From Genoa to Calicut: Hieronimo de Santo Stefano

A Genoese merchant, Hieronimo di Santo Stefano visited India at the close of the fifteen century, about 1494-99. 

Santo Stefano and his partner Adorno first proceeded to Cairo, where they purchased a stock of merchandise and started for India; from Cairo they proceeded by land to Cosseir, a port on the Red Sea. Then they sailed via Massawa to Aden, whence they crossed the Indian Ocean to the flourishing port of Calicut.

Probably the earliest depiction of Calicut, from 1572

From Calicut Santo Stefano and his fellow merchant proceeded to Ceylon and then to Pegu. At Pegu Santo Stefano was compelled to sell his merchandise to the king of Pegu, who agreed to give him 2000 ducats, but was so tardy in his payment. His companion Adorno died there. However, at last he recovered his property and sailed to Sumatra, where he suffered further greater troubles. 

He then set sail for Cambay. After six months' detention by weather among the Maldives and subsequent shipwreck, he was stripped off all his goods, and finally reached Cambay in a state of destitution. At Cambay a merchant of Damascus took him into his service who sent him out as supercargo to Ormuz, from whence he made his way through Persia to Tripoli. 

At Tripoli (Lebanon) he wrote an account of his travels, in the form of a letter to a friend Messer Giovan Jacobo Mainer on September 1st, 1499. 

In Calicut, Santo Stefano saw pepper and ginger growing in abundance. He wrote: The pepper trees are similar to the ivy, because they grow round other trees wherever they can attach themselves; their leaves resemble those of the ivy. Their bunches are of the length of half a palm or more, and as slender as a finger: the grain grows very thickly around. The reason why pepper does not grow in our region is that we have none of the trees to plant. It is not true, as reported among us, that the pepper is scorched in order that it may not grow. When it is ripe and gathered in it is green, like ivy. It is left to dry in the sun, and in 5-6 days it becomes black and wrinkled as we see it. 

For the propagation of ginger they plant a piece of a small fresh root, which at the end of a month grows large; the leaf resembles that of the wild lily. 

Here are many trees of the sort which bears the nut of India (coconuts) and are like palm trees.

The lord of the city is an idolater, and so likewise the people. They worship ox, sun and also various idols, which they themselves make. When they die they are burnt. Some people kill all kinds of animals except oxen and cows. If any one killed or wounded these, he would be slain immediately, because they are objects of worship. Some others never eat flesh or fish, or anything that had life. 

Every lady may take to herself seven or eight husbands, according to her inclination. The men never marry any woman who is a virgin. If a virgin is betrothed, she is delivered over before the nuptials to some other person for 15-20 days in order that she may be deflowered.

In this city there are as many as a thousand houses inhabited by Christians, and the district is called Upper India.


Account of the Journey of Hieronimo di Santo Stefano, a Genovese, addressed to Messer Giovan Jacob Mainer - India in the Fifteenth Century