Vijayanagara, Pepper and the Portuguese

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

In 1001 A.D., Muslim armies began a relentless attack on Northern India, pressing ever southwards, establishing themselves firmly and permanently. War followed war for nearly 350 years until all of India north of the Krishna River was under Muslim rule, and the country to the south was threatened with imminent ruin and devastation. Abruptly, in about 1344, the wave of foreign invasion was stopped. The Hindu south was saved by an alliance of weak partners who together formed a solid wall of opposition, the Empire of Vijayanagara. The empire flourished and grew fabulously rich until it too was finally crushed in 1565. The peak of Vijayanagara’s power and influence coincided with the ascent of the Portuguese, and their fates were closely intertwined. It was Vijayanagara’s wealth in spices, particularly black pepper, which Portugal’s armadas sought to exploit through trade. By controlling the west coast trading centers of greater Goa, the Portuguese Casa da India grew enormously rich.

Virupaksha Temple Complex, 1856. Photo- J.A. Greenlaw. Victoria and Albert Museum

Black pepper, grown in Kerela, composed as much as 90% of the return cargo of the early armadas. Other spices could also be found in Calicut, Cochin and other major markets on the Malabar Coast of India –cinnamon from Ceylon, long pepper from Java, cloves from the Moluccan Islands, nutmeg and mace from  the Banda Islands.

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenber’s Atlas, 1572.

Trade goods brought by the Portuguese to sell in India were cut and branch coral, copper in pigs and sheets, quicksilver, vermillion, rugs, Flanders brass basins, colored cloths, knives, red barret-caps, mirrors and colored silks. But European products did not sell all that well in Asia, which meant that ship holds were frequently empty, or nearly so, on the outward voyage from Portugal. Outbound ships carried little more than metal bullion – principally silver, but also copper and lead– needed to purchase spices in Asian markets. However, if they stopped at Mozambique Island on the outward leg (as almost all India armadas did), they could expect to pick up gold, ivory, coral and pearls, acquired during the year by Portuguese factories, at several points along the Swahili Coast for sale in India.

Eastern Gopura, Pattabhirama temple complex,1856. Photo J.A. Greenlaw. Victoria and Albert Museum

Vijayanagara’s power waned after the Battle of Talikota in 1565, when the city described by de Varthema, Paes and Nunez, was destroyed. The king fled south with his treasure loaded on the backs of 550 elephants. With the fall of Vijayanagara, the dominant influence of the Portuguese in India began to unravel.

Royal Elephant Stables at Vijayanagara, 1856. Photo- J.A. Greenlaw. Victoria and Albert Museum

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