Europeans in India – The Portuguese Part 1 Background: Ancient and Medieval

Canberra, 09 November 2022

The Indian sub-continent was known to the people of Europe in antiquity, with the ancient Greeks recording their knowledge of India in some of the texts of the time. Cyrus the Great (r. 558–530 BC) of the famous Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia, built the first universal empire, stretching from Greece to the River Indus. Inscriptions on the tomb of his nephew and a later-day emperor of Persia, Darius I (r. 521–486 BC) provide a long list of satrapies, vassal kingdoms, of the Persian Empire that include Gadara (Gandhara) and Hindush (Hindus, Sindh).

The Greek Connection

In 327 BC, Alexander the Macedonian king, fought a difficult battle against the Indian monarch Porus, near the River Jhelum. East of this river lay the mighty kingdom of Magadha, ruled then by the Nanda Dynasty, whose large armies so frightened the Greek forces that they refused to move any further east. However, long before Alexander arrived on the banks of the River Indus, there is reference to the Greeks in early Indian literature. Panini, the ancient Sanskrit grammarian refers to the Greeks as Yavanas in his book of grammar, Ashtadhyaya or Eight Chapters, which has been dated to the 4th century BC. Similarly, Katyayana, a grammarian who lived in 3rd century BC, explains the term Yavani as the script of the Greeks.

In his eastward march, Alexander established military colonies at many strategic locations, which acted as bases from which the conquered countryside could be dominated and ensured that the Greek supply routes were not interdicted. Because of the almost permanent nature of these bases, they also became powerful instruments in spreading Hellenic culture and influence around them. However, Greek culture did not overwhelm or conquer local traditions but acted as a link between the East and the West, a factor that was later exploited by the Romans.

The Greek outposts were not only cultural and economic centres but provided all round opportunities for trade and commerce to flourish. The Greek dynasties traded as far as Arabia and India; the overland caravan trade being normally controlled by local elements. The caravans carried luxury goods that were light, rare and expensive, of which silk and tea were prominent. The major caravan route gradually came to be called the ‘Silk Road’. Seleucus I, the Indo-Grecian ruler, with his capital probably at Taxila, sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to the court of the great Chandragupta Maurya around 310–300 BC. Megasthenes, who refers to the Maurya king as Sandracottus, wrote a volume on the country based on his observations, titled Indica. A surprising element mentioned in this book is that Megasthenes claims to have met older Indians who acknowledged prehistoric visits of the Greek gods Dionysus and Hercules to India, Dionysus being equated to Indra and Hercules to Shiva, the Hindu gods. Since the Indica in its original form has not survived, these stories are most likely to be mythical additions done at a later date.

Indica was an important source of information for later writers. For the Greeks studying Megasthenes’ book, ‘India’ came to mean most of the northern part of the sub-continent, which included the Himalayan foothills and the north-west frontier territories. It must be mentioned here that early modern Western historians have over-emphasised the Greek influence on India and its civilisation. This bias could be attributed to their natural proclivity to consider Classical Greek civilisation as the bedrock upon which all other civilisations rested. In reality, the Greek influence on the culture, economy, trade and commerce vanished, fairly rapidly and almost without a remnant trace, with the collapse of the Indo–Greek kingdoms in Central Asia. However, European interest in trade with India persisted from these ancient times, since India had much to offer in terms of spices, textiles and luxury oriental items.

The Trade Routes & Merchandise

Maritime trade routes between India, Africa and the Middle-East were well established by 1st century AD. Along with enormous wealth that was accumulated through trade, these routes were also the conduits for cultural, artistic and philosophical exchanges and influences between the regions, a phenomenon still evident today. Overland routes were mainly established as inter-Asia routes, between India, South-East Asia and China. In the Middle-East, the overland routes preceded the southern trade route via the Red Sea, which was established around 30 BC after the Roman conquest of Egypt by Augustus.

These different routes intersected at the trading centres in India and the Middle-East, with the different segments of the routes being dominated by local and regional merchants. All routes converged at Alexandria, where Venetian and Genoese traders took over the Asian and Middle-Eastern merchandise and brought them to the European market. Further, since antiquity, Greek and Roman traders had frequented the ancient Tamil country, securing lucrative trade deals with the seafaring Tamil kingdoms of the Pandyan, Chola and Chera dynasties. They also established trading settlements in these countries, which continued to function long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

The Cosmographia of Claudius Ptolemy, dated to around the middle of 2nd century AD, suggests that the Romans had considerable knowledge of the geography of the Indian sub-continent and of the prevalent trade routes.

Cosmographia by Claudius Ptolemy

Cosmographia’ is an atlas and a tome on cartography, which compiled the geographical knowledge available to the Roman Empire in 2nd century AD. The original was written in Greek by Claudius Ptolemy at Alexandria around 150 AD and relied heavily on the atlas created by Marinus of Tyre (now lost) with added information that was available from Roman and Persian sources. The book was translated into Arabic in 9th century and to Latin in 1406. These translations greatly influenced the geographical knowledge and cartographical developments in the medieval Caliphate and Renaissance Europe.

Ptolemy was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and geographer who wrote nearly a dozen scientific treatise during his lifetime. The two main books, Almagest, a mathematical treatise and ‘Cosmographia’, an atlas, were highly influential in scientific developments in the Byzantine Empire as well as in Islamic and Western European countries.   

The Muziris Papyrus, a trade document dated to around the 2nd century AD, is a loan agreement between two foreign traders that give unique details about the trade between Roman Egypt and India. Muziris was a port on the Malabar coast (present-day Kerala) and has been identified to have existed within the current day town of Kodungallur in central Kerala. The Periplus states that from mid-1st century AD, large Egyptian ships visited this port to acquire pepper, pearls, ivory, silk, nard and gemstones. In the Muziris agreement, the financier agrees to provide a loan to the merchant to conduct a round-trip from Alexandria to Muziris and back—the loan covering the purchase of trading goods and other transportation expenses.

In this instance, the shipment contained 60 containers of Gangetic nard, 7478 pounds of ivory, and 1214 pounds of fabric. [Nard, full name Spikenard, is an aromatic, amber-coloured essential oil, derived from ‘Nardostachys jatamansi’, a flowering plant of the honeysuckle family, which grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China and India.] The total value of the cargo, after deducting the compulsory levy was seven million Alexandrian drachmas. To put this amount in perspective, in terms of contemporary wealth, seven million Alexandrian drachmas was seven times the minimum wealth required for a senator of one million sesterces, much more than the value of a premium estate in central Italy. It can be safely assumed that when shipped from Alexandria and marketed at the retail level in Rome and other cities, the goods would have sold at substantially higher prices. The Muziris Papyrus provides clear evidence of the huge amount of money that trade with India demanded and generated.

Fine muslin and dyed cotton were major items of export from India. Techniques for making fine woven cotton from the perennial Indian cotton plant and the dyeing of textiles from the extract of madder root or the indigo plant, a multi-step process involving complex chemistry, had been perfected in India since ancient times.

The Roman historian Pliny, writing sometime in 1st century AD, mentions a unique navigation system adopted by Indian ships. It seems they carried birds onboard and set them free at frequent intervals. The ships would then follow the course that the birds took to reach land. Although the sub-continent had established strong maritime trade relations with other countries even prior to the Roman expansion, the opening of the Red Sea route by the Romans was a significant event. It marked an appreciable increase in the volume of trade between India and the Western Roman Empire, through Egypt and the Middle-East.

The major regional ports in the sub-continent mentioned in various contemporary texts—such as the Periplus Maris Erythraean (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea), Pliny’s Historia Naturae and Strabo’s writings—are: Barbaricum (Karachi), Sounagoura (in Central Bangladesh), Barygaza (Bharuch in Gujarat), Muziris (Kodungallur in Central Kerala), and Korkai, Arikamedu and Kaveripattinam (all in Tamil Nadu).

After Islam overran the Middle-East, Muslim communities became integral to the spice trade throughout Asia. Muslim traders were some of the leading spice merchants, fully controlling the trade, till the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century. Even after the fall of Rome and loss of direct contact with the Empire, the spice and silk trade continued through middlemen, mostly Muslim Arabs. By the 10th century, spices, mainly from India and South-East Asia, were not a luxury in Europe anymore. They were critical to preserving meat through the harsh winters since cattle had to be slaughtered in autumn because of lack of winter fodder. Spices, therefore, became vital to avoiding starvation and famine. In the middle–ages, the overland and semi-maritime trade routes that ensured adequacy of these essential commodities in Europe came under a dual threat—one, the threat of Turkish and Mongol invasions that could cut off or disrupt the land routes and even the sea route through Egypt; and two, the threat of a monopoly control through a collusion between the Venetians and Egyptians. As Indian spices had already become crucial for maintaining European lifestyle and the threat to their availability because of a stranglehold on the trade routes took shape, the search for a sea route to India gathered momentum in Europe. It promoted the so-called Voyages of Discovery.

Portuguese Initiatives

The geographical position of Portugal propelled them to the forefront of confronting the Moors of Africa to protect European ‘Christendom’. The fourth child of King John I of Portugal, popularly known as Prince Henry, the Navigator (1394–1460) provided great impetus to maritime exploration and visualised Portugal as a great maritime empire. A mere two decades after his death, the Portuguese had cautiously pushed their fleets, and trade, down the West African coast beyond the delta of the River Niger. Maritime exploration was a strategic necessity for Portugal. The country did not have the geographical luxury to command land-locked and relatively sheltered waters, such as the Mediterranean Sea, which Spain and the Arabs enjoyed. They were forced to sail the oceans and accordingly the maritime navigational schools in the country were of great importance to its well-being. In response to this demand, the schools were brilliant establishments and artfully combined theory and practice.

The Portuguese had a history of exploring sea routes, although lack of resources and royal support had resulted in a desultory enterprise. In 1481, King John II came to the throne in Portugal, and he was everything other than lackadaisical; he was energetic and decisive. Almost immediately the pace of exploration transformed and accelerated. He ordered his caravels to push further into the southern hemisphere.

The Caravel

The caravel (in Portuguese ‘caravela’) was developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese, from existing designs of cargo and fishing vessels. They were small and manoeuvrable sailing ships, tailored for the exploration of the West African coast and the Atlantic ocean. Their lateen sails gave then speed and a limited capacity to sail into wind. They became the primary vessels for the maritime exploratory voyages undertaken in the 15th and 16th centuries.

They had a tonnage of a maximum of 160 tons and a maximum of three masts, becoming more agile and easier to navigate and manoeuvre. Being smaller and with a shallow draft, these ships could sail in shallow coastal waters and even up large rivers. The caravels’ economy in operations, speed and agility made it the preferred choice of the prominent Portuguese explorers of the time.    

In 1483, Captain Diego Cam reached six degrees South, to the mouth of a great river, the Congo. So large was the river that the Portuguese even considered the possibility that the river would lead to Ethiopia and the Indies, which obviously was not the case. A later voyage, commanded by Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and returned to Lisbon in 1488. The Portuguese were getting set to emerge as a world maritime power.

A decade later, in 1497, Vasco da Gama set out on his historic voyage that saw him arrive at Calicut on the south-western coast of Peninsular India. There is a long gap of nine years between Bartolomeu’s voyage and that of Vasco da Gama, which is intriguing since King John II was pushing the sea captains to move forward with the effort to find the sea route to India. Many speculative reasons have been advanced to explain this inordinate delay. The real reason can be garnered by studying the exact route that Vasco da Gama followed in his epic voyage.

In the decade following Bartolomeu Dias’ successful voyage beyond the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese undertook several voyages, under direct orders from King John II, to chart out trade winds, ocean currents and the flow of the monsoons in the Atlantic Ocean and the lower southern part of the African coast. These voyages, in reality scientific expeditions, were shrouded in secrecy. Their findings finally assisted the voyage of Vasco da Gama, who had been one of the more prominent captains to take part in the exploratory voyages to collect data.

Vasco da Gama, now created an admiral, set out from Lisbon on 8th July 1497 and sailed south-west across the Atlantic Ocean, going for three months without sight of land. He then turned south-east, at a predetermined location in the high seas, and moved with the trade winds to make accurate landfall on the African coast 100 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope on 4th November—an unbroken voyage of 4500 miles, a feat without equal in European seafaring till then. The route was completely different to the one that Bartolomeu had followed. Such a feat could only have been made possible with the background information and accurate data gathered during the experimental and secret voyages undertaken in the previous nine years.

Vasco da Gama – Arrival on the Indian West Coast

The admiral spent a few days at the place where he had made landfall, cleaning his ships and recuperating. On 27th November 1497, the flotilla rounded the Cape of Good Hope and ran into trouble. The weather turned stormy for several weeks and the currents were strongly against the ships. The crew started to be mutinous, and Vasco responded by putting the ringleaders in chains, nipping trouble in the bud. The ships travelled slowly up the coast, making halts to barter with friendly African communities and reached the delta of the River Zambezi at the end of January 1498. The inlet where the ships anchored was renamed Rios dos Bons Signaes, the River of Good Omens.

The ships halted here for a month to make repairs and give the crew time to recover from scurvy and other illnesses. One week’s sailing from this anchorage brought Vasco da Gama to Mozambique, a small port, which would go on to give its name to a country. The presence of Arab dhows in the port indicated to Vasco that his quest to find the sea route to India was nearing successful completion—the European conquest of the Indian Ocean was about to begin.           

There were no Christians in Mozambique, the people were Swahilis, most of whom had been converted to Islam.  The local Sheikh assumed that the strange looking new-comers were Turks and therefore, fellow-Muslims. Exercising an abundance of caution, Vasco da Gama did not correct the error, despite his almost bigoted Catholic faith. The Sheikh was taken to see one of the caravels and then brought abroad the flagship, San Gabriel, and given a show of great ceremony with the crew being paraded in their breast plates. Da Gama lied about his arrival in Mozambique with the story that he was part of a 100-ship armada and had been separated from the main body in a storm. He further asked the Sheikh’s guidance to proceed to India. The Sheikh promised to provide the Portuguese with pilots, convinced that he was assisting fellow-Muslims.

The religious deception was discovered by one of the pilots who came on board and witnessed a Christian mass being held on the ship. Vasco da Gama was forced to quickly move his ship away from the main port and stand off from town at another island, which was promptly named St George. [The arrogance of the Europeans in ‘naming’ places and islands as soon as they see them, without giving any thought to the fact that they might already have names, since they were normally inhabited, has always astounded this author, and continues to do so.] Vasco da Gama fired his cannon into the town when one of his boats on the beach was being attacked, making the local people flee inland. Of the three pilots sent to the Portuguese, only one remained on board when the three ships set sail north for Kilwa, an island city-state. Kilwa was reported to have Christians among their population. Actually, the so-called Christians were Hindu Indians—for the local people, Muslims and Africans, there was no differentiation between Christians and Hindus, both of whom they suspected of idol-worship.

Since the North-West Monsoon was in spate, the expedition could not reach Kilwa and was blown back close to Mozambique. Even though a cease fire had been agreed before the earlier departure, on the eve of their second departure, the three ships sailed up and down in front of the town and subjected it to heavy bombardment—the first of many calculated shows of force by European powers against innocent people in the Indian Ocean. With the monsoons now blowing from the south, the ships sailed past Kilwa, without sighting it, perhaps the pilot on board deliberately bypassed it as payback for his ill-treatment by the Portuguese.

At dusk on 7th April 1498, the ships reached Mombassa. The Sultan welcomed the ships with a message and an offer for them to use the safer inner harbour. Da Gama refused, fearing that at close quarters his men could be overwhelmed by superiority in numbers that the locals possessed. In hindsight, this was a wise precaution, since the word of their actions at Mozambique had already reached the Sultan and he planned to arrest the foreigners. Without waiting further, the admiral pushed further north along the African coast towards the equator. The crew were now desolate and beset with loneliness and the remoteness from familiar waters. Further, nearly half the complement of 180 sailors who had started the voyage had perished, brought down by scurvy, desertions and through becoming casualties in skirmishes with hostile Muslims. These men, all of them of the Catholic persuasion within the Christian fold, relied almost completely on a messianic faith in their religion and belief in Christian duty to continue facing hardships. This faith was now being questioned by the sheer religious isolation that they had faced for nearly one year. Morale was at a low ebb—a mild assessment of the situation.

The Dependence on Religious Faith

The near-total dependence on faith and the obsessive hatred of the Muslims that was commonly prevalent among the Portuguese sailors must be viewed and understood within the background of centuries of religious conflict in the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco. For generations, the Portuguese had been brought up on the theme of a relentless holy war against the Islamic faith and the absolute and unquestioned superiority of the Christian faith. Da Gama believed that the world’s conversion to Christianity was ordained by the scriptures and that his long voyage served God’s purpose to that end.

Similarly, the Ottoman Turks believed that Allah had chosen them to spread Islam throughout the world. The capture of Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, merely being one of the many steps to achieving that goal. Therefore, dependence on religious faith for more than spiritual sustenance was common to the extreme fringes of both the religions in medieval times, as it is today.

Both Portuguese Catholics and Ottoman Turks treated ‘non-believers’ as heretics to be dealt with ruthlessly. However, there was a subtle difference in the way they treated each other. The Muslims were exhorted to treat their Christians foes as ‘people of the book’, who had gone astray and could be brought back to the fold. However, the Portuguese Catholics made a very precise distinction between Muslims and other non-believers. The Muslims they held to be damned souls in the devil’s grip and to be destroyed to please God, whereas other non-believers were merely waiting to be converted to the one true faith, Catholicism, by all and any means possible. This belief would dictate the treatment that they meted out to the people of India.    

Few days after fleeing Mombasa, the Portuguese ships reached the port of Malindi. Here Vasco da Gama discovered an on-going feud and rivalry between the two ports and decided to take advantage of the rift. Putting pragmatism ahead of religious compulsions, he closed his eyes to the afront that Malindi was, beyond any doubt, a Muslim port. The Sultan of Malindi cautiously welcomed the strange foreigners, mainly for two reasons. The first was self-preservation, since the details of unprovoked Portuguese belligerence had already travelled up the coast and was known in Malindi; and the second that he wanted as many allies as possible to oppose Mombasa, and the Portuguese with their strange ships seemed a good lot to have on his side.

Malindi was a cosmopolitan port with strong links to both India and Persia. The Sultan visited the flagship and gifts were exchanged. The Portuguese crew were by now homesick, did not want to sail any further east and on the verge of mutiny. Da Gama managed to recruit, with the Sultan’s assistance, an experienced and willing pilot to guide them to India. This pilot was not overawed by the Portuguese navigational equipment and possessed some himself. His cheerful temperament did a great deal to suppress the uneasiness of the crew. The pilot sailed north-east, in sight of the coast, reaching a long beach after five days and identified it as Saif-al-Tawil. Here he turned away from Africa and steered due east. 23 days after leaving the beach and sailing in good weather, on 18th May 1498, the crew sighted the coast of India—after the longest voyage so far undertake in history. The ships made landfall, on 27th May 1498, a short distance north of Calicut (originally Kozhikode and reverted to that name in recent times)—the Europeans had finally arrived on the Indian coast from the sea. (This narrative will use the name Calicut for continuity and ease of understanding of the readers.)

Vasco da Gama knew that he had to meet the most powerful ruler on the Indian coast, referred to as the ‘Raja of Calicut’, with nothing other than his immovable faith and the guns of his ships for support.

The Portuguese on the West Coast

Vasco da Gama’s anchoring off Calicut profoundly changed the map and subsequent history of the world. He had arrived on the west coast of the Indian Peninsula slightly more than a quarter of a century before Babur the Mughal won the Battle of Panipat in 1526 and initiated the conquest of North India. This ‘discovery’ of the sea route from Europe to India, around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, changed the pattern of Asia–European and inter–Asian trade and interaction. This was the culmination of more than half a century of Portuguese maritime persistence and a brilliant strategic and scientific achievement.

For the Portuguese, the quest to find this route had been equally religious as economic in nature—finding the southern sea route would be a ‘win’ over the Moorish Arabs, Turks and Mongols. The promise of profit from the spice trade added to the enthusiasm and zeal, it was both a religious crusade and a commercial enterprise.

In 1498, Calicut was a thriving port, already known and familiar to Arab, Hindu and Chinese seamen. Ships came to the port from all parts of Asia and East Africa to buy the pepper and ginger of the hinterland of the port with gold, jewels, and ivory. The small kingdom, Malabar, with its capital at Calicut, was ruled by the Samoothiripad, corrupted to Zamorin (also Samuri) by foreigners, was one of the richest States on the West Coast of the Great Indian Peninsula. The Portuguese were taken aback by the opulence of the port and the richness of the kingdom. It was obvious that the locals were used to trading vessels arriving at their harbour and were intrigued by the ‘strange’ design of he caravels, which had not been seen in Indian ports earlier.

From their observations the Portuguese realised that Arab traders and ship owners played a dominant role in the trade and commercial activities in Calicut. Muslim Arabs controlled the ocean routes from both the east and west into Calicut, mainly because the tenets of Hinduism forbade its followers from undertaking long sea voyages. Calicut was a cultural mix, with powerful Arabs/Muslims from as far away as Egypt settling there. There was an underlying current of tolerance with the Muslims avoiding eating beef to respect the Hindu religious worship of cows. However, there was also a gradual flow of lower caste Hindus converting to Islam, primarily to escape the vagaries of the Hindu caste system.

The Peninsula in the late 15th century

The Malabar Coast, the centre of the spice trade, was divided between petty chiefs who individually did not possess the strength or the acuity to resist the Portuguese. Its strategic importance to the thriving trade was that, even as its hinterland produced spices, it lay at the half-way point between Sri Lanka, Malacca and the Spice Islands on the one hand and the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and the ports of East Africa on the other.

The early Portuguese maritime captains were quick to perceive this politico-economic reality and instinctively understood that friendship with Vijayanagara was essential to the success of commercial activities.    

The great Vijayanagara Empire, with its coastal towns of Bhatkal and Hanover, controlled the Peninsula but did not interfere with the spice trade. The Bahmani kingdom was already disintegrating with internal strife. The Adil Shahis, establishing themselves at Bijapur, controlled a sizeable part of the West Coast north of Malabar. Since the Mughals were yet to make an appearance in the sub-continent, there was only the Vijayanagara empire to effectively question Portuguese actions to dominate the coast.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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