A Review of ‘Mamale of Cannanore: An Adversary of Portuguese India’, by Geneviève Bouchon
[I recently came across this review of a seminal work by a French Indologist on the maritime and military conflicts between the Portuguese and the Moplahs of Kerala. The tract came out in 1975, published by Droz, as part of the Islamic and Oriental Studies in Comparative History; the review below was published in French, in 1977. What follows is a very loose translation.]
For several years Ms. Geneviève Bouchon has been working on the Portuguese sources regarding the Indian Ocean, to seek information on Asian societies and the commercial networks that animated them long before the Europeans arrived. Her latest study, Mamale of Cannanore, covers the reaction of a Muslim community of Malabar to the impact of the earliest Portuguese arrivals: it is inseparable from two articles published in the earlier Mare Luso-Indicum, dealing respectively with the trade with the island of Ceylon of the same period1, and with the Muslims of Kerala at the dawn of the sixteenth century 2.
In contrast to the few ancient sources, Indian, Arab (e.g., the story of Ibn Battuta), or Chinese (e.g., stories relating to the maritime exploits of Zheng He), the earliest Portuguese documents demonstrate the important role of Muslim mercantile communities in all ports of the Indian Ocean, especially in the ports of Malabar: Cananor, Calicut, Cochin, Kollam, exporters of pepper and ginger, importers of horses and necessary produce for the great Vijayanagar empire that controlled almost all of the Deccan, especially relying on the great oceanic routes that carried spices and other products from the Far East, from Malacca to Aden and Hormuz.
The routes were certainly very old – and G. Bouchon points out inscriptions from the IX century that tell us of the merchant guilds, the Anjuvannam and Manigrâman, and of the positions occupied by the Jews and Christians – but they were to attain prominence in the XIV and XV centuries, with the spread of Islam in India (following the invasions of the Tugluq Sultans) and the arrival of Chinese junks at Calicut. The sources of the time allow us to limn, alongside other communities also participating in the great trade, the Mâpilla Muslim community, particularly well established in Cananor, but also found elsewhere, from the Maldives islands to Ceylon. Married for generations to the local women (originating from the most humble castes), the Mâpilla were relatively well integrated into Indian life, and while they did live on the margins of Hindu society, enjoyed the favour of the king, whom they served as advisers or sometimes as soldiers. They maintained as well a monopoly on the great maritime trade that was prohibited by religious decree to the upper castes. The court, which needed them, favoured them, and they had no reason to want any brutal political change which would bring on the establishment of an Islamic state.
The Mâpillas traded rice and imported cinnamon from Ceylon; they enriched themselves especially in the trade that brought horses from Hormuz for the armies of Vijayanagar. Directly threatened by the arrival of the Portuguese who sought to confiscate the profitable trade of Malabar, they attempted to curb this competition by any means. Not being able to unify the various ports to resist the Portuguese together (the rivalry between the rulers was too bitter), they tried several times to seek help from the naval expeditions that the Mamelukes in Cairo, equally concerned at the Portuguese manoeuvres, sent into the Sea of Oman. But mostly they plied their trade further to the south, relying on transoceanic fleets that directly controlled the Maldives, which was also rich in coir (the coconut fiber necessary for naval ropes and cords), in cowries, in ambergris, in bonito, and slaves.
After the presenting to us the theater of the first confrontation between Portuguese and Muslims – the region of Cananor – the ancient kingdom of Eli – and the “Islands” (Maldives), the author follows the stages of the conflict chronologically. It all starts with the pitiful story of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut, where he is surprised to find Moors able to speak the language of Spain (they, in fact, serve as interpreters for him) – and to find the gifts he brings disdained as barely worthy of the poorest merchant from Mecca (twelve pieces of striped cloth, six hats, two barrels of oil and honey …). But the “restoration” is done soon, a fortress is built at Cananor (St. Angelo’s Fort) and Duarte Barbosa learns Malayalam … (Chapter III).
Then ensues the long history of the fortress that stands firm in 1507 in the face of an epic siege led by the local Hindu king but on the initiative of Muslims (Chapter IV). Chapter V, entitled “Mamale and Albuquerque” tries to reconstruct a vague figure who, for a dozen years until one loses his trace in 1522, appears to have embodied the struggle of the Mâpillas against the Portuguese. Chapter VI traces the final stages of the struggle for control of the Maldives after the death of Albuquerque in 1515, and the progress of Mamale, whom the Portuguese sources refer to with the title of “Regedor do Mar”.
Behind all these maneuvers and these clashes is a social group who, contrary to classical tropes of triumphant conquista, remained intact; and the author deservedly emphasizes the power of the Mâpilla of Cananor, whose success throughout the sixteenth century provoked the breakup of the Hindu kingdom and the advent of the only Muslim dynasty that ever reigned in Kerala, that of Ali Raja.
1. “Les rois de Kötte au début du xvie siècle”, Mare Luso-Indicum. t I. Droz Genève- Paris, 1971, pp 65-96;
2. “Les musulmans du Kerala époque de la découverte portugaise”, Mare Luso-Indicum t. II. 1973 pp 3-59
Lombard Denys. Geneviève Bouchon, Mamale de Cananor. Un adversaire de l’Inde portugaise (1507-1528), Annales, 1977, n° 4, pp. 711-713.