Modern Asian Studies


Persians, Pilgrims and Portuguese: The Travails of Masulipatnam Shipping in the Western Indian Ocean, 1590–1665

Sanjay Subrahmanyama1

a1 Delhi School of Economics

The Coromandel port of Masulipatnam, at the northern extremity of the Krishna delta, rose to prominence as a major centre of maritime trade in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Its growing importance after about 1570 is explicable in terms of two sets of events: first, the consolidation of the Sultanate of Golkonda under Ibrahim Qutb Shah (r. 1550–1580), and second, the rise within the Bay of Bengal of a network of ports with a distinctly anti-Portuguese character, including the Sumatran centre of Aceh, the ports of lower Burma, of Arakan, as well as Masulipatnam itself. Round about 1550, Masulipatnam was no more than a supplier of textiles on the coastal network to the great port of Pulicat further south, but by the early 1580s its links with Pegu and Aceh had grown considerably, causing not a little alarm in the upper echelons of the administration of the Portuguese Estado da Índia at Goa. The ‘Moors’ who owned and operated ships out of Masulipatnam did so without the benefit of carlazes from the Portuguese captains either at São Tomé or at any other neighbouring port, and while developing an intense trade within the Bay of Bengal, strictly avoided the Portuguese-controlled entrepot at Melaka. The Portuguese in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were heavily involved in it in western India and a recent study has marshalled evidence from Portuguese sources on the mechanics of that trade in a port on the Kanara coast.2 In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the entry into the Indian Ocean of the large Chartered Companies, evidence on the grain trade is substantially increased, enabling us to see it in sharper focus in the broad canvas of Asian trade. the port was no more than a minor nuisance, and in the engagements that ensued, the Portuguese frequently had the worst of it, subsequently negotiating to recover prisoners lodged at Masulipatnam or at the court in Golkonda.2 However, by about 1590, the tenor of the relationship between the viceregal administration at Goa and the court at Golkonda had begun to show signs of change