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Controlling Commerce

Kanakalatha Mukund

By Pius Malekandathil
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. viii 234, Rs. 850.00


Just when one thought that the theme of Europeans in India during Mughal rule had been nearly exhausted, Pius Malekanda-thil’s book came for review. The author, how-ever, seems to have produced new wine from an old bottle exploring various dimensions of Portuguese activities in India. The author’s main objective is to present an integrated history of the coast and the hinterland, of ‘maritime developments’ and ‘land-centric processes’ in the ten articles which are republished in this book. Basically, the main focus of the book is on these recurrent themes: Portuguese policy of enforcing cultural and religious homogeneity in Goa through various decrees; their attempts to control commerce, especially sea-borne traffic with Europe; the expansion of Portuguese private trade along the East coast of India; and, Portuguese interactions with local merchants.   In fact, the first article is the only one which deals explicitly with Portuguese interaction with the Mughals. Malekandathil presents his reassessment of the religious discussions initiated by Akbar with the Portuguese; in response to his invitation, Jesuit priests were sent to the Mughal court, piously hoping to convert Akbar to Christianity. While this initiative is generally attributed to Akbar’s secular and intellectual curiosity about other religions, the author points out that a new perspective emerges when one considers the larger political and economic factors at play. The growing levels of prosperity in the Mughal empire and the strong, state-supported expansion of manufacturing activities required a secure avenue for imports of consumer goods and exports of local textiles. The Portuguese, who controlled the West coast and the Bengal region, therefore needed to be kept on good terms to support these economic objectives. Added to this was the political compulsion of ensuring the smooth functioning of the ships carrying pilgrims for Haj. The Portuguese, for their part, needed markets to make their own shipping and trade profitable, and these economic realities offer a more plausible explanation for Akbar’s efforts to reach out to the Portuguese and the positive response of the latter. The second chapter examines the complex factors behind the conversion to Christianity of the Parava fishermen of the pearl fishery coast of Tamil Nadu in the sixteenth century. The conventional interpretation attributes this to the desire of the Portuguese to control pearl fishing on the one hand, and the promise of release from low-caste status to the fishermen on the other. Malekandathil goes beyond this ...

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