How we got the Calicut story wrong (and what we can learn from it)

A tale of two cities: how we got the Calicut story wrong (and what we can learn from it)

A. India, showing the location of the former Malabar region (yellow) and the border of the present state of Kerala; B. Kerala, showing the location of ancient (modern) trading ports; C. The survey area, showing the locations of the earlier ‘Calicut at Beypore’ and the later ‘Calicut at Kozhikode’. Credit: International Journal of Environmental History (2022). DOI: 10.22459/IREH.08.02.2022.03

UniSC professor Patrick Nunn and Roselyn Kumar did not set out to rewrite history.

They were simply trying to investigate how the coast of India had changed over the centuries.

“There were these ancient travel accounts describing this fabulous port in Calicut (now Kozhikode) and how it was one of the largest ports in Asia,” Professor Nunn said.

But something was bothering him. Sometime in the 16th century, Calicut depictions and illustrations ceased to match the old ones. The river was bad. So were the ships. Where was the promised great maritime city and the trees full of fruit?

“It was just a sandy beach. It looked like the worst possible place for a port,” Professor Nunn said. “It did not make sense”.

It was as if Calicut had somehow been teleported to a completely different place.

Now you think that’s exactly what happened.

The trouble began in 1498 with a man who was not strange to problems—Vasco da Gama. Da Gama had been sent by the King of Portugal to find a sea route to India and establish trade relations in Calicut. But rather than anchor in a grand harbor that forced previous visitors to embrace its magnificence, Professor Nunn and Kumar believe da Gama missed the mark, landing 33km to the north near a significantly less impressive beach town than thought it was Calicut.

A simple mistake that rewrote history.

The Portuguese later realized their mistake, as evidenced by their repeated attacks on present-day Calicut, but they never rectified this in their language or script. Things got even more complicated when the legendary centuries-old port appears to have disappeared.

“Decades after that, what I infer is that a huge tsunami washed up the coast and destroyed the old Calicut. So the Zamorins (the local rulers) simply decided to move to what the Portuguese considered the new Calicut,” Professor Nunn said. .

With the old city gone, later travelers to the “new” Calicut believed it to be the same great port of old. Histories from two different places became one: a confused amalgamation, riddled with inconsistencies.

“What seems particularly extraordinary is that almost all visitors to the area after 1590 thought there was only one Calicut, although local informants no doubt told them what had happened to the other,” Roselyn Kumar said.

This is the most important problem raised by Professor Nunn and Kumar. Why have the oral histories of other cultures been met with such skepticism and doubt about the course of Western history, while that same critical gaze is not turned towards our own written accounts?

“The story of the two Calicuts is a reminder of the incompleteness of history and the danger of reconstructing it only from what can be seen, touched, read or related. Much is missing from today’s understanding of human history, which requires the novel and occasionally imaginative approaches are needed to complete it,” said Roselyn.

It also raises another question. If we’re wrong about Calicut, where else are we wrong?

“If historians make assumptions about the past that turn out to be incorrect, then whole sequences of deductions may need to be rolled back. That’s hard for us narrative-loving humans to accept,” said Professor Nunn. “Growing up you’re taught a story as the truth. But the truth is much more nuanced than that.”

The findings are published in the journal International Journal of Environmental History.

More information:
Patrick Nunn et al, ‘A Once Roomy Haven’: What Happened to Calicut (India’s Malabar Coast), 1335–1887, International Journal of Environmental History (2022). DOI: 10.22459/IREH.08.02.2022.03

Provided by Sunshine Coast University

Citation: A Tale of Two Cities: How We Got the Calicut Story Wrong (and What We Can Learn From It) (2023, January 19) Accessed January 21, 2023 at 01-tale-cities-history-calicut-wrong.html

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