Portuguese India: The Orphans of the King

The fall of the Indo-Greek kingdoms in the first century did not end Europe’s relationship or fascination with India. Mediterranean merchants continued to trade in Indian wares and swap stories of the Subcontinent’s fabulous wealth. This trade, however, was largely indirect. First the Romans, then the Byzantines, then the Venetians made fortunes on the India trade by the proxy of Arab and other merchants who plied the Indian Ocean and brought its treasures into the ports of the Red Sea, such as Jeddah. India itself, though suffering from many other waves of invaders, remained free for many centuries of direct European governance.

Portuguese church in goa

This all began to change on 20 May 1498. The inhabitants of Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast, long accustomed to seeing Middle Eastern vessels enter their harbour, saw very different ships’ prows come over the horizon that morning. The tall, slender, black carracks were the finest Europe then produced, fresh from shipyards in bustling Lisbon, which had been a wilderness in the time of the Greeks. Anchoring off the coast, the Portuguese convoy invited some local fishermen aboard and bought a number of goods from them. One of their number advised the foreigners to deal directly with the local ruler, the Zamorin. The Portuguese commander, Vasco da Gama, met with the Zamorin but was unable to meet his demands for customs duties and gold payment for purchased goods. As a result, several of Da Gama’s agents were detained by local authorities in security for payment and Da Gama took several native hostages in retribution. After long negotiation, Da Gama and the Zamorin reached a compromise that allowed the full Portuguese crew to return home with some of their purchases—a cargo that, restricted as it was, was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.

This voyage proved the worth of the passage Da Gama had discovered to reach India by sailing around Africa. Previously, the entire India trade had been the province of Mediterranean powers, such as Venice. Da Gama’s discovery of a route bypassing the Mediterranean held out the possibility of an economic revolution for the Atlantic countries—a revolution that, intially, Portugal had all to itself.

Da Gama’s route was strategically advantageous, but it was long and dangerous. A crew leaving Lisbon had first to sail to Spanish territory in the Canary Islands and pick up currents headed for South America, which quickly resulted in the accidental discovery of Brazil. From the coast of Brazil, ships had to cut across the Atlantic again to South Africa, where what is now euphemistically known as the Cape of Good Hope was then more appropriately called the Cape of Storms. Supposing a ship survived the rounding of the Cape, it had still to navigate the treacherous reef-filled waters of the channel between Madagascar and mainland Africa, racing to reach Mozambique by the end of August and catch the seasonal monsoon winds that would carry it to India. If these were missed, the ship would be forced to wait in Africa an entire year for a new opportunity. In the whole voyage, only two good ports of call for repairs and resupply existed: one in Senegal and one on Mozambique Island. The distance between them was vast and no other ships in Europe at the time could traverse it without simply being shaken apart by wind and wave. Even the Portuguese vessels were barely seaworthy by the time they reached Mozambique, with crews already severely diminished by the scurvy and dysentery that began ravaging them before the Cape of Good Hope had even been reached. In the course of a complete carreira da Índia (India run), it was not uncommon to lose between one-third and one-half of the crew and between one-fifth and one-half of the ships.

And yet the run, despite such losses, was immensely profitable. Between the sale of goods taken from Portugal’s Africa colonies, such as gold and pearls, and the purchase in India of spices and other exotic products for sale in Europe, the value of even a single ship from the armadas that ranged between five and twenty was inconceivable by the standards of the day. When an English privateer, Sir John Burroughs, captured the 1600 ton Portuguese carrack Madre de Deus off the Azores in 1592, it is estimated that his loot taken was equal to half the entire English treasury.

As much as ninety percent of the holds of the returning ships were loaded with black pepper, though significant trades were also done in cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace (together known as the “glorious spices”). Because no captain could count on finding a whole hold’s worth of spices in any town’s market at once, however, and because bulk purchases of that size would have created scarcities and driven up prices, Portuguese captains depended on locally-based Portuguese factors to purchase spices and other goods slowly throughout the year to be loaded onto the ships upon arrival. It was the maintenance of ‘factories’ to serve as stations for the work of the factors, as well as the need for forts to defend the occasionally attacked factories, that led the Portuguese to establish the Estado da Índia (State of India) as a formal political entity of European control. Built initially out of the wreckage of the uncooperative Zamorin’s kingdom when Portuguese forces at last ousted him in an effort to secure more favorable terms for trade, it quickly expanded to include numerous enclaves on both Indian coasts, with Goa as its crown jewel.

To these captured towns came not only Portuguese sailors and officials looking to make new lives for themselves out of or in Asia, but also órfās do rei (orphans of the king), Portuguese girls whose fathers had been killed in battle and who were subsequently raised at state expense and sent overseas to provide wives for Portuguese men in the colonies. Some, however, were married to significant locals and, in India, they were often taken as brides by local high-caste Christians, whom the Catholic Church was anxious to convert to the Latin Rite. In this way, the Portuguese presence became a permanent fixture of India’s littoral until the twentieth century. We will return to Goa in a future article to discover what became of these orphans and their children, but for the moment, the fate of one in particular demands our attention.

A young woman named Donna Lucia was among the orfas sent to India, but she never arrived. Her ship was captured by Dutch vessels in a raid upon the Portuguese convoy, after which she was taken to the Dutch colony of Surat and courted by the most eminent merchants, the wealthiest of whom she ultimately married, as he allowed her to remain a Catholic in private. While the wealthy merchant of Surat gained a beautiful exotic bride, the commander of the Dutch raiding squadron gained access to valuable Portuguese naval technology and even more valuable Portuguese maps, which he swiftly returned to Holland, where the activities of a Portuguese factor charged with overseeing the sale of Indian goods in Europe on behalf of the crown had inadvertently made the previously sleepy city of Antwerp one of the most thriving and vital ports in Europe. With coin gained as middlemen in the Portuguese trade in one hand and maps taken in piracy of Portuguese ships in the other, the merchants of Holland began organizing an expedition to bring still more Europeans to the shores of wealthy India. It is with those upstart merchants of the young republic that we will sail next time.

Author: R. Joseph Capet

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