he spoke Arabic and Hebrew (besides Portuguese and Spanish). By some fortunate chance he was led to two Muslims, who, astonished at his European clothes, greeted him with these words, "May the Devil take youl What brought you hither?" To which Nunez, no less startled, replied that they had come in search of Christians and spices.

One of these ‘Moors’, whom the Portuguese call Mancaide (probably a corruption of his original name), accompanied da Gama to Portugal on the return journey, because, as he said, he had come under suspicion of being a Portuguese spy, who had been sent ahead of the fleet, and he feared that his life was in danger. There are several interesting stories about who he really was. According to the usual account, he was a native of Tunis, who had come in contact with Spaniards while trading in Oran, on the Alerian coast, and that was how he had picked up Spanish. Another and more romantic version makes him out to have been a native of Seville, who, having been captured when five years old by Barbary corsairs and sold into slavery, turned Muslim, "although in his soul he was still a Christian." Correa even gives his original name, though it seems rather improbable that a five-year old could have remembered it after living for decades in an alien environment.

The Zamorin’s suspicions about his being a spy were perhaps understandable, for, about 10 years earlier, the King of Portugal had in fact sent a secret mission by the traditional route to India. This was led by one Pero de Covilhao and his instructions were to visit the court of the semi-mythical Prester John of Abyssinia, for whom he was carrying a letter proposing a grand alliance against the Turks, and to visit other Christian states in India. In the course of his travels, Covilhao visited Hormuz, Calicut, Gananore and Goa, besides the east African coast. Eventually he did reach the court of the Negus of Abyssinia, but that ruler would not allow him to return home and he appears to have lived the remainder of his life in Abyssinia. He had, however, dispatched an account of his Indian travels and Vasco had a copy of that report with him, but it is no longer traceable in the Portuguese archives, and we have to means of knowing what transpired between him and the Zamorin, or even whether there was any contact between the two at all.

Further up the coast of Malabar the Portuguese ran into another interesting ‘renegade’. While da Gama’s ship was drawn up on the beach at Anjidip island (off Kaarwar) for careening, there arrived in a boat, a man, about forty years of age, who spoke Venetian well. "He had no sooner landed than he embraced the captain-major (i.e., Vasco)... and said that he was a Christian from the west, who had come to this country; that he was now in the service of a Moorish lord commanding 40,000 horsemen’ that he, too, had become a Moor, though at heart still a Christian." He too elected to leave for Portugal with Vasco, and is known in the Portuguese records variously as Gaspar da Gama, Gaspar de las Indias, and Gaspar d’Almeida — the last because he also accompanied Francisco d’Almeida as an interpreter on his voyage, the following year. He accompanied several Portuguese expeditions and was knighted by the King and given an appointment at court, with a small pension in recognition of his services to the Crown. To complete his integration into Protuguese society, he married a Portuguese lady. According to one authority, his parents were Polish Jews who had fled Posen in 1456, following a particularly vicious pogrom. After a short residence in Palestine they moved to Alexandira where Gaspar was born. Apparently he had come to India as a merchant, being a lapidary by profession, and had stayed on to enter the service of the Adilshahi Governor of Goa.

History is full of such adventurers who by force of circumstance — and also sometimes by choice — turned Turk’ to seek service under Oriental potentates. The cities of the Barbary coast were full of thousands of such ‘renegades’ as their former countrymen contemptuously described them. Not all of them had come as captives; the rigid class structure of European feudalism provided few opportunities of upward mobility for one who was not a born ‘gentleman’. So many a young man who had little to lose, willingly crossed the Mediterranean to seek his fortune in the lands of the Crescent. The relatively benign nature of Oriental slavery (exceptiing the galley-slaves) was rarely a bar to advancement for an intelligent and talented man. Varthema of Bolonga mentions in the account of his travels that the Governor of Damascus in 1502-03 was ‘a Florentine’, and that he was a ‘Mameluke’ or slave of the Egyptian Sultan Kansuh Al-Ghori, who himself belonged to the line of rulers known as the Burji Mamelukes, most of whom were bought slave.

John de St. Jago, described variously as Coje-Sofar, Frangue Cham, and Sifr Agha by different authorities, was another such person. Originally captured and sold as slave, he served under the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt in a responsible position, then falling out of favour for some reason, he fled the country and sought service under the Sultan of Gujarat. And it was as his general that he died during the course of the second siege of Diu in 1547, fighting the Portuguese. It is said that his mother, a good Catholic, resident in Otranto in the ‘heel’ of Italy, used to send him a yearly letter of good advice, addressed to "Agha, my son at the gates of hell"!

Renegades there have always been, in all ages, and in all countries. One of my uncles who had served with the 4th. Indian Division in Iraq during the World War II used to tell how he came across a fellow countryman (from Amritsar,) who had ‘turned Kurd’. Taken prisoner by the Turks during the Mesopotamia campaign in World War I, he had escaped into Kurdistan. Admired by the Kurds for his fine physique, and having been a champion wrestler in his regiment, he was pressed by the Kurds to make their tribe his home. The offer of a daughter of the tribe as bride, the memory of a family feud, and limited prospects back home, tempted him, and he had stayed on.

The voyage must have been a humbling experience for Vasco da Gama. When he came across his first Arabs on the African coast the latter were unimpressed. "They were very haughty, and valued nothing which we gave them:" records the journal, "a young man in their company.... had already seen big ships like ours."

At Calicut it was worse. No one was interested in their merchandise, and even the ceremonial gifts they had brought for presentation to the Zamoirn were judged as being beneath notice. They were required to be first approved by his ministers; but when "they saw the present they laughed at it, saying that it was not a thing to offer to a king, that the poorest merchant from Mecca, or any other part of India, gave more, and that if he wanted to make a present it should be in gold. When the captain heard this he grew sad, and said that he brought no gold..." But it took only a few years for the Portuguese to establish their ascendency on the west coast, and soon the petty princes of Malabar were seeking their favours.

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