Portuguese in India

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PORTUGUESE IN INDIA The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in India by sea, thus securing a monopoly of Asia-Europe maritime trade for a century until the advent of the Dutch, English, and French in the region. Vasco da Gama's "discovery" of the sea route to India inaugurated the Age of Colonialism, which brought revolutionary changes to economic, political, and cultural spheres in most of Asia.

The Portuguese exploratory enterprise vigorously supported by Prince Henry the Navigator in the mid-fifteenth century may be seen in the context of a major event—the discovery of the sea route—that affected both trade and religion. Thus, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Italian city-states that were trading in spices, sugar, and other Eastern goods demanded astronomical prices from their European customers on the pretext that it was much harder to get such goods through the Arab- and Persian-controlled Middle East. There was much profit in bypassing the traditional route and reaching the source of these products directly by sea.

Second, concerned with the threat of Muslims advancing toward Europe, Pope Alexander VI encouraged finding a route to India, which was then, albeit erroneously, believed to be Christian thanks to the exertions of Apostle Thomas in the first century a.d. The pope hoped that with the help of "Christian" India, it would be possible to attack the Muslims in a pincer movement.

The Papal Bull of 1492 specifically authorized the Portuguese with such a mission, which brought Vasco da Gama and his four ships to Calicut in present-day Kerala on 18 May 1498. Asked by two Muslim merchants of Tunis, who happened to be in Calicut, "What the devil has brought you here? In search of what have you come from such a long distance?" a man in Vasco da Gama's party promptly replied, "We have come in search of Christians and spices." The Portuguese thought that the people of Calicut were Christians and that their temples were chapels. Vasco da Gama and his men offered prayers in a "chapel" before the image of "Mary" in what was, in fact, a Hindu temple. The mistake was not discovered until the second Portuguese visit, led by Pedro Álvars Cabral in 1500; the king of Portugal subsequently ordered conversions of as many Indians as possible to the Catholic faith. Profits from trade and the spread of Christianity remained the twin Portuguese goals, though relatively modest success crowned their prodigious efforts over the 450 years of their presence in the East.

The importance of da Gama's discovery was recognized by the Portuguese king, Manuel I, who made Vasco da Gama "admiral of the Indian Ocean" and assumed for himself, in 1499, the pompous title—reflecting more a hope than reality—"lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and of India."

Conquest, Commerce, and Christianity were closely intertwined as the intrepid Portuguese worked for God, gold, and glory for their king.

The Portuguese were very fortunate in the timing of their arrival in South India. The Bahamani kingdom in the Deccan had split into five entities, none of which had a significant navy. Historically, although India had distinguished itself in maritime trade, no Indian ruler (with the exception of Rajendra Chola in the eleventh century) had built a navy, for offense or defense, because no enemy had ever attacked India from across the seas. The rulers of Calicut, Cochin, and Cannanore, to mention only a few coastal states dependent on the substantial revenues coming from coastal and oceanic trade, were accustomed to large numbers of merchants from China, Malacca, Java, Arabia, and North Africa who came as peaceful traders and exchanged merchandise; some of them even left representatives behind to look after their trading interests, which included warehouses.

Initially, the samuri (zamorin in Portuguese parlance) of Calicut was friendly and hospitable to the Portuguese. His attitude changed with pressures from both the anti-Portuguese Arab merchants as well as from Vasco da Gama himself, who demanded that the samuri abandon all trade with the Muslims and, in addition, grant the Portuguese exemption from customs duties.

In the first decade of contact with the Portuguese, the horrendous atrocities of both da Gama and Afonso de Albuquerque—including burning Arab ships carrying cargo and pilgrims (men, women, and children enroute to Mecca for hajj, or religious pilgrimage), wanton bombardment of port cities in Malabar and the Persian Gulf, chopping off the noses and ears of unarmed fishermen, forcing conversion of the widows and daughters of the defeated to Catholicism, and converting temples and mosques into churches—affected the attitude of the Hindu rulers of these coastal kingdoms. They approached the sultan of Gujarat, who in turn sought the help of Egypt and Ottoman Turkey to launch a combined naval attack on the Portuguese at Chaul in 1507 and 1508. To avenge the defeat, the Portuguese viceroy, Francisco d'Almeida, mobilized a large fleet and wrested a spectacular victory in 1509, defeating the combined Muslim fleets at Diu, a strategic location at the entrance to the Gulf of Cambay.

The Portuguese were not the best ambassadors of Christianity or of European culture. Their lack of personal hygiene, going unbathed for months, and their wild behavior under the influence of alcohol at all times of the day left an unsavory impression of Europeans among many Indians. And if the religion they professed was given by the "Prince of Peace," there was no hint of it in the Portuguese propensity to violence even against unarmed people, including women and children. Far from being the harbingers of a respectable civilization, the Portuguese left impressions of unmitigated and wanton barbarism, no different from the uncivilized marauders who had destroyed civilizations in the past. Indeed, the Portuguese were, by and large, still medieval in their thinking, their religious fanaticism being typical of new converts from Islam to Catholicism. European renaissance had not yet touched Portugal to any significant degree.

The vision and foundation of the Portuguese thalassocracy in the East are appropriately attributed to Afonso de Albuquerque. With a view to secure and enforce a monopoly in the Asia-Europe trade, Albuquerque envisioned an empire of ports and forts at key points on the trade routes between South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. His conquest of Goa in 1510 (making it the headquarters of the Portuguese possessions in the East), Malacca (the major mart for spice trade in Southeast Asia) in 1511, and Ormuz (the key port in the Persian Gulf) in 1515 provided the beginnings of an empire that would, by the middle of the sixteenth century, extend from Sofala in Southeast Africa to numerous islands and ports in the Indonesian Archipelago and Macau off the China coast.

In India, the Portuguese held almost complete maritime supremacy over the west coast and some limited control over the east coast and the Bay of Bengal. It was based on three cornerstones of policy: First, the Portuguese gained control over the high seas, disallowing Arab shipping, seizing it, either confiscating the cargo (and at times the ship itself) or setting it on fire. Such piratical acts were, indeed, aimed at dissuading non-Portuguese shipping in what had been for centuries, true to its name, the Arabian Sea. Second, the Portuguese built forts, equipping them with powerful cannon, at all major ports on the west coast from Cochin to Diu for the protection of the traffic and goods there. The Portuguese centered their trade on three great factories at Malacca, Calicut, and Ormuz, which made it possible for the Portuguese to purchase and store spices and other products at low prices during the season until ships arrived to take the goods to Portugal. Third, and most important, the Portuguese controlled trade traffic in and around India by requiring all non-Portuguese seacraft to carry a cartaz (pass), issued by the Portuguese for a fee. That "simple system," as Portuguese economic historian Vitorino Magalhaes Godinho outlined it, was enforced by a fleet of two squadrons, supported in an emergency by naval units under the governor-general in Goa, and seven fortresses in other principal ports. Of the two squadrons, one was used to block the Red Sea and the other to patrol the west coast of India, stopping non-Portuguese craft.

In tune with the rise of religious bigotry in Europe and the establishment of the Jesuits and the Inquisition by the middle of the sixteenth century, and following the resolutions of the Council of Trent, the Portuguese banned the exercise of all religions other than Catholicism in their territories in Asia and Africa.

They destroyed Hindu and Buddhist temples in western India and Sri Lanka, burned their sacred books, and banned the public observance of non-Catholic religious rites associated with birth, marriage, and death. In the void thus created, large-scale conversions were carried out by the official use of force and direct threats to life and property. In the eyes of the Jesuits, "God's purpose" in assisting the Portuguese in their seaborne trade with India was to increase "the harvest of souls." The Portuguese monarchs were active partners in this religious enterprise by dint of their padroado real, or crown patronage, of the church.

The period following the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 and of the Dutch in 1595, followed by the English and the French, is aptly called "the Portuguese century" in Asia. Portuguese fortunes in the East first suffered when the crowns of Portugal and Spain were combined from 1580 to 1640. Their enterprise was, in any case, too overextended for a nation with a meager population of less than a million. In contrast to the Portuguese enterprise, the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company focused on trade and profit and stayed away from the propagation of religion.

Their success in India and Indonesia was at the cost of the Portuguese, whose once extensive empire shrank by the end of the seventeenth century to a few far-flung, poorly administered, hardly profitable territorial niches. By that time, they had lost their monopoly of the Asia-Europe maritime trade and the supremacy of the sea to their English, French, and Dutch competitors. After the loss of the relatively valuable Bassein in North Konkan to the Marathas in 1739, the Portuguese in India were limited to Goa, Daman, and Diu.

The Portuguese possession in India, miniscule in comparison to the vast British Indian empire, remained with them because of their special relationship with Britain as its "oldest ally." Although Portugal professed to being neutral in the two world wars, it tilted toward Britain and was, therefore, able to keep its Estado da India (State of India).

Goa, Daman, and Diu survived economically because of the educational and economic opportunities in British India, notably Bombay, where one-fifth of the Goans lived and sent remittances to their families back home. Coincidentally, a year before India attained independence from the British, manganese and iron ore were discovered in Goa, which made the territory not only economically viable but earned valuable foreign exchange for Portugal. The leaders of the freedom movement in India, who had expected the Portuguese and the French to relinquish their possessions when the British would quit the subcontinent, were shocked when the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar passed legislation altering the status of all Portuguese possessions into "overseas provinces," entitled to protection from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Portugal was a valuable member thanks to the valuable NATO military base of Portuguese Azores in the Atlantic.

Under orders from Salazar, the Goa government shot down the peaceful, unarmed Goan and non-Goan Indian satyagrahis attempting to cross the border into Goa to demand independence for the territory. Unlike the French, who negotiated the transfer of their possession to the Indian government, the Portuguese refused to talk. On 19 December 1961, Goa was rid of the 450-year Portuguese rule after a thirty-six-hour Indian military operation. Ironically, the Indian takeover began with the aerial disablement of the only Portuguese frigate in Goa, the SS Albuquerque, named for the conqueror of Goa, founder of the Portuguese Estado da India.

D. R. SarDesai

See alsoAlbuquerque, Afonso de ; British East India Company Raj ; Christian Impact on India, History of ; Gama, Vasco da ; Goa


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