Portuguese Expansion-sixteenth century


Map of the Arabian Peninsula showing the Red Sea with Socotra Island (red) and the Persian Gulf (blue) with the Strait of Hormuz (Cantino planisphere, 1502).


A replica of Flor do Mar, Maritime Museum of Malacca.

Atlantic European states did not wait until they achieved complete technical predominance at sea to begin their maritime expansion. In the fifteenth century, maneuverable, open-ocean-capable, long ranged sailing merchantmen, armed with enough cannon to fight off galleys, navigated the seas and enormously expanded European commercial horizons.

The Portuguese were among the first to put the new technology to use. 16 Early in the fifteenth century they reached the Madeiras, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. By midcentury they had worked their way down the coast of West Africa as far as Senegal. In 1487 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of the African continent-the Cape of Good Hope. Ten years later Vasco da Gama returned to the Cape, entered the Indian Ocean, and sailed as far as Calicut. By the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were fighting their way, not always with success, into the enclosed waters of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. In 1513 their first ships reached China, and in 1557 the Portuguese established themselves at Macao.

The Portuguese confronted the reality of the maritime revolution as they rounded the African cape and sought first markets and then dominance in the Indian Ocean basin. Portuguese commanders were quick to grasp the relevant geography of the region and identify all the choke points, where ships had to traverse narrow waterways: the Cape of Good Hope, the Bab el Mandeb at the entrance to the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Malacca through which the trade of India, the Indies, and eastern Asia passed. The Portuguese believed that if they could control these points, along with centrally located, fortified bases on the Malabar coast of India, they could destroy and disrupt local commercial traffic, divert the region’s trade to their own routes, and outflank and economically undermine the Islamic powers, especially the Ottoman Empire.

The Portuguese developed and executed a three-phase strategy. First, they quickly disposed of the navies of the Arabs and other regional powers, winning a major naval engagement off Diu in 1509. Second, they conducted a series of raids to destroy local merchant shipping. Third, under the direction of commanders such as Afonso de Albuquerque, captain general and governor of India between 1509 and 1515, they attacked several critical strategic points: they seized the island of Socotra near the entrance to the Strait of Bab el Mandeb (1507), Muscat and the island of Ormuz in the Strait of Hormuz (1508), and the approaches to the Strait of Malacca (1511), but failed to capture Aden (1513) and Jiddah (1517). The ambitious and largely successful plan disrupted, but failed to halt, commercial activity along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf routes, and diverted a great deal of traffic to the new routes opened and controlled by the Portuguese.

The Portuguese were nevertheless unable to consolidate their gains. Economic warfare did undermine the smaller local powers, such as the Mamluk regime in Egypt, but generally to the profit of their larger, more powerful Islamic neighbors, such as the Persians and the Ottomans. Portuguese successes induced the Ottomans to reinforce their southeastern sea flank; they checked the Portuguese at Jiddah in 1517. The Ottomans continued their naval buildup and launched several counterattacks, in the Red Sea in the 1530s and in the Persian Gulf in the 1550s. Despite some successes, the effort failed to break the Portuguese grip on the western basin of the Indian Ocean.

Portugal’s adoption of such an ambitious and bellicose maritime strategy, even though it could send no more than a handful of ships and a few thousand men to the region, demonstrated its faith in cannon-armed sailing ships. D’Albuquerque noted: “At the rumour of our coming the [native] ships all vanished and even the birds ceased to skim over the water.” Another Portuguese governor general advised his king: “Let it be known that if you are strong in ships the commerce of the Indies is yours, and if you are not strong in ships little will avail you of any fortress on land.” The keys, though, were not only ships but also cannon. “The Portuguese could have reached India without gunpowder,” John Francis Guilmartin, Jr., wrote, “but they could never have maintained themselves there or brought their cargoes back.”

There was also a third key to Portuguese success: loyal and able commanders willing to act on their own initiative and monarchs willing to trust those they picked for command. Until the invention of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century, states had little choice but to grant commanders operating on distant stations wide powers, often including not only military but also diplomatic and economic responsibilities. Fleets or squadrons dispatched halfway around the world could not be controlled in the same manner as a fleet of galleys operating in concert with an army. Only on-scene commanders, such as d’Albuquerque, could direct the early-sixteenth-century Portuguese effort in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese officials in India were too far from Lisbon to receive or to seek direction or reinforcements. It took months to send correspondence back and forth between India and Portugal, and even longer to outfit and dispatch expeditions. Ships often departed for the Indies without knowing the fate of those which had sailed the previous year. The king had little choice but to appoint commanders he could trust and in whose abilities he had confidence. He would give such men general directions and substantial independent powers, and send them on their way.

In the absence of communications, grand strategic command and control worked best if a state’s political and naval leaders shared an understanding of naval capabilities and long-range national goals. Since no state had ever before conducted sustained naval operations on a global scale, the process of developing this understanding was empirical. Throughout the sixteenth century the Portuguese, and other Europeans, gradually grasped the revolutionary change in the nature of sea power and developed concepts to guide the use of naval forces.


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