Calicut & the Discovery of Brazil



It was on the 13th of September 1500 CE, exactly 517 years ago that the first European trading factory was established in Calicut (Kozhikode), Kerala by the Portuguese. While that in itself marked a milestone, what is less well-known is how the journey to Calicut, led the expedition to another great discovery - that of Brazil!  Before they got to the Indian Ocean, a wrong turn, en route to India, led the Portuguese fleet led by Captain Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467- 1520 CE), to discover Brazil!


A wrong turn, en route to India, led the Portuguese fleet to discover Brazil

For millennia, India had been trading with Europe. Indian commodities like spices and textiles were in great demand. However, this trade was dominated by the Arab traders from Oman and Yemen, who served as intermediaries between India and Europe. Arab traders would buy goods at Indian ports and transport them to Basra in present day Iraq and Constantinople (Istanbul) in the Byzantine Empire, where it would be sold to Venetian traders who would further transport it to Europe. However, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman army in 1453 CE marked the end of the great empire of Byzantium and Europe was forced to find a new way, to come east.



Vasco da Gama 
Vasco da Gama |Wikimedia Commons

This  search, marked the beginning of what historians refer to as the ‘Age of Discovery’. Advances in maritime technology meant that new sea routes began to be explored. At the forefront of this charge, were the Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain. Thanks to the patronage of the Portuguese prince and  political leader, Prince Henry, referred to as Henry the Navigator (1394-1460 CE), a new and much lighter ship called the Caravel was developed. This ship was the fastest vessel of the time and it was so light that it could travel fast and be easily manoeuvred. Prince Henry also sponsored the exploration of the coast of Africa. By 1488 CE, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias (1450-1500 CE) had reached the tip of Africa and this in turn helped the Portuguese find the route to the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic. The coveted sea route to India was now almost within reach.


The Caravel was the fastest vessel of the time and could be easily manoeuvred

Not to be left behind and in a hurry to be ‘first’, in 1492 CE the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon funded an expedition led by Christopher Columbus to sail west to find the sea route to the Indes. He of course, famously landed in America instead. Six years later, in 1498 CE, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama finally landed in Calicut. The sea route to India from the Atlantic had finally been discovered, marking a  new era in trade, commerce and in fact - world history.



Pedro Álvares Cabral
Pedro Álvares Cabral|Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1499 CE, Vasco da Gama’s ships returned to Lisbon with riches from India. This created a great sensation in Lisbon and King Manuel I of Portugal, decided to send a new mission to Calicut to sign a treaty with the Zamorin or the King of Calicut for trade rights. On 9th March 1500 CE, a fleet of 13 ships under the command of  Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail for India. While Cabral followed the route used by Vasco da Gama, a change in wind direction led to the expedition discovering a new land!



Pedro Álvares Cabral fleet
Pedro Álvares Cabral fleet|Wikimedia Commons

On the island of Cap Verde, off the coast of Africa, Cabral turned in the south-west direction to catch the westerly winds. After almost 30 days of sailing, the fleet saw land, but this was not India, their intended destination. They had discovered Brazil by mistake! They landed in what is now Porto Seguro, now in Bahia province in Brazil. Cabral called the region Ilha de Vera Cruz or Island of the True Cross. However later, the land came to be called Brazil after the Brazilwood tree or Pau-Brazil in Portuguese, found here. Cabral claimed Brazil for the Portuguese crown and sent one ship back to Lisbon to inform the King of the discovery. Like Columbus, Cabral would forever be remembered for how he discovered a new world.



Pedro Álvares Cabral’s voyage to Brazil and Calicut
Pedro Álvares Cabral’s voyage to Brazil and Calicut|Wikimedia Commons

In May 1500 CE, Cabral decided to continue his intended voyage to India. Through the Cape of Good Hope and Mozambique, the fleet reached Anjediva island off the coast of Goa, on 22nd August 1500 CE. After repairing their ships and gathering supplies, they sailed on to Calicut in September 1500 CE. It was on the 13th September 1500 CE that the Portuguese got permission to set up a factory in Calicut. This would mark a milestone. It was the first European factory to be set up in India.


On the 13th September 1500 CE the Portuguese got permission to set up a factory in Calicut

The factory or Feitoria was not a factory like what we imagine it to be today. It was more like a trading post that was a  combination of a market, a godown and a customs house where purchases would be made and stored to be shipped to Europe. While the factory was set up, there were also growing tensions between the Portuguese and the Arabs, who felt they were losing their hold on trade. Within months of the first factory being set up, it was destroyed.

Portuguese fort at Calicut 
Portuguese fort at Calicut |Wikimedia Commons

On 17th December 1500 CE, heavily armed Arabs attacked the factory and killed more than 60 Portuguese men working there. The factory was completely destroyed. The incensed leader of the Portuguese contingent- Cabral, bombarded Calicut and set it on fire. Angry at the turn of events, Cabral also decided to move base to the neighboring  kingdom of Cochin. The king there, tired of living under the shadow of the powerful Zamorin of Calicut, was only too obliging.

This shift also marked the beginning of the rise of Cochin and the fall of Calicut as the most important trade post in the region.  Cabral would further visit the Kingdom of Cranganore (Kodangallur) where, much to his surprise, he found Malabar Jews and Syrian Christian communities living. Laden with spices, Cabral sailed back for Lisbon and landed back home  on 21 July 1501 CE.

The Portuguese expedition and discovery of Brazil marked a new wave of trade between the continents and many new items came to be included in the exchange. In fact the discovery of Brazil and with it, South America resulted in a wide variety of new influences, especially in cuisine. A number of new foods were introduced to India by the Portuguese.

The setting up of the first factory in Calicut had far reaching significance. It marked the beginning of a new world order and the spread of European imperialism. In the process, new worlds were discovered!

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