A country of many Gods: Spies for the Spice

When the Portuguese monarch was contemplating a direct trade connection to India, he wanted to take stock of the political situation in the Malabar.

Published: 22nd September 2021 01:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st September 2021 11:49 PM   |  A+A-


For representational purposes

Information is the key for any interaction, whether commercial or political, between two regions. In the days where social media snooping and internet search was not a possibility, somebody had to do the spadework literally on ground and in person. Hostile conditions demanded that it should be done incognito. That is the significance of human espionage. The spies act as the ears and eyes of the rulers, sensing the pulse of the people and the voice of the rulers. Sun Tzu (6th century BCE, China), Chanakya (4th century BCE, India) and Machiavelli (16th century CE, Italy) prescribe espionage as an important aspect for political sustainability. “To Kautilya, the king’s subjects in his court should be made aware that the king is omniscient. To this effect, he adds that this would project that the king is being well informed. When in reality, it is the role of spies to bring forth information on the king’s subjects and important facts from foreign lands,” observe Vishnu Prabhu and Laxmi Dhar Dwivedi in an article comparing Sun Tzu and Chanakya. Chanakya advises that the guptacharas or spies should be like chameleons, fully merging with the population in the guise of a trader, religious preacher, etc. 

Piero Covilham, one of the first European spies to visit India, would fit perfectly in the guptachara category of Chanakya. He spoke many languages including “Moorish” (read Arabic) and probably Persian and Hindustani as some of his biographers have observed. When the Portuguese monarch, inspired by the pioneering work of Prince Henry the Navigator, was contemplating a direct trade connection to India, he wanted to take stock of the political situation in the Malabar. He found the right man in Covilham. The spy must have impersonated a Jewish trader from Jerusalem and joined the caravan travelling to India. His briefing was to find out the political and commercial situation of India and more importantly, the sea route from the Horn of Africa to Malabar using the Hippalus wind that blows from the East African coast to the western coast of India. Covilham visited major trade posts on the Malabar coast like Cannanore (Kannur), Calicut (Kozhikode) and probably Kochi. Vasco da Gama’s travel to Calicut, Kannur and Anjediva (Angediva near Karwar) and Cabral’s diplomatic approach to the kingdom of Kochi are not accidental but systematically planned based on the report of Covilham. Even the focus on Goa by Alfonso Albuquerque could have been influenced by Covilham as he would, like a perfect spy, return to Europe through the land route passing through Goa, Gujarat and Hormuz (Iran). Covilham never reached Portugal but stayed back or may have been forced to remain in Ethiopia till his death. A perfect example of an actor consumed by the character he impersonated. 

Another impersonator who gave valuable inputs to the Portuguese was an Alexandrian-born Polish Jew who would convert himself to Christianity assuming the name Gasper da Gama. Gasper allowed himself to be captured by the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama at Calicut and the information provided by him would have far-reaching consequences in the formation of Portuguese power in India. His inputs on the Bijapur and Gujarat Sultanates and the Vijayanagara Empire undoubtedly gave the clue to the Portuguese to shift the focus from trade to political expansion, initiated by Almeida and Albuquerque. He did take many trips to the Malabar coast along with Cabral and Vasco da Gama, mainly working as an interpreter and adviser. We do get a reference to Gasper in 1506 as a favourite of the king, receiving an annual pension and settled in Lisbon married to a Portuguese lady. A great testimonial to Gasper was given by Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who landed on the mainland of America; he spoke highly of Gaspar’s linguistic attainments and referred to his extensive travels in Asia.

One cannot stop wondering about the travel of these spies to the land of spice. They did not have a language barrier. They might have learned the common/transaction language of the traders, which was probably Arabic. Knowledge of Venetian language (Italian) too was preferred as we know from the journal of the journey of Vasco da Gama. The author records that Vasco da Gama insisted that a Venetian Jew who was at Calicut should be the interpreter/translator for the talk with the Samutiri ruler. Maybe Covilham and Gasper did speak some Malayalam. An interesting moment it might have been to hear a Portuguese impersonating a Venetian Jew talking in Malayalam. Shylock speaking Malayalam in a Malabar accent, indeed adding spice to the spy story.

Jayaram Poduval
Head, Department of Art History, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda



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