Commercial Kerala: A Book Enquiring the Commercial History of Kerala

M. Gangadharan. Commercial Kerala: A Book Enquiring the Commercial History of Kerala (Vanijya Keralam: Keralatthinte Vaanijya Charithram Anweshikkunna Krithi വാണിജ്യ കേരളം: കേരളത്തിന്റെ വാണിജ്യ ചരിത്രം അന്വേഷിക്കുന്ന കൃതി), Kottayam: D.C. Books, 2013.

Reviewed by P.K. Anand (Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

The state of Kerala in South India, with its picturesque landscapes and rich biodiversity, has often been referred to as ‘God’s Own Country’ in popular culture and for the purposes of tourism. At the heart of this description also lies a historical link to the Spice trail. The voyage of Vasco da Gama and his 1498 landing in Calicut on the Malabar Coast (the northern part of Kerala) in search of the wealth of spices has been termed as the founding of a sea route to India. However, M. Gangadharan negates the popular understanding that da Gama’s voyage was the first of its kind and instead refers to the rich and vibrant sea trading and commercial linkages between Kerala and the rest of the world, prevalent even before the arrival of European seafarers. Comprising three short essays, the author also provides a glimpse of the secular bonds and amity in Kerala society even to this day, through the partnership and cooperation between Zamorin (Hindu ruler of Calicut) Kings and the Mappilas/Moplahs, the dominant Muslim community.

Delving into the Arabic poem Al Fathhul Mubeen by Qazi Muhammad Bin Abdul Azeez written in late 16th to early 17th centuries AD and viewing it as an anti-colonial text, the first essay portrays the unity and solidarity between the Zamorin and the Mappilas in building a resistance against the Portuguese and capturing their fort in a battle at Chaliyam in northern Kerala. The gradual expansion of the Portuguese into Kerala and the resulting oppressive measures and humiliating practices served onto the local population also led to the development of resistance. Despite the military superiority of the Portuguese, the limited yet courageous efforts undertaken by the Zamorin with support from the Mappilas are vividly portrayed in the poem. The poem also portrays the Zamorin in a positive light and praises the communal harmony and amity in this resistance battle.

Breaking the myth of the prevalence of a ‘Portuguese era’ in Kerala’s history, the second essay of the book depicts the trading networks that already existed since the 7th and 8th centuries AD, consisting of Arabs, Turks, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Chinese. Ships sailed to the ports of Hormuz and Basra, and from thereon the goods were further transported to Armenia, Tartaria, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Alexandria and Cairo as well as to European centers like Venice, Genoa, Marseille and Barcelona. The emergence of a Muslim community in Kerala dealing in the trade of spices, especially pepper and cardamom, even before the advent of Islam in North India, with active patronage of the rulers in Calicut, the availability of good port facilities and cultivation of a web of socio-economic linkages around the sea trade, was testimony to the fact that sea-based trade and commerce flourished well before the arrival of the Europeans. In fact, the author states that Vasco da Gama’s voyage – and the later voyages that followed – only found a route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and thus was only building on networks which already existed.

The third essay deals with the history of commerce in Kerala and its chronology extending from the 7th to 8th century AD, beginning with the Greeks and Romans. Climatic conditions and the availability of water resources ensured an abundance of spices, like pepper, cardamom, turmeric, and other products, which were in demand in Europe. The preservation of meat was one of the main purposes for the high demand of spices. With the growth of the trade, the author details the development of trading communities, the proactive measures undertaken by local rulers to support trade (which also brought them material wealth and revenue) and the emergence of ports other than Calicut (such as Ponnani, Kodungalloor and Kollam) with good infrastructure. After covering the history of Kerala’s trade linkages until the British period, towards the end of the essay the author also puts forth his critique of the contemporary period. He marks out the failure of the elected governments to build upon these historical networks and promote small-scale industries and investments in this sector. The book is a groundbreaking effort to view Indian history and the country’s past foreign linkages in a new light rather than through the European lens. The lack of well-researched and documented works on this theme in non-English mediums in India makes this work indeed admirable.