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Chapter 6 – The Portuguese Navigator Vasco Da Gama at Calicut and His Reception by the Zamorin

1498 A.D.

The voyage which the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama made to India at the close of the fifteenth century has frequently been mentioned in the preceding volumes, especially in the sixth; a brief selection from the contemporary accounts of it may therefore be welcomed here. This celebrated voyager, whom King Manuel of Portugal commissioned with the command of a Portuguese fleet for an expedition to the East, set sail from Lisbon in the summer of 1497, and after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, arrived on May 20, 1498, at Calicut in Malabar, on the southeast coast of India. Through the favour of the Zamorin, or native ruler of the place, he was able to establish, between the Indian states and his own country, a series of friendly relations for trade and commerce, which proved of the greatest importance to Portugal. His first visit to the city of Calicut and his reception at the Zamorin’s court are well described in the “Roteiro,” a journal of Vasco da Gama’s voyage written by a member of the expedition, although the precise authorship of this Portuguese

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Dom Vasco Da Gama

After a MS. portrait in the British Museum

diary has not yet been determined. The brief extract here given is supplemented by an account of the voyager’s reception written by Gaspar Correa, who was not with the expedition, although he came to India fifteen years later and claims to have used the diary of Figueiro, a Portuguese priest who accompanied Da Gama’s fleet. Correa’s “Lendas da India” is not generally held in high esteem by historians, although the author’s many years of life in India would particularly qualify him to describe the manners at the Zamorin’s court. The “Roteiro,” or Journal, on the contrary, as is emphasized by Ravenstein in his translation for the Hakluyt Society, has the highest value, and from it the following description of the visit at Calicut is taken.

‘The city of Calicut is inhabited by Christians. They are of a tawny complexion. Some of them have big beards and long hair, whilst others clip their hair short or shave the head, merely allowing a tuft to remain

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on the crown as a sign that they are Christians. They also wear moustaches. They pierce the ears and wear much gold in them. They go naked down to the waist, covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this, for the others manage as best they are able.

The women of this country, as a rule, are ugly and of small stature. They wear many jewels of gold round the neck, numerous bracelets on their arms, and rings set with precious stones on their toes All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant.

When we arrived at Calicut the king (the Zamorin) was fifteen leagues away. The captain-major (Vasco da Gama) sent two men to him with a message, informing him that an ambassador had arrived from the King of Portugal with letters, and that if he desired it he would take them to where the king then was. The king presented the bearers of this message with much fine cloth. He sent word to the captain bidding him welcome, saying that he was about to proceed to Calicut. As a matter of fact, he started at once with a large retinue.

A pilot accompanied our two men, with orders to take us to a place called Pandarani, below the place (Capua) where we anchored at first. At this time we were actually in front of the city of Calicut. We were told that the anchorage at the place to which we were to go was good, whilst at the place we were then it was bad, with a stony bottom, which was quite true; and,

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A native vessel of Calicut

moreover, that it was customary for the ships which came to this country to anchor there for the sake of safety. We ourselves did not feel comfortable, and the captain-major (Vasco da Gama) had no sooner received this royal message than he ordered the sails to be set, and we departed. We did not, however, anchor as near the shore as the king’s pilot desired. When we were at anchor, a message arrived informing the captain-major that the king was already in the city. At the same time the king sent a bale (Arabic wali, “governor”), with other men of distinction, to Pandarani, to conduct the captain-major to where the king awaited him. The bale is like an alcaide (Portuguese alcaide, “governor”), and is always attended by two hundred men armed with swords and bucklers. As it was late when this message arrived, the captain-major deferred going.

On the following morning, which was Monday, May 28th (1498), the captain-major (Vasco da Gama) set

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out to speak to the king, and took with him thirteen men, of whom I was one. We put on our best attire, placed bombards in our boats, and took with us trumpets and many flags. On landing, the captain-major was received by the alcaide, with whom were many men, armed and unarmed. The reception was friendly, as if the people were pleased to see us, though at first appearances they looked threatening, for they carried naked swords in their hands. A palanquin was provided for the captain-major, such as is used by men of distinction in that country, as also by some of the merchants, who pay something to the king for this privilege. The captain-major entered the palanquin, which was carried by six men by turns. Attended by all these people, we took the road of Calicut, and came first to another town, called Capua. The captain-major was there deposited at the house of a man of rank, whilst we others were provided with food, consisting of rice, with much butter, and excellent boiled fish. The captain-major did not wish to eat, and when we had done so, we embarked on a river close by, which flows between the sea and the mainland, close to the coast. The two boats in which we embarked were lashed together, so that we were not separated. There were numerous other boats, all crowded with people. As to those who were on the banks I say nothing; their number was infinite, and they had all come to see us. We went up that river for about a league, and saw many large ships drawn up high and dry on its banks, for there is no port here.

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When we disembarked, the captain-major (Vasco da Gama) once more entered his palanquin. The road was crowded with a countless multitude anxious to see us. Even the women came out of their houses with children in their arms and followed us.

When we arrived (at Calicut) they took us to a large church (a Hindu temple), and this is what we saw28: The body of the church is as large as a monastery, all built of hewn stone and covered with tiles. At the main entrance rises a pillar of bronze as high as a mast, on the top of which was perched a bird, apparently a cock. In addition to this, there was another pillar as high as a man and very stout. In the centre of the body of the church rose a chapel, all built of hewn stone, with a bronze door sufficiently wide for a man to pass, and stone steps leading up to it. Within this sanctuary stood a small image which they said represented Our Lady. Along the walls, by the main entrance, hung seven small bells. In this church the captain-major said his prayers, and we with him.

We did not go within the chapel, for it is the custom that only certain servants of the church, called quasees (Arabic kazi, “judge”), should enter. These quasees wore some threads passing over the left shoulder and under the right arm, in the same manner as our deacons wear the stole. They threw holy water over us, and

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The pool at Ulwar

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Blank page

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gave us some white earth, which the Christians of this country are in the habit of putting on their foreheads, breasts, around the neck, and on the forearms. They threw holy water upon the captain-major and gave him some of the earth, which he gave in charge of some one, giving them to understand that he would put it on later. Many other saints are painted on the walls of the church, wearing crowns. They were painted variously, with teeth protruding an inch from the mouth, and four or five arms. Below this church there was a large masonry tank, similar to many others which we had seen along the road.

After we had left that place, and had arrived at the entrance to the city (of Calicut), we were shown another church (Hindu temple), where we saw things like those described above. Here the crowd grew so dense that progress along the street became next to impossible, and for this reason they put the captain (Vasco da Gama) into a house, and us with him. The king sent a brother of the bale, who was a lord of this country, to accompany the captain, and he was attended by men beating drums, blowing anafils and bagpipes, and firing off matchlocks. In conducting the captain they showed us much respect, more than is shown in Spain to a king.

The number of people was countless, for in addition to those who surrounded us, and among whom there were two thousand armed men, they crowded the roofs and houses.

The further we advanced in the direction of the

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king’s palace, the more did they increase in number. And when we arrived there, men of much distinction and great lords came out to meet the captain, and joined those who were already in attendance upon him. It was then an hour before sunset. When we reached the palace we passed through a gate into a courtyard of great size, and before we arrived at where the king was, we passed four doors, through which we had to force our way, giving many blows to the people. When, at last, we reached the door where the king was, there came forth from it a little old man, who holds a position resembling that of a bishop, and whose advice the king acts upon in all affairs of the church. This man embraced the captain when he entered the door. Several men were wounded at this door, and we got in only by the use of much force.

The king (Zamorin) was in a small court, reclining upon a couch covered with a cloth of green velvet, above which was a good mattress, and upon this again a sheet of cotton stuff, very white and fine, more so than any linen. The cushions were after the same fashion. In his left hand the king held a very large golden cup (spittoon), having a capacity of half an almude (eight pints). At its mouth this cup was two palmas (sixteen inches) wide, and apparently it was massive. Into this cup the king threw the husks of a certain herb which is chewed by the people of this country because of its soothing effects, and which they call atambor (Arabic tambur, “betel-nut”). On the right side of the king stood a basin of gold, so large that a man might just

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encircle it with his arms: this contained the herbs. There were likewise many silver jugs. The canopy above the couch was all gilt.

The captain (Vasco da Gama), on entering, saluted in the manner of the country; by putting the hands together, then raising them toward heaven, as is done by the Christians when addressing God, and immediately afterwards opening them and shutting the fists quickly. The king beckoned to the captain with his right hand to come nearer, but the captain did not approach him, for it is the custom of the country for no man to approach the king except only the servant who hands him the herbs, and when any one addresses the king he holds his hands before the mouth, and remains at a distance.

When the king beckoned to the captain he looked at us others, and ordered us to be seated on a stone bench near him, where he could see us. He ordered that water for our hands should be given us, also some fruit, one kind of which resembled a melon, except that its outside was rough and the inside sweet, whilst another kind of fruit resembled a fig, and tasted very nice. There were men who prepared these fruits for us; and the king looked at us eating, and smiled; and talked to the servant who stood near him supplying him with the herbs referred to.

Then, throwing his eyes on the captain (Vasco da Gama), who sat facing him, he invited him to address himself to the courtiers present, saying they were men of much distinction, that he could tell them whatever

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Vasco da Gama and the Zamorin of Calicut

After a painting by Coke Smyth.

he desired to say, and they would repeat it to him (the Zamorin). The captain-major (Vasco da Gama) replied that he was the ambassador of the King of Portugal, and the bearer of a message which he could only deliver to him personally. The king said this was good, and immediately asked him to be conducted to a chamber. When the captain-major had entered, the king, too, rose and joined him, whilst we remained where we were. All this happened about sunset. An old man who was in the court took away the couch as soon as the king rose, but allowed the plate to remain. The king, when he joined the captain, threw himself upon another couch, covered with various stuffs embroidered

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in gold, and asked the captain what he wanted.

The captain (Vasco da Gama) told him he was the ambassador of the King of Portugal, who was lord of many countries and the possessor of great wealth of every description, exceeding that of any king of these parts; that for a period of sixty years his ancestors had annually sent out vessels to make discoveries in the direction of India, as they knew that there were Christian kings there like themselves. This, he said, was the reason which induced them to order this country to be discovered, not because they sought for gold or silver, for of this they had such abundance that they needed not what was to be found in this country. He further stated that the captains sent out had travelled for a year or two, until their provisions were exhausted, and then returned to Portugal, without having succeeded in making the desired discovery. There reigned a king now whose name was Dom Manuel, who had ordered him to build three vessels, of which he had been appointed captain-major, and who had ordered him not to return to Portugal until he should have discovered this king of the Christians, on pain of having his head cut off. That two letters had been entrusted to him to be presented in case he succeeded in discovering him, and that he would do so on the ensuing day; and, finally, he had been instructed to say by word of mouth that he (the King of Portugal) desired to be his friend and brother.

In reply to this the king said that he was welcome;

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A decorated water car at Madura in Southern India

that, on his part, he held him as a friend and brother, and would send ambassadors with him to Portugal. This latter had been asked as a favour, the captain pretending that he would not dare to present himself before his king and master unless he was able to present, at the same time, some men of this country.

These and many other things passed between the two in this chamber, and as it was already late in the night, the king asked the captain with whom he desired to lodge, with Christians or with Moors? And the captain replied, neither with Christians nor with Moors, and begged as a favour that he be given a lodging by himself. The king said he would order it thus, upon which the captain took leave of the king and came to where we were, that is, to a veranda lit up by a huge candlestick. By that time four hours of the night had already gone.

We all went forth then with the captain in search of our lodgings, and a countless crowd with us. And the rain poured down so heavily that the streets ran with water. The captain went on the back of six men (in a palanquin), and the time occupied in passing through the city was so long that the captain at last grew tired, and complained to the king’s factor, a Moor of distinction, who attended him to the lodgings. The Moor then took him to his own house, and we were admitted to a court within it, where there was a veranda roofed in with tiles. Many carpets had been spread, and there were two large candlesticks like those at the royal palace. At the top of each of these were

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great iron lamps fed with oil or butter, and each lamp had four wicks, which gave much light. These lamps they use instead of torches.

This same Moor then had a horse brought for the captain to take him to his lodgings, but it was without a saddle, and the captain refused to mount it. We then started for our lodgings, and when we arrived we found there some of our men (who had come from the ships) with the captain’s bed, and with numerous other things which the captain had brought as presents for the king ‘

A more elaborate, if less trustworthy, account of this audience with the Zamorin is given, as mentioned above, in Gaspar Correa’s “Lendas;” but this record, despite its claim to being based on the diary of the Portuguese monk Figueiro, is less reliable than the “Roteiro,” or Journal, because it was given at second hand, since Correa did not arrive in India until 1514, a number of years after the occasion. Nevertheless, as already stated, the account has a peculiar value of its own as a description of manners and customs at the Zamorin’s court, regarding which Correa was fully qualified to speak, owing to his long stay in India, where he died some time before 1583, as pointed out by Stanley in his translation for the Hakluyt Society. Such observations as those relating to the Zamorin’s constantly chewing the leaves of the betel-nut during the interview impart a realistic touch that will be recognized by any one who has travelled in India.

‘The King (the Zamorin) sent to tell the captain-major (Vasco da Gama) that he was in his palace waiting

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Dom André Furtado de Mendoça

Thirty-seventh Portuguese Governor of India (1609)

for him. Upon this the captain-major went at once in the boat and the Moorish broker took him on shore with all the packages in large Indian boats, and he went into the factory, where he dressed himself in a long cloak coming down to his feet, of tawny-coloured satin, lined with smooth brocade, and underneath a short tunic of blue satin, and white buskins, and on his head a cap with lappets of blue velvet, with a white feather fastened under a splendid medal; and a valuable enamel collar on his shoulders, and a rich sash with a handsome dagger. He had a page dressed in red satin, and in front of him went the men in file one before another. First after these went the basin, carried wrapped in a napkin by a man who held it against his breast, and in front another with the ewer; then a tray with the knives and caps, and then the open mirror which had doors, and was all splendidly gilt; next the pieces of silk, and in front of all the chair

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carried upon the head of the broker; and there was in front a piece of scarlet cloth opened so as to show it. Before these went the trumpets sounding, and the factor went with a cane in his hand, and his cap off, as he conducted all the bearers of the presents.

The king was in a balcony and saw every thing in the order in which it came, with great pleasure at seeing such rich things. The factor entered in front and presented each thing to the king, and he placed a cushion upon the chair, and another at its foot (and said), that the ambassador asked him as a favour to sit on the chair for him to give him his embassage seated on that chair, and the king, with the great satisfaction which he experienced, sat upon it. Before arriving at the palace there was a long street through which the captain-major went; but the crowd was so great that our men could not advance, even though there were many Nairs (soldiers) making the people keep off, and in that crowd there were a great number of Moors also with swords and shields, after the fashion of the Nairs. The captain-major went very leisurely and without fatiguing himself, and remained still until they had made the people stand off.

Before reaching the palace, by the king’s orders, the catual (Hindustani kotwal, “seneschal”) of the king’s house came to receive the captain-major; he is the chief officer of the guard of the king’s palace, and if any one enters where the king dwells, without his leave, immediately he will order his head to .be cut off at the door of the palace without asking the king’s

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pleasure about it. With this catual the Portuguese proceeded with less encumbrance, because he ordered the people to keep off, and they were much afraid of him. Each time the factor (trader) presented any piece of goods, the king looked at it for some time, and this caused much detention. When the captain-major (Vasco da Gama) arrived, he was conducted through many courts and verandas to a dwelling opposite to that in which the king was, beyond, in another room arranged with silk stuffs of various colours, and a white canopy, which was of subtle workmanship and covered the whole room.

The king was sitting in his chair, which the factor had got him to sit upon; he was a very dark man, half-naked, and clothed with white cloths from the middle to the knees; one of these cloths ended in a long point on which were threaded several gold rings with large rubies, which made a great show. He had on his left arm a bracelet above the elbow, which seemed like three rings together, the middle one larger than the others all studded with rich jewels, particularly the middle one which bore large stones which could not fail to be of very great value; from this middle ring hung a pendent stone which glittered: it was a diamond of the thickness of a thumb; it seemed a priceless thing. Round his neck was a string of pearls about the size of hazel-nuts, the string took two turns and reached to his middle; above it he wore a thin round gold chain which bore a jewel of the form of a heart, surrounded with larger pearls, and all full of rubies; in

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the middle was a green stone of the size of a large bean, which, from its showiness, was of great price, which was called an emerald; and, according to the information which the Castilian afterwards gave the captain-major of this jewel, and of that which was in the bracelet on his arm, and of another pearl which the king wore suspended in his hair, they all three belonged to the ancient treasury of the kings of Calicut. The king had long dark hair, all gathered up and tied on the top of his head with a knot made in it; and round the knot he had a string of pearls like those round his neck, and at the end of the string a pendent pearl pear-shaped, and larger than the rest, which seemed a thing of great value. His ears were pierced with large holes, with many gold earrings of round beads.

Close to the king stood a boy, his page, with a silk cloth round him; he held a red shield with a border of gold and jewels, and a boss in the centre of a span’s breadth of the same materials, and the rings inside for the arm were of gold; also a short drawn sword of an ell’s length, found at the point, with a hilt of gold and jewelry with pendent pearls. On the other side stood another page, who held a gold cup with a wide rim, into which the king spat; and at the side of his chair was his chief Brahman, who gave him from time to time a green leaf (the betel leaf) closely folded with other things inside it, which the king ate and spat into the cup. That leaf is of the size of an orange leaf, and the king was always eating it; and after much mastication he spat it into the cup, and took a fresh one, because he

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An indian betel nut cutter

only tasted the juice of this leaf and the mixture that goes with it of quicklime and other things, which they call areca, cut up small; it is of the size of a chestnut. Thus chewed all together, it makes the mouth and teeth very red, because they use it all day wherever they may be going, and it makes the breath very pleasant. The factor having finished presenting all the things to the king, which he was looking at very leisurely, the ambassador arrived and made profound salutations to the king; and the king, bowing his head and his body a little, extended his right hand and arm, and with the points of his fingers he touched the right hand of the captain-major, and bade him sit upon the dais upon which he was; but he did not sit down, and spoke to him through the language which Joan Nuz spoke to the broker, and the broker spoke to the Brahman, who was by the king; there were also there the overseer of the treasury and the gozil (vizir).

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Vasco da Gama said to the king: “Sire, you are powerful and very great above all the kings and rulers of India, and all of them are under your feet. biy sovereign, the great King of Portugal, having heard of your grandeur, and it is spoken of throughout the world, had a great longing to become acquainted with you and to contract friendship with you as with a brother of his own, and with full and sincere peace and amity to send his ships with much merchandise, to trade and buy your merchandise, and above all pepper and drugs, of which there are none in Portugal; and with this desire he sent fifty ships with his captain-major; and he sent me to go on shore with his present and message of love and friendship, which I have presented to you, because I have been separated from the rest of my company by storms. God has been pleased to bring me here where I now am, and, therefore, I truly believe that you are the king and ruler whom we came in search of, since here we find the pepper and drugs which our king commanded us to seek, and which you, Sire, have been pleased to give us; and I have great hopes in God that before we depart hence another fleet will arrive here, or some others, for without doubt, Sire, we came to seek for you; and I tell you, Sire, that so powerful is my sovereign, the King of Portugal, that after I shall have returned to him with your reply, and with this cargo which you are giving me, he will send hither so many fleets and merchandise, that they will carry away as many goods as are to be had in this city. To certify the truth of what I say, here is the letter of

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the king my sovereign signed with his hand and seal, and in it you will see his good and true words which he says to you.”

Vasco da Gama then kissed the letter and placed it upon his eyes, and upon his head, and gave it to the king with his knee on the ground; the king took it and placed it on his breast with both hands, showing marks of friendship, and opened it and looked at it, then gave it to the overseer of the treasury, telling him to get it translated. The king then said to Vasco da Gama that he should go and rest, and that he would see the letter and answer it; and that he should ask the overseer of the treasury for whatever merchandise he wished to put on board, and he would give it him; also whatever he required for the ships; and that he should send all his people to the city to amuse themselves, and to buy whatever they liked, for no one would do them any harm. He told the gozil to announce this by the crier, and with that he dismissed Vasco da Gama, saying that another day he would speak more at leisure, as it was now late. So Vasco da Gama went out with the overseer of the treasury, and the gozil, and the catual of the king’s door, who brought him to the factory, with his trumpets blowing before him, and there they took leave of him with salutations. The captain-major slept at the factory, after his great satisfaction, and the next day he sent the trumpeters to the ship with a letter in which he wrote all that had taken place with the king.’


28. The description of this so-called “church” gives a good picture of the typical Hindu temple, with its columns, shrines, carved images, and Brahman priests wearing the sacred cord, marked with the characteristic signs of their caste, and bowing before painted representations of the Indian pantheon.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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