Malabar, Europeans and the Maritime Trade of

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Malabar, Europeans and the Maritime Trade of

In the sixteenth century, prior to the arrival of Europeans, the maritime region of Malabar on the southwest coast of India had the enviable reputation of being the most hospitable of trading havens in the Indian Ocean. Constituted by geography as a robust and self-contained coastal unit with access to a productive pepper-growing hinterland, the region was dotted with ports that carried on a thriving commerce in pepper and spices in the markets of the Indian Ocean. There was, in addition to the high-seas trade with West Asia, a substantial coastal trade that connected the Malabar ports with Kanara and Gujarat further north along the west coast of India and with the Coromandel in India's southeastern littoral. Malabar's exports consisted primarily of pepper and spices, while imports were rice and textiles from Gujarat and Bengal, as well as bullion and horses from West Asia.

Politically, the region was fragmented among a series of contenders and local suzerains, of whom the most influential was the zamorin of Calicut, followed by the rulers of Cannanore, Cochin, and Vynad. The actual business of commerce was, by and large, dominated by three merchant groups: (1) the pardesis or foreign merchants; (2) the Mapillas, the local Muslim merchant community; and (3) the Chetties, a Tamil merchant caste, who were prominent as money changers and coral merchants and transacted the trade with the Coromandel. The pardesis enjoyed a special status in most of the Malabar ports and especially in Calicut, where the zamorin scrupulously safeguarded their interests. It was not surprising, therefore, that this group played a major role in resisting the European offensive that came with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1499.

Shipping and seafaring in Malabar drew the appreciation of early European travelers and traders. The Mapillas were considered excellent sailors and ship owners, as well as courageous fighters. Coastal shipping was dominated by fast oarand sail-powered vallams (a type of Indian boat). The fast-moving Malabar galleys, built in the shipyards of Cochin and Calicut, were also ubiquitous in the coastal circuit. Fleets of twenty to thirty Malabar galleys swarmed the Arabian Sea, pouncing on vulnerable ships. Oceangoing vessels in Malabar seem to have been smaller, in terms of tonnage, than their counterparts in Gujarat.

The Portuguese discovery of the direct sea route to India, which they hoped to use to dominate the pepper traffic between India and Europe and to discover potential Christian allies, as part of their crusading zeal, was followed almost immediately by the articulation of superior claims to trade in the Indian Ocean and the establishment of a seaborne empire to enforce a monopoly on trade in pepper and spices. This took the form of constructing garrisons and fortified settlements in select Malabar ports, establishing pepper agreements with the rulers who were obliged to turn over a portion of their pepper production to the Portuguese at fixed prices, and imposing a policy of trading permits (cartazes) that local merchants were obliged to purchase, thereby confining them to designated routes and commodities. These measures specifically targeted pardesi merchants, who were forbidden from carrying pepper, thus turning over the traffic to Portuguese shipping.

Throughout the sixteenth and a considerable part of the seventeenth century, an overwhelming proportion of the pepper imported from Asia into Lisbon was procured from southwestern India. Against the total of approximately 17,300 quintals (1,907 short tons) of pepper imported into Lisbon in 1506, the average amount imported from Cochin alone in 1506 and 1507 was 13,214 quintals (1,457 short tons), while the total amount imported into Lisbon was 20,020 quintals (2,207 short tons) in 1513 and 20,415 quintals (2,250 short tons) in 1514. In the early part of the seventeenth century, this increased even further; between 1612 and 1634, pepper procured at Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) accounted for only 3.26 percent of the total amount shipped to Lisbon.

The arrival of the Portuguese completely altered the terms of trade in the Indian Ocean and introduced for the first time the idea of armed commerce. Malabar was probably the most traumatized region as a result of the European intrusion, and the consequence was a largescale militarization of coastal society. The sixteenth century witnessed a state of endemic conflict, which threw into disarray existing patterns of trade and commercial activity on the Malabar coast. Local resistance to the Portuguese took the form of occasional attacks on Portuguese ships and avoidance of the cartaz, thereby establishing a parallel network of ports. Two groups stand out in the annals of Malabar's resistance—the Mamales of Cannanore and the Kunajalis, the admirals of the zamorin. As coastal chieftains, who jealously defended their right to trade in the ocean, especially in the Maldives, they mounted an armed resistance that was sustained and successful. Endorsed by Malabar's rulers like the zamorin they were able to undermine the Portuguese monopoly.

The seventeenth century saw the entry of the Dutch and the English into the Indian Ocean and the waning of Portuguese influence in Malabar. By the beginning of the century, most of the commercial powers in the region had come to terms with the Portuguese. Calicut and Cannanore resumed their trade with the Red Sea. Coastal traffic with Gujarat and the Coromandel was renewed and the result was an overall expansion in the region's overseas trade.

Regular sailings of the Dutch into Malabar followed after their initial conquest of Kandy in Ceylon. In 1660 the Dutch took control of the fort of Coylan; in 1663 the capital fort of Cochin was occupied; and in 1664 the Dutch occupied Cannanore and Cranganore. At the same time, a treaty was entered into with the raja of Cochin. This agreement confirmed the raja's vassal status, and in theory ensured regular supplies of pepper at fixed prices. There was also a provision intended to exclude other competitors—Asian and European—from trade in those commodities.

All these arrangements did not immediately result in a substantial expansion of Dutch commerce, however. Dutch trade in Malabar never assumed the importance that it enjoyed in the contiguous region of the Coromandel. On the basis of available figures for Dutch exports of pepper from Malabar, it would appear that the Dutch shipped out of Malabar about 2,700 quintals in some years, to a high of 11,000 quintals in others. In most years, the exports were closer to 680 quintals. The English East India Company, on the other hand, began to step up its operations in Malabar from about the 1670s.

The total volume of European trade in Malabar in the seventeenth century appears to have been small. In all, the total European exports of pepper would have added up to more than 18,000 quintals (about 4 million pounds) in the last years of the seventeenth century. This constituted less than a quarter of the total pepper production, which continued to be absorbed into the trade of Asia. However, private European investment in the country trade of Asia became increasingly important in the last decades of the seventeenth century as the Dutch joined Gujarati shipping in the Western Indian Ocean. In 1673 the Dutch made a profit of 177 percent on the sale of pepper in Bandar Abbas, and in 1701 the profit was 129 percent.

The Dutch also attempted to dominate the trade with the Coromandel by controlling the pepper supply in south Malabar and by restricting sailing through the Indo-Sri Lankan straits. This was found to be impossible because any restrictions on maritime sailing were subverted by the increasing transportations of pepper over land. The Bengal trade was a different story; the Dutch discouraged direct Malabar-initiated trade to Bengal, and Bengal merchants did not find it profitable to trade directly with Malabar.

European intrusion, first in the form of the Portuguese Estado and subsequently the Dutch and English East India companies, did not radically transform the trading structure of Malabar in terms of its orientation or its operational features. Admittedly, the consequences of periodic raiding, of the pass system (cartazes), which restricted trading and imposed conditions on free access to ports and the high seas, and of coercive mechanisms affecting price, supply, and distribution of pepper affected levels of trading activity from time to time, but on the whole these effects were temporary and only produced shifts in the relative status of ports.

In the eighteenth century, European trade in Malabar confronted a complex situation of competition and altercation with local rulers, especially the kingdom of Travancore, which by the middle of the century had successfully established a monopoly over Malabar's pepper trade. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Dutch East India Company was forced to deal with increasing competition, initially from other Europeans and subsequently from the state of Travancore, which had begun to stake its claim to monopoly trade. The accession of Martanda Varma (1729–1758) to the kingdom of Travancore and his successive victories against the neighboring states and the Dutch East India Company in the Battle of Kolachel (1741) enabled him to take over the trade and production of pepper in Malabar and turn it over into a state monopoly.

The French settlement at Mahe (established in 1740) and the English settlement at Tellicherry became important centers of pepper trade. Activities at these settlements had the consequence of diverting pepper supplies and raising pepper prices. At the same time, there was on the part of Gujarati shipping a renewed interest in Malabar's trade, which gave a temporary but perceptible fillip to Calicut's fortunes. These developments, along with the expansion of the Travancore state and its policy of controlling the pepper trade, severely undermined the Dutch company's operations.

The decline of Travancore after the death of Martanda Varma was followed by a brief resurgence of British commercial expansion, which was deflected by the Mysorean invasions of Malabar in the 1780s. The region thereafter suffered long-term damage, which the expansion of English private interests and the growth of Bombay could not offset. For a brief period, the demands of the newly emerging colonial economy diverted Malabar's pepper production and trade to the markets of China and Europe, but even this by the first quarter of the nineteenth century was on the wane. The falling demand for pepper in the European markets and the growing interest in raw cotton as an export for China shifted the center of commercial gravity from Malabar to the ports of the north.

see also Colonial Port Cities and Towns, South and Southeast Asia; Coromandel, Europeans and Maritime Trade; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, Portuguese; English East India Company (EIC); Indian Ocean Trade.


Arasaratnam, Sinnappah. Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Bouchon, Geneviève. "Regent of the Sea": Cannanore's Response to Portuguese Expansion, 1507–1528. Translated by Louise Shackley. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Das Gupta, Ashin. Malabar in Asian Trade, 1740–1800. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Furber, Holden. Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600–1800. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Nightingale, Pamela. Trade and Empire in Western India, 1784–1806. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India, 1500–1650. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.