Portuguese and Italian Travellers

The Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Southern India, always referred to the Dravidians as `kala' (black), the mulatto offspring of Portuguese men and Dravidian women being called `kala Franguis' (black Europeans). The Florentine Filippo Sassetti, prior to his journey to Asia, wrote his friend Baccio Valori (who remained in Florence) in the 1580s from Lisbon describing the various Asians. Amongst his categories are 2 sorts of Indians, "the Mahomedan Moors, and the blacks who are Gentiles." He describes the Moors as dark but not black, "men of such intelligence that no one has more". The other Indian class, " the black Gentiles ", on the other hand, were characterised as " good for nothing save physical labour" [ Brahmant, p.220-221 cited in Subrahmanyam, p.229 ].

Niccolao Manucci
Italian Traveller in Mughal India 1653-1708
" To these 4 kinds or classes they add one more, which is not counted along with the above, but is held by them to be separated from the general body of men. These people are called in their language Chandalon (Chandalam), or blacks. These are divided into four kinds, named Achivanatar ( ? Vettiyar), Palis (Palli), Parias (Pariah) and Alparqueros (shoe-makers). All these people that they call blacks are, and pass among the natives of the country as, so low and infamous that it is an irremediable contamination and disgrace, not only to eat with them, but even to behold them drink or eat. Thus other castes never do one or the other, happen what may. Nor can any one of the other castes live in the house of any of these blacks, or take from their hand anything to eat or drink. They would much rather be left to die unheeded than to touch, or allow themselves to be touched by, one of these blacks, or take from their hands anything to eat or drink. For if that happens, in addition to the penalty of death attached thereto, if the fact comes to the knowledge of the magistrate, all the family and descendants are marked with infamy, and become on a level with the blacks themselves, and have no hope of ever being able to re-enter their caste.

These blacks, then, live outside the inhabited places and towns occupied by all the other castes ... (p.35) What is to be wondered at is that they are not allowed either to enter the temples .. or to draw waer from the wells used by the other castes. "

`Mogul India 1653-1708 or Storia do Mogor,' Niccolao Manucci, tr. William Irvine, Royal Asiatic Society, London 1900, Vol.III, p.34-35.

The Italian traveller from Rome, Pietro Della Valle travelled to South India in 1623-25. His description of a Malabari queen, in addition to her pronounced steatopygia, leaves little doubt that he considered the Dravidians as Negroids [ Wheeler and Macmillan, p.30 ] -

Pietro Della Valle
Italian Traveller to South India 1623-25
" The queen of Olaza 1 was as black as an Ethiopian. She was corpulent and gross, but not heavy, for she walked nimbly enough. She appeared to be about 40 years of age. She wore a plain piece of cotton cloth from her waist downwards, but nothing at all from her waist upwards, except a cloth about her head, which hung down a litle upon her breasts and shoulders. She walked barefoot, but that was the custom of all Hindu [ Dravidian ] women. "

1. Olaza is a place near Mangalore


  • `Mogul India 1653-1708 or Storia do Mogor,' Niccolao Manucci, tr. William Irvine, 4 vols., Royal Asiatic Society, London 1900, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 1989 reprint.
  • `European Travellers in India,' by James Talboys Wheeler and Michael Macmillan, reprint Susil Gupta India Ltd. Calcutta, 1956.
  • `The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700,' by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Longman Group Ltd., London and NY, 1993
  • `Lettera da Vari Paesi, 1570-1588, di Filippo Sassetti,' ed. V. Bramanti, Longanesi, Milan 1970.

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