Calicut as a Port City came up somewhere in the 13th Century. As per available evidence, the second Chera Dynasty, otherwise known as the Kulashekhara Empire, broke up after the death (some say abdication and subsequent pilgrimage to Mecca) of the last Perumal, Rama Kulashekhara (1089-1102). The political union broke up and several local Viceroys of the Perumal became independent within their territorial limits. The Eranat Udayavar was one such chieftain of Nediyiruppu swaroopam who controlled the Eranad area (large parts of the present Malappuram district, to the south of Calicut). He was also known as the Mootha Eradi of Nediyiruppu. During the break-up of the Kulashekhara Empire, Calicut and its surrounding areas formed part of the kingdom of Polanad, ruled by a local chieftain with the title of Porlathiri, who ruled with Panniankara (on the southern bank of River Kallayi) as their headquarters. Although endowed with abundant natural resources like spices and much sought after Teak wood, the Eradis of Nediyiruppu did not get their share of the flourishing foreign trade from the Malabar coast, as they were land-locked and did not have access to any port.

They attacked the Porlathiris in a war which lasted for almost half a century, resulting in the defeat and flight of the Porlathiris who sought asylum in Kolathnad north of River Korapuzha. The Eradis moved in to Calicut where they built a fort at Velapuram (presumably present day Vellayil, but no trace of the structure has been found). Thus was established the Empire of the Zamorins of Calicut which was the principal port of call for all ocean-bound trade between the East and the West for the next three centuries and more.

Malabar had been famous as the principal source of spices and timber from time immemorial. This region – a narrow strip of mountainous land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, stretching from Konkan in the north to Cape Comorin in the southern tip of the peninsula – had been famous even from the time of the Byzantine geographer of the 6th Century, Cosmas Indicopleustus (literally, Cosmas who sailed to India). Cosmas mentions having visited the Malabar coast in 522 A.D., although historians do not agree on the veracity of this claim. It was known as Male' among Arab navigators. Albiruni in the 11th Century was perhaps the first to call this coast Malabar. Other variants are Malibar, Manibar, Mulibar and Munibar.

The principal ports of Malabar referred to by Albiruni were Eli (Ezhimala near Kannur, 90 kilometers north of Calicut, a picturesque natural port now housing Indian Navy’s largest training establishment), Fandaraina (Panthalayini-Kollam, 25 kilometers north of Calicut where Vasco da Gama’s fleet secured itself against the fury of the South West monsoon between May and October 1498 (this was also the haven for Chinese sailors), Shaliat (Chaliyam, now more popularly known as Beypore, 7 kilometers south of Calicut and a renowned boat-building centre then and now), Ponnani, Kodungallur and Kollam (also known as Kurakkeni Kollam, the present Quilon, 370 kilometers south of Calicut).

One of the earliest references to Calicut and its ruler (Al Samari) was by the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battutah who had visited Malabar between 1342 and 1347. He had been deputed by the Delhi Sultan Mohammed bin Tuglaq as an ambassador to China and had planned to embark on his trip from Calicut, ‘ of the great ports. It is the destination of ships from China, Sumatra, Ceylon, the Maldives, Yemen and Persia, and in it gather merchants from every corner of the earth. Its anchorage’, continued Ibn Battutah, ‘is one of the largest in the world’. He did not fail to notice that there were 13 Chinese ships anchored as he landed – this was a full century before the Ming expeditions!

A port in Calicut should have been in existence for at least a century for it to be such an important destination. In fact, we find several references in Chinese annals ( Chau Jhu-kua, Wang Dayuan etc.) of active trading with Malabar (Nan-pi) ports – Quilon (Ku-lin) is often mentioned and another port referred to in their writings as Ku-li is assumed to be Calicut. This perhaps indicates that China had been using Calicut as an entrepot much before the launch by the Ming Emperors of the Treasure Ships in the early 15th Century.

The Zamorin had, thus, become Poonthurakkon (the lord of the harbour city) in full control of the city and port of Calicut as early as in the 13th Century. Calicut had all the trappings of a developed port, as noted by Ibn Battutah – it had a Shahbander (harbourmaster) like in all important medieval ports like Basra ( where Sindbad the Sailor was offered this position), Hormuz and Malacca, and it even boasted of Nakhuda Mithqal ‘the owner of great riches and of many vessels that ply his trade with India, China, Yemen and Persia’. The Arabs who had dominated the trade scene in Calicut were mostly Hadramis from Yemen or Omanis from Dhofar, Salalah.

The Persian ambassador Abdur Razzaq from the court of the Timurid Emperor Shah Rukh who visited Calicut almost a hundred years after Ibn Battutah was equally impressed. ‘Calicut’, he wrote, ‘is a perfectly secured harbour which, like Hormuz, brings together merchants from every city and from every country.’ But, unlike Hormuz which was a city within the sphere of Islam, Calicut ruled by an infidel still had perfect ‘security and justice’. Goods can be left on the streets without fear of thieves on account of the watchmen of the state (ameenan-i-diwan). Moreover, the custom duty of one fortieth of the sale price was even lower than that of Hormuz.

All this despite the fact that Calicut was not a natural harbour and was not friendly to sailors –as Ibn Battutah himself had discovered on the April afternoon when he was all set to sail but a sudden onset of severe storm and mountainous waves destroyed his fleet and killed most passengers of the ship he was to board, as he looked on helplessly from the shore. The legendary 15th Century navigator, Ahmad Ibn Majid refers to the hostile shoals, reefs and foul ground on the Calicut roads. The bulk of traffic to Calicut was perhaps handled by the satellite ports of Chaliyam in the south and Panthalayini-Kollam in the north. Significantly, Varthema who visited Calicut around 1505 observes : ‘There is no port here (Calicut)’. We also have the evidence of both Abdur Razzaq and Varthema having boarded the return ship from Panthalayani-Kollam.

Yet, the fame of Calicut spread throughout the maritime world due to the good governance that the Zamorin and his team was able to guarantee. The Arabs and the Chinese were the leading visitors and both liked the operational efficiency and the atmosphere of discipline. Arabs praised it as the City of Truth and Fei Xin from Zheng He’s fleet also sang its praise (’nobody takes the lost property of others on the streets...’).

Commercial success brought in large revenues for the Zamorin who now became ambitious and wanted to expand the empire. ‘Impelled by considerations of enlightened self-interest the Arabs also helped the Zamorin with ships, horses and soldiers in his wars with the neighbouring chieftains’. (A.Sreedhara Menon : A Survey of Kerala History) The local Muslims (known as Mappilas) had also joined hands and the Mappila naval contingent under the leadership of Kozhikkottu Koya played a crucial role in defeating the Raja of Valluvanad. The Chinese had left the shores of Calicut as part of their policy of insularity, leaving the Arabs in a position of monopoly over export of spices and import of the myriad requirements of the entire southern India, including the demand for Omani horses from the Vijayanagar Empire.

Into this peaceful haven sailed in the Portuguese in 1498, looking for spices and Christians, in that order. The fleet of Vasco da Gama – consisting of three ships and a crew of mostly hardened convicts who were considered as expendable -reached the outer roads of Calicut and anchored on Sunday, 20 May 1498 at Kappad, 15 kilometers north of the present Calicut city. The rulers of Calicut were not unaccustomed to receiving foreign ambassadors – from Zheng He in 1405 to Abdur Razzaq in 1442 – a long procession of diplomats had arrived only to be dazzled by the opulence of the market place and the amazing orderliness of the administration of trade by the state agencies.

The Zamorin had arranged a royal reception for the new visitors. His first concern was that the impending monsoon could destroy the Portuguese fleet anchored off Kappad unless they were quickly shifted to the placid shore of Panthalayani-Kollam where the mud banks would protect the ships from the fury of the south west monsoon. The Portuguese guests were given a memorable reception with the entire city coming out to watch the Europeans who, unlike the Arabs, Chinese and Jews, were not frequent visitors to Calicut. But the bonhomie was rather brief and the visitors soon let their hosts know that they would insist on expelling the ‘Moors’ from Calicut and have complete monopoly of trade – antithetical to the principle of free trade which had made Calicut prosperous and famous throughout the medieval world.

Although the Portuguese settled down to trade after the initial bouts of aggression, they had shattered the fabric of peace which was the hallmark of Calicut. There was constant strife at sea between the Portuguese and the Arabs. The Dutch followed and started engaging actively in local politics, supporting one ruler against another. The Zamorin got embroiled in many wars, gaining territory somewhere but losing men and ground in others. But, all through this turbulence, the rulers did not betray the Muslim supporters – both as traders and as valiant sailors who fought the colonials at sea. Admiral Kunhali and other Marikkars stood firmly behind the Calicut rulers during the troubled century.

The Marikkars operating originally from Ponnani fought the Portuguese at sea using guerrilla tactics. By 1525, Kuttiali Marikkar had a fleet of 200 vessels operating out of Calicut, flouting with impunity the cartaz regime imposed by the Portuguese by which all ships at sea had to take written permission from them. Although the Portuguese had established their government at Goa, their spice trade continued to be disrupted as no spices could be despatched from Cochin to Goa due to the resistance offered by the Marikkar fleet on Calicut roadstead. In 1530 the Portuguese Government in Goa complained to Lisbon that the major reason why they could not get any pepper was that ‘the coast is not well protected and it is taken to Mecca, Diu and elsewhere’. Ultimately, what fire power could not achieve, intrigue did. The Zamorin had been receiving reports of high-handedness by Kunhali Marakkar IV, embellished by stories of his imperial ambitions. With his influence and invincibility growing by the day, Kunhali also started asserting his independence and perhaps dreamt of establishing a kingdom based on his sea power. Ultimately, the estrangement reached a stage when the Zamorin decided in 1599 to suppress the possible revolt by seeking the help of the Portuguese.

This move’...created a wound in the body politic that could not be healed easily. In a sense, this was the beginning of the end, the starting point of the decline of Kozhikode’. (MGS Narayanan, Calicut:The City of Truth Revisited) The Portuguese laid siege to Kunhali’s fort in Kottakkal (at Puthuppanam, near Vatakara) and secured the surrender of the valiant Admiral. ‘Kunhali surrendered to his erstwhile master, the Zamorin on a solemn promise of pardon but the Zamorin broke his word and handed over his old Admiral to the Portuguese. Kunhali IV and his men were taken to Goa and executed. Kunhali’s body was cut to pieces and exhibited at the beach at Bardes and Panjim. His head was salted and sent to Cannanore and it was displayed there on a standard as a warning to the local Muslims.’ (A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History)

The Zamorin now started engaging in protracted wars with the Dutch who challenged him in Chettuvai and Pappinivattam. He managed to drive the Dutch from these posts and even conquered Kodungalloor. Calicut had stretched its territorial boundaries to its limits. Its neighbours, threatened by the spectre of the Zamorin swallowing their principalities appealed to the Mysore ruler who deputed Hyder Ali, then Faujdar of Dindigal to assist. The Mysore intervention led to the virtual end of the Zamorin rule with the Zamorin himself committing suicide on 27th April 1766, thus heralding the end of the Zamorin dynasty. Members of the royal family and their hangers-on fled to Travancore where Karthika Thirunal Maharaja (also known as Dharma Raja for his commitment to justice and fairness) gave them refuge.

Mysore occupied Calicut in 1766 and continued till 1792 when Tipu ceded Malabar, among other territories to the East India Company. The British immediately appointed two Commissioners (Farmer and Dow) to effect the political settlement of Malabar. Although the next Zamorin returned from exile and wanted to resume powers, the East India Company was well entrenched and did not allow the restoration. The Zamorin and family were paid a perpetual pension (Malikhana) in 1806 ‘ as the security for the good and dutiful behaviour towards the Company’s Government of each and every member of the Rajeum or family...’. Thus ended a glorious chapter in the history of medieval Calicut.