Illustrations: Paul Aitchison
Illustrations: Paul Aitchison

Lost rulers of the Malabar Coast

Tales of love and loss from the heyday of Portuguese rule in Kochi.

In the courtyard of the Mural Art Museum in Thrissur, Kerala, I was staring at the tombstones lying around, scattered like garbage. The names on the granite slabs were strange, the images sculpted on them exotic and the script hard to decipher. A slab with a Jolly Roger-like skull and cross-bones belonged to Francisco Rodrigues, maybe a sea pirate; another to Mateus Arruda, a vicar; then Antonio Raposo and his heirs; elsewhere, someone from the Costa family; and, in a corner, Jorge Fernandes, who died on 22 December 1565.

Senior archaeologist S Hemachandran suggests that the stones were brought in from Kochi in the 1930s. Around 1925-26, Sir Robert Bristow, a harbour engineer who built the Kochi Port, recovered them from the seabed while dredging the harbour to create a deeper haven for ships. Kochi's placid backwaters had long provided a safe berth in tempestuous times for ships that came from all over the world in search of lucrative spices.

Sir Robert Bristow
Sir Robert Bristow

Following the footsteps of Vasco da Gama, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral had started his journey east with a fleet of ten ships, 1500 men and a fine collection of muskets and machetes. He arrived in Kochi in December of 1500. In very little time, the Portuguese established themselves as the biggest power on the west coast. When they first arrived, the town was small and humble. The houses were built with mud walls and the roofs thatched with leaves. Even the king sat on a mat made of grass. The Portuguese settled down, built forts and churches, married native women and fathered a mixed race they called mestiços.

The 163-year-long Portuguese rule only came to an end in January of 1663. A Dutch admiral, Rickloff van Goens, led a successful attack on his fellow Europeans. The Dutch had captured the island of Vypeen, north of the mainland, two years earlier. They proceeded inland. The bloody Dutch siege of Kochi lasted eight long days and nights. Admiral Goens set up his headquarters at the Portuguese Bishop's House. He proceeded to fortify the Roman Catholic Church to station his 700-strong force. When the town fell, the Portuguese left for Goa. One of the churches they left behind was converted into a warehouse, another into a Protestant church. Only one was left untouched for the Catholic folk. Bricks and stones from the destruction went into the construction of palaces, houses, and the Dutch fort of Neuw Oranje. The elaborately carved tombstones of Portuguese traders and sailors that once decorated the churchyards were thrown into the harbour, it is assumed.

Centuries later, in 1920, the British decided to bring in an engineer to develop a major commercial and strategic port. Bristow, who spent time studying the currents in the estuary, had found a rock-like formation of sediments that prevented big ships from entering the harbour. The dredger Lord Willingdon was called in to clear up the channel. In his book, The Cochin Saga, Bristow recalls what he saw as they worked the pumps: "…large quantities of miscellanea such as a jettisoned cargo, bundles of hoop iron, cannon balls, masses of tangled wire rope, remains of old boats, heaps of stone ballast, and, as we were to find, much in the way of specie, the coins rattling through the pipeline in showers which, alas, it was quite impossible to save before the tremendous discharge of the pipeline scattered them and buried them in its own spoil… I often stood on the rounded surface of the pipe to hear and feel with the soles of my feet the coins as they passed through; there was no mistaking what they were: relics of many a wreck or fights in the days of the Portuguese or Dutch perhaps."

Gravestones were brought in from the sea, some broken and damaged. Bristow recalls that the few they gathered from the harbour were sent to a museum for identification and safe keeping. They were anything but safe. In the next nine decades, they were shifted from place to place, handled roughly and finally dumped in the courtyard of the museum in Thrissur. Only one tombstone remained intact: an imposing granite pillar standing erect on a pedestal, with an intricate coat-of-arms sculpted on top alongside early-16th-century Portuguese script. This monument, however, is thought to have arrived from a village near Kodungallur, an ancient town north of Kochi.

Scholars have ignored these stones. Old transcripts from Bristow's time seem to have been lost. The Government Archives at Kochi and Calicut drew blanks. It was up to Rafael Moreira – a historian at the New University of Lisbon – to read the script and decipher the names. The transcript from the only pillar that remains intact reads: "Felipe Perestrelo da Mesquita, fidalgo [nobleman] of the house of the King our Lord, firme [superior] of the mosque [school or place of worship] of Dona Beatriz Natover, native of them. Mestre escola [school teacher] and her vicar…"

The Perestrelos
Who was Felipe Perestrelo? And who was Dona Beatriz, this Malayali 'Natover' woman who finds a rare and unusual mention in the epitaph of a Portuguese fidalgo of royal blood? And what brought them together in those days when the royal families in Malabar were vying with each other to host the rich and ruthless firangis who ruled the seas?

Felipe Perestrelo came from a family of famous navigators. His family tree can be traced back to Filippo Pallestrelli, who was originally from a place called Piacenza in Lombardy, today in northern Italy. Pallestrelli moved to Lisbon in 1437 in the retinue of Princess Leonor de Aragon, who married the Portuguese king. His descendants went on to sail all the known seas, hold high positions in the Portuguese court, and possess their own coat of arms and other signs of nobility.

One of Filippo's sons, Bartolomeu Perestrelo, was chosen as the captain of Madeira – a newly discovered Atlantic island. He went there to rule the land with his family, followers, animals and birds. The adventure brought him close to ruin. The island was more or less barren, with very little water for plants to grow. It was not until the introduction of sugarcane, an arid crop, that the island prospered. Bartolomeu had four wives, and many children who became expert sailors. Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, a daughter from Bartolomeu's fourth wife Isabel Moniz, married an Italian sailor by the name of Christopher Columbus.

Some of the Perestrelos came to the east and dominated trade and seafaring in the region from the Cape of Good Hope to Canton. One of them, Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, came to Goa in 1505 and spent 38 years studying the eastern seas and building the Portuguese empire. A sailor of great skill and experience, he discovered Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues, Mayotte and Comorres. Manuel even wrote a book – Roteiro of the South & South-east Africa, from Cape of Good Hope to Cape Corrientes – which was published in 1567. It served as a sailors' guide for navigating those treacherous waters, which caused an unusually large number of tragic shipwrecks. Even Manuel was not immune. He was involved in the wreck of the carrack São Bento on the South African coast, in 1554.

Another family member, Rafael Perestrelo, was a well-known trader in the eastern seas. Rafael had assisted Afonso de Albuquerque in the conquest of Malacca in 1511. His brother Bartolomeu was appointed the factor at Malacca, where Rafael accompanied him. At the request of Albuquerque, Rafael explored the Chinese coast in search of new opportunities for Portuguese trade. A year after the death of his brother in 1515, Rafael set off in a Malacca jonco named Pulate and entered the Chinese port-city of Guangzhou, at the mouth of the Pearl River. He was not allowed to proceed any further, but was allowed to sell his merchandise for huge profits. His description of China's wealth and willingness to trade persuaded the Portuguese king to send Fernão Pires de Andrade to establish a mission in China. This was during the reign of Emperor Zhengdu of the Ming dynasty.

The Perestrelo clan epitomised Portuguese sea power at its peak: patriarch Bartolomeu of Madeira explored the Atlantic, his son-in-law Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reach the New World, and his cousin Rafael became the first European to enter the port of Canton (Guangzhou). The Perestrelo dynasty was active in all major ports of the east – Goa, Kochi, Hormuz and Malacca – holding high offices and controlling much of the private trade. Eastern spices, condiments, carpets and clothes fetched huge profits in the markets of Lisbon, Genoa and Venice. By some estimates, private trade accounted for up to 90 percent of all transactions on the 16th-century Indian routes. While a ship's holds were exclusively reserved for the king's trade – mainly in pepper – the rest of the space was overloaded with private goods. Overloading spelt danger, but the trade was immensely lucrative.

While Goa was clearly the centre of power on the western Indian coast, Kochi remained the major trading port. Spices were plentiful and cheaper in Kochi. Traders from all over the Eastern world converged on the port-town. Sailors from as far as China came with their wares. This convergence made it easier to procure a wide variety of goods like spices, jewels and clothes. Exquisitely painted Chinese porcelains and cornelian beads, which archaeologists have gathered from ship wrecks on the southern African coast, came from places as distant as Fujian in China and Gujarat in north India. One can only imagine the kind of wealth the Perestrelos enjoyed.

Love in Kochi
Like Manuel and Rafael, Felipe Perestrelo da Mesquita was a pioneer who came to the East. He came to be known as vicar to Dona Natover's 'mosque' – possibly a family temple of the lady from before she converted to Christianity and took the Portuguese name Beatriz. Felipe also became a mestre escola (school master). Felipe's gravestone was found near Kodungallur, where the Portuguese were setting up a colony and where the mestre escola must have spent some time.

Kodungallur was a temple town. Every year, dark and poorly dressed devotees would descend to the town in a frenzy of dancing and shrieking. They sang bawdy songs in praise of the powers of their goddess and smote their foreheads with swords. The town would come alive with temple dancers entertaining the high and mighty at evening parties.

Felipe Perestrelo de Mesquita's gravestone at Thrissur. Image / N P Chekkutty
Felipe Perestrelo de Mesquita's gravestone at Thrissur. Image / N P Chekkutty

The women who danced in the temples were showered with riches. They were known by various names: Nangayar and Acchi, and also Thevadicchi, a word that would later come to mean 'prostitute'. The dancers were well versed in dance and music, but also in bedroom games. Those who taught the art were the Natuvers, a renowned class of classical-dance instructors from post-9th-century temple towns. They were strikingly beautiful and voluptuous, and were privileged enough to choose their lovers – Brahmins, Nairs, nobles from royal families, and rich traders who frequented the towns. They were rewarded with precious gifts like jewels, beads, carpets and clothes.

'Chandrodayam', an early-16th-century narrative poem, describes a festival where famous courtesans came together for a contest to determine the best among the dancers. It was perhaps the beauty pageant of its day. The poem describes how famous dancers like Kodungallur Ananda Neevi came to impress Manakkulam Rajah – the hero of the poem. Those like Ananda Neevi, who were not of noble birth, were not entitled to travel in palanquins. Instead, they arrived on the shoulders of able-bodied men, who paraded the thinly clad females on their way to the palace. As their breasts swung to the rhythmic steps of their bearers, huge crowds jostled in the streets outside to catch a glimpse of the celebrated beauties. The contest took place in five wings of the palace. Love games were played five times a day to appease the moon god, who must have blushed at the sight of the activities in the gardens.

It was at one of these parties – we assume – that Felipe Perestrelo met the woman of his life, whose name would be etched next to his own upon his death. Little is known about her origins except that her name represents a family of Natuvers. Before she married and acquired her new name, Dona Beatriz Natover probably had many men in her life. Overfed Brahmins usually came after the evening feasts at the temples, with their coconut-leaf torches shining, and making curious noises that warned the lower-castes to keep out of the way; the Nairs, who spent most of their time at war, often arrived in a state of delirium after having fought in an opium frenzy. First-come-first-served was the usual rule. Once the doors were closed and the lover's wooden sandals left outside, latecomers were not to disturb. The dancers often gained power, influence and immense riches. Still, Dona Beatriz must have sometimes detested her lurid life; her lovers were faceless men who cared for nothing but her body. Once the passion wore off, they slept like logs. Their snoring disturbed her soul. By the next day, they would be off to another village and another woman.

Dona Beatriz owned land, a school and her family temple, all of which she entrusted to the man of her choice. Felipe is described as the 'firme' – a person holding a firman, or order – who looked after her school and 'mosque'. Her temple retained its old name even after she embraced the faith of her Portuguese lover. It was there that the mestre escola must have started giving Portuguese, Latin and music lessons to converts and mestiço kids.

When did Felipe meet Beatriz and how long did they live together? We can only guess that they met in those early decades of Portuguese rule in Kochi. Felipe's tombstone does not give us a date. Going by the coat of arms, the style of writing and the abbreviations used, Professor Moreira concludes it was made around 1540. Lady Beatriz must have stayed loyal to Felipe till the time of his death, after which she built a monument for him and placed the graceful granite pillar over it. It was to become Felipe's special resting place; others in the town were buried inside churches, or in crypts. The mestre escola's eternal sleep was – presumably – only interrupted by flowers from his lady, until the day that she joined him too.

~The writer would like to thank  John C Roberts, New York; Rafael Moreira, Lisbon; Henry Brownrigg, London; and Maria Bernadette Gomes, Goa; for research support and comments on earlier drafts.

~ N P Chekkutty is a senior journalist, now based in Calicut. His books include a biography of Muhammad Abdurahman, freedom fighter, published by the National Book Trust-India.

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