Cochin – where the worlds met

Oceans of the world were crossed to discover new worlds. And the history of civilisation is written largely in the history of its ports.

The Indian Ocean trade was the busiest and lucrative with Cochin along the western coast of south India as an important trading port connecting China, Arabia, Africa and Europe.

About 2000 km that way is the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa that connected Asia to Europe through the Red Sea

The main commodity of the Indian Ocean trade was pepper. Highly valued by the Romans, Egyptians, the Chinese and the Arab world for culinary as well as for medicinal purposes, pepper was worth its weight in gold and Cochin held the monopoly of its spice trade.

The Romans traded with the Arab world and with India via the Red Sea. Trade included luxuries like pearls, frankincense and myrrh and ambergris from the Arabian world; gold and ivory from Africa; sandalwood and of course spices from India.

Often called the Queen of Arabia, Cochin saw armadas of Vasco da Gama and Admiral Zheng He, pearl traders from Arabia and spice merchants from Africa (Malindi in Africa is the largest producer of cloves in the world. The modern-day Europeans buy vanilla from Madagascar.) Then there were the British and Dutch East India Company who came to trade for tea and spices.

The ways of the water and how it shaped civilisations is vastly different from how lands connected and influenced humanity.

With the decline of the Roman Empire and Europe being engulfed in crusades, followed by the Dark Ages when myths were spread about earth being flat, European explorations and sea voyages came to a halt.

But maritime trade continued to flourish between Arabia, Africa and China with Cochin as the entrepôt. Pepper was used by the Chinese for payments and stored in the imperial warehouses to repay large constructions and barter for luxuries like silk, tea and porcelain.

In the 13th century, Ming emperor Yong Le sought to gain control of the Indian Ocean trade and commissioned his court eunuch, Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho), to launch a maritime expedition to India, Arabia and Africa. Zheng He travelled to Malacca, Cochin, Calicut, to Aden, Malindi, Zanzibar and the horn of Africa and brought back items the Chinese never knew.

Along the way, He built diplomatic relations with the Sultan of Malacca and the Zamorins of Cochin who controlled pepper trade in India. His armada of 314 ships, each about 400-feet long, was the first to discover the spice route to India a century before the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

Chinese fishing nets were introduced in Cochin between 1350 & 1450, possibly by Chinese explorer Zheng He. One interpretation of the name Cochin means “like China”. Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama only discovered spice route to India in 1498. [pic sourced from the internet]
Admiral Zheng He’s statue in Malacca
Painting of Zheng He’s armada [pic sourced from the internet]
Read more about Admiral Zheng He’s travels from China to Malacca in Malaysia to Cochin in India to the Gulf of Aden to the Horn of Africa.

While spice was the main commodity, religion helped bridge trade and diplomacy. Zheng He himself was a Persian Muslim and Islam was the dominant religion in India making the connection with both India and the Arab world easier.

The Portuguese on the other hand, who were trying to compete with the Spanish for religious domination, became aware of the prevalence of Christianity in India which alleviated their fears of the “barbaric” Near East – myths that were rife during the Dark Ages.

Alexander the Great’s conquest of Northern India meant that Europe was well aware of the sub continent. It is believed that Thomas the Apostle even came to India to spread Christianity and is meant to have died in Chennai. The sect of Christianity that came to India is the ancient form of East Syriac Rites or the Church of East which is meant to have its origins in Mesopotamia. Judaism too is widely prevalent and Cochin Jews are believed to be one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel.

The conquest of Cueta in Northern Africa by Henry the Navigator brought the Portuguese in close contact with the Moors who had been trading with India for centuries and had made significant advancements in mathematics and navigation.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama was appointed as the Viceroy and launched an expedition to discover the spice route to India and gain an upper hand over the Iberians in trade as well as expand the Portuguese diocese.

Vasco da Gama Square in Cochin is named after the Portuguese explorer. It is right next to Fort Kochi which may have been the shores that he would have first set foot in.
St Francis Church at Fort Kochi where da Gama’s remains were buried and returned to Portugal in 1539
Vasco da Gama’s tomb in St Francis Xavier church at Fort Kochi. Da Gama died in Cochin during his 3rd voyage to India.

After da Gama established the spice route to India, Portuguese trade flourished and they followed the same route Zheng He took and travelled to Malacca and to Macau which was a Portuguese colony and returned to China in 1998.

Pepper trade also attracted the Dutch and the British to Cochin as well as to Malacca. British and the Dutch East India Company competed for dominance over the spice route. The famed Orchard Road in Singapore was once nutmeg plantation while the Dutch took pepper to cultivate in Indonesia. India came under British domain and the intermarriage between the two royalties definitely helped with diplomacy.

Today, Cochin is a sleepy town known for its backwater journeys. Here the sounds of rush hour is the sound of a lazy motorboat; the only complication is towing the boat to the river bank using oars, not how to connect with the wifi. The boatman controls the speed, not the accelerator and you cruise the water as if you have all the time in the world.

It’s as if the people here are retired, after bringing the world’s cultures together. If salt was the salary for Europeans and pepper their luxury, the two met and got married in Cochin. They now live happily ever after on our table tops.

The slow row of the oarsman is the pace at which Cochin now works at. It has done the job of bringing the world together and retired from the heydays of trade and commerce.
Villages along the backwaters are mostly abandoned as many have moved to the city.
Sounds of silence except for that occasional noise the motor boat makes
The backwaters is what Cochin is now known for
Finishing off the slow boat journey with a sumptuous lunch of curries peppered with the spice from its land.

Further reading on the Portuguese connection to India and Malaysia

6 comments

  1. I don’t know why this didn’t come up in my feed, I check it every day and never saw this, yet it just popped up now! So strange! This is a part of India I would like to explore, I think the Portuguese influence is fascinating! Hope you are well x

    Liked by 1 person

    • ♥️❤️♥️ thank you Anna. I do await your comment. Feels incomplete without one. Went to India over Xmas. Not too far from Singapore. And yes, the Portuguese quest for spices is an incredible journey. Do await my other blog on the church architecture. It is rather special – the architecture I meant, not my blog.

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      • Sorry it took me so long! I somehow must have missed it! You know I love your work! I look forward to your posts, they are always a great read! Yes, for you, India isn’t so far at all! Everything is far from good old Perth! Lol

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      • Haven’t been to Perth in years. That is not too far from SG. Hope to return. You have a beautiful country you call home Anna. Thank you always for being on the other end of my blogs.

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      • Yes we are lucky, sometimes I need to remember that! If you ever come down do let me know! Would be nice to catch up for a coffee and talk travel! X

        Liked by 1 person

      • I would absolutely love that Anna. It’s like being pen friends who will meet and discover all about one another. Yes, will surely let you know.

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