Post-classical history



FOR MORE THAN two millennia, the passage across the Indian Ocean depended on the simple fact that land heats and cools more quickly than water.

Every September, as the earth’s tilt inclines the Northern Hemisphere away from the sun, the vast Tibetan Plateau loses heat fast. The air above the landmass cools in its turn and sinks, creating a huge pool of high pressure. The Indian Ocean retains its heat much longer, and since warm air rises and leaves a void, the colder air pours down over the plains of North India and across the water. By the end of the year, sailing ships departing from India are blown southwest to Arabia and Africa by a regular, dependable northeast wind.

As summer approaches and the sun climbs in the sky, the deserts, plains, and plateaus of north and central India quickly reach scorching temperatures. The heat forms a low-pressure area that sucks in the cooler, moisture-rich ocean air. The southwesterly winds pick up by May and race across the subcontinent in June, dragging with them banked storm clouds that glower low in the sky. As the air mass roars into the high wall of the Western Ghats in southern India and then the towering Himalayas to the northeast, the clouds are forced upward, the moisture condenses, and the rainfall turns parched sand and soil into fields of fertile coffee-colored foam. After three months the winds reverse direction and the pattern begins all over again.

The winter monsoon—the word comes from the Arabic mawsim, or “season”—dictated the trading calendar of much of the world, from the markets of Alexandria to the annual fairs of northern Europe. Getting to India in the first place, though, required a finer calculation. An Egyptian or Arabian merchant who wanted to bring his goods to market in the shortest possible time would sail with the tail end of the southwest monsoon and return three or four months later. Yet the late-summer monsoon could be a deadly ally. In the 1440s, a Persian ambassador named Abd al-Razzaq was held up at Hormuz until the monsoon was more than halfway through and was paralyzed by the thought of the tempests that tore apart Arab ships and made them easy pickings for pirates:

As soon as I caught the smell of the vessel, and all the terrors of the sea presented themselves before me, I fell into so deep a swoon, that for three days respiration alone indicated that life remained within me. When I came a little to myself, the merchants, who were my intimate friends, cried with one voice that the time for navigation had passed, and that everyone who put to sea at this season was alone responsible for his death, since he voluntarily placed himself in peril. . . . In consequence of the severity of pitiless weather and the adverse manifestations of a treacherous fate, my heart was crushed like glass and my soul became weary of life.

Less troublesome than fainting in a timely manner was to set sail earlier, even if that meant waiting out the torrential summer rains that shut down the ports of southwest India. By sheer luck—or, the Portuguese would later claim, with divine assistance—Vasco da Gama had left Africa at an opportune moment.

For twenty-three days the crews saw nothing but cerulean blue water passing at a regular clip, and on May 18 the lookouts sighted land.

Vasco da Gama stood on his poop deck and gazed at India.

The pilot had guided the ships straight to Mount Eli, a prominent, massy hill traditionally used as a marker by Indian Ocean navigators. A decade earlier Pêro da Covilhã had arrived in exactly the same spot, and like the resourceful spy, Gama was headed for the spice emporium of Calicut.

At night the fleet put out to sea again, steering south-southwest to skirt the coast. The next day they headed back to land, but a heavy thunderstorm made it impossible to see where they were. The day after, a lofty mountain range emerged from its inky wrapping, and the pilot announced that the Portuguese were just five leagues from the object of their quest.

Gama paid him his reward on the spot and summoned the company to prayers, “saying the salve, and giving hearty thanks to God, who had safely conducted them to the long wished-for place.” The prayers soon gave way to celebrations. If there was a time to break out the rum, this was it.

That evening, just before sunset, the little fleet anchored a league and a half offshore, well clear of some treacherous-looking rocks. The crews lined the bulwarks and climbed the rigging to take a good look. In front, glowing in the sun’s last rays, was a half-mile-long crescent of fine golden sand backed by coconut palms and fir trees. The bay was protected at each end by a rocky promontory, and an old temple perched on a crag to the north. It was a paradise beach, and after nearly a year at sea it looked every bit the Promised Land conjured up in so many travelers’ tales.

Soon four boats approached and the sailors, nut brown and naked except for small cloths around their waists, hailed the strangers and asked where they were from. Some were fishermen, and they climbed on board to proffer their catch. Gama told his men to buy everything they were offered at the price they were asked, and the fishermen doubtfully bit the silver coins to see if they were real. The captain-major was rewarded with the information that the fleet was anchored near a town called Kappad, which the pilot had mistaken for Calicut.

The next day the Indians returned, and Gama sent the degredado who spoke Arabic with them to Calicut.

While the convict was being introduced to two astonished merchants from Tunis, no doubt on the grounds that they came from far to the west as well, the fleet moved in front of the city itself. Gama took in the scene. A broad sweep of beach was backed by tall coconut palms bent inland like reeds by the monsoon winds. Behind, backed by a range of tall hills, Calicut sprawled for miles amid lush palm groves.

The emissary soon returned, and with him came one of the merchants. The explorers soon took to calling him Monçaide, a Portuguese corruption of his Arabic name.

Monçaide was still in shock at the appearance of Europeans in India—and far from the most likely Europeans at that.

“Why,” he and his colleague had asked their unexpected caller, “does the King of Castile, the King of France, or the Signoria of Venice not send men here?”

“The king of Portugal,” he had dutifully replied, “would not allow them.”

“He does the right thing,” the two men had replied with wonder.

The merchants had taken the convict to their lodgings for a snack of bread and honey, and Monçaide had set out to see the ships with his own eyes.

“A lucky venture,” he exclaimed in Spanish as soon as he stepped on board, “a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds! You owe great thanks to God, for having brought you to a country holding such riches!”

The entire crew stood gape-mouthed.

“We were greatly astonished to hear this talk,” recorded the Chronicler, “for we never expected to hear our language spoken so far away from Portugal.” Several of the sailors wept for joy. “They all then joined in humble and hearty thanks to the Almighty, by whose favor and assistance alone this great happiness and good fortune had been accorded to them.”

Gama embraced the man from Tunis and made him sit down beside him. Rather hopefully, he asked if he was a Christian.

The answer momentarily took the shine off things. Monçaide frankly explained that he was from the Barbary Coast and had come to Calicut via Cairo and the Red Sea. He had met Portuguese merchants and sailors, he explained, in his former home, and he had always liked them. He would do anything he could to help.

The captain-major, who was too invigorated to be too discouraged, thanked him and promised to reward him handsomely. He was very happy to meet him, he added; God must have sent him to advance the great mission.

The conversation passed on to Calicut and its ruler, the Samutiri, whom the Portuguese soon started calling the Zamorin. He was a good and honorable man, said the Tunisian, and he would gladly receive an ambassador from a foreign king, especially if he had valuable merchandise for sale. The Zamorin was very rich, he added, and all his revenue came from the customs he levied on trade.

MONÇAIDE WAS NOT exaggerating. Calicut was the busiest port in India, and for more than two centuries it had been the keystone of the international spice trade. A great bazaar stretched inland for a mile, its open-fronted shops busy late into the night and heaped, as the Portuguese soon discovered, with “all the spices, drugs, nutmegs, and other things that can be desired, all kinds of precious stones, pearls and seed-pearls, musk, sanders, aguila, fine dishes of earthen ware, lacker, gilded coffers, and all the fine things of China, gold, amber, wax, ivory, fine and coarse cotton goods, both white and dyed of many colors, much raw and twisted silk, stuffs of silk and gold, cloth of gold, cloth of tissue, grain, scarlets, silk carpets, copper, quicksilver, vermilion, alum, coral, rose-water, and all kinds of conserves.” Pepper, ginger, and cinnamon were grown in the hinterland and were sold in vast quantities; the other spices and exotic goods were brought in convoys from points to the southeast. Platoons of porters plodded up and down the streets betweenoverflowing warehouses, bent double under the weight of the sacks on their backs, stopping every so often to rest their loads on long, hooked staffs.

At this time of year the harbor was virtually empty, but soon it would fill up with the fleets from Aden, Hormuz, and Jeddah that carried the produce of India to Arabia and Iran, Egypt and Europe. The Chinese, too, had been regular visitors until the Central Kingdom had retreated into splendid isolation. The visiting merchants were not attracted by Calicut’s port facilities—the Portuguese had already discovered that the stony seafloor gave little purchase to their anchors, there was no protection against the monsoon winds, and closer to land, the water was too shallow for all but the smallest boats—but by its carefully cultivated reputation for probity. The Iranian ambassador Abd al-Razzaq, when he finally made it to India, reported that merchants from far-flung ports were so confident in the security and justice of Calicut that they sent their valuable cargoes for sale without even bothering to keep an account: “The officers of the custom-house,” he explained, “take upon themselves the charge of looking after the merchandise, over which they keep watch day and night. When a sale is effected, they levy a duty on the goods of one-fortieth part; if they are not sold, they make no charge on them whatsoever.”

Locals told the story of a rich Arab merchant who was passing by when his ship began to sink under the weight of the gold he had brought from Mecca. He moored in the harbor, built a granite cellar in the Zamorin’s basement, and filled it with his treasure. When he returned to the city, he broke open the cellar and found everything intact. He offered half to the ruler, who declined any reward. From then on the merchant refused to trade anywhere else, and the bazaar was born. Another legend held that an Arab merchant arrived one day with a challenge in the form of a pickle box, which he entrusted to the ruler’s safekeeping. Every other king whom he had tested in the same way had opened the box and had stolen the gold he found inside, but the Zamorin came after him. “Youmistook one thing for another,” he pointed out. “This is not pickles but gold.” That merchant, too, reputedly settled in Calicut.

Gama sent Fernão Martins and another messenger to the virtuous Zamorin, with the helpful Monçaide as their guide. Meanwhile, the Portuguese took the opportunity to find out more about his people.

Their first discovery seemed to confirm everything they had dreamed of for decades.

“The city of Calicut is inhabited by Christians,” recorded the Chronicler.

True, they were unorthodox Christians. “They are of a tawny complexion,” he observed. “Some of them have big beards and long hair, whilst others clip their hair short or shave the head, merely allowing a tuft to remain on the crown as a sign that they are Christians. They also wear moustaches. They pierce the ears and wear much gold in them. They go naked down to the waist, covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this, for the others manage as best they are able.”

“The women of this country,” he ungallantly added, “as a rule, are ugly and of small stature. They wear many jewels of gold round the neck, numerous bracelets on their arms, and rings set with precious stones on their toes. All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant.”

To the newcomers’ dismay there were, though, plenty of Muslims in Calicut. They were dressed in fine long coats and silk turbans embroidered with gold, they carried knives with silver hafts and sheaths, and they worshipped in elegant, pagoda-like mosques. One traveler observed that, unlike the majority of the Indians, who were “commonly very hayrie, and rough upon the breast, and on their bodies,” the Muslims of Calicut were “verie smoth both of haire and skin, which commonly they annoint with Oyle to make it shine.” They were also, he added, “verie arrogant and proud.”

Martins and his companions soon discovered that the Zamorin was staying in a palace some way down the coast. The three men set off through vast deciduous and evergreen forests, marveling at the strange birds and fruits and watching warily for tigers, leopards, and pythons. When they reached the royal residence they announced, as Gama had instructed them, that an ambassador had arrived with letters from the great king of Portugal. If the Zamorin wished it, they added, he would come to him in person.

The Zamorin, who in the way of kings was not much inclined to betray surprise, undoubtedly had no notion of what or where Portugal was. In reply to his questions Martins explained that they were Christians from far away who had endured many dangers to reach his city. The answer seemed satisfactory, and the three men returned to Calicut with a large quantity of fine cotton and silk and a message for the ambassador. He was most welcome, the Zamorin said, and he need not trouble himself to make a long journey, because the royal party was about to set out for Calicut.

Gama was struck by the friendly tone of the message, and he was even more pleased when a pilot arrived with orders from the Zamorin to conduct the fleet to a safer anchorage. The harbor of Pantalayini, the pilot civilly explained, was four leagues north of Calicut, but it was usual for large ships to anchor there; the water was deeper, and a mudbank offered some shelter from the monsoon-whipped sea.

The Portuguese had been watching the worsening weather with alarm. In the evenings the ocean was an angry gray-green under banked storm clouds. Suddenly the wind whipped the shore, the rain splattered the land, and without warning men and women were lashed and blown along the unprotected coast. The ships had barely held their position, and the captain-major immediately gave the order to set sail—though for all the signs of favor, he still exercised caution. “We did not,” noted the Chronicler, “anchor as near the shore as the king’s pilot desired.”

The fleet had no sooner reached its new berth than a messenger arrived and announced that the Zamorin had already returned to the city. Straightaway a party of dignitaries turned up to escort the visitors to the palace. At its head was the wali, or governor, of Calicut, who was also the chief of police and came attended by two hundred guards. The tall, slender soldiers were an arresting sight to the Europeans. They went barefoot and naked from the waist up; below the waist they wore a dhoti, a white cloth passed between the legs and tied at the back. Their long hair was knotted in a bunch on their heads, and they were never seen without their weapon of choice: sword and buckler, bow and arrows, or pike.

Despite the large turnout, Gama decided it was too late in the day to set off. He had another reason to delay. That night, he called a council of his principal officers to discuss whether he should break his own rule and go ashore in person.

His cautious older brother strongly objected. Though the natives were Christians, Paulo argued, there were many Muslims among them who were Vasco’s mortal enemies. They would use every means to destroy him, and however friendly the Zamorin seemed to be, he could not bring him back from the dead. Besides, the Muslims were inhabitants of the place; his brother was a complete stranger. The Zamorin might even be in league with them to kill or capture him; the voyage would then be ruined, their toil would have been in vain, and they would all be destroyed.

All the officers took Paulo’s side, but Gama had already made up his mind. It was his job to seal a treaty with the Zamorin, he insisted, and to procure the spices that would prove their discovery of the true Indies. The Zamorin might take it as an insult if someone went in his stead. He could not possibly explain to anyone else what to say and do in every situation that might arise. He was going to a Christian city, and he did not intend to be gone long. He would rather die, he vowed, than neglect his duty—or see someone else claim the credit.

The young commander had the hand of history at his back. His brother made no more objections.

The next day, May 28, Gama buckled his gilded belt around his waist and ran his sword into its scabbard. He fastened his gilt spurs onto his buskins, and placed his stiff, square cap, like the birettas worn by priests, on his head. When his ceremonial dress was complete, he emerged from his cabin ready to represent his king. Paulo was left in charge of the ships; Nicolau Coelho was to wait every day in a well-armed boat, as near the shore as was safe, until the delegation returned.

Gama had chosen thirteen men to accompany him. Among them were Diogo Dias and João de Sá, the scribes of the Gabriel and Rafael, and the interpreter Fernão Martins. The Chronicler was also one of the party. They were dressed in their finest clothes, the boats were decked out with flags, and the trumpeters blew a fanfare as the sailors rowed to the shore.

The wali stepped forward to greet the captain-major. A throng of onlookers had gathered, and they pressed in to catch a glimpse of the strangers. “This reception was friendly,” noted the Chronicler, “as if the people were pleased to see us, though at first appearances it looked threatening, for they carried naked swords in their hands.”

The reception committee had provided a palanquin for Gama’s use, and he sat on the padded seat. Six strong Indians hoisted the bamboo poles onto their shoulders, the wali climbed into his own palanquin, and the convoy set off along the dirt road to Calicut.

When they reached the small town of Kappad, off which the fleet had first anchored, the porters set down the chairs in front of a handsome house. A local notable was waiting for them, and he gestured them to come inside and eat. Gama stoutly refused the proffered delicacies; his less scrupulous entourage tucked into a meal of well-buttered boiled fish and strange fruits. No doubt the Portuguese wondered at the cow dung that was spread over the floor, partly to fend off the columns of ants that marched everywhere. “They can keep nothing free from being destroyed by these little Animals, to prevent which they have also Cupboards born upon Piles, set in Vessels full of Water, where the Ants drown themselves by thinking to mount up,” observed one European traveler.

After breakfast the party resumed its journey. Still some way from the town they came to a broad river that flowed parallel to the coast before turning toward the sea. The Indians helped the visitors into two lashed-together canoes, then climbed into dozens more craft that bobbed around them. More curious locals watched from the thickly wooded banks. As the boats pushed off into the middle of the river, the Portuguese caught sight of the silvery skein of backwaters that stretched far inland and the large ships that were drawn up high and dry on their banks.

The company disembarked about a league upriver, and Gama returned to his palanquin. Everywhere the land was divided into large walled gardens, with large houses just visible through the tall trees. Women cradling children in their arms came out to watch and joined the burgeoning procession.

After several hours the visitors finally arrived on the outskirts of Calicut itself. To their deep satisfaction, the first building they saw was a church.

It was a strange church, to be sure.

The complex was old and huge, the size of a monastery. It was built of rust-colored laterite blocks topped with slanting tiled roofs and a pagoda-style porch. In front was a slender bronze pillar as tall as a mast, with the figure of a bird, apparently a rooster, on top, and a stouter second pillar the height of a man. Seven small bells hung from the walls in the entrance.

Gama and his men stepped inside. The passage led to a large hall, which was lit by hundreds of lamps and smelled strongly of incense and smoke. In the center was a square chapel made of stone, with stone steps leading up to a bronze door.

The party was received by a procession of priests who were naked from the waist up, except for three threads slung across their chests like a deacon’s stole. Four went inside the sanctuary and pointed toward a statue hidden in a dark recess.

“Maria, Maria,” they seemed to the Portuguese to chant.

The Indians prostrated themselves on the floor, and the visitors knelt, too, in adoration of the Virgin Mary.

The priests doused the guests with holy water and offered them a white earthlike substance that, the Chronicler noted, “the Christians of this country are in the habit of putting on their foreheads, breasts, around the neck, and on the forearms.” Gama submitted to the dousing, but he handed one of his men his portion of white earth, which would turn out to be partly composed of sacrificial ashes, and gestured that he would put it on later.

Having said their prayers, the explorers looked around them. The walls were covered with colorful portraits of figures they assumed to be saints—though since they boasted “teeth protruding an inch from the mouth, and four or five arms” and looked as ugly as devils, they were clearly an exotic species of saint.

With the ceremony over, the party emerged blinking into the light. Sunk into the ground outside was a huge brick tank filled to the brim with water, lotus flowers floating on the surface, not unlike many others the visitors had seen along the road. They paused to wonder at its purpose, then followed their hosts through a gate into the heart of the city.

The journey halted for a tour of another ancient church paired with another rectangular reservoir. By the time Gama and his men came out, crowds jammed the arrow-straight streets as far as they could see, and the beleaguered foreigners were hustled into a house to await rescue by the wali’s brother. He eventually arrived, attended by soldiers firing muskets and a marching band playing drums, trumpets, and bagpipes. The explorers’ entourage, the Chronicler noted, now included two thousand armed men; by one account, there were five thousand people trying to accompany them through the streets. India was turning out to be an unexpectedly frantic place.

The procession set off again, with more locals joining in and others lining the roofs and windows of the houses. As they finally drew near the Zamorin’s palace, the sea of heads stretched so far that it was impossible to guess at their number. Despite the tumult, though, the Portuguese were struck by the great delicacy and respect shown the captain-major—“more than is shown in Spain to a king,” remarked the Chronicler.

It was already an hour before sunset. In the square outside the entrance to the sprawling complex, royal servants were handing out coconuts and pouring fresh water from gilded pitchers set on tables under shady trees. A fresh committee of distinguished-looking figures came out to meet the visitors and joined the ranked dignitaries surrounding the captain-major. Everyone struggled on through the great gate, where ten doorkeepers bearing silver-mounted sticks were stationed.

“They little think in Portugal how honorably we are received here,” Gama said to his men, a touch of wonder escaping beneath his usual imperturbability.

Inside was a vast leafy courtyard, with offices and lodgings dotted around amid flower beds, orchards, fish ponds, and fountains. A series of four doorways led to the audience court, and here the crush was so bad that courtesy bowed to necessity. The Portuguese had to force their way through, “giving many blows to the people,” while more porters lay about them with sticks.

A small, wizened figure who turned out to be the Zamorin’s chief priest emerged from the last door. He embraced the captain-major and ushered him into the royal presence. There was room for two or three thousand people in the court, but the excitement to get inside was so great that the Portuguese had to shove and batter even harder, while the Indians brandished knives and slashed several men. When the main party was through, the porters shouldered the door shut, fastened it with an iron bar, and mounted guard.

In the evening light, Vasco da Gama finally came face-to-face with the man he had come twelve thousand miles to meet.

The Samutiri Tirumulpad, King of the Hills and the Waves, was arranged like a Roman emperor on a mound of crisp white cotton cushions. The cushions were piled on a fine white cotton sheet, the sheet was draped over a well-padded mattress, and the mattress rested on a couch covered in green velvet. The floor was carpeted with the same velvet, the walls were hung with more precious drapes in a rainbow of colors, and above the couch was a canopy, “very white, delicate and sumptuous.” The Zamorin was dressed in a long cotton sherwani, a coatlike garment worn open at the front, with his chest uncovered and a sarong-like lunghi knotted around his waist. The effect was of expensive simplicity, offset by the heavy jewels set in his ears and on his belt, bracelets, and rings. To his right was a gold stand supporting a cauldron-sized gold basin heaped with the royal drug of choice—paan, made from sliced areca nuts mixed with spices and lime made from oyster shells and wrapped in bitter betel leaves. A dedicated paan attendant stood by preparing the stimulating mixture, and the Zamorin chewed it nonstop. By his left hand was a huge gold spittoon into which he ejected the remains, and another attendant stood ready to moisten his palate with liquid refreshment from an array of silver jugs. Perhaps the visitors paused to think that much of Europe’s bullion ended up here, where it was hoarded as treasure and worked into elaborate ornaments and until now had never been seen again.

Gama approached the Zamorin. He bowed his head, raised his hands high and touched his palms together, then made two fists in the air. He had been practicing the local etiquette, and he repeated the greeting twice more as he had seen the Indians do.

His men followed suit.

The Zamorin beckoned the captain-major closer. Gama, though, had been told that only the paan page was allowed to approach the royal person. He was determined not to cause offense, and he stayed put.

Instead the Zamorin cast his eyes over the rest of the Portuguese contingent and gave orders for them to be seated where he could see them. The thirteen men sat down on a raised stone pavement that ran around the court. Servants brought water for washing their hands and peeled small bananas and huge jackfruit for them. The visitors had never encountered either before, and they stared at them like confused children. The Zamorin watched them with languid amusement and made some wry comments to his paan attendant, revealing teeth and gums stained a deep orangey-red from too much chewing. For the foreigners’ next trial, the servants handed them a golden ewer and signaled that they were to drink without touching the vessel to their lips. Some of the men poured the contents straight down their throats and started choking, while the rest tipped it over their faces and clothes. The Zamorin chortled even more.

Vasco da Gama had been given a seat facing the royal couch, and the Zamorin turned back to him and invited him to address his remarks to the assembled court. Later on, he indicated, his courtiers would inform him what had been said.

Gama demurred. He was the ambassador of the great king of Portugal, he declared, covering his mouth with his hand—the correct method of address, he had been told, to stop his breath from sullying the royal air. His message was for the Zamorin’s ears only.

The Zamorin seemed to approve. A retainer ushered Gama and Fernão Martins, the Arabic-speaking interpreter, into a private chamber. The Zamorin followed with his chief factor, his head priest, and his paan supplier, who he explained were his trusted confidants. The factor, the Zamorin’s commercial agent, was instantly recognizable from his clothing as a Muslim, but whatever the visitors’ misgivings, his presence was essential: the addresses of the king and the ambassador—one speaking the local Malayalam language, the other Portuguese—had to be translated via Arabic.

The rest of the Portuguese delegation stayed outside, where they watched an old man struggle to remove the royal couch and tried to catch a glimpse of the princesses who peeked down from an upstairs gallery.

Inside the chamber the Zamorin arrayed himself on another couch, this one covered with gold-embroidered cloths, and asked the captain-major what he wanted.

Vasco da Gama gave his big speech, and the Chronicler later set it down.

He was the ambassador of the king of Portugal, Gama explained, who was the lord of many countries and was far richer than any Indian ruler. For sixty years his king’s ancestors had sent ships to discover the sea route to India, as they knew that there they would find Christian princes like themselves, of whom the Zamorin was the chief. This alone was the reason they had ordered India to be discovered, and not because they sought gold or silver, which they already had in such plenty that they had no need of any more. Successive captains had voyaged for a year, even two, until their provisions had run out and they had been forced to return home without finding what they sought. A king named Manuel was now on the throne, and he had commanded himself, Vasco da Gama, to take three ships and not return until he had met the ruler of India’s Christians, on pain of having his head cut off. His king had also entrusted him with two letters for the Zamorin, but as it was now past sunset he would present them the following day. In return, King Manuel requested that the Zamorin send ambassadors to Portugal; it was the custom among Christian princes, Gama added, and he did not dare show himself before his lord and master unless he had with him some men from Calicut. Finally, he finished, he was instructed to inform the Zamorin personally that the Portuguese king desired to be his friend and brother.

The captain-major was welcome to Calicut, the Zamorin more succinctly replied. On his part he held him as a friend and brother, and he would gladly send envoys to his king.

It was getting late, and the Zamorin asked—so the Portuguese understood—whether the visitors wished to stay the night with Christians or Muslims.

If the Zamorin was still puzzled about the newcomers’ origins, Gama was still mindful of his narrow escape in Africa. “With neither,” he warily replied, and he begged the favor of lodgings of his own. It was clearly an unusual request, but the Zamorin ordered his factor to provide the strangers with everything they needed. With that Gama took his leave, highly satisfied with the commencement of his business.

By now it was ten o’clock. During the interview the monsoon had crashed with full force on the city, and the rain was coming down in sheets. Gama found his men sheltering on a terrace lit by the flickering flames of a giant iron lamp. There was no time to wait out the storm, and with the factor in the lead they set off for their lodgings.

Shuddering rolls and claps of thunder filled the air, low flashes of lightning tore the sky, and sudden cloudbursts turned the streets into muddy rivers. Even so, large crowds were still milling around outside the palace gates, and once again they attached themselves to the procession.

The captain-major was ushered to his palanquin, and the six porters hoisted him onto their shoulders. The rest of the visitors trudged through the mud. As the storm bore down and the crowds pressed in, they found themselves lost at night in a foreign land, without even a room to call their own.

The city was large and scattered, and the lodgings Gama had asked for were a long way off. He was exhausted after the day’s excitement, and as the journey wound interminably on, he crossly asked the factor if they were going to be out all night.

The factor obligingly ordered a change of direction and took the visitors to his own house.

The Portuguese were shown into a large courtyard enclosed by a broad verandah with an overhanging tiled roof. Carpets were spread everywhere, and more huge lamps illuminated every corner. To sailors used to shipboard living it was a sumptuous and somewhat disconcerting sight.

When the storm died down the factor sent for a horse to take the captain-major the rest of the way to his quarters. It turned out that the Indians rode bareback and there was no saddle. Ambassadorial dignity did not allow for sliding off into the mud, and Gama refused to mount. A day of ceremony was fast turning into a night of farce.

Eventually the Portuguese reached their lodgings and found some of their men already there. Among the items they had carried from the ships was the captain-major’s much-needed bed.

The sailors had also brought with them the gifts earmarked for the ruler of Calicut. In the morning Gama had them laid out, and the Chronicler made an inventory:

Striped cloth, 12 pieces

Scarlet hoods, 4

Hats, 6

Coral, 4 strings

Brass hand basins, 6 in a case

Sugar, 1 case

Oil, 2 barrels

Honey, 2 casks.

Nothing could be presented to the Zamorin without first passing it by the wali and the factor, and Gama dispatched a messenger to notify them of his intention. The two men came to examine the goods and burst out in incredulous laughter.

These were not things to offer a great and rich king, they lectured the stony-faced captain-major. The poorest merchants from Mecca or anywhere in India gave better gifts. Gold was the only thing that would do; these trifles, the king would never accept.

The two men continued to scoff, and Gama’s face fell. He hastily improvised to cover his embarrassment. He had brought no gold, he said; he was an ambassador, not a merchant. His king had not known whether he would reach India, and so he had not given him suitably regal gifts. What he had offered was his own, and it was all he had to give. If King Manuel ordered him to return to India, he would certainly entrust him with a splendid tribute of gold, silver, and much more. Meanwhile, if the Zamorin would not take what he offered, he would send it back to the ships.

The officials were unmoved. It was the custom, they maintained, for every stranger who was favored with a royal audience to make an appropriate donation.

Gama tried again. It was very proper, he agreed, that their custom should be observed, and he therefore desired to send these gifts, which were more valuable than they seemed for the reasons he had said. Again the two men bluntly refused to forward the insulting items.

In that case, replied the captain-major, he would go and speak with the Zamorin and then return to his ship. He meant, he added icily, to tell him exactly how things stood.

The wali and the factor at least acquiesced in this. If Gama waited a short while, they said, they would conduct him to the palace themselves. Since he was a stranger, the Zamorin would be angry if he went about alone; besides, there were large numbers of Muslims in the city and he needed an escort. With that, they left him to cool his heels.

It was a humiliating moment, and it exposed a flaw in Portugal’s entire plan to infiltrate the East—a flaw so glaring, it seems incredible it was not foreseen.

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