Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt



 In 1497 the Portuguese exploded onto the scene in the Indian Ocean. They came first as explorers and stayed as conquerors. In a whirlwind campaign, they gained control of the sea-lanes and many onshore possessions along the east African coast, in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf and the Spice Islands. The campaign was well executed. It is highlighted by naval battles against tremendous odds, sieges won against strong walls, and captured cities held by the Portuguese against large and well equipped armies. And it is a campaign that is undeservedly ignored by most historians.

One of the main participants, Afonso d'Albuquerque, was probably the first modern European to fully understand naval strategy. He emphasized controlling sea lanes through the use of fortified bases in or near key straits such as the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb.1 He reasoned that the Portuguese, being so small in number, could not hope to dominate the area through sheer military force. But, by controlling the entrances and exits to and from the area, Portugal could dominate the area economically and control the spice trade.

In these years Portugal was a country of a million and a half souls. She was to maintain her position in the East, despite opposition by native rulers and the imperial might of Spain, for almost exactly a century.2 This is the story of that most remarkable conquest.

Three main reasons caused the Portuguese to sail southward in search of a route to the East: religion, glory and wealth. The religious cause centered on the persistent myth of Prester John and his Christian Kingdom that existed somewhere in the East. The Portuguese sought to establish contact with this Kingdom and assist its inhabitants. The glory aspect, with which religion was intimately intertwined, was due, in no small part, to the shared heritage with the Spanish Kingdoms of the spirit of the Reconquista. The desire for military glory is one of the goals most ardently sought by Iberians of the Renaissance.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, there was the economic aspect. Throughout the Middle Ages goods and spices from the East- flowed through Egypt to Venice. The Venetians reaped incredible profits and the European middleman. The Portuguese (and Spanish) sought to circumvent the Venetians by discovering a sea route to the East around Africa.

The guiding spirit behind Portugal's program of exploration in the first half of the 15th century was Prince Henry the Navigator. He was a younger brother of the King of Portugal. His father, King Joao of Avis had divided power thus among his sons: Duarte was to administer the land as king, Pedro was to serve as a foreign minister between Portugal and the rest of Europe and Henry was given charge of the effort to explore the Atlantic Islands and Africa.3

Henry set about quickly to undertake his duties. His navigators quickly discovered the Madeira Islands in 1420 and the Azores between 1427 and 1432. Settlement began shortly afterwards. The islands were fertile and the Madeiras would serve as a good refurbishing stop for expeditions heading south. In 1424 he began the colonization of the Canary Islands as well. In 1456 the Cape Verde Islands were discovered.4

The discovery of these islands were, in part, a result of Prince Henry's program for the exploration of Africa. In 1434 Eannes rounded Cape Bojador, a thousand miles south of Lisbon. In 1442 Cape Branco was sighted. By 1444 Portuguese explorers had reached the mouth of the Senegal River and Cape Verde was reached. The mouth of the Gambia River was reached in 1446. In the year that Prince Henry died (1460) the mountains of Sierra Leone were sighted. By 1469 Prince Henry's navigators reached the Gold Coast.

King Joao II continued the program of exploration when he came to the throne in 1481.5 The following year he sent out Diogo Cao who reached the Congo river and then southward to Angola. By 1484, building on the efforts and successes of the past 65 years, Portugal was engaged in a profitable slave trade and a campaign to spread the word of God on the African continent.

But King Joao had higher aspirations. Much information already existed about the Malabar Coast of India and the Spice Islands, from which much of Europe's spices came. The king sought to control these lands. Prester John still remained to be found. An overland mission was sent in 1487 to the East to find out more about the spice lands and to find the Christian kingdom of Prester John.6

But credit for opening a commercially useable sea route to the Indies belongs to Bartholomeu Dias. He departed from Lisbon in August of 1487 with two caravels and a supply ship. After passing the Congo, he was pushed southwestward away from land. After thirteen days he was able to turn north again and found haven on February 3, 1488 on the southeastern coast of Africa. He had rounded the continent. On the return trip he discovered the Cape of Good Hope and was back in Lisbon by December of 1488. Dias had sailed in the Indian Ocean and open the route to India and the Spice Islands, but he was not fated to take advantage of his own discovery.7


Instead, after a confused pause of some nine years, the Crown decided to follow-up Dias's discovery of a route around Africa to the Indian Ocean and placed the nobleman Vasco da Gama in command. He was given a squadron of four ships: Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, Berrio and a fourth ship whose name is not known. The ships carried three years of supply and were well armed, each carrying about twenty guns of varying sizes and types. They also carried various cheap goods for trade with the unsophisticated natives. In all, there were between 140 and 170 men involved in the expedition.8

The squadron sailed on July 8, 1497. At first da Gama traveled the proven route to the Canary and Cape Verde Islands and southward to the African coast. But once he reached the area of Sierra Leone, perhaps guessing the nature of the currents and winds, he turned westward out into the Atlantic. He completed a wide arc and reached the coast of Africa some 125 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope. Da Gama's ships rounded the cape on November 22 and reached the Moslem ruled Sheikdom of Mozambique in late February of 1498.

Da Gama attempted to trade with the various states along the east African coast and learned the secret of the monsoons and how to take advantage of it. He discovered that the monsoons blow from Africa to India from April to September and from December to February they blow from India to Africa. His attempts at trade with Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi were largely unsuccessful, due in part to the poor quality of goods that he had brought and partly to a mutual distrust between the Christian Portuguese and the Moslem natives.

Da Gama reached Calicut on the Malabar Coast of India on May 20, 1498, almost a year after leaving Portugal. Once again difficulty ensued between the Portuguese and the native rulers and da Gama was unsuccessful in establishing a trade agreement for his home country though he had, with great difficulty, succeeded in acquiring a small amount of spices and other goods from the East. But the ruler did express an interest in trade in a letter to King Manuel.

On the return trip da Gama's ships were repeatedly attack by pirates and he was forced to abandon the San Rafael and continue on in two vessels which later became separated in a storm. The Berrio returned to Portugal on July 10, 1499 and da Gama in the San Rafael reached home on August 29. Fewer than half of the original crew were still alive.9 But they had opened the most direct route to the Spice Islands and India. It only remained for Portugal to take advantage of da Gama's beginnings.

Pedro Alvares Cabral was placed in command of the next Indies expedition. It consisted of 13 vessels and sailed on March 9, 1500--as soon as the weather permitted a follow-up on da Gama's discoveries. Cabral traveled far out into the South Atlantic, discovering Brazil on April 22, 1500. The expedition, now reduced to some six ships, reached Calicut on September 13. Cabral attempted to set up a trading post in the city but it was attacked on the night of December 16 by Moslem traders who feared Portuguese intervention in the spice trade. Many of the Portuguese were killed or wounded. In response Cabral seized and burned ten ships that were in the harbor at the time.

He then departed, sailing southward to Cochin. Here he found a government much friendlier to him and conducted a profitable trade. Each of the six ships was completely filled with and other goods. As he departed, he encountered a flotilla of some 80 warships from Calicut but wag unable to close with them due to adverse winds.

On January 15, 1501, as he sailed past the city of Cannanore, an envoy from that ruler sailed out and offered Cabral an opportunity of trade. But, since his ships were fully loaded, the Portuguese commander could not take on only a few bags of cinnamon and promise-trade with future Portuguese expeditions.10

Cabral returned to Portugal in the last week of July 1501. The expedition turned a tremendous profit, emphasizing the wealth offered by the Indies and Spice Islands. He spoke of a distant wealthy land--China.11 Cabral also brought to Portugal two Eastern Christians that he had found on the Malabar Coast. If the realm of Prester John had not been found, contact had at least been made with co-religionists in the fabled lands of the East Indies.

Even before Cabral's return another expedition had set out from Portugal under the command of Joao da Nova. Da Nova sailed with four vessels in the spring of 1501 and conducted trade with Cochin and Cannanore. His vessels sailed for home fully loaded with pepper.12 En route da Nova encountered a ship from Calicut, which he seized and looted. On board he found 3 silver navigational instruments and 1500 pearls. His squadron returned to Portugal in September of 1502.13

The voyage of da Gama marks a watershed in Portugal's method of operations in the East. Heretofore she could be considered an armed trader. After da Gama she was a conqueror. Da Gama departed Portugal in 1502 with a fleet of at least fourteen ships.14 With this force da Gama subdued the Sultan of Kilwa in east Africa, bombarded the harbor of Calicut and conducted various other acts of piracy along the Malabar coast. His goal was simple--to convince the natives that the Indian Ocean was now the private reserve of King Manuel of Portugal and that all trade and travel that took place on it were at his sufferance. Da Gama obtained a favorable trade agreement with Cochin and received permission to open trading stations there. He won Portugal's first pitch naval engagement in the Indian Ocean against a force of ships from Calicut and was home by September 1, 1503.15

III. CONQUEST (1505-1557)

In 1505 King Manuel and his council moved to a policy of open conquest in India and the Indian Ocean. In that year he appointed Francisco de Almeida as Viceroy of India with supreme power over Portuguese forces from the Cape of Good Hope to as far as Almeida could advance. The new Viceroy departed from Portugal with a fleet of twenty-two vessels and a thousand sailors and 1500 soldiers.16

Almeida and his forces ravaged east Africa, taking and sacking Kilwa, Mombasa and Mozambique. He left behind a garrison of 550 men and a government friendly to Portugal in Kilwa before he continued on to the Malabar coast. Portugal now controlled a one thousand mile stretch of the east African coast from Sofola to Mombasa.

Almeida began building a fortress on an island near the city of Goa and drew together an uneasy alliance of pirates, Hindu princes and Portuguese forces aimed at the Moslem rulers of the Malabar coast. His son, sent to raid Moslem merchant ships in the Maldive Islands, discovered the rich island of Ceylon and established friendly relations with its rulers.

King Manuel, in the meantime, had dispatched two new fleets from Portugal. One-was placed under Afonso de Albuquerque who was designated to replace Almeida once his three-year term as Viceroy expired. The other was under the command of Tristao da Cunha. Cunha discovered Madagascar and fortified the island of Socotra at the entrance of the Red Sea. Albuquerque arrived at Ormuz on September 25, 1507 and forced that city's ruler to allow him to build a castle there.

In the spring of 1508, Almeida's son and a Portuguese squadron was defeated by the combined fleet of Egypt and Gujerati at Chaul. This was Portugal's first defeat in the East and temporarily brought her campaign of conquest to a halt. The Viceroy mustered his forces (19 ships) and met the combined enemy fleet at Diu. On February 2, 1509, in an afternoon long fight, the Portuguese defeated the Turkish-Egyptian fleet and took possession of the city of Diu.17

After some difficulty, the fifty-six year old Albuquerque replaced Almeida as Viceroy in 1509. From this point the Portuguese conquest of the East increased in pace and the new Viceroy brought an understanding of naval strategy unmatched by any other man of his time. He saw that though Portugal had obtained a foothold in the area, it was a precarious position. He realized that Portugal required a permanent fleet in the area and a major base from which to operate it. The base should have facilities to refurbish and provision the fleet's ships and replace the sick and wounded crewmen. In order to control the sea-lanes into and out of the Indian Ocean, Albuquerque realized that he required fortresses that blocked the lanes and were supported by roving Squadrons.18

Albuquerque decided that Goa would best serve as Portugal's main naval base in the East and captured it in 1510. The island fortresses at Socotra and Hormuz, established earlier by Cunha and the Viceroy commanded traffic into and out of the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. But Socotra was rocky and almost waterless. Thus Aden, on the Arabian peninsula was better endowed to serve as a control point for the Red Sea. It was here that Albuquerque met his only defeat, in 1513. He abandoned Socotra as well but

maintained a semipermanent Portuguese naval presence in the Red Sea that all but controlled traffic there. Thus, the Portuguese controlled all western exits out of the Indian Ocean.

In 1511 Albuquerque decided to gain control of the eastern terminus of the Indian Ocean as well. In that year he captured the city of Malacca which controlled the sea-lanes between Malaya and Sumatra. Soon after the capture of Malacca he sent an embassy to the ruler of Siam, opening friendly relations with that mainland nation. He also dispatched three ships to the Moluccas, the most distant of the Spice Islands. In their travels, these ships were to establish good relations with the Sultan of Ternate.

Albuquerque returned to Goa, after much hardship, in time relieve the city from a siege from outside forces and to suppress an internal revolt in September of 1512. He then departed on the expedition to Aden. The first Portuguese ship called at a Chinese port in that same year--1513.19

In 1514 he sailed on his last expedition, to punish the ruler of Ormuz. He was successful in establishing a more friendly regime there and began his return trip. His health worsened and, finding that he had been replaced as Viceroy by an old enemy, died on ship within sight of Goa.

The next three Viceroys were not very active, being more concerned with lining their own pockets with the wealth of' the Spice Islands. The first, Lopo Soares, was a military incompetent and was relieved in 1518. The second, Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, was a more capable man and during his time a trading station was established at Martaba in Burma. The third Viceroy was Duarte de Meneses who all but lost control over Portugal's possessions.

During this period, Portugal witnessed intermittent war between the Sultanates of Ternate and Tidor and was successful in establishing bases in the area but were too weak to gain control of either of the two states. In 1521 the remnants of Magellan's expedition entered into the Indian Ocean, previously the undisturbed reserve of the Portuguese crown. This began a nine-year dispute between Spain and Portugal over ownership of the area.

Into this arena, the King finally sent a man of action and proven worth to serve as Viceroy--Vasco da Gama. Da Gama was given a fleet of fourteen ships and sailed from Portugal in April 1524.20 Da Gama's time as Viceroy was short but he was successful in rooting out much of the corruption that had burdened the Portuguese administration prior to his arrival.

The Portuguese continued to expand commercially and territorially in the East. In 1526 they captured Bitang and in 1528 Diu fell to them. In 1535 they became seriously involved in an attempt to conquer northern Java that would continue sporadically beyond the 1590's. In 1557 the Portuguese acquired Macao in China and in 1559 Constantine da Braganza seized Daman and securing Portugal's control of the Gulf of Cambay.21


Even before the Portuguese Empire in the East reached its peak, the seeds of its eventual downfall had been sown. The Portuguese were never a tremendous territorial power in the area. They controlled key pieces of terrain but, after they recovered from the shock of Portuguese military technology, the native kingdoms of the area began to organize and fight back. They resisted further Portuguese expansion. At the game time Spain, and later Holland, discovered just how precarious the hold the Portuguese had in the area actually was. They moved to take advantage of her weaknesses. The Portuguese, instead of completely dominating the area, became one of the many powers vying for control in the area. They had the advantage of superior military technology and control of many of the sea-lanes. But the Portuguese were too small in number and did not have enough ships and soldiers to be in all places at all times.

The Ottoman Empire had been involved early in the attempts to keep the Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean. They had donated naval forces to the fleet that defeated Almeida's sun at Chaul and that was destroyed at Diu in 1509. They returned to the area again in 1538, laying siege, unsuccessfully, to Diu in 1538. The Portuguese then became involved in a fruitless and hopeless war with the Sultan of Ternate from 1550 to 1587. In 1574 Portuguese fort at Ternate, which had been under siege for four years, fell. All of the Portuguese defenders were killed and Portuguese dominance in the area came to an end. Eventually, the Spanish would come to dominate Ternate and control the nearby Sultanate of Tidor.

In the years after the Portuguese conquest of Malacca, the neighboring Moslem states began to reorganize. The most powerful of these rulers was the Sultan of Atjeh while the displaced Sultan of Malacca moved south to found the state of Johore. Malacca was besieged by the Sultans of Atjeh in 1537, 1547, 1551 and 1558. In the last siege, the Sultan of Atjeh received artillery and other aid from the Ottoman Empire. The Portuguese did not achieve peace with Atjeh until 1587.

The Moslem rulers of India formed a loose alliance against the powerful and wealthy Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, which they destroyed in 1565. They next determined that the infidel Portuguese must be driven from India. The sultans correctly assessed Goa and the most important Portuguese possession on the subcontinent. It maintained steady and regular ties with Europe and served as Portugal's entrepot in the area. The sultans mustered their forces and began their attack upon Goa, which was to last for two years. The Portuguese viceroy, Luis de Ataide, fought a brilliant defense of the city that forced the sultans to give up the attack after two years.

In 1564 the Spanish established a colony in the Philippines from which they contested Portuguese control of the Spice Islands. From 1570 to 1580 the two powers fought for control of the sea-lanes. This war was brought to an end only after Portugal became a part of the Spanish Empire with the death, without heirs, of King Sebastian. Although the Spanish administered Portugal's overseas possessions separately from those of Spain, the interests of Portugal were clearly subservient to those of Spain.

But the beginning of the end came in 1595 when a Dutch fleet arrived in the Indian Ocean. The Dutch were adept economists and an active nation that, by 1660, had established themselves in a commanding position, having replaced the Portuguese throughout the Spice Islands, Ceylon and much of India. The Dutch came to possess, not control. The Dutch East India Company was ruthless in its pursuit of wealth, driving the Portuguese and Spanish from the area as major players and in destroying or neutralizing the native states that might jeopardize their policies.22

Thus ended a century of Portuguese dominance in the Indian Ocean. It is a marvel that the tiny country with such a small population was able to achieve so much, let alone hold on to its position for a century, not just against native rulers, but the might of the Ottoman Empire and Spain as well. It is very much a tribute to the adventurous spirit of the Portuguese people and their commitment to exploration, their resourcefulness, grasp of strategy, and acquisitiveness.


1R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York City, New York, 1976, p. 510.

2Louis B. Wright, Gold, Glory and the Gospel, Athenuem, York City, New York, 1970, p. 123.

3John Dos Passos, The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1969, p. 96.

4 Passos, ibid, p. 63, 129 and Lach, op.cit., pp 52-54.

5J.H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650, The World Publishing Company, New York City, New York, 1963, p. 131 and Lach, ibid, pp 54-55.

6Robert Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972, pp 201-204. This two man expedition came closest to discovering the fabled Prester John than any other. One of the members arrived in the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia where he was retained as an advisor to the king, not allowed to leave the country and unable to establish contact with the outside world for thirty-three years.

7Wright, op.cit., 55-59.

8Wright, ibid, pp 85-86.

9Wright, ibid, p. 96, and Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume I: The Century of Discovery, Book One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1971, pp 92-98.

10Wright, ibid, p. 108.

11Lach, op.cit., pp 100-102.

12Wright, op.cit., p. 112

13Lach, op.cit., p. 102.

14Parry, op.cit., p. 142. Passos, op.cit., p. 213 places da Gama's strength at fifteen ships. Silverberg, op.cit., p. 207 assesses da Gama's fleet at twenty-five ships. It was, no doubt, a strong force.

15Parry, ibid, pp 142-143, Passos, ibid, pp 214-218, Lach, op.cit., pp 102-103 and Silverberg, ibid, p.206.

16Passos, ibid, p. 226 and Silverberg, ibid, p. 208.

17Parry, op.cit., p. 143 and Passos, ibid, pp 231-232.

18Dupuy and Dupuy, op.cit., p. 510 and Parry, p. 143.

19Passos, op.cit., pp 236-258 and Parry, ibid, 144-145.

20Passos, ibid, pp 272-294.

21Dupuy and Dupuy, op.cit., p. 516.

22Dupuy and Dupuy, ibid, p. 516 and Parry, op.cit., pp 242-251.


Dupuy, R. Ernest and Dupuy, Trevor N., Encyclopedia of Military History, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York City, New York, 1977.

Hale, J.R., Renaissance Exploration , W.W. Norton, New York City, New York, 1968.

Lach, Donald F., Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume I: The Century of Discovery, Book One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1971.

----------------, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume I: The Century of Discovery, Book Two, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1971.

Parry, J.H., The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650, The World Publishing Company, New York City, New York, 1963.

Passos, John Dos, The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1969.

Silverberg, Robert, The Realm of Prester John, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972.

Wright, Louis B., Gold, Glory and the Gospel , Atheneum, New York City, New York, 1970.