Portuguese in the Indian Ocean

Under Malik Ayaz’s stewardship Diu at 1500 had risen to be one of the great ports in India. About one half of his income came from the port. This wealth and Diu’s strategic location enabled the Malik to acquire a considerable degree of independence from his overlord, the sultan of Gujarat. His initial reaction to the Portuguese seems to have been similar to that of many other independent or quasi-independent rulers of Indian port cities: he was happy for them to come and trade in his port on a basis similar to that of all the other foreign merchants there. As a Portuguese chronicler noted, he was always in these early years pressing them to send to Diu ‘two ships loaded with copper and spices so that he could trade with us’ (Fernao Lopes de Castanheda, Historia do Descobrimento e Conquista da India pelos Portugueses, 9 vols., Coimbra, 1924-33, II, lxxxv). In vain: we have noted Portugal’s designs. Malik Ayaz had to choose between resistance or submission. Co-operation in peaceful trade was not offered.

Resistance took two forms, military and diplomatic. In 1508 he helped the Egyptian fleet under Amir Husain defeat and kill the viceroy’s son, D. Louren^o d’Almeida, at Chaul. But he feared reprisals, so ‘on the one hand he wrote letters of condolence to the viceroy and on the other he fortified the city, as one who expected repayment for the help he had given Amir Husain, which repayment was not long delayed’ (Joao de Barros, Asia, 4 vols., Lisbon, 1945-6, 11, ii, 9). The viceroy at Diu in 1509 achieved a notable victory over the combined Egyptian-Gujarati fleet.

From then on Malik Ayaz concentrated on guileful defence. In 1513 he was able to out-manoeuvre Albuquerque’s attempt to establish a fort in Diu. Seven years later another Portuguese reconnaissance was defeated, as were Portuguese attempts to go above him and get his overlord, the sultan of Gujarat, to allow them a fort. At his death in 1522 he could be well satisfied, for he left a still independent and prosperous Diu to be governed by his son.

Diu’s downfall came because it was sucked into closer control by the sultanate of Gujarat. In 1526 a new ruler, Bahadur Shah, came to power. He was able to acquire much closer control over Diu, and change its governors at will. Meanwhile from 1530 he was involved in sporadic warfare with the Portuguese, who had become desperate to conquer Diu and so close it off as a haven for the ‘illegal’ spice trade. An open Portuguese attack in that year was beaten off thanks to Diu’s formidable defences. Five years later Bahadur’s situation had changed radically. He had been defeated by the Mughal emperor Humayon, and now desperately needed Portuguese help. In 1535, fatefully, he allowed them to build a fort at Diu. Two attempts by Gujarati forces in 1538 and 1546 to retake the port failed, and by the mid 1550s at least the Portuguese had finally achieved their main objective: all Gujarati ships leaving the great ports of the Gulf of Cambay had now to call at Diu, pay customs duties, and take a cartaz which obliged them to call at Diu again on the way back and again pay duties to the Portuguese. This was a very substantial accomplishment indeed. Nor was this Portuguese control threatened when Gujarat was incorporated into the Mughal empire in 1572.

Portuguese Superiority

One rather different case study can be used to complete this analysis of Indian reactions to the Portuguese. It concerns artillery, one of several areas where they did have an advantage and an impact.

Portugal’s important victories, such as the conquests of Goa and Malacca, the defeat of Amir Husain in 1509, the defences of Diu in 1538 and 1546, and their general superiority in naval warfare, need some explaining, for the Portuguese were operating with a comparative handful of men. A really big expedition would still include only about 2000 or 3000 Portuguese and mestizos. Typically these would be backed up by an at least equal number of local auxiliaries, while the ships on which they travelled would also be primarily crewed by Indians. In the whole empire, from Mozambique to Macao, there may have been a maximum of 10,000 men, Portuguese or Eurasian, available for military service at any one time. There were also complaints that the quality of soldiers sent out from Portugal declined during the century, so that at the end they were mere scum: beggars, jailbirds, and people taken forcibly off the streets of Lisbon. The brittleness of Portugal’s land defences was revealed in 1570 when a concerted attack on Portuguese areas (in part provoked by the Portuguese) from the rulers of Calicut, Bijapur, and Ahmadnagar was beaten off with great difficulty; indeed the Portuguese fort near Calicut, at Chale, was lost.

Portuguese success was based both on the fact that, except in 1570, they were never faced with united opposition from local powers, and on naval superiority. The first is obvious enough. There is no doubt that had the full weight of Deccan armies been turned on their areas in the Konkan and Kanara, in co-ordination with Mughal attacks in Gujarat, then the Portuguese could have been driven out. However most of the time Portuguese activities did not threaten the interests of these land-based states.

The reason why the Portuguese were successful in naval battles, and so could supply besieged forts like Diu from the sea, is also obvious enough. Their ships were better and, crucially, they had artillery on them. At first the Portuguese were confronted by galleys, or large merchant ships which carried soldiers but no cannon. These ships, whether oared or not, were comparatively flimsy because all they needed to be able to do was cruise before the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean. But the Portuguese ships had to be able to sail from Europe to India, and to withstand much harsher weather.

The key was the cannon on the ships. Artillery had been developed during the fourteenth century in Europe, and was used on ships by the end of this century. In Asia generally crude cannon were occasionally used on land in the fourteenth century, and much more widely later: they played a crucial role in Babur’s victories in 1526 which established the Mughal empire. But it does seem that European cannon were better cast, and European gunners more skilful: hence the use of both when available by Indian states. The problem was that the concept of using them on ships at sea was not known when the Portuguese irrupted into the Indian Ocean, partly because Indian Ocean ships, being usually sewn not nailed, were too rickety to survive the recoil of cannon. Here lies the prime reason for their fast early successes. The Portuguese, indeed, were well aware of this advantage. From the very start they were routinely instructed not to board an enemy, but rather to stand off and, using artillery, slaughter the enemy with impunity.

The response of Indian rulers to this situation was a complex one. The advantages of cannon were early demonstrated, as an account of Cabral’s voyage in 1500 makes clear. While his fleet was in Calicut the zamorin asked him to capture a coastal ship. Cabral agreed, and the zamorin sent along a Muslim agent to watch how the Portuguese fared. Cabral sent off a caravel armed with a large bombard and sixty or seventy men. After two days they caught up with the local ship,

. . . and asked them if they wished to surrender. The Moors began to laugh because they were numerous, and their ship was very large, and they began to shoot arrows. And when the captain of the caravel saw this, he ordered the artillery fired, so that they struck the said ship, and it surrendered at once . .. The king (zamorin) marvelled greatly that so small a caravel and with so few people could take so large a ship in which were three hundred men at arms. (The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil and India, London, 1937, p. 78).

This demonstration, and later Portuguese bombardments of his capital from the sea, made the zamorin stop marvelling and start catching up. In 1503 two Milanese cannon makers deserted the Portuguese and joined up with the zamorin. In three years they cast 300 cannon, and taught local people how to make and use artillery. By 1506 the zamorin had a fleet of 200 ships, protected by bales of cotton in the gunwales and carrying cannon on board.

Despite this the zamorin and other Indian rulers proved unable to challenge formal Portuguese naval dominance in the sixteenth century. Geoffrey Parker has provided the best explanation for this. Their ships were not strong enough to withstand an artillery bombardment from the Portuguese, nor to absorb the recoil of large ordinance. There was however no real reason why Portuguese-style ships could not have been built by Asian rulers. It was just that this would not have been cost-effective. It was cheaper to take cartazes and so not need to arm one’s ships. If the Portuguese failed to honour the protection they had sold, Asian rulers often could retaliate on land. As Parker neatly sums up: ‘The ultimate defence of local Asian rulers was, thus, not the gun but the permit and the prison.’

Here then is another area where, when we disentangle a specific case, we find the Portuguese having an impact and an advantage. Their naval dominance, based on artillery on ships, was comparable with other instances we have already noted where they had successes, where they ‘made a difference’, such as the rise of Cochin and the decline of Calicut; such as their central achievement of establishing a series of fortified areas around the Indian Ocean littoral; such as their contribution to the redirection of Gujarat’s massive trade in the sixteenth century.

Yet it needs to be stressed that this sort of impact was rather atypical. Thus their infantry was no better organized than that of most of their opponents. Proper regiments were not formed until the eighteenth century. Before then Portuguese soldiers simply joined up, without proper training, uniform, or even standardized weapons, with a fidalgo of their choice for the campaigning season. The companies were disbanded at the end of each season, that is when the rains started in May or June, and the soldiers left for several months to beg for their food in the streets of Goa.

In other technological areas also recent studies seem to make clear that the Portuguese enjoyed few advantages. Habib notes important technological changes in western Europe from 1450 to 1750, which cleared the way for the industrial revolution. In the most general sense, the two main areas of innovation were the development of mechanical devices, clocks, screws, and gear wheels being examples, and the more concentrated application of power and heat. The mass dissemination of many of these innovations in some parts of Europe (Italy, the Low Countries, France and later England, but not Iberia) was of crucial importance in explaining later European dominance in Asia. Indians generally failed to appreciate these new devices; this failure told heavily in the eighteenth century. But two points must be stressed. First, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries India was, on most criteria, one of the advanced countries of the world. Second, the Portuguese, at least in the sixteenth century, also knew nothing of these innovations except, ironically, for artillery. Leaving this aside, in the vital area of technology also, the European-Asian balance changed long after the end of Portuguese power.

Portuguese Man at War

This is the name given to a very dangerous species of jelly fish. The real reason behind it resides in how well equipped this creature is, and is a comparison to the way the Portuguese ships fought in India.

Vice-Roy of India, D. Afonso de Albuquerque, a military genius of the highest degree commanded a fleet of six ships manned by four hundred men, and entered Ormuz Bay, being surrounded by 250 warships and a 20.000 men army on land ready to dispatch the small Portuguese flotilla. When the King of Ormuz sent aboard an emissary to question Albuquerque, the great Commander told the messenger one phrase: Surrender yourselves!!!

This must have provoked an inner laugh from the messenger who left. When the battle begun, Albuquerque made his fleet circle like a carrousel and destroyed most of the ships. He then proceeded to conquer Ormuz with 400 men.

How could this be achieved one must ask. The technical explanation may make some sense, but will not explain the courage of taking such a risk. In fact we all know that during the U. S. Civil War, canons had to be loaded from their mouths. This was in the XIX Century. However, Albuquerque’s canons were equipped with breeches that did not require the canons to be brought backwards to be loaded. It meant that while the enemy’s canons fired a shot, the Portuguese canons could fire six with a range of 1,800 meters against 700 meters of the enemy’s canons. The next issue is that the Portuguese artillery men had discovered the propulsive effect of water. If you throw a stone at a low angle near the surface of the water, the stone will be propelled by the water’s surface and gain more speed. The second row of canons were placed very near the floating line and the stronger fire power was further enhanced by the water effect, causing the steel balls to not only hit the ship but hit the one behind the first one. Being fired at close to the floating line, the ships would start sinking very fast.

Then one must be aware that the Portuguese knew they were always outnumbered, a certainty that led them to employ all their courage and determination in the fights and battles they engaged. In many cases, just mentioning the Portuguese would distress an entire army or fleet, knowing the fierceness and bravery of the Portuguese warriors.

Running forward

One of the techniques that the Portuguese warriors employed against their enemies who held the Moorish bow was just more than unusual. They knew that the Moorish bow would be very effective within the range from 50 meters to 400 meters. So when 40 Portuguese soldiers disembarked to face a first row of 300 archers also armed with tulwars, their first act was to run like madmen towards the archers, with their rapiers and left handlers in hand. The archers would be stunned by this totally insane act, as due to the heat, very few would wear armors. This stunning delay would again act in favour of the Portuguese who would close de 50 meters range with a few more seconds of advantage.

The Portuguese knew about the 50 meters bow effectiveness and that their only hope was to run frontward to cut that distance, after which their highly seasoned maneuver of the rapier and the left handler would destroy the tulwar in no time, one after the other. One blade would stop the tulwar strike and the other would dispatch the enemy, and this was one methodically in no time.

Running front wards for cover was a tactic that brought the Portuguese warriors great fame and respect for their bravery.

A unique exchange of insults

In 1537 some Portuguese sailors committed a crime, considered a grave diplomatic offense. In front of the city of Diu, the Sultan Bahadur Shah was received on a Portuguese ship. The diplomatic conversations did not go well and the Sultan and his entourage left angrily. Some less disciplined Portuguese sailors made the Sultan’s boarding the small boat that would take him back a pretty difficult task, one of them managed to hit the Sultan’s head with an oar which caused him to drown. The shameful action caused an outcry of indignation and revenge which echoed from the Muslim kingdoms of the Gulf of Cambay to Egypt and Constantinople.

The Sultan’s widow offered all of her fortune to finance a punitive expedition against the Portuguese. The Portuguese fortress of Diu had a garrison of 600 Portuguese commanded by D. Antonio da Silveira. The Turk Suleiman Pasha and the Sultan of Cambay united their armies, and arrived at Diu with 70 Turkish galleys and a land army of 23,000 men. Having taken some Portuguese as prisoners, Suleiman Pasha sent a letter by one of the prisoners to be delivered to D. Antonio da Silveira. It must be said that Suleiman was a court eunuch that gained power after a Court Coup, having beheaded the entire Turkish royal family and therefore usurping the throne.

When Antonio da Silveira received the letter from the Turk, he turned to his companions saying: Let us see what does the castrated dog has to say, and read the letter in public.

Suleiman Pasha promised the Portuguese free leave of people and goods as long as they returned to the Coast of Malabar and handed over the fortress and their weapons. Suleiman promised to skin alive all of the Portuguese if they did not obey his conditions, referring that he had the largest army in Cambay, among which were many who participate in the taking of Belgrade, Hungary and the Island of Rhodes. Finally he asked Antonio da Silveira how would he defend the pig-sty with so few pigs!

D. Antonio da Silveira ordered paper and ink to be brought forward, and in the presence of all, dictated the reply to the Pasha:

“Most honored captain Pasha, I have carefully read your letter. If in the Island of Rhodes were the knights that are in this pig-sty you could be assured that you would have not conquered it. You are to learn that here are Portuguese, used to killing many Moors and are commanded by Antonio da Silveira that has a pair of balls stronger than the balls of your canons and that all the Portuguese here have balls and do not fear those who don’t have them”.

A bigger insult could not be imagined. The Pasha was furious and ordered that the remaining prisoners were killed, and a fight of giants begun. During more then a month Antonio da Silveira fought bravely, remaining only less than 40 Portuguese capable of fighting, but causing so many casualties to the Turks that these gave up the siege and retired from Diu.(in Gaspar Correia: “Chronicle of the Feats in India”, vol. IV, pages 34-36)

The bullet that was a tooth

It is sometimes in chronicles written by foreigners that for some centuries have studied Portuguese History, that some interesting details are found.

A Dutch priest, Philippus Baldaeus, who accompanied the Dutch fleets that fought the Portuguese in the Indic Ocean, tells a most interesting story: During the first Siege of Diu, a Portuguese soldier who was manning one of the bastions of the fortress that was being attacked by the Turks, found himself as the only survivor, having used all bullets but still having some gun powder for one more shot, and finding nothing else to charge his firearm with, decided to extract one of his own tooth and armed the weapon with it, firing against the enemy that was considering he was out of ammunitions.

It is just a little detail in a great battle that is readily forgotten. The Dutchman however, relates this fact with great respect for a brave warrior, which does honor to the Portuguese soldier.

Phillipus Baldaeus: “A Description of ye East India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel” chapter X, page 533 of the English translation. Chronicles of the time

1415 To organize the expedition to Ceuta ships were rented while others were built in Portugal to carry the expeditionary forces that were formed by the King’s vassals and by men supplied by the nobles. The enthusiasm was so great and so great was the impatience to serve, that a nobleman aged 90 years old presented himself with his troops.

1512 Fernao Lopes de Andrade, with a fleet of 17 sails manned by 350 Portuguese and some Malays attacks the fleet of Pate-Onuz that was coming from Malacca, composed of 90 sails and a garrison of 12,000 men. After a brave fight that took many hours, victory descended at the hands of the Portuguese, at whose hands many ships fell, while others were burnt or sunk. This battle, which filled with terror the various kingdoms of the region, was one of the most outstanding victory the Portuguese achieved in India.

1516 The King of Fez, having placed siege on the Portuguese fortress of Arzilla with 100,000 men is forced to abandon the siege. Note: Nothing else is referred in this short chronicle.

1518 Conquered by the great Afonso de Albuquerque, the famous city of Malacca grew in trade, and the oppulence of its citizens and the grandiosity of its buildings excited the neighbouring princes and the wish for its dominance. Many tried to after the Portuguese Arm showed it was not invincible. Of all, Mahamet, now king of Bintan learnt from spies that the fortress had only a garrison of 200 men, many of whom were sick. Grabbing the opportunity of such a situation and its timing, Mahamet came with 1,500 chosen infantry men and many well armed elephants, and by sea a fleet of 60 ships full of men and of instruments of expugnation.

Here a Nature’s wonder happened. Once the alarm was sounded and word passed around that the enemy was at sight, it happened that the sick soldiers, excited by the military preparations, tried to get up and suddenly the fevers that opressed and tied them to their sickbeds left them and they ran to the walls, mixing with the healthy ones, and with noble pride and unique bravery faced the furious assault. Many have witnessed a bullet remove the head of a Portuguese and his body remaining still for a space of time. Mahamet kept fighting for 20 days, yet all the assaults on the fortress were bravely repelled, until, all hope lost and having suffered 330 casualties, the assault was ended and the King returned home. This glorious event costed the lives of 18 Portuguese. Note: The number of casualties is pointed out with such an exactitude that it may be questionable.

1529 Lopo Vaz de Sampaio, with a fleet of 6 galleons and 13 light ships defeats the Samorim’s fleet of 130 sails. Note: Nothing else is referred in this short chronicle.

1538 The pirate known as Pate-Marcar that infested the Indian seas with 50 ships and 8,000 men disembarked at Beadalla. There, Martim Affonso de Sousa with 400 Portuguese attacks and defeats the pirate. Of the enemy’s fleet that was anchoured, 25 sails were set on fire while the remaining where taken as well as 400 canons and 1,500 guns.

1546 In the second siege of Diu, the place became so narrow that the captain-major of the fortress proposed to his council that they got out of the fortress, and at the enemy’s ground would give them battle and die over the bodies of the turks. The enemy did not ignore the state of the fortress, deciding on a final assault, hoping for a most certain victory. Exploding a mine that they have placed below the tower of St. Thomas which was destroyed, the Turks attacked from all sides with such might that the Portuguese resisted in a very costly way. The battle was burning everywhere, often with the enemy riding on the fortress walls, fighting at close quarters. Many fell, but more took their place, and it was such the fire that the Turks threw that the Portuguese had to fight among the flames.

The captain-major ordered that some basins of water were brought so that the soldiers could refresh their bodies from the heath of the fire that surrounded them. At the occasion of this providence an unusual case took place that is worthy of note. Antonio Moniz Barreto commanded the defense of a tower, and was lowering towards a basin to refresh himself, was pulled by an arm by a soldier who shouted: how come? Do you want to loose His Majesty’s tower? Barreto replied: I am burning, I must refresh myself. The soldier shouted again if the arms are good, the rest is nothing! Antonio Moniz Barreto heard the admonishment of that courageous soldier that later gave him all sort of favours and named him the fire soldier.

1538 The illustrious Nuno da Cunha, Governor of India, to rescue the fortress of Diu that the Turks have dangerously surrounded, resorted to a most unique artifice. Having sent some ships to give battle, in each of them had four torches placed before arriving by night. The small fleet started firing their artillery, among war cries and shouts which caused great effect among the turks who though the lights corresponded to a much bigger fleet, seeming like the whole of Portuguese India was after them, immediately raised the siege, not wanting to taste their fortune against the Portuguese.

1550 Death of the celebrated D. Pedro de Menezes, captain of Tangere. Having commanded eighty horsemen against three thousand moors, he was killed; however his death was avenged with the retreat of the enemy.

1551 The Prince of Chembe with an army of 30,000 men is defeated by 4,000 Portuguese commanded by the Vice-Roy D. Affonso de Noronha.

1559 A Portuguese fleet of six sails manned by 200 soldiers defeats another from the Samorim, composed of thirteen sails and a garrison of 2,000 fighting men.

1559 The kings of Malabar, joined against the Portuguese, attack the fortress of Cananor with a mighty army. The besieged, with the aid of 400 Portuguese that arrived in a small fleet, defeat the enemy who lost 15,000 men. The battle lasted from 3 hours in the morning until 4 hours in the afternoon.

These accounts were published in “O Panorama” 1840 edition, vol. I and IV.

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