From Genoa to Calicut: Hieronimo de Santo Stefano

A Genoese merchant, Hieronimo di Santo Stefano, visited India at the close of the fifteen century, between 1494 and 1499. His observations provide us with a unique insight into the customs of the time.

Santo Stefano and his partner, Adorno, first proceeded to Cairo, where they purchased a vast inventory of goods and set off for India. From Cairo they traveled by land to Cosseir, a port on the Red Sea. Then, they set sail to Aden via Massawa. After a lengthy voyage across the Indian Ocean, they arrived at 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, Stefano was compelled to sell his merchandise to the king of Pegu, who agreed to pay him 2000 ducats, but was incredibly slow in doing so. His companion Adorno died there. Eventually, Stefano was able to reclaim his property and set sail for Sumatra, where he encountered even more hardships.

He then set off for Cambay. After six months of being detained by inclement weather among the Maldives and a subsequent shipwreck, he was left with nothing and finally arrived in Cambay in a state of utter destitution. At Cambay, a merchant from Damascus took him into his service and sent him out as a supercargo to Ormuz. From there, Stefano made his way through Persia to Tripoli. 

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

In Calicut, Santo Stefano was amazed to find pepper and ginger growing in abundance. He wrote: The pepper trees are similar to ivy in that they grow around other trees, attaching themselves wherever they can. Their leaves are strikingly similar to those of ivy, and their bunches are usually half a palm or more in length, as slender as a finger. The grain grows thickly around. The reason why pepper does not grow in our region is because we have none of the trees to plant. Contrary to what is reported among us, pepper is not scorched to prevent it from growing. When it is ripe and harvested, it is green like ivy. It is then left to dry in the sun for 5-6 days, eventually turning black and wrinkled, as we see it. 

For the propagation of ginger, they plant a small, fresh root, which, after a month, grows to a large size. The leaf of the ginger resembles that of the wild lily.

Here are many trees, which are similar to palm trees, that bear the nut of India (coconuts). 

The lord of the city is an idolater, and so likewise his people. They worship ox, the sun, and a variety of idols, which they themselves make. Upon death, they are cremated. Some people kill all kinds of animals except oxen and cows, which are held in high regard and are considered sacred. Killing or wounding these animals is strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Some others never eat flesh or fish, or anything that had life. 

Every woman may take up to seven or eight husbands, depending on her preference. Men never marry a woman who is a virgin. If a virgin is betrothed, she is given to another person for 15-20 days prior to the wedding ceremony in order to be deflowered.

In this city there are up to one thousand homes 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