Europeans in India – The Portuguese Part 3 A Viceroy and Three Governors Section II: Afonso D’Albuquerque

Canberra, 03 December 2022

When he assumed the office of Governor of Estado da India on 5th November 1509, Afonso D’Albuquerque, was 56 years of age, an old man for that period. His first action was to assist Marshal Coutinho to attack Calicut, which he was reluctant to do, but had to agree considering the superior position of the Marshal. The expedition left Cochin on 31st December 1509 and reached Calicut of 3rd January 1510. The Zamorin had moved inland before the fleet arrived and Albuquerque managed to capture the initial objectives on the coast. The Marshal led his soldiers into the town, against Albuquerque’s advice, and sacked the Zamorin’s palace, and burned part of the town. The Zamorin’s army was not completely toothless and some of his commanders organised a defence that gradually turned into an offensive.

The Marshal, who was deep inside the town, was now on the receiving end and started a hurried retreat, with the Calicut forces gradually closing in and cutting down the stragglers. Being on foot, the Portuguese could not retreat fast and finally they were ambushed. The Marshal and his guards were killed along with other soldiers and Albuquerque managed to escape, although he was wounded. At the end of the day, 300 Portuguese had been killed and 400 wounded. Although great damage was done to the Zamorin’s palace, eventually he retained the field, a victory.

Albuquerque returned to Cochin and with great energy organised the Portuguese garrison efficiently. He issued trading passes to anyone who could afford it, thereby increasing commerce. In the meantime, the king in Portugal had divided his ‘Eastern Empires’ into three parts, appointing two more governors, to the east and west of India, one for Malacca and the other for Arabia. India remained the main focus at the centre. However, both these new governors were unable to make any headway in creating viable Portuguese enclaves in their areas of responsibility.

Capture of Goa

Albuquerque was a strategic thinker and knew that in order to succeed, the Portuguese needed to have their own land and port. He had discussed capturing Goa many times with his counsellors and now assembled a fleet of 23 ships and 1,200 Portuguese soldiers. The timing for the enterprise was propitious. Goa was part of the Adil Shahi kingdom, having been appropriated by Yusuf Adil Shah about 40 years back. Yusuf had died recently, and his successor Ismail Adil Shah was being tested for his mettle by his neighbours. He had no time to devote to the outlying town of Goa and its surroundings, places that were not important enough in the broader scheme of things that was unwinding among the Shai kingdoms of the Deccan.

Goa is located at the centre of the West Coast of India. The town itself is an island formed by saltwater creeks that intersect narrow belts of level ground that separate the Western Ghats from the Arabian Sea. Geographically Goa is so situated that it is easily defensible by dominant sea power. The Portuguese fleet sailed from Cochin on 16th February 1510. On 1st March, Goa capitulated easily, which was a surprise for both the Portuguese and the defending Adil Shahi forces. However, almost immediately there was animosity against the Portuguese, led by the Muslim traders and fanned by the Portuguese attempts to convert the local population to Christianity.

Two months later, Ismail Adil Shah found some respite from his troubles in the Deccan and decided to retake Goa. Initially he offered Albuquerque a site to build a fort, which was promptly rejected. On 16th May, during the thick of monsoon rains that had filled the creeks of Goa, Adil Shahi forces entered Goa and the entire population rose in revolt against the Portuguese. Albuquerque as enraged at the rebellion and on 23rd May, he ordered the execution of the senior Muslim traders and their families, who had been taken hostage earlier, at the outbreak of renewed fighting. He then retreated to his ships, but could not sail away, since the ships were caught in a trap. A major sandbar, which had been reconnoitred before prevented the ships from gaining the high seas. He finally managed to escape to Cochin on 4th August. So far in his tenure, Albuquerque had only met with failure in all his endeavours. He was determined to make a success of the invasion of Goa, convinced of the need to own territory in India if the Portuguese trading/colonising enterprise was to succeed.

Albuquerque convinced the new commander of the Malacca fleet, Diego Mendes, to help him recapture Goa before proceeding on his mission to South-East Asia, promising that he would assist in the Malacca operations. Albuquerque then took over the Malacca fleet, effectively becoming the de facto governor of the Portuguese holdings in the Indian Ocean region. On 3rd October a fleet of 28 vessels with 1,700 men once again set out for Goa, now defended by 8,000 Adil Shahi soldiers. Intelligent planning and resolute action led to the capture of the city on 25th November. The ruthless bigotry of the Portuguese was once again on display—all Muslims, men women and children, were put to the sword while the Hindus were spared, to be converted later. According to a letter written by Albuquerque dated 22nd December 1510, he estimated that 6,000 people were killed in the action. The real figures would be far higher.

The Malacca Expedition

True to the promise he had made, Albuquerque sailed out on an expedition to Malacca on 20th April 1511 with 18 ships, 600 men-at-arms and some fighting slaves. On the way he touched Pedir and Pasai in Sumatra and anchored at Malacca on 1st July. On 25th July he attacked the town and captured the bridge that both divided and connected the two parts of the town, which were situated on two sides of a saltwater creek. However, he was forced to withdraw from the bridge under heavy poison arrow attacks. Albuquerque realised that his forces were not strong enough to take the town by force and therefore resorted to diplomacy to achieve his objective. He placated the Raja of one side of the town and then managed to retake the bridge. Then after nine days of street fighting, he cleared the town, obtaining enormous plunder estimated to be at least a million pounds in gold.

The Raja who had been placated was also a victim of the Portuguese ‘diplomacy’, which was one-sided at best. Albuquerque displayed characteristic European treachery while dealing with Oriental princes and rulers. The Raja of the half-town that he had befriended, descended from a Hindu family in Java and a fresh convert to Islam, was invited by Albuquerque to visit his house. When they arrived at the Portuguese house, the Raja, his son, grandson, and son-in-law were all taken prisoner and then executed almost immediately. The rebellion by the Raja’s subjects against the treachery was ruthlessly put down after ten days of fighting and killing. While the capture of one half of the town, defended by 3,000 local soldiers, by a force of 1,100 Portuguese was indeed a remarkable feat, the blatant treachery tinged with disdain for the local Raja, his ally, by Albuquerque was barbaric, an understatement if ever there was one. On the return journey to India, all the plunder from Malacca was lost when two ships carrying them were lost enroute. Albuquerque reached Cochin in February 1512.

Return to Goa

While Albuquerque was away in Malacca, there was a clique of officers who were openly working against him in Cochin. The gang leader was an Antonio Real, who was in good standing with the king in Portugal and had been sending false information regarding the governor to him. In the meantime, Goa had been recaptured by the Adil Shahi king, although the local population now bereft of Muslims did not welcome the Shahi forces. Further, some resistance continued against the Adil Shahis while the main fort was placed under siege. Albuquerque waited for reinforcements to arrive from the home country and then sailed for Goa from Cochin, reaching on 8th November. There he carried out a daring action.

Rasul Khan, the Adil Shahi commander, had fortified the buildings after recapturing the territory. Albuquerque decided to attack from an unexpected direction and moved up the Goa River, shifted a cannon to a raft, which was then taken close to the fort walls at night and fired on the enemy gunners. Eight days of fierce fighting resulted, with the Governor leading his men from the front on all days. The battle shifted to the town and the Muslim forces were finally defeated, with Rasul Khan withdrawing from the place secretly at night. Reinforcements sent by Ismail Adil Shah arrived only after the town and fort had surrendered to the Portuguese. Once again, the barbaric cruelty of the Portuguese was on display, this time against their own people. 19 Portuguese soldiers had deserted and joined Rasul Khan, who sent them back to Albuquerque with the proviso that their lives should be spared. Albuquerque kept his promise to the letter but not in spirit—he cut off their arms, legs, ears and noses, ‘as a warning and in memory of the treason and evil that they did’. This was a sort of continuation of Vasco da Gama’s ferocious cruelty to all and any opposition to the Portuguese.

The reconquest of Goa enhanced the status of the Portuguese among the local rulers and also other Oriental powers in the region. Albuquerque, flushed with victory, decreed that all import of horses from the Arabian Peninsula was to be done through Goa under the aegis of the Portuguese. The Deccan and the Peninsular India did not breed horses that could be taken to battle and the armies were fully dependent on Arabian horses for their military needs—they were a lifeline for the warring Deccan Shahi kingdoms and the Vijayanagara Empire. He had decided that he would control the trade in horses, thereby becoming influential in increasing or hampering the military capabilities of the regional kingdoms. This was a step forward in entrenching Portuguese power in India.  

The Red Sea Expedition

On 7th February 1513, Albuquerque sailed out of Goa for the Red Sea with 24 ships, 1,700 Portuguese and 1,000 native soldiers. The objective was to explore the shores of the Red Sea, so far not visited by Portuguese ships; and destroy any Egyptian preparations for an invasion of India, while also pre-empting any possibility of a blockade. The fleet reached Aden on 25th March and attacked the port the next day. The plan of attack, if indeed there was one, was faulty and the attack was a complete failure, with large numbers of Portuguese killed or wounded and the rest retreating to their ships.

Albuquerque then sailed for the Red Sea and reached Kamran, a sparsely populated 11-mile long island, where water was replenished before the fleet departed for Jedda. However, the wind was not favourable, and the fleet returned to Kamran, where it stayed till July. The expedition was by now suffering from lack of food and in combination with the hard living conditions and extreme weather, it led to the death of all the native soldiers and more than 500 Portuguese. Albuquerque managed to gather some information and then returned to India—arriving at Diu on 16th August and Goa in September.

Disarray in Portuguese Affairs

In Goa, Albuquerque realised that the Portuguese affairs were in turmoil. The peace negotiations with Calicut had not progressed because of obstructions from the Zamorin. The heir apparent was incited by the Portuguese to poison the Zamorin, after which the new incumbent signed the peace treaty and permitted the Portuguese to build a fort near Calicut. In the meantime, the Raja of Cochin, so far a staunch supporter of the Portuguese, was unhappy with the growing importance of Goa—the Portuguese were spending all their money in Goa, rather than the port and township of Cochin. The anti-Albuquerque lobby, in cahoots with the Raja, influenced the king of Portugal to write and order Albuquerque to re-evaluate the importance of Goa. Albuquerque decided, with the council voting in his favour, to retain Goa as the main Portuguese holding.

Albuquerque believed that Goa was of great importance since it was the only foothold that the Portuguese had in India as an independent holding. It had the potential to be developed into a good port for the Deccan kingdoms and Vijayanagara Empire. He had fought and captured Goa and therefore it was special for him—he was bitter at his sovereign for not giving the necessary importance to his achievements in India. This bitterness was intensified by a sense of failure that assailed him after his Red Sea adventure.

The Governor now set about establishing the administrative norms for the Portuguese held territories in Goa. Unfortunately for him, the treasury was empty, and his finances were in a dilapidated state, with the pay of his forces itself in arrears. Albuquerque had established a rule that was not self-supporting. He turned to Ormuz as the only source for further resources. He organised an expedition to Ormuz with 27 vessels carrying 1,500 Portuguese soldiers and an equal number of Malabar troops. The fleet sailed out of Goa on 21st February 1515 and reached Ormuz on 26th March. Ormuz was controlled by Rais Hamid, who was acting as the Wazir with the tacit approval of the Shah of Persia. He had usurped the position after removing the old minister, Nur ud-Din. Albuquerque decided to act immediately—he asked the Wazir for the arrears of tribute that had been promised during the Portuguese visit six years back and for possession of the site that had ben granted for building a fort.

Further, Albuquerque managed to get assurances from the ousted Nur ud-Din, that these terms would be honoured if Rais Hamid was removed, and Nur was reinstalled as the Wazir. On 18th April Albuquerque and some of his officers murdered Rais Hamid after inviting him to Albuquerque’s house for a social evening. [Inviting the local ruler for a meal to his house and then murdering them seems to have been the preferred modus operandi for Albuquerque, however dishonest and shameful the act may have been. The surprising fact is that there was no stigma attached to this treacherous conduct. For a religious minded ‘Christian’ this conduct was considered perfectly normal, since he as dealing with non-Christians, especially if they were Muslims.] Nur ud-Din was reinstated, and land given to the Portuguese, which was hurriedly stockaded with artillery guns positioned in defence. Subsequently, Albuquerque began to build a fort, although a large number of men succumbed to the unaccustomed heat and humidity. In early August Albuquerque himself fell ill and was unable to move out of bed. Even so, he continued to provide instructions to his captains through a window, next to which he had his bed moved.

On 20th October, he appointed a captain to command the fort and on 8th November started his return voyage to India. On the way he learned that he had been replaced as the Governor and that his personal opponents, who had been banished to Portugal in disgrace had returned to India, holding high positions. He was broken-hearted by the manner in which his sovereign had treated him and died on 16th December 1515, as his ship was approaching his beloved Goa. Albuquerque died forsaken by his king, to whom he was loyal to the end. The king had no idea of the great achievements of this tireless Governor towards perpetuating Portuguese presence in India and the Persian Gulf.

Albuquerque’s tomb in Goa became a refuge for the oppressed, who came to pray and pour out complaints. Men fresh out of Portugal could never fathom this outburst of love and sorrow for a man who had been vilified in Portugal. The grief of the city that he had founded and nurtured was perhaps the best epitaph for a man whose loyalty to the crown was unquestioned.

Albuquerque – A General Appraisal

Albuquerque, a life-long bachelor, was 62 years old at his death. He left an illegitimate son to a negro mistress. All reports indicate that he was pitiless and cruel, which was normal for the period; but that he had a great sense of justice, which was unusual and could even be termed abnormal by the standards practised by the Portuguese authorities of the time. He was articulate and wrote pithy letters that are available in his voluminous correspondence, which also display a rather bitter sense of humour. He is reported as being quick to anger and to calm down.

Albuquerque was deeply religious, a brave soldier and an able administrator, who was loyal to his country and king, following a consistent line of policy throughout his tenure in India. He was sagacious and wily, able to deal with Eastern potentates with a clear understanding of their communications. As far as possible Albuquerque maintained standards of truth and honesty, understanding the value of both in dealing with Indian rulers. It is a dichotomy that historians do not acknowledge the high price that Indian princes placed on honesty in all dealings and that Albuquerque was aware of this fact. He fully appreciated the character of the local Indian people, which very few of his successors understood. More importantly, very few of the Portuguese commanders ever tried to follow his example. Albuquerque prided himself on being a man of his word. His appetite for knowledge was enormous and insatiable. 

Praise for Albuquerque from a Contemporary Source

‘He [Albuquerque] was a man with the true imperial instinct—the personality the Oriental follows blindly; clear headed, always accessible, he did his work himself; he might inadvertently be unjust, but he never allowed subordinates to rob or oppress; he knew his own mind and he never let his judgement be warped by fear or favour.’

—Richard Stephen Whiteway, The Rise of Portuguese Power In India, 1497 – 1550, p. 169

Albuquerque was the first European to grasp the concept that by maintaining a preponderant sea power, a distant country could create an Empire in maritime regions far away, like in Asia. Accordingly, he moved forward the policy of ‘domination of the sea’ to ‘domination of the East’ through conquest and colonisation. The altered policy was based on incontestable power projected through the sea—incontestable, so that the Muslims and the Hindus could be subdued. For him ‘domination’ meant that the Portuguese would not need any allies. In any case, his basic belief was that the locals were not trustworthy, a strange and surprising conclusion, especially considering the steadfast loyalty demonstrated by the Raja of Cochin and Albuquerque’s own understanding of local people and their rulers.

In formulating the concept of domination of the seas with no allies, Albuquerque had not factored in the ferocity of the monsoon rains in the sub-continent when no ship could put out to sea and be safe. In turn this meant creating shore-based safe havens. Perhaps it is this realisation and the need to have sailors, soldiers and administrators in sufficient numbers that led him to create the first Portuguese colony in Goa, encouraging the marriage of Portuguese men to local women. The fact that at this time Portugal itself was rapidly becoming racially mixed meant that the idea of creating a whole race of mixed ‘half-castes’ was not radical, even for that time. The initiative succeeded in Goa, which remained a Portuguese colony till its ‘liberation’ by India in 1961, a full 14 years after the British colonists had left Indian shores. [The term ‘half-caste’ has been used here with no intention to belittle or hurt the sentiments of people of mixed races; it has been mentioned only because the term was common usage, with no derogatory nuances, during the period that is being discussed in this chapter.] 

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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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