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Four Hundred Years of a Letter: Calicut-English Relations

By Mahmood Kooria

Exactly 400 years ago, on the 10th March of 1616, King Zamorin of Calicut wrote his first letter to King James I of Great Britain, France and Ireland. In the letter, he wrote:

I do hereby faithfully promise to be and continue a friend to the English, and my successors after me. […]

I also will endeavour, with the aid of the English to take in the fort and town of Cochin, belonging formerly to my crown and kingdom, and then to deliver it into the possession of the English as their own proper land and possessions, provided that the charges of the surprise thereof be equally borne, the one half by myself, the other half by the English nation, and the benefits of the spoil thereof, in whatsoever quality, the one half to belong to me and the other half to the English nation; the Samorin to have thenceforward no right, title or interest in the town, fortress, precincts or appurtenances of Cochin at all.

Once we read this letter in 2016, we cannot help but notice a few ironies it presents in a historical lens. But before going to those, let the Zamorin seal the letter with his signature: PūnturakkōnCīṭṭu. The English translators of the time understood it as: UnderkkonCheettu.

It was written aboard the Dragon, at the port of Kodungallur, in Malayalam to be translated into English. “Pūnturakkōn” is an epithet of the Zamorin. Its origin is a matter of dispute among historians. Generally, it is associated with his power over Calicut: kōn connotes ruler, and Pūntura is a portmanteau of putiyatura, “new port”, that is Calicut.  The term cīṭṭu means “declaration”, “bond” or “deed”, and is not derived from Ceṭṭi, the trading caste, as William Foster had erroneously identified in 1900 in his Letters Received by the East India Company.

So stands the “invitation letter” PūnturakkōnCīṭṭu of the Zamorin to the King of England at the mediation of English East India Company (EIC), a new entrant to the cosmopolitan world of Calicut.

After four hundred years now in 2016, the Zamorin’s heirs still wear the royal epithet but without a kingdom. Instead his country is part of a bigger nation called India, which once fought vivaciously against the heirs of James I who subjugated the whole subcontinent for more than two hundred years. All the fights were centred on the questions of “colonization”, “freedom”, etc.

After all those struggles and final victory of the “Indians”, this letter stands at its oddity among many early correspondences from the subcontinent to the English. In the letter, the Zamorin invites a future colonizer to his kingdom and offers half of “his” kingdom of Cochin to them. If Cochin is taken, the Zamorin will give all his right, title and interest in the town, fortress, precincts or appurtenances to the English. Why should he take a country that was standing by itself and give to another country? Why should he write such a letter in 1616 and would he have written the same in one or two hundred years later?

His immediate motivation was his enmity with the Portuguese who had let his subordinate kingdom of Cochin Rajas to be free and flourish. If we travel a hundred years backward from 1616 to 1516, the then Zamorin had just signed a treaty in the previous year with the Portuguese, who bombarded the city many times and interrupted its social and economic lives frequently. Before he was forced to sign the treaty, he tried to make alliances with, among others, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. He had sent a mission to the court of Mamluk sultan in Cairo as early as 1508. In a series of battles that ensued with support of Mamluks and Ottomans, the Zamorin repeatedly failed. The treaty of 1515 did not last long.The fights resumed and continued for decades with occasional treaties. Around 1600, situations got only worse. By this time, the old ally, the Mamluks, was overthrown by the Ottomans in 1517 who eventually abandoned the Indian Ocean trade. Thus, the Zamorin was looking for new allies to fight against the Portuguese, as well as his age-old rival, the king of Cochin. That is how he wrote this letter to James I.

James was not a real participant in the whole “India affair”; instead it was the EIC. Its representative William Keeling came to India looking for new vistas of trade and profit as he was appointed in 1614 as the “Factor-General and Supervisor of the Factories and Merchants in East India and all other parts and places belonging to their trade”. He succeeded in establishing four factories in the Mughal Empire (at Ahmadabad, Burhanpur, Agra and Ajmer) and eventually set out for Southeast and East Asia. On the way at Kotungallur, a thoni (local canoe) approached him on 4 March with an invitation from the Zamorin.

After long conversations, agreements were made with the “Great Zamorin”—a witness George Woolman would report to his higher official. One of the prime concerns of the Zamorin was his awaited victory over Cochin. If Cochin was alone, he would have won. But, since its Rajas were supported by the Portuguese, he needed more “foreign” support. The English was thus a best ally, as they also wanted to overshadow the Portuguese.In his letter, the Zamorin wrote: “As heretofore I have ever been an enemy to the Portugales, so I purpose to continue for ever.”

George Woolman was appointed as the head of the factory in Crangannore. He was to be assisted by two other factors, a gunner and a boy. In April, they all moved to Calicut. Zamorin waited for the English support for a war against Cochin. But that didn’t happen. The factory thus began to be in serious trouble.The Portuguese too began to doubt and interrupt the English presence. Woolman then wrote: “The Portingalls are very much afraid of our being here in this country, fearing it will be very prejudicial unto them for future times.”

Woolman died in August 1616. The factory was shut down by next year, as the Zamorin realized that the English was not capable of helping him to fight the Portuguese or to regain “his” kingdom of Cochin. The Dutch came into the scenario and helped him against both the Portuguese and Cochin in the 1660s. Unsurprisingly this “new ally” became the new enemy. In 1716, after a hundred years of the letter, the Zamorin was now fighting against the Dutch. In the historic wars that happened in 1716-17, the Zamorin lost 2000 soldiers. The Dutch lost a handful of their European and Sinhalese warriors. The final victory was, however, for the Dutch.

Within another hundred years by 1816, both Calicut and Cochin had come under the English. The Zamorin did not even have a capacity to resist the loss of his kingdom, since one of his predecessors had burnt himself in a fight against Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The only resistance the English faced around 1816 was from the Muslim Mappilas, whose “insurgences” would continue for a century and beyond.

An interesting irony in the whole story is that the Zamorin never managed to “colonize” Cochin with or without the help of the English. He forged many alliances and/or fought several battles: in 1516, 1616, and 1716 – with the Portuguese, English, Dutch, and many more. But he never succeeded in the long run. The English, however, ended up colonizing Calicut.Over time, Cochin became a “princely state” under their indirect authority, while Calicut a proper colony.

As much as politics embodied the Zamorin’s longstanding bitterness against the “freedom” of Cochin, economic aspirations too made him a ruler who constantly sought new allies. The trade in Cochin flourished through its collaboration with the Portuguese and then the Dutch at the cost of Calicut, which was a major exporter of Malabari spices until then. As much as the Portuguese, Dutch and English aspired for monopolizing the spice trade, the Zamorin too dreamt to be a sole mediator between local producers and foreign buyers. By inviting many of these “future colonial empires” into his city and providing spaces for building new factories with this purpose in mind, he facilitated the intensification of Calicut’s cosmopolitan characteristics. The English, who were invited in 1616, would curtail the same two or three hundred years later in 1816 and 1916.

Mahmood Kooria
is a doctoral candidate at the Leiden University Institute for History since 2012. He received his M.A. and M.Phil. in History from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Shameem Pulikkal #

    Well written, impressive and convincing one!
    Thanks for introducing a new piece of historical source material.

    September 13, 2016

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