Monday, August 14, 2006
Why did the Europeans arrive at Cuddalore?
Extract from an atlas produced for Manuel I in 1519 by Lopo Homen and the Rynel brothers. The major river estuaries along the Coromandel Coast are clearly featured.
It is not entirely clear who the first European’s to arrive in Cuddalore were, or when indeed they first arrived. It is entirely possible that the first Europeans to arrive at Cuddalore was in fact a Roman trader because excavations at Arikamedu  a few miles up the coast near the much later town of Pondicherry was an ancient port and glass bead-manufacturing centre.
It is thought that Arikamedu was the town known to the Greco Roman world as Poduk¢e, The town lay along the eastern bank of River Ariyankuppam near it’s mouth in much the same type of location on the banks of a major estuary as Cuddalore occupied just down the coast.
Archaeological excavations show that it’s peak period was between 100 BC and 100 AD. India occupied a pivotal point in the trade of Asian waters, being visited by fleets of traders following the seasonal monsoon winds.
It is easy from our modern perspective to see the sea as the edge of the world, and as a barrier, but to the very many coastal peoples of Asia, the oceans represented a highway and the easiest route to the rest of the world they knew.
The sea provided the cheapest and easiest route to markets and for travel. As Adam Smith, the famous 19th century economist calculated, “six or eight men, with the help of a craft, can deliver and carry back in the same time, the same quality of goods” as “can be carried by 50 large carts driven by 100 men and drawn by 411 horses”.
To travel inland was to pass through countless communities, each with its boundaries with a Raja’ or Nattar demanding tribute, or his cut from your goods.
For countless centuries before Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator sailed into Calicut on the 27th of May 1498, Arab, Indonesian, Arab, Jewish, and Indian ships had been passing along the coasts of India, in pursuit of pepper, spices, cloth, gold and other precious metals.
It was aboard these ships travelling down the Red Sea and Persian Gulf that came the first adventurous individuals from Europe. Many of these early travellers were Italians from seaports like Marco Polo and Niccolo dei Conti who travelled on board Arab or Indian vessels.
Merchant ships around the world at this period were freighted by groups of merchants who would travel on the ship along with their cargoes. Each traveller each hired his own space on board the ship.
Men like Conti and the other traders who came to India overland via the Middle East had spent so much time along the way, and away from home that in most cases they had learnt to speak local languages like Arabic or Persian, which were widely understood along the trade routes to India and the Far East.
These men were assisted and helped by local middlemen who made their living from the carrying trade in spices and other luxury goods from India to Europe. Each in turn took a cut, until eventually these goods arrived in Venice costing many times their original value in Java or India.
The Zamorin of Calicut initially probably saw the Portuguese as just another remote and slightly more unusual set of traders when they arrived at his port. He can of had no idea of the impact these men would have, or of the technological advantages that these men were acquiring in sea warfare.
Vasco-da-Gama by carrying spices directly from India to Portuguese cut out the profits of dozens of middlemen, and thereby made a huge profit. Pepper became available in Portugal for about one fifth of its price in Venice.
The pepper trade had until this point been "the very milk and nourishment" of Venice. In the 15th century it has been calculated that pepper had made up 60% of the Venetian spice trade, and that the profit margin on spices was about 40%.
Pepper and other spices had reached Venice via Egypt however in 1420’s and 1430’s the Mamluk rulers of Egypt decided to make pepper a royal monopoly. All the pepper from India and Java was transhipped at Jeddah, and the annual amount limited to about 210 tonnes.
The Portuguese rapidly decided to send other expeditions to India and they soon established trade centres at Kozhikode , Kochi and Kannur . Before long they were pushing north along the coast of the Malabar towards Goa, and Surat, the major port on the west coast.
Franciso de Almedia the first governor of the Portuguese possessions in India, concentrated on trade, recognising that his shipping and men in India could be rapidly overwhelmed by the local Indian rulers on land.
Alfonso de Albuquerque, the second governor, appointed as such in 1509 was able to capture a base at Goa. Albuquerque who had first arrived in India in 1503 had certainly pushed beyond Sri Lanka by 1509 for he mounted an attack on Malacca in that year. See http://www.colonialvoyage.com/malacca.html
It is not possible to date the first time the Portuguese sailed past the villages that lined the coast at Cuddalore, but it is likely to have been around 1509, and certainly before 1518 when they had established a post at Paleacate (or Pulicat). The main Portuguese settlement on the coast was founded at Sao Tomè de Melipore by 1522. See http://www.colonialvoyage.com/bengal.html
Presumably these adventurous men were following in the footsteps of the local India traders, seeking out new and potentially even more profitable goods and markets along the Coromandel Coasts.
Writing in 1519 Gaspar Correa explains one of the motive for the Portuguese travelling to the area.
"And because he had it much in charge to obtain all the lac (alacre) that he could, the Governor learning from merchants that much of it was brought to the Coast of Choromandel by the vessels of Pegu and Martaban which visited that coast to procure painted cloths and other coloured goods, such as are made in Paleacate, which is on the coast of Choromandel, whence the traders with whom the Governor spoke brought it to Cochin; he, having got good information on the whole matter, sent a certain Frolentine (sic, frolentim) called Pero Escroco, whom he knew, and who was good at trade, to be factor on the coast of Choromandel. . . .". 
The Portuguese had rapidly learned that many of the best spices came from beyond India, and were probing out along the trade routes to the Spice Islands in what is now Indonesia. Along the way, they must have discovered, as did the Dutch in later years, that what the Indonesian traders really wanted in exchange for spices was the types of textiles made along the Coromandel Coast.
 From http://saintjoseph.chez-alice.fr/sixieme/portugal/atlasind.htm
 See http://www.arikamedu.com/
 See http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9026048
 See http://www-geology.ucdavis.edu/~cowen/~GEL115/115CH7.html
 Lac, a red dye see http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.1:1:368.hobson
 From http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.1:1:893.hobson-- Correa, ii. 567