When Vasco Da Gama reached Calicut, his audience with the Zamorin was delayed as the gifts he had brought with him were considered worthless by the Palace hangers-on. In place of gold and precious stones, the visitor had brought cheap trinklets and wash basins! It took all the charm that Gama was capable of to persuade them to permit him to have an audience.
But, while the Nairs and Muslim merchants were squabbling over the gifts, Gama's mariners were distributing a gift among the women folk which their husbands would remember for a long time. Starved of female company for more than a year, the Portuguese sailors rushed to the fleshpots of Calicut -there were many, according to contemporary accounts- and infected the Calicut women with the dreaded Great Pox, as Syphilis was then known.
Syphilis was a relatively new disease, but one which was spreading with devastating outcome, much like the AIDS during the late 1980s. Its origin is disputed (as indeed of HIV/AIDS) but most agree that it flared up in Europe during the last decade of the 15th century. The first reported epidemic was in the Spanish port city of Cadiz to which Columbus had returned in 1493 and had dismissed his crew. The expedition had reportedly picked it up from Haiti. Within the next 15 years the disease had killed 10 million people in Europe.
It was Ludvico Di Varthema, the Italian adventurer who had reported the spread of Syphilis in Calicut in 1505 - just 7 years after Gama had landed. Varthema called it the 'French' disease, although the French were to reach the shores of Calicut much later. Varthema being Italian, called it the French disease, as it was known in Italy and Germany. The French, however, called it the Italian disease. The Turkish called it the Christian disease or the Frank disease from which the Malayalam name Parangippunnu came about.
The disease did spread quickly, and if Varthema were to be believed, it did not even spare the ruling Zamorin, Manavikrama Raja (1500-1513). Varthema could not meet the Zamorin in 1505, 'in consequence of his being at war with the King of Portugal and also because he had the French disease and had it in the throat'.
The Ruler of Calicut was in august company: King Henry VIII, who had been crowned King of England in 1509, was also suffering from Syphilis and had passed on the disease to all his children, except the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.
Varthema attempts to soften the blow of his revelation: You must know that I have seen the disease three thousand miles beyond Calicut, and it is called 'pua' and they say it is about seventeen years since it began, and it is much worse than ours.
Whether the Zamorin did indeed have Syphilis or not, we can say on the testimony of Alfonso de Albuquerque that he died of poisoning. Writing to the King of Portugal shortly after the death of the Zamorin in 1513, Albuquerque calimed credit for this: I hold it for certain that the Nambiadiri slew the Zamorin with poison, because in all my letters I bid him do so and that in a peace treaty I will come to an agreement with him...
Albuquerque died in 1515 in Goa and there is no record of his having paid back the Nambiadiri. Just possible that the Zamorin did indeed die of Syphilis and the Portuguese general was claiming credit! Anyhow, the era of syphilisation of Calicut had begun with the first Portuguese mariner rolling in the Calicut sand!