The appearance of Portuguese explorers in India in 1498 was, it’s safe to say, a world-altering event. When Vasco da Gama proved that it was possible for European ocean-going vessels to reach India by going around Africa, it meant changes not only for Europe and India, but for the powers in between, whose economies had depended to some extent on their ability to control the Europe-India trade and extract rents from its traffic. Here I’m talking about a number of Muslim empires–chief among them the Mamluks, rulers of Egypt and Syria. But I’m also talking about Christian Venice, which contested the eastern Mediterranean with the Ottomans because of the money to be made ferrying eastern luxuries across the sea from eastern Mediterranean ports to European customers.
The arrival of the Portuguese did change things for India too, let’s not minimize that. It took a while for the full effect to be felt, and by the time it was felt Britain had displaced Portugal, but the Europeans were unlike other trading powers in the Indian Ocean–China, for example, or the various Muslim/Middle Eastern powers–in that they didn’t just want to trade and leave. The Europeans, for the most part, weren’t content with setting up their merchant colonies and making money; they wanted control, power. They wanted to get involved in local politics and play factions against each other to their own ends. As I say, this took a while to really manifest–the most powerful of the Muslim Indian kingdoms, the Mughal Empire, hadn’t even been established yet by 1509–but manifest it did.
I’m getting way ahead of the story though. Like I said, the immediate reaction to the Portuguese showing up in India came from those intermediaries on the India-to-Europe trade routes, who stood to lose a considerable source of steady income if the Europeans were allowed to simply cut them out of the loop. The Portuguese were backing a small kingdom called Cochin in a feud with nearby Calicut (both were located in modern India’s Kerala state). The Gujarat Sultanate, located in northwestern India and one of those trade intermediaries, decided to throw in with Calicut as a way of hopefully getting rid of the Portuguese, and they sent to Cairo asking for help from the Mamluks. The Portuguese, meanwhile, began to directly encroach on Mamluk territory, capturing the island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea (which today is part of Yemen). The Mamluks and Venetians were already feeling the pinch as the Portuguese began bringing Indian goods back to Europe via the route around Africa, so they decided to Do Something about it (Doing Something, as you know, is always a good idea). Since the Mamluks, who specialized in mounted archery, weren’t particularly noted for their naval warfare capabilities, they also roped in the Ottomans, who provided a number of Mediterranean war galleys with experienced crews. Venetian shipbuilders disassembled the galleys for the overland trip from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, then reassembled them for the journey to the port of Diu, in Gujarat.
In all honesty, we could stop here and you’d already know how this story is going to end and why. Those Ottoman galleys were the largest and strongest ships in the Mamluk-Ottoman-Gujarati fleet. But they were built for Mediterranean-style ship-to-ship combat, with a couple of forward-facing guns and a big old ram on the front, crewed by rowers and archers. The bulk of the fleet was made up of tiny Indian dhows, which were too small for cannon altogether. The Portuguese were sailing state-of-the-art carracks and caravels, real ships of the line that were built to withstand ocean voyaging, stacked to the brim with cannon, and crewed by experienced naval fighters armed with modern gunpowder firearms and even grenades. Despite this technological imbalance, however, at the Battle of Chaul in March 1508, the Mamluk/Ottoman fleet caught a small (maybe 8 ships and no carracks) Portuguese fleet by surprise and came away victorious. It was the first time the Portuguese had been defeated in the Indian Ocean.
It so happens that the Portuguese fleet at Chaul had been commanded by the son of the Portuguese viceroy in India, Francisco de Almeida, and he (the son) had been killed in the fighting. Francisco, as you might expect, was out for blood, and as he was due to be replaced as viceroy he had to move fast if he was going to get it. He sent a letter to Malik Ayyaz, the Gujarati governor of Diu, announcing his intentions:
“I the viceroy tell you, honored Meliqueaz, captain of Diu, that I come with my knights to your city, to spear the people who shelter there, after they attacked my people in Chaul, and they killed a man who was called my son; and I come with hope in God of Heaven to take revenge on them and those who help them; and if I do not find them I will take your city in payment, and you, for the help you gave them at Chaul. I tell you this so that you will know that I go, as I am now on this island of Bombay, as the bearer of this letter will tell you.”
Almeida’s fleet included 18 ships (12 carracks and 6 caravels), compared to over 100 ships on the other side, but of those only 12 were the already-outclassed galleys and the rest were tiny dhows. The Mamluk fleet commander, Amir Husain al-Kurdi, was well aware of his fleet’s weakness, so he kept it in the harbor, hoping to rely on the harbor guns for protection. Even at that, the Portuguese still outgunned them, and when it came to hand-to-hand fighting the Portuguese were more experienced and far, far better armed. Even the experienced (in Mediterranean-style naval warfare, at least) Ottoman galley crews had never fought against vessels like the ones the Portuguese were sailing.
The Mamluk-Ottoman-Gujarati losses must have been heavy. Almeida was offered the city of Diu, but he opted for a large cash payment instead, figuring it would be too hard to defend the city once he had it (although he did build a fortress and station a garrison there). He executed most of his prisoners, still mad about the death of his son at Chaul. He was replaced as viceroy later in the year, and was killed by an African tribe during the trip back to Portugal. The most important outcome of Diu was that it confirmed that the Portuguese were in India to stay, or at least until another European power drove them out. The Ottomans, who had defeated and subjugated the Mamluks by 1517, besieged the Portuguese fortress at Diu twice (in 1538 and 1547), but they failed to dislodge the Portuguese in both attempts, and pretty much wrote the Indian Ocean off after the second failure.
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