The history of piracy of the Indian West Coast

Or: Locating the badass Indian pirate princess

Being somewhat familiar with the piracy and slavery in the Mediterranean, as well as the history of Indian Ocean trade, I dared to bridge these two topics to find out a little more about pirates in the Indian Ocean. This article is the result of my research, outlining the history, politics and feuds along the Indian West Coast.


for Nisha


the history of piracy in the Indian Ocean

“To fully understand any economic system, we need to go beyond the formal regulated and recorded economy, to also examine the informal, unregulated, and illegal.” (Antony 2010)

K. M. Pannikar wrote 1945 that the pre-colonial Indian Ocean was peaceful, with freedom of trade and navigation. A view also presented in Lakshmi Subramanian’s article “The forgotten history of piracy in the Indian Ocean”. However,  the history of the western Indian Ocean shows that piracy went hand-in-hand with maritime trade and travel since the very beginning. Especially from the 12th Century onwards, when the seaborne trade expanded, piratic activities flourished as well. Contemporary accounts of travel and trade are riddled with reports of pirate encounters, as seen in the Surat Factory Records, a valuable source on piracy during the East India Company.  What piracy in the Indian Ocean still makes a controversial topic among historians to this day, is the eurocentric view of what a “pirate” actually is:

“Maritime violence in Asian waters before the Sixteenth Century has been downplayed, because it does not conform to archetypes based in Europe’s historical experience of Mediterranean corsairing or Caribbean privateering. […] As a result, Indian Ocean pirates are more likely to be portrayed as pests than as political actors.” (Prange 2011)

Because of a perceived lack of organization or agency, Asian piracy has not been taken as serious as that of other regions in the world. But pirates were not just parasites. More often than not, they had agreements with merchants and political powers or were a direct threat to their authority. And as such, they contributed in the formation of the political and social landscape  in the area and were a huge factor of resistance against European rule.

Setting the Stage: India’s west coast

India was since ancient time one of the most important cultural and economic hubs in the world, cultivating diplomatic relations to the whole known world. The period from the 16th to 18th century was a time of constant political, social and economic changes, culminating in British colonialism. Until then, “Malabar” was a constant threat to European imperialism. Arab writers used the term Malabar (derived from the Malayalam term for “hilly country”) to denote the region of South West India, around today’s state of Kerala. It was a region known for its strong local traditions of Islam and Christianity since the first millenium CE, alongside Hindu warrior castes and groups that were organized matrilineally (doesn’t necessarily imply matriarchy).
In European sources, the term was extended and applied to the whole western coast of India, up to Mumbai.

In India there was no single mercantile or political system, or one single form of social organization. Malabar alone was not a single entity, but divided into a number of Rajadoms. Even after the Portuguese, Dutch and British East India Companies established their centralized, bureaucratic trading system, on grassroot level, people still hold onto their traditional practices and traditions.

The “Malabaris” (That’s what I call them for convenience sake) settled in creeks, lagoons and estuaries, but there were 3 main ports that were repeatedly mentioned in contemporary sources: Surat, Calicut and Beypore.

In the north western coast of India, in the “broader Malabar” of European sources, the most important cultural, political and economic center next to Mumbai was Surat. This harbor city was a hub of resistance – and piracy. Burned in 1512 by the Portuguese and integrated into the Sultanate of Gujarat in 1576, Surat quickly recovered and became a prominent trading point and naval power in its own right. In the 1650s, Surat had a merchant navy of 50 large and well-built ships, and by the end of the century, their fleet consisted of at least 112 ships.

in the South, in Kerala, there were two major centers that were mentioned in many sources: Calicut (Kozhikonde), and the near port town of Beypore (Beypur), of which the latter fascinated me a lot. But first, the actual capital of the “original Malabar”:

Calicut was ruled by the Zamorin (or Samoothiri), Hindu rulers, that even after British rule, maintained their influence as aristocrats. The city was a trading hotspot, with ties to China, Sumatra, Ceylon, the Maldives and Yemen, importing gold, silk and metals in exchange of Malabar’s export goods. The Italian traveler Careri described the sailors of Calicut as “the most ferocicious of pirates”, consisting of all ethnic and religious groups. While many sources describe Calicut’s sailors as a monolithic group. Needless to say, they were a quite diverse population of pirates, guerilla warriors and harmless merchants. Calcut was also home of the merchant community of Moplahs. Some Moplah families were so powerful that they had their own fleets and held political influence.

The second major town, Beypore was home to an unparalleled ship building industry, due to its climate condition and access to sheer unlimited resources such as timber. The whole town was a single factory with “Innumerable water logs, of which many seem man-made, enabled construction of ships in dry yards”. They were able to build any local type of ship, and if demanded by foreign customers, also construct other models such as Persian or Arabian ones. In Beypore there was also a strong blacksmith tradition. Many places bore names that referenced iron or blacksmithing (great framework for fictional names). According to V. Kunhali (2001), Ships that were built in Beypore had iron nails and anchors and were particularly stable, whereas the average Indian ship was mostly lightly build. Imagine all the potential political intrigues and battles over Beypore’s industrial infrastructure and shipyards…

“Coercion and Protection”

“Protection and coercion were contradictory, yet two sides of the same coin.” (Malony 1991)

When the Portuguese discovered the Cape route to India, they preferred coercion rather than peaceful methods of commerce. They raided Indian ships and established a pass system by selling cartazes, annually expiring permits that Indian ships had to buy in order to prevent seizures by Portuguese fleets.
That way the Portuguese could control the flow of goods, influence which trading routes were taken and – more importantly – which ports the ships had to land on. In Portuguese controlled ports, they could tax the trade. The final goal was to gain monopoly in Indian trade and the ability to put embargos on cities that refused to join that system.

Later on, with the arrival on Dutch and English powers, Indian ships were forced to equip passes of several nations at once.
The Portugues launched Kafilas, small ships to protect against pirates, but primarily to control and capture ships that had no valid passes.
The Portuguese Estado da India presented themselves as “customs officials”, but transformed into a piratical state. Many groups had agreements with the Portuguese and managed to coexist with the occupiers, but the Malabari pirates were “skilled and determined enough to avoid this control”

competition and domination

The history of colonialism in West India was not a uniform period of European superiority. “Asian naval techniques were neither backwards nor passive” (Malony 1991) and the European ships were not necessarily bigger than their Indian counterparts. Notable are the Indian paraos:

“These were small galleys of approx. 60 tuns [ca. 57.000 liters holding capacity, but I suck at measurement systems lol – Stefan], manned on each side by 20-30 oarsmen; they could carry 3 or 4 pieces of artillary and more than 100 archers or arquebusiers [=light musketeers]. They were open decked and lateen rigged, with one or two masts.” (Malony 1991)

The Malabari pirates are the most often mentioned group in the Surat Factory Records. The sailors of Malabar were skilled and could outmanoeuvre bigger vessels. Their common mode of attack was throwing “fire pots” on the deck of the enemy ship, as well as firing arrows or handguns in the volley technique, resulting in continous fire.

Malabar’s resistance was remarkably successful. In 1610, they lost only one tenth of their total production to Portuguese ships. Malabor’s fleets carried cargoes of pepper, cardamom and cinnamon to Gujarat, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Maldives and Sri Lanka – With or without cartazes. In the following decades, the Malabaris’ naval strength grew to be a direct competitor to European naval powers and, as some historians claim, to even surpass them.

The English felt threatened by the Malabaris and condoned attacks on Indian ships, and sometimes initiated those: The East India Company offered that the attackers could keep 1/6 of the loot. Headhunting and infights were common.


Gunpowder was invented in the 11th Century in China and used mostly for ritual purposes. Weapons based on gunpowder were later developed independently in Asia and Europe, leading to the first cannons used in war during the 14th Century. The first firearm small enough to be carried by one person was introduced in Europe. From there, it travelled to Africa and Asia via Turkish gunsmiths and by the time Europeans arrived in South Asia, handguns were already common and used effectively in battle.

“It’s nothing personal. It’s business”

Sometimes, private merchants or “interlopers” indulged in piratical activities, if the opportunity presented itself. Likewise, pirates turned merchants during the winter, and sold their loot on markets. But also in summer, in the piracy season, merchants bought loot from pirates for cheap just so they can sell it back to their original owners for a higher price.

This switching from legal to illegal was not foreign to the Europeans either. They raided Indian merchant ships while, at the same time, tried to establish diplomatic relations with India. “there was no clear-cut distinction between merchant and robber. An armed merchant ship could easily turn predator.” (Prange 2011)

Malabar was India’s Wild West.


(Updated December 9th, 2020)


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    • Prange, Sebastian R. (2011): “A trade of no dishonor. Piracy, commerce, and community in the western Indian Ocean. Twelth to Sixteenth Century”. The American Historical Review 116(5), pp. 1269-1293. 
    • Sebastian, Aleena (2016): Matrilineal practices along the coast of Malabar. Sociological Bulletin 65(1), pp. 81-106.
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