Naval battle that reaffirmed Portuguese dominion of the Indian Ocean. Diu is a small island with a sheltered anchorage, three to four fathoms in depth, at the mouth of the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat). Diu is separated from the mainland of Gujarat by narrow shallows.
After Vasco da Gama opened the sea route from Portugal around Africa to India in 1498, the Portuguese sought to control the flow of trade, generally through force. They cowed local princes into concessions, but many fought back, including the ruler of Calicut and the Muslim shah and Gujarati merchants of Cambay. Arab traders, who had long dominated the westbound trade of India, sought assistance from the Mamluk sultan of Egypt against the Portuguese Christian interlopers. In 1508 the Mamluks, with the help of Ragusan shipwrights, constructed six armed round ships and six war galleys at Suez and sent them to aid the Gujaratis.
Thus far the Portuguese had prevailed. They usually sailed in line with their big carracks and handier caravels, depending on cannon to avoid boarding fights and beating their more numerous but less well gunned foes. In 1502 Vasco da Gama defeated the fleet of Calicut and established his base of operations at Cochin. In 1508 Lourenço de Almeida, son of the Portuguese viceroy of India and a brilliant naval commander, defeated off Chaul (near Bombay) a Malay fleet from Malacca. Soon after, the combined Gujarati and Egyptian fleet, including the ships and galleys from Suez, cornered and overwhelmed Almeida’s fleet at Chaul. Almeida was killed.
Viceroy Francisco de Almeida mobilized all available forces to avenge his son’s death and recover Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean. To prevent interference, he detained his appointed successor, Afghans de Albuquerque. With 19 ships and caravels, and over 1,200 men, mostly Portuguese, Almeida sailed from Cochin, bombarding hostile ports en route. On 21 February 1509, he caught the combined Egyptian Gujarati fleet, along with allies from Calicut, in the anchorage at Diu.
In the Portuguese epic The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas, 1572) Luis de Camoens, himself a later veteran of service in India, vividly describes Almeida’s triumph. Almeida used his cannon to good effect to scatter the motley fleet of Calicut, smash the “cautious” Egyptian galleys of Malik Yaz, then shoot up and board the Gujarati ships of Mir Hussein, filling the bay with dismembered bodies. In one bloody action Almeida shattered Muslim naval power in the western Indian Ocean. It was a victory of better-gunned sailing ships over a larger fleet of galleys and smaller vessels in confined waters and lacking the support of fortifications.
At Jiddah in 1517 the overconfidant Portuguese would encounter galleys backed by forts and meet defeat. The Portuguese did not occupy Diu until 1535, and then by treaty with Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Fortified, it withstood massive sieges in 1538 and 1545.
Almeida’s victory at Diu provided the foundation on which Albuquerque consolidated Portugal’s Asian empire.
Affonso d’ Albuquerque, (1453–1515)
Portuguese duke and governor general of the Portuguese empire in Asia. Born in 1453 in Alhandra, of a family with a long tradition of close service to the Portuguese kings, Affonso d’Albuquerque pursued a military career. He fought in North Africa and participated in the capture of Tangier in 1471. He subsequently became master of horse to King John II.
Albuquerque is best remembered as architect of the Portuguese empire in Asia. He commanded five ships under the first Viceroy of the Estado da India, the Duke of Almeida. Albuquerque himself became governor in 1508. His strategy for advancing the Portuguese position in Asia was to control optimal positions along the South and Southeast Asian sea lanes. After their victory over the Mameluke fleet in the 21 February 1509 Battle of Diu, the Portuguese were in a position to dominate Asian maritime shipping. Chinese tribute fleets had been withdrawn several decades earlier, and there was then no dominant naval power.
Albuquerque began to implement his strategy by taking the city of Goa in 1509. The next goal was to seize Malacca, the most fabled of Asian entrepôts, located on the Malaysian peninsula astride the Strait of Malacca, the sea route between India and China.
Albuquerque undertook the task himself, and his troops routed the Malaccan sultan and his elephants in 1511. Albuquerque permitted his troops to loot the city for 24 hours only, showing a restraint that he hoped would permit local trade to continue under Portuguese direction. En route back to Goa, Albuquerque’s ship, the Flor de la Mar, was wrecked and much of Malacca’s treasure was lost.
Before leaving Malacca, Albuquerque dispatched missions to seek out the Chinese coast and the Spice Islands. His intended chain of “factories,” by which he hoped to control the trade of the Indian Ocean, eventually stretched from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Spice Islands. He established fortifications on the islands of Socotra and Ternate, and at the cities of Hormuz, Malacca, and Cochin. The only gap in this chain was the Red Sea; Socotra was too far from shore to control its entrance, and the capture of cliff-top Aden remained impracticable.
In a few short years, then, Albuquerque achieved effective control of most of the South Asian maritime trade routes for Portugal. He died on 15 December 1515 at sea while returning to Goa from Hormuz, after being replaced as governor by his enemy Lope Soares.
Ballard, George Alexander. Rulers of the Indian Ocean. London: Duckworth, 1927.
Boxer, Charles R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1969.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500–1700. London: Longman, 1993.