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Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Calicut Remained 'Christian' for Three Years

Even after the Crusades had ended, its spirit pervaded much of Christendom in the Europe of the 14th and 15th Centuries. On this was superimposed the jealousy at the unholy alliance between the Venetian-Genoese cartels and the Moors and Persians who, between them, had monopolised the profitable trade in spices from the east.

No wonder, then, that the mandate given to both Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama was identical: re-discover the fabled Indies of Marco Polo; convert the natives to Christianity and bring home spices which were essential for preserving meat in winter.
Prester John (source: Wikipedia)
Vasco Da Gama had a clearer mandate as regards Christians. He was to locate and make friends with the legendary Prester John, the Christian King of the East who was believed to be the descendant of one of the three Magi. This mythical King had occupied the imagination of the crusading Europeans ever since the 12th Century. Christendom had long dreamt of this champion of Christianity who would deliver them from the advance of Islam. Although his exact domain was in the realm of speculation, it was thought that it extended from Babylon to the Indies.

The Papal Bull dated 4th May 1493 (further clarified by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494) had effectively partitioned the world between Spain and Portugal and since the latter was given the eastern part, it was in the fitness of things that the exporer of the east, Vasco Da Gama, should be carrying a letter to King Prester John from King Manuel of Portugal!

Vasco Da Gama who was looking for Christians found them wherever he went. While his fleet was anchored at the East African Port of Malindi, he noticed four vessels in the harbour which were said to belong to 'Indian Christians' - who curiously did not like to eat beef! Some of these 'Christians' boarded the Portuguese ship Sao Raphael and prostrated themselves before an altar-piece 'representing Our Lady at the foot of the Cross with Jesus Christ in her arms and the apostles around her'.

Again, in Calicut, no sooner had he embarked on his first trip in a palanquin to meet the Zamorin, and where should he find himself - in a shrine of Santa Maria. For, he had no doubt in his mind that the Durga Temple at Puthoor on the northern boundary of Calicut was a beautiful shrine dedicated to Our Lady, and he bowed reverentially before the altar and received the sprinkling of the holy water from the priest. It was left to the humble clerk of Sao Raphael to doubt whether the grotesque pictures of 'saints' on the shrine's walls were indeed oriental representation of Christian martyrs. Even while following the Captain Major in bowing down, he was heard to mutter a prayer :If these be the devils, I worship the true God!

The triumphant return of Vasco was much celebrated in Portugal - for not only had he found the source of spices but had forged an alliance with the Christian King of Calicut. Pedro Alvares Cabral who led the next expedition to India was also briefed that the King of Calicut was 'Christian', but an 'imperfect one'.

Within a month of the return of Vasco Da Gama to Lisbon, King Manuel was writing to Ferdinand and Isabella (of Spain) : The Christian people whom these explorers reached are not as yet strong in the faith, nor thoroughly conversant with it....But when they shall have been fortified in the faith, there will an opportunity to destroy the Moors of those regime...

King Manuel did take the business of 'fortification of the faith' of the Zamorin and his subjects quite seriously. The fleet of Cabral was carrying some Christian priests who would teach the people of Calicut true faith. In his letter to the Zamorin which Cabral was carrying, Manuel wrote, as one Christian King to another: (God) considers Himself better served by the fact that the holy Christian faith is communicated and joined between you and us as it was for six hundred years after the coming of Jesus Christ, until there arose some sects and contrary heresies as predicted...and these sects occupy a great part of the Earth between your land and ours. Here was the King of Portugal attempting to 'de-toxify' the Zamorin from the heresies of the Mappilas and the Arabs!

That this fiction of a Christian Calicut was maintained for a couple of years in Portugal is evident from the correspondence of Girolamo Sernigi, an Italian investor with business interests in Lisbon. In one of his letters he wrote to Florence on the basis of information gathered from the first ship in Gama's convoy that Calicut was peopled by Christians, although rather odd ones: In this city are churches with bells but there are no priests, and the divine offices are not performed, nor masses celebrated, but in each church there is a pillar holding water in the manner of the fonts holding our holy water, and a second pillar with balm.

He added, this King of Calicut eats neither meat nor fish nor anything that has been killed, nor do his barons, courtiers or other persons of quality, for they say that Jesus Christ said in his law that he who kills shall die.

However, the deception could not be continued for long. The truth came out in the most dramatic fashion. There was a Polish Jew, a trader from Alexandria who spoke fluent Venetian. He was in the service of the Muslim Sultan of Bijapur. He was found by the Portuguese back in India roaming around the Portuguese vessels with an intention to spy on them. He was caught and flogged till he confessed. He was carried by the Portuguese with the returning fleet, was converted to Christianity and later did yeoman service to Potugal as Gaspar da Gama. Vasco Da Gama was so pleased with him that he agreed to be his Godfather and lent his surname!

Although Gaspar publicly repeated the official version about Christian Calicut, the Jew who was forcibly converted to Christianity wanted to take revenge by leaking the truth.

When the story of Calicut came out from the mouth of Gaspar, it must have created quite a commotion in diplomatic and ecclesiastical circles. Our Florentine investor could be seen to quickly correct himself in his subsequent letter, quoting none other than Gaspar himself: He says that in those countries there are many gentiles, that is idolators, and only a few Christians, that the supposed Chruches and belfries are in reality temples of idolators and that the pictures within them are those of idols and not of saints. To me this seems more probable than saying that there are Christians but no divine ministrations, no priests and no sacrificial mass. He does not believe that there are any Christians of account other than some so called Jacobites and those of the Prester John, who is far from Calicut on this side of the gulf of Arabia.

The mood in Lisbon was upbeat after the return of Da Gama and they did not spare other nationalities. The joke making the rounds was that now that a new trade route had been discovered, Venetians would soon have to become fishermen, as they had no future in trade. The eagerness of the Florentine to puncture the ego could have been jealousy at the Portuguese achievement. If so, Sernigi was not alone - there was a fellow Florentine who felt the same way. Amerigo Vespucci wrote to his patron Lorenzo de Medici in 1500, deprecating the fuss being made about Vasco Da Gama's so called discovery:Such a voyage as that I do not call discovery, but merely a going to discovered lands, since as you will see by the map, they navigate continually in sight of land, and sail along the southern part of Africa, which is to proceed upon a way discussed by all the authorities in cosmography.

Facts support Vespucci - Da Gama had taken the same chief pilot who had accompanied Bartholomeo Diaz and was familiar with the route till the Cape; from Malindi Da Gama took the veteran pilot Ibn Majid. Where, indeed, was the discovery? Christians in Calicut??


Sanjay Subrahmaniam : Career and Legend of Vasco Da Gama, CUP

Joan-Pau Rubies: Travels and Ethnology in the Renaissance South India through Eurpoean Eyes, 2002, CUP


  1. The India house in Lisbon did create all kinds of stories & aura about the locations they were entrenched in to collect capital from the wealthy traders.

    Good lesson on a less talked about subject.

    some years back i wrote a somewhat ill researched blog on the words spoken by Castaneda when they reached calicut

  2. All those who came searching for pepper to west coast of India and Malabar where short sighted and there vision seems to be bluurred due to greed and the eagareness to convert the native people to Christanity.

  3. CK - Continue this splendid effort at demystifying history,sifting myths and legends from facts and letting the world know of a corner of India that people everywhere need to know.Look forward to your next 'big one!' Uday

  4. This is an interesting observation. It certainly demystifies history.

  5. Thank you Abhishek for sending the invitation. This blog has lot of detailed inputs.. only the articles appear a bit too lengthy Also perhaps an introduction to common facts on Calicut can be added.

  6. Thank you, Maddy for the link to Castaneda's accounts.Gama and his team were convinced that they had discovered the home of the eastern Christians!
    Yes, Premnath, the evangelical zeal of the Portuguese was what ruined their imperial designs. We shall continue the theme in the next post too. Thanks for the encouragement, Uday and JP.
    Finally, many thanks, Jenee Peter for visiting. Your comment on the length of the pieces is noted. However,common facts on Calicut are available on the web and we dont plan to repeat these in the blog. Please keep visiting!

  7. Thank you for the reply mail. I will be visiting this site more often rest assured!!
    Dr Jenee Peter

  8. great job!

    Do you have references for all the stuff you have said here? I'm doing research in this area and I had not come across some of the quotes. Direction to particular references will be most appreciated.

    Best Wishes

  9. Thank you, Arun for the kind words!
    We have all the references but do not want to clutter the text for fear of frightening the non-academic readers. We shall be happy to furnish you the details of any particular reference that you may like to have. Please post a mail to

  10. Hi Iam Prabhu from chennai,joined today in this forum... :)

  11. The pilot who accompanied Vasco Da Gama from Malindi to Calicut was NOT Ibn Majid!!! This misconception was corrected long ago.

    Moreover, there were and are Christians in Calicut - some of the so-called Saint Thomas Christians of Southwest India.

    This piece does NOT demystify history, it distorts it.


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