Waging war in Asia: some case studies
The first case to be analysed is the Portuguese defence of Cochin, in 1504, by captain Duarte Pacheco Pereira. At the time, the Samudri Raja of Calicut, supported by Muslim merchants (most of them Gujarati people), was the main adversary of Portuguese trade in the region. To remove them, he prepared an attack on Cochin, where the Portuguese had built their new fortress. Some Portuguese chroniclers speak of eighty thousand men against as little as a hundred Portuguese soldiers, numbers that were, of course, heavily exaggerated. A more critical look reveals around five thousand men from Calicut at most, attacking approximately 130 Portuguese, supported by the small army of Cochin.41 Several attacks between March and May were launched in an attempt to approach the city. However, the defenders had an important factor working in their favour: the physical conditions of the land. As we know, the island of Cochin is found in a lagoon, with many rivers, streams, and even swamps. Because the Samudri men travelled by land, the Portuguese took advantage of their position to force them to fight outside the city, in the area of the river. Trapped in this area, they could gain access only through small openings, narrowing the size of the battlefield. This allowed the Portuguese to use their firearms and even artillery, reducing the disproportionate number of men. They held their position not only on land but also in small boats, using the rivers to travel quickly from one position to another, preventing the enemy from advancing. At the time, European weapons were clearly superior to the local forces, whose body armour was unsuited to this kind of attack. The Calicut force lost hundreds of men during the attacks and many more subsequently, when an epidemic worsened their circumstances. The defence of Cochin was one of the first land operations where Portuguese superiority was clear - not only thanks to their weaponry but mostly thanks to their knowledge and use of the physical space.
The other case study involves campaigns launched by Governor Afonso de Albuquerque (1509-15). Albuquerque is known as one of the most important Portuguese governors of the sixteenth century, creating a strong network of fortresses across the Indian Ocean that, ultimately, led to the formation of what came to be known as the Estado da India. The conquest of Goa (1510), Melaka (1511), and Hormuz (1515), and even the failed attempt to take Aden (1513), were all amphibious operations, which features a remarkable use of firepower and visionary military organization that did not require significant land operations.42 In actual fact, the defeat of Albuquerque in Aden clearly shows a diminished Portuguese superiority when naval power was not involved, in which a strong chain of command was unable to oversee and control the operation.43 However, the defence of Goa in 1512 should also be considered.44 Upon the governor’s return from Melaka, he found that an important fort (Passo de Benasterim) near the city of Goa, on the same island, had been taken by the Sultan ofBijapurs local forces. He expected to successfully retake the castle by using broadside guns, but they proved to be ineffective against the structure. His opponents also used cannons to defend themselves. The sea attack having proved unsuccessful, the governor then started to make preparations for a siege but was forced to engage in battle in the fields around the fort. The use of an ordinance system should be highlighted at this point: it consisted of mixed formations of pike wielders and arquebusiers, with a strongly enforced hierarchy that underwent frequent training. Albuquerque began using this structure some years before, having been influenced by Portuguese veterans from the Italian Wars. Deployed in the field, the ordinance corps used formations known as caracol (snail) and gale (galley), tactics which had been successful when used in Europe. The advance of these men, followed by some light Portuguese cavalry, was enough to force the enemy to retreat and therefore surrender the castle. Their military superiority was then showcased in their use of strictly organized combined arms, against an enemy that already had strong firepower.
Dozens of military operations would take place in the following decades, but none with a strong land force. This would be true up until the time of Governor Joao de Castro (1545-8), who not only tried to enhance how the military was organized (redeploying the ordinance system, which had been abolished after the death of Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1515), but also led a few interesting campaigns that provide an insight into Portuguese warfare in this period. It was a delicate time, because the Estado da India was at war on two fronts: in Goa, against the Sultanate of Bijapur, and in the North, against the Sultanate of Gujarat.
The conflict with Bijapur centred on the possession of the lands surrounding Goa, Bardez, and Salcete (known in Portuguese sources as Terras Firmes), which this sultanate handed over to the Estado da India in 1543. The various campaigns undertaken under the orders of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah I sought to destabilize Bardez and Salcete and force their reintegration into the sultanate. The pitched battles that took place in 1547 (in September, leading to the destruction of the Ponda fort, 15
kilometres south of Goa, and in Salcete in December) were fought against relatively small forces. The sultan did not intervene. In this case, the Estado da India often resorted to maritime blockades at the Bijapur port of Dabul or the destruction of several port cities, to pressure the sultanate to end hostilities.45 At the same time, Joao de Castro was aware that the sultanate was dependent on Portuguese imports of sulphur and horses from the Persian Gulf for it to wage its own internal wars against neighbouring kingdoms, so he used trade as leverage to negotiate peace.46 Despite several victories when recapturing outposts in the Terras Firmes, the Portuguese administration managed to provide a swift answer to the military threat and retake the lands around Goa.
The war in the north bears significantly more relevance for this case study because it shows that the Sultanate of Gujarat had a military capacity that rivalled that of the Portuguese. At the time, the sultanate had one of the strongest Asian economies47 and a well-organized military structure, as demonstrated by several clashes against the Estado da India.™ One of them was at the end of the second Gujarati siege of Diu, in 1546. The siege itself is relevant because the fortress was in a precarious situation for almost eight months. The captain of Diu said to Castro, “I was expecting an attack from the Gujarati, and they besieged me like the French.”49 The Portuguese naval forces coming from Goa managed to launch a surprise attack on the besiegers, charging them from the fortress when they were expecting them to land in the Gujarati camp directly. The diversion had a massive impact, allowing the Portuguese to gain an incredible victory in November 1546. Although this siege was conducted under the supervision of Khwaja Safar, lord of Surat and captain of the sultan, he was given the freedom to recruit and organize the operation by using any means available.50 As well as the mobilized troops themselves, the potential of the weapons used during the siege can be gauged (as thirty-six bronze guns were taken at the end of the siege), and proof has been found that serpentine gunpowder was produced in the camp built in front of the fortress.31
One year later, Joao de Castro organized a new operation to the north, retaliating after the Siege of Diu but also reaffirming the presence of the Portuguese in the region, preventing a Gujarati fleet from being built in the local ports.’2 Sailing to the Portuguese fort of Bassein, he learnt that Sultan Mahmud Shah III was in the region, near Broach. He prepared his men and sailed there with 120 small vessels made up of approximately eighteen hundred men. The governor was then ready for a direct confrontation with the sultan of Gujarat, who had around five thousand men, including cavalry, field artillery, and war elephants. Again, the Portuguese were deployed in mixed formations, advancing slowly in the field. However, the Gujarati forces started to retreat, the Portuguese forces chasing them but stopping promptly when it dawned on Joao de Castro that they were falling into a calculated ruse. The Gujarati aimed to separate Portuguese soldiers from their vessels in an attempt to catch them in the open field with no means with which to retreat. He immediately ordered the soldiers to return to the landing area, waiting for the Gujarati forces to engage again. The latter never attacked, wanting to avoid engaging in combat close to the river. In this case, Portuguese superiority quickly disappeared when the troops were distanced from their naval power. The sultan knew this, and the governor knew it too.
The military operations during Castro’s period show that during this time, so- called Portuguese superiority was not as easily proven as it had been previously. The Gujarati forces, which had strong connections to Ottoman military developments, were on the same level as the Portuguese, as manifest in the siege of Diu, in the battle of Broach, and even in the menacing idea of the construction of a fleet. The technological gap was not a true advantage, because it was almost nonexistent on land. Given that the governor was well aware of the delicate circumstances the Estado da India found itself in, he forced multiple amphibious attacks that sought to spread terror and devastate coastal settlements, thus retaining the image of commanding a destructive power that could launch a quick attack on any location. Surrounded by enemies, Joao de Castro resorted to alternative methods, those that had been used previously and that had been proven to be effective, to overcome these problems: he established lines of strategic diplomacy, allying himself with common enemies (Ahmadnagar and Vijayanagar against Bijapur, and the Sur Empire against Gujarati), fomented internal wars, and sought to take advantage of the naval superiority of the Portuguese to gain a logistical advantage. In the case of the sieges of Diu (1538 and 1546), it was this ability to maintain a supply line of the fortress that ensured the capacity to resist the operation.
More than twenty years after Joao de Castro, Viceroy Luis de Ataide managed to hold off one of the greatest menaces to the Portuguese presence in Asia in the sixteenth century. Between 1570 and 1571, the sultanates of Bijapur, Ahmadnagar and other small realms in southern India were plotting to attack several fortresses at the same time. Goa, Chaul, Honnavar, and Chaliyam were besieged during those years, events that ended unfavourably for the local kingdoms.53 The case of Chaul is the most famous and most relevant for the case made herein. The operation was led by the sultan of Ahmadnagar, Murtaza Nizam Shah I, at the head of a great army that had significant artillery. Some Portuguese sources have exaggerated the numbers, stating them to have been between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand men. As in the sieges of Diu, the main advantage of the Portuguese consisted in their naval power, which allowed small reinforcements to arrive during the operation. Meanwhile, they were immediately involved in diplomatic negotiations, trying to get help from other enemies of the besiegers and using other questionable means. Some Indian chronicles even refer to bribery as being the main force leading to the Ahmadnagar retreat in Chaul.54 Despite the considerable investment and deep destruction of the Portuguese fort, the Sultan ordered the operation to retreat and abandon the project.
As evidenced, Portuguese superiority was not always clear. Victory was mostly unplanned and, in fact, less predictable than might be expected, mostly having been achieved by using a combination of several elements. One of them was the effective use of naval resources, which contributed to fruitful amphibious attacks. These operations, which combined naval potential with swift landings and attacks, had been used since the dawn of the Portuguese presence in Asia.” They sought to impose a climate of terror on coastal populations not only as pre-emptive strikes but also as part of a deterrence strategy. Examples of this strategy can be seen on the attack on Dabul in 1509, when Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, heading for Diu, partially destroyed the city of Bijapur;56 Afonso de Albuquerque’s campaigns on the Arabian coast in 1507;57 and even the multiple attacks on the Gujarati coast during and after the second siege of Diu.58 Aside from this aspect, we find the use of diplomacy (especially among common enemies) and the thorough knowledge of geography and the physical space - both elements of a supposed Portuguese military superiority during the sixteenth century.