Did Your Ancestor Ever Go East?


Hi folks, am back after a while and this time I want to tell you something about my part of the world.

Kerala, my place, is a just a tiny little southern state tucked away on the west coast of India. It’s sobriquet, God’s Own Country is highly deserved too. My ancestral folk are supposed to have had diplomatic-cum-trade dealings with Europe and beyond as far back as the 12th century. There is enough evidence of this history on its brown lands which slope from mountain to sea, giving you a hilly coolness to a beach breeze in a matter of three to four hours.

Whichever part of the globe you may belong to, it’s quite possible someone from your place had been a tourist or a trader here like Fa Hein. So if you are looking for an ancestor who ‘went east’ a couple of centuries ago, read on, this bit of Portuguese colonial history might be for you. Anywhere on the coasts of Asia, America and Africa you can find a fort, a church, a geographical name or a family name, that come from Portugal.These are the remains of the first European country that explored the world in search of spices and souls. Look at the trail of forts along the ship route of the 15th century Portuguese sailors and you get the idea that they meant business alright! Business that later became colonial politics. Bahrain, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India and Mozambique, Zanzibar, Malacca etc on the African coast are dotted with Portuguese colonial remains.

It is five centuries and a decade exactly since the Portuguese nobleman navigator Vasco de Gama braved unknown seas from Lisbon to land at what they called a spice coast. Five years hence again, Francisco de Almeida was declared the Viceroy of the Portuguese holdings in India. European gun power overcame the three century old trade connections of the Arabs and laid foundation to several hundred years of European presence on the Arabian Sea coast of India.

The little green state at the tip of the Indian subcontinent called Kerala has been left with a treasure house of Portuguese memories. The St.Angelo Fort at Kannur is one of them. Built by Francisco de Almeida in 1505, the fort has changed hands a number of times; first to the Dutch then to the Arakkal royal family of the locality, then the French and the English, but the long trail of owners does not decrease the stature of the fort; and it is remarkably well preserved. So if you are hooked to history and have a couple of ancestors that came across in the boats in those days, Kannur may be the place to start looking for them.

The fort has an interesting shape, it is triangular, complete with moats and bastions and you might be standing in Sagress Fortress, in Portugal. The building material is laterite that is locally abundant and out in the front is the Arabian Sea, here it is called the Moppila Bay and the view is fantastic, to say the least. The natural fishing bay is now a modern fishing harbor. A sea wall projecting from the fort separates the rough sea and inland water and the five-acre Dharmadom Island is situated 100 meters away from the mainland in the Arabian Sea. The barracks, arsenal, cannons and the ruins of a chapel still stand in the fort as a testimony to its glorious history. There is even supposed to be a secret under passage which connects it to the Thalassery Fort 21 Kms away.

The later colonial and Indian invaders all looked to the capture of the Angelo Fort as a major victory; it was also one of the major military stations of the British on the Malabar Coast. But the structure of the fort is still remarkably well preserved considering the turbulence it has gone through. A painting of this fort and the fishing ferry behind it by John Johnson can be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Kannur Fort, as it is known now, attracts scores of visitors in and out of season, but is yet untouched by sophistication in its surroundings; making this fact one of its attractions. It is now a protected monument under the Archeological Survey of India, and very much a part of the vibrant forgotten days.


Why did the Portuguese alone become such avid explorers among the other European countries? It’s probably because it was funded and planned by the state, historians now claim. This small nation was the ruler of the Indian Ocean for about 150 years and the Portuguese language was for more than 250 years the trading language (lingua franca) of the Asiatic coasts. The United Provinces of Netherlands then replaced Portugal in sea adventures in the 17th century.So is it any wonder that the Portuguese first build the Angelo Fort in Kerala with the local ruler’s consent in 1505, and later in 1663, it was taken over by the Dutch? And the current modern fishing harbor at Moppila Bay is built under the Indo-Norwegian pact! How is that for history repeating itself in a peaceful way?

The Portuguese word
‘veranda’ used for a large porch is in popular use with the same meaning in Kerala too. If you find that’s curious, take a look at these words in Portuguese and Malayalam (Kerala’s native language) and see what they mean in English!



Jackfruit Jaka Chakka
Mango Manga Manga
Onion Cebola Sabola
Orange Narinja Naranga
Cashew Caju Cashew
Teak Teca Thekk
Almirah Armario Alamari
Window Janela Janal
Table Mesa Mesha
Chair Cadeira Kasera
Sugar Asucar Sarkara (actually molasses
rather than sugar)

The architecture sketches of Kerala in the medieval periods sparsely include a window space; look at the temple architecture.

Perhaps the technology of rectangular windows in the European style was adopted along with the word?

If that isn’t enough then this is Dutch to you, but not to the Keralite!

Toilet Bowl Kakhuis Kakkus
Post Tapal Thapal


(12 June 2012)

Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at yashovathi@gmail.com

Click here to return to the index of stories for A Word With You

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


wp-puzzle.com logo