Ludovico Varthema

Ludovico Varthema

Ludovico Varthema travelled in interesting times. Varthema departed Italy for the Indian Ocean region in late 1502 and arrived in 1503. A few years prior, in 1498, Vasco da Gama had arrived in the Indian Ocean via sea and circumnavigating Africa. Da Gama’s hope was to gain control of the Indian Ocean spice trade that was in the hands of Venetians and Genoans, he arrived not to trade but to dominate and his brutal suppression of local trade made the shores and waters of the Indian Ocean a delicate place for a European to travel.

Vasco da Gama

This was the Indian Ocean that Ludovico Varthema wandered into. He left Italy knowing little, if any, of the doings of da Gama and was unaware of the maelstrom into which he was entering, Europeans were were treated with suspicion and mistrust, how was Varthama able to navigate this? Varthema made his way to Damascus where he converted to Islam and joined the Mamluks, the military order that included slaves and converts. His first assignment was to accompany and protect the pilgrims of the Hajj to Mecca. While at Mecca he was accused of being a Christian spy but as a convert to Islam he was able to overcome this issue. He bailed on the Mamluks and made his way to Yemen where he was imprisoned, again being accused of being a Christian spy. Through a supposed love affair with a local sultana and a ruse he managed to escape to Persia where he met up with a travelling merchant who promised his daughter in marriage. The two travelled to India where the Portuguese had by now ensconced themselves in precarious fortresses. On trading ventures the two sailed the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, the lands of the Bay of Bengal, the Indonesian Islands as far east as Borneo before making their return east.

Old view of Calicut

Back in Calicut Varthema was able to link up with the Portuguese, he dumped his future father-in-law, renounced Islam, re-embraced Christianity, gave the Portuguese valuable information from his travels, received employment, hitched a ride by the sea route back to Portugal. He received a knighthood from the Portuguese king and returned to Italy where he died in 1517.

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