The Coming of Portuguese in India And It’s Impact (15th-16th Century)

Vasco da Gama

With the arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1497, the Cape of Good Hope route was discovered by sailing with ‘monsoons’ in summer months and the Portuguese established their trade in Malabar and tried to dislodge the Muslim merchants from the region. With the arrival of Vasco da Gama to Calicut, the Portuguese dominance of the Indian Ocean commenced. It was only with the capture of Goa in 1503 by Alfonso de Albuqurque from Bijapur that the foundation of the future Portuguese maritime empire in the Indies was laid; and with the conquest of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf in 1515, the Portuguese plan was completed. This maritime empire came to be known as ‘Estado da India’. It had a number of consequences. The traditional pattern of East-West trade was suddenly disrupted as a result of (a) the Portuguese policy of regulating the trade passing through the Red Sea; and (b) the policy of regulating the trade passing through the Persian Gulf.

Now it was for the first time that the Indian merchants were experiencing the policy of monopoly. Under the Portuguese developed the cartaze system – every Indian ship sailing from a place not reserved by the Portuguese for their own trade had to buy a pass from the Viceroy of Goa for the safe passage.
The discovery of the Cape of Good Hope and the coming of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean also resulted in the diversion of the bulk of trade with China, Japan etc through the sea route, which till 1498 was carried partly through sea and partly land route. The land route originated in North China at Nanking and Shanghai and entered West Asia at Samarqand, and was known as the ‘Silk Route’. From Samarqand it headed to Khurasan; passed on to Heart and then to Tabriz. From here it was divided into two routes: one would go to the Black Sea Coast and the other entered Anatolia and then passing through it entered Constantinople. Tabriz was also connected to Alleppo on the Mediterranean Coast.

The sea route of the East-West trade from India was through Calicut and the Gulf of Cambay towards to Persian Gulf and to Hormuz. At Hormuz this route would branch off: (a) some goods would go on land and join the Silk route at Tabriz; and (b) a part of the route continued to Basra by sea and then by land to Alleppo and the Mediterranean Coast. Some times from Basra it would enter Anatolia and ultimately terminate at Constantinople.
Yet another channel was from South West Asia via India towards Red Sea and pass through the river Nile. From Alexandria it was taken over by the Venetian merchants.

All these regions were controlled by the West Asian and Indian communities; and the Arab merchants controlled the Persian Gulf. Another community in this region was that of the Ottoman Turks, known as Rumis. Persian merchants controlled Hormuz. But the trade beyond Alexandria, Alleppo and Constantinople was controlled by western powers like the Venetian Republic.

When the Portuguese arrived in the Indian waters, one of their set aims was to bring an end to the monopoly of the Venetian merchants on the Eastern Trade – particularly on trade in spices. Soon on arrival ar Calicut, they took steps to deploy war-ships in the Arabian Sea to check the flow of trade in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Naturally in doing so they came in conflict with the Arab merchants who were dominating the trade on the eastern side and Asian waters. Thus the Portuguese Blockade of the Red Sea and the Portuguese policy of regulating the trade through the trade through Persian Gulf hit mainly the interests of two groups in the immediate context: Arab merchants controlling trade in eastern waters and the Venetians who carried this trade to the west from West Asia.

The Portuguese and the Venetian records indicate that for the first seven years, the flow of trade around Red Sea had dried up and stopped as a result of this blockade. On the other hand, the trade coming to Alleppo, although affected for some time, started increasing. This was partly due to the deliberate policy of the Portuguese to allow some of this trade to continue and partly also as a result of the fact that this trade was carried on by the Indian, as well as the Turkish merchants, in small ships which cruised along the coast, easily evading the Portuguese Blockade, and reaching Basra in a substantive quantum. By 1550 even the trade through the Red Sea was restored and the Portuguese attempts to thwart it failed.

The disruption of trade by the Portuguese had effect on the economic and military positions in the regions through which the traditional route passed through. One power that must have been effected directly was the Mamluk Empire of Egypt with its capital at Cairo. It was an oligarchy of Turkish slaves established after the decline of the Fatimids. They controlled the whole of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and the present day Jordan; as well as the Arabian Peninsula. This Mamluk Empire was hit as a result of (a) the displacement of Arab traders from the dominant position in the Eastern Trade; and (b) due to the loss of revenues that used to come through different kinds of levies and customs imposed on trade passing through Alexandria. Thus, Mamliks were one power most anxious to expel the Portuguese from the eastern waters. For this end they prepared to entr into military alliances with all other Asian powers.

The other important power which was affected was the Ottoman Empire with its seat of power at this time at Anatolia – Constantinople had by then been conquered. Part of the South Eastern tip of the Balkan Peninsula constituted the territory of Ottomans who were trying to extend their territory into Balkans, over-run Greece; and towards east, expand along the coast of the Black Sea. The loss of the Silk Route was a loss to the Ottomans. Their long-ranged interests were threatened. Thus they too were anxious to overthrow the Portuguese.
In 1507 and 1510-11 efforts were made by the Mamluks, the Gujarati Kingdom and other Indian powers. The Ottoman rulers went out of their way to furnish material help to them against the Portuguese which was channelized through the Mamluk Empire.

Safavids appeared on the scene in 1503 with Shah Ismail Safavi establishing himself at Tabriz as the ruler and Imam of the entire Islamic world. By 1505-06 his rule was established over the whole of Persia, including Seestan. Soon they got involved in a deadly conflict with the neighbouring Sunni powers – especially with Shaibani Khan Uzbek over Khurasan. A conflict also arose with the Ottomans.

Shah Ismail actually inherited all the problems of the early Persian rulers. One serious problem was related with their route connecting Persian with Europe. It was a result of trade through it that Persia could take the precious metals, which it lacked; it entirely depended upon imports from Europe. Before the coming of the Portuguese, the Ottomans and the Mamluks were the powers which could block the route. Thus the Safavids came to regard the Portuguese as long term allies against the Mamluks and the Ottomans. This relationship was cordial and helped the Safavids in their attempts towards consolidation of their empire.
Lastly, some of the powers on the western coast of India were also affected by the entry of the Portuguese and made attempts and moves for their eviction. One of these was the Kingdom of Gujarat, which depended for its prosperity and strength to a very great degree, on the ports located in the Gulf of Cambay. Bharuch and Khambayat were the two important ports, while Surat was quite minor at this point of time. The blockade considerably reduced the quantum of goods coming into Gujarat – though to an extent coastal trade in small vessels remained. This led to a weakening of the Kingdom of Gujarat for a brief period (to be revived under the leadership of Bahadurshah). Thus the statement of Pearson that for the Sultans of Gujarat the major source of income was through land revenue does not appear to be entirely correct.

Ahmadnagar under the Nizamshahi ruler on the Western Coast at Chaul near Bombay, Bijapur which had its ports at Dabul and Goa; the state of Calicut, whose raja allied with the merchants of Yemen and depended on trade in the Red Sea, were all affected. Calicut was in fact the most affected party due to the blockade. As a result, an alliance came about in 1506 between the Mamlukd, Gujarat, Calicut, Ahmadnagar and Bijapur. In April 1507, under the command of the Mamluk admiral Mir Husain of Jeddah, they attacked the Portuguese. The Gujarati forces were commanded by Malik Ayaz, the Ottoman general. This attack took place near Chaul, and resulted in the defeat of the Portuguese army and a very decisive and convincing victory by the Eastern allies, in spite of the fire-power superiority and superior vessels fitted with sails as against galleys used by the allies.

But soon after the victory, the tide turned in favour of the Portuguese. The Portuguese once again clashed with the allies in 1509, when they tried to enter the Gulf of Cambay against the joint forces of Gujaratis, Mamluks and Calicut. Under their commandant, al-Meida, the Portuguese succeeded. After this victory, their policy was to establish control on a number of strategic points all over the eastern waters, so that they may be able to effectively check and regulate the east-west trade on the high-seas with minimum efforts. The strategy was worked out by Albuqurque in 1510. Those places were chosen from where the Portuguese could guard one stretch of water to another. Thus Sakotra, which regulated entry into the Red Sea was stormed and captured in 1507. Goa was captured in 1510. The nest year, the Malaccan states, which controlled the entire sea traffic of China and Japan and the entire east-west trade, were captured. Hormuz, situated on the mouth of the Persian Gulf was attacked in 1509 and occupied in 1510. The only point that remained was Dieu.

The adverse effect on the different kingdoms on the western coast by the stoppage of trade, including the import of Arabian horses, led to their subservience to the Northern states, which got their horses from Kabul and Qandahar – the areas free from the Portuguese.

By early 16th C the Portuguese had come to settle and control the trade from the Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat. However, unlike the English East India Company or the French East India Company, who came later to India, the Portuguese were not a ‘company’ – they basically derived income from taxing the ships through their cartaze system.

It is also interesting to note that the Portuguese merchants, unlike the other foreign companies, carried out a parallel personal trade. In fact they derived ‘Tribute’ at the cost of trade and thus did not enlarge but restrict the trade from the Gujarati ports: Most of their gains came through indulgence in illegal trade of the private merchants. According to M.N.Pearson, thus, the Portuguese practices did not impact the Gujarat economy in any sizeable fashion.

Another important development and impact was that the Portuguese introduced on the western coast a new kind of artillery not known to India before. It is not wholly correct to think that fire-arms were not known in India at this time: we have evidence that almost all Indian states possessed very primitive guns atleast from the middle of the 15th C onwards. The term ‘kaman-i r’ad’ is used for a canon in use in the 15th C which is depicted in one of the paintings that is included in a manuscript of episodes from Mahabharat prepared during the reign of Sikandar Lodi. From this illustration we can see that it was a small artillery piece made of wrought iron with a very crude finish. But with the coming of the Portuguese we come across a different kind of artillaery piece not known before – the field gun – generally referred in the sources as zarb w zan, made or cast in bronze. They are referred to in the western coastal states. Some of these weapons were brought to Gujarat from the Mamluk Empire particularly, which were specially manufactured in Egypt to be used against the Portuguese. David Ayalon in his article “Fire-arms in Mamluk Kngdom”, quotes contemporary sources as testifying that different kinds of artillery pieces were being produced at this time with the help of material supplied by the Ottomans and sent to Gujarat to be used against the Portuguese. Some of these new fire-arms came through the Portuguese themselves.
A Venetian traveller who came to India in 1506, Varthema, testifies that when he visited Calicut, he saw a number of Portuguese prisoners of war busy manufacturing different kinds of guns for the raja of Calicut. They were also made to instruct local gun-smiths in the art of casting bronze artillery pieces not known to India till this time.

In addition to this, another new fire-arm which was used and introduced was “arquebus”: a hand gun. There is no indication to suggest that in its army the soldiers were equipped not only with bows and arrows, but with arquebus. It was a small piece carried by individuals, who would sit on the back of an elephant and shoot.

However one should be cautioned that although Sher Shah got his artillery from the Portuguese, it came from the Portuguese at Hughly (Bengal), and not from Gujarat.

The introduction of these gave an edge of advantage to the Gujarat rulers in the long run over their adversaries. The Kingdom of Gujarat from the very beginning was having economic and military potential which was itself a very important factor creating an urge in this stte to adopt, if not an expansionist, then a forward policy, with regard to the neighbouring powers. This is borne out by the Gujarat’s relations with Malwa, Ahmadnagar and Mewar.

The Khalji Kingdom of Malwa during the 15th C was invaded by Gujarat on five occasions: first by Muzaffar Shah I in 1407; then by Ahmad Shah in 1438; thrice by Muzaffar Shah II between 1507-11. the frequency of Gujarati invasions increased with the passage of time. This can be explained (a) in terms of military machinery; and (b) on the basis of the economic resources which were a result of trade from the Gulf of Cambay. The percentage of the Gujarati urban population was very high due to the commercial activity as compared to other regions. Foodgrains were brought from the Narbada region, i.e., Malwa. Thus there was an urge in the Gujaratis to secure the Narbada Valley for themselves to ensure a steady supply of food grains. This would also ensure a connection with the Gangetic region.

After the arrival of the Portuguese, a new economic factor was added. This was the enhanced significance of the trade route connecting Gujarat with the Gangetic plains which passed through Rajputana; it originated at Agra, turned towards southeast via Bayana, Ajmer and then passed through the territory of Mewar and Marwar, then turned towards Gujarat near Patan, went on tho Ahmadabad and Kateher and then to Surat. This route was not new, but till the arrival of the Portuguese, the other route connecting the Gangetic plain with Gujarat was through Gwalior, Ujjain and Burhanpur. This was at that time more important, as it was easier to traverse except during the rainy season. It was also shorter. But after the arrival of the Portuguese, the schedule of Portuguese ships leaving for Europe was such that the merchants wanting to catch them had no option but to leave Agra during the rainy season. These ships started from Goa latest by the end of October. Thus if he had to catch the ship, the merchant had no option but to leave Agra sometime in August, otherwise they would be delayed by another year, as the monsoons started in June and they had a schedule in rounding the Cape of Good Hope before Monsoons, otherwise it would be impossible for them to proceed. It took 3-4 or even 5 months to reach the Cope of Good Hope. Thus now the merchants, starting in august from Agra had no option but to use the longer route through Rajputana which was traversable even during the rainy season as there were only a few water-channels to be crossed and as the nature of the soil was such that it would become muddy.
Thus with the coming of the Portuguese the significance of the route through Rajputana, Marwar and Mewar was heightened. Thus the interest of the state of Gujarat in this area also steadily increased during this period. This would explain why under Bahadurshah there was a concerted move to extend precisely over this region.

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi