How the Portuguese used Hindu-Muslim wars - and Christianity - for the bloody conquest of Goa

Roy Moxham
Roy MoxhamDec 20, 2016 | 08:02

How the Portuguese used Hindu-Muslim wars - and Christianity - for the bloody conquest of Goa

The conquest of Goa was the first European annexation of Indian territory since the invasion of Alexander the Great. It transformed Portuguese influence in the East. Goa was one of the finest harbours in the world, protected from storms and easily defensible. From this safe base the Portuguese ships, with their superior firepower, could range along the western Indian coast and dominate its trade.


Other ships would be allowed on the high seas only with the permission of the Portuguese. The Portuguese would corner much of the trade in spices and in horses. Warfare on the Indian mainland was dominated by cavalry. Horses were essential for the armies of the Indian rulers. Very few good horses, however, were bred in India and there was a large trade in Arab imports. Portuguese General Afonso de Albuquerque saw his opportunity. He wrote to the king of Portugal:

I have decided that all the horses of Persia and Arabia should be in your hands, for two reasons: one being the heavy duties that they pay, and secondly, that the King of Vijayanagar and those of the Deccan may recognise that victory depends on you for he who has the horses will defeat the other.

Albuquerque gave instructions that all horses coming from Arabia and Persia should be offloaded at Goa. His ships intercepted those that carried horses and escorted them to the island.

Those who voluntarily brought horses to be sold at Goa and those who purchased horses there were given customs concessions on their other cargoes. There was no import duty on horses, but a heavy tax on their export – a tax that eventually brought in over half the total revenue of Goa.


The king of Vijayanagar and Albuquerque’s former enemy, Adil Shah, sent ambassadors to Goa. The southern Hindus and the northern Muslims were often at war with each other. Both offered friendship to the Portuguese and tried to secure a monopoly over the purchase of the horses at Goa.

The Theft of India; HarperCollinsIndia; Rs 399

Albuquerque played one off against the other and sold horses to both. Having secured the financial and political future of Goa, Albuquerque was determined to transform a garrison of a few hundred troops into a self-perpetuating colony.

Albuquerque was not married, but he had a son by an African mistress. He encouraged his men to marry the Muslim and Hindu women they had captured, and endowed these couples with property.

Many women committed suicide rather than proceed with these marriages, which involved conversion to Christianity. Many others, however, accepted the offer of a less bleak life. These mixed marriages – which mostly involved the poorer Portuguese – produced a class that monopolised the minor offices of government.

Outside the city of Old Goa, Albuquerque allowed the thirty village communities to continue to administer themselves much as before. Preferment was given to Christians, but Hindus were allowed to continue their worship. The practice of sati, the burning of widows, was forbidden.


Albuquerque was in his fifties – with a beard that reached down to his chest – but still fired by ambition. He made plans to divert the Nile to starve Egypt, to capture Alexandria and Suez; to burn Mecca. In 1513 he sailed for Aden, hoping to capture the fortress that guarded the entrance to the Red Sea. The operation was a disaster.

The Portuguese suffered heavy losses. 

Albuquerque’s policy of being helpful to the Vijayanagar kings proved extremely useful to the Portuguese.

In 1515, Albuquerque sailed for Ormuz, an island city famous as a bazaar, which commanded the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Here, Albuquerque played the diplomat.

A dynastic struggle was in progress. The king had been imprisoned by his nephew who had then assumed power. Fifteen princes, who might have had ambitions, had been rendered harmless by holding a red-hot bronze bowl to their eyes to make them blind. Albuquerque’s arrival prompted the nephew to release his uncle.

Albuquerque invited the nephew to negotiations and then assassinated him. The king was reinstated as a Portuguese puppet. Albuquerque then built a fort to control the trade between Persia and India. His health, however, had begun to fail. Wracked with dysentery, he decided to return to Goa.

On his return journey, Albuquerque overhauled a ship carrying a message from the king of Portugal ordering his replacement. Enemies in Lisbon had conspired to arrange his downfall. As the ship entered the River Mandovi, Albuquerque rose from his sickbed to view Old Goa. As the ship came to anchor, he died. Albuquerque was buried in the church of Our Lady of the Mount.

The king of Portugal, who had already regretted and countermanded his decision to remove the viceroy, gave instructions that the body should remain in Goa as a talisman. It required the intervention of the Pope for the family to finally bring the bones back to Portugal in 1566.

Albuquerque’s policy of being helpful to the Vijayanagar kings proved extremely useful to the Portuguese. Vijayanagar forced Adil Shah out of much of the mainland adjacent to Goa and then encouraged the Portuguese to occupy it. 

The Portuguese were then able, by backing one of the contestants for the throne of the Adil Shahs, to obtain a formal treaty giving them the territories of Bardez and Salcete. These acquisitions more than quadrupled the area of Goa.

The Catholic Church did all it could to aid the Portuguese conquest. It was common for Portuguese soldiers to be given communion together before they went into battle.

They also received free indulgences from the church so that, if they were to die, their passage to heaven would be all the swifter. Although the spread of Christianity was supposedly one of the main aims of Portuguese policy in India, it was some years before it was given any priority.

The first bishop arrived in Goa in 1538 and this signalled an end to the easy relationship between the Portuguese Christians and the Indian Hindus. In 1540, proselytisation began in earnest with the destruction of all Hindu temples. The following year the Church expropriated all temple land. In 1542, the first Jesuit arrived at Goa. Francis Xavier was a man of extraordinary charisma.

In his ten years in India and the Far East, he made many Christian converts. In one month he was said to have converted over 10,000 villagers in southern Malabar.

In Goa he supervised mass conversions of hundreds in a single day. He reorganised the religious administration and schooling. His efforts were aided by Portuguese official discrimination against Hindus and the rewarding of converts, particularly those with influence.

A huge programme of construction of religious buildings was inaugurated, with the construction and enlargement of many churches, monasteries and convents. Francis Xavier died off the coast of China in 1552.

He was at first buried in Malacca. Following a rumour that his body was miraculously preserved, it was shipped back to Goa in 1554 and was eventually interned in the Basilica of Bom Jesus. It became an object of great veneration, particularly after Xavier’s canonisation in 1622.

The body has been put on exposition many times over the years, with increasing frequency in recent times.

It no longer seems to be defying decomposition and at various times parts have been removed – a toe was bitten off and taken away at the first exposition; the right arm was sent for by a pope; parts of a shoulder blade are in Cochin, Malacca and Macao; the upper arm is in Japan; the internal organs have been distributed as relics; several other toes have been lost during the ritual kissing at expositions.

Before Francis Xavier died, he asked the Pope to establish the Inquisition in Goa. It arrived in 1560 – a year after five men were publicly burnt alive for sodomy – and took over the old palace of the Adil Shahs.

Although it only had authority over Christians – and non-Christians who were considered obstructive to Christianity – there was much work to do. Many Hindus had converted to Christianity and mass baptisms on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul became a feature of life in Goa. Some Hindus, particularly from the oppressed lower castes, converted voluntarily. 

Indian Christians carry the remains of St Francis Xavier towards the Se Cathedral during a procession in Goa. 

Some Hindus, since land could only be inherited by those who could prove they were the offspring of a Christian marriage, encouraged some of their family to convert. Other Hindus were converted by force. It has been recorded by Portuguese friars that, a few days before the mass baptisms, Jesuit priests would go to the Hindu quarter with their slaves to seize Hindus. These victims would then have their lips smeared with beef. Having lost caste and become ‘untouchables’, they would have little option but to convert.

Many of these converts to Christianity kept some of their old customs and beliefs. There were also converted Muslims and Jews. Not only was irregular worship forbidden by the Inquisition, but it also became an offence to retain non-Christian customs – to cook rice without salt, to refuse to eat pork, to arrange feasts at funerals, or to strew flowers at weddings.

The Inquisition investigated 16,172 cases before it was abolished for the first time in 1774. It was revived in a modified, less draconian form, in 1778 before being finally abolished in 1812. Most of its records were destroyed – probably deliberately.

It is not possible to calculate either how many ‘heretics’ were burnt at the stake or the much greater number that died in the dungeons. It is certain, however, that the Inquisition in Goa destroyed the happiness of many thousand.

In 1674, Gabriel Dellon, a French doctor, was captured by the Inquisition at the Portuguese fort of Daman. The governor had asked Dellon to bleed his son. In order to do this, Dellon had asked the boy to remove an ivory figure of St Antony that had been attached to the boy’s arm.

The boy had refused, saying he needed the figure to prevent any mishap during the bleeding. Dellon had then unwisely upbraided the boy for believing in superstition. Dellon was arrested and transported to Goa for trial. He spent two years in prison being interrogated. Conditions were so bad that he attempted suicide.

The day after the Portuguese surrendered to India after 450 years of occupation.


Eventually, he was sentenced to five years in the galleys and shipped off as a prisoner to Portugal. Through the intercession of a French physician to the queen, he was unshackled and released in 1677. He then wrote an extensive account of his ordeal in Goa:

During the months of November and December, I every morning heard the cries of those to whom torture was administered, and which was inflicted so severely, that I have seen many persons of both sexes who have been crippled by it and, amongst others, the first companion allotted to me in my prison.

No distinctions of rank, age, or sex are attended to in this tribunal. Every individual is treated with equal severity; and when the interest of the Inquisition requires it, all alike are tortured in almost perfect nudity.

Nor did the Inquisition restrict its activities to the living. Garcia d’Orta belonged to a Spanish family that had left for Portugal when Spain expelled the Jews. These Jews were forcibly baptised in Portugal and became known as ‘New Christians’.

D’Orta qualified as a physician and then moved to Goa in 1534. He was highly regarded and even given a lease over the island of Bombay, now Mumbai. His renowned book on Indian medicinal plants was printed at Goa in 1563. This volume is also famous among bibliophiles for having possibly the most typographical errors of any book. D’Orta died in 1568.

Almost immediately the Inquisition moved against his family. His relatives were tortured. In 1569 his sister was burnt at the stake.

In 1580, Garcia d’Orta’s body was dug up and put on trial. He was convicted of not being a true Christian and his remains were burnt at an auto-da-fé., a ceremonial burning to death of those found guilty.

The extremes that the Portuguese priests went to in order to suppress Hindu ceremonies is well illustrated by what happened at Bassein, a fort north of Bombay, in 1564. It was the custom for the Hindus to gather at festivals and bathe in Bassein creek. To deter this, the Jesuits planted the entire length of the waterway with crosses. The worshipers then decamped to a nearby lake.

But, urged on by the clergy, the captain of Bassein dispersed them with soldiers and cavalry. Furthermore, the lake temple and its idols were demolished. Not content even with that, the Jesuits had a cow killed and its blood sprinkled over the sacred lake.

Despite the oppression, Goa remained largely populated by Indians: Christians and Hindus.

Reputedly, 2,000 Portuguese a year came out to India. There was a proverb: "Of the hundred who go out to India not even one returns."

Many did not even survive the journey out and mortality in India was dreadful. At the end of the sixteenth century, the population of Old Goa was about 75,000. Less than 2,000 of these were of Portuguese, European or mixed blood. Of course, this small group controlled all the power and the wealth.

It has been said that the British Empire in India was a form of outdoor relief for the upper classes and this was certainly true for the Portuguese. Those who came out to high administrative or ecclesiastical appointments arrived with a host of poor relations and followers who expected rich pickings.

It was a favourite destination for the illegitimate sons of the aristocracy. Those who survived often did make their fortunes, for Goa was the hub of the Portuguese empire and accumulating money was easy. For the majority of the Portuguese who came out to India, however, life was far from easy.

Great difficulties were encountered in finding enough men to crew the ships and man the army. Few respectable peasants or working men volunteered for a life where death was common and rewards uncertain.

To find enough men for the overseas empire, convicts were allowed to work out their sentences in the colonial army; murderers imprisoned in Portugal were allowed to avoid execution by volunteering for banishment to the East.

Wages due to these and more regular volunteers was deferred until after they arrived in India, and then, often for many extra months.

These penniless unfortunates became thieves and pirates in order to live. Many entered the private service of the administrators to become thugs or agents of bribery and corruption. In 1539, the viceroy wrote to the king that of 16,000 men on the payrolls only 2,000 were to be found on duty. Very few Portuguese women came to India and fewer still that were respectable.

The men took concubines – some of whom they married – and women slaves. Goa relied on a huge population of slaves. A relatively low-ranking Portuguese might have had twenty slaves, while a man of substance might have had hundreds. Women slaves were sold semi-naked at auctions and fetched more if they were virgins.

The Portuguese were the dominant power in the Indian Ocean for a century. The only major challenge came in 1538 from a Turkish fleet, which the Portuguese defeated. After the Vijayanagar Empire was overrun by the Muslims in 1565, the Muslim rulers united to attack the Portuguese forts.

This culminated in a ten-month siege of Goa in 1570. The Portuguese survived and continued to control much of the Indian Ocean and much of the spice trade.

Portuguese mastery of the sea was enforced by the cartaz. This was a written permit allowing safe passage. In addition, the cartaz specified what route the ship should follow and what commodities could be carried.

The Portuguese reserved certain monopolies, such as that on spices, to themselves. Some cargoes had to be offloaded at specific ports; horses, for example, had to be taken to Goa.

Any ship without a cartaz, or found to be contravening its conditions, was liable to seizure and confiscation. To enforce the cartaz system, the Portuguese established a number of heavily armed fleets.

The strongest resistance to the Portuguese came from Calicut. After early efforts to effect a truce with the Portuguese, the Zamorins of Calicut became their greatest adversaries.

In this, they were helped by a dynasty of able naval commanders, the Kunjali Marakkars. The Zamorins had originally hoped for help against the Portuguese from the Arabs who traded at Calicut.

This had not materialised. In 1506, many of these Arab traders, fearful of the Portuguese, sold up the long-established businesses they had in the Zamorin’s domain.

As they embarked for Arabia at Pantalayini Kollam, a Portuguese fleet swooped down. The Portuguese captured a huge amount of gold. It is said that 2,000 Arabs were killed.

The Kunjali Marakkars were Moplas, local Muslims, who had become rich merchants. Unlike the foreign Muslims, they were keen to resist the Portuguese. They offered their services to the Hindu Zamorin, became the admirals of his fleet and began to harass Portuguese shipping.

The old Zamorin died. His successor was more sympathetic to the Portuguese, thinking he could come to an arrangement with them. He concluded a treaty with Albuquerque and allowed the Portuguese to build a fort at Calicut. All went well until the death of Albuquerque.

The Portuguese then began to violate the terms of their treaty. They used force to obtain preference for their spice exports and they also seized some Indian vessels. In 1522, this Zamorin who was friendly to the Portuguese died.

The new Zamorin instructed his navy to attack the Portuguese. The Kunjali Marakkars and in particular one of their captains, Kutti Ali, did this to great effect.

Realising that they could not compete on equal terms with the Portuguese warships, the Zamorin’s commanders built large numbers of small boats, rowed by thirty or forty men, to make guerrilla attacks. Bags of cotton were hung over the sides of the boats to give some protection from small arms fire. The heavy cannon of the Portuguese were designed to attack ships similar to their own and they found it difficult to pinpoint the smaller vessels.

Even a successful hit only disabled one boat in a swarm. The Indians hid hundreds of these little boats along the Malabar Coast.

They posted lookouts on vantage points to spot Portuguese shipping that came close to the shore. An elaborate signalling system was established to link these points with each other and with the flotillas of boats below. The Portuguese were particularly vulnerable when the winds dropped. The Indian boats would be rowed out at speed to the becalmed warships. They would send fire arrows into the enemy’s sails, then board on all sides. The Portuguese would usually be heavily outnumbered and cut to pieces by the Indian swordsmen.

Sometimes the Indians were victorious in battle; sometimes the Portuguese. Neither side was able to gain ascendancy over the other. Meanwhile, considerable quantities of spices evaded the Portuguese blockade and made their way to Arabia and Europe.

The battles between the Portuguese and the Zamorin’s admirals, the Marakkars, went on until the late sixteenth century. Towards the close of that century, however, relations between the Zamorins and the Marakkars deteriorated.

A weak Zamorin tried to come to terms with the Portuguese and he allowed them to build a fort at Ponnani where the Marakkars were based. The Marakkars then moved their base to the north of Calicut.

On a peninsula just inside the mouth of the River Kotta, they built a fortress from where they attacked Portuguese ships on both the western and the eastern coasts of India. However, Mohammed Kunjali Marakkar then overreached himself. He began to operate independently of the Zamorin and finally declared himself Raja of Kotta.

The Portuguese saw their opportunity and began negotiations with the Zamorin to launch a joint attack on Kotta. It is probable that, by entering into these negotiations, the Zamorin merely meant to frighten Marakkar into resuming allegiance.

However, Marakkar decided instead to insult the Zamorin. He took an elephant from a royal stable and cut off its tail. The Zamorin then amassed an army to attack Kotta from the mainland while the Portuguese prepared an attack from the sea.

It had been agreed that the joint attack would begin on 4 March 1599, just before dawn. The signal would be given from the top of a prominent landmark, the Iringal Rock, by a burning lance. For some reason, the man to whom this task had been assigned did this at midnight – five hours too early. In the ensuing confusion the Portuguese and the Zamorin suffered heavy losses and had to abandon their assault.

At the end of 1599, the Portuguese and the Zamorin returned to mount a fresh siege. The Portuguese had been reinforced by fresh recruits from Lisbon; the Zamorin had amassed 5,000 soldiers, 1,000 workmen, timber and fifteen elephants, plus some ships to guard the river. Meanwhile, a Portuguese sea blockade of Kotta had further weakened the defenders.

Marakkar had ships in place to seal the mouth of the river, but the Portuguese, with the help of the Zamorin’s men and elephants, dragged some ships overland into the river. Heavy cannon were installed on the riverbank to bombard the fort.

The Portuguese managed to capture some of the fort’s outworks and install themselves. Their artillery was then able to move forward to batter the fortress. It was an unequal battle.

Marakkar was soon reduced to a few hundred men and decided to sue for peace.

The Zamorin merely wanted Marakkar’s surrender, but the Portuguese wanted his life. Marakkar knew this and was only prepared to give himself up to the Zamorin who had promised not to kill him and his men. Secretly, however, the Zamorin had agreed to allow the Portuguese to abduct Marakkar. On 16 March 1600, Marakkar surrendered.

The Portuguese and the Zamorin’s men lined up on either side of the main gate. Four hundred men marched out between them and submitted to the Zamorin, who let them free.

Then came Marakkar with a black cloth on his head and a sword with the point lowered in his hand. He went up to the Zamorin, presented him with the sword and fell at the ruler’s feet. The Portuguese then grabbed Marakkar and began to take him away.

The Zamorin’s warriors were appalled at this treachery. A fracas ensued, but the Portuguese managed to hold on to their prize captive and forty of his followers. Kotta was sacked and burnt. A week after the surrender, the Portuguese sailed for Goa with Marakkar and his men in chains.

In Goa there were great celebrations. The victors were welcomed with gun salutes, together with "drums and fifes, bagpipes and trumpets". The first of the captives was landed and stoned to death. Marakkar was taken to the Tronco, the prison used by the Inquisition. At a show trial he was sentenced to death.

A great crowd, presided over by the viceroy and the archbishop, came to see Marakkar executed. He was beheaded with an axe. The body was quartered, and then exhibited on the beaches. Then, ‘his head was salted and conveyed to Cannanore, there to be stuck on a standard for a terror to the Moors.’ Afterwards, all his surviving companions were executed.

By combining with the Portuguese to defeat Marakkar, the Zamorin secured his own eclipse. The last great power to oppose the Portuguese on the coast of Malabar no longer had an effective navy.

During the sixteenth century, the Portuguese built an extraordinary number of factories and forts in India. These forts were there to protect the factories and enforce a monopoly on the purchase of spices and other designated goods. Many were huge and had large garrisons.

Working in coordination with the Portuguese navy, these forts were able to monitor virtually all shipping arriving and departing from India’s ports. They enforced the rule that all ships on the Indian Ocean must carry a Portuguese permit, a cartaz.

After the construction of the small fort at Cochin in 1503, came others in rapid succession. There was, of course, a cluster of major forts in Goa. On the west coast there were also huge forts at Diu, Daman, Bassein, Chaul, Cannanore and Cranganore, plus a massive complex at Cochin. There were more forts on the Coromandel Coast; others skirting the Bay of Bengal.

All together, there were at least fifty major Portuguese forts in India and many other minor fortifications. Garrisoning these forts – and others in the Far East and Africa – as well as finding men for its ships, was not easy for a country such as Portugal, which had a population of only a million.

Moreover, the Portuguese were ploughing many of their resources into the development of Brazil.

Nevertheless, as long as Portugal could enforce its monopoly in the East, it was just possible to sustain the edifice. Any serious breach of that monopoly would bring disaster. Despite its control of the high seas, the Portuguese failed to achieve total control over the spice trade. The merchants of Malabar found it advantageous to take some of the crop inland and have it transported on the backs of animals and men to the Middle East and Europe. Or they would move the spices clandestinely, well away from the closely monitored main ports in small boats up the western coast. Gradually, these new routes became very significant.

As a result, Venice partly recovered the trade it had lost to Portugal. The Portuguese, however, were still amassing wealth. Not only did they ship huge quantities of spices and other goods back to Portugal but, with their cartaz, they also levied a toll on the large trade between the territories which bordered the Indian Ocean. All this was set to change with the arrival of the Dutch and the British.

(Excerpted with publisher's permission.)

Last updated: December 20, 2016 | 08:02
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