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Book review: The making of fort Kochi

The Portuguese superstars who spiced up life on the Malabar Coast.

Written by E P Unny | Updated: September 17, 2014 10:25:53 am
book-cover-main Book cover: Santa and the Scribes; The Making of Fort Kochi

Book: Santa and the Scribes; The Making of Fort Kochi
Author: EP Unny
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 215
Price: Rs 495

Every move the Portuguese made on the Malabar Coast was action-packed. The very concept of conflict resolution changed with the European advent. The local potentates’ familiar tiffs over territory became sideshows to the full-scale battles the Portuguese waged with the Muslims.

Trade itself happened like commercial breaks in a televised war movie. Muscle and money chased each other all over the place. As the most welcoming port to the Europeans, Kochi got squarely caught between the two. The survivors of every succeeding Portuguese fleet returned from here with spicier tales to tell their grandchildren. Of these the spiciest is the war of 1504.

Kochi for the first time saw a proper WAR — warfare vastly different from the stylised skirmishes of local chieftains that commenced at daybreak on an auspicious hour and ended at sunset. The scribes’ job was made easy by the presence of an eminently inflatable war hero. They are unstoppable in Duarte Pacheco’s defence of Kochi against the forces of Kozhikode, the might of its Muslim ally and the intrigues of petty powers through several battles that in all lasted five long months.

Copious blood and ink were shed in Kochi. Casualties ran to tens of thousands and truth could well have been the first. The Portuguese superman’s post-war glory however, hardly lasted. Back home, Pacheco was imprisoned on charges, later proved false, and was formally rehabilitated and left to die a pauper.

A fate the vanquished Samudri could have readily attributed to heavenly retribution. The Kozhikode court was packed with formidable soothsayers and Brahmins whose curse could stop a marching army — the local archers and wrestlers perhaps, surely not the Portuguese. The Europeans themselves were not vastly rational. They had their own share of superstitions such as shying away from any vital task on Fridays.

One Portuguese governor who skirted this norm was Afonso de Albuquerque, though he was faith-led in other ways.

The Kochi scribe was happy to get a superstar like him close on the heels of an action hero like Pacheco. A true doer who went on to do enough on these shores to ultimately earn the epitaph: ‘And let him that does more than this take precedence of him.’ You can’t afford to be predictably Friday-phobic if you have to sail, trade, negotiate, mediate, maim, kill, compete, plunder and loot, all in the interest of that mighty enterprise called empire building in an alien land.

Albuquerque expanded Gama’s scrappy success story into a novel. Certainly an autobiographical novel and there are no prizes for guessing who the hero was. The man had a self-image that was supremely heroic.

Albuquerque’s role model was apparently Alexander the Great, whose biography in Persian he had read. He found time to actually read in the midst of a million tasks? Believable because either the soldier/sailor himself had a way with words or at least the sense to spot the right scribes who ghost-wrote gor him. Archives are full of his long, persuasive letters to the Portuguese king that justified his expansionist moves here. The elaborate prose comes as a foil to the quick-paced annals of an action-packed era.

The Alexander clone’s triumphs are liberally listed. He fought as fiercely as the legendary Greek, ler the local rules rule once they were humbled and match-made on a grand scale, like him. He was the first to persuade Portuguese soldiers to marry native women by offering generous rewards. In one stroke in Goa, he conducted 450 weddings after duly converting the brides to Christianity. To the newlyweds, he allotted homes, cattle and land.

Albuquerque knew that land grabbing was as vital as seafaring to the consolidation of the first European power on Indian soil. He captured Goa twice and built it into a city with many castles and a mint, held a fortress in Kozhikode and rebuilt Kannur’s mud fort with stone and mortar. And to Fort Kochi he gave a fort that was finally fort enough. A large pucca fort that enclosed most of the town. He also deployed seven large elephants at Kochi’s shipyard on the beach.

Strangely, Kochi doesn’t acknowledge so colossal an achiever even half as heartily as it does Gama, by no means a popular figure in these politically correct times. Gama to his credit died here on Christmas Eve, exactly twenty-four years after Cabral arrived.

His tombstone is eagerly pointed out to every tourist who steps into St. Francis Church. Albuquerque’s sole memorial is a weather-beaten signboard near the Aspinwall House. Hardly the tribute to an imperial hero his countrymen referred to as ‘The Great.’ Almost everyone except his illustrious predecessor in Kochi.

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