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The Portuguese in India

The Portuguese in India

Portuguese State

The general tendency is to underestimate the Portuguese hold in India. However, the Estado Portuguese da India (State of the Portuguese India) was in fact a larger element in Indian history than it is given credit for. Many of the coastal parts of India had come under Portuguese power within fifty years of Vasco da Gama’s arrival. The Portuguese had occupied some sixty miles of coast around Goa. On the west coast
from Mumbai to Daman and Diu to the approaches to Gujarat, they controlled a narrow tract with four important ports and hundreds of towns and villages. In the south, they had under them a chain of seaport fortresses and trading-posts like Mangalore, Cannanore, Cochin, and Calicut. And though their power in Malabar was not consolidated, it was enough to ensure influence or control over the local rulers who held the spice growing land. The Portuguese established further military posts and settlements on the east coast at San Thome (in Chennai) and Nagapatnam (in Andhra). Towards the end of the sixteenth century, a wealthy settlement had grown at Hooghly in West Bengal.

Envoys and ambassadors were exchanged between Go and many of the major kingdoms in India of the time. Treaties were signed between Goa and the Deccan sultans in 1570 which were regularly renewed as long as their kingdoms lasted. The Portuguese always had a role to play in the successive battles for the balance of power between Vijayanagar and the Deccan sultans, between the Deccan’s and the Mughals, and between the Mughals and the Marathas.

Interestingly, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to come to India, were also the last to leave this land. It was 1961 before the Government of India recaptured Goa, Daman and Diu from them.

Portuguese Administration in India

The head of the administration was the viceroy who served for three years, with his secretary and, in later years, a
council. Next in importance came the Vedor da Fazenda, responsible for revenues and the cargoes and dispatch of fleets. The fortresses, from Africa to China, were under captains, assisted by ‘factors’, whose power was increased by the difficulties of communication and was too often used for personal ends.

Religious Policy of the Portuguese

The Moors were the bitter enemies of the Portuguese in North Africa. So were the Arabs. Arriving in the East, the Portuguese brought with them the same zeal to promote Christianity and the wish to persecute all Muslims. Intolerant towards the Muslims, the Portuguese were initially quite tolerant towards the Hindus. However, over time, after the introduction of the Inquisition in Goa, there was a change and Hindus were also persecuted.

But, in spite of this intolerant behavior, the Jesuits made a good impression at the court of Akbar, mainly due to the Mughal emperor’s interest in questions of theology.

In September 1579, Akbar forwarded a letter to the authorities at Goa requesting them to send two learned priests. The Church authorities in Goa eagerly accepted the invitation, seeing in it a chance to convert the emperor to Christianity, and with him his court and the people. Jesuit
fathers, Rodolfo Aquaviva and Antonio Monserrate were selected for the purpose. When they reached Fatehpur Sikri on February 28, 1580, they were received with honour.

Aquaviva and Monserrate went back in 1583, belying the hopes the Portuguese entertained of Akbar’s conversion to the Christian faith. The second mission called by Akbar in 1590 also ended on a similar note in 1592. The third mission, again invited by Akbar, arrived in 1595 at Lahore (where the court was then residing) and continued as a sort of permanent institution, thereby extending its influence on secular politics. Fathers Jerome Xavier and Emanuel Pinheiro were the leaders of the mission, and their letters from the court became very widely known for the information they provided on the later part of Akbar’s reign.

Prince Salim, on ascending the throne as Jahangir, assuaged the Muslims by neglecting the Jesuit fathers. Gradually, however, his temporary estrangement from the Jesuits ended, and in 1606 he renewed his favours to them. The elegant and spacious church at Lahore was allowed
to be retained by them along with the collegium or the priests’ residence. In 1608, twenty baptisms were carried out in Agra, the priests publicly acting with as much liberty as in Portugal.

Jahangir’s conduct was such that the Jesuit priests became hopeful of bringing him within the Christian fold. However, these hopes were belied. Moreover, arrogant actions on the part of the Portuguese viceroys created a rift with the Mughal emperor.

Portuguese Lose Favour with the Mughals

In 1608, Captain William Hawkins with his ship Hector reached Surat. He brought with him a letter from James I, King of England, to the Mughal court of Jahangir requesting permission to do business in India. Father Pinheiro and the Portuguese authorities did their best to prevent Hawkins from reaching the Mughal court, but did not succeed. Jahangir accepted the gifts Hawkins brought for him and gave Hawkins a very favourable reception in 1609. As Hawkins knew the Turki language well, he conversed with the emperor in that language without the aid of an interpreter. Pleased with

Hawkins, Jahangir appointed him as a mansabdar of 400 at a salary of Rs 30,000 (apparently, he never received it). Hawkins was also married to the daughter of an Armenian Christian named Mubarak Shah (Mubarikesha).

The grant of trading facilities to the English offended the Portuguese. However, after negotiations, a truce was established between the Portuguese and the Mughal emperor. The Portuguese stopped the English ships from entering the port of Surat. A baffled Hawkins left the Mughal court in 1611, unable to counter the Portuguese intrigues or check the vacillating Mughal policies. However, in November 1612,
the English ship Dragon under Captain Best along with a little ship, the Osiander, successfully fought a Portuguese fleet. Jahangir, who had no navy worth its name, learnt of the English success and was greatly impressed.

The Portuguese acts of piracy also resulted in conflict with the imperial Mughal government. In 1613, the Portuguese offended Jahangir by capturing Mughal ships, imprisoning many Muslims, and plundering the cargoes. An enraged Jahangir ordered Muqarrab Khan, who was then in charge of Surat, to obtain compensation. However, it was during the reign of Shah Jahan, that the advantages which the Portuguese
enjoyed in the Mughal court were lost forever. Also lost were the hopes of converting the royal family and Mughal India to Christianity, a hope that the Portuguese held because of the welcome accorded to them and their religion by Akbar and Jahangir.

Capture of Hooghly

On the basis of an imperial farman circa 1579, the Portuguese had settled down on a river bank which was a short distance from Satgaon in Bengal to carry on their trading activities. Over the years, they strengthened their position by constructing big buildings which led to the migration of the trade from Satgaon to the new port known as Hooghly. They monopolised the manufacture of salt, built a custom house of their own and started enforcing strictly the levy of duty on tobacco, which had become an important article of trade since its introduction at the beginning of the 17th century.

The Portuguese not only made money as traders but also started a cruel slave trade by purchasing or seizing Hindu and Muslim children, whom they brought up as Christians. In the course of their nefarious activities, they seized two slave girls of Mumtaz Mahal. On June 24, 1632, the Mughal siege of Hooghly began, ending in its capture three months later. Shah Jahan ordered the Bengal governor Qasim Khan to take action against the Portuguese. The siege of Hooghly finally led to the Portuguese fleeing. The Mughals suffered a loss of 1,000 men, but also took 400 prisoners to Agra. The prisoners were offered the option to convert to Islam or become slaves. The persecution of Christians continued for some time after which it died down gradually.

Decline of the Portuguese

By the 18th century, the Portuguese in India lost their commercial influence, though some of them still carried on trade in their individual capacity and many took to piracy and robbery. In fact, Hooghly was used by some Portuguese as a base for piracy in the Bay of Bengal. The decline of the Portuguese was brought about by several factors. The local advantages gained by the Portuguese in India were reduced with the emergence of powerful dynasties in Egypt, Persia and North India and the rise of the turbulent Marathas as their immediate neighbours. (The Marathas captured Salsette and Bassein in 1739 from the Portuguese.)

The religious policies of the Portuguese, such as the activities of the Jesuits, gave rise to political fears. Their antagonism for the Muslims apart, the Portuguese policy of conversion to Christianity made Hindus also resentful.

Their dishonest trade practices also evoked a strong reaction. The Portuguese earned notoriety as sea pirates. Their arrogance and violence brought them the animosity of the rulers of small states and the imperial Mughals as well.

The discovery of Brazil diverted colonising activities of Portugal to the West. The union of the two kingdoms of Spain and Portugal in 1580-81, dragging the smaller kingdom into Spain’s wars

The Portuguese entered India with the sword in one hand and the crucifix in the other; finding much gold, they laid aside the crucifix to fill their pockets, and not being able to hold them up with one hand, they were grown so heavy, they dropped the sword, too; being found in this posture by those who came after, they were easily overcome.
—Alfonso de Souza, the Portuguese Governor in India (1542-45)

with England and Holland, badly affected Portuguese monopoly of trade in India.

The earlier monopoly of knowledge of the sea route to India held by the Portuguese could not remain a secret forever; soon enough the Dutch and the English, who were learning the skills of ocean navigation, also learnt of it. As new trading communities from Europe arrived in India, there began a fierce rivalry among them. In this struggle, the Portuguese had to give way to the more powerful and enterprising competitors. The Dutch and the English had greater resources and more compulsions to expand overseas, and they overcame the Portuguese resistance. One by one,

Portuguese Rise and Fall

the Portuguese possessions fell to its opponents. Goa which remained with the Portuguese had lost its importance as a port after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire and soon it did not matter in whose possession it was. The spice trade came under the control of the Dutch, and Goa was superseded by Brazil as the economic center of the overseas empire of Portugal. In 1683, after two naval assaults, the Marathas invaded Goa.

Significance of the Portuguese

Most historians have observed that the coming of the Portuguese not only initiated what might be called the European era, it marked the emergence of naval power. The Cholas, among others, had been a naval power, but it was now for the first time a foreign power had come to India by way of the sea. The Portuguese ships carried cannon, and this was the first step in gaining monopoly over trade—with the threat or actual use of force. The Portuguese declared their intention to abide by no rules except their own, and they were intent on getting a decisive advantage over the Indians and over the Indian Ocean trading system.

In the Malabar of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese showed military innovation in their use of body armour, matchlock men, and guns landed from the ships. The Portuguese may have contributed by example to the Mughal use of field guns, and the ‘artillery of the stirrup’. However, an important military contribution made by the Portuguese onshore was the system of drilling groups of infantry, on the Spanish
model, introduced in the 1630s as a counter to Dutch pressure. The practice was adopted first by the French and English, and later taken up by the Marathas and Sikhs, and such armies of sepoys became new tools of empire in India.

The Portuguese were masters of improved techniques at sea. Their multi-decked ships were heavily constructed, designed as they were to ride out Atlantic gales rather than run before the regular monsoons; this permitted them to carry a heavier armament. Their use of castled prow and stern was a noteworthy method by which to repel or launch boarding parties. Indian builders adapted both to their own use.
However, the Portuguese skill at organisation—as in the creation of royal arsenals and dockyards and the maintenance of a regular system of pilots and mapping and pitting state forces against private merchant shipping—was even more noteworthy. The Mughals and Marathas may certainly have learnt from the Portuguese but the more certain heirs of this knowledge were other Europeans, especially the Dutch and
English, in Asia.

In India, the memory of religious persecution and cruelty detracts from the other contributions made by the Portuguese in the cultural field. However, it cannot be forgotten that the missionaries and the Church were also teachers and patrons in India of the arts of the painter, carver, and sculptor. As in music, they were the interpreters, not just of Portuguese, but of European art to India.

The art of the silversmith and goldsmith flourished at Goa, and the place became a centre of elaborate filigree work, fretted foliage work and metal work embedding jewels. However, though the interior of churches built under the Portuguese have plenty of woodwork and sculpture and sometimes painted ceilings, they are generally simple in their architectural plan.

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Vishal Singh

Vishal Singh

“Hi, I am Vishal Singh. I completed my Graduations in Physics in 2020 at VKSU, Arrah. Now I'm Preparing For Civil Service Exams. I'm Interested Physics as well as History, Polity, Geography, Technology & Science.

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