THE CRUSADER FLAGS snapped boldly from the masts and the crow’s nests of the European fleet. On the unfurled sails the crimson Crusader crosses could be seen from far away. They were not there for decoration, or simply as signs of piety and pleas for protection. Not everyone had enlisted for the voyage knowing of Manuel’s mad ambition to crush Islam and anoint himself Universal Emperor, but few if any had believed they were going on a peaceful trading trip.
The vast majority of Vasco da Gama’s men knew exactly where their sympathies lay. To the sailors and soldiers, the admiral was a proven leader who had earned their unblinking loyalty. To the captains, he was an astute commander who consulted them regularly and passed no bucks. To the priests, he was a Crusader engaged in God’s work. Civilians had always been swept up in war, enemy peoples had always been caricatured as scarcely human, and war’s inhumanity had often escalated when men believed they were fighting for their faith. In an age when it was commonplace for conquerors to slaughter entire cities, Gama’s followers and foes alike did not see his attack on the Mîrî as an unconscionable act. Only a few contemplative men, like the clerk Tomé Lopes, were struck by the human tragedy of holy war.
The merchants’ representatives had different reasons to prefer caution. Their employers had funded a large part of the fleet, and yet Matteo da Bergamo privately noted that the admiral appeared determined to put Crusade before trade. Dom Vasco had made itclear that he would only allow a few of them to leave the ships, and he had suggested in no uncertain terms that they buy their spices in the places he arranged and at the prices he fixed. They had little choice; as Bergamo put it, “we knew his will and didn’t want to oppose him. So we were all agreed, with lively voice.” If there were more episodes like the brutal attack on the Mîrî, though, they wondered if they would have anything at all to take home.
Crusading might be bad for business, but Gama had a longer prospect in view. The hard-nosed captain had become an iron-fisted admiral. He had no qualms about being more feared than loved, and he had no intention of slackening his attacks on anyone who hindered the Portuguese cause. He was, though, quickly reminded that nature had no truck with the aspirations of admirals and kings.
Within days four more big dhows appeared on the horizon, and the São Paulo set off in pursuit. The Arab ships fled toward land, and three disappeared down a river. In its haste the fourth hit a shoal, and the São Paulo came alongside and grappled it, lowering its anchors to keep clear of the shoal. A boarding party swung onto the deck, and many of the Muslims jumped in the sea. Yet no sooner were the Christians on board than the captive ship creaked alarmingly and rolled over onto its side. The São Paulo tipped with it, and the crew was forced to uncouple the two vessels. The stricken ship lurched into the waves, and the marooned men hung on to anything they could and waited to be rescued. The Europeans put out their boats, but in the heavy swells their oars were useless. The waves began to break up the lightly built dhow, and with the boarding party still beyond rescue, it filled with water and sank. Its cargo, including a large cache of shields and swords, washed toward the shore, where a crowd of locals emerged to scavenge the wreckage.
On October 13 the last of the three ships that Gama had lost at the Cape of Good Hope sailed into view. It had been missing so long that everyone had assumed it had foundered, and as so often happens at sea the mood instantly switched from dismay to celebration.
The fleet had been hunting Arab ships for a month, and no more had fallen into its net. The whole time the admiral had been receiving letters from the Kolattiri of Cannanore, who repeatedly assured him that he was at his service and would give him all the spices in his land at the price he named. The time for loading the ships was running out, and Gama reluctantly gave the order to set sail. On October 18 the nineteen vessels rounded a rocky headland, passed a jutting promontory, and moored within sight of the secluded harbor of Cannanore.
The Kolattiri had been markedly friendly to the Portuguese on their last two sorties. He became even better disposed when the ambassador he had sent to Portugal sailed up with the twenty-four men who had been seized in the sambuk. They had heard the battle with the Mîrî at close quarters—they had been battened under the hatches of their boat, which had been tied to Tomé Lopes’s ship—and as they arrived home their trumpets pealed their relief.
Soon envoys bearing gifts approached the Christian fleet. They were at the service of the king of Portugal, they bowed, and they added that the Kolattiri was most eager to meet the admiral. Gama was equally keen to meet the Indian king, but he refused to step onshore. He was determined to trust no one; possibly he realized that his recent behavior might not incline them to trust him, either.
If Gama was not going to leave his floating realm, the Kolattiri was not going to set foot outside his kingdom. To solve the dilemma an elaborate compromise was drawn up. Elephants appeared on the shore dragging dozens of tree trunks, and a team of carpenters set to work constructing a sturdy wooden pier. In no time it reached well out to sea.
The next day the admiral took charge of one of the caravels. He seated himself on the poop deck, on a fine cushion set on a richly carved chair under a crimson and green velvet awning. He was wearing a silk robe and two heavy gold chains, one around his neck and the other slung across his chest. Twenty-six boats accompanied him, each decked out with the flags of the Order of Christ and the full panoply of arms. The pages struck up a dignified tune on their trumpets, drums, and castanets, the sailors danced a jig, and the flotilla set off toward the pier.
On land the Kolattiri appeared accompanied by four hundred Nair soldiers—most likely not, as a Portuguese chronicler claimed, ten thousand—and a menagerie of exotic animals that the wide-eyed Flemish sailor found it impossible to name. The newcomers to India were equally surprised to see that all the dignitaries, including the king, were naked from the waist up.
At each end of the pier the workmen had erected a pavilion draped with painted cloths. The soldiers halted in front of the shore side pavilion, and the Kolattiri and thirty of his attendants disappeared inside. It took them a while to emerge: the sun was scorching, the Kolattiri was seventy years old, and the party had run out of puff.
When the admiral’s caravel drew alongside the seaside pavilion, the Kolattiri moved off down the pier. Two men went in front of him swinging heavy sticks decorated with bull’s heads, and two more men danced around with sticks painted with white sparrow hawks; Tomé Lopes mockingly noted that they looked like a couple of Portuguese girls.
The Kolattiri dismounted from his palanquin and arrayed himself on a sumptuously draped daybed. Still Gama refused to disembark, and the perplexed king was forced to bend down and shake his hand across the water. The audience went ahead with the interpreters shouting diplomatic niceties back and forth between the pier and the poop deck.
Since the Kolattiri had been so accommodating, Gama passed him with his own hands—a diplomatic breach that set tongues wagging—a lavish set of gilded silver tableware filled with saffron and rosewater. The Kolattiri gave the admiral, through the more humble hands of his servants, a collection of enormous gems. Smaller precious stones—mere trifles, he let it be known—were handed out to the captains and officers.
Gama moved swiftly on to business, but his attempts to fix a tariff for the spices he wanted to buy were royally rebuffed. The visitors had come too early in the year, the king replied, and the spices hadn’t yet arrived. In any case, he did not concern himself with such matters. He would command merchants to call on them, and then they could discuss trade.
After two hours the Kolattiri left, saying he was tired. The Portuguese fired a ceremonial salute as he retreated down his pier, and when Gama returned to the fleet he informed the merchants’ representatives that complete accord had broken out. The Kolattiri, recorded Matteo da Bergamo, would do everything the king of Portugal and his admiral asked, including making war on the Zamorin of Calicut and compelling his merchants to sell spices at the price the admiral had set. Gama was determined to call the shots and get the best deal for his king, but in reality the Kolattiri had agreed to nothing of the sort.
The merchants arrived the next day, and to Gama’s dismay they all turned out to be Muslims. As usual they turned up their noses at the European goods—a bargaining strategy, the Portuguese were convinced—but worse, the prices they asked were a great deal higher than before. After much haggling the negotiations fell apart, and Gama began to detect a fiendish conspiracy at work.
The admiral was in severe danger of losing face, and he worked himself into a professional rage against foreigners who refused to play by his rules. He dismissed the merchants and immediately dispatched a warning message to the Kolattiri. Clearly, he railed, the king was not a true friend of the Portuguese. There was no other explanation for his sending Muslim merchants to them, “who as he well knew had an ancient hatred for the Christians and were our greatest enemies.” He would return the small quantities of spices that had already been loaded, he darkly added, with a great fanfare of bugles and plenty of salutes from his guns.
As the tension mounted, the Portuguese factor who had been left behind by the last fleet showed up in a fluster. Paio Rodrigues and his men had been in Cannanore for nearly a year and, he assured the admiral, they had found its king and people extremely obliging. Gama told him to stay on the ship; he was done with the Kolattiri, he fumed. Paio, who was not under Gama’s command, point-blank refused: he was going back, he insisted, whether the admiral liked it or not.
Gama bristled, then stepped back an inch. Instead he gave Rodrigues a new message for the Kolattiri. The fleet, he announced, would sail off and buy spices at a friendlier port, but the Muslims of his land had better not think they were safe any longer. Moreover, if the Christians who were staying on were hurt or dishonored in any way, his people would pay the price.
The ships weighed anchor before dawn on October 22, just four days after they had arrived. They sailed along the coast, stopping to intercept a small sambuk and seize twenty men with a cargo of coconut fiber. Soon they saw a small port where three large ships were pulled up on the shore, and Gama himself set out toward them with two caravels and eight boats packed with troops. As the bombards fired and the Europeans closed in, a number of figures jumped overboard and fled to land. A man raced down the beach and set out in a boat, rowing furiously to dodge the cannonballs. He was a vassal of the Kolattiri, he shouted at the admiral; all the land around here was subject to Cannanore. He was therefore at peace with the Portuguese—to his cost. He had refused to rent the very ships they had just attacked to the Zamorin of Calicut for his war against the Christians, and for that reason he himself was at war with Calicut. If the admiral doubted his word, he added, he would leave his men as hostages and prove everything he said.
Gama reluctantly desisted.
Late at night one of Paio Rodrigues’s men rowed up in haste with a letter from the Kolattiri. He was replying to the messages he had received, the king said with some forbearance and dignity. If the admiral wanted to kill or kidnap his people he could do so, because he would not mount a guard against his Portuguese allies. Even then, he would keep the peace he had made with the king of Portugal, which he cared about deeply. He would, though, be sure to inform King Manuel of everything that had happened. As for the Christians in his city, the admiral could attack him to his heart’s content and it would bring them no harm or shame.
A covering letter from Rodrigues contained a similar message.
Gama glowered. Clearly the Portuguese factor had tutored the Kolattiri to treat the admiral as a renegade and threaten to appeal over his head.
The scale of Portugal’s ambitions had always required India’s rulers to switch their entire trade to the West and oust every last Muslim from their lands. The hope that they would do so voluntarily was receding daily, and Gama was more sure than ever that they would have to be shocked into compliance. With his mind set on vengeance, he sailed on to Calicut.
As the fleet passed Pantalayini, the town where Gama had first landed in India, it overtook another small sambuk. As usual the sailors were taken captive, and two of them attracted the attention of the children who had been taken from the Mîrî. The children were frightened and eager to oblige their new masters, and they accused the prisoners of having taken part in the attack on the Calicut factory. One boy said that one of the men had boasted of killing two Christians while he was staying at his home, and another said the second man had cut off a Christian’s arm. Gama had it proclaimed that the sailors were dying for the cause of justice and hanged them from the mast. They were not the first casualties of the children’s terror: a few days before, Gama had ordered another Muslim lanced to death when they accused him of stealing goods from the Portuguese warehouse.
THE ZAMORIN HAD heard that a powerful European fleet was on its way almost as soon as it had reached India.
Rather than wait to be attacked, he had decided to make the first move. While the fleet was still at Cannanore, word had reached Gama that the Zamorin had written to the king of Cochin, the southernmost of the three richest ports on the Malabar Coast. The Portuguese, the Zamorin had predicted, would do great damage to the whole of India, and the only way to deal with them was for the rulers to close ranks and refuse to sell the foreigners the spices they coveted. If they combined their efforts, he argued, the Christians would give up and go home; if not, they would all end up as subjects of the Portuguese king.
The king of Cochin had refused. He was no more a friend of the high and mighty Zamorin than was the Kolattiri of Cannanore, and he wrote back that he had already signed a highly satisfactory treaty with the Portuguese. He showed the Zamorin’s letter and his reply to the Portuguese factor, who copied them and forwarded them to the admiral.
His plan thwarted, the Zamorin had instead sent an ambassador to Gama himself. His king wanted nothing but peace and friendship, the emissary declared, and though the trouble had all been the fault of the Portuguese factors, who had brought about their own deaths, naturally he would restore the goods the Christians had left in his city. Some, it was true, should have been handed over in lieu of the tax they owed, and some he had given to the master of the ship that Cabral had burned; but judges could be appointed to decide who owed what to whom. As for the dead, he added, they could never be brought back, even though, when everything was accounted for, the Christians were more than revenged for their losses.
As the fleet neared Calicut, an extraordinary exchange of messages began to fly back and forth between the admiral and the Zamorin.
Gama made no reply until he reached Pantalayini. If the Zamorin wanted to have good relations with him, he finally responded via a Nair soldier who had come along from Cannanore, he must first return all the stolen merchandise; he had one day to comply.
The deadline passed without an answer.
The fleet passed in front of Calicut on October 29 and lined up ominously on the horizon. Soon a new envoy arrived in a boat flying a flag of truce. He was dressed in the habit of a Franciscan friar, and he climbed on board exclaiming “Deo gratias!”—“Thanks to God!” He was quickly unmasked as a Muslim, and he apologized for disguising himself to secure permission to come aboard. He saluted the admiral and made appropriate noises about how welcome he was, then repeated the terms set out in the Zamorin’s first message. Not only had the Portuguese sunk the Mîrî and drowned hundreds of men and women, he added; even now they were hanging the Zamorin’s subjects. Surely their injuries had been more than redressed?
By any reckoning they had been, but Gama was no longer interested in reparations. He was bent on severing the ties that for centuries had bound together peoples and nations. He would not make any treaty, he replied, until every last Arab, visiting or resident, had been expelled from Calicut, “because since the beginning of the world the Moors have been the enemies of the Christians, and the Christians of the Moors, and they had always been at war with each other, and because of that no agreement that we made would stick.” If he wanted peace, he concluded, the Zamorin must never again let an Arab ship into his port.
The Zamorin heard Gama’s outrageous demands and sent back a measured reply. There were more than four thousand Arab households in his lands, he pointed out; among them were many rich and powerful merchants who ennobled his kingdom. For generations his ancestors had welcomed them, and they had always found them to be honest men. Like his forebears, he had received many services from them; to name just one, they had often loaned him money to defend his borders. It would seem to the whole world an ugly and improper act to reward them by forcing them into exile. He would never do such a perfidious thing, and the admiral should not tempt him. He was, though, ready to oblige the Portuguese in any honorable way, and he had sent his ambassadors to express his great desire for peace.
Gama threw down the letter. “An insult!” he growled, and he had the messengers seized.
While the diplomatic wrangling was going on, the Portuguese had been busy capturing fishermen and raiding boats in the backwaters. The illustrious Zamorin had had enough of foreigners treating him as an inferior while they behaved like bloodthirsty pirates, and he sent another envoy with a much less diplomatic message. If the Portuguese wanted peace, he declared, there could be no conditions attached, and if they wanted their goods back, he required compensation for the loss and damage they had inflicted on his city. To begin with, they must return everything they had taken from the Mîrî, which belonged to his people. Calicut, he reminded them, was a free port; he could not prevent anyone from coming there to trade, nor could he send away a single Muslim. If the admiral agreed they would come to terms, but he would give no surety. His word as king was enough, and if the strangers doubted it, they should leave his port immediately and never show their faces in India again.
Gama abandoned all restraint and sent the messenger back with a declaration of war. If he did not receive complete satisfaction, he threatened, he would open fire on the city at noon the next day. The Zamorin need not bother sending any more messages unless they named the sum of money he was ready to pay up. He, a mere knight of the mighty king of Portugal, was a better man than the Indian ruler. “A palm tree,” he exploded, “would make a king as good as him,” and for good measure he threw in some derisory comments about the royal habit of chewing paan.
THAT EVENING, A SUNDAY, the Europeans set their foresails and lined up fifteen ships with their prows jutting at the shore; only the four largest stayed a little back. The Zamorin, they could see, had been expecting them. He had improvised a stockade, by transplanting rows of palm trees near the water’s edge, to obstruct their landings and deflect their fire.
As the gunners shifted the large pieces of artillery to the foredecks, they saw hundreds of lanterns flicker to life like fallen stars on the shore. By their light, men began to crawl around, digging hollows in the beach. Then they hauled over iron cannon and installed them in the sandy emplacements, with the barrels poking out over the top.
When morning came, Gama ordered the front line of ships to anchor as close as possible to the waterfront. As the men took to their battle stations, ranks of defenders emerged from the cover of the palms. There were far more of them than anyone had imagined at night.
Noon on November 1, the appointed day, passed with no reply.
The admiral made his move. On his command, boats went around the fleet distributing the Muslim captives who had been seized over the previous days. Two or three were dropped off at each ship, along with a message to look out for a signal flag on the topmast of the Leitoa.
One hour after midday the flag was run up. On each ship the prisoners’ necks were placed in nooses and the ends of the ropes were thrown over the yards. The struggling men were hoisted to the top and were hung in full sight of the city. Tomé Lopes saw thirty-four bodies jerking amid the rigging; Matteo da Bergamo counted thirty-eight.
On the shore the swelling crowd watched in horror. Gama’s flagship and a caravel each fired a cannonball into their midst, sending them diving for the ground. The rest of the ships opened fire and the Indians fled, throwing themselves into hollows as the stone balls thudded around them and crawling off the beach on their stomachs. The Europeans shouted mocking taunts as they ran away. The men in the sand bunkers fired back, but they only had a few old bombards, their aim was wide of the mark, and they took precious minutes to reload. The ships turned their fire on them, and one by one they surfaced and ran to the town. Replacements inched forward on all fours, but within an hour the beach was deserted.
The bombardment of the city started in earnest. Cannonballs thundered overhead and smashed into the earth walls and thatch roofs of the houses near the shore. Decapitated palm trees splintered, groaned, and toppled. Many men, women, and children were killed, and thousands fled.
With dusk gathering, Gama ratcheted up the terror. As his orders were shouted from ship to ship, the corpses were cut down from the rigging. Their heads, hands, and feet were hacked off, and the body parts were sent to the flagship. Gama had them piled in one of the captured boats. The boat was tied to a ship’s skiff, and a solitary sailor towed it out and left it to float on the tide to the shore.
An arrow stuck out from the bloody heap, and tied to its shaft was a letter from the admiral. In Malayalam, Gama advised the Zamorin to take a good look at the punishment he had meted out to men who had not even been party to the attack on the Portuguese factory—men who were not even residents of the city but merely their cousins. A far more cruel death, he avowed, awaited the murderers. The price of the Christians’ friendship, he added, had risen: now the Zamorin would have to reimburse them not only for the goods he had plundered, but also for the powder and ammunition they had expended in bombarding him to his senses.
The Portuguese tossed the dismembered trunks of the hung men overboard to wash up on the shore with the incoming tide.
As the boat touched the seafront, a few towns people approached and gaped at its ghastly cargo. The Europeans could clearly see the scene in the bright moonlight, and Gama ordered his men not to shoot. It was late at night, but soon large crowds came down to the shore. They turned away in disgust, bewildered and frightened, and trudged back to their homes, some with their relatives’ heads cradled in their arms. The bereaved held a vigil, with no candles or lanterns to light their grief in case the Portuguese tried to set their houses on fire. Until the early hours the dirges and lamentations carried on the breeze to the Portuguese fleet, waking the sailors and plaguing their dreams.
Having given the Zamorin the night to ponder, Vasco da Gama woke early to deliver the coup de grâce. As the new day dawned, he ordered the gunners to prime the biggest artillery. The simple houses near the shore had already been pulverized, and now the cannonballs smashed into the grand mansions on the higher ground behind. Then, no doubt with particular relish, Gama told his men to aim for the Zamorin’s palace. As the hours passed, Tomé Lopes counted more than four hundred cannonballs exploding from the bombards on eighteen ships.
At noon Gama ordered a cease-fire and waited for the Zamorin to surrender. The front line of ships pulled back, but there was no answer from the shore.
The admiral emptied a captured sambuk of its barrels of honey and nuts and distributed the delicacies among the ships. Then he had it anchored near the shore and set on fire. As the Europeans began eating dinner and the warning beacon blazed away, a dozen boats put out from the beach to cut the sambuk’s cable and tow it off. Gama’s men pushed aside their trenchers, climbed into their boats, and rowed over at high speed, chasing the Indians as they headed back to the shore. As they drew near a menacing crowd gathered at the water’s edge. They thought better of getting any closer and retreated to the fleet.
By now darkness had fallen. The sambuk was still smoldering away, and Gama decided he had done enough. Realistically, there was little else he could do. As long as he kept to the water, he had the advantage of massively superior firepower and unseasoned enemies. The famously fierce Nair soldiers were forbidden on religious grounds from eating at sea, and they rarely set foot on board a ship. Their Muslim counterparts labored under no such proscription, but they were traders and sailors, not warriors. In hand-to-hand combat on land, though, the Nairs would have vastly outmatched Gama’s men. The Admiral of India had escalated the standoff with the Zamorin of Calicut into a full-blown war, but like any attacking force that balks at putting boots on the ground, he could only hope that he had applied enough pressure to make the enemy collapse from within.
On November 3, Gama gave the order to depart the half-ruined city. He left Vicente Sodré in command of six ships and a caravel to blockade the harbor and sailed on down the coast to Cochin.
COCHIN WAS AN upstart among the port cities of the Malabar Coast. It was only a century and a half old, and it had been created not by man but by monsoon. Locals still talked of the violent monsoon season of 1341, when the backwaters near the ancient port of Muchiri—a prosperous place well known to the Romans, and to Jews fleeing the Roman destruction of Jerusalem—radically shifted and re-formed into a watery new riddle of islands and lakes. The old harbor had silted up, and a nearby prince had taken advantage of the new landscape to redirect its traffic to his capital.
The city of Cochin was built on a thumb of land at the end of a straggling seaboard peninsula. The thumb was opposed to the north by three heavily wooded fingers; a fourth curled toward the mainland. Vypeen Island, the westernmost finger, nearly brushed the tip of the city, leaving a narrow opening into a skein of calm lagoons and waterways fed by seven major rivers. The harbor was by far the finest on the Malabar Coast, and it had quickly begun to thrive. Cochin’s signature sight—great spidery fishing nets, raised and lowered from the shore on huge wooden pivots—was a legacy of decades of Chinese visitors, and a large community of Jewish merchants had their own quarter and their own prince.
The royal family nursed grand ambitions to outdo its richer and older neighbors, and it was particularly keen on trumping the supercilious Zamorin of Calicut. As the paramount rulers on the coast, the Zamorins had long reserved the right to turn up in Cochin and imperiously pass judgment on whether its kings were fit to serve. The sudden arrival of the Portuguese was too good an opportunity to miss, and Unni Goda Varma, the Cochin raja, had greeted the strangers with open arms. If the Admiral of India was welcome anywhere, it should have been in Cochin.
The fleet sailed into sight on November 7 and a welcoming committee, including the two factors whom Cabral had left behind, immediately hailed the admiral. The city’s Muslim merchants had also been expecting the Europeans. Letters had already reached them from their cousins in Calicut, detailing the death and destruction inflicted on them and appealing for help to lift the blockade. The Christians, they bitterly complained, had even stopped them from fishing and they were on the verge of starvation. The factors told Gama to count on a hostile reception.
There was more news, both good and bad. The factors had also caught wind of a massive armada that had been gathering to make war on the Christians. The Zamorin had reportedly rented and requisitioned more than two hundred ships, and they had sailed out in search of the Portuguese. One of the biggest vessels had crashed into the coast at Cochin, and its crew had revealed that the rest of the vast fleet had been lost in a terrible storm. The king, the factors reported with satisfaction, had seized all the men and had not returned a bean to the Zamorin. As always when the weather was on their side and against their enemies, the Portuguese deduced that the hand of God had worked another miracle and gave thanks for their deliverance.
The same day one of the king’s sons arrived and saluted the admiral. He had come, he explained, especially to thank him for leaving ships belonging to Cochin unharmed as he burned and pillaged his way along the coast. He passed on his royal father’s appreciation for the favor that had been shown to his people out of respect for him; in return, he promised, his father would personally make the most advantageous arrangements to load their ships with spices.
Gama slowly began to unbend. His men set about repairing the ships and clearing space for the bumper cargo they expected. Three days after their arrival the king sent word that it was an auspicious day to start loading, and hillocks of pepper began to pile up on the docks. The prices, though, had yet to be fixed, and the merchants soon went on strike. After four days Gama was forced to ask the king for a meeting. His holds were still empty, and he was running out of places to do business.
The meeting was arranged for the fourteenth, a week after the fleet’s arrival. The admiral set out in a caravel with the usual trumpets, bombards, and standards, and he and his captains sailed into the mouth of the harbor. The king came down to the shore in his palanquin, accompanied by six war elephants and—so claimed a Portuguese sailor—ten thousand men. With his servants fanning him and his ushers holding back the crowds with maces, he drew to a halt. The royal trumpeters lifted their instruments and tooted a tune, and a few cannon fired a salute. The Portuguese responded with their own fanfare and a great blast of their guns. Envoys shuttled back and forth to finalize the diplomatic niceties, but just as the meeting was about to go ahead, the wind whipped up, rumbles of thunder burst the air, and the inky heavens opened. The king sent word that it was a bad omen, and the meeting was rescheduled for two days later.
When Gama returned, the raja was already out in the harbor, seated on a large raft made from four sambuks lashed together and covered with planks. Tomé Lopes noted that the crowds had lost interest, or had not been summoned, and there were only four or five guards with him.
As soon as the admiral’s caravel drew alongside, the king came beamingly on board. In a replay of the scene at Cannanore, Gama gave him—again, with his own hands—more silver basins, jugs, and saltcellars gilded to look like solid gold, together with a throne embellished with silver, a hundred cruzados, a piece of velvet, and two rich brocade cushions. The raja presented the admiral and his officers with more jewels. After a long, cheerful conversation, he agreed to Gama’s conditions and signed off on his schedule ofprices, and the admiral accompanied his floating platform back to the palace jetty.
The merchants grumbled about the prices, but sellers clustered on the shore. The Portuguese began to fill their holds day and night with the exotica of the East: pepper, ginger, cardamom, myrobalans, canafistula, zerumba, zedoary, wild cinnamon, cloves, benzoin, and alum.
Soon Vicente Sodré sailed into view with three of the ships that had stayed at Calicut. It turned out they had had a narrow escape. The Zamorin had secretly prepared another armed fleet of twenty large sambuks to attack them. When it was ready, a flotilla of fishing boats had lured the Christians into the mouth of the river that Gama had crossed in great state on his first visit. The fleet was lying in wait among the palm trees, and the Indians quickly surrounded the European boats on every side, unloosing volleys of arrows. The trapped and wounded men panicked, and they were saved only when a gunner tried to shoot one of the fishing boats, aimed too high, and sent a cannonball smashing down onto the sambuk carrying the captain of the fleet. As it capsized, the Indians went to the rescue, and the Portuguese had enough time to extricate themselves.
With Sodré was an envoy from Cannanore who had arrived in Calicut and had asked to be taken to the admiral. His king, he told Gama, had sent him to say that he would match the prices the Europeans had been given anywhere else, if necessary by making up the difference out of his own pocket; moreover, he would buy any goods they had for sale at the price they set.
Gama dispatched Sodré to check out the story and load the king’s ships. His high-stakes gamble had paid off in the nick of time: instead of letting the European merchants compete to buy spices, he had made the Malabar kings compete for their business. Still, Matteo da Bergamo and his fellow traders continued to grumble about conditions in Cochin. The consignments of pepper had begun to run out, and the European merchandise was as impossible as ever to shift. The city’s merchants were always asking for more money or finding another reason to stop loading, and more than once they rebelled against the king’s orders and refused to trade at all. Several times Gama was forced to pull out his factors and rant to the raja about the dastardly behavior of the Muslims: one day he crept up to his palace and fired off his bombards, in the guise of a fete, while the king pretended to be entertained on his terrace. Nothing was enough for Matteo da Bergamo and his profit-hungry colleagues. “We kept asking ourselves,” the Italian noted, “whether we would be able to load our ships even half full on this voyage.” They were no more enthused by the offer from Cannanore. “The admiral sent three royal ships,” he added, “because no one among us wanted to go there, since from what we had learned they had too little pepper and the cinnamon was of bad quality.”
With the king firmly on the side of the Portuguese, the Muslim merchants hatched a plot. Three farmers approached the Julioa, which was in the harbor to load spices, and sold the sailors a cow. The Hindu king, naturally, got wind of the matter and made a forceful complaint to the admiral; like the Zamorin, on taking the throne he had sworn to protect cows first and Brahmins second. Gama promptly had it proclaimed that his men, on pain of being beaten, were forbidden to buy cows and were immediately to arrest and bring to him anyone who tried to sell anything remotely bovine. The three men came back with another cow and were dragged before the admiral, who sent both cow and captives to the king. They were instantly impaled without trial, reported Tomé Lopes, “in this way, that each one had a stake thrust up through the kidneys and chest that propped up the face, and they were set in the ground, as high as a lance, with the arms and legs splayed and tied to four poles, and they could not pull down the post, because there was a piece of wood across it that held them in place. And so they carried out justice on them, because they sold the said cows.”
It was at that satisfying moment of cross-cultural cooperation that a large party of Indians turned up and announced they were Christians.
THE NEW ARRIVALS told Dom Vasco that they had come on behalf of thirty thousand Christians who lived farther down the coast. They were the descendants, they explained, of the followers of the Apostle Thomas, who was buried in their city. They were, reported Tomé Lopes, “most honorable in appearance,” and they brought offerings of sheep, chickens, and fruit.
Gama’s voyages had revolutionized Europe’s maps, but much of the West’s world picture was still colored by the surmises of scriptural geographers. There was thus nothing in the least surprising about the notion that one of Jesus’s disciples had traveled to India. Farther south, the newcomers explained, was a great trading city called Quilon, and nearby, where the land projected into the sea, the apostle had miraculously built a great church just before he died. St. Thomas, the story went, had arrived dressed in rags on a mission to convert the lowest castes of Indians to the new religion. One day a gigantic log had floated into the harbor and had lodged on the strand. The king had sent many men and elephants to drag it inland, but it refused to budge. The ragged apostle swore he could move it, if the king would give him a piece of land on which to build a church in honor of his Lord. He summoned every carpenter he could find, and they sawed away at the log until they had fashioned the frame and the cladding for the church. At midday Thomas took a scoop and filled it with sand; the sand turned into rice, and the workers were fed. When their work was done, he transformed a wood chip into money to pay them. Soon afterward the apostle assumed the form of a peacock and was shot by a hunter. Having risen into the air as a bird, he had fallen back to earth as a man. He was buried, but his right arm refused to stay in the ground. Every time someone pushed it back under the soil it popped up again the next day. Eventually the grave diggers gave in and left it poking out, and pilgrims flocked to see the miracle from many lands. Some Chinese visitors tried to cut off the arm and take it home, but when they struck it with a sword it finally drew back into the grave.
A touch more prosaically, the visitors explained that the saint’s followers had sent five men out into the world to make contact with their fellow Christians. They had eventually arrived in Persia, where a community of Christians who spoke Syriac, a language similar to Jesus’s Aramaic tongue, had flourished independently of the rest of Christendom for centuries. Ever since, the Persian Church had sent bishops to tend to its Indian flock.
After the long, fruitless search for Prester John, after the initial euphoria at finding countless Christians in India and the dawning realization that they belonged to an entirely different religion, here, at last, were real Indian Christians. True, like their Persian mentors they were Nestorians who emphasised the distinction between the human Jesus and the Son of God, and so strictly speaking, they were heretics. True, their priests wore turbans, went barefoot, and, the German sailor noted, were as black as the other Indians. But they had six bishops, they said mass at an altar before a cross, and they took communion, albeit with soaked raisins instead of wine. It was a start.
Gama welcomed the visitors with great joy and gave them gifts of silk cloth. They asked about Europe’s churches and priests and about the sailors’ homes and habits, and they were astonished to hear how far they had come. They offered to become vassals of the Portuguese king, and as a symbol of their allegiance they brought the admiral a scarlet crook tipped with silver and adorned with little bells, together with a letter from their leaders. Though they were hardly huge in number, they were clearly ready to support their fellow Christians against their Hindu rulers and the Muslims who dominated their cities. If the Portuguese king built a fortress in their neighborhood, they bravely suggested, he could dominate the whole of India.
As the news traveled back to the Christian communities, a second delegation arrived from Quilon in mid-December. They told the admiral that there were plenty of spices in their city, and Gama dispatched three ships down the coast. The Flemish sailor was on board, and he reported that there were “nearly 25,000 Christians” in Quilon who worshipped at “nearly 300 Christian churches, and they bear the names of the apostles and other saints.” When he visited the church of St. Thomas he found it cut off by the sea, and the nearby town, which the Christians inhabited on condition of paying a tribute, was mostly ruined. Still, the Europeans loaded large quantities of pepper and some cinnamon and cloves, which they paid for with cash, copper, and the opium seized from theMîrî.
Back in Cochin the new pepper harvest had at last arrived. Matteo da Bergamo was still complaining that he had to sell his wares at a loss, that Cochin was badly supplied with drugs and precious stones, and that he was being given short measure by the merchants, but the holds were filling up fast. Meanwhile, a caravel returned from Cannanore with the news that Vicente Sodré had not only loaded a bumper haul of spices but had also captured and looted three large vessels at sea. One had had more than a hundred men on board, and most had been captured or killed. If honest trade failed, piracy was always another way to make ends meet.