Europeans in India The Portuguese Part 3 A Viceroy and Three Governors Section I Francisco D’Almeida (1505-1509)

Canberra, 03 December 2022

‘The Portuguese of the 16th and 17th centuries had nothing to teach the people of India except improved methods of killing people in war and the narrow feeling of bigotry in religion. Surely these were not matters of such importance as to make it necessary for Indians to feel grateful towards Vasco da Gama or his successors.’

—K. M. Panikkar, Malabar and the Portuguese, (1929)

King Manuel of Portugal was an ambitious man. When he realised that he had the spices of the East almost within his grasp, he wanted an Empire, so that he could be on equal terms with the King of Spain. He was also keen to send a message across Europe, especially to the Venetians, that the Portuguese were not merely merchants but were also ‘lordly conquerors’. He decided to call his empire, ‘Estado da India’, the State of India, which encompassed not only the Indian sub-continent but also all the lands around the Indian Ocean—Arabia, Persia, Africa and places further east that had yet to see the Portuguese. For a king ruling one of the smallest countries in Europe, this was tremendous leap of faith that tried to grab an unattainable dream and bring it to some sort of reality. 

Even though the declaration of empire was couched in vague language, Manuel was very clear that its achievement rested solely on the ability of the Portuguese to rule the waves, control and dominate the seas. Vasco da Gama leaving five ships and a garrison behind at Cochin after his second voyage was a decisive step in this direction; it was as yet the most direct index of Portuguese intentions. This was the first time after the Roman Empire that Europe had established a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese settlement in Cochin was the precursor to four centuries of white colonialism in the Indian sub-continent.

Portuguese success in monopolising the trade through the application of brutal force had a very rapid, and adverse, effect on what had been a thriving trade between India and Europe through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf—a trade that had been traditionally controlled by Muslim Arabs and the Moors in collaboration with the Venetians, Genoese and Catalonians.

By 1505, in less than decade after the first voyage of discovery, Portuguese interests and investments in India had greatly increased in size and volume. They were now beyond being able to be managed by an annual fleet leaving behind a detachment to cover the interval between the departure of one fleet and the arrival of the next. The King decided to appoint a Viceroy for a fixed tenure of three years who would stay in India with sufficient forces to protect Portuguese settlements and interests. The selection of D. Francisco d’Almeida as the first viceroy was done by default as the person chosen as the first option for the position had become temporarily blind.

Francisco d’Almeida, Viceroy (1505–1509)

Almeida was of noble birth and 45 years old at the time of his appointment. He sailed for India on 25th March 1505 with 1500 men and 22 ships, 11 of which were to return with merchandise while the rest stayed behind with the Viceroy. He had extensive and detailed orders from the King. The main points were that he was to build fortresses at Kilwa, Anjadiva, Cannanore and Cochin, with the caveat that if any ruler objected, that king was to be defeated in battle. These were clear, but dichotomous instructions. On the one hand, the expedition was meant to be primarily a trading voyage, while on the other the instructions pointed to it being one of determined conquest and colonisation. In reality, while trade was a definite objective, the main aim was to establish Estado da India by any and all means available.

The orders gave the Viceroy with an overt responsibility to plunder, establish forts at strategic points and impose a system of passports, called cartazes by the Portuguese, on all shipping in the seas east of the Cape of Good Hope. The orders also specified that the mouth of the Red Sea was to be closed so that the land route for the spice trade was blocked, and to ‘persuade all the people of India to put aside the fantasy that they can ever again trade with any but ourselves’. The explicitness, couched in overarching vagueness, and the intentional overlap between the two objectives—trade and conquest—were used by Portuguese commanders in faraway lands to hide behind when their duplicitous standards and dishonesty were exposed.

The Sultan of Egypt understood that the Portuguese intentions would strangle the overland trade and affect the prosperity that it brought to the region and in turn threatened to destroy Jerusalem if the Red Sea was blocked. The Sultan’s threat was conveyed to the Pope, who was reassured by the King of Portugal that he intended to propagate the Christian (Catholic) faith in the Eastern lands. He promised that his aim was to extend Rome’s jurisdiction and that Portugal would not relax its efforts to destroy the Muslims and their countries. In pursuance of these promises and to consolidate power in India, King Manuel decided to disrupt the Muslim trade routes completely. To achieve this, it was decided to seize Aden, Ormuz and Malacca: Aden and Ormuz were the ports that connected the Indian trade to Alexandria enroute to Europe, and Malacca was the choke point on the route for trade with China.

Almeida’s Voyage

The Portuguese fleet reached Kilwa on 2nd July 1505. Since Almeida’s salutation was not acknowledged by the local Sultan, he landed with 500 men and drove the Sultan, who was an usurper, out of the island. He then had another kinsman of the exiled Sultan crowned, erected a fort, and placed a garrison of 150 men and one caravel to defend it. A treaty was drawn up in Arabic and Portuguese, and signed with the new Sultan proclaiming Kilwa to be subject forever to the King of Portugal. Almeida left Kilwa on 8th August.

The fleet then reached Mombasa, where the soldiers in the local fort fired upon the vanguard caravels. The guns in the fort were then silenced by concentrated fire from the ships. On 15th August a detachment of soldiers was landed on the beach, and they drove the Sultan out, taking over the palace. After a riot of looting, and burning all the captured vessels, the Portuguese torched the entire city, burning it to the ground. Almeida sailed away, leaving a tormented port behind; a graphic demonstration of the needless but relentless cruelty that the Portuguese were prepared to perpetuate in their quest for Empire.

‘Putting aside old rivalries, the defeated Sultan [of Mombasa] gave his version of events in a letter to the ruler of Malindi:

          Allah keep you, Said Ali. I would have you know that a great lord passed     here, burning with fire. He entered this city so forcefully and cruelly that he spared the life of none, man or woman, young or old or children no matter how small … Not only men were killed and burned, but the birds of heaven beat down upon the earth. In this city the stench of death is such that I dare not enter it, and none could give account or assess the infinite wealth they took.’

—Richard Hall, Empires of the Monsoon, p. 207 

Encounter with Vijayanagara Empire

On reaching Anjadiva, Almeida started to negotiate with the governor of Honavar, a major town within the Vijayanagara Empire, then ruled by Raja Narasimha Rao. There was an initial misunderstanding between the two regarding some horses from a Vijayanagara ship, which the Portuguese had claimed as their booty, going missing. The offer of payment by the Honavar governor was refused initially, but after some trading vessels were burned, the Portuguese accepted the payment.

Almeida was subsequently appraised by a person called Timoja—a mercenary, pirate, and horse-trader—the mistake of going to war with the Raja of Vijayanagara, the most powerful of the Peninsular kings, who was perpetually at war with the Muslim Shahi kingdoms of the Deccan. Vijayanagara was continually battling the Muslims, especially the local converts, who were more zealous than foreign Muslims to thwart the Raja from defeating the Muslim kingdoms. Almeida, for a change listened to reasonable advice and did not antagonise the powerful Raja. He moved south and started to build a fort at Cannanore. However, since the port was fully controlled by the Muslim traders, in Portuguese eyes it was reduced to lesser importance and the construction was abandoned. Almeida then proceeded to Cochin, arriving at the port on 1st November 1505.

Establishing Portuguese Presence

Interference. When Almeida reached Cochin there was the beginning of a succession struggle for accession to the throne. The most senior prince in direct line for succession was aligned with an anti-Portuguese faction. Almeida arranged, with some difficulty and a lot of bribery, to set this prince aside and bring to the throne a junior prince who favoured good relations with the Portuguese. This was the first of many cases of direct interference in affairs of the local rulers and their kingdoms to benefit Portuguese interests.

Almeida established his principal residence at Cochin, constituting it for the time being as the seat of the Portuguese government in India. He then sent six ships loaded with cargo back to Europe. Meanwhile the Zamorin, with the aid of the Sultan of Cairo, prepared a naval attack against the Portuguese to drive them out of the Indian Ocean region, starting with the Arabian Sea. Almeida discovered the plan and sent a fleet under his son, Dom Lourenco, to intercept the combined armada. This was done with great gusto and in a sea battle that ensued near the harbour at Cannanore, (the Battle of Cannanore?) the Zamorin’s fleet suffered great losses. It is estimated that around 3,000 of the Zamorin’s sailors died in the encounter. Thereafter, while attempting to find the Maldives, inexplicably Lourenco lost his way and landed at Sri Lanka; a strange turn of events in terms of navigational ability of the young captain.

The Zamorin’s power was being gradually whittled down and he unsuccessfully attempted to enlist the assistance of the Lord of Diu, Malik Ayyaz. Almeida once again sent his son to the north with a small fleet to dissuade any petty chieftains who may have been inclined to assist the Zamorin. Lourenco sailed all the way to Dabhol wantonly burning ships and coastal warehouses in a show of force. In one of these minor actions, a captain under Lourenco captured an Arab ship that had the Portuguese cartaz. He declared the cartaz a forgery, had all the sailors tortured and killed, while appropriating the cargo. The dead sailors were sewn into a sail and sent to the bottom with their ship. The sail burst open, and the bodies washed up on the shores near Cannanore. One of the dead sailors was the son of the senior-most and the most powerful Muslim merchant of Malabar, Mammale Marakkar. The Raja of Cannanore was so horrified by this act of barbarity, perpetuated based on a blatant lie by the Portuguese captain, that he changed from being a friend to the Christians, to a resolute enemy of the foreigners. He broke his relationship with the Portuguese permanently.

The Raja of Cannanore attacked the Portuguese fort and besieged it. The Portuguese commander de Brito had advance warning of the attack and had entrenched himself in the fort, managing to keep the Cannanore forces at bay. A final grand assault by Cannanore was beaten back. On 27th August 1507, Tristao da Cunha arrived with 11 ships and the Portuguese soldiers on board had no difficulty in relieving the beleaguered fort. The Raja of Cannanore had no option but to accept the peace treaty being offered.

The Portuguese policy on Indian waters, being enforced with unnecessarily ruthless cruelty, had a direct adverse effect on Egypt, whose revenue was significantly reduced in a short span of five to six years. The traders were complaining to the Sultan about the high-handed behaviour of the Portuguese. In response, the Sultan sent an assault fleet of 12 vessels under command of Mir Hashim that reached Diu on 20th February 1507.

Meanwhile Lourenco had continued his northern patrols. The fleet sent by Cairo and some of the ships of Diu fought the Portuguese at Chaul for three days in March 1508. The Portuguese suffered their first conclusive maritime defeat in Indian waters, and after Dom Lourenco was killed in action, they retreated to Cochin. Almeida, vexed by his son’s death, started preparations to avenge him. He became obsessed with revenge and all his subsequent actions were oriented towards achieving it.

Refusal to Step Down

Da Cunha was accompanied by Afonso de Albuquerque, who had been appointed by King Manuel to take over as Governor of India from Almeida at the expiry of the latter’s three-year term. Almeida refused to hand over and Albuquerque sailed to Ormuz and erected a fort there. Three of his captains mutinied and went back to Cochin, claiming that he had exceeded the instructions given by the king. They lodged a formal complaint against Albuquerque with Viceroy Almeida. The rebel captains requested Almeida to send them back to Portugal so that they could present their case to the king personally, for they knew that mutiny was punishable by death. Almeida accepted their statements without hearing the other side of the story, a cardinal mistake that he made.

Meanwhile another three ships had arrived from Portugal, which also carried a letter from the king intimating Almeida that his three-year tenure was over and that he was to hand over to Albuquerque. Almeida, however, under the influence of the three mutinous captains, refused to adhere to the instructions from the king. Instead, he wrote to the Sultan of Ormuz and other Persian Gulf potentates that Albuquerque was not acting on behalf of the King of Portugal. Albuquerque had been forewarned of these actions and arrived at Cannanore on 5th December 1508. Almeida was busy assembling a fleet to attack Diu in retaliation for his son’s death.

Albuquerque was not happy to see the three captains who had mutinied being treated with consideration and as advisors by Almeida. As a result, acrimonious exchanges took place between the two, one a Viceroy whose term had expired but refused to leave his post and the other a Governor yet to be handed over the power of his office. Yet again refusing to hand over the office, Almeida wrote a letter to the king, detailing four charges against Albuquerque, which he also shared with the latter. Then, on 12th December 1508, Almeida sailed with 19 ships and 16,00 soldiers to Diu in pursuit of Mir Hashim and his fleet.

The Diu Expedition

On the way, he attacked and burned Dabhol. There are contemporary reports that Almeida burned Dabhol, and the fleet harboured there so that his soldiers would not become satiated with loot and then refuse to continue towards Diu. He sailed from Dabhol on 5th January 509 and arrived at Diu on 2nd February. The Muslim fleet was already harboured in Diu. Both sides were aware that the oncoming battle would determine the control of the Indian Ocean region for many years to come. For Almeida and the Portuguese, defeat would mean the end of their efforts to create the ambitious ‘Estado da India’, with future trade dwindling at the mercy of the Rajas of the Malabar coast, since the Portuguese were already loathed there. If he failed, Almeida would have the dubious distinction of being the first, and the last, Portuguese Viceroy in India. For the Muslims, victory would bring back an era of free trade between India and the Red Sea. More importantly, it would also destroy the aura of invincibility that had been built around the Portuguese navy in the past decade. On the other hand, defeat would mean loss of trade and the domination of the seas by the Christians, which would only increase with the passage of time.

The outcome, however, was never in doubt. In the ensuing engagement, Mir Hashim was wounded and went ashore, while his ships and goods were captured. The Portuguese obtained the release of some prisoners from the earlier engagement when Lourenco had been killed. In victory they displayed their customary blood-lust by lowering boats with soldiers in them who would then kill enemy sailors who were struggling in the water. Almeida started his triumphant voyage back to Cochin. The Portuguese triumph at Diu was driven home all the way down the West Coast of India by a unique method. Almeida had taken a number of prisoners in Diu. Whenever the fleet came to a halt, Almeida would kill a batch of these prisoners, dismember their bodies and then fire these body parts into the centre of the town that they had anchored at—an exhibition of barbaric inhumanity and savagery as a demonstration of Portuguese power. Almeida reached Cochin on 8th March 1509.

Now that the Diu expedition had been completed and sufficient revenge for his son’s death extracted, Albuquerque once again requested that Almeida hand over the Governorship to him, a request that was not heeded. Further, Almeida came to know that the Raja of Cochin was planning to send an ambassador to the King of Portugal to appraise him of his conduct, which the former believed to be at Albuquerque’s instigation. Almeida placed Albuquerque under house arrest. The Raja of Cochin refused to be badgered by Almeida into accepting his reasoning for not handing over office, as well as for imprisoning Albuquerque. Seeing this steadfast stand, a number of senior Portuguese officers switched their support to Albuquerque who did not create any issues to avoid further action against him.

Even though he remained within the confines of his house arrest, Albuquerque was arrested and transported to Cannanore where he was kept as an isolated prisoner. On 29th October 1509, Marshal of Portugal Dom Fernando Coutinho, a nephew of Albuquerque, arrived at Cannanore with a fleet of 15 ships and instructions from the king that were to be handed over to ‘Governor Albuquerque’. He was surprised to find the Governor under arrest as a prisoner. He had Albuquerque released and took him to Cochin, where he demanded that Almeida hand over power. This was done almost immediately, and Almeida started his return journey to Portugal. He was killed in action against some local ruler after he rounded the Cape of Good Hope towards Europe.

The hostility between Almeida and Albuquerque was the result of a basic difference of opinion and misappreciation of how the administration of Portuguese affairs in India was to be conducted. Almeida recognised the need to establish a trade monopoly, which would require the destruction of the Muslim stranglehold of the India spice trade. However, he did not have the vision to carry this objective further and understand the need to create territorial holdings through well-defended and fortified camps. His greatest error of judgement was siding with the rebel captains from Albuquerque’s fleet who were guilty of the greatest breach of discipline—mutiny—that too without hearing Albuquerque’s version of the episode.  

© [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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