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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.