Indian Ocean Conflict Documents

Below are a series of vignettes regarding the violent intrusion of the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean world.

Would you describe the collection of events below as a military revolution? Why or why not?

(More from the) Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama (1497-99)

These Indians are tawny men; they wear but little clothing and have long beards and long hair, which they braid. They told us that they ate no beef. Their language differs from that of the Arabs, but some of them know a little of it, as they hold much intercourse with them.

On the day on which the captain major went up to the town in the boats, these [not] Christian Indians fired off many bombards [heavy cannons] from their vessels, and when they saw him pass they raised their hands and shouted lustily Christ! Christ! [Probably "Krishna"]

That same night they asked the king's permission to give us a night fete. And when night came they fired off many bombards sent up rockets and raised loud shouts.

Source: See the full text

After the humiliating experience for Da Gama's expedition, the Portuguese returned to the Indian Ocean annually with a series of heavily armed squadrons to establish trading posts with force.

The following document describes the East African leg of the voyages of the seventh Armada, the largest yet sent by the Portuguese to the East Indies. At least 20 ships, 1000 soldiers, and 1000 sailors took part. By this time, the Portuguese had already established relationships (largely tributary) with the leaders of East African city-states in their prior voyages. Here is
a map of the actions of d'Almeida's fleet in East Africa, courtesy of wikipedia. The violent interactions with local populations continued once the armada arrived in South Asia (see below).

What kind of relationships did the Portuguese set up with East Africans? Did East African subjects have differing reactions?

What kind tactics (in a very broad sense) did the Portuguese use to establish the imperial relationship? In what ways was the Portuguese Empire here weak and how as it strong?

What sort of things interested the author? What subjects does he cover in detail? Why do you think he chose these things to write about?

Is there anything surprising to you about the descriptions of East Africa at the time? If so, what and why?

The Voyage and Acts of Dom Francisco, Viceroy of India, written in the ship Sam Rafael of Oporto, captained by Feman Suarez (1505)



In the year 1505, on 25 March, Tuesday, the feast of the Annunciation of Our Lady, Dom Francisco d'Almeida sailed with a fleet of twenty vessels. There were fourteen large men-of-war [Naus or Carracks] and six caravels.


They rounded the Cape of Good Hope on 20 June and were driven away from it seventy leagues. On 2 July there were great storms with thunder, and two men from the flagship and one from the Lyomarda fell overboard. On 18 July they sighted land for the first time, 369 leagues beyond the Cape of Good Hope, near the Ylhas Darradeiras, which are thirty leagues from the island of Mozambique. On 19 July they were in sight of Mozambique, and on 21 July they were crossing the shallow waters of Sam Rafael, which are thirty leagues from Kilwa [one of a number of East African city-states that were part of the Indian Ocean trading network: painting from 1572; modern photograph of Kilwa ruins]. 

On Tuesday, 22 July, they entered the harbour of 'Kilwa at noon, with a total of eight ships. Immediately on their arrival the Grand-Captain, Dom Francisco d'Almeida, sent Bona Ajuta Veneziano to summon the king [Emir Ibrahim, the ruler of Kilwa, and probably a bit of its hinterland]. He excused himself from coming, but sent the Grand-Captain gifts instead; They were five goats, a small cow and a large number of coconuts and other fruit.

  Next day the Grand-Captain ordered the ships to have their artillery in readiness. Then the captains, each in his best clothes, and full armour, went in his own boat to lie off the town in the hope that the king would decide to come out. The sheikh, however, sent a message to say that he could not come since he had guests, but, if required, he would send the tribute due to the King of Portugal. This message was brought by a party of five Moors [Muslim East Africans, some who possibly claimed descent from Arabian or Persian immigrants], who were immediately seized. 

At dawn on Thursday, 24 July, the vigil of the feast of St. James the Apostle, all went in their boats to the shore. The first to land was the Grand-Captain, and he was followed by the others. They went straight to the royal palace, and on the way only those Moors who did not fight were granted their lives. At the palace there was a Moor leaning out of the window with a Portuguese flag in his hand, shouting: 'Portugal! Portugal!'This flag had been left behind by the admiral [Vasco da Gama] when he had arranged for Kilwa to pay a tribute of 1,500 ounces of gold a year. The Moor was asked to open the door, and, when he did not do so, the door was broken down with axes. They found neither the Moor nor anyone else in the Palace, which was deserted.


In Kilwa there are many strong houses several storeys high. They are built of stone and mortar and plastered with various designs. As soon as the town had been taken without opposition, the Vicar-General and some of the Franciscan fathers came ashore carrying two crosses in procession and singing the Te Deum. They went to the palace, and there the cross was put down and the Grand-Captain prayed. Then everyone started to plunder the town of all its merchandise and provisions.


The town of Kilwa lies on an island around which ships of 500 tons [about the same size as the Naus, though these would be dhows] can sail. The island and town have a population of 4,000 people. It is very fertile and produces maize [millet, not corn] similar to that of Guinea [West Africa], butter, honey, and wax. On the trees hang beehives like jars of three almudes capacity, each closed with woven palm leaves. There are holes through which the bees go in and come out. ...


There are sweet oranges, lemons, vegetables, small onions, and aromatic herbs. They are grown in gardens and watered with water from the wells. Here also grows betel which has leaves like ivy and is grown like peas with sticks at the root for support. The leaf is used by the wealthy Arabs for chewing together with specially prepared limes which look like an ointment. They keep the leaves as if they were to be put on wounds. These leaves make the mouth and teeth very red, but are said to be most refreshing.


There are more black slaves [possibly not actually slaves] than white Moors [Indian Ocean merchants, probably from the Arabian peninsula] here: they are engaged on farms growing maize and other things. There are various types of peas which are produced by plants as high as large pepper trees; when they are ripe, they are gathered and stored. The soil is red, the top layer being sandy; the grass is always green. There are many fat beasts, oxen, cows, sheep, and goats and also plenty of fish; there are also whales which swim round the ships. There is no running drinking water on the island. Near the island there are other small islands which are inhabited. There are many boats [dhows] as large as a caravel of fifty tons and other smaller ones. The large ones lie aground on the shore and are dragged down to the sea when the people wish to sail them. They are built without nails: the planks are sewn together with rope made from knotted coir from the coconut palm. The same kind of rope is used for the rudder. The boats are caulked with black pitch made from crude incense and resin. They sail from here to Sofala, 255 leagues [750 miles] away. ...

The Portuguese found here a large quantity of pure drinking water. Flasks of very good perfume are exported from here and a large quantity of glass of all types and all kinds of cotton piece-goods, incense, resin, gold, silver, and pearls. The Grand-Captain ordered the loot to be deposited under seal in a house.

The [new Portuguese] fortress of Kilwa was built out of the best house there was there. All the other houses round it were pulled down. It was fortified and guns were set in place with everything else a fort needs. Pero Ferreira was left in command of it with eighty men.

The country is not very hot. The men are armed with bows and large arrows, strong shields of palm leaves bound with cotton, and pikes better than those of Guinea. Few swords were seen. They have four catapults for hurling stones but do not yet know the use of gunpowder.

The sea laps the entrance of the fortress at high water near where the ships enter.

When the king fled from Kilwa, the GrandCaptain appointed another, a local Moor beloved by all, whom they took in procession on horseback through the town.

Lime is prepared here in this manner: large logs of wood are piled in a circle and inside them coral limestone is placed; then the wood is burnt. The process after that is the same as in Portugal.

Cotton is found in abundance. It is of good quality and is planted and grows well in the island. The sheep have wool no better than goats. The slaves wear a cotton cloth round the waist and down to the knees; the rest of the body is naked. The white Arabs and slave owners wear two pieces of cotton cloth, one round the waist down to the feet and the other thrown over the shoulders and reaching down as far as where the first cloth is tied.

They have copper coins like our ceptis, four being equal to one real; Portuguese coins have the same value there as at home. There are no gold coins but the weight of their mitical is equal to 460 reis in Portugal.

The winter season in Kilwa is from April to September. It is not cold and for this reason the people wear scanty clothes.

The Grand-Captain twice went from one side of the town to the other. Once he saw twenty-five gazelle which had been let loose on the island. There are also many wild cats in the bush.

There are many vaulted mosques, one of which is like that of Cordova. All the upper-class Moors carry a rosary [some sort of Islamic prayer-beads, not a Catholic rosary].


On 9 August the ships left Kilwa for Mombasa, sixty leagues up the coast. The ship Sam Rafael reached there on 14 August, but the Grand-Captain arrived with the other ten ships a day earlier.

The Moors of Mombasa [painting 1572] had built a strongpoint with many guns at the entrance of the harbour, which is very narrow. When we entered, the first ship, which was under the command of Gonzalo de Paiva, who was going in front to explore the channel, was fired on by the Moors from both sides. We promptly replied to the fire, and with such intensity that the gunpowder in their strongpoint caught fire. It started burning and the Moors fled, thus allowing the whole fleet to enter and lie at anchor in front of the town. And on that day, the vigil of the feast of the Assumption, the town was bombarded with all the guns on the ships, while the guns of the town replied to our fire.

When the Grand-Captain went ashore he seized a Moor who happened to be a member of the royal household. The Portuguese obtained good information from him.

The first night the fleet arrived in Mombasa there came out on the shore a Spanish Christian who was living there, a gunner by profession and a convert to Islam. He told the Christians to go away and that Mombasa was not like Kilwa: they would not find people with hearts that could be eaten like chickens as they had done in Kilwa, but that if they were keen to come ashore the people were ready to set about them for their supper. The Grand-Captain, however, offered him his protection and pardon, but he refused.

Mombasa is a very large town and lies on an island from one and a half to two leagues [~6 miles]round. The town is built on rocks on the higher part of the island and has no walls on the side of the sea; but on the land side it is protected by a wall as high as the fortress. The houses are of the same type as those of Kilwa: some of them are three storeyed and all are plastered with lime. The streets are very narrow, so that two people cannot walk abreast in them: all the houses have stone seats in front of them, which makes the streets yet narrower.

The Grand-Captain met with the other captains and decided to burn the town that evening and to enter it the following morning. But when they went to burn the town they were received by the Moors with a shower of arrows and stones. The town has more than 600 houses which are thatched with palm leaves: these are collected green for this purpose. In between the stone dwelling-houses there are wooden houses with porches and stables for cattle. There are very few dwelling houses which have not these wooden houses attached.

Once the fire was started it raged all night long, and many houses collapsed and a large quantity of goods was destroyed. For from this town trade is carried on with Sofala [south eastern African city] and with Cambay [northwestern "India"] by sea. There were three ships from Cambay and even these did not escape the fury of the attack. It was a moonless night.

... [After driving out most of Mombasa's inhabitants] The Grand-Captain ordered that the town should be sacked [looted] and that each man should carry off to his ship whatever he found: so that at the end there would be a division of the spoil, each man to receive a twentieth of what he found. The same rule was made for gold, silver, and pearls. Then everyone started to plunder the town and to search the houses, forcing open the doors with axes and iron bars. There was a large quantity of cotton cloth for Sofala in the town, for the whole coast gets its cotton cloth from here. So the Grand-Captain got a good share of the trade of Sofala for himself. A large quantity of rich silk and gold embroidered clothes was seized, and carpets also; one of these, which was without equal for beauty, was sent to the King of Portugal together with many other valuables.... On the morning of the 16th they again plundered the town, but because the men were tired from fighting and from lack of sleep, much wealth was left behind apart from what each man took for himself. They also carried away provisions, rice, honey, butter, maize, countless camels and a large number of cattle, and even two elephants. They paraded these elephants in front of the people of the town before they took it, in order to frighten them. There were many prisoners [allegedly over 200, most of whom were enslaved], and white women among them and children, and also some merchants from Cambay.

... All the guns belonging to the town were taken to the ships. They found one old cannon lying in the street which five men could not lift. It was said to have belonged to a ship called Rey which had been lost nearby. They also found an anchor which had been stolen from the Admiral Vasco da Gama. Because the Portuguese could not take it the Arabs pointed it out to each other. There were only five Portuguese dead in the battle and many wounded-more by the grace of God than by any act of man.

After returning to the ships they weighed anchor and moved inshore so that the anchors were exposed on dry land at low water. They remained there for ten days. It was very difficult to go out through the narrow entrance and also because there were strong contrary winds blowing. The ship Lyomarda lost its rudder and they could not find it again. So they were obliged to make a new one, for which each ship had to give up one of its hooks.

The ship San Gabriel arrived on 20 August with its mainmast broken, but the whereabouts of the supply ships was still not known.

Now the King of Mombasa and the King of Malindi were at war, and many of their people had been killed on both sides, the cause of the war being the friendship of the King of Malindi with the King of Portugal. Eventually the King of Mombasa had been defeated by the King of Malindi, and for the present they were friends. So the King of Mombasa wrote the following letter to the King of Malindi:

May God's blessing be upon you, Sayyid Ali! This is to inform you that a great lord has passed through the town, burning it and laying it waste. He came to the town in such strength and was of such cruelty, that he spared neither man nor woman, old nor young, nay, not even the smallest child. Not even those who fled escaped from his fury. He not only killed and burnt men but even the birds of the heavens were shot down. The stench of the corpses is so great in the town that I dare not go there; nor can I ascertain nor estimate what wealth they have taken from the town. I give you these sad news for your own safety.

There were more than 10,000 people in Mombasa, of whom 3,700 were men of military age.


Thence they sailed to Malindi, twenty-five leagues further north. Five leagues outside Malindi they were halted by strong currents and there they met the caravel of Johan Homere, which had captured two islands for Portugal. One of them was 450 leagues beyond the Cape of Good Hope and was uninhabited. They took in firewood and water there.

The other island lies between Kilwa and Mombasa and is known as Zanzibar. As the Moors of this island already knew of the destruction of Kilwa, they presented the captain with provisions and said they were at the service of the King of Portugal. The ship had arrived there on 24 August, and they had taken in water, firewood and meat.

Mogadishu [yes, the one in Somalia] lies on this coast and is 100 leagues from Malindi. It is a large town with plenty of horses....

Source: G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast: Selected Documents (London: Rex Collings, 1974), 105-112.

According to Ames (pp 28-35), the shaky nature of relationships with South Asians (and thus access to Indian Ocean trade goods) meant that the Portuguese "decided to embrace open warfare." Encountering several setbacks (see Ames for details), the Portuguese continued to fight to control ports.
Next is a description of a Portuguese counterattack to re-take Goa.

Commentaries of the Great Afonso de Alboquerque (1510)

And now that the great Afonso Dalboquerque had made all arrangements to attack the city [of Goa] on the following day, before morning broke, which was the day of St. Catharine, the 25th day of the month of November, of one thousand five hundred and ten, the captains, who were already prepared, arrived with all their men, and boarded the flag-ship; and they found Afonso Dalboquerque already gone on board his skiff, and a pardo with a hundred and fifty soldiers waiting for them. And after a general confession had been made by all of them, they arranged themselves in three companies ....[to attack the Goan] stockades, each company taking up the position that had been marked out for it.

The Turks [some Ottoman Turks, some Turkic- or Persian-speaking Muslims from Central Asia, but really, like "Moor," just an alternate way of saying "Muslim."], who were stationed therein, defended themselves for a long time, and prevented any entry of the enemy, and Afonso Dalboquerque, with the men he had in his company, on arriving at the palisades which Dinis Fernandez had already cut down, went up along the edge of the ridge at the double. The Turks, because they did not fear any attack from that side, as soon as they felt themselves harassed by people at their back, after making a long resistance, began to retire from the stockades. The captains, when they perceived that the enemy were beginning to become embarrassed with the arrival of Afonso Dalboquerque, fell upon them so valiantly, carrying in their van [front] the Apostle Sanctiago [Saint James the greater], who was going with them as their guide, that in a short space of time they got into the stockades, and with the enemy in flight made their way pell-mell as far as the gates of the city, without looking behind them, killing and maiming many Turks and Rumes [specifically meaning Ottoman Turks], all of them of superior class, and many well attired in silken habits and brocades ...

With this fresh relief our men fell upon the Moors [Muslims] on foot and on horseback, and one and all closed so desperately with them, that they routed them, and all together entered pell-mell through the gates of the fortress; some of our party being left behind already dead or wounded. Manuel de Lacerda, who was marching along wounded in his face by an arrow, just as he entered by the gate encountered a Turk upon a horse, and killed him, and mounted the horse, and performed a great feat in continuing to go on, for he had a piece of broken arrow fixed in his face, and all his armour was smirched in the blood which ran down from it. ...

As soon as the fortress had been abandoned, Afonso Dalboquerque gave orders that the gates should be shut that
led to the city, and a good watch kept over them, in order that our men should not follow the Moors, nor disband themselves to plunder. For he feared that as the enemy were very numerous, they would unite together, and bring about another catastrophe like that which befel the Portuguese at Calicut. So he gave orders to all the captains to take up positions in the walls of the fortress. ..

[Dalboquerque] offered up many thanks to our Lord for thus delivering them from the dangers which had been prepared against them, had they operated against the fortress, as the captains had thought they ought to have done. Out of our party, one hundred and fifty soldiers were wounded. ... And seven were killed...

After having commanded the captains to take up their positions and guard the fortress, Afonso Dalboquerque gave
permission to the soldiers to sack the city, and free right to keep everything they took; but as for his own share, he
cared for nothing more than the contentment derived for having been enabled to keep his word [about avenging earlier losses].

In the city were captured a hundred large guns (bombardas) and a large quantity of smaller artillery, and two hundred horses, and many supplies and munitions of war. All these were ordered to be delivered to the factor for the
king. And after the city had been pillaged, Afonso Dalboquerque told the captains to reconnoitre the whole of the
island and to put to the sword all the Moors, men, women, and children, that should be found, and to give no quarter
to any one of them ; for his determination was to leave no seed of this race throughout the whole of the island. And
he did this, not only because it was necessary for the security of the land that there should be none but Hindoos within it, but also as a punishment for the treachery of which the Moors had been guilty when he took the city for the first time. And for four days continuously they poured out the blood of the Moors who were found therein ; and it was ascertained that of men, women, and children, the number exceeded six thousand. ["Hindoos" started their own massacre nearby.]

As soon as the despoiling of the land had been accomplished, Afonso Dalboquerque turned his attention without delay to the fortifications of the city, and ordered that a great quantity of cement should be prepared, and all the
sepulchres [tombs] of the Moors thrown down, in order to obtain plenty of stone .... And, as he hoped to establish in Goa the principal seat of the Governors of India, he so arranged the plan, that the palace of the Çabaio remained within the boundary, because the edifices of it were very nobly designed, a work of great beauty and finely built. And by reason of this great diligence, in a very short time he completed the fortress where it now stands, with its towers and ditches, with their breastworks, for the defence of the harbour and anchorage of the ships.

At this time some men were progressing with the destruction of some old walls, in order to get stones for the works of defence, when they discovered in the foundations an image of the crucifix in copper. When the news of this ran through the city, Afonso Dalboquerque came down at once with all the people and clergy who were with him, and they carried the crucifix, with great devotion and many tears, to the church. Great wonder was there that then seized upon all beholders; for within the memory of man there was no record of any Christians [the Portuguese realized by this time that South Asians were not Christian] ever having been at that place, and they believed that oar Lord had sent down that sign from Heaven, in order to shew that it was his will that the kingdom should belong to the King of Portugal and not to the [Sultan], and that their mosques should become houses of prayer, wherein His [the Christian God's] name should be worshipped.

Source: The Commentaries of the Great Afonso de Alboquerque, vol. 3, via Ames, The Globe Encompassed, 56-57

There were, of course, reactions to the Portuguese from South Asians (and East Africans, Arabians, Southeast Asians, and Chinese, too, but we won't read them here). These reactions took a number of forms, as demonstrated below.

A member of Sultan Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah's (Bengali Sultan before the Mughals conquered it) Court, 1520s

[This is advice to the Sultan regarding a dispute between two factions in the court:] As for what these lords say, that Your Highness should not make peace with the Portuguese, they say this because they have sufficient revenues that Your Highness has given them in grant, and they are [high-ranking nobles], and above all they are [400 miles] inland, where they expect to receive no harm, and they do not remember that the poor [Bengali] merchants, who sail on the sea pay for all these things, because Your Highness should certainly be aware that the Portuguese are so powerful on the sea that nothing can escape them, and that if their very smallest boat ... is placed at the bar of Chatigao or off Satigao, no other ship would be powerful enough to go out or to come in. And if this were to happen, and if the merchants cannot sell the merchandise of the land in it, while at the same time the goods from outside cannot enter the kingdom either, I believe that the governors would be hard put to pay the required to. ...

Source: Sanjay Sunbrahmanyam, From the Tagus to the Ganges (2005), 61.


Tahir Muhammad (ibn 'Imad al-Din Hasan ibn Sultan 'Ali ibn Haji Muhammad Husain Sabzwari) was an Iranian-born man whose family served the Mughal court as officials and poets. He had been sent by Akbar, the Mughal Emperor, to Goa to interact with the Portuguese.

Tahir Muhammad, The Immaculate Garden, ca. 1600

In sum, the community of Firang [Portuguese] wear very fine clothes but they are often very dirty and pimply. They do not like to use water. They bathe very rarely. Amongst them, washing after relieveing onself is considered improper. They are very good at using firearms, and they are particularly brave on ships and in the water. But in contrast to this, they are not so brave on land. The Malabari community, who live near Ceylon, and are Muslims, are about 5000 in the number of their households. Their principal task is to fight [as ghazi] the Franks. Despite their weaknesses, they overcome the Franks.

As in Sahelian Africa (the Songhay Empire), a system of importing horses for military purposes existed in South Asia. As the Portuguese web of global trade expanded, Portuguese horse-traders began to supplement--and sometimes supplant--the existing trade. One of these merchants wrote of his experiences in southern "India."

Chronicle of Fernão Nuniz (ca. 1536)

This King [of Vijayanagar, a large kingdom on the southern tip of India] has continually fifty thousand paid soldiers, amongst whom are six thousand horsemen who belong to the palace guard.... He has also twenty thousand spearmen and shield-bearers, and three thousand men to look after the elephants in the stables; he has sixteen hundred grooms who attend the horses, and also three hundred horse trainers and two thousand artificers, namely blacksmiths, masons, and carpenters, and washermen who wash clothes. These are the people he has and pays every day; he gives them their allowance at the gate of the palace. To the six thousand horsemen the King gives horses free and gives provision for them every month.... The King every year buys thirteen thousand horses of Hurmuz ... and gains much money by them; because after taking out the good Persian horses, he sells those which are country-bred, and [charges] five for a thousand pardaos [~ 5g silver each] .... and with the money so obtained he pays for the Arabs [horses] that he buys of the Portuguese, in such a way that his captains [who pay for their horses] pay the cost of the whole without anything going out of the [Royal] Treasury.

Source: The Vijayanagar Empire, Robert Sewell, ed., 381-82.



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