Cartaz System

Cartaz System a sea-pass introduced by the Portuguese East India Company (Estado da India) in the Indian Ocean region including Bay of Bengal in the early sixteenth century. Traditionally, the Arab and Persian mariners were predominant in the Indian Ocean traffic and by virtue of their supremacy they maintained order and security in the maritime trade of the region. From the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese superseded the Muslim dominance in the maritime regime of the Indian Ocean. By declaring sovereignty over the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese introduced cartaz system as a mark of their authority. They compelled all other Asian partners in the Indian Ocean to recognise their supremacy by paying a toll called cartaz. The cartaz was a pass, the holder of which was declared to be free from seizure by the Portuguese navy. The cartaz entitled its holder freedom of movement in the Indian Ocean.

The word cartaz was derived from the Arabic quirtas (paper or document). Originally, cartaz was said to have been inroduced by the Arab sailors for the non-Arab merchants sailing in the Arabian Sea. In justifying the unfair impost, the Portuguese claimed that the system of cartaz was already there before they entered the Indian Ocean. They themselves had to buy cartaz from the Arabs when they first entered the Arabian Sea on their way to India. But there is no credible evidence supporting the allegation. Collecting cartaz from the Portuguese was absurd on the practical ground that the Perso-Arab trading voyages were individually organised and an individual ship was practically unable to sustain a system like cartaz against the corporate body like the Portuguese East India Company.

Before they arrived in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese were notorious in privateering in the Mediterranean; and they practiced the same when they were in the Indian Ocean. The problem of privateering and enslaving captured sailors was hitherto unknown in the Indian Ocean. The first cartazes were issued in 1502, while Vasco da Gama decided to hold the Malabar Coast as the first Portuguese foothold. For some decades, local rulers in peace with the Portuguese used to issue cartazes against a fee, but the Portuguese soon withdrew the privilege from the local princes. The cartaz rate in 1533 was one pardao per ship, and this rate remained unchanged until the Portuguese came under pressure from other western maritime powers that came to join the Indian Ocean trade in the early seventeenth century.

The impact of cartaz on the Indian Ocean trade and commerce was disastrous. The revenue that they collected by way of cartaz was not that considerable. What was most damaging about the pass was the limitation of the number of ships certified for a particular destination. The Asian merchants were not allowed to send their merchant ships to various destinations according to their free will. Under the cartaz system, it was the Portuguese who decided the number of ships to be dispatched to a particular destination. For example, the Guzrat merchants who had extensive maritime link with the Arab Peninsula and East Africa never got cartaz as they demanded. It was always less than half the demand. As a result, Indian and Perso-Arab merchants suffered and eventually their maritime trade declined. The same was the fate with the maritime merchants of Coromondal Coast and Bengal. [Sirajul Islam]