250. An ‘Indo-Portuguese’ Carved Ivory Vessel

Probably Ayudhya, Siam, 16th century
Size: 11.5 cm diameter, 11.3 cm high; wood mount 17 cm high
Ivory and wood

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This is a modest relic of one of the more extraordinary episodes of European history, one that is overlooked more often than not. The irruption of Vasco da Gama into the Indian Ocean in 1498 was the result of one of the most heroic enterprises ever undertaken. The riches that the Portuguese encountered when an expedition to Morocco unexpectedly captured the Muslim trading emporium of Ceuta in 1415, inspired Henry the Navigator to sponsor expeditions down the West coast of Africa, with the eventual aim of reaching India by sea, and the source of the spice trade. The bloody-minded courage of the Portuguese mariners who gradually extended the reach of their caravels, and transmitted the knowledge to ensure that those who followed them could benefit from what they discovered of the unknown African coast, is one of the great sagas of human skill and endurance. Their ability to understand the wind systems in the Atlantic, gleaned over generations, made it possible for Bartholomew Dias to dare to sail 1,000 miles in the wrong direction to pick up the winds that enabled him to round the Cape of Good Hope for the first time in 1488. Ten years later, Dias’ experience provided the key for Vasco da Gama to enter the Indian Ocean. 

At the time of Vasco da Gama’s arrival the Indian Ocean was a very long-established and extremely prosperous zone of trade. The sea routes, largely controlled by Muslims, had functioned for centuries in tandem with the overland Silk Roads through Central Asia to trade goods between East and West. The Portuguese, however, had no intention of being part of any system that benefited others; for them the Indian Ocean and its shorelines were now the Kingdom of India, a possession of the Crown of Portugal. Their improbable success that allowed them to impose their grip across such a vast area, considering how few they were, how far from home and how small their fleets, depended on several factors: overwhelming fire-power, superb seamanship, and bestial brutality (typical of those fulfilling God’s plan) that is reminiscent of Viking berserkers.

It took the genius of Don Alfonso d’Albuquerque, the second Viceroy (1510–20), to understand that successful control of the wealth of the region depended on the Portuguese establishing themselves securely at several key strategic points: Ormuz, at the tip of the Persian Gulf; Cochin and Goa on the Malabar coast; and Malacca on the western side of the Malay peninsula, opening routes further East. The heroism involved in achieving these aims inevitably involved an equal amount of savage violence. One result, however, was that Lisbon became the richest trading metropolis in Europe.

Albuquerque concluded a treaty with the King of Siam in 1517, which led to the establishment of the largest foreign trading community in Ayudhya. The frieze carved around this ivory probably represents the King and Queen of Siam processing around the fortified walls of their capital. They sit in a gondola-shaped howdah on a richly caparisoned elephant, in the shade of a parasol held by a retainer strapped to the elephant’s backside. Armed cavalry accompany them past swaying palm trees.

The carved section of the tusk is fixed with ivory dowels to a wood shelf decorated with a flower similar to those adorning the elephant. The lack of religious motifs suggests it was not a collection box for widows’ mites. Instead, perhaps, it was the equivalent of a commemoration mug for the coronation of King Chairacha in 1534, or King Naresuan in 1590, and held flowers in their honour.

According to Radiocarbon Dating Measurement, the tusk is dateable to between 1427 and 1618.