Portugual Empire in the East

1502 to 1739
Portugal — versus — Arabs, Ottomans, Egyptians, Indian Rajas

Exploration of West Africa — 1419-1499      Portuguese Conquest of South Asia — 1503-1557     
Decline of the Portuguese Empire in the East — 1600-1796     


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portugal led the world in navigation, exploration, and ship-building. During this time it systematically built up a trading empire in Asia that was the envy of all of Europe, and destroyed the monopoly that Arab merchants had over trade with the east. This was enormously significant for several reasons. First, it greatly weakened the powerful Ottoman empire and its allies, which was had conquered much Christian territory in the Balkans and threatened all of Europe. Second, it facilitated the spread of the Christian Faith throughout the east, since Portuguese missionaries actively evangelized natives. Third, it brought enormous riches to Portugal and later to Spain, but ultimately weakened them due to corruption and decadence.

By the seventeenth century the Portuguese trading empire in the east began to decline. The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 and within a few generations had conquered many Portuguese trading ports, less by arms than by more agressive trading practices. Portugal continued to loose influence in the region for the next few centuries until the 1770's when the French and Mysoris conquered many of Portugal's remaining holdings on the Malabar coast of India. Their primary portt at Goa, however, remained in Portugal's hands until 1961 when it was peacefully ceded to the Indian government.

Exploration of West Africa : 1419-1499

The driving for behind Portugal's sea-faring escapades of the fifteenth century, was Prince Henry the Navigator. In his youth he fought against the Moors at Ceuta, a Mediterranean island which served as a base for Moorish trade and piracy. The rest of his life he dedicated to the arts of ship-building, map-making, exploration, and navigation. Slowly and systematically, he oversaw the exploration of the West Coast of and established Portuguese forts and trading posts all along the African coast. Although he died well before the Cape of Good Hope was rounded, his legacy long survived him, and his innovations in ship-building and navigation spread throughout Europe.

From the conquest of Ceuta in 1415, until Bartholomew Diaz's famous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Portugal made steady progress in trade, colonization, and missionary activity along the West Coast of Africa. Portuguese colonies on the west coast of Africa include:

YearLandmark Location
1415 Ceuta Island South of Spain
1419 Madeira Islands West of Morocco
1427 Azore Islands West of Portugal
1434 Cape Bojador Western Sahara
1441 Senegal River Senegal
1445 Cape Verde Islands West of Senegal
1475 Bight of Benin Gulf of Guinea
1482 Congo River Congo
1486 Cape Cross Namibia
1488 Cape of Good Hope South Africa

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Ceuta (First ) Portuguese victory
Fought August 14, 1415 between 45,000 Portuguese invaders led by Prince Henry the Navigator and the Moorish defenders of the city. The Moors were caught off guard and the Moorish trading post located on an island south of Spain was captured by nightfall.

Short Biography
Henry the Navigator Made improvements in navigation, ship building, map-making. Organized sailing expeditions along the coast of Africa.
Bartholomew Diaz Discovered Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost point of Africa.
Alvise Cadamosto Early Portuguese explorer under Prince Henry the Navigator, who discovered Cape Verde and Gambia river.
Nuno Tristan Portuguese explorer, sent by Henry the Navigator, who sailed as far south as Guinea in 1445.
Diogo Cao Portuguese explorer who discovered the Congo river and sailed as far south as Angola.

Portuguese Conquest of South Asia : 1503-1557

In 1498, only six years after Columbus discovered the new world, the Portuguese Admiral Vasco da Gama reached India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Within two decades from this date, Portugal had effectively destroyed the Arab merchant routes, conquered dozens of strategic trading posts from the East Coast of Africa all the way to Indonesia, and was well on its way to establishing a Portuguese Empire in Asia. The empire consisted only of trading posts of course, and almost no inland regions were even explored, much less conqured, but the opening of a trade route directly from the East to Europe, in a manner that bypassed the Arab traders, was of terrific consequence.

Two years after da Gama returned from the East he lead a second expedition, this time with 20 warships. The Portuguese agressively resisted the Arab traders, seized and sank many of their ships and forced the Zamorin of Calicut to agree to a treaty permitting Portuguese trade in the area. Hardly had he returned that Francisco Almeida led another fleet to the east. This time, he conquered or destroyed every Arab trading post along Eastern Coast of Africa, and immediately upon his arrival in India, organized more exploration and military expedititions. Almeida prevailed in numerous battles with the Arabs, and engaged in considerable piracy. In the Battle of Diu, 1509, all of the Arab forces, including their allies in Egypt, India, and even Venice were arrayed against the Portuguese, but they prevailed handily.

Almeida, the first governor of India was a worthy successor to Vasco da Gama, but Afonso Albuquerue, who followed him, was even more aggressive in his conquests. Almeida had permanently established Portuguese presence in the Far East, but Albuquerque, in his short reign of only six years, drove the the Arabs from the East and nearly conquered their home base. He fought Arabs from the Red Sea, all along the Malabar Coast, to the Spice Islands. He conquered Goa (1510) on the Western Coast of India, and Malacca (1511) in Malaysia, the two largest trading posts in the region, and even took the island of Hormuz (1507) off the coast of Arabia.

The governors that followed Almeida and Albuquerque were less impressive, but the Portuguese held their posts when the Ottomans regrouped and attacked Dui and Goa several decades later on. The Portuguese also established trading posts in Macau, China and Nagasaki, Japan and other locations in Indonesia, India, and Africa. Because of their superior ships, they came to control much trade between eastern countries as well as between the east and the west. A list of major Portuguese trading centers follows.

EstablishedLocation Year Lost Lost to Whom
1503 Cochin, Malabar Coast 1773 Mysoris, aided by the French
1505 Colombo, Sri Lanka 1658 Dutch East India Company
1507 Hormuz, Persian Gulf 1622 Persia, aided by England
1509 Dui, Malabar Coast 1961 Ceded to Independent India
1510 Goa, Malabar Coast 1961 Ceded to Independent India
1511 Malacca, Malaysia 1641 Dutch East India Company
1513 Maluku (Spice Islands) 1646 Dutch East India Company
1534 Bombay, Malabar Coast 1661 Ceded to Britain as a Dowry
1542 Nagasaki, Japan 1637 Takugawa Shogunate, aide by Dutch
1557 Macau, China 1974 Ceded to People's Republic of China

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Goa (East India Conquest ) Portuguese victory
In 1511, Goa, held by a Portuguese garrison, under Albuquerque, was invested by Kumal Khan, General of the Rajah of Bijapore, at the head of 60,000 men. After a siege of 20 days Albuquerque found his communication with his fleet threatened, and withdrew the garrison. In the same year, however, having collected a force of 1,500 men with 23 ships at Cananore, he attacked Goa, and at once forced an entrance. After severe fighting in the streets, the Deccanis fled in confusion to the mainland, with a loss of 6,000. The Portuguese lost 50 only.
Battle of Malacca (East India Conquest ) Portuguese victory
This city, which was defended by 30,000 Malays, under the Sultan Mohammed, was captured by Albuquerque, with 19 ships and 1,400 Portuguese regulars, after a very feeble defense, in 1513.
Battle of Diu (East India Conquest ) Portuguese victory
This fortified Portuguese factory was besieged early in September, 1537, by a fleet of 76 Turkish galleys, and 7,000 soldiers under Solyman, Pasha of Egypt, acting with whom was an army of 20,000 Gujeratis under Bahadur Shah, and Khojah Zofar, an Italian renegade. The garrison of 600, under Antonio de Silveira, repulsed assault after assault, but were nearly at the end of their resources, when the false rumour of an approaching Portuguese fleet caused Solyman to withdraw.
Siege of Diu (East India Conquest ) Portuguese victory
In 1545 Diu was again besieged by the Gujeratis, the garrison being commanded by Mascarenhas. Khojah Zofar, who led the besiegers, was killed in the course of the siege, and was succeeded by Rami Khan. The garrison, at the end of several months, was on the point of surrendering, owing to famine, when it was relieved by Juan de Castro, who signally defeated the Gujeratis, and raised the siege.
Siege of Goa (Mahratta conquest ) Portuguese victory
This fort, which was held by a Portuguese garrison of 700, under the Viceroy, Luis de Ataida, was attacked by Ali Adil Shah, Rajah of Bijapore, with 135,000 men and 350 guns, in 1570. Aided by the civilians, and 1,300 monks, the garrison made so strenuous a defense, that the Rajah was beaten off, after losing 12,000 men.

Short Biography
Vasco da Gama Portuguese explorer who voyaged to Calicut, India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Francisco de Almeida Portuguese general who served in the wars against Granada, and was appointed the first governor of Portuguese India.
Alfonso de Albuquerque Portuguese commander who won numerous naval conflicts in Asia and helped establish a colony in India at Goa.
Francisco Barreto Portuguese explorer who served as governor of India, and died searching for Gold in South Africa.
Lourenzo Almeida Portuguese naval commander, who aided his father Francisco, in his conquests in India.

Decline of the Portuguese Empire in the East : 1600-1796

In the early 1600's the British and Dutch East India Companies were formed, so that the Protestant nations in Northern Europe, might have a share of the Eastern trade. They threatened, and eventually superceded, the Portuguese trading empire in the East, not as much by conquest as by superior organization. By the 1600's, Portugal was no longer the ambitious, war-like power it had been 100 years earlier, but was united with Spain, and in general decline. The Dutch companies therefore, set up trading posts in regions nearby those of Portugal and over time, became dominant, particularly in Malaysia and the Spice Islands. It was not until the 1700's that the British East India Company began agressive expansion, particularly in India.

A few open conflicts did occur between the trading companies, particularly in Malaysia and the Spice islands, where the Dutch aggressively established control in the 1640's. The most dramatic loss of Portuguese influence during this era, however, was in Japan. When the Takugawa Shogunite came to power, it drove the Portuguese out of mainland Japan and murdered thousands of newly converted Christians, before closing its door on trade to countries but Holland. The main Portuguese stronghold, however, remained the Malabar coast in India, but this declined over time as the French and British gained influence in the region. Nevertheless, Goa and Dui, two of the oldest Portuguese ports in the east, were not ceded to the Indian government until 1961, and Macau, an island off the coast of China, was not ceded to the Chinese until 1974.

DateBattle Summary
Siege of Vasai (West Coast Africa ) Marathas victory
This Portuguese fort was besieged by the Marathas, led by the brother of Baji Rao I, in 1739. The fort was taken and the Portuguese were driven from the surrounding area.

Story Links
Book Links
Land of Prester John  in  South Africa  by  Ian D. Colvin
Vasco da Gama  in  South Africa  by  Ian D. Colvin
Story of Almeida  in  South Africa  by  Ian D. Colvin
Siege of Mozambique  in  South Africa  by  Ian D. Colvin
Rediscovery of West Africa  in  The Land of the Golden Trade  by  John Lang
Portuguese and Dutch on the Gold Coast  in  The Land of the Golden Trade  by  John Lang
Success at Last  in  Our Empire Story  by  H. E. Marshall
In the East Indies  in  Ferdinand Magellan  by  Frederick A. Ober
Malacca, Morocco, and Home  in  Ferdinand Magellan  by  Frederick A. Ober
Death of Magellan  in  Ferdinand Magellan  by  Frederick A. Ober
Predecessors of Albuquerque  in  Albuquerque: Rulers of India  by  Morse Stephens
Early Career  in  Albuquerque: Rulers of India  by  Morse Stephens
Conquest of Goa  in  Albuquerque: Rulers of India  by  Morse Stephens
Conquest of Malacca  in  Albuquerque: Rulers of India  by  Morse Stephens
Expedition to the Red Sea  in  Albuquerque: Rulers of India  by  Morse Stephens
Angria, the Pirate  in  India  by  Victor Surridge
Golden Goa  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

Vasco da Gama meets the Zamorin of Calicut
 in Famous Men of Modern Times

Vasco da Gama landing at Kalicut
 in India: Peeps at History

D'Azambuja receiving the Native Chief at Elmira
 in The Land of the Golden Trade

Alfonso de Albuqurque
 in Albuquerque: Rulers of India

Vasco de Gama
 in A Book of Discovery

A Ship of Albuquerque's fleet
 in A Book of Discovery

A Ship of Vasco De Gama's Time
 in European Hero Stories

The attack on the Goa Boats
 in The Adventures of Vasco da Gama