Indian Ocean Becomes Portuguese Lake
During the mid- to late fifteenth century, the Kingdom of Portugal took the early lead in exploring the world via the oceans. They were looking for trade routes to bypass the famed Silk Road to China, as well as ways of obtaining rare spices and other products that were being monopolized by the Venetians. By 1500, Portuguese colonies or trading posts had been planted on the west African coast (Angola) and the east African coast (Mozambique). These colonies were used as stepping stones on the way to the Indian subcontinent. Fort Kochi, on the southwest coast of India, was established by the Portuguese in 1503. The Portuguese managed to establish trading agreements with several Indian rulers, with mixed results. By 1508, the Europeans had managed to get on the wrong side of a coalition of various nations, including the Calicut, the Sultan of Gujarat, the Mamlûk sultan of Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.
A Portuguese fleet of 21 vessels had been dispatched to the Indian Ocean in 1505 to add some muscle to their nation’s presence in that area. They were under the command of Portugal’s First Viceroy, Dom Francisco de Almeida, who had been appointed to represent the interests of Portugal in India. In opposition, the Ottoman sultan had provided some galleys to Egypt, in order to counter Portuguese interdiction of the Malabar timber trade from India. The Mamlûks – with some technical assistance from the Venetians – disassembled these galleys in Alexandria and reassembled them in the Red Sea below Suez. These galleys then had to navigate the Indian Ocean, a dicey situation considering that the galleys were constructed to sail on the Mediterranean Sea. Mostly hugging the coast, the Turkish- Mamlûk fleet arrived off the coast of Gujarat, one of the Muslim kingdoms on the coast of India. The Sultan of Gujarat had previously contacted the Ottomans, recommending that a sufficient naval force could help tip the balance of power and allow large portions of India to be added to the Ottoman Empire. The only major force standing in the way of that plan was the Portuguese.
In March of 1508, a smaller Portuguese fleet had been surprised and defeated by the Ottoman-Mamlûk fleet at the battle of Chaul. The Portuguese commander, Lourenço de Almeida, was killed and many Portuguese captured and imprisoned. When the First Viceroy, his father, heard of his son’s demise, he swore vengeance saying, “He who ate the chick must now eat the rooster, or pay for it.” While preparing to chase the Ottoman-Mamlûk fleet, the nobleman Afonso de Albuquerque arrived in India on December 6, 1508, with a royal commission to become the new Viceroy in India, replacing Almeida. Almeida refused to relinquish his position until he had hunted down the enemy fleet and avenged his son’s death. In sympathy with Almeida’s state of mind, Albuquerque agreed to wait until Almeida had accomplished his plans. [One chronicle states that Almeida threw Albuquerque into prison to await his pleasure.]
The Portuguese fleet, now numbering 18 vessels, left Fort Kochi in late 1508 and sailed north along the west Indian coast, seeking the Ottoman-Mamlûk fleet. They stopped at various ports along the way, either picking up provisions or attacking enemies, giving their soldiers experience. Ottoman admiral Mir Hussein Pasha, probably following standard Mediterranean tactics, anchored his fleet in the harbor of the port of Diu. This port had a fort with its own artillery, which Hussein Pasha hoped to use to support his fleet. The Ottoman-Mamlûk fleet had received reinforcements from the Sultan of Gujarat and the ruler of Calicut. However, these reinforcements were small, shallow-draft vessels little better than fishing boats. Eventually, on February 2, 1509, the Portuguese fleet discovered the enemy fleet in Diu’s harbor and prepared to attack the next day. The Turkish fleet was anchored in the inner harbor of Diu, with a treacherously narrow and shallow channel to navigate. However, the Portuguese found an 18-year odd native who was familiar with the channel and offered to help in exchange for his freedom.
The Portuguese fleet, consisted of some 18 ships, all but two armed with cannons in broadside, and teeming with 1500 well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained Portuguese soldiers and 400 Nayar warriors from the Kochi area. Their ships consisted of:
• Five large carracks, or naus. They were large vessels with high forecastles and aftcastles, and usually three, sometimes four, masts. The foremast and mainmast were square-rigged, while the mizzenmast was lateen-rigged (triangular sail);
• Four smaller naus, probably with three masts;
• Four caravelas (caravels) redondas, three-masted ships with a square foresail and lateen sails on the other two. They were probably up to 30 metres in length and with a weight of 50 tons;
• Two caravelas Latinas, two-masted, lateen-rigged precursors of the caravela redonda, probably shorter in length and a bit lighter in weight;
• Two gales, probably two-masted, lateen rigged galleys with 25-30 oars on each side, with 3 men to an oar. Like most galleys, a gale had only fore and aft guns, but could also carry 200-300 men-at-arms; and,
• One bergantim (brigantine), a smaller, two-masted vessel with a square sail on the foremast and lateen-rigged on the other. At this time period, it was probably also equipped with oars.
The Ottoman-Mamlûk fleet, besides the 100 or so smaller galleys from Gujarat and Calicut, had 16 larger vessels. They were all galleys, though they were referred to by names similar to the Portuguese vessels. As stated above, these Turkish vessels were only equipped with light cannon fore and aft. The vessels were:
• Four naus from Gujarat;
• Four Mamlûk naus;
• Two caravelas;
• Four galeotas (galliots), small galleys with two lateen-rigged sails and up to 20 oars per side; and,
• Two gales.
As mentioned above, the Portuguese vessels had a large complement of fighting men, trained for sea battle, armed with arquebuses and primitive grenades. The Turkish fleet marines, trained for fighting in the Mediterranean, wore almost no armor and were mainly archers. Also, the Portuguese ships sat higher in the water, and were almost impossible to board. Further, their cannon could bombard any enemy vessel attempting to approach them for boarding action.
The battle started at about 11 a.m., when the prevailing winds and the incoming tide were favorable. The Portuguese began a major bombardment of the artillery batteries guarding the port and the Turkish fleet. Then, when the Turkish and Gujarati vessels refused to leave the “safety” of the harbor – as Almeida anticipated – the Portuguese moved in to engage the enemy.
The superiority of the state-of-the-art European vessels became obvious as, for the next six hours, the Portuguese blasted the enemy vessels with full broadsides, grappled and boarded the enemy ships, capturing two Turkish naus, two Gujarati naus and the two Turkish gales in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. In addition, two Turkish naus, 2 Gujarati naus and two Turkish caravelas were sunk. By five o’clock, the wind began to change and Almeida ordered his fleet – which lost no ships despite one of his naus sustaining heavy damage – to leave the harbor with some of their prizes.
The next day, Viceroy Almeida demanded the return of the men captured at the battle of Chaul, which was accomplished within the hour. He further demanded reparations of 300,000 gold xerafins (about 180,000 rupes). The ruler of Diu offered to give his port to the Portuguese, but Almeida turned that offer down, as he felt it would be too expensive to rule – but he did leave a garrison in the city. The Portuguese fleet stayed in the area for several days; the ruler of Diu, grateful that the Europeans did not loot his city, almost daily sent them a boat loaded with “… sheep, hens, eggs, oranges, lemons, cabbages, etc.” as well as rich gifts. Almeida refused a gift of a brocade tapestry and a string of pearls, which he instead sent home to the Queen of Portugal. Nine days after the battle, the Portuguese fleet headed back south.
Casualties from the battle amounted to 32 Portuguese dead, and about 300 wounded. The combined enemy dead were estimated at 3000 killed and an “even larger” number of wounded. The Egyptian and Turkish prisoners were treated…well, badly. Almeida, in retaliation for his son’s death, ordered most of them to be hanged, burnt alive or torn to pieces by tying them to the mouths of cannons, then firing them. Writing about the battle afterwards, the Viceroy said, “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 the shore.” Several of the captured Turkish and Gujarati vessels were sold as prizes, with portions of the money distributed to the fleet sailors and marines.
Among the more long-standing reminders of this fight were three royal battle standards of the Mamlûk sultan of Egypt captured at this battle. They were sent home to Portugal, where to this day they hang in the Convent of the Order of Christ in the city of Tomar, formerly a stronghold of the Knights Templar.