REASSESSING PORTUGUESE MILITARY SUPERIORITY IN ASIA IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY - THE CASE OF LAND WARFARE

Roger Lee de Jesus

The arrival of Vasco da Gama’s armada to India in 1498 opened the Asian markets to European forces and accelerated the development of artillery in this region of the world. Equipped with superior technology, the Portuguese imposed their presence, combining trade and warfare. Most studies on the Military Revolution assess Portuguese forces in Asia to have been superior, usually focusing on naval warfare and the efficient use of broadside gunnery, which ignores or devalues land-based warfare.

This chapter therefore aims to reassess and debate the existence of Portuguese superiority in land warfare in the Estado da India (the name formally given to the Portuguese Empire in Asia). This assessment is conducted in the context of the European force’s having to resist several military land operations, starting as far back as their settlement in the region, because the use of gunpowder was not limited exclusively to the Portuguese and guns were used similarly by both sides. This chapter therefore broadly evaluates the impact of Portuguese warfare in Asia. It argues that both Portuguese and local landlords adapted to new ways of waging war and that the Europeans experienced a partial loss of superiority after the first decades of the sixteenth century. To reach this conclusion, first the idea of Portuguese military superiority is challenged, and then a number of battles and sieges are analysed by using both Portuguese and Asian sources, emphasizing the context of India. A map of the Portuguese presence in the Indian subcontinent can be found at the end of this chapter.

The Military Revolution and the Portuguese Empire

This debate is directly connected to the concept of military revolution, as coined by Geoffrey Parker, which refers to the military developments beginning during the Italian Wars that had a deep impact not only on how war was waged but also from political, social, and financial points of view, promoting the rise of the West.2 The long debate fuelled by Parkers book still resonates today, because the academic community continues to discuss the implications of such a deterministic theory.3 The participation of the Portuguese Kingdom in this revolution was connected mainly with the dissemination of new military developments to the country’s overseas empire and especially to a newly discovered and developed naval firepower, along with the “artillery fortress as an engine of European overseas expansion” (to quote one of Parkers well-known studies). Given that the Portuguese had few resources with which to provide an effective military presence in Asian lands, the Estado da India relied on a network of coastal fortresses and factories (a Venetian model, according to William R. Thompson),4 which attempted to control commercial networks and routes, resorting to local allies to intervene in, or instigate, internal wars.5 To a certain extent, the introduction of violence and warfare to Asian mercantile routes by the Portuguese gave the latter some level of leadership as part of the complex commercial game that extended from the eastern coast of Africa to the Far East.6

The Portuguese had effective firepower, which, allied with the speed of their ships, gave them significant naval superiority on the Indian Ocean. Artillery was successfully used on board, allowing for the use of broadside gunnery in a line-ahead formation, as evidenced in Portuguese sources dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The pioneering naval development led by the kingdom was responsible for a certain European military hegemony in Asia at the beginning of the century.7 This seemingly superior nature contributed to some coastal cities’ (e.g. Cochin and Cannanur) entering into alliances with the Portuguese.8

Decades ago, RJ. Marshall asserted that during the sixteenth century the Portuguese presence “had begun to be absorbed into Asia, participating in its trade and politics but not dominating them.”9 This idea is somehow linked to the so-called easternization of the Portuguese armadas in this century, which can be explained as the gradual transition towards the regular use of small rowboats rather than high-board ships, the former of which were better suited to wars waged in the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean.10 This process was also connected to the idea of the consequent decadence of the Portuguese military and administrative structures, justifying, to some extent, the Portuguese defeat during Dutch expansion in Asia. Despite these circumstances, Andre Murteira recently showed that this process does not entirely explain the reasons for the defeat, reassessing the idea of a military revolution in the Estado da India at the beginning of the seventeenth century. According to Murteira, the inability of the Portuguese to reinforce their fleet through the India Run was parallel to the Portuguese defeat in the Atlantic Ocean and should be seen as a complex process that needs to be further compared in the future." Despite this recent effort, the idea of a military revolution and its application to the Portuguese case in the sixteenth century has rarely been discussed in historiography.12

 
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