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How Portugal Forged an Empire in Asia

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How Portugal Forged an Empire in Asia

How did a small, impoverished kingdom on the edge of Europe become a global maritime power at the beginning of the 16th century?

How Portugal Forged an Empire in Asia

Vasco da Gama’s departure to India, in 1497.

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal

In just a little over 16 years at the beginning of the 16th century, the impoverished Kingdom of Portugal, under the House of Aviz, became the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and laid the foundation for one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history. Between Vasco de Gama’s epoch-making 309-day voyage from Lisbon around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to the docking at the Indian port of Calicut on May 20, 1498, and the death of the general Afonso de Albuquerque in December 1515, Portugal established a permanent foothold in Asia from which it would not be finally dislodged until 1999 when China repossessed Macau.

The Portuguese were the first exporters of shipborne western imperialism into Asia. As a result, the kings of Portugal, a country with a population of a little over a million in the middle of the 15th century, became rich monarchs, or rather “merchant capitalists, sucking in large monopolistic profits,” from the Asian spice trade (primarily cinnamon, cloves, and pepper) in the 16th century, according to Roger Crowley’s Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire. Muslim traders had dominated that trade, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese to the Indian Ocean, with monopolistic Venice as their European intermediary. The breaking of this monopoly was one of the principal objectives of Lisbon’s expansion into Asia. Profits reaped from the trade were enormous. For example, Vasco da Gama returned from his first voyage to India with cargo worth sixty times the initial capital investment. And despite annually dispatched Portuguese India Armadas suffering losses in ships and men of up to 35 percent, it remained hugely profitable throughout the 16th century.

Besides trade, the Portuguese, steeped in Iberian crusading traditions where the last Muslim outpost (Grenada) was only conquered in 1492, also ventured into Asia to outflank the Ottoman Empire and attack it from the rear by linking up with the mythical figure of Prester John, who was thought to rule a powerful Christian kingdom somewhere in the East.  Their ultimate goal was the liberation of Jerusalem. In other words, the Portuguese fidalgos (noblemen), sailors and soldiers saw themselves first and foremost as devout crusaders in the name of Christ. At the seafaring empire’s apogee in 1572, Portugal’s nobles, because of their daring exploits against infidels and conquests in Asia, considered themselves not less equal if not superior to the heroes of antiquity, as the poet Luís de Camões, in the dedicatory prologue to his epic poem, The Lusiads, boldly manifests: “Let us hear no more…of Ulysses and Aeneas and their long journeyings, no more of Alexander and Trajan and their famous victories. My theme is the daring and renown of the Portuguese, to whom Neptune and Mars alike give homage.”

Yet, how did the Portuguese come to dominate the Indian Ocean region and its trade routes in the first years of the 16th century?

As with any historical development, there are multiple reasons for Portuguese dominance at the beginning of the Age of Discovery, but one stands out: military power, predicated upon superior Portuguese naval gunnery, shipbuilding (e.g., the caravel, a light sailing ship that could sail windward), and seamanship paired with a ruthless fighting style, centered around the fidalgos’ honor code, which was infused by a deep-seated hatred of Muslims, and an “unbending ethic of retribution and punitive revenge,” according to Crowley. As the historian J.H. Elliot notes: “The history of the Portuguese intrusion into the Indian Ocean is an epic of ruthless savagery.” In the bloody annals of the European conquest of Asia, Portuguese barbarity stands out. Indeed, it apparently was an essential component of the Portuguese’s strategy to subdue the local populations. “This use of terror will bring great things to your obedience without the need to conquer them,” Afonso de Albuquerque, chief strategic mastermind behind the Portuguese expansion into Asia and intermittently known as “the Terrible” or “the Great,” wrote to the King of Portugal in 1510 after the sacking of the Indian city of Goa. “I haven’t left a single grave stone or Islamic structure standing,” he boldly claimed. In another letter to the king, he wrote: “I tell you, sire, the one thing that’s most essential in India: if you want to be loved and feared here, you must take full revenge.”

Exemplary terror and wanton violence were therefore integral to Portuguese expansion and the securing of trading rights in Asia right from the start of the European conquest. Diplomacy came second. Examples of Portuguese wanton violence abound throughout the historic record. For example, following Vasco da Gama’s first voyage, the nobleman Pedro Alvares Cabral was dispatched with a large fleet to the Indian Ocean. When the fleet stopped at Calicut in southern India on the Malabar coast in 1500, fighting ensued that killed over fifty Portuguese. In response, Cabral seized ten Arab merchant ships anchored at the port and killed over 600 of their crews. In addition, he bombarded the entire city with his ships’ artillery killing countless others.

During his second voyage to the region in 1502, Vasco da Gama attacked a ship carrying 240 Muslim pilgrims including women and children off the coast of Malabar and despite the vessel surrendering without a fight and the rich Muslim merchants offering their wealth, da Gama refused and decided to burn the ship and everyone on it. “[W]ith great cruelty and without any pity the admiral burned the ship and all who were in it,” an eyewitness recounted. The shock upon hearing of the massacre was profound, according to chroniclers, and Hindus and Muslims in India would not forget the heinous deed for centuries. During the same voyage, da Gama bombarded Calicut as further retribution for the attack on Cabral and his men in 1500, hanged 34 Muslim captives, had their heads, hands and feet cut off and sent the decapitated body parts in a small fishing boat with a letter attached to its prow to the city. In the letter, da Gama wrote: “I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce.  And here is the produce of this country. If you want our friendship you must pay for everything that you have taken in this port under your guarantee. (…) If you do that, we will immediately be friends.”

Da Gama’s behavior was the rule and not the exception. In December 1508, Portuguese naval forces attacked the Indian port city of Dabul (now Dabhol) breaching its defenses and slaughtering its populations indiscriminately after which it was burned to the ground. The assault on Dabul was in retribution for the earlier defeat of Portuguese forces by an Egyptian Mamluk fleet in the harbor of Chaul. Francisco de Almeida, whose son died at Chaul, told his captains prior to the attack to “instill terror in the enemy that you’re going after so that they remain completely traumatized (…)”  Crowley calls the attack “a black day in the history of European conquest that would leave the Portuguese cursed on Indian soil.” Along the Indian coast, a new curse would emerge around that time among the locals: “May the wrath of the Franks [Portuguese] fall upon you.” Afonso de Albuquerque, in a letter to the kind emphasized that although, your “Highness thinks one can keep them with good words, offers of peace and protection (…) the only thing they respect is force…No alliance can be established with any king or lord without military support.”

Yet, there was method to this violent madness.

Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque were cold-blooded killers, but they were also the chief architects of the permanent Portuguese presence in Asia. They were the first and second Viceroys of India and locked in fierce competition with one another. Crucially, both men, during their respective tenures, sought to expand the network of permanent fortified trading bases, stout forts along coastlines capable of withstanding prolonged sieges, in what was to be called the Estado da Índia—the state of India or Portugal’s Empire in the East. While under Almeida’s leadership, Portugal for the first time permanently stationed a fleet in Asia. And it was Albuquerque, who attempted to secure all strategic exit points of the Indian Ocean to put the entire oceangoing trade of the region under Portuguese control, a task for which Portuguese military resources, however, proved ultimately insufficient. “The Islamic world, even if divided within itself, was too extensive and too powerful to crumble beneath the attacks of a handful of Portuguese stretched out over vast areas,” Elliott writes. Consequently, the Portuguese were never able to establish a monopoly over the spice trade. They had to share it with the Mamluks in Cairo. However, because of the Portuguese, spice consumption in Europe more than doubled in the 16th century.

Despite the failure to control all trade in the Indian Ocean region, Albuquerque did seize Goa, “the Rome of the East,” which would become the lynchpin of Portugal’s presence in the region, and Malacca, the major port at the eastern entrance to the Indian Ocean and “the center and terminus of all the rich merchandise and trades (…) source of all the spices,” according to Albuquerque, who was the first to recognize it as the nerve center of all Indian Ocean trade.

By seizing Goa and Malacca, Albuquerque permanently established the Portuguese presence in Asia and laid the foundation for further expansion into Southeast and East Asia. When he died in 1515 off the coast of Goa, Portugal was an Asian power. The important role of Albuquerque in the establishment of this overseas empire cannot be overemphasized according to Crowley, who writes that the Portuguese general consolidated a revolutionary concept of empire:

The Portuguese were always aware of how few they were; many their early contests were against vastly unequal numbers. They quickly abandoned the notion of occupying large areas of territory. Instead, they evolved as a mantra the concept of flexible sea power tied to the occupation of defendable coastal forts and a network of bases. Supremacy at sea; their technological expertise in fortress building, navigation, cartography, and gunnery; their naval mobility and ability to coordinate operations over vast maritime spaces; the tenacity and continuity of their efforts—an investment over decades in shipbuilding, knowledge acquisition, and human resources—these facilitated a new form of long-range seaborne empire, able to control trade and resources across enormous distances.

The Portuguese’s immense cruelty as such in their subjugation of the Indian Ocean region and other parts of Asia was then partly the result of their numerical inferiority and the need to avoid unnecessary fighting. They did so by a brutal psychological warfare campaign that spread throughout the region by clearly conveying what would happen to those who resist Portuguese demands. As the historian William Greenlee writes, the Portuguese “were few in numbers and those who would come to India in future fleets would always be at numerical disadvantage; so that this treachery must be punished in a manner so decisive that the Portuguese would be feared and respected in the future. It was their superior artillery which would enable them to accomplish this end.”

However, it is worth pointing out that Crowley’s observation about the Portuguese’s multiple strengths and advantages under Albuquerque, neglects to mention some of their numerous shortcomings. For one thing, Portugal’s imperial ambitions in the East were chronically underfunded (the main ambitions of the Portuguese kings remained the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.)

Furthermore, when it came to warfare, the Portuguese, especially the fidalgos, were slow to adapt to new methods of warfare. The Portuguese expansion into the Indian Ocean occurred at the time when medieval warfare, centered around the individual and hand-to-hand combat, was slowly passing and being replaced by a more modern Renaissance style of warfare, focused on massed formations (the so-called Swiss fighting tactics) and long-range fire (whether by crossbow or musket). The death of the medieval military culture, however, was slow and more than once Portuguese troops were defeated or almost met disaster because they chose to engage in close combat rather than rely on their superior fire power. Despite that clash of cultures, Portugal nevertheless prevailed.

The Portuguese triumphed in the 16th century in Asia because of their superior naval and military technology combined with seemingly boundless aggression and a propensity for cruelty and violence. Without a doubt, the Indian Ocean was not exactly a peaceful region prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. “A peaceful state never existed in South Asia,” the historian Upinder Singh notes in Political Violence in India describing three millennia of almost continuous warfare on the Indian subcontinent. If nothing else, the Portuguese just proved to be better navigators and killers throughout the 16th century than their Asian counterparts and utterly ruthless. Or as the Florentine merchant Piero Strozzi, who witnessed the Portuguese conquest of Goa, noted: “I think they [the Indians] are superior to us in infinite ways, except when it comes to fighting.”

This article originally appeared in The Diplomat Magazine in May 2018.