Europeans in India – The Portuguese Part 2 The Portuguese Vanguard

Canberra 19 November 2022

The Zamorin of Calicut welcomed the Portuguese in a friendly manner, as he was his custom with all merchants who came to trade at his port. He sent a local pilot to take the foreign ships to shelter from the fury of the on-coming South-West Monsoon rains. However, Vasco da Gama remained a bit away from the shore, avoiding the close proximity of unknown people who were numerically superior to his soldiers and sailors. He feared being overwhelmed by sheer numbers in an attack. On the Zamorin’s invitation he visited the palace—he was still under the mistaken belief that the natives were Christians and therefore stopped enroute to worship at a local temple; he and his entourage marvelling at the sight of multi-armed ‘saints’, some with fangs.

The visit itself was not a success. Vasco da Gama did not have any appropriate gifts that could be offered to the king, as was customary, and therefore, the Zamorin was irritated. Further, the Muslim traders who held the monopoly on the trade in and out of Calicut had already informed the Zamorin of Vasco’s activities on the Africa coast. Even so, the Zamorin maintained courteous relations, partly because of the guns on board the Portuguese ships standing off from the shore. The Portuguese however managed to cultivate reasonably friendly relations with the local people.

In mid-August, when the strength of the monsoon rains abated, Vasco da Gama prepared to sail back to Portugal. He disposed the few goods he had carried, which were in any case unsuited for trade in the Calicut market, but secured some available spices from the market. More importantly, in the slightly more than two months that he had spent in Calicut, he had gathered a great deal of information regarding the commercial possibilities and the spice trade routine of Calicut. However, there was one final misunderstanding with the Zamorin regarding the payment of custom duties to the State exchequer. Vasco da Gama imprisoned few locals and sailed out on 29th August 1498, with five captives still on-board, without paying the duties. Two ships of the initial fleet that accompanied Admiral Gama returned to Portugal, after a two-year voyage, with only 55 of the original crew of 180 sailors still alive.

Initial Impact of the Portuguese Arrival

Over the years, questionable stories have been added to the facts of Vasco da Gama’s voyage. However, there is no doubt that, even stripped of the myth and conjunction that were added later, the voyage stands out as one of the epoch-making landmarks in world history. It is also true that the Zamorin failed to grasp the significance of the arrival of three weather-beaten ships of a design so far unseen, on his coast. Many generations would elapse before the Indian rulers, both Hindu and Muslim, of much greater political sagacity than the Zamorin, understood the full meaning of the arrival of these ‘white strangers’ from the sea.

To his credit, the Zamorin showed no signs of treachery throughout Vasco da Gama’s stay on his shores, treating him at par with any other trader that came to his port. The Zamorin was atypical oriental king, almost always honourable, and bound by the rules and customs of his land, which he enforced with all the means at his disposal. On the other hand, Vasco da Gama’s conduct in Calicut, as well as on the African coast, was indefensible and his ulterior motive, not revealed in this voyage, was never honourable. Vasco’s carrying away five local men whom he had entrapped, may have been a minor incident in the broader spread of the canvas. However, the deceit and the arrogant disdain for native rules and customs, as well as for the local ruler and his people that this action displayed set the tone for the relationships that was to be developed between the Portuguese and Indian rulers.

The Voyage of Pedro Alvarez Cabral

Vasco da Gama’s information regarding the voyage and specifically of the trade in Calicut was immediately put to use by the Portuguese. From their perspective, the voyage had highlighted two important factors—first, the need to provide a sufficiently strong protective force for the trade ships, and second, the criticality of overcoming the Arab opposition if the Portuguese commercial enterprise was to be a success. A new fleet of 13 ships and 1200 men under the command of Pedro Alvarez Cabral set out for India on 9th March 1500. Bartolomeu Dias, who was the first naval captain to round the Cape of Good Hope, was one of the captains in the fleet. Vasco da Gama had returned with the belief that the inhabitants of India, other than the Muslims, were all Christians even though their worship and temples were rather strange. Cabral assumed the same and his sailing orders from King Manuel reflect this fallacy. The King also gave him a free hand to deal with any occurrence that was contrary to the customs of Portugal—a vague remit with a very broad sweep.

King Manuel entrusted Cabral with an alliance to be signed with the Zamorin on Portuguese terms. The two main terms were that all Muslims living in Calicut must be expelled and that pepper must be sold only to the Portuguese. It was known to Manuel that these terms would not be acceptable to the Zamorin and therefore, he instructed Cabral to fight to enforce these terms and establish Portuguese domination in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. From the instructions given to this second expedition, it is clear that the Portuguese intentions were not merely trade with India, but they had already determined that they would fight to establish commercial hegemony, and in the process wrest territorial control of the West Coast of India. This leap of ambition was based on Vasco da Gama’s astute observation that there was no power operating in the Arabian Sea with the maritime firepower necessary to defeat a Portuguese ship in a battle. European naval firepower was supreme in the eastern seas.

The broad remit of the instructions from the king, and the assurance that his firepower would overwhelm any opposition in the Arabian Sea made Cabral, and subsequently most of his successors, dream of ‘ownership of the sea’, which would openly question the freedom of traders to carryout business unhindered—the pivot of life in the Indian Ocean region. Effectively, the Portuguese had unilaterally set out to create a hegemony over the oceans of India. They justified this intent and the ensuing actions to enforce it by stating that the right to navigate the seas freely was only applicable to Europe and Christians. Since the ‘Moors’, Muslims, and others, the ‘gentiles’, people of other faiths than Christianity, did not fall within the ambit of the law of Jesus Christ, they did not have the ‘right’ to freedom of movement in the high seas. The law of Jesus Christ was the only ‘true law’, which everyone had to adhere to, ‘violation of which was under pain of damnation to eternal fire’. The arrogance of a small and nearly insignificant European nation is unimaginable, even by the standards of the time. The appalling fact is that, while projecting themselves as ‘God-fearing’ people, they had no compunction regarding the use of force, unpardonable barbarity, treachery and deceit against people who did not look like them and were not Christians. Such people were considered inferior in all aspects and not worthy of being dealt with as equals, even if the person was the king of the country that the Europeans were visiting.

Returning to Cabral’s voyage: misfortunes started to affect the fleet early; one ship had to detach at Cape Verde and the other ships were stretched across the Atlantic Ocean to take advantage of the winds. The course set, due south-west, continued and the fleet did not turn south-east at the appointed place in the high seas to move towards Cape Good Hope, instead reaching Brazil and ‘discovering’ it. Another ship was detached to go back home to convey the news. The 11 remaining ships set course for the Cape of Good Hope on 3rd May 1500. While approaching the Cape, a severe squall unexpectedly hit the ships and overturned four of them with all on-board perishing in the debacle. Bartolomeu Dias was one of the casualties along with his ship and crew. Seven ships rounded the Cape, and one ran aground at Madagascar, was waylaid by locals and destroyed with only six of the crew reaching back to Europe.

Cabral, now with only six of the original 13 ships with him, started for India from the African Coast and reached Calicut on 13th September 1500. Before seeing the Zamorin in a prearranged meeting, Cabral insisted on the Calicut king sending him two ‘Nair’ hostages as surety for his safety. While the meeting was in progress, Cabral was told by his assistant that the Nair hostages wanted to be freed to have their meals. Unaware of the caste system that prohibited the Nairs from eating with people they considered casteless, Cabral felt insulted and left the meeting abruptly in an angry mood. He even left some of his own personnel and goods behind. A stand-off ensued, the situation somewhat ameliorated by the mature and honourable stand adopted by the Zamorin, who returned the Portuguese personnel and their goods in an unarmed boat.

Even so, it took two months of protracted negotiations to arrive at a peace agreeable to both sides. According to this agreement, the Portuguese were permitted to have a warehouse, called a factory, where they could fly their own flag. Cabral meantime was suffering from intermittent fever and in any case, by temperament he was unfit for the onerous duties of an independent commander with heavy diplomatic responsibilities. He was gradually becoming overwhelmed by the demands of high strategic command. The Portuguese were, on the whole, completely ignorant of the customs and ways of the country and did not feel that they were important enough to try and understand them. Cabral was the wrong choice for successfully conducting delicate negotiations to improve the prospects for commercial activities in an unknown foreign land.

The Portuguese activities were directly opposed to the interests of the predominantly Muslim traders who had so far controlled the trade from Calicut. Their antipathy was visible in the slow progress that the Portuguese made, with only two ships loaded with goods in three months. Cabral formally complained to the Zamorin, who replied in vague terms that the Portuguese could buy whatever pepper they could find. With his usual haughtiness, arrogance and superiority complex, Cabral interpreted this reply differently to what it meant, to suit his purposes. On the morning of 16th December, the Portuguese seized a laden Arab ship at anchor in the harbour and the relationship with Calicut changed for the worse, never to be brought back on an even keel.

The seizure of the Arab ship resulted in a riot in the port. The Portuguese factory was pulled apart and destroyed, about 40 Portuguese were killed and many more wounded, most of whom managed to escape to the ships. Few were sheltered by the townspeople and were found alive and well years later. Cabral’s reaction was typically high-handed and callous. He rounded up 600 workers and sailors at random from the harbour and slaughtered them. He then stood his ships out to sea and bombarded Calicut for two days. Although the physical destruction of property was limited, many people were killed. The Portuguese were now in a difficult situation: the season to sail west from Calicut was coming to an end and only two of their ships were loaded; the on-coming monsoon meant that they needed to find safe harbour to shelter from the fury of the rains—they had no knowledge of how to deal with the monsoon rains or where to find shelter.

The Portuguese sailed for Cochin, reaching the port on 24th December. Although no treaty agreement existed between Cochin and the Portuguese, the empty foreign ships were loaded. Subsequently an alliance of friendship was signed with Cochin, the Portuguese were given a factory, and Cabral promised the Raja of Cochin that he would be made the Zamorin at some future date when the Portuguese defeated the Raja of Calicut. The Raja would remain faithful to the agreement at great cost to himself well into the future. Cabral now received news that 80 ships had sailed from Calicut to attack him. Refusing the Cochin Raja’s offer of assistance, Cabral elected to steal away at night, abandoning 30 Portuguese along with the factor, Goncalo Gil Barbosa, on shore.  

Next day he encountered the Zamorin’s fleet in becalmed seas. However, Cabral prudently sailed away, when the winds started to become advantageous to him, without offering battle. While quick to anger and full of bluster when he had the upper hand, Cabral was also cowardly in the face of determined opposition, the typical attitude always displayed by bullies. While passing Cannanore, the local Raja made good the deficiencies in the cargo, starting a long connection between the port and the Portuguese. Cabral lost one more ship on the return voyage and five ships laden with cargo reached Portugal. The merchandise in these ships proved to be so rich that it more than made up the cost of the entire original fleet.

Cabral’s voyage is important for many reasons. First, because of the ineptitude and foolhardiness of Cabral as the commander, the minor breach in the relations with the Zamorin of Calicut left behind by Vasco da Gama’s inopportune departure with local captives, now became an irreparable break. Second, the realisation that Cochin could be used as an alternative port and source of spices altered the Portuguese policy towards the India trade. Cochin was a far superior harbour and also had better inland communications with the pepper growing countryside. Calicut had gained relatively higher importance mainly because of the commercial acumen and ability of successive rulers and the concerted assistance of Muslim traders. Further, the Portuguese recognised that Calicut and Cochin were natural rivals and that their differences could be adroitly exploited for Portuguese gain. Cabral corrected the myth that Indians were Christians, accepting the existence of the Hindu religion. The next voyage of 1501, four ships led by Joao da Nova, was uneventful other than for the fact that they traded with Cochin. The change in commercial activity started to manifest in the West Coast.

Vasco da Gama’s Second Voyage

The fleet of 1502, consisting of 20 ships, was commanded by Vasco da Gama and sailed out on 10th February. On 29th September, he intercepted an Arab vessel off the coast of Africa. Since the vessel fought back, Vasco burned it after 10 days of fighting. Although it carried some goods, in reality the vessel was a Muslim pilgrim ship, and the burning killed a number of women and children on board. This act of barbarity has not been mentioned in many of the narratives that eulogise Vasco as a great maritime explorer but indicates the callous disregard that the Vasco da Gama had for oriental people, specially of the Muslim faith.

The fleet reached Calicut on 29th October 1502 and Vasco da Gama repeatedly insisted that all Muslims be expelled from the port and city. The Zamorin, who maintained that Calicut had always been a free port, refused to pass such an order that would have crippled his trade. In retaliation, Vasco captured 800 local sailors and then started to bombard Calicut on 1st November. He murdered all the 800 captives and sent their bodies ashore loaded in a boat. This was astonishing and brutal conduct to state it mildly. Several other atrocities were committed without any provocation and Calicut was subjected to heavy bombardment. Vasco then sailed for Cochin. In Cochin he acted in ahigh-handed manner, reorganising the factory and strengthening it. Vasco da Gama left Cochin on 28th December and returned to Portugal on 1st September 1503.

Two important developments are connected to this voyage of Vasco da Gama. First, he put forward to the Indian rulers, without ambiguity, the Portuguese claim to the dominion of the sea and their intent to fight a war to the death against Muslims. Second, his actions in Calicut attached to the Indian policy of the Portuguese a strain of cruelty unmatched even by the normal brutal practices of the age. Vasco’s actions gave a new meaning to the term ‘merciless cruelty’.

The Zamorin’s Revenge and the Aftermath

The Zamorin waited for Vasco da Gama to depart and then attempted to diplomatically win over the Raja of Cochin to his side, to no avail. At the same time, the Portuguese commander Vincent Sodre, who had been left behind to offer support to the Raja of Cochin, moved away to the African coast, where his ship was destroyed in a storm. Since the Raja remained intractable, the Zamorin attacked Cochin. Although the invasion was not initially successful, the Calicut army inflicted a devastating defeat on the Cochin forces at Edapally. The heir apparent of Cochin, Narayanan, was killed in this battle and a large part of the Cochin kingdom overrun. As an aside, Narayanan’s personal bodyguards who survived the battle, numbering nearly 200, undertook a suicide mission into Calicut territory, killing as many people as possible before themselves being cut down—a sort of a revengeful battle of attrition.

Portuguese reinforcements under Afonso Albuquerque arrived on 14th April 1503 and managed to remove the Zamorin forces from Cochin territory. An uncertain peace was concluded between Calicut and Cochin, while the Portuguese started the building of a fort at Cochin, the first European fort on mainland India. The Portuguese did not want peace between Calicut and Cochin since their rivalry and mutual animosity could be exploited for Portuguese benefit. On the pretext of the Zamorin not paying the full penalty agreed upon, the Portuguese attacked the Zamorin’s boats, claiming to be acting on behalf of Cochin. The fragile peace was violated, and the kingdoms returned to being rivals.

On 31st January 1504, Albuquerque left for Portugal, leaving an officer named Duarte Pacheco as commander of a small force left to assist in the defence of Cochin. On Albuquerque’s departure, the Muslim merchants and Zamorin’s forces attacked Cochin. Pacheco’s spirited defence of the kingdom, against great odds, passed on to legend as a splendid Portuguese feat of arms in India and raised the prestige of Portuguese soldiers. A new fleet of 14 ships arrived while the struggle was on-going. The reinforced Portuguese easily defeated the Zamorin and destroyed his fleet at Pandarani Kullam. After five months of fighting, a peace was agreed upon.

This war between Cochin and Calicut was avoidable and was foisted on the kingdoms by the subtle manipulations of the Portuguese. Further, both Calicut and Cochin did not have the depth of resources to fight and win against the other kingdom without first ruining itself. Inevitably, irrespective of who the victor was, the result of this war between Calicut and Cochin was disastrous for both the kingdoms, much to the delight of the Portuguese. Cochin was by now almost bankrupt and in an extremely impoverished state. More importantly, Calicut, once the wealthiest and most powerful of the coastal kingdoms, was reduced to being yet another kingdom, its status and power for ever forsaken. In this entire melee, the Portuguese losses were light, compared to the minimum 19,000 Nair soldiers of Calicut and over 6,000 Cochin troops who were killed. The casualty figures for the wounded are not available. In relative terms, compared to the limited forces available to both these kingdoms the losses were enormous and diminished the military power and capabilities of both the kingdoms. Both Calicut and Cochin became more vulnerable to the Portuguese employment of arrogant power and bullying.

© [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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