Spice Route: Left pact with colonialism
by B S Harishankar on 06 Mar 2019 18 Comments

When Portuguese ships reached the Malabar coast in 1498, Vasco da Gama’s messenger was asked by Tunisian merchants who conversed in Spanish: “The devil take you, what brought you here?” the Muslim merchants asked. “We came to look for Christians and spices”, replied the Portuguese. Six years before this event at Malabar coast, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella brought the Christian wars of reconquest to a triumphant end. They conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada in Spain, the last stronghold of Islam in Europe. The fall of Granada marked the final act in the Reconquista; the campaign by the medieval Christian states of Spain to drive out the Moors. This event was not unknown to the Muslim merchants who met Gama’s messenger in 1498 at Malabar coast in India. The fifteenth century maritime expeditions which launched Europe’s contact with the east was also launched by the end of the Crusades.


It has been reported that the UNESCO will cooperate with the Kerala Government to promote the Spice Route project in the State. The Spice Route marks the opening of Portuguese arrival in India. A delegation from Kerala recently met UNESCO officials in New Delhi; it comprised State ministers and Kerala History Research Council chairman P.K. Michael Tharakan (UNESCO, Kerala government agree to reinvigorate Spice Route Project, The New Indian Express, Feb. 22, 2019). It is also reported that archaeological excavations carried out at Muziris (now identified as the controversial Pattanam) have provided evidence to implement the Spice Route project.


As part of a concealed agenda by left historians, the Portuguese-sponsored five hundred years old Spice Route legacy is getting implemented by the Left government associated with Euro-American lobbies. By manufacturing a dubious archaeological heritage for Pattanam in Kerala, it claims a fake history for India with the Mediterranean world, three centuries before the Christian era. The archaeological site of Pattanam was included in 2005 in the Spice Route and Muziris heritage projects by the Left government. The Left historians privileged Apostle Thomas in the Pattanam excavation, which was claimed as a west Asian trade emporium. Pattanam has lost its credibility, rejected by eminent archaeologists and historians. The Spice Route is now hastily launched with Pattanam as a Trojan horse. But it essentially facilitates the re-entry of western colonialism through the Communist backdoor.


The bloody Crusades provided the religious ideology for the Reconquista (reconquest), the 800 years of violence and expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula after the Crusades. The violent clash between Christianity and Islam in the Iberian peninsula began in the early eighth century and was transformed into a Crusade by the Papacy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Damascene preacher As-Sulami in 1105 called the Crusades a Christian Jihad. After the barbaric Crusades, several events changed history. The Byzantine empire ceased to exist, the Pope became de facto leader of the Christian Church, the Italian maritime states cornered the Mediterranean market in East-West trade, the Balkans were Christianized, and the Iberian peninsula saw the Moors pushed back to North Africa.


The Crusades and the Reconquista cemented religious intolerance, and the Catholic church looked to colonization partly as a means of continuing religious conquests. Until the fifteenth century, trade with the east was achieved through the Silk Road and Italian merchant cities acted as middlemen. Italian commercial cities such as Amalfi, Genoa, Venice and Florence strengthened trade ties with ports in the Levant, where they allied with Crusader states to gain access to ports such as Latakia, Tripoli, Acre, Alexandria, and Damietta. Italians from the maritime republics poured into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, creating bases, ports and commercial establishments known as “colonies”. Now, as a tribute to Italy which was nucleus of Imperial Rome, the Left has launched the Biennale Art and Trade Fair in Kerala. The term was first popularized by Venice Biennale, first held in 1895. Since the Spice Route project launched in 2005 also magnified Italy, the Congress government gave all support.


The necessity of Europe for discovering a maritime route to Asia commenced with the loss of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman empire. In 1453, the Turks took Constantinople (renamed Istanbul). The Turks held hegemony to charge hefty taxes on merchandise bound for the west. Europe considered it unsafe to be dependent on an expansionist non-Christian power for lucrative trade with the east, especially after the bloody Crusades.


Two Papal Bulls, Romanus Pontifex (1454) and Inter Cetera (1493), confiscated indigenous lands and converted them into Christian Empires. The Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex was issued by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, and confirmed to the Crown of Portugal dominion over all lands south of Cape Bojador in Africa. The Inter Cetera was issued by Pope Alexander VI to Ferdinand and Isabella, sovereigns of Castile, and granted them all lands to the “west and south” of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde islands. It gave Spain the right to colonise, convert, and enslave, and also justified the enslavement of Africans.


Those who attempted to controvert this Papal Bull were threatened with incurring “the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul”. Currently there are worldwide demands to Pope Francis to abolish this Papal Bull behind colonization.


The advent of Portuguese in India finds spine-chilling expression at Malabar on the west coast of India. Even colonial historians such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam narrate how the colonial powers, especially the Portuguese, entered into bloody conflict with Muslim Mappillas of Malabar. Subrahmanyam underlines that Mappilla guerilla warfare was much feared by the Portuguese and is the best known struggle of the sixteenth century.


The current Spice Route project by the Left government in Kerala suppresses many episodes of religious violence against Malabar Muslims by the Portuguese. Their entanglements with the Hajj can be considered the earliest European encounters with this Muslim pilgrimage in the age of empires. The Estado introduced an official cartaz (pass) system for all ships. Any ship without this pass was captured, attacked and sunk in the sea. Turkish and Arab ships with Hajj pilgrims were the main victims of this new regulation. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Malabar developed trade links with West Asia in which the port of Jeddah had a crucial role, which has been highlighted by Portuguese historian, Fernao Lopes de Castanheda. Until the sixteenth century, Malabar merchants and pilgrims went directly from Kozhikkode to Arabia, Egypt and Venice via the port of Jeddah. Returning pilgrims voyaged into the Arabian Sea and anchored at Jeddah. This was interrupted by constant blockades and attacks by the Portuguese. It is this Spice Route which was opened by the colonial Portuguese to attack Muslim pilgrims and merchants that is currently being promoted by the Left government as part of its Spice Route project.


The Portuguese attack on Hajj pilgrims provoked local Mappilla Muslims of Malabar. The Ulama of Ponnani, in current Malappuram district of Kerala, issued various fatwas and sermons asking Malabari Muslims to unite against the Portuguese atrocities. They sought support from various Mamluk and Ottoman rulers. The ideological setting for an anti-Portuguese jihad was set by the Ulama educated in religious centres of Mecca and Cairo. Mahmood Kooria presents five monographs on Portuguese atrocities against Muslims in the Malabar, viz.: Tahrid ahl-al-iman,  Qasidat al-Jihadiyyat, Khutbat al-jihadiyyat,  Fath al-ubin, and Tuhfat al-Mujahidin.


The atrocities on hajj pilgrims by the Portuguese are frequently referred to in these monographs. The Tahrid ahl-al-iman ‘alajihad ‘abadat al-Sulban (Enticement of the People of Faith to launch Jihad against Worshippers of Crosses) is a long Arabic  poem by Shaykh Zayn al Din who migrated in the fifteenth century from Kochi to Ponnani. In a chapter titled, “Certain shameful deeds of the Portuguese”, Zayn al Din narrates how Portuguese massacred Hajj pilgrims, plundered wealth, burnt down mosques and trampled the Quran under feet. The work set a paradigm for Jihadi texts in Malabar.


During Vasco da Gama’s second voyage, there was a brutal massacre of some 300 pilgrims in a ship owned by Khwoja Kasim, a rich merchant in Kozhikode and the Zamorin’s favorite. It was returning from Mecca to Malabar where it was attacked on the high seas close to the Indian shore. It lasted for more than five days (Sept. 29 to Oct. 3, 1502), till the ship went into the sea. It is this Spice Route which heralded colonialism, plunder and massacre in India that the Left government plans to revive in 2019 for tourism and heritage.


In 1997, the then Left Government in Kerala announced that it would celebrate the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival on the Kerala coast as an ‘international tourist occasion’. The Portuguese government welcomed the decision and planned to chalk out its own programmes on this occasion. The celebrations comprised plans to finance a voyage of replicas of Gama’s ships to India and a world exhibition in Lisbon. India was invited to join a bilateral committee to oversee the events. Congress finance minister P. Chidambaram said before a conference of business leaders in Washington in September 1996: “To those of you who wish to come to India, I say come there for a long term. The last time you came to India to take a look, you stayed for 200 years. So this time if you come, you must come prepared to stay for another 200 years. That is where the largest rewards lie”. (Claude Alvares and Sanjay Subrahmanyam debate on Vasco da Gama Quincentenary, in India Today, July 28, 1997)


The Kochi diocese in Ernakulam district of Kerala asserted that it intends to commemorate the Portuguese advent as “the East meeting the West”, attributing printing, universal education and the Church’s very existence in India to the Portuguese. “The opposition is rubbish”, said Bishop Joseph Kureethara of Kochi, whose diocese was the first center of Portuguese activity in Asia. “It is not colonialism that we celebrate, but the encounter of two cultures, the great missionary saga, the historic discovery of a sea route to India and the advent of the modern era”. (Da Gama Centenary Sinks in Controversy, But a Diocese Plans to Celebrate, Ucanews.com, June 23, 1997) From 2005, the Liturgical Research Centre of the Syro-Malabar Church launched seminars and programmes in support of Spice Route, Pattanam and Muziris heritage project.


Early in 1997, in the context of the Vasco da Gama Quincentenary, civil society in Kerala declared that commemorating the ‘advent of colonization of India’ was improper. There were protest marches at Kozhikode where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498. But the most vehement protests came from Hindu and Muslim organizations. Fearing a Muslim backlash in Malabar in 1997, two preliminary meetings of Indo Portuguese joint commission were cancelled and the Left government in Kerala quit the celebrations.


This aborted Vasco da Gama Centenary is now being camouflaged and re-launched by the current Left government under the title ‘Spice Route Project’. The Apostle Thomas episode has been woven into it for pampering the church, to project that Indian heritage has been considerably influenced by semitic cultures.


In 1992, the Spanish attempted to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The plan was thwarted by global protests. Historians concede that over 100 million indigenous South and North American Indians and Blacks were exterminated by the turbulent events that followed the arrival of Columbus, creating 500 years of hostility. The left parties and historians in Kerala who are launching the Spice Route Project should learn some lessons from this episode. 

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