The Portuguese in India :- Though we talk of ancient, medieval and modern periods in history, history is a continuity. It is not always easy to distinguish clearly when one period ends and another begins. So if we think of the history of modern India as beginning with the advent of the Europeans, we need to go back to what is generally considered the medieval period, i.e., the fifteenth century itself. Indeed to a time even before the Mughals came
and established their empire.
The Portuguese in India
The Quest for and Discovery of a Sea Route to India
After the decline of the Roman Empire in the seventh century, the Arabs had established their domination in Egypt and Persia. Direct contact between the Europeans and India declined and, with that, the easy accessibility to the Indian commodities like spices, calicoes, silk, and various precious stones that were greatly in demand was affected. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who were on the
ascendant. Merchandise from India went to the European markets through Arab Muslim intermediaries. The Red Sea trade route was a state monopoly from which Islamic rulers earned tremendous revenues. The land routes to India were also controlled by the Arabs. In the circumstances, the Europeans were keen to find a direct sea route to India. Fifteenth-century Europe was gripped by the spirit of the Renaissance with its call for exploration. At the same time, Europe made great advances in the art of ship-building and navigation. Hence, there was an eagerness all over Europe for adventurous sea voyages to reach the unknown corners of the East.
The economic development of many regions of Europe was also progressing rapidly with expansion of land under cultivation, the introduction of an improved plough, scientific crop management such as crop rotation, and increased supply of meat (which called for spices for cooking as well as for preservation). Prosperity also grew and with it the demand for oriental luxury goods also increased. Venice and Genoa which had earlier prospered through trade in oriental goods were too small to take on the mighty Ottoman Turks or to take up major exploration on their own. The north Europeans were ready to aid Portugal and Spain with money and men, even as the Genoese were ready to provide ships and technical knowledge. It is also to be noted that Portugal had assumed the leadership in Christendom’s resistance to Islam even as it had taken on itself the spirit of exploration that had characterised the Genoese.
Historians have observed that the idea of finding an ocean route to India had become an obsession for Prince Henry of Portugal, who was nicknamed the ‘Navigator’; also, he was keen to find a way to circumvent the Muslim domination of the eastern Mediterranean and all the routes that connected India to Europe. Pope Nicholas V gave Prince Henry a bull in 1454, conferring on him the right to navigate the “sea to the distant shores of the Orient”, more specifically “as far as India” in an attempt to fight Islamic influence and spread the Christian faith. However, Prince Henry died before his dream became a reality.
In 1497, under the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), the rulers of Portugal and Spain divided the non-Christian world between them by an imaginary line in the Atlantic, some 1,300 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Under the treaty, Portugal could claim and occupy everything to the east of the line while Spain could claim everything to the west. The situation was thus prepared for the Portuguese incursions into the waters around India. It was in 1487 that the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomew Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and sailed up the eastern coast; he was well convinced that the long sought after sea route to India had been found. But it was only ten years later that an expedition of Portuguese ships set out for India (in 1497) and arrived in India in slightly less than eleven months’ time, in May 1498.
From Trading to Ruling
Vasco Da Gama
The arrival of three ships under Vasco Da Gama, led by a Gujarati pilot named Abdul Majid, at Calicut in May 1498 profoundly affected the course of Indian history. The Hindu ruler of Calicut, the Zamorin (Samuthiri), however, had no apprehensions as to the European’s intentions. As the prosperity of his kingdom was due to Calicut’s position as an entrepot,
he accorded a friendly reception to Vasco Da Gama. The Arab traders, who had a good business on the Malabar coast were apprehensive and were not keen on the Portuguese getting a hold there.
For centuries, the trading system in the Indian Ocean had had numerous participants—Indians, Arabs, Africans from the east coast, Chinese, Javanese, among others—but these participants had acted according to some tacit rules of conduct and none had sought overwhelming dominance though all were in it for profit. The Portuguese changed that: they wanted to monopolise the hugely profitable eastern trade
by excluding competitors, especially the Arabs.
Vasco da Gama stayed in India for three months. When he returned to Portugal, he carried back with him a rich cargo and sold the merchandise in the European market at a huge profit. The importance of direct access to the pepper trade was made clear by the fact that elsewhere the Europeans, who had to buy through Muslim middlemen, would have had to spend ten times as much for the same amount of pepper. Not surprisingly, other profit-seeking merchants of European nations were tempted to come to India and trade directly.
A voyage was undertaken by Pedro Alvarez Cabral to trade for spices; he negotiated and established a factory at Calicut, where he arrived in September 1500. There was an incident of conflict when the Portuguese factory at Calicut was attacked by the locals, resulting in the death of several Portuguese. In retaliation, Cabral seized a number of Arab merchant ships anchored in the harbour, and killed hundreds of their crew besides confiscating their cargo and burning the ships. Calicut was bombarded by Cabral. Later, Cabral succeeded in making advantageous treaties with the local rulers of Cochin and Cannanore.
Vasco da Gama once again came to India in 1501. The Zamorin declined to exclude the Arab merchants in favour of the Portuguese when Vasco Da Gama combined commercial greed with ferocious hostility and wreaked vengeance on Arab shipping wherever he could. His rupture with the Zamorin
The landing of Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1498 … is generally regarded as the beginning of a new era in world history, especially in the relationship between Asia and Europe. Although Asia and Europe had been in commercial relations with each other since antiquity, the opening of the direct sea-relations between the two was not only the fulfilment of an old dream (according to the Greek historian, Herodotus, the Phoenicians had rounded Africa in the 6th century BC) it presaged big increase of trade between the two. This, however, was only one of the objectives of the Portuguese. For the Portuguese, the opening of a new sea-route to India would give a big blow to the Muslims, the Arabs and Turks, who were the traditional enemies of Christianity, and were posing a new threat to Europe by virtue of the growing military and naval power of the Turks. A direct sea-link with India would displace the virtual monopoly of the Arabs and Turks over the trade in eastern goods, especially spices. They also vaguely hoped by their exploration of Africa they would be able to link up with the kingdom of the legendary Prior John, and be in a position to attack the Muslims from two sides. Thus, the commercial and religious objectives supported and justified each other.
thus became total and complete. Vasco da Gama set up a trading factory at Cannoneer. Gradually, Calicut, Cannanore and Cochin became the important trade centers of the Portuguese.
Gradually, under the pretext of protecting the factories and their trading activities, the Portuguese got permission to fortify these centers.
Francisco De Almeida In 1505,
the King of Portugal appointed a governor in India for a three-year term and equipped the incumbent with sufficient force to protect the Portuguese interests. Francisco De Almeida, the newly appointed governor, was asked to consolidate the position of the Portuguese in India and to destroy Muslim trade by seizing Aden, Ormuz and Malacca. He was also advised to build fortresses at Anjadiva, Cochin, Cannanore and Kilwa. What Almeida, however, encountered
As long as you may be powerful at sea you will hold India as yours; and if you do not possess this power, little will avail you a fortress on shore.
—Francisco De Almeida
along with the opposition of the Zamorin, was a threat from the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt. Encouraged by the merchants of Venice whose lucrative commerce was now at risk due to the Portuguese interference, the Egyptians raised a fleet in the Red Sea to stop the advance of the Portuguese. In 1507, the Portuguese squadron was defeated in a naval battle off Diu by the combined Egyptian and Gujarat navies, and Almeida’s son was killed. Next year, Almeida avenged his defeat by totally crushing the two navies. Almeida’s vision was to make the Portuguese the master of the Indian Ocean. His policy was known as the Blue Water Policy (cartaze system).
Alfonso de Albuquerque
Albuquerque, who succeeded Almeida as the Portuguese governor in India, was the real founder of the Portuguese power in the East, a task he completed before his death. He secured for Portugal the strategic control of the Indian Ocean by establishing bases overlooking all the entrances to the sea. There were Portuguese strongholds in East Africa, off the Red Sea, at Ormuz; in Malabar; and at Malacca. The Portuguese, under Albuquerque bolstered their stranglehold by introducing a permit system for other ships and exercising control over
the major ship-building centres in the region. The non-availability of timber in the Gulf and Red Sea regions for ship-building also helped the Portuguese in their objectives. Albuquerque acquired Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur in 1510 with ease; the principal port of the Sultan of Bijapur became “the first bit of Indian territory to be under the Europeans since the time of Alexander the Great”. An interesting feature
of his rule was the abolition of sati.
Bitter persecution of Muslims was one serious drawback of Albuquerque’s policy. This could have been due to his resolve to further the interests of his countrymen by complete extinction of Muslim commercial interests in the East. During his rule, Albuquerque did his best to strengthen the fortifications of Goa and enhance its commercial importance. In order to secure a permanent Portuguese population in India he encouraged his men to take Indian wives.
– The Gazetteer of India, Vol. II
The Portuguese men who had come on the voyages and stayed back in India were, from Albuquerque’s day, encouraged to take local wives. In Goa and the Province of the North they established themselves as village landlords, often building new roads and irrigation works, introducing new crops like tobacco and cashew nut, or better plantation varieties of coconut besides planting large groves of coconut to meet
the need for coir rigging and cordage. In the cities, such as Goa and Cochin, they settled as artisans and master-craftsmen, besides being traders. Most of such Portuguese came to look upon their new settlements, rather than Portugal, as home.
Nino da Cunha
Nino da Cunha assumed office of the governor of Portuguese interests in India in November 1529 and almost one year later shifted the headquarters of the Portuguese government in India from Cochin to Goa. Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, during his conflict with the Mughal emperor Humayun, secured help from the Portuguese by ceding to them in 1534 the island of Bassein with its dependencies and revenues. He also promised them a base in Diu. However, Bahadur Shah’s relations with the Portuguese became sour when Humayun withdrew from Gujarat in 1536. Since the inhabitants of the town started fighting with the Portuguese, Bahadur Shah wanted to raise a wall of partition. Opposing this, the Portuguese started negotiations, in the course of which the ruler of Gujarat was invited to a Portuguese ship and killed
in 1537. Da Cunha also attempted to increase Portuguese influence in Bengal by settling many Portuguese nationals there with Hooghly as their headquarters.
Favourable Conditions for Portuguese
In India, excepting Gujarat, which was ruled by the powerful Mahmud Begarha (1458-1511), the northern part was much divided among many small powers. In the Deccan, the Bahmani Kingdom was breaking up into smaller kingdoms. None of the powers had a navy worth its name, nor did they think of developing their naval strength. In the Far East, the imperial decree of the Chinese emperor limited the navigational reach of the Chinese ships. As regards the Arab merchants and ship-owners who until then dominated the Indian Ocean trade, they had nothing to match the organization and unity of the Portuguese. Moreover, the Portuguese had cannons placed on their ships.