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Updated: May 7, 2013 12:48 IST

Religion, trade and the sea

K. R. A. Narasiah
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The Mughals, the Portuguese and the Indian Ocean: Changing imageries of maritime India. Author: Pius Malekandathil
The Mughals, the Portuguese and the Indian Ocean: Changing imageries of maritime India. Author: Pius Malekandathil

The Indian Ocean was the theatre where important events took place for commercial exploitation and spatial power grab during the early modern period starting from 15 century, especially after the Papal Bull was issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493. While almost all the Western powers had set their eyes on India for trade, Portuguese preceded all. The Mughals, then ruling India from the North, had much say in the matter of trade.

The author, by putting together 10 of his earlier writings that have a common connecting thread through the Indian Ocean, Mughals and Portuguese has effectively brought about an integrated study of land-centric activities and maritime developments of the period. Five of them deal with a variety of historical processes that helps to understand the state of economy and politics of the Mughals, while the others dwell on socio-economic processes of maritime India. All the articles have another important common link — that of Christianity as a religion in India and its establishment as an entity away from European control.

Akbar knew the commercial importance of accommodating multiculturalism; the Portuguese understood the emerging potential of Mughal power after the defeat of Vijayanagar ruler in 1565; both knew the importance of trade. This aspect is explained in the first chapter as the politics of religious dialogue when Akbar invited Jesuit missionaries for dialogue as they had sizable followers in trading and who were of use both politically and economically. This chapter sets the pace for the rest of the articles in the book. That religious conversions took place for sustained trade is brought out in the chapter, “Fishing the pearl and the soul”. When the Marakkars started attacking the inhabitants of the Peral Fishery coast, Christianity was introduced in the pretext of protecting the locals. In the process large scale conversions took place and import of horses also played an important role. In 1537 Joao de Cruz, convinced the King of Travancore of the advantage of being a Christian to get horses from the Portuguese; Due to his persuasion about 50,000 people were converted which later increased. Here the author effectively argues how this helped in trade.

Goan history

Goa occupied an important place in the maritime history of that time and in a chapter “City in metaphor”, almost 200 years of Goan history is told. Goa, originally known as Gopakapattanam, became the stronghold of Portuguese after the city was taken over by the latter from Bijapuris in 1510, and by 1520 became a major trading centre. To beat the Muslims and the Banias in trade, the Portuguese launched many innovative schemes luring the trader community. This brought about a process of urbanisation and building of the city opened more opportunities for trade. More political and religious mechanisms were used to augment the ability of Portuguese to use the space as a social base for perpetual control. This point is well brought out in this chapter and looks at the history of Goa in a fresh light.

“Trading Networks and Region Formation” is an informative paper about the formation of South India as a region during the period of 1500-1750, as it discusses the integration of land and marine zones in trade, focusing more on the inland trading activities than on the sea-borne commerce, as, the author feels, “the former appears to have been very much instrumental in developing the consciousness and the idea of south India”.

While it may be argued whether Portuguese gave the impetus for this or it existed even before, since merchant guilds did have an integrating effect, a point made is that “Though there were inherent tendencies in different points of south India for being culturally and linguistically different and separate during this time there was also strong attempt for stamping the identity of a larger region on the southern terrains of India through the various commercial circuits running through its length and breadth.” This chapter assumes special importance as it discusses the movement of different commodities from one area to another thus forming a greater zone in which trade controlled the politics of the day.

However even in Pattinappalai of Sangam literature lines 185 to 193, clearly describes the linking of the sea and land with trade where the import of horses through the sea and pepper by land and trade in other commodities from Burma, Sri Lanka and from places in north, west and east is explained. Intermodal transportation of commodities and forming of South India as a distinct trading zone was in existence as early as 3 century CE as gleaned through the Sangam literature.

Voice of dissent

A chapter of importance is on the voice of dissent — a study on narratives of Varthamanapusthakam. This is the travel narrative of a round-trip journey undertaken by Thomas Paremakkel from his native place to Rome via Lisbon where his strong feelings against the system is seen and his demand as to why the Indian Christians should be ruled by European religious missionaries. The author recognises it as seed of nationalism in religious practices and explains the voice of dissent and protest launched through the writings of Paremakkel. This can be seen more as parting the way from the European powers of religion due to their autocratic approach, rather than nationalism.

In “Trade, religion and Politics”, the author deals with the religious processes that caused large scale migration of catholics into the city of Calcutta. How the English were able to get hold of religious control by negotiating with Rome is narrated in this paper. In “Ruralisation and ethnic mutation”, the change in trade practices and shifting of Portuguese centres due to other powers taking over shows how even then trade bound regions together, however in different format.

In effect this book is a welcome relief from the often told stories of maritime history as it looks at the scenario afresh and the integrated approach of sea, land and religion and the logical arrangement of the chapters make the reader sit up and read with attention.

(K.R.A. Narasiah is a marine engineer who writes fiction and historical works)

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