Afonso de Albuquerque - Lion of the Seas

Lynne Booker


Afonso de Albuquerque (1462-1515) - LION OF THE SEAS - Vasco da Gama´s epic voyage reached the fabled lands of India in May 1498 and signalled the beginning of a European dominance in the Indian Ocean which would last for 400 years.


The Portuguese had voyaged with sword in one hand and crucifix in the other,  but they put aside the crucifix to free their hand for filling their pockets with riches from the spice trade.  Afonso de Albuquerque was the main architect of Portuguese Empire and he took just 9 years to control most of the trade in the Indian Ocean.  The age of exploration was nearly over: the age of exploitation had begun.


The greatest and most arduous of journeysThe journey of just less than 20,000 km from Portugal to India was dangerously long and the cost in manpower and money to the tiny kingdom of Portugal was enormous.  But the lure of the immense profits available from the spice trade (spice was a word which included practically anything produced in Asia and not in Europe such as silk and gemstones as well as pepper and cinnamon) and the opportunity to wrest trade from the Moslems - enemies of the Christian faith - were powerful motivating forces.  On the return of Vasco da Gama from India, D Manuel was already calling himself: By the grace of God, King of Portugal and of the Algarves on this side and on the other side of the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea and of the conquest, navigation and commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.


The man and the plan

There were two schools of thought among the King´s councillors - the first recommended an annual spice fleet with no permanent base in the east; the second, of which Albuquerque was a powerful apologist, recommended the building of strongpoints at the critical exits and entrances to the Indian Ocean.  D Manuel was persuaded that to control the whole of the trade within the Indian Ocean he required a string of fortresses to dominate the straits guarding the main trade routes into the Red Sea, into the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Malacca.  Afonso de Albuquerque was the man he selected to put the plan into action.


Ruling the waves

The Portuguese had made great advances in naval technology and ships used at the beginning of the 16th century differed very little in principle from those of Nelson´s day.  Artillery had been used in war in both Europe and Asia for several centuries before 1500, but the power, accuracy and rate of fire of the Portuguese naval artillery came as a complete surprise to Asian sailors.  At sea Asian navies relied on ramming and boarding whereas the Portuguese maneuvered and used their artillery; Asians relied more on galleys powered by oars, where the Portuguese relied on wind power.  Except in calm waters, European ships were almost never defeated at sea.  Two men, D Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque, were implacable enemies and of differing views on the development of the Portuguese effort in the east and each made a crucial contribution in using seapower to control the sealanes of the Indian Ocean.  Almeida did much to make Portuguese naval power a reality and Albuquerque´s military genius created Portugal´s empire in the east and ensured that it would endure.


Albuquerque´s reign of terror

 For the first seven years after their arrival in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese concentrated on establishing trade relations and defending their trade from Moslem attacks.  The Portuguese were also quick to take advantage of local rivalries.  What they lost in Calicut, they gained from Calicut´s rival in Cochin.  By 1505 it was no longer possible for the annual fleet alone to control Portuguese interests and D Manuel decided to appoint Francisco de Almeida as Viceroy and to station a fleet permanently in the east. The king sent Albuquerque in 1507 on a mission to conquer the strategic points that would put the whole of the Indian Ocean trade under Portuguese control, starting with the island of Socotra.  The strategic reason for taking Socotra was to control trade to Egypt via the Red Sea.


The Caesar of the Orient

After victory at Socotra in April 1507, Albuquerque headed towards the guardian of the Persian Gulf, Ormuz, which was under Persian control.  Under his command were 6 ships and 500 men and he sailed into Ormuz harbour which was crammed with shipping, 230 ships in all.  Albuquerque at first demanded a monetary tribute and a site for the Portuguese to construct a fortress.  The Persian authorities dismissed his demands and, attack being the best method of defense, Albuquerque ordered his ships to open fire. The Portuguese artillery played havoc with boats and men.  There was so much smoke they couldn’t see to shoot and they fired for nine solid hours.  At the end of the day the corpses were thick in the water - many of the city´s defenders had been shot by their own unsighted archers.  Of the 230 ships all but 6 had sunk or burned; and these six were taken by the victors.  Now Albuquerque insisted on the construction of a fortress which the Persian Vizier reluctantly conceded.  Because they were required physically to help in the building work, Albuquerque´s captains were not keen either.  Roving the ocean and plundering Muslim shipping was a more attractive proposition to them.  Four captains thereupon deserted with their ships and, reduced to two ships, Albuquerque had no alternative but to withdraw.  When he arrived at Cochin, Viceroy Almeida, supporting the mutinous captains, imprisoned him in the fortress at Cananore, despite the royal instruction that Albuquerque was to succeed Almeida as Viceroy.


Golden Opportunity 

The Marshal of Portugal, D Fernando Coutinho, arriving in India with the fleet of 1509, brought royal orders that the city of Calicut was to be destroyed, that Almeida was to return to Portugal, and that Albuquerque was to take up his office of Viceroy.  The attack on the fortress was successful and D Fernando took off his armour to go looting.  As the Portuguese withdrew with their loot they were overwhelmed by the army of Calicut and 300 Portuguese were killed and 400 seriously wounded.  This blow to Portuguese invincibility was enormous, but the upside was that Albuquerque was now in undisputed command.  He understood that only a secure base in India would allow the Portuguese to dominate the trade of the Indian Ocean and he determined to conquer Goa in alliance with the indigenous Hindus against the ruling Muslims.  This city was the centre for the trade in horses  and possession would give the Portuguese immense power as the sole supplier of horses to the cavalry of Indian armies.  The island of Goa is also fertile and could supply food to the Portuguese navy; it has a good harbour and was a centre for shipbuilding.   The timing was perfect since the new Khan was away on the mainland establishing his authority.


The struggle for Goa

 After an extraordinary piece of reconnaissance under fire by a junior officer, Albuquerque sailed into the harbour and the city quickly surrendered.  But within weeks, the new Khan returned and, overwhelming the Portuguese defence, forced them back into their ships.  The summer monsoon had arrived and Albuquerque found that his ships could not cross the harbour bar.  From 1 June to 16 August, Albuquerque and his fleet were immobilised in the river and the Portuguese were subjected to surprise attacks, lack of food and water and the heat of an Indian summer.  They finally managed to emerge from the river after 77 uncomfortable days and gathering his forces, a determined Albuquerque renewed his attack three months later.  The new Khan was again away and Albuqerque´s victory was swift and his reprisals terrible.  His captains were told to ´reconnoitre the whole of the island and to put to the sword all Mohammedans, men, women and children´.  Christians and Hindus joined the slaughter and for four days ´they poured out the blood of the Moors´.  The Khan tried for three years to reoccupy his city but after a campaign of 33 months, the Muslims finally accepted the permanent loss of Goa.  Goa became the lynchpin of the empire and remained in Portuguese hands until 1961.


Malacca - the great emporium

In keeping with the royal plan of securing the strategic exit points of the Indian Ocean, Albuquerque immediately took his army of Portuguese and Indian allies off to Malacca.  Malacca was the major port at the eastern entrance to the ocean - it was at the intersection between Indian, Chinese and Indonesian trade. Malacca had been the point at which Islam had arrived in the Far East and was therefore particularly symbolic to the Muslims. The current Sultan of Malacca exercised a freedom of religion in order to make his port attractive to merchants of all cultures, The Portuguese knew that Malacca was a rich entrepôt and above all it was on the way to China.  In April 1511, Albuquerque sailed for Malacca with 18 ships, 800 Portuguese and 200 Indian auxiliaries. The Sultan commanded about 20.000.  Albuquerque attacked on St James Day (25 July).  The first attack failed.  Albuquerque´s second attack was delivered by a huge junk bristling with Portuguese artillery.  The Portuguese in the junk occupied the bridge separating the two halves of the city and held it against all counter-attacks for 10 days.  After the fall of the city, the inevitable fortress was built by Moslem prisoners. Stone, rare in those parts, was taken from graveyards and mosques and the building was completed in D Manuel´s lifetime. The fortress was called A Famosa and despite reprisal attacks it remained in Portuguese hands until 1641.  Today the gatehouse is all that remains.



There was one gap in the Portuguese master plan - the Red Sea trade route to Egypt.  The Portuguese quickly found that the island of Socotra was not able to fulfill the task allocated by their strategic plans since it was too far from the mouth of the Red Sea.  Accordingly, they soon abandoned it and in 1513 Albuquerque took an expedition to its potential replacement, Aden.   In many respects Aden was in a similar relationship with the Red Sea and Egypt as Ormuz with the Persian Gulf and Persia.  By sailing direct from Indonesia to the Red Sea, Muslim merchants were avoiding the Portuguese net.  Spices, drugs, textiles, silks, Chinese porcelain were all escaping Portuguese control. But Albuquerque´s Aden expedition was a disaster.  Uncharacteristically, the  guns blew up and the ladders brought to scale the walls were not strong enough.  Aden remained in Muslim hands, and the Red Sea remained a loophole in their system which the Portuguese never managed to close.

The final yearsBy agreement with the Shah of Persia, the Portuguese were able to complete the fortifications at Ormuz.  The relationship between mighty landlocked Persia and daring maritime Portugal was fragile because Albuquerque´s unprovoked attack in 1507 had caused lasting humiliation to Persia. Having once experienced a Portuguese bombardment, however, the Vizier of Ormuz was not inclined to invite a repeat performance, and in 1515 when Albuquerque returned to demand the completion of his fort, he reluctantly agreed.  Although the island belonged to the Shah of Persia, it was also agreed that an annual tribute be paid to the King of Portugal, and the Portuguese-built fortress remained in Portuguese hands until 1622.


Military tactician

Albuquerque´s profound grasp of strategy and tactics enabled him to channel the trade of the Indian Ocean through Malacca, Goa and Ormuz in accordance with the royal plan.  Albuquerque himself was a determined and ruthless leader and there was never any successor with the same qualities for building the Portuguese Empire.  The Portuguese, chronically short of manpower, thousands of kilometres away from home, had conquered the trade of the Indian Ocean and succeeded in controlling it for nearly a century. Albuquerque's career had a painful and ignominious close. He had several enemies at the Portuguese court who lost no opportunity of trying to discredit him.  On his return from Ormuz, at the entrance of the harbor of Goa, he met a vessel from Europe bearing dispatches announcing that he was to be superseded. He died at sea on December 16, 1515, saying "Mal com el-Rei por amor dos homens, e mal com os homens por amor d´el-Rei " meaning that he was treated badly by the king for treating his men well, and badly by his men for serving the king well.  Before his death he wrote a letter to the king in dignified and affecting terms, vindicating his conduct and claiming for his son the honors and rewards that were justly due to himself. D Manuel realised his mistake and acquiesced in Albuquerque´s final wishes.  Albuquerque´s character and achievements might be summed up by his sobriquets:  Lion of the Seas, the Caesar of the Orient, the Mars of Portugal, The Great, The Terrible.


The end of empire in India 

The gunboat Afonso de Albuquerque was famous for its part in the Motim dos Barcos do Tejo in 1936 and for heroism during the fall of Goa in 1961.  The gunboat displaced 2440 tons and carried four 4.5 inch guns and anti-aircraft weapons.  On the night of 17/18 December 1961, Goa was invaded by 50.000 troops of the India Union, supported by units of the Indian Navy, two cruisers, an aircraft carrier, four frigates, three destroyers, as well as tanks and fighter aircraft.  The Portuguese garrison consisted of 5.400 soldiers, one gunboat, three launches and two old AA guns.  The Afonso de Albuquerque had orders to beach herself and to become a coastal battery.   The Indian ships were cruising up and down outside the port and bringing all their guns to bear and firing 60 rounds per minute. Those on Afonso de Albuquerque could fire at the rate of only 8 per minute.  Even so the Portuguese gunners managed to fire 400 rounds before the ship was beached and abandoned. The Indians sold the renamed Saravastri for scrap and its guns are today on display in the museum at Mumbai.  It is the ultimate irony that Afonso de Albuquerque the conqueror of Goa was still there in another form for the last act of the drama.