Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Something about Calicut

Calicut, at the time of Vasco da Gama's voyage, was one of the largest, richest, and most famous cities of India. Its renown had reached Europe, and it was known that there dwelt one of the most powerful potentates in the East. Situated on the south-western coast of India, with a good harbor, it was the centre of a very active and prosperous trade. Hither came the great Arabian and Egyptian merchants to seek for the precious spices, drugs, and other merchandise which India afforded; and hither, too, came the Hindoos from the interior for the goods brought by those merchants, and sent even from distant Venice and Genoa.

Calicut was and is situated in a low, flat country, with occasional high hills rising from the level, and overlooking the ocean. It is said that the whole district around was once covered with water; and there was a legend that the god of the ocean caused the waters to recede, and leave a large space, for the benefit of the Brahmin priests, who prayed for this favor.

Some centuries before Vasco's arrival, the Moors of Mecca in Arabia, coasting about in their rude vessels had discovered India, and had come as far as Calicut. They were an enterprising race, and, finding the trade with India profitable, continued to visit the coast with many vessels for a long period of years, carrying cargoes to and fro. Gradually these Arabs began to settle at Calicut and other towns along the coast; and while they traded with the natives, who were a race very inferior to them in energy and intelligence, they took advantage of their opportunity to make converts to the Mohammedan religion.

There reigned at that time in Malabar, the province of which Calicut was the chief city, a prince named Permaloo, who, having been appointed governor of it by the Rajah of Chaldesh (the sovereign of that part of India), had defied the Rajah's authority, and set up in Malabar an independent kingdom of his own.

Prince Permaloo was worked upon by the Arabs until they converted him to the Mohammedan faith. This caused his nobles to revolt; and Permaloo, tired of the cares of sovereignty, divided up his dominions among various kinsmen and chieftains. The city and neighborhood of Calicut he awarded to a low-born favorite, a cowherd, who had behaved very valiantly in the wars against the Rajah, and who, assuming the government, was awarded the title of Zamorin. Permaloo retired for the rest of his days to Mecca.

From the cowherd were descended the succeeding Zamorins, or rulers of Calicut. These princes, in spite of the fate of Permaloo, who had been forced to abdicate because of his conversion to the Mohammedan faith, encouraged the Arabs to trade and to settle in Calicut, and offered no obstacle to their converting as many natives as they pleased. They were glad to have Arabs bring their riches to the city, and endow it with a prosperous trade; and the Arabs took care to keep the good will of the Zamorins by making them frequent and costly presents.

The trade between the Arabs and the Hindoos included a great variety of precious and useful articles. In the warehouses of Calicut were to be found not only spices and drugs, but precious stones, musk, lacquer and earthen ware, gold, amber, wax and ivory, cotton and silk cloths, and cloths-of-gold, grain, carpets, copper, quick-silver, vermilion, alum, coral, rose-water, preserves, and provisions in bewildering profusion.

The city was large enough to occupy a space several miles square. Its trade was so prosperous, that many of the Arab and Moorish merchants who resided there owned as many as fifty ships; and it was not rare for five or six hundred ships to visit its harbor in the course of a winter.

The princes, or Zamorins, in the course of years waxed rich and strong. They became able to raise armies of one hundred thousand men, and succeeded in subduing and making vassals of the two neighboring Kings of Coulan and Cananor.

They belonged to the priestly rank of Brahmins; and it was an ancient law of Calicut, that the Zamorins must die in the pagoda, or temple of the Hindoo gods. These potentates were accustomed to array themselves in silk or cotton gowns below the middle, being naked above. Sometimes, however, they wore scarlet or cloth-of-gold tunics above the waist. They shaved their beards, and wore only a mustache, but, unlike the Moors, left their heads unshaven.

The Zamorins never married, but had a concubine, whom they could put away at pleasure, and take another. Their children did not succeed them, but brother succeeded brother; and, there being none of these, the sons of the Zamorin's sisters succeeded him.

Many were the curious customs which prevailed at Calicut, a few of which may be described. The Zamorins were very courageous and warlike, and often led their troops into battle, exposing themselves in the front ranks. If a Zamorin was killed, on the third day after death his body was taken into a field, and placed on a pyre of sandal and other precious wood, his relatives and nobles all standing by. The body was burned amid the lamentations of the multitude, and the ashes were gathered and buried. Then all the relatives, even the children, set to shaving every part of their bodies; this being a token of great mourning. In the ensuing fortnight they were forbidden to chew betel, a favorite practice in that region; and, if any of them broke this rule, his lips were cut with a sharp knife.

At the end of the fortnight the new Zamorin was sworn into office in presence of the court. As he took the oath, he held a burning candle, on which was a gold ring, with his right hand, touching the ring with the lingers of his left. Then grains of rice were thrown upon him, prayers were chanted by the priests, and the assemblage prostrated themselves three times before the sun.

This ended, all were permitted to chew betel, except the new monarch, who was enjoined to mourn for his predecessor through an entire year, during which period he could neither chew betel, eat fish or meat, shave his beard, or even cut his nails. He was obliged to content himself with eating but once a day, taking a bath first; and certain hours of each day he set apart for prayer. The year of mourning over, the Zamorin celebrated a sort of mass for the repose of the soul of his predecessor before an immense concourse of the people, and then his privations were ended.

It has already been related that a man of high birth and military bearing, called a Nair, visited Vasco da Gama in the harbor as the messenger of the Zamorin. The Nairs constituted a distinct rank and caste at Calicut. They comprised the upper class of the natives. They went naked and with bare feet, wearing only a painted cloth from the waist to the knees, and a small turban on their heads. For arms they bore bows and arrows, spears, daggers, and rude short-swords; and they were a valiant and well-disciplined body of men.

The Nails were supported entirely at the Zamorin's charge, each having a page attached to his person; and they engaged in no occupation except that of a soldier. They were not allowed to marry, but like the Zamorin, had concubines; and their property and titles passed in the same line of succession as that already described of the Zamorins. The Zamorin could not make a Nair of a peasant, the Nairs being such by descent. A Nair could not be thrown into prison for any offence, and was only subject to the death-penalty if he killed another Nair or a cow (which was a sacred animal among them), or spoke evil of the Zamorin. When one of them committed the latter offence, the Zamorin would send several other Nairs, who would kill the offender wherever they met him, and attach to his body the royal order for the execution.

The Nairs were not allowed to bear arms, or take part in the wars, until they had been made knights. At seven years old a little Nair began to learn the art of war: his joints were pulled and twisted to make them supple, and then he was taught the use of the various weapons. There were a number of military teachers, called "Panycaes," who were held in high honor, and to whom their scholars were obliged to pay especial respect all the rest of their lives. The Nairs never ceased taking military lessons. Two months in every year they devoted to military practice under the eyes of their masters.

When a Nair was ready to become a knight—that is, to enter upon active military service—he resorted to the Zamorin, attended by all his relations, and made him a present of sixty golden coins called fanons, each fanon being worth about four dollars. Then the Zamorin asked him if he wished to serve, and would do so faithfully; to which he replied, "Yes." The Zamorin thereupon ordered an officer to gird him with a sword, and, putting his right hand upon his head, uttered a short prayer, and then embraced the new knight.

The Nairs looked with contempt on the lower class of the natives, many of whom had been converted to Mohammedanism. These poor people were obliged, in going along the streets or roads, to keep shouting in a loud voice, "Hoo, hoo!" so that, if a Nair were coming along, he might order them to make way for him. If a Nair shouted to them, they hurried into the bushes; for if they did not make way, the Nair had a right to kill them on the spot.

But the Arabs, who, as we have seen, had grown very rich and powerful in the course of years at Calicut, used their influence with the Zamorin to exempt from ill treatment those of the common people who had turned Mohammedans; and this the Zamorin granted. The result was, that many of these poor peasants, who lived in the bush and in the fields, and ate herbs and, land-crabs, embraced the religion of the Arabs, and in this way put themselves out of the power of the tyrannical Nairs.

Calicut was composed mostly of straw huts; but there were many temples, pagodas, palaces, and Arab residences, here and there, which were built of stone and lime, with tiled roofs, and were several stories high. In the suburbs of the city were many delightful orchards and gardens, with palm-groves and fruit-trees, and wells of delicious water. The ships which were seen in its harbour were like those seen by Vasco da Gama on the African coast,—built without nails, the planks and beams being fastened together with cords of the cocoanut husk. The bottoms were flat, and there were no keels to the ships.

The rich and powerful Arab merchants in Calicut had no sooner heard of the arrival of the Portuguese ships outside the harbor, than they grew very much alarmed. They feared lest these Europeans should become their rivals in trade, if, indeed, they did not rob them of their trade altogether. They had now no rivals, and were waxing richer and richer by the commerce they carried on. They looked upon the Portuguese ships as the fore-runners of fleets which would come from Europe and bear away the rich cargoes which they themselves were in the habit of obtaining.

So the Arabs in Calicut got together, and resolved to do what they could to poison the Zamorin's mind against the Portuguese, and to induce him, through fear, to send the ships away. They despatched messengers to the towns along the coast, and warned their brother Arabs of the danger which threatened their trade; and many Arabs hurried from these towns to Calicut to help their countrymen there to get rid of the Portuguese.

Among the Zamorin's officers was a treasurer, and a minister of justice, who was called the Gozil. These two men had no little influence over the sovereign; and, being greedy and corrupt, they were both open to bribery.

The principal Arabs resorted, then, to the treasurer and the Gozil, and, making them promises of large sums of money, begged them to arouse the Zamorin's fears and suspicions against the strangers. They engaged them to tell him that the Portuguese, who were rich, had not come thither for the peaceful purposes of trade, but to make conquests of the rich Indian kingdoms; that these ships had been sent out as spies to see whether this could be done; and that doubtless, unless they were ordered away, they would be followed by large fleets, which would come and attack the power of the Zamorin and other Indian potentates.

The two officers listened to the Arabs, and pretended to be convinced by them. They thankfully accepted the presents which the Arabs offered, and promised to tell the king what they said. But, when the officers were alone, they said to each other that they would be cautious, and not say all that had been said to them. They would say just enough to arouse in the Zamorin's mind distrust of the Portuguese, but would leave the way open to take another track, if, after all, the Zamorin should find it profitable to make friends with the Portuguese, and treat them well. Meanwhile they would get as many presents out of the Arabs as they could.

The Gozil went to the Zamorin, and said enough to make him somewhat wary and suspicious; but the monarch was so covetous of wealth, and was so impressed by what the Moor Davane had told him of the generous deeds of the Portuguese at Melinda, that he resolved to continue his dealings with Vasco da Gama.

The Zamorin was under the influence of what had been said to him by the Gozil, when the Moor Davane to him the second time as has been related. He therefore delayed his reply to the request for hostages, but bade Davane return to the ship, and tell the captain to send any one on shore whom he chose; to look about the city, and make purchases; and that whomsoever he sent should be allowed to go and come in safety.

Vasco da Gama was much chagrined to perceive that the Zamorin was suspicious; for he had hoped that there would be no difficulty in making peace with him, and winning his confidence. However, he resolved to make the best of circumstances, and in all things to conduct himself in such a way as to banish distrust from the Indian potentate's mind. It was very important that he should, if possible, conciliate the Zamorin, and succeed in procuring a cargo, so as to show King Manuel on his return, that his voyage had been triumphant.

On board the San Raphael  was a convict of unusual intelligence, who had been sentenced for some crime to banishment, but had been allowed to go with Vasco da Gama on his voyage. This man's name was Joan Nunez; and fortunately he understood both Arabic and Hebrew.

Vasco chose Joan Nunez to accompany Davane on shore, telling him to observe everything narrowly; to listen to all that the people said, but to be very cautious about answering any questions they might ask him. He also warned Joan on no account to separate from Davane, but to keep always close to him; and he gave him money, and a list of provisions that he wished him to purchase, instructing him to buy no other goods, but only to note what there was in the shops. The next morning, therefore, Joan Nunez and Davane went on shore in one of the boats, and prepared to obey Vasco da Gama's commands.