The merchant of death

Prequel to the Siege of Anjalakotta

The Anjalakotta or the St Angelo’s Fort has stood the test of time. It has seen time, nature, history and men impending, pausing and parting at Kolathunad. It is the first European fort in India, built in 1502 by the first Portuguese traders in India.

As the story goes, Vasco Da Gama reached Kozhikode in 1498, but could not negotiate a favorable trade terms with the Samoothiri, majorly due the backroom antics and tactics of the king’s advisors and traders who feared loss of business with the coming of the Portuguese. They presented him as an ordinary pirate instead of a royal ambassador.

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Samoothiri meets Gama

Gama packed his bags and was to return empty handed, and the loads of spices he dreamt of carrying back to Lisbon looked like a chimera.

The Samoothiri had a rival up north of his kingdom, at Kola Swaroopam, the ruler of the present day Kannur. Gama had passed by his domains at Ezhimala, Valapattanam and Cannanore, ignoring them, in anticipation of better pastures at Calicut, which never happened. Nevertheless, the Kolathiri, a bit disappointed, bided his time. As the ships with the white flags of the blue cross and the golden crown passed by, he requested a meeting with Gama, through an ambassador who was sent to his ship.

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The sea at Cannanore

Gama, quite disenchanted with the treatment he received from Kozhikode, didn’t want to go back to the shore. Then, as a symbol of camaraderie, the Kolathiri instructed a bridge to be built over the sea, so that he can go forward and meet Vasco. This was done soon enough, and Gama and the Kolathiri had their audience at the one end of the bridge.

The Kolathiri respected and appreciated the intentions of the Portuguese. Calicut was a bigger centre of trade, and the Kolathiri, desperately looked at pure economics. With the Arab traders holding sway over Kozhikode, he needed the Portuguese as much as they needed the favorable terms of trade, to prosper his domain. Although his pepper was considered inferior to the Kozhikode market, he supplied Gama’s ships with all the pepper they needed, and at a good price, and offered him real estate to set up a trading fort at Cannanore.

This piece of land would soon come up as the St Angelo’s Fort, the first foreign fort in India.

A satisfied Gama returned to Lisbon. He held the respect the Kolathiri had given him in high esteem, at the same time, the grudge and the insult meted out to him at Kozhikode lingered at the back of his mind, and thoughts of revenge were taking shape. Without the Kolathiri’s generosity, his voyage would have been a failure, and with the foul play at Kozhikode, the traditional hatred the Portuguese had for the moors in their mind, grew manifold.

The factory at St Angelo’s was built successfully, and was well protected by the Kolathiri’s men, and the trenches all around. It was strategically located facing the Mappila Bay, and could point its guns both to the ships at the Arabian Sea; and the Place of the Arakkal Rulers.

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The design of Fort St Angelo

Gama returned two years later, this time all prepared to teach a lesson to who considered as his enemies who mired the plans of his first voyage.

This time, his armada consisted on seventeen ships, all well equipped with men and weapons to fight a bloody war over the sea and on the land, if required. The Kolathiri was considered an ally, a friend who helped when the need arose. Gama’s anger was pointed towards the moors of Kozhikode and the Samoothiri, whom he considered the enemy now.

Gama scourged the sea for weeks, and got hold of a ship called Meri owned by a Mappila merchant from Kozhikode. It consisted of loads of valuable cargo, and men, women and children who were returning from pilgrimage to Mecca. He held the ship hostage for days, tortured the men, and despite the offer to pay a huge ransom in gold and goods, he paid no heed. The pirate in Gama had woken up, and Malabar was about to witness the cruelty and vindictiveness that they had not seen till then.

The Meri was held hostage near the bay at Ezhimala, which was port of the Kolathiri. The Samoothiri sent emissaries, ambassadors and tried wherever possible in the negotiations of war that they had seen till then to get the people on board saved. But, what he didn’t realize that Gama came from a different world, which did not have the culture and civilized traditions they were aware of.

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The beach at Ettikulam that was witness to Gama’s treachery. My click from Ezhimala.

After days of torture, torment, agony and anguish, the guns from the Portuguese ships finally set the Meri on fire, pushing the men, women and children to a gory death. The sea at Ezhimala turned red, and the first Portuguese viceroy of India became a merchant of death in the eyes of the citizens of Malabar.

This was just about to be the beginning, of a war that would run for centuries, for control of the most lucrative business ever in the world – The Black Gold – The Malabar Pepper; a war, that had many interesting episodes and characters, one of which I will narrate in the next post.

To be continued in “The siege of Anjalakotta”

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Fort St Angelo as it Stands today, my click from inside the ramparts.
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