Europeans in India The Portuguese Part 4 Governance, Policies and Operations

Canberra, 5 January 2023

There are two viewpoints regarding the Portuguese attempt to establish a ‘State’ in the Indian sub-continent, headquartered at Goa. One, a sort of sweeping assessment, states that the defeat of the Arab coalition at Diu in 1509 by Almeida ended all threats to Portugal’s hegemony in the Indian Ocean region. The second, and a more pragmatic appraisal, is that the victory at Diu was transitory and of no real consequence in the long term. The real situation through most of the 16th century was one of intense competition that raged between the Ottomans and the Portuguese as both tried to expand control over the Indian Ocean.

‘It is quite conceivable that if one of their fleets had succeeded in driving the Portuguese out of their fortresses on the Indian coast, the establishment of the Christian power in India might have been indefinitely postponed.’

—E. Denison Ross, ‘The Portuguese in India, 1498 – 1598,’

in, The Cambridge History of India, Volume V, p. 27.

The reason for the Portuguese success in controlling the Indian Ocean region for nearly a century was two-pronged. One, the Portuguese had reached the Indian Ocean before the Turks and was therefore able to take the lead in monopolising the trade; and two, the Turks had many other interests and enterprises running parallel in the early years of the 16th century—their main focus was the on-going campaigns in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, with the Indian Ocean being a mere side show for the Ottomans.

The Portuguese System of Governance

The Portuguese took remarkably little time to establish the basics of a governance system in the territories that they controlled in the Indian sub-continent. The system they instituted replicated the one being practised in the home country where the king as the head and was assisted by appointed officials. However, the reality in India was somewhat different. The king, who was considered the head, resided in a faraway land; a letter from Goa fetched a reply from the king only after at least ten months, at the earliest. This inordinate delay meant that the King could only lay down governance policies at a generic and very high level. The nitty-gritty of their implementation was left to the local administrators, who made all the decisions that impacted on the daily functioning of the enterprise.

The Portuguese Estado da India was headed by a Viceroy or Governor, whose duties and responsibilities were identical. (See the previous chapter for the nominal differences between the two, the Viceroy being marginally higher in status.) Up to 1515, they were based in Cochin after which they moved permanently to Goa, which was established as the capital of the new enterprise. The Viceroy/Governor headed the civil administration and doubled as the commander of all military forces, for the entire Portuguese territories from East Africa to the Moluccas and Macao; in theory they were responsible to the King and of course to God, but in practice they were the equivalent of an independent potentate.

The Council

A very loosely organised Council of citizens assisted the Governor in administering the territory, once again modelled on the system in vogue in Portugal. The early Councils were informal gatherings that met at the whim of the Governor and primarily meant to provide advice on military matters, which were not always accepted. More often, the Council was used by the Governor to ratify decisions that had already been made, as a ploy to share the blame if things did not go according to plan. In a subtle manner, the Council also acted as a counter-balance to the Governor becoming an absolute autocrat—if the Governor did not heed their advice, the ‘nobles’ in the Council could, and did, withhold support to the endeavour being undertaken. Such non-cooperation invariably led to the failure of the endeavour and loss of status for the Governor. Gradually the Council gained importance and influence.

By 1563, the Council had evolved into a more institutionalised body and become a formal Council of State, with the membership being decided by the appointment held by an individual member. A Municipal Council, elected by the Portuguese and Eurasian population of the territory, was also instituted and gradually became influential in the conduct of local governance. The Governor established four distinct areas of authority—the ‘vedor’ controlled financial matters; clerics dealt with religious affairs; the High Court interceded to control legal matters; and the municipal council conducted local governance. The Governor oversaw all four elements, with particular interest being paid to the financial sector, and in alliance with the Council of State, controlled all military and security matters.

General Governance

All Portuguese territorial holdings were administered in a similar manner, as explained above, the basic model being a captain, a vedor, and judge clerks, supported by clerics, and factors. The factors also supervised the trade in the region. The four elements were collectively focused at achieving several economic aims, which in turn were fully oriented towards creating a Portuguese monopoly in the Indian Ocean region. The Portuguese wanted to enforce a four-fold monopoly—one, the spice trade between Asia and Europe; two, all trade between designated ports in the Indian Ocean region; three, control of, and the power to tax all trade taking place in the Indian Ocean region; and four, control and direction of private trade being conducted by Portuguese citizens residing in the region.

The rationale for the formulation of these economic aims and the imposition of drastic measures to achieve them, which did not cater for any flexibility in their enforcement, is not difficult to fathom. Portugal was a small and relatively poor country in Europe. It was far away from the region that it was attempting to dominate and could not hope to create an empire to control it since the prospect territorial conquests was severely limited. To sustain their dominance, the Portuguese needed to control the seas and tax the seaborne trade, since maritime power was the only distinct and decisive advantage that they had in comparison to the kingdoms of the sub-continental peninsula. All Portuguese policies in the Indian Ocean region were crafted with the sole aim of furthering the establishment of a monopoly and achieving economic objectives.

Perpetuating One-sided Policies

Within a year of reaching the Indian Ocean region, the Portuguese started to arbitrarily insist that they held the monopoly on the trade in spices. The convention of free trade that had prevailed for centuries with the overt approval of all nations trading in the region were not even considered as having been in existence. A travesty of justice, if ever there was one. Throughout the 16th century a veritable stream of decrees and instructions regarding trading activities in the Indian Ocean region was issued by the King in Portugal and his Governor in Goa. The common theme of these diktats was that all trade in spice was reserved for the Portuguese crown and its agents in the region.

Enforcing this claimed monopoly meant that the Muslim powers in India and Egypt would lose their lucrative trade in the region. During the heydays of Portuguese maritime power in the mid-16th century, the Portuguese set out to enforce three fundamental rules, all aimed at entrenching Portuguese monopoly. One, the Portuguese would set the buying price for the spices in India and set the price for selling it in Europe. The crux of the matter was that there would be no competition. Offenders who breached these set prices were punished harshly by the Portuguese whenever they were caught; if they were Muslims, they were killed at once and their merchandise and ships seized. Two, voyages to some specified ports were declared the monopoly of designated Portuguese vessels, which meant that the cargo space in these ships could be sold at a premium to other traders. Initially only royal ships were given permission to ply on these selected routes but from 1540, individuals were licensed to undertake these voyages. Normally the permission was given to the highest bidder, but a few were awarded for meritorious military service. Needless to state, these licences were extremely lucrative to the holder.

Three, the Portuguese would control the seaborne trade and tax everyone else who traded in the Indian Ocean region. To facilitate this move, they introduced the Cartaz—a sort of passport—which was required to trade in the Ocean that they claimed to own and control, a requirement that was enforced by their armada. The Portuguese justified the arbitrary introduction of the Cartaz with an improbable and twisted legal explanation. Till the arrival of the Portuguese, the Indian Ocean had been a free ‘mare liberum’ where no one had sovereignty over the ocean, except in the coastal regions adjacent to individual kingdoms. As explained in an earlier chapter, according to the Portuguese, non-Christians were not permitted to freely use the oceans which had been declared Portuguese territory, since they were the ‘Lords of the Seas’. They reasoned, with perverse ‘legal’ logic, that since before their arrival no one had claimed the Indian Ocean as their own, it belonged to the Portuguese. With this specious argument, they broke centuries of unwritten conventions and peaceful activities in the entire Indian Ocean region through which all participants had prospered equally.

Further, the Portuguese also introduced the concept of Cafilas—a convoy of merchant ships escorted by Portuguese warships—that sailed from Goa to Gujarat and to the southern ports. These Cafilas served a dual purpose: they guarded the merchant ships from attacks by pirates; and perhaps more importantly, they ensured that merchants did not trade outside the Portuguese system. By the 1550s, the Portuguese claimed to control the entire Indian Ocean region as their sovereign holding.

The System in Operation

Initially the Portuguese and subsequently the other European nations that came to the Indian Ocean region perpetuated a fallacy over the years—that dynamic Western powers, Portuguese, Dutch, English, came into contact with a moribund, static and stale East and easily took control of the region. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Eastern nations were as dynamic or even more dynamic than the Western powers who were self-proclaimed dynamic states; it was just that the Eastern powers were more prone to peaceful dealings and negotiations while being considerate of other States’ claims. This magnanimous attitude was construed as weakness and exploited by the Europeans who arrived in the Indian Ocean and the shores of East Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

The other fallacy that was perpetuated, in a subtle fashion to justify the assault in the Indian Ocean, was that Europe was the main and major destination of the Asian spice trade and therefore, they had a right to control it. In reality, in the early 16th century, only about a quarter of Asian spices went to Europe. China consumed the rest three quarters of the spices produced in South-East Asia. Even if the quantum of trade to Europe was more, there was no reason for them to demand that they control the trade: in normal practice the seller and not the buyer controls the flow of trade. Admittedly, European consumption increased as the century progressed, but the demand was met with increased production with the distribution percentage remaining the same. In short, the Portuguese intervention in the Indian Ocean region was justified by them through false legal arguments and their right to do so based on untruths and fallacies that were created and perpetuated by the European powers.        

Even so, the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean and their machinations to control the spice trade did not have as severe an impact on the spice trade as has been propagated by the European accounts. Indeed, Portuguese actions impacted the Red Sea route. However, even at the height of the Portuguese embargos, the Red Sea trade continued to equal the seaborne trade being championed and enforced by the Portuguese. This situation continued till the Dutch arrived on the scene and destroyed both the trade routes. The difference was in the profit margins and not on the volume of trade. The Portuguese profit margins—after taking into account shrinkage, wastage, shipwrecks, freightage and even the cost of maintaining forts on the coast of Malabar—was 90 percent; whereas the land route, mainly to Venice, produced only 40 percent profit.

The Cost of Pepper

The increase in the price of pepper, per kilogram, as it changed hands was enormous. It cost 2 grammes of silver at production point, somewhere in the interior of Malabar, became 10–14 grammes in Alexandria, 14–18 when it reached Venice, and finally between 20–30 grammes for the consumer in Europe.   

By the last decade of the 16th century, over half of the Portuguese State revenue came from Asian pepper and other spices and a limited amount of West African gold. Even though the yearly import of spices to Venice, at 3,500,00 pounds, dwarfed the 2,300,000 pounds that went to Portugal, this amount was big business by any standards. The profits were huge.  

The one fatal drawback in the whole system was that Portugal lacked the resources to finance the spice trade. For most of the 16th century the trade was maintained as a crown monopoly, although from 1570–80 open trade was attempted on a trial basis with the King even contracting out the right to the spice trade. This trial did not work well. Despite rigid centralisation and the huge profits that accrued, Portugal’s finances continuously declined during the 16th century. There are several reasons for such a bizarre situation to eventuate.

First, attempting to maintain a monopoly over the entire trading pattern in India required the expenditure of huge amounts of money—the forts and fleets necessary to enforce Portuguese writ across the Indian Ocean region were not cheap to obtain, operate and/or maintain. Between 1506 and 1620, the cost of sending a ship from Lisbon to India and bringing it back doubled. Portugal did not have the depth of financial reserves necessary to sustain such an operation. Second, what Portugal was attempting to achieve was the introduction and perpetuation of a sort of monarchical capitalism, which failed miserably for two fundamental reasons—one, that the crown lacked the expertise and the resources to establish a functioning capitalistic system; and two, in attempting to create a monopoly, the system blocked the development of an indigenous private merchant class, who are the mainstay of any long-standing capitalistic enterprise.

Third, the crown monopoly gradually converted Portugal into a mere conduit for the trade between India and Europe with foreign money providing around 40 percent of the capital expenditure involved in the building of the ships and their trading voyages to the East and back. This situation led to Portugal losing control of the trade that they were attempting to monopolise. Fourth, after the imposition of a quasi-monopoly in the early years of the 16th century, the trade through the land route in the Levant revived and then progressively eclipsed the seaborne Portuguese trade from the East. In the last two decades of the century, the overall Portuguese seaborne trade accounted for less than one-third of the spice trade from India and the South-East. This whole precarious situation was brought into focus and then dismantled by the arrival of the Dutch and their concerted attacks on the Portuguese operations in the late 16th and early 17th century.

So … What Went Wrong?

The fundamental question that arises out of this inexplicable situation is: despite the near monopoly and formal control that they had established in the Indian Ocean region, why did the Portuguese fail to enforce and maintain them in the long term? Once again, the reasons are multifarious and many, but in combination they proved insurmountable to the quantum of maritime power that the Portuguese were able to bring to bear in the Indian Ocean. There is a perennial and salutary lesson to be skimmed from this—a minor nation with limited resources must not let ambition and hubris lead the planning of enterprises and must be careful to set only ‘achievable’ objectives; strategic overreach has been demonstrated repeatedly in history as the most common pitfall in a nation’s quest for power and glory. The probability of failure increases in direct proportion to the distance of the region of action from home base and indirectly with the availability of resources. Apart from the fatal flaw of strategic overreach, the Portuguese enterprise to the East fell short in planning and leadership.

In the Indian Ocean region, the Portuguese had not walked into a vacuum, entities that had been established centuries before their arrival were already operating there, functioning within long-standing and universally accepted norms and customs that they had created. The Portuguese efforts to disturb these established local traditions were obviously met with opposition from the Asian traders and rulers. Even though they outgunned the local ships, the Portuguese did not have the numbers or the strategic depth in maritime power that was required to overwhelm the opposition. Therefore, they were never able to fully control the seaborne trade and establish an enforceable monopoly. If they controlled one port, another sprang up to take its place and continue local trade. For example: the Portuguese captured Diu in 1535 mainly to ensure that it did not continue as a competing port for the import of copper and cloth to India in return for spices; a trade that the Portuguese wanted to monopolise. However, the Gujarati merchants who were directly affected collected vast amounts of pepper and traded them all over Asia, the Red Sea and the Middle-East from a port in the Bay of Bengal.

Aden was a critical port in the broader geo-strategic design of the Portuguese to build a system that would dominate the Indian Ocean region. However, they were never able to take over the port, even after being offered control of the port earlier when a Governor had reached there. By 1538, Aden was under Ottoman Turkey and beyond the reach of the Portuguese for good. The gap in the geo-strategic link up remained a serious drawback to their efforts to create a dominant and unbroken chain that bound the seaborne trade in spices to Europe. Turkey was the principal adversary that challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the trade route to Europe from India. Since Safavid Persia (Iran) was at loggerheads with Turkey, the Portuguese tried to support the Safavid dynasty by letting some spice trade go through their territory, in return for Persian horses and silk. This action diluted the strict control they were attempting to impose on the land route of the spice trade.

In addition, the Portuguese faced a series of serious challenges to their monopoly from the rulers and traders of Malabar. Their activities permitted large quantities of pepper to ‘escape’ by sea and overland to the Coromandel and further from the ports on the eastern seaboard. The Zamorin of Calicut, who had become the arch enemy of the Portuguese, was engaged in an endemic war with the foreigners throughout the 16th century. The Portuguese fared better in most encounters because of their superiority at sea—however, neither did the intensity of the war subside nor would either side agree to a truce. Fundamentally, the objectives of the two sides were diametrically opposed to each other. The high-handed manner in which the Portuguese attempted to impose their monopoly and treating all Calicut ships as pirates by mid-16th century, made the Zamorin and the merchants resist the Portuguese and rebel against the unjust treatment.

Even so, since the Portuguese blockade of Calicut in the early to mid-16th century was fairly effective, two developments took place, over which the Zamorin had no control. One, the pepper trade migrated to safer ports in the Canara coast, north of Malabar and across the Peninsula through land routes to ports in the Bay of Bengal, thereafter moving on to Aceh and the ports of Sumatra. Two, the more prosperous merchants of Calicut, mostly Muslims, moved out of the country to safer harbours in the Red Sea, Gujarat and Vijayanagara, thereby impoverishing an already struggling economy. Calicut was diminished in status, stature and prosperity for ever.

On the other hand, the Portuguese could not control the pepper growing regions inland, since their effectiveness was limited to few coastal towns and at sea. The local traders accumulated pepper inland at will and traded either overland to the Coromandel coast or sent it north to Gujarat. Gradually, the Portuguese share of the pepper from Malabar began to fall. Another factor that adversely affected Portuguese trade was their interference in local politics and inter-kingdom feuds. After subduing the minor kings dotting the Malabar and Konkan coast to a certain extent, the Portuguese started to pay regular ‘pensions’ to the local rajas to buy their goodwill and cooperation to ensure an uninterrupted supply of pepper. This was a change of tack that drew the Portuguese deeper into local politics and to actively managing feuds between their client states. In 1549, their conciliatory activities led to four years of intermittent war, when no pepper was sent to Portugal.

Loss of Control: The Raja of Cochin Evens the Field

The Raja of Cochin had a highly developed sense of integrity and therefore had remained steadfastly loyal to the Portuguese, since he had given them his word of friendship early in the 16th century. He delivered on his word, even at the cost of going to war with the Zamorin of Calicut and suffering financial hardships. However, he was not subservient to the Portuguese in any way and demonstrated his independence in many direct and subtle ways. First, he refused to convert to Christianity or to accept any of his subjects converting to the foreign religion. All his subjects who converted to Christianity were treated as outcastes and clearly discriminated against. To make the point even clearer, the few people who converted to Islam were not ill-treated or discriminated against. Further, he never sought, and actually prohibited, the deliverance of a ‘Christian Blessing’ at the ritualistic ‘first weighing’ of pepper in each new season. For a proselytising, bigoted Catholic nation the situation was untenable.

Then there was the challenge of imposing taxes. The Portuguese had started to levy a six percent tax on all goods landed at Goa. From 1530 onwards, with the formal concurrence of Joao III (John III), then king of Portugal, the Raja of Cochin also started to levy six percent tax on all goods landed at Cochin. The Raja then reduced the tax to 3.5 percent, which resulted in all Western Indian traders passing off their good through Cochin, evading the six percent tax at Goa. This was a great loss to the Portuguese exchequer. They forced the Raja of Cochin to reinstate the six percent levy in 1584, but facing a revolt, the Raja reverted to the old levy. The Portuguese were forced to also reduce their tax levy, thereby suffering a permanent loss of revenue. Their gradual loss of control was visible to the astute observer. 

The Muslims continued to control the pepper trade, since they were able to influence the inland growers of the spice, and the Portuguese were dependent on them for a steady supply. Muslims were the inveterate enemies of the Catholic Portuguese and it must have been galling for the foreigners to have to not only deal with Muslims, but be at their mercy to ensure adequate supply of pepper to guarantee that the trade remained profitable. Their position became further untenable because of the inability of the Portuguese court in Lisbon to ensure that sufficient capital was available in the East to trade. The lead-time from investment in Cochin to the final despatch of goods to Portugal was 15 months. For various reasons, mainly a non-availability of ready cash, Portugal was never able to get this equation to work properly for them. The success of the enterprise depended on the ships keeping pace with the monsoon winds to round the Cape of Good Hope and make it in time to the point of departure in the East Coast towards the Malabar coast. Being aligned with the monsoon winds was equally important on the return voyage home. Since there was a lack of strategic depth in their finances, leading to a short staying power, the Portuguese were forced to buy whatever pepper was available, very often of inferior quality.

The Portuguese kings did not have the reserves of finances to let capital stay in Cochin to be utilised in opportunistic investment—the minimum time for such a process to succeed was around 12 months, which meant letting capital stay uninvested, if necessary. This was a luxury that the Portuguese could not afford, since their economy could survive only if a quick turnover was ensured. This was a dichotomous situation—to ensure profit, capital had to stay uninvested if necessary, meaning a large sum of money had necessarily to be kept as a buffer; whereas, the home-country economy could not survive a 12-month delay in turning over investment.

The end-result was that Portuguese merchants were forced to borrow money from rich Muslim traders, the Rajas along the Malabar coast and, in extremis, even from local traders. This further opened the gap in establishing control and monopoly, especially since Cartazes were issued in lieu of money to purchase pepper. The local merchants used these Cartazes to smuggle spices outside the Portuguese embargo, further diluting the control and creating a perpetual and ever-expanding cycle. So much so that by around 1540, pepper trade was openly re-established between the Malabar coast and the Red Sea route, the one that the Portuguese had attempted to shut down for nearly half a century.

The Raja of Cochin held the financial troubles of the Portuguese like a Damocles’ Sword over the Governor of Goa. The Governor’s writ was further diluted by the private trading of Portuguese citizens who were willing to pay a higher rate for goods than that approved by the crown. This in turn made it difficult for the official procurers to ensure adequate supply of good quality pepper, making it even more difficult for the crown to earn a profit.

In less than half a century of the blustering arrival of Vasco da Gama to Calicut, and the subsequent cruelly high-handed attempt to monopolise the spice trade in the Indian Ocean, the situation had returned to status quo—the Portuguese had become yet another, and poorer, trader in the seas.

Attempt to Monopolise the Horse Trade

The other major Portuguese initiative was to monopolise the lucrative trade in war horses between the Middle-East and the Indian sub-continent. The sub-continent never produced horses that excelled at war, which made the import of Arabian horses a thriving business for the ports of Dabhol, Chaul and Goa. All the three ports prospered on the import tax since the horses were highly priced and prized in the Deccan kingdoms. While the Deccan sultanates imported through the above-mentioned ports, the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara brought in the horses through Cannanore and Bhatkal.

After annexing Goa, the Portuguese gave concessions to traders bringing horses through their port to centralise the trade around Goa, gradually attempting to enforce the use of Goa as the only portal. They decreed that all ships carrying horses must only trade through Goa—an order that could never be enforced for two reasons. First was that the local rulers needed the horses and landed them at their own ports at will. The second was more important. The religious authorities in Goa forbade the sale of horses to non-Christians, which meant that almost the entire lot of buyers were banned. Ever mindful of the need to turn a profit, even if it meant proverbially dancing with the devil, the Portuguese permitted the buyers to come into Goa and purchase the horses rather than having to send them to the purchaser outside Goa’s territorial limits. Thus, in one stroke the Portuguese appeased both God and Mammon—an activity in which they proved to be adept.

From around 1515, duty on the import of horses was a major source of revenue for Goa, although a monopoly could never be realistically imposed for both practical and political reasons. From the 1550s, there was a gradual but noticeable decline in the volume of trade till it almost ended by the 1580s. The attempt to control the trade in Arabian horses was another ill-conceived effort by the Portuguese to dominate the Indian Ocean trade—a trade that had been peacefully carried out for centuries to the betterment and prosperity of all involved, before the violent arrival of the Europeans in the region.

Sub-continental Reactions

There is no doubt that the accounts of the high-handed behaviour of the Portuguese during their transit from the Cape of Good Hope to reaching Calicut, which preceded their actual arrival, made the local rulers and traders wary of this unknown entity entering ‘their ocean’.  The arrival of the Portuguese, intent on dominating the Indian Ocean region, although they were an impoverished small European country, affected the somewhat placid situation that existed on the western coast of India, especially in relation to the spice trade. A balance of power existed in the Indian Ocean region in terms of trading activities, which was not affected or influenced by religion or nationality. Portuguese interference upset the equilibrium. There were five major reasons why this happened.  

One, the highhandedness and arbitrary nature of the laws being imposed on what had so far been a ‘free trading zone’ within which nobody had owned the high seas. Two, flowing from the first, the imposition of restrictions on trading in the Indian Ocean region that curtailed the freedom of movement of indigenous traders, a majority of whom were Muslims. Three, the Portuguese willingness to use military force, with utmost ruthlessness and at the slightest provocation, even at the cost of breaking previous agreements and treaties. The streak of wanton cruelty that accompanied the use of military force unsettled the mostly peace-loving society that they were attempting to terrorise. Four, the Portuguese pursuance of the strategy that demanded domination of the seas by all available means led to continuous conflict with other operators in the region, including the local rulers. Five, the Portuguese proclivity to adopt forced conversions to their faith as a necessity for anyone to be recognised as an individual with rights in the eyes of the administration and their blind enmity towards all Muslims led to untenable situations across the entire region. The double standards that were on display when dealing with Muslims was a demonstration of the inherent duplicity of Portuguese, at least in the eyes of the more straight forward local leadership.

The reaction to the Portuguese activities from the political elite, the rulers, and the trading merchants was different. The merchants initially considered the Portuguese yet another group of traders and treated them as such, with very little concern other than to ensure that their own profits and trade were protected. However, when the Portuguese monopolistic aims became clear, the merchants offered full fledged resistance since the Portuguese claims and attempted imposition of their own laws were new and arbitrary. The merchants’ resistance was met with the might of Portuguese warships at sea, which turned resistance to acquiescence so that losses could be minimised and the abhorrent cruelty of the Portuguese avoided. In an obtuse manner, the inherent cruelty of the Portuguese seems to have played the role of a deterrent.

By accepting the restrictions being imposed, the merchants ensured that their profits were only minimally affected, the ultimate bottom line for all traders. They ensured trouble-free trade by accepting the monopoly being enforced through the Cartazes, to keep their profits viable. The intention of the Portuguese was to monopolise the spice trade. Since the main trade from the Malabar coast was in spices, the resistance from the traders there was more vehement. These traders managed to circumvent the embargo being attempted by the Portuguese more often than in other parts of the West Coast. On the other hand, in Gujarat to situation was different. The mainstay of the trade was cloth, indigo, saltpetre etc., which were not of sufficient interest to the Portuguese and therefore, the merchants from the Gujarat ports offered minimum resistance.

The response from the political elite was much more nuanced. The Rajas and petty chieftains, who ruled the kingdoms along the West Coast of the sub-continent from Cochin to Gujarat, consciously played a limited and minimalist role in regulating the trade, letting it continue in a peaceful and time-honoured, traditional manner. It had never been necessary for them to offer protection to the traders. Therefore, when the Portuguese started to harass the traders, they did not have the sea power necessary to challenge the Portuguese power that was being ruthlessly employed in the high seas. At that time, the Portuguese power projection capabilities were far greater than that of any local kingdom. The local rulers were forced to leave the traders to their own devices for protection against the marauding Portuguese. Further, even they had to concede demands that were made by the Portuguese, in the face of blatant and wanton cruelty.

Albuquerque’s concept of domination from the sea was initially seen to be a possibility. However, it was soon demonstrated to be effective only in the coastal regions. Any Raja or even small-time ruler who had strategic depth in his defences could withstand the Portuguese seaborne assaults and therefore defy their demands. Even so, the overall trade suffered, and the political elite were at times forced to make concessions to the foreigners.    

Reasons for Portuguese Success

For many centuries the Indian Ocean had been a peaceful trading region. Therefore, the natural question that arises regarding the Portuguese hullaballoo, mainly in the Arabian Sea, is: why were they so successful in disrupting the peace and abrogating centuries-old traditions, almost managing to dominate the seas, till the arrival of another competing European power, the Dutch? There are two primary reasons for the short-lived Portuguese success, if their sojourn into the region can be called a success—one of a strategic nature regarding the ethos of the Indian rulers and the other a more pragmatic one that analyses the differences in the operational tenets and tactics of the competing military powers.

The Rajas and petty rulers on the West Coast of the Indian sub-continent were beset with the perennial challenge that had faced Indian rulers for the past centuries and continued to do so in the 16th century and beyond—the inability to unite against a common foe. These rulers, small and large, were immersed in internecine feuds and wars that debilitated their abilities to stand up to aggression by an external adversary. The inability to even consider uniting against a greater threat had strategic implications for the future of their individual kingdoms and for the well-being of the sub-continent at large. The ethos that prevented them from uniting against a common foe made it easy for the Portuguese to deal with each of these rulers individually.

In addition, the greater powers in the Deccan and South India—the Shahi kingdoms, Vijayanagara Empire and even the Gujarat Sultan—ignored the arrival and presence of the foreigners as nothing more than an aberration of no consequence. There is no doubt that had they united and brought their combined military might to bear on the Portuguese, the foreigners would not have found traction to maintain a presence in the Indian Ocean region—their initial hold in the region having been tenuous at best. The issue was that neither the Deccan Shahi kingdoms nor the Vijayanagara empire deemed it necessary to question the foreigners, even when they started to impose laws aimed at dominating the seas and establishing a trade monopoly. The sad truth is that by the early 16th century there were no rulers in the Peninsula, or elsewhere in the sub-continent for that matter, with the perspicacity and strategic vision buttressed by a feeling of a larger perception of a ‘Hindu India’ to consider the arrival of the Portuguese on the shores of the west coast as an existentialist threat to themselves and the broader sub-continent.

Even the more powerful Shahi Sultans of the Deccan and the Vijayanagara Raja of South India were busy fighting each other and scheming to bring the others down even through dubious means, and squabbling over petty religious considerations to give any meaningful thought to the arrival of a belligerent foreign power on their shores. A lack of foresight and understanding of the long term impact of the arrival of the Europeans from the sea, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and the relative prosperity that was common to all these kingdoms made the rulers careless regarding their own future.

The second and more immediate reason for Portuguese success was their military mastery at sea, which is easier to measure and analyse. The control of the Arabian Sea established by the Portuguese meant that a land-centric siege of any of their ports—Goa and Diu—could be easily broken using maritime power to supply and sustain the besieged cities. The fact that the larger powers of the Peninsula did not possess any naval assets of calibre added to this distinct Portuguese advantage.

At the operational level, there was a noticeable difference between the Portuguese ships and the local sea-going vessels. The local ships were large galleys, some with soldiers embarked on them to fight piracy if it was encountered, but without any mounted cannons. In construction, these were relatively flimsy, the structure made to sail with favourable winds to the Middle-Eastern coast and back. In comparison, the Portuguese ships were much tougher, constructed to sail from Europe, round the Cape of Good Hope to India, in seas that saw some of the worst storms in harsh weather. They also had artillery mounted on them, an innovation that had not yet occurred to the Indian mariners.

In Europe, artillery had been developed and deployed by the end of the 14th century and subsequently adopted for use as cannon from warships. Their dedicated employment as maritime firepower had been professionally developed. In comparison, the Asian cannons of the 14th century were relatively crude and used only on land—for example, they played a significant role in Babur’s victory in 1526 at Panipat that laid the first foundational stone of the Mughal Empire. Their use onboard ships as floating artillery was a novel concept demonstrated by the Portuguese as they entered the Indian Ocean region. The Indian ships were far too flimsy to withstand the recoil from the cannons, even when the concept was copied. The European gunners were more skilled and experienced, and moreover, their cannons were better cast. These ship-mounted cannons became the key to Portuguese naval victories.

The Portuguese had an inherent technological superiority in the construction of their ships and their armament over the local ‘navies’. Very rapidly understanding this situation, the Portuguese adopted their maritime attack tactics to leverage this advantage—they would not attempt to board any ship, but would stand off and blast the adversary ship with their cannon fire with unquestioned impunity. At first the Indian rulers and their naval personnel marvelled at the adroitness of the foreign gunners and the effectiveness of their cannons. However, the bombardment of their cities from the sea soon put an end to their marvel and admiration; they started to respond, with the clear understanding that they had to catch up.

The Zamorin led the effort to match the maritime power of the Portuguese. Starting in 1503, in just three years he had 300 cannons cast by a few deserters from the Portuguese camp and built more than 200 stronger ships carrying cannons on board. Other rulers were not far behind in following suit. Despite this concerted effort, the Portuguese continued to reign supreme on the seas throughout the 16th century. The reason was that even the modernised Indian ships were not as sturdy as the European ships and could not withstand the stress and strain of continuous bombardment with onboard cannons. The Rajas could have built European design ships. However, they felt that buying the Cartazes were a more cost-effective solution to building new and expensive warships and then going to war with the foreigners, with all the attendant loss and destruction. The Rajas also knew that in case of the Portuguese dishonouring the Cartazes, they could retaliate on land where the Portuguese were at their mercy.  


There is no denying the impact of the Portuguese on the Indian Ocean trade, even though in an expansive appreciation it would be seen to have lasted only as a blip in the broader narrative. Their naval dominance, based on cannons mounted on the ships, made a distinct difference to their dealings with the local rulers, large and small. Their willingness to use military power at the slightest provocation and the inherent cruelty they displayed towards captives created a certain amount of arrogance in their demeanour when in Asian waters. Gradually a discernible superiority complex seeped into their negotiations with local rulers and merchants. The establishment of a series of fortified enclosures around the Indian Ocean littoral and the visible decline of Calicut with the corresponding rise of Cochin bear tangible testimony to Portuguese maritime power. On land, however, their power always remained inferior to the local military forces.

The technological innovations and developments that took place in Europe from 1450 to around 1750, which paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, was critically important to European domination of Asia. Indian rulers failed to appreciate the crucial importance of these technological innovations to improving the overall efficiency of their military forces and the flow-on effect that they had on strategic dominance at sea and on land. The impact of this advantage was felt even more heavily in the 18th century when true domination on land was initiated by the British.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, India was one of the most advanced countries in the world. However, from studying the history of Portuguese activities in the Indian Ocean region it can be seen that the technological developments that were not available to the India military forces made the difference between victory and defeat when Indian rulers faced the foreign invaders. This appreciation however dawned only much later on the Indian rulers, long after Portuguese power had waned forever.

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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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