Portuguese Empire in the Indian Ocean

Portuguese in the Indian Ocean

The integration of the Arabian Seas with Indian Ocean studies has received increased interest among world historians in the past few decades.  The sweeping narrative and ongoing project of R.J. Barendse, The Arabian Seas (Barendse R. J., 2002); and André Wink, Al-Hind, the making of the Indo-Islamic World. (Wink, 2004) are among a growing number of works that see the commerce and society of the Arabian Seas and Indian Ocean as interconnected.  Together these works offer a broader historical inquiry that expands beyond the emphasis on European empires[1].  This new research offers ways to understand regional ocean trade and societies both before and after impact of the European empires[2].   Historians make increasing use of not only commercial documents but narratives of culture and society that reflect the material conditions of society and communities based around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Seas[3].  In this paper I examine the rise and relative demise of the natural economy of the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas from the 14 to early 19th century. In this period we find a speculative system known as mudhārabah that allowed a speculative profit or loss on maritime trade across this region. This system was pressured by the absorption and realignment into the modern world system.

The natural economy of the pre-modern Arabian Seas and Indian Ocean system was defined in Khaldoun Hasan al-Naqeeb’sal-Mujtama` wa-al-dawlah fī al-Khalīj wa-al-Jazīrah al-`Arabīyah: min manẓūr mukhtalif (Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula: a different perspective) (al-Naqeeb, 1985).  Al-Naqeeb was a Kuwaiti historian and sociologist whose critical writings and position as an academic and intellectual were both noteworthy and rare in authoritarian states where the comparative study of both modern and contemporary history is generally discouraged and deemphasized[4].  Accordingly, we take up his theory of the natural economy of the Indian Ocean system that described the making and unmaking of a regional economy and system of trade. Of particular interest is his emphasis on the resistance strategies to maintain the muḍārabah system in spite of the eruption of the age of imperialism into the Arabian Seas and Indian Ocean after 1500 (al-Naqeeb, 1985, p. 41).

Al-Naqeeb identified this natural economy as a system of local capitalist relations that depended on speculative capital put forth by individual lenders and owners of local capital assets, boat owners and primary goods and commodities.  Themuḍārabah or speculative capital required an advance of capital by the boat owner to pay for the crew and for capital to buy goods at various ports on a voyage.  In return, the owner of the capital who may have been based in a home port along the Arabian Seas expected a return for his capital upon the voyage’s return.  The savvy of the captain and crew in negotiating and trading for profit at each step of their voyage across the Arabian Seas into the Indian Ocean network meant that the crew and captain had to measure their profit to ensure their own pay or cut of the profit on their return voyage.  On some legs of the voyage, individual crew members might take a stake in purchasing a commodity to be traded at the next port and thereby receive a small wage or profit from their contribution.  For other destinations, the crew might not receive any pay on the outgoing segment but awaited their compensation based on the stake of the profit from the commodity bought and later resold on the return home.

The Portuguese Empire and the Arabian Seas 1500-1620:  The Origins of European Piracy

To put it bluntly, the idea of pillage and piracy of the world oceans originated with the European expansion in the 16th century.  The Europeans learned to organize this piracy into legal corporations chartered by the state and financed by wealthy investors. The divergence of mercantilism, usually seen as a system of European Empire building by financing its maritime empires of the 16th and 17th centuries needs to be viewed in the context of earlier attempts at state support, as in the Ming Dynasty’s support for their late 14th and early 15th century development of the Indian Ocean trade.  Mercantilism, may be defined as a system of state supported merchant companies, as in the Dutch support for their Dutch East Indies Company, or the English for their East India Company contrasted with the Arab and Indian Ocean based mudhārabah system described by Al-Naqeeb. Whereas the mudhārabah system passed considerable risk on to the owners and seamen, the late 18th century British mercantilist factory system that ran commercial ships from Basra in Iraq, and Bushire in Iran, partly ensured the safety of their shipping through the requests by local agents of the East India Company for a naval cruiser to accompany ships with valuable cargo (Jervis, 1763)[1].  This British reliance on naval cruisers was also in response to armed resistance by a local ruler, Mīr Muhanna, who held up the British woolen trade between Shiraz and Bushire[2].

The effect of the Portuguese arrival after 1500 is seen in the destruction of the Oman port town of Qalhāt.  In Ibn Majid’s Fawa’id, Qalhāt was a notable destination for Arab mariners making their way out of Hormuz, who depending on the route and the navigable may have needed to plan an extended stay of four months to a year.  (ibn Mājid al-Saʻdi & Tibbetts, 1971, p. 225).  For evidence of the Omani port town of Qalhāt’s enduring commercial importance up until its raid and destruction by the Portuguese in the early 16th century we must rely on the recent archaeological projects at Qalhāt that have shed much light on the importance of this seaport town of Southern Arabia (Rouguelle, 2010)[3].  The town flourished from the 12 to 16th centuries, when it was abandoned in large part because of the disastrous attack by the Portuguese (de Albuquerque, 1874).  At its peak the Portuguese presence lasted from about 1507 until 1620 when separate but successive military operations by Persia, the Dutch and British forced the Portuguese to withdraw from the Gulf. The occupation began in 1507 with the sacking of various Arab Gulf towns and islands, including Hormuz and Muscat, and again in 1515 as led by the notorious captain Affonso de Albuquerque.  The Arabic sources from this period were written a few decades after these invasions.  These include Qutb al-Din Muhammad al-Nahrawali’ text from 1582 of the Ottoman conquest of the Hejaz and attempts to conquer Yemen (al-Nahrawali al-Makki, 1967).

As the Portuguese arrival into the Indian Ocean brought systematic pillage and war crimes it also required a legal system to handle disputes.  The temporary solution was a tribunal system of justice for handling power struggles among the elite command of the Portuguese empire in the Indian Ocean. An inquiry into De Albuquerque’s for atrocities, included allegations of abuse of local women in Hormuz[4]. On the other hand, the case of four runaway Portuguese sailors who sought refuge and may have claimed conversion to Islam as a means of seeking protection, was handled with direct negotiation with local Arab leaders and threats of attacks if they were not returned[5].

Despite the assaults on the coastal port towns by Portuguese, in about 1530-31 Malabar merchants continued to send small trade ships up the Indian coast to trade at Surat, and even as far as Basra in Iraq.  Only a few of these ships that had harbored in Basra escaped the Portuguese attacks and destruction of their ships (Zayn-al-Dīn & Rowlandson, 1833, p. 127).  The long term devastation of destruction of the ships was emphasized by Zayn al-Din, who noted that it was only during a period of armistice between the Zamorin rulers of Calicut (Calcutta) and the Portuguese that a return to normalcy and seafaring was possible (Zayn-al-Dīn & Rowlandson, 1833, p. 128). An attempt by merchants from along the Malabar coast to send a direct shipment of pepper and ginger to the port of Jeddah in the Red Sea was intercepted by the Portuguese (Zayn-al-Dīn & Rowlandson, 1833, p. 140).

These events immediately preceded the arrival of the Ottoman fleets that besieged and attacked the Portuguese positions at Diu in 1537-1538 (al-Nahrawali al-Makki, 1967)[6].  After the Ottoman fleet’s withdrawal, the Portuguese continued to consolidate their hold along the Malabar coast and ruled out as contraband any unauthorized shipment of pepper, ginger, cloves and fennel.  The Portuguese also cut off all long-distance, cross-ocean trade to Arabia in one direction and to the Malaccan Straits in another.  The only goods Muslim merchants were allowed to trade along the coast were limited amounts of nuts, cocoa-nuts and cloth.  Rice especially was made contraband, thereby cutting off the historic routes of shipment of grain across the Arabian Sea to Arabia.

What is more troubling is the overlapping coexistence and expansion of slavery out of the natural economy of the Indian Ocean into the rise of the world system of the 16th century and subsequent development of plantations for larger scale commodity production.  In the Arabian Seas region where the plantation system was never feasible, slavery persisted with the development of local manual labor needs.  Instead of large farms and plantations that required millions of new slaves in the New World, the Arabian Peninsula and adjoining regions grew dependent on slaves of African and sometimes Indian origin as labor for ship crews, pearl diving, agriculture, and domestic labor.  Such slaves were bought, inherited or passed on as gifted family assets.

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[1] Barendse’s work first appeared in 1998 under the title of The Arabian Seas 1640-1700.  This project has since been continued and expanded into the three volume study The Arabian Seas

[2] As an example this paper has benefited greatly from use of the extensive digital collections and libraries of the Sheikh Al Qassimi Gulf Studies Research Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

[3] In 2009 the British Academy sponsored a project begun in 2009, Islam, Trade and Politics Across the Indian Ocean

[4] The Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb archive is especially useful for scholars and available at http://www.khaldounalnaqeeb.com/en/index.jsp

[3] My thanks are due to Professor Axelle Rouguelle for providing a personal copy of this article.

[4] See the Annex (Portuguese Archives Records, Sheikh Dr. Sultan Al Qassimi Gulf Studies Research Center), Dal Relações, page 16 . Cartas  II pp. 159-231. [Cananor], 20(?) June 1508.  Inquiry to be carried out in India concerning the conduct of Afonso de Albuquerque in Ormuz (comprising 52 sections). ().

[5] See Annex 21, Portuguese Archives Records, and Antonio Dias Farinha, Afonso De Albuquerque’s double conquest of Ormuz. Studia Revista, No 48 1989.

[6] Among the earliest commentaries on this Ottoman campaign against the Portuguese at Diu is the late 16th century account by Qutb al-Din  Al-Nahrawali, al-Barq al-Yamani fi al-fath al-‘Uthmani (The Yemeni Lightning concerning the Ottoman Conquest), (Riyadh:  Mansuhurat Dar al-Yamamah, 1967), of which only the portion related to the Ottoman invasion against Yemen has been translated into English by Clive Smith, Lightning Over Yemen: A History of the Ottoman Campaign in Yemen, 1596-71 (London:  I.B. Tauris, 2002).

[1]     See the October __, 1763 letter from Benjamin Jervis, East India Company Resident at Bushere [Bushire], to Charles Crommelin, President and Governor at Bombay. Ref: IOR/R/15/1/1, f 58-58v.  Retrieved from Qatar Digital Archives on May 15, 2015 from http://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100024196150.0x000082

[2] See the October 13, 1763, letter from Benjamin Jervis, East India Company Resident at Bushere [Bushire], to Charles Crommelin, President and Governor at Bombay [‎58v] (2/2).  Retrieved from Qatar Digital Archives on May 15, 2015 from http://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100024196150.0x000082.  It appears the British strategy was to use the visible presence of a naval cruiser in support of gaining one local elite, Sadiq Khan Zand, the ruler of the Zand Dynasty in Iran, who the British perceived benefited from the sale of imported British woolen trade, to threaten or put down the resistance of another local ruler, Mīr Muhanna, who did not.

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