The Cantino Planisphere

May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Cantino Planisphere is a world map compiled by Portuguese explorers and cartographers detailing discoveries made and routes used in the late 15th and early 16th century. An Italian horse trader in Lisbon, Alberto Cantino, working secretly as an agent of the Duke of Ferrara, had a copy of the map made and smuggled out of Portugal in 1502, when such maps were heavily guarded state secrets. Among its many details is a depiction of the West coast of India, including Goa, Calicut and Cochin.

In 1504, in response to the loss of such a valuable map, Manuel I of Portugal passed a law instituting state censorship of all private map and globe production, prohibiting any depiction of coast beyond West Africa.
The map passed through various hands, was cut into pieces, reassembled as a room divider, and used in a butcher shop before eventually finding its way to the Biblioteca Estense in Modena.

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

“We seek Christians and Spices”

March 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Vimos buscar cristãos e especiaria”
One factor that launched the European Age of Discovery was the high price of black pepper. In 1498, Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama sailed around the tip of Africa to reach the Malabar Coast of India, where pepper was grown, bypassing for the first time the ancient trade route through the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Alexandria and the Mediterranean, controlled by Arab and Venetian traders. Asked by Arabs in Calicut why they had come, the Portuguese replied, “we seek Christians and spices.”

Following the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, and its subsequent modification approved by Pope Julius II in 1516, Portugal could claim exclusive imperial rights to the India spice trade. Their network of ships, forts and colonies dominated the pepper trade until the Arab-Venetian network reasserted itself, and control eventually passed to the English and Dutch.

“In the center foreground, the carefully delineated principal ship is a large, armed Portuguese merchant carrack. She is shown firing a salute to port and starboard. This is thought to be the ‘Santa Caterina’. The ‘Santa Caterina’ was built in order to serve as one of the large merchant ships of the Portuguese East Indies trade. She was constructed of teak at Cochin, India in 1510.”           Painting and text; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Lord Caird Collection

Here is a link to a film of the launch of a Poruguese “nau”, or carrack, of the type used to transport Annone from Cochin to Lisbon in 1510.

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