Travails of Trading in Malabar
Vasco da Gama was supposed to have made his agenda clear to the first person he had met on Calicut coast. The story goes that in reply to a question from the Genoese trader (who was the first person encountered by da Gama), why in the name of the Devil had he come here, da Gama calmly replied: ‘For Pepper and Christ’. Obviously he wanted to please both his masters – Prince Manuel I of Portugal and the Pope who had blessed the voyage and whom Manuel I wanted to placate.
Pepper indeed formed the main item of export from the Malabar Coast, but as the Portuguese established themselves in Goa and Cochin, the trade also got complex. During the initial days of conquest, there was a virtual state monopoly imposed by the Portuguese on Malabar spices and this meant that ship after Portuguese ship would be loaded with pepper and other spices and would sail from the western coast of India, escorted by the powerful armada.
But, as Portuguese trade stabilized, private players also got involved which included non-Portuguese players as well. The Venetians, who had been uprooted from their monopoly of the Mediterranean trade soon after Vasco da Gama had discovered the Calicut route, did not waste time to capitalize on the new opportunity.
We have a fascinating account of the complex coastal trade practised by one such Venetian, Cesar Fredrici who had traded in the Indies for 18 years between 1560 and 1580 and maintained a journal of his adventures. The journal was almost immediately translated from Italian into English by Thomas Hickock under the title, The Voyages and Travaile: Of M. Caesar Frederick, Merchant of Venice, Into the East India, the Indies, and Beyond… ( Was Shakespeare influenced by Frederici’s account when he wrote The Merchant of Venice around the time the translation had appeared in England?)
Frederick set out on his long and eventful voyage in 1563 from Venice, travels to Cyprus and finally lands up in Portuguese Goa in 1566. He proceeds from Goa to Malacca in a Portuguese ship which was en route to Banda to pick up a cargo of nutmegs and mace. The ship passed through Ceylon and Nicobar before reaching Pegu in present day Myanmar. His description of the cannibal tribes of Andamans is graphic.
After selling his cargo of nutmeg and sandal, he decides to proceed to Venice via Chittagong, Cochin and Lisbon. But a severe cyclone (touffon) hits the ship which drifts to the Sondiva (Sunderbans) islands. He eventually makes it to Cochin only to realize that the Portuguese vessels had all departed and he would have to wait for a year to catch the next sailing. He decides to proceed to Goa for the wait and to transact some business.
Frederici falls ill in Goa and has to sell some of his rubies (which he had purchased from Pegu) to meet his medical expenses. He had, however, taken care not to sell the most valuable rubies which he preserved for sale back home in Venice. Once he recovers from the illness, he decides to proceed to Cambay where he invests a large sum (2100 ducats, to be precise) in buying opium which fetched a good price in Burma. He again travels east via Cochin and reaches Pegu only to realize that just a day before his cargo had landed, a large shipload of opium from Cambay had arrived crashing the price of his commodity from 50 to 2½ Bize. On an investment of 2100 ducats he could recover only 1000 ducats after two years! Such was the uncertainty of coastal trading in those days.
We have another account of a private trader, more than a hundred years after Frederici which gives a fascinating account of the diversity of coastal trade. Charles Lockyer, an English trader boarded the East India Compay ship Streetham in February 1703 and reached Batavia in October of the same year. As the monsoon winds had changed, he could not proceed to China which was his ultimate destination and used the interval by trading between Malacca and India. The ship managed to sell its cargo in China only in September 1704 with the resumption of favourable winds.
On the way back the ship, laden with goods originating in China, Malacca and the eastern coast of India reached Calicut by which time again the season for sailing westward had ended. So the ship shuttles between Colombo and Surat in the north, hugging the coast to avoid the rough seas and making good money selling various surplus European goods and buying Indian spices for the return cargo.
The chief items bought by the ship are Cardamom and Coconut kernels at Calicut, coir, hubble-bubble cane (for making the hooka) from Maldives, cardamom and rice from Tellicherry, arrack from Goa (one of the most lucrative trade for, according to Lockyer, it was available for Rs. 13½ per hogshead in Goa and could fetch Rs.25-30 in Bombay and Surat.) He was prudent enough to mention: the smuggling trade with the Dutch, I leave to the Persons concerned – emphasizing that he indulged in only legal trade!
Lockyer’s description of Tellicherry (which had just acquired the status of a fort) is interesting. Among the important items mentioned by him is opium ‘of a deep purple, the best in India’, ‘…it bears double the price of Bengal opium’. He next lands in Calicut and after a pleasant stay moves down to Cochin, then a Dutch stronghold. The ship is replenished with essential supply in Cochin – 60 pigs, a thousand fowls, one small heifer (‘but beef is not usually so cheap’) and water casks. The ship then proceeds to Europe, crossing the Cape of Good Hope in July 1706.
This was an era of ‘pure trade’ when the Europeans were contended with making money out of trade and had no territorial ambitions. Trade was not conducted only by the East India Company, but by small enterprising traders who saw opportunities in a delayed sailing and pursued profitable coastal trade between Malacca and Malabar and Malabar and Hormuz. They competed with the Arab, Moplah and Chetty traders . Some like Frederici lost hugely and others like Lockyer made windfall profits!