The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, January 14, 2001
Time Off

Small men too can make history
By Manohar Malgonkar

"THE history of the world is but the biography of its great men." So wrote Thomas Carlyle, and it is true that that is how much of history gets written: in the form of life stories of kings and conquerors. The contribution of the smaller characters is seldom given due weight, and they themselves are sidelined or relegated to the footnotes. But where would Carlyle’s great men be without their underlings, the little men who do the real work? They not only provide the spice of history but, once in a while do something which changes the course of history itself.

The classic case is that of a man called Timmaya, who lived in a small town called Honnawar, about midway between Panjim and Mangalore, on our west coast, in the early 16th century. It is this man who, in pursuance of his personal aims and at tremendous personal risk, virtually engineered the takeover of Goa by the Portuguese. What he did shook history. He opened up the subcontinent for the frenzied empire-building of European nations as well as of bandit trading enterprises ; even more, he opened up vast new areas for the equally frenzied priestly orders of Christianity to make new converts.

And yet how many people so much as know his name? —Timmaya.

Timmaya, who?

That’s just it. History has treated this man so dismissively that we don’t even know his full name, even though in all probability he did have one, for he was a man of considerable local consequence: a son of the Raja of Honnawar, engaged in high-risk enterprises such as coastal trading which includes piracy. All in all, a well-known character, a wheeler-dealer, a highroller.

Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000

Late in the year 1502 Timmaya was on one of his ships near his home port, Honnawar, just at the time when a wall-armed squadron of Portuguese ships, commanded by Portugal’s legendary sea-captain Vasco da Gama, happened to be passing. Timmaya’s ship was fired upon and sunk, and as he was swimming for life, a lifeline was thrown to him. Timmaya managed to catch hold of it and was hauled up on board for questioning.

There were interpreters on board who could somehow make sense of whatever the Portuguese needed to know and the answers given in the local language, Konkani. But Timmaya was quick-witted and resourceful. Despite the multiple linguistic filters, he seems to have convinced da Gama that he, Timmaya, was a sailor who knew this part of the coast throughly and that he had close contacts with influential people in the towns along the coast. The upshot was that da Gama went there and then appointed him as an informer and a spy.

And here is the irony. We don’t know if Timmaya ever served the Portuguese as a spy —or in any other capacity. But, as we shall see it was Timmaya who made use of the Portoguese in a plan he had devised.

To drive out the Bijapur Sultan’s officials and army from the islands of Goa.

The islands of Tiswadi, Chorao, Dewar and Juve — had been under the rule of one or the other Sultanate for the past seventy years, and their people, subjected to religious oppression and severities, would have looked upon almost anyone who set them free from that rule as a saviour— a liberator. And on his own, Timmaya had decided to offer that role to the Portuguese. Of course it is almost certain that he had some personal scores, too, to settle: as a coastal trader who also indulged in piracy, he must have been a marked man, and his ships subjected to rigorous inspections. He would show them.

His chance came when he heard that a Portuguese armada had arrived and lay at anchor in the cove of the Anjadiv island, facing Karwar. Timmaya sailed out to meet its commander and talk him into taking over the Goa islands.

Which shows that Timmaya was a bold man, even rash. For this particular Portuguese commander had made something of a name for himself, for utter ruthlessness and cruelty. Afonso de Albuquerque, he who made a boast of putting the entire population of a township to the sword, and of burning another down, "from top to bottom."

He was called Alfonso ‘The Terribil.’ But what was the ‘Terribil’ doing, in Ajnadiv? in 1510?

He had left Lisbon nearly two years earlier, at the head of an armada of 23 ships carrying 1500 fighting men. His king, Dom Manoel had given him his task, to take over three Arab strongholds along the sea route to India: The island of socotra at the mouth of the Red Sea, and Ormuz and Kurhat further east. Albuquerque had attacked all three places several times, but while he had inflicted much damage and terrorised the populations, he had not succeeded in dislodging the Arabs from even one of them.Meanwhile, he himself had lost nearly dispirited and rebellious and several of his captains had convinced him that he should break off hostilities and take his ships and men to some safe harbour where the men could be rested and the battered ships refitted.

This had thus failed in their mission, but that does not mean that the ‘Terribil’ had given up. He had taken his ships and men to the Anjadiv island, perhaps still hoping that, after a few weeks of rest and with the remaining ships put into fighting trim, he would be able to whip up him men into having yet another try at taking at least one of the three objectives.

But that hope was fast fading; his captains and men had lost their zest for battle. All they wanted was to go home, and they looked upon Albuquerque to take them there.

For Albuquerque, a vain and ambitious man who had set his heart on becoming a conqueror, even of a small Arab base, the future was bleak indeed: to return home, a failure, to the dismay of his friend the king, to the contempt and glee of his rivals at court, to end of his days in obscurity.

That was when this strange, gadfly character, Timmaya, appeared before him, babbling something about a plan to take over Goa ; that its garrison was weak, that its people were sick of their rulers and would welcome a change.

Goa? It had never been on the Portuguese agenda as a target. Indeed, their ships had tended to bypass it for fear of offending its rulers, who, they knew, were powerful monarchs. Goa was no mere military outpost, it was a prosperous port, peninsular Indiaprinciple gateway to the west.

It must have dawned on Albuquerque, that Timmaya was ready to go along with the expedition, guiding the way, offering himself as a hostage, as it were. To his credit, Albuquerque grabbed the lifeline.

And that was how it came about. On March 3, 1510, Albuquerque’s fleet, all 23 ships, sailed up the Mandovi, watched by curious Goans from the tops of palm-trees in silent awe. Everything went according to Timmaya’s plan. Goa fell to the Portuguese without a shot being fired.

And right enough when, after landing, Albuquerque, dressed in a flamboyant yellow robe and accompanied by his priests and captains, marched through the streets of Goa’s capital, a village called Ela,the people hailed him with joy and showered him with flowers.

Timmaya was rewarded by being appointed the Chief Administrator of Goa.