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Tome Pires


Tome Pires (1465-1540) was the apothecary of Prince Afonso (1475-1491 AD) and author of Suma Oriental (Eastern Account), the earliest extensive account of the East written by a portuguese. Born in 1465 (c) he was the son of a humble apothecary of King John II (1455-95) of Portugal. He was appointed in September 1511 as feitor das drogarias (the factor of the drugs) to Cochin in India on the recommendation of the king. He was also in charge of a botica (supply of medicines) worth 4,000-5,000 reais. Tome Pires' next appointment was that of the Writer and Accountant of the trading fleet in the newly acquired Portuguese possession of Malacca and Java. Finally, Pires was appointed as the first Portuguese Ambassador to China. Despite his tact in negotiation and lively mind, his relation with the Chinese authority turned sour and he was imprisoned and banished to the northern Chinese province of Kiangsu where he died around 1540 at the age of about 70. The book, which he had written on China, was presented to the Portuguese Viceroy of India and is now available at the National Assembly in Paris.

Information about Pires' life from his arrival in India till his death is rather sketchy. All that could be known about him is contained in his account, 4 of his letters, 5 documents signed by him and references of him in contemporary documents and early chronicles. An eager observer, a keen and indefatigable describer though with poor literary style, Pires occupies a remarkable place among the early European writers on the East.

Tome Pires did not visit Bengal but his great work, Suma Oriental written during his tenures in India and Malacca (1512-1515) gives in its third part, a valuable account of contemporary Bengal. Pires' book mainly concerns the commercial activities between the Indian and Southeast Asian ports. However, his keen power of observation and interest in details, direct contact with the Oriental travellers, captains of the ships and merchants had bearings on his writings even relating to the places he had never been to. In fact, the very structure of the longer-distance maritime trade presented Tome Pires with an opportunity to form some ideas about the Bengal situation. Portuguese commercial activities during the 16th century were built upon the inter-linkages between coastal overland and overseas trade. Trading activities in the ports of Coromandel or Malabar or Bengal was not self- supportive, rather both the goods exported and those imported had to be channeled, collected and distributed with only a small proportion being actually produced and consumed within the environs of the call ports. For example, the port of Masulipatnam situated in the midst of salt marsh was short of foodstuff and other materials for which it had to depend on annual supplies from Bengal which included rice, grams, chili, opium, clarified butter, and even the saltpetre of Patna. Besides, at least once a year a junk (flat- bottomed sailing vessel) full of white fine cloths, richly decorative bed canopies, varieties of sugar preserves etc, used to sail to Malacca where Bengal cloth specially was in high demand. In such a situation, Pires had ample opportunities to acquaint himself with geographical, historical and economic conditions of Bengal.

Thus one finds in Pires' account a detailed picture of the chaotic political situation in the later half of the 15th century Bengal. The high-handedness of the Abyssinian slaves, many of who were eunuchs and their ultimate capture of the throne of Bengal, a Muslim Kingdom which managed to remain independent of the Delhi Sultanate, had found place in his account with analytical remarks. Bengal's inimical relations with the neighbouring Hindu kingdoms of Orissa and Tippera were also mentioned. His description of the then capital city of Bengal including its location, inhabitants and residences demonstrate Pires' keen power of observation and love for details. His description about the internal ports famous for business activities, composition of the merchant communities and their nature still forms an important source material for reconstructing the economic history of pre-Modern Bengal. However, Pires' observation about the dishonesty of the Bengal merchants deserves scrutiny. His categorisation of the Bengal merchants as 'false' perhaps has its explanation in the prevailing weakness of the Asian commercial pattern in which a large number of pedlars with small cargoes, small capital sailing in a junk - each one with its own money, its own weights and measures, used to participate in the seaborne trade. Since the pedlars were often forced to work on faulty intelligence and under unpredictable supply conditions and price fluctuations - a situation not familiar to the Europeans, Bengal merchants' practices seemed queer to Pires.

Before accepting everything verbatim of the Bengal section of the Suma Oriental it should be borne in mind that Pires' great work was lost and buried in oblivion for long. The copy of Suma Oriental which the Hakluyat Society got translated and published in 1944 was not the original one written by him, and the copyist had left too many instances of carelessness. Pires' unclear style along with the most anarchic punctuation rendered a correct interpretation of the whole text difficult, at times leaving room for guesswork by the translator. [Shirin Akhtar]

Bibliography' Armando Cortesao (tr.), The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires, London, 1944, Reprinted in 1967; Irfan Habib, Merchant Communities in Precolonial India in JD Tracy, ed, The Rise of Merchant Empires, Cambridge, 1990; MR Tarafdar, Bengal Economy Viewed in the Light of Tome Pires' Observations, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 40, II.