Europeans in India: The Portuguese Part 6 Decline and Downfall into Oblivion

Canberra, 13 January 2023

Even with the extreme religious oppression, Goa remained populated by Indians, both Hindus and Christians. Some reports suggest that about 2000 Portuguese came to India annually and a majority stayed on in the sub-continent on a semi-permanent basis. However, the authenticity of these reports is questionable. Definitely, every year a certain number set out from Portugal for India urged on by various intentions. Of these many did not survive the journey outwards and the mortality rate once they reached India was very high. In the early years of the 17th century the population of Old Goa was approximately 75,000 of whom only about 2000 were Portuguese, European and first-generation mixed blood people.

The small percentage of ‘Europeans’ controlled all the wealth and power, enforcing modified and adapted versions of the basic laws that Albuquerque had promulgated after he captured Goa for the second time. Portuguese gentlemen who came out to assume high administrative or ecclesiastical positions invariably brought with them their poor relations who hoped to make rich pickings in the new colony. Goa also became the parking place for the illegitimate offspring of the Portuguese aristocracy.

Goa being the hub of Portuguese commercial activity in Asia, it was indeed true that fortunes could be made, provided one managed to stay alive—for life was not easy for most of the Portuguese who came out of Europe. Volunteers to travel to Asia and stay there were not easy to find, and convicts were permitted to work out their sentences in the colonial army; even murderers could avoid execution by permitting themselves to be banished to the East. Wages for such conscripts were abysmally low and more often than not remained unpaid for months after reaching India. Therefore, it was not surprising that these convicts reverted to being thieves and pirates in India, some becoming ‘enforcers’ or thugs in the private employment of senior administrators and priests.

Very few women travelled from Portugal to India, and the few that did were labelled strumpets and whores. The Portuguese men resorted to taking concubines and slaves, female slavery becoming endemic very rapidly. The administration actively encouraged the Portuguese to marry local women who were converted to Christianity, by providing them with land and other facilities. Even so, it took some time for such marriages to become somewhat common. With the passage of time, the number of men and women of mixed blood increased exponentially, although only a small percentage was part of the elite who administered and ruled the place. The rest found employment as low-level officials or soldiers/sailors, gradually contributing to the widespread oppression of non-Christians and thereby ratifying the Portuguese administration of Goa.

With the arrival of other European powers into the Indian Ocean, mainly the Dutch and the English who were both protestant countries, the Portuguese started to be hard-pressed to continue the imposition of their monopolistic policies in the region. Their domination of trade from the sea through maritime supremacy was effectively questioned and came under threat; dilution and dissolution of power was only a step behind. The Portuguese knew without doubt that their heydays in the Indian Ocean region was over—they were too small a European power and their resources far inferior to that of the Dutch and the English for them to enforce or even contest the domination of the sea. At this juncture, the Portuguese decided to curtail the Zamorin’s activities and destroy his navy, almost as a last hurrah. Considering their one century of enmity with the Zamorin, it is not beyond imagination that there was a streak of vindictive vengeance in this last notable action of the Portuguese.    

The Resistance and Downfall of Calicut OR

Defeat of the Marakkars

The strongest and lengthiest resistance to Portuguese attempts at domination came for the kingdom of Calicut. After a few early futile attempts at effecting a truce, the Zamorins, traditional rulers of Calicut, became the greatest adversaries of the Portuguese. The Zamorins were well-served by a family—a dynasty—of capable naval commanders who led the Calicut navy to glory on many occasions, sailing under-equipped and less robust ships than the Portuguese, but always standing up to them as an equal power.


The Marakkars (spelt in some texts and historical narratives as Marikkar or Maricar) were ‘Moplas’, the term used for local Muslims. Many historians claim that the term Mopla is a diminutive of ‘Maha Pillai’ or Great Son and that Marakkar is derived from the word for a boat in Arabic, Markab, in which the original Marakkar is believed to have come to Calicut from Arabia. Another explanation is that Marakkar was a title given by the Zamorin, derived from Marakka Rayar—signifying the captain of a ship, Rayar being captain and Marakka, again a diminutive of Marakkalam, meaning a ship. Persons given this title used to tie a turban made of special silk, which signified the award from the king. Marakkar is also considered to mean ‘victory’.

It is believed that the Marakkars came to the Malabar coast in the 7th century. However, records show that their arrival was more likely to have been in the 11th or 12th century, when they took over control of the spice trade from the Chinese and forced them out of Quilon and Cranganore. These were probably the first places that the Marakkars inhabited, moving north along the coast as their trade flourished and progressed. One group of the family migrated to Tuticorin to conduct trade with Ceylon, Java and Malaya. By the time the Portuguese arrived on the Malabar coast, the Marakkars were the leading business group engaged in the spice trade in the Indian Ocean.


Early in their rise to commercial power, the Marakkars had adopted the tradition of militancy and martyrdom, successive generations being brought up in accordance with the dictates of this tradition. [In many studies and narratives, the Marakkars are referred to as ‘Kunhali Marakkars’, (alternatively spelt as Kunjali) probably because four Kunhali Marakkars displayed the illustriousness of their dynasty and lineage, one after the other from around 1520 to 1600), in their concerted resistance to the Portuguese activities. Without going into the details of the Marakkar family and the name ‘Kunhali’, it is sufficient here to mention that ‘Kunhali Marakkar’, would translate very broadly to mean ‘Dearest Admiral – Lion of the Sea’.]

The militancy of the Marakkars took on a patriotic flavour after the Portuguese introduced the unwarranted use of force to dominate the trade within the Indian Ocean region. Prior to the arrival of the foreigners from Europe, local traders—Muslims, others and the local rulers alike—had not developed the maritime use of firearms and the embarkation of military forces on their ships. The conduct of trade was peaceful, and it was not considered necessary to arm the trading vessels. The Portuguese introduced the employment of force and extreme brutality to the Indian Ocean to usurp the flourishing trade.

Marakkars – The Naval Commanders

The Marakkars are authentically mentioned for the first time in Calicut history in 1507, when the Raja of Cochin befriended the Portuguese and became the equivalent of a vassal port to the foreigners. At this demonstration of opportunism Ismail Marakkar, who was then the head of the clan, protested and prohibited all rice merchants in the Malabar coast from exporting rice to Cochin in an effort to starve the small kingdom. He became the first Kunhali Marakkar. There were four Kunhali Marakkars in the dynasty: Kunhali Marakkar I (1507–31); II (1531–71); III (1571–95) and IV (1598–99).

The Zamorin who had stood up to the Portuguese died, poisoned by a younger person from a subsidiary branch of the family at the instigation of the Portuguese. He was succeeded by the upstart who was sympathetic to the Portuguese, believing that he could come to an arrangement with them to stop the continuing decline in Calicut trade. He permitted the Portuguese to build a fort on Calicut territory to placate them and stop the continuous threat of bombardment. However, the Portuguese, true to form, violated the agreement and did not pay heed to the subservient Zamorin. In 1522, a new Zamorin took over the throne and ordered his navy, commanded By Kunhali Marakkar I, to attack the Portuguese at every opportunity.

Modus Operandi

Marakkar was pragmatic enough to understand and accept that his navy could not compete with the Portuguese men-of-war on equal terms. Instead of trying to match the Portuguese vessels, he had a large number of smaller vessels built, called paaraohs and rowed by 30 to 40 men. He adopted the maritime equivalent of guerrilla warfare and modified the fighting tactics of his navy accordingly. Further, he hung bags of cotton over the sides of these vessels to absorb small arms fire. It is reported that the Marakkar sailors/fighters were recruited from a Sufi brotherhood—probably from the Qalandar sect—who were sworn to fight to the death. All Marakkar fighters were distinguished by their demeanour and apparel: all of them had shaved heads, wore a particular kind of clothes without shirts, tied a red scarf on their heads and wore talismans. [This could perhaps be considered the first introduction of a ‘uniform’ to distinguish the fighting force from the common folk.]

The Marakkar boats attacked the Portuguese in swarms at times and places of their choice, thus always retaining the advantages of surprise and initiative. The Portuguese cannons were designed to attack similar ships and were not very accurate. They could not direct their fire precisely at the smaller ships and even if a lucky shot found its mark on a Marakkar ship, there were other ships in the swarm to continue the fight. Marakkar hid hundreds of such ships along the Malabar coast, in estuaries too narrow and shallow for the Portuguese vessels to follow. He posted lookouts on vantage points to spot Portuguese ships coming close to the shore. He also established an elaborate signalling system through which the lookouts and the hidden flotilla of small watercraft were linked. The small ships were at liberty to attack opportune targets and then rapidly withdraw to their hidden parking areas.

The Portuguese ships had no rowers and could not be manoeuvred in static conditions when the wind dropped. Therefore, the Marakkar boats rowed out at speed when the sea was calm to the almost immobile warships, set fire to the Portuguese ships’ sails with fire arrows and then boarded them from all sides simultaneously. The Portuguese on board were usually outnumbered and killed by the Marakkar soldiers. Even though tactical advantage lay with the Marakkar forces when encounters were close to the shore, in the high seas the Portuguese were still dominant. Victories in encounters were almost equal on both sides and neither side was able to establish ascendancy. At the same time, the spice trade that circumvented the Portuguese blockade continued unabated and without a break.

The King Betrays His Admiral

Maritime battles and skirmishes between the Portuguese and the Calicut navy led by the Marakkars continued for almost a century without a break, well into the close of the 16th century, with neither side able to achieve a decisive advantage. Along with fighting a maritime war, the Portuguese had also waged a resolute diplomatic war by systematically attempting to drive a wedge between the Zamorin and his Marakkar admirals. Kunhali Marakkar III who had observed and felt the effectiveness of the Portuguese tactics, believed that they were succeeding and warned the Zamorin of their ill-intentions.

According to the joint authors of the Saga of the Kunhalis, on his death-bed Kunhali Marakkar III is supposed to have been heavy of heart with gloomy forebodings. He is said to have predicted the end and destruction of all the great work that the Marakkars had accomplished for the Zamorin. Succumbing to the continuous and constant requests, and perhaps to some incentives, the Zamorin permitted the Portuguese to build a fort at Ponnani, which was the home base of the Marakkars. Piqued by this thoughtless move by the Zamorin, the Marakkars moved base to the north of Calicut. On a peninsula inside the mouth of the River Kotta, they built a fortress and continued to wage war against the Portuguese.

At this stage the head of the clan, Muhammad, Kunhali Marakkar IV, made strategic error. He overreached himself and started to operate independently and immediately after that declared himself the Raja of Kotta. The Portuguese grabbed this opportunity to convince the Zamorin that Marakkar had to be brought to heel, since he had declared himself king and was to be treated as a rebel. It must be remembered here that the Portuguese had only negligible strength on land and therefore could have never contained Marakkar on their own. They negotiated with the Zamorin and hatched a plot to launch a joint attack on Kotta, the Zamorin taking care of the land battle. It is probable that the Zamorin meant this only as a threat to the Marakkars, a ploy to bring him back into the fold and in allegiance like before. It is unlikely that he wanted to actually mount an attack on Kotta.

Once again, the impetuousness of Kunhali IV played a hand in deciding the further course of action. He had become far too independent and on receiving news of the Zamorin–Portuguese alliance, insulted the Zamorin with some harsh words—the die was cast. In March 1599, the alliance mounted an attack on Kotta, which ended in confusion because of lack of communications. The allies retired to plan an attack for later in the year. In late 1599, the forces of the Zamorin and the warships of the Portuguese returned and laid siege to Kotta. The Zamorin had gathered a large army of over 5000 warriors and other sundry workmen and the Portuguese blockaded the fort from the sea. The defenders were weakened, and the maritime bombardment from the sea and the river-mouth battered the fort badly. The battle was unequal and Kunhali Marakkar IV sued for peace.

Marakkars Destroyed

The Zamorin only wanted Marakkar to surrender and resume his previous position as his admiral. However, his allies, the Portuguese had other ideas—they wanted Kunhali’s life and the destruction of the family, which had been a source of perennial war for them for nearly a century. Marakkar knew this and accepted to surrender only to the Zamorin. The Zamorin’s conduct in this episode has been a point of debate and discussion for a long time and even today there is no assured version of what actually happened. One account is that the Zamorin had secretly agreed, or been forced to agree, that the Portuguese would abduct Marakkar after his surrender. Another version is that the Portuguese had kept the Zamorin in the dark regarding their plans to abduct Marakkar. Since there are no verifiable records, the debate regarding the Zamorin’s actions and the integrity of the Portuguese, if the term integrity can be used to denote anything the Portuguese did in the Malabar coast, continues.

The sequence of events that took place is, however, clear. On 16th March 1600, Muhammad Kunhali Marakkar IV surrendered to the Zamorin with 400 of his soldiers. What happened after that, irrespective of the complicity of the Zamorin or otherwise, remains a blot on the character and conduct of the Portuguese in Malabar. Immediately after he had proffered his sword to the Zamorin, Kunhali was grabbed by the Portuguese from in front of his own king and taken away along with 40 of his soldiers. It is clear that even if the Zamorin was complicit in this action, his soldiers were not—they were appalled by this treachery but were held back from resorting to impetuous and spontaneous action against the Portuguese. They watched in impotent fury as the admiral was taken away by the Portuguese, who refused to surrender the prisoners. Who held the Calicut soldiers back is again a matter of conjecture. Why was there no bloodbath when the treachery came to light in the open, in front of the Zamorin and a large gathering of his troops? Was Kunhali Marakkar IV expediently sacrificed for some minor compensation for the Zamorin and his senior officers? Was the Zamorin and his court unaware of the waning stars of the Portuguese in the broader commercial sphere and that they did not have to kowtow to the cruel foreigners? Troubling questions that perhaps will never be answered satisfactorily.

Kotta was sacked and burned to the ground, Marakkar and other prisoners were put in chains and a week later the Portuguese sailed for Goa with the prisoners. Why was there no attempt from the Zamorin or his senior advisers to remedy the situation and take Kunhali Marakkar IV back into their custody, in the week that he was kept imprisoned in Calicut? This uncomfortable and unanswered question reinforces the belief of the complicity of the Zamorin and his immediate entourage in the entire episode. The King and his courtiers had become jealous of the power and status of the Marakkars and the popular following they had as defenders of the nation from foreign depredations. This was the low-point in the rule of the Zamorins of Calicut; it marked the beginning of the end of the Zamorin’s influence and independence.

In Goa there was great celebration at the arrival of the ships with the prisoners—the first prisoner to be landed was stoned to death by the public. Kunhali was moved to Tronco, the prison used by the Inquisition to house their more ‘senior’ captives. In a show trial, Muhammad Kunhali Marakkar was sentenced to death. His execution was witnessed by the Viceroy and the Archbishop—Marakkar was beheaded with an axe, his body quartered, and displayed on the beaches. Then, ‘his head was salted and conveyed to Cannanore, there to be stuck on a standard for [sic] a terror to the Moors.’ (Roy Moxham, The Theft of India, p. 41) Subsequently, the other prisoners were similarly executed.

The death of Muhammad Kunhali Marakkar IV marked the end of a glorious chapter in Indian history. In a case of poetic justice being delivered, it also marked the end of the Zamorin’s power—he was the last Raja on the Malabar coast to hold out against the Portuguese, but he now did not have a navy, or the admiral required to command it effectively, in the fight against the foreigners. To add insult to injury, the Zamorin’s kingdom was invaded by Mysore (1766–92), then under the de facto ruler Hyder Ali, and untold atrocities committed against the kingdom and his subjects. The Zamorin remained a helpless witness to this episode.  

… into Oblivion

By 1548, a mere 50 years after Vasco da Gama had made landfall in the Malabar coast, the sun was already beginning to set on the ambitiously conceived Portuguese Empire in the East. Estado da India remained a pipedream. However, the fatal blow was struck only in 1581, when Phillip II of Spain took over Portugal and subordinated the resources of her Eastern possessions to his own requirements in Europe. The union of Spain and Portugal was disastrous for the fledgling Portuguese concept of Estado da India. Phillip II involved Portugal in the costly and disastrous wars in Europe, leaving no resources to be diverted to the Eastern enterprise. Starved of finances, resources and royal support, Portuguese commerce in the East struggled to survive and rapidly withered on the vine.

Other contributory causes for the decline and fall of the Portuguese enterprise can be traced to the flaws in the administrative structure that was created in India for the ‘empire’, as well as the boorish conduct of the Portuguese in India. The major mistakes and blemishes are enumerated below.

Manpower. (Human Resources in today’s politically correct environment.) At the very beginning of the enterprise Almeida had correctly predicted that Portugal did not have the manpower necessary to maintain far-flung territorial possessions. This was an astute observation. The constraint of manpower made the Portuguese resort to creating strategic coastal bases, upon which they based their domination of the seas and short-lived commercial superiority. Their control never extended inland to more than a day’s march from the ports and their ships. When these strategic bases were lost, Portugal was pushed into oblivion.

Cruelty. The Portuguese were merciless in the treatment of captives, especially the followers of Islam. They sank boatloads of pilgrims—mainly women—bound for Mecca. All captured Muslims were invariably mutilated, would have their hands and legs amputated and the cut off parts fired into the towns that were under siege. This inherent, and unwarranted, cruelty combined with their bigoted religious policy and the Inquisition created a fanatical hatred for them within the local population, both Hindus and Muslims. The local people willingly joined any coalition against the Portuguese. The extreme cruelty displayed by the Portuguese is inexplicable.

Ignorance. By late–8th century an ‘iron curtain’ had been rung down between the West and he East. Commerce that had reached Europe through Venetian and Genoese traders had been the fountainhead for the early Renaissance. However, with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, this source started to dry up, making the ‘iron curtain’ an effective barrier to the exchange of ideas and information. The Portuguese had no knowledge of the Hindu religion, and its customs and traditions. In fact, it is doubtful that they even knew of the existence of a religion called Hinduism. The ignorance was such that during the first voyage, Vasco da Gama and his men worshipped in a Hindu temple, thinking that the local people, all Hindus, were some sort of lapsed Catholics who had to be enlightened regarding the ‘right path’ and brought back into the fold. This ignorance was topped by an arrogance that belied belief—a combination that would only bring ruin.

Religious Conversions. Proselytization—preaching, evangelisation and propagation of the Catholic faith—was one of the fundamental aims of the Portuguese enterprise, as promised by the King to the Pope. As early as the second decade of the 16th century, when they were yet to find a strong foothold on the West Coast of India, the Portuguese had started to institute a systematic campaign for the conversion of the locals in India, and further east, to Catholic Christianity. Goa was established as a bishopric in 1538 and an Archbishop, who rivalled the Viceroy in pomp, dignity and influence, appointed in 1558. Goa thus became the headquarters for the Jesuits outside Rome. In 1540, all Hindu temples in Goa were destroyed on the orders of the King of Portugal and in 1560, the Inquisition was instituted in all Portuguese held territories in the Indian sub-continent. Orders were passed in 1567 that no Christian could employ an infidel servant, and that all ‘heathen’ residents of Goa were to attend Church service on alternate Sundays. The persecution of non-Christians and attempts to convert them by force continued unabated, adding to the hatred of the local population towards the Portuguese. By 1623, when the Portuguese enterprise in India had already failed, other than for territorially controlling Goa, Daman and Diu, it is estimated that there were more priests than laymen in Goa. By this time the clergy had sapped the financial resources of the State and completely undermined the civil administration.

Stagnation in Maritime Activities. The evidence of the decay of Portuguese maritime power was seen in the stagnation of their activities—in shipbuilding, nautical sciences and the allied arts—supremacy in which in the late 14th and early 15th centuries had catapulted Portugal to the pinnacle of her powers and made her an acclaimed first-rate maritime power, as well as the leading European country in seaborne exploration of the East. By the mid-1550s there was a disastrous decline in seamanship in Portugal and an accompanying decline in general maritime capabilities. For example: between 1467–1579, 90 percent of the ships that left Portugal for the East returned safely, whereas the number dropped to 63 percent between 1580–1612. Considering that the perils due to weather had not increased, the drop in successful voyages can only be attributed to a decline in professional capabilities of the officers and crew.

A combination of these factors and the pure hatred that the Portuguese generated from the local people wherever they went, from Hindus and Muslims alike, saw the Dutch very easily replace the Portuguese as the paramount maritime power in the Indian Ocean and entrench themselves in India by 1640. The ambitious Portuguese dream of Estado da India lasted only a little over a century, before it was blown away in the winds of the Indian Ocean.  


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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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