Portuguese explorers reached India in the 15th century, establishing a legacy of misunderstanding, suspicion, hostility—and violence.
While Christopher Columbus has gotten most of the ink for his 1492 transit of the Atlantic Ocean, which proved that a hitherto unknown (by Europeans) but populated hemisphere lay over the western horizon, Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama’s voyage, just five years later in 1497, was longer and introduced Europeans to the far wealthier cultures of south Asia. He and his crew of 150 veteran mariners first sailed around the African continent, then crossed the Indian Ocean to land on the Malabar coast of the Indian subcontinent.
They did not come in peace. With red crosses on their sails and bronze cannons on their decks, they meant to capture the rich spice trade of Asia and destroy the Islamic cultures they’d first blooded in the Mediterranean. In their armed violence, described by Roger Crowley in the following excerpt from his new book, Conquerors, they set the tone for the next 500 years of Western global expansion.
ON APRIL 24, WITH THE MONSOON WINDS turning in their favor, the crews headed out to sea “for a city called Calicut.” The turn of phrase suggests that the anonymous diarist on the expedition was hearing this name for the first time—and perhaps the whole expedition, blindly breaking into the Indian Ocean, had only the vaguest sense of their destination. With a continuous following wind, the diagonal crossing of this new sea was astonishingly quick. They were heading northeast. On April 29 they were comforted by the return of the polestar to the night sky, lost to view since the South Atlantic. On Friday, May 18, after only 23 days away from land and 2,300 miles of open water, they spied high mountains. The following day shattering rain thundered on the decks, blotting out visibility; fierce flashes of lightning split the sky. They had hit the early prelude to the monsoon. As the storm cleared, the pilot was able to recognize the coast: “He told us that they were above Calicut, and that this was the country we desired to go to.” Through the breaking rain, they surveyed India for the first time: high peaks looming through the murk. These were the Western Ghats, the long chain of mountains belting southwestern India, on the Malabar Coast; the men could see densely forested slopes, a narrow plain, surf breaking on white sand.
It must have been an emotional sight. They had watched their loved ones wading into the sea at Restelo 309 days ago. They had sailed 12,000 miles and already lost many men. This first blurred view of India stands as a significant moment in world history. Vasco da Gama had ended the isolation of Europe. The Atlantic was no longer a barrier; it had become a highway to link up the hemispheres.…Gama paid off the pilot handsomely, called the crew to prayers, and gave “thanks to God, who had safely conducted them to the long-wished-for place of his destination.”
From the shore there was immediate interest, sparked by both the novelty of the ships themselves, unlike anything sailing the Indian Ocean, and their unlikely timing. Four boats came out to see the strange visitors and pointed out Calicut some way off; the following day, the boats were back. Gama sent one of his convicts ashore with the visitors, a man called João Nunes, a converted Jew, destined to make the most famous landfall in Portuguese history.
The crowd on the beach took him for a Muslim and led him to two Tunisian merchants, who spoke some Castilian and Genoese. The encounter was one of mutual astonishment. Nunes found himself addressed in a language of his own continent: “The Devil take you! What brought you here?”
It was almost anticlimactic, a moment in which the world must have shrunk. The Portuguese had girdled the earth only to be spoken to almost in their own tongue. The commonwealth of Islamic trade, from the gates of Gibraltar to the China Sea, was far more extensive than the Portuguese could yet grasp.
“We came,” replied Nunes, with considerable presence of mind, “in search of Christians and spices.”
The two men took him to their house and fed him delicacies—wheat bread and honey—then enthusiastically accompanied him back to the ships. “Good fortune! Good fortune!” one of them broke out as soon as he had clambered aboard. “Many rubies, many emeralds! You should give many thanks to God for having brought you to a land where there are such riches!” “We were so amazed at this that we heard him speak and we could not believe it,” said the anonymous diarist, “that there could be anyone so far away from Portugal who could understand our speech.”
One of the Tunisians, a man they called Monçaide (perhaps Ibn Tayyib), would help them interpret this new world. He had a nostalgia for the Portuguese, whose ships he had seen trading on the North African coast in the reign of João II. He offered guidance to the labyrinthine manners and customs of Calicut that would prove invaluable. The city, he told them, was ruled by a king, the samudri raja, “the Lord of the Sea,” who would “gladly receive the general as ambassador from a foreign king; more especially if the objects of his voyage were to establish a trade with Calicut, and if the general had brought with him any merchandise proper for that purpose.”
CALICUT, DESPITE THE LACK OF A GOOD NATURAL HARBOR, had established itself as the premier center for the trading of spices along the Malabar Coast because of its rulers’ reputation for good governance and fair dealing with merchants. It had a sizable and deeply settled Muslim trading community. “Formerly,” wrote an earlier Chinese chronicler, “there was a king who made a sworn compact with the Muslim people: You do not eat the ox; I do not eat the pig; we will reciprocally respect the taboo. [This] has been honored right down to the present day.” It was this harmonious arrangement that the Portuguese were destined to disrupt.
The samudri presented the messengers with gifts, expressed his willingness to meet the curious arrivals, and set off with his retinue to the city. He also provided a pilot to lead their ships to a better anchorage some distance away, in a secure harbor at a settlement the Portuguese would call Pandarani. Gama agreed to move his ships, but following his contentious experiences along the African coast, he was cautious and would not proceed right into the berth that the pilot indicated. Suspicion and the tendency to misread motives would dog Portuguese actions in this new world.
On board there followed a heated debate among the captains about how to proceed….Gama, in a speech probably created for him by the chroniclers, insisted that there was now no other way. They had reached India as the king’s ambassador. He must negotiate in person even at the risk of his life. He would take a few men with him and stay for only a short while: “It is not my intention to stay long on shore, so as to give opportunity to the Muslims to plot against me, as I propose only to talk with the king and to return in three days.” The rest must remain at sea under his brother Paulo’s command; an armed boat should be sent close to the shore each day to try to maintain communication; if any harm should befall Gama, they should sail away. On the morning of Monday, May 28, a week after their arrival, Gama set out with 13 men. The party included interpreters and the anonymous writer, well placed to provide an authentic eyewitness account. “We put on our best attire,” he recorded, “placed bombards in our boats, and took with us trumpets and many flags.” Splendor was to be matched by armed defense.
They were greeted in contrasting style by the samudri’s bale—his governor. To the groggy sailors, the sight of the reception committee was alarming: a large number of men, some with big beards and long hair, their ears pierced with glinting gold, many naked to the waist and holding drawn swords. These men were Nayars, members of the Hindu warrior caste, sworn from youth to protect their king until death. The Portuguese took them for Christians, and the reception seemed friendly.
It was nearly sunset when they reached the palace. “We passed through four doors, through which we had to force our way, giving many blows to the people.” Men were wounded at the entrance. At last they came into the king’s audience chamber, “a great hall, surrounded with seats of timber raised in rows above one another like our theaters, the floor being covered by a carpet of green velvet, and the walls hung with silk of various colors.” Before them sat a man they believed to be the Christian king they had come 12,000 miles to find.
THE FIRST SIGHT OF A HINDU MONARCH was, to Portuguese eyes, remarkable:
The king was of a brown complexion, large stature, and well advanced in years. On his head he had a cap or miter adorned with precious stones and pearls, and had jewels of the same kind in his ears. He wore a jacket of fine cotton cloth, having buttons of large pearls and the button-holes wrought with gold thread. About his middle he had a piece of a white calico, which came only down to his knees; and both his fingers and toes were adorned with many gold rings set with fine stones; his arms and legs were covered with many golden bracelets.
The samudri reclined in a posture of Oriental ease on a green velvet couch, chewing betel leaves, the remnants of which he spat into a large gold spittoon.
When Gama was asked to address the assembled company, he asserted his dignity and requested to speak in private. Withdrawing into an inner room with just their interpreters, he talked up his mission: to come to the land of India, which they had been seeking for 60 years on behalf of his king, “the possessor of great wealth of every description,” to find Christian kings. He promised to bring the letters of the Portuguese king, Dom Manuel, to the samudri next day. By this time Gama had evidently assumed the samudri to be a Christian.
As was the custom, the samudri asked if Gama would like to lodge with the Christians (in fact, the Hindus) or the Muslims. Gama warily asked for his men to lodge on their own. It was about 10 o’clock at night. The rain was pouring down in the dark, churning up the street. He was carried on the palanquin under an umbrella…until they reached their lodgings, to which his bed had been delivered by sailors from the boat, along with the presents for the king.
The next morning, Gama collected the items to send to the palace: 12 pieces of striped cloth, 4 scarlet hoods, 6 hats, 4 strings of coral, 6 hand-washing basins, a case of sugar, 2 casks each of honey and oil. These were objects to impress an African chief, not a potentate used to the rich trading culture of the Indian Ocean. The bale just laughed: “The poorest merchant from Mecca, or any other part of India, gave more….If he wanted to make a present it should be in gold.” He refused to forward the paltry items to the Sovereign of the Sea. Furious backpedaling was required. Gama retorted that “he was no merchant but an ambassador….If the king of Portugal ordered him to return he would entrust him with far richer presents.”
The Muslim merchants had sensed a threat from the Christian incomers; they may have received reports of the foreigners’ aggressive tactics and bombardment of the Swahili coast. For all the credited openness of Calicut to trade, there were vested interests to protect; there is evidence that the Muslims had been instrumental in driving Chinese merchants out of the city decades earlier. They probably secured an audience with the samudri to relay the suggestion that Gama was at best a chancer, more likely a pirate. The Portuguese subsequently believed that the Muslims requested Gama’s death.
In the morning they were taken back to the palace, where they waited four hours. To Gama, now thoroughly worked up, it was a calculated snub. Finally word came that the king would see only the captain major and two others. The whole party thought “this separation portended no good.” Gama stepped through the doorway, heavily guarded by armed men, with his secretary and interpreter.
The second interview was frosty and perplexing. Unable to understand what motives these strangers could have if not to trade, the samudri’s questions followed in quick succession to the effect that if he were from a rich country, why had he not brought gifts? And where were his letters? Gama was forced to extemporize answers about how he had brought nothing because this was a voyage of discovery. It would be followed up by others, with rich gifts. He did at least have the letters at hand. The king probed the gift mystery again: “What had he come to discover: stones or men?” he demanded ironically. “If he came to discover men, as he said, why had he brought nothing?” Finally there was the issue of the merchandise: Gama might return to the ships, land, and sell it as best he could. He never saw the samudri again.
The following morning, Gama asked for boats. The bale requested the ships to be brought closer inshore to make the transfer easier in the monsoon weather. The Portuguese feared a trap, orchestrated by the Muslim faction in the city; the bale suspected that these strange visitors might try to leave without paying their customs dues.
“The captain said that if he ordered his vessels to approach, his brother would think that he was being held a prisoner, and that he gave this order on compulsion, and would hoist the sails and return to Portugal.” He demanded to return, with his complaints, to the samudri, “who was a Christian like himself.” The bale agreed but then placed a heavily armed guard on the doors, “none of us being allowed to go outside without being accompanied by several of these guards.” The bale requested that if the ships remained offshore, they should give up their rudders and sails so as not to make off. Gama refused. When he declared that they would die of hunger, the reply was that “if we died of hunger we must bear it.” There was a tense standoff.
The journal recorded a day of tightening fear, offset by an ability to live in the moment.
We passed all that day most anxiously. At night more people surrounded us than ever before, and we were no longer allowed to walk in the compound, within which we were, but confined within a small tiled court, with a multitude of people around us. We quite expected that on the following day we should be separated, or that some harm would befall us….
Next morning, the whole problem inexplicably vanished. Their captors came back, with “better faces,” as the journal writer said. They would do as the king had requested: If the Portuguese landed their goods, they might go. They explained what the bristling Gama had failed to understand: that “it was the custom of the country that every ship on its arrival should at once land the merchandise it brought, as also the crews, and that the vendors should not return on board until the whole of it had been sold.” Gama promptly sent a message to his brother to send “certain things”—not all, and the prisoners were released back to their ships. “At this we rejoiced greatly, and rendered thanks to God for having extricated us from the hands of people who had no more sense than beasts.”
The Portuguese had come to the Indian coast with their visors lowered. Hardened by decades of holy war in North Africa, their default strategies were suspicion, aggressive hostage taking, the half-drawn sword, and a simple binary choice between Christian and Muslim, which seemed genuinely not to have factored into calculation the existence of Hinduism. These impatient simplicities were ill suited to the complexities of the Indian Ocean, where Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and even Indian Christians were integrated into a polyethnic trading zone.
IN THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED, THE PORTUGUESE started to unravel the different strata of Malabar society. Informal dealing allowed them to glimpse the mechanisms and rhythms of the Indian Ocean trade and an outline of the supply networks, information they would store for future reference. Calicut itself was a major producer of ginger, pepper, and cinnamon, although better quality of the latter could be had from “an island called Ceylon, which is eight days journey to the south.” Cloves came from an “island called Malacca.” “The Mecca vessels” (from the Arabian Peninsula, 50 days’ sailing away) would carry spices to the Red Sea, and then, via a series of transshipments, successively to Cairo and up the Nile to Alexandria, where the galleys of Venice and Genoa would load up. The Portuguese noted all the checks and barriers in this trade: the inefficient transshipments, the robbery on the road to Cairo, the exorbitant taxes paid to the sultan there. It was this complex supply chain that they were keen to disrupt.
Once more relations unraveled. Gama failed to understand that all merchants were obliged to pay port taxes and that the poor goods they had left onshore provided no surety. Instead, the interpretation of this behavior was that “the Christian king” had been influenced by the Muslims for commercial purposes; that they had told the samudri “that we were thieves, and that if once we navigated to his country, no more ships would come from Mecca…nor from any other part…that he would derive no profit from this [trade with the Portuguese] as we had nothing to give, and would rather take away, and that thus his country would be ruined.” The basic strategic assumption would prove accurate, even if Portuguese fears that the Muslims had offered “rich bribes to the king to capture and kill us” might not. During all this period, Gama continued to receive advice and insights from the two Tunisian Muslims they had met on first landing, and who played a significant part in their understanding of this confusing world.
ON AUGUST 19, 25 MEN CAME OUT [to the expedition’s ships], including “six persons of quality” (high-caste Hindus). Gama saw his chance and promptly kidnapped 18 of them and demanded his man back [Diego Dias had been detained by the samudri]. On August 23, he bluffed that he was leaving for Portugal, sailed away, and waited 12 miles offshore. The next day he returned and anchored within sight of the city.
Cagey negotiations ensued. A boat called to offer to exchange Dias for the hostages. Suspicious as ever, Gama chose to believe that his man was dead and that this was just a delaying tactic “until the ships of Mecca able to capture us had arrived.” He was playing tough, threatening to fire his bombards and to decapitate the hostages unless Dias was returned. He bluffed a farther retreat down the coast.
The samudri sent for Dias and tried to untie the knot. He offered to return him for the hostages on board, and via a double interpretation process—Malayalam to Arabic, Arabic to Portuguese—he dictated a letter, addressed to King Manuel and written by Dias with an iron pen upon a palm leaf, “as is the custom of the country.” The gist read: “Vasco Gama, a gentleman of your household, came to my country, whereat I was pleased. My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and precious stones. That which I ask of you in return is gold, silver, corals and scarlet cloth.” The samudri was perhaps hedging his bets against future trade. He also permitted the erection of a stone pillar—the ominous calling card of Portuguese intentions.
Offshore, the bargaining went on. Dias was brought out and the hostages were exchanged in a rowboat.…The stone pillar was winched into the boat, and six of the hostages were released. The other six Gama “promised to surrender if on the morrow the merchandise was restored to him.” Then he summarily decided to abandon the goods and carry the hostages off to Portugal. He left with a parting shot: “Be careful, as he hoped shortly to be back in Calicut, when they would know whether we were thieves.” Gama was not one to forgive or forget. “We therefore set sail and left for Portugal, greatly rejoicing at our good fortune in having made so great a discovery,” the diarist reported with satisfaction.
The samudri was furious at the broken bargain and sent a swarm of boats in pursuit. They caught the Portuguese, becalmed farther up the coast, on August 30. “About 70 boats approached us…crowded with people wearing a kind of cuirass made of red cloth.” As they came within range, the Portuguese fired their bombards. A running fight ensued for an hour and a half, until “there arose a thunderstorm which carried us out to sea; and when they could no longer do us harm they turned back, while we pursued our route.” It was to be the first of many naval engagements in the Indian Ocean.
On September 22, they sustained a second attack from a flotilla from Calicut, but Portuguese gunnery crippled the lead ship and the others fled. The presence of these alien vessels was causing continuous interest and suspicion, and Gama was finding the coast increasingly uncomfortable.
On October 5 the ships put out to sea. They now had no pilot. No one who had knowledge of the monsoon winds would have set out to sail west at this time. They probably had little choice, given the circumstances, but whether Gama was aware that it would prove a terrible mistake is unknown.
On January 2, 1499, the battered ships sighted the African coast. It had taken just 23 days to make the voyage across; the return took 93. The lessons of the seasonal monsoon were hard won.
The voyage had been epic; they had been away a year, traveled 24,000 miles. It was a feat of endurance, courage, and great luck. The toll had been heavy. Two-thirds of the crew had died. Unaware of the rhythms of the monsoon, they had been fortunate to survive; scurvy and adverse weather could have taken all of them in the Indian Ocean, leaving ghost ships floating on an empty sea. MHQ
ROGER CROWLEY is a UK-based writer and historian. His particular interests are the Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman empires, and seafaring and eyewitness history. Excerpted from the book Conquerors, by Roger Crowley. Copyright © 2015 by Roger Crowley. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
PHOTO: “Bold in actions, severe in his orders, and very formidable in his anger,” Vasco da Gama, a minor nobleman in his 30s, had been second choice to lead the Portuguese expedition to India. Prisma/UIG/Getty Images
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Vasco da Gama’s Breakout Voyage.
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