Vinay Lal

The arrival of Vasco da Gama, a nobleman from the household of the King of Portugal, at the port ofCalicut in south-west India on 27 May 1498 inaugurated a new, and extremely unpleasant, chapter in Indian history.  For some time, the Portuguese, among other Europeans, had been looking for a sea route to India, but they had been unable to break free of the stranglehold exercised by Egyptian rulers over the trade between Europe and Asia.  The Red Sea trade route was a state monopoly from which Islamic rulers earned tremendous revenues.  In the fifteenth century, the mantle of Christendom’s resistance to Islam had fallen upon Portugal; moreover, the Portuguese had inherited the Genoese tradition of exploration.  It is reported that the idea of finding an ocean route to Ocean had become an obsession for Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), and he was also keen to find a way to circumvent the Muslim domination of the eastern Mediterranean and all the routes that connected India to Europe.  In 1454, Henry received a bull from Pope Nicholas V, which conferred on him the right to navigate the “sea to the distant shores of the Orient”, more specifically “as far as India”, whose inhabitants were to be brought to help Christians “against the enemies of the faith”.  The pagans, wherever they might be, “not yet afflicted with the plague of Islam” were to be given the “knowledge of the name of Christ.” By the terms of the Treaty of Trodesilhas (1494), all new territories were divided between Spain andPortugal.   The stage was thus set for the Portuguese incursions into the waters surrounding India.

In 1487, the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomew Dias, rounded the “Cape of Good Hope”, and so opened the sea route to India.  An expedition of four ships headed out to India in 1497, and arrived inIndia  in slightly less than eleven months’ time.  The coming of the Portuguese introduced several new factors into Indian history.  As almost every historian has observed, it not only initiated what might be called the European era, it marked the emergence of naval power.  Doubtless, the Cholas, among others, had been a naval power, but for the first time a foreign power had come to India by way of the sea; moreover, Portuguese dominance would only extend to the coasts, since they were never able to make any significant inroads into the Indian interior.  The Portuguese ships carried cannon, but the significance of this is not commonly realized, especially by those who are merely inclined to view the Portuguese as one of a series of invaders of India, or even as specimens of ‘enterprising’ Europeans whose mission it was to energize the ‘lazy natives’.  For centuries, the numerous participants in the Indian Ocean trading system – Indians, Arabs, Africans from the east coast, Chinese, Javanese, Sumatrans, among others – had ploughed the sea routes and adhered to various tacit rules of conduct.  Though all were in the trade for profit, as might be expected, no party sought to have overwhelming dominance; certainly no one had sought to enforce their power through arms.  Trade flourished, and all the parties played their role in putting down piracy:  this was a free trade zone.  Into this  arena stepped forth the Portuguese, who at once declared their intention to abide by no rules except their own, and who sought immediate and decisive advantage over the Indians and over the Indian Ocean trading system.

In a word, the conduct of the Portuguese in India was ‘barbaric’.  Vasco da Gama’s initial conduct set the tone.  On his way to India, he encountered an unarmed vessel returning from Mecca; as a contemporary Portuguese source states, da Gama ordered the ship emptied of its goods, and then had it set on fire, prohibiting “any Moor” being taken from it alive.  He then spent four months in India. Having waited out the monsoons, he set out to return to Portugal with a cargo worth sixty times what he had brought with him, and refused to pay the customary port duties to the Zamorin, the ruler ofCalicut.  To ensure that his way would not be obstructed, he took a few hostages with him.  When he returned to Portugal in 1499, the pepper he brought with him was sold at an enormous profit; and nothing underscores the importance of direct access to the pepper trade as much as the fact that elsewhere the Europeans, who relied on Muslim middlemen, would have to spend ten times as much for the same amount of pepper.  Emboldened by this success, King Dom Manuel sent another expedition of six ships headed by Pedro Cabral.  With their usual ignorance of, and disdain for, local customs, Cabral and the Portuguese sent a low-caste Hindu as a messenger to the Zamorin upon their arrival at port.  Meanwhile, as the historian K. M. Panikkar has written, the Portuguese were claiming the sole right to the sea; in the words of Barroes, “It is true that there does exist a common right to all to navigate the seas and in Europe we acknowledge the rights which others hold against us; but this right does not extend beyond Europe; and therefore the Portuguese as Lords of the Sea are justified in confiscating the goods of all those navigate the seas without their permission” (p. 41).  Cabral attacked all Arab vessels within his reach, which provoked a riot at the port that led to the destruction of the Portuguese factory.  Cabral retaliated in the only way known to a Portuguese marauder and bandit of his times:  he massacred the crews of the boats, and burnt all the ships that were not his own. The intent, which would be repeatedly witnessed in the history of Portuguese interactions with the Indians (and with others), was to brutalize and terrorize the native population, and Panikkar remarks, with evident justice, that Cabral’s behavior persuaded the Indians that “the intruders were uncivilised barbarians, treacherous and untrustworthy” (p. 42).

Quotations are extracted from K. M. Panikkar, Malabar and the Portuguese:  Being a History of the Relations of the Portuguese with Malabar from 1500 to 1663 (Bombay:  D. B. Taraporevala, 1929).

Copyright, 2001