A Military History of India by Sir Jadunath Sarkar appeared
in 1960. It was a posthumous publication. It covered the major land battles of India from
326 BC to 1928 AD. The naval battles were not addressed. Their exclusion is almost
dismissive. The author says, in his note mere skirmishes, panic flights without
striking a blow, rebellious and riots are outside the scope of this study. Sieges and
naval fights will not be treated here.
The mindset which excluded the seas and the
oceans from the military history in the case of an eminent writer and chronicler aptly
reflects the landlocked Indian perception. Although, by 1960 India had seen
the rise of European power in the world and in India and everyone knows that this
phenomenon is based upon mastery of the maritime trade and route no attempt is made to
examine the reasons why this came about. Why the richest country the world has ever known,
India, became a basket case and the poor perfidious Brits the richest.
All in a hundred years from 1757 to 1857. The name of the battle which established
European supremacy on the sea is unfamiliar to most Indians. Even students of history
asked to name three most important battles in Indias history will fail to think of
the fight on waters of the sea and the oceans. India was enslaved by the Brits from 1757
Prior to that the Portuguese were the dominant force in the Indian Ocean from the
arrival of Vasco da Gama and in due course the battle fought by a successor of his against
the combined forces of the Sultan of Turkey and the Zamorin of Calicut to show how the
white became supreme on the waters.
In his poem Sofaliya the learned master mariner who piloted the Portuguese to India,
Ahmed ibne Majid describes the arrival of the Portuguese in India thus:
There (at Calicut) they sold and bought, showed their power, bribed the
Zamorin and oppressed people. With them came the hatred for Islam! And people were afraid
and anguished.And the land of the Zamorin was torn apart from that of Mecca and Guardafui
(the cape at the entrance of the Red Sea) People doubted them (the Portuguese), wondering
whether they were wise men or demented thieves.
He goes on and blames himself for having shown these rapacious men the way to the
riches of India, Oh! Had I known the consequences that would come from them! People
were surprised by what they did!
What did the Portuguese do? On arrival in Calicut the Captain Major of the Portuguese,
Vasco da Gama, went to see the Zamorin. Zamorin is the European mutilation of Saamudrika
(Lord High Admiral), also known as Kunna Ikkonathiri (Lord of Hills and Waves) who had
many of the Malabar ports surrounding Calicut subject to his authority.
When after passing many ante-rooms da Gama was finally ushered into the presence of the
Saamudrika, Mana Vikrama, who was reclining on a couch covered with green silk with a
brocade, under the shade of a silk canopy. His chest was bare and he wore more jewels than
On his left arm, secured above the elbow an immense diamond shone in its splendour of
suspension from the bracelet encrusted with jewels. A string of immense pearls adorned his
neck and he sported a paathakkam, insignia of royalty.
This consisted of a heart shaped emerald surrounded by rubies of pigeons blood
colour and clear water. The Zamorin was chewing betel and from time to time cleared his
mouth into a gold spittoon held by a boy servant, who was also elegantly bejewelled.
Behind this boy stood another page holding a drawn sword with a gold and jewel hilt as
well as a shield with a gold and jewel border. Before the parleys began bowls full of
fruit were circulated to show welcome and goodwill.
Da Gama knelt to present the letter sent by King Manuel of Portugal. He professed his
peaceable intentions to assert that all he wanted was to buy spices and pay for them, to
load his ships and depart. He swore that if he returned from his voyage without reaching
Calicut his king would have him beheaded in public!
The Zamorin replied that there was no problem in exchanging cinnamon, cloves, precious
stones and pepper for gold, silver and the kind of cloth da Gama was wearing!
At this moment the Portuguese committed a blunder which the Arab merchants present
quickly converted into lése majesté and insult. The Portuguese presented jars of
honey, hats, scarlet hoods, strings of coral and wash basins. The Zamorin did not
express and pleasure at the gifts.
Da Gamas escorts were informed by the Arab merchants with whom they were lodged
for the night that the poorest merchant from Mecca would have given a better account
of goodwill by giving much more in the way of presents and gifts.
For a man of Zamorins eminence and quality wash basins and jars of honey were
derisory and contemptible and showed lack of respect. The Portuguese had the confidence of
their guns and had made mincemeat of African troops earlier in the voyage.
They diverted themselves, By singing and dancing to the sounds of trumpets
(Alvaro Velhos Diary). By now the Zamorin had got fed up of these rude and rustic
lot and the soldiers apprehended them and led them to prison.
The Portuguese were saved from a longer spell in prison by four Nair warriors who had
been sent aboard to be hostages for the Portuguese. The prisoners were forthwith released
and lavish presents given to them along with apologies for the incarceration.
The above story is from Portuguese accounts. There is no Indian record or chronicle to
check the accuracy. the whole story of arrest and release does not ring true.
The European account avers All the Zamorins attempts at reconciliation were
futile; da Gama was never one to forgive. His heart burned for revenge at this insult to
his honour. On the decks of San Gabriel he embraced his brother, as the crew looked
on and wept in relief.
After spices had been bought the ships prepared to leave Calicut everyone greatly
rejoicing writes the diarist Velho at their good fortune in having made a
The Portuguese account suggests that the Zamorin sent a message pleading with da
Gama to stay longer and load more spices and that those who had taken him
hostage would be punished. In an ominous response the admiral ordered the
gunners to fire broadsides above the city; then the white sails with their blood-red
crosses were unfurled. The time would come, said da Gama when the Zamorin would repent
The European author who provides the Portuguese account of dire consequences following
a slight to the honour of an adventurer from the West next quotes the only Indian account
without seeing that it did not mention the cannonade (the very first such experience in
Malabar) which means that the Portuguese version is heavy with a dose of travellers
On the return journey the pilot was no longer on board to help navigate the ships
through the shoals, eddies, tides, snares and so on. The Portuguese were as yet
monsoon illiterate and were meandering all over the place. At the Laccadives
they captured a tall white-bearded man who spoke Italian. He was soon on the rack being
He told the Portuguese that 40 small ships were on their tail and all he had to was to
give a prearranged signal and the attack would begin! He next offered peace and proved his
bonafides by revealing where the attacking fleet lay concealed.
We shall now let the white mans account speak for itself.
Sailing silently by the night, the Portuguese threw grenades packed with
gunpowder among the serried ranks of the enemy fleet, whose crews were sleeping. There
were scenes of panic as the Portuguese overran their enemies. The Indians jumped into the
sea, and many began swimming to nearby islets.
In the grey of the dawn da Gama led his men on a mission of slaughter. Using
the ships boats they went about the sea killing them all, as they wanted to
kill as many as were in the islets, for they spared nobody. having loaded up with
rice, dried fish and coconuts from the abandoned crafts, the Portuguese assembled the
slaves who had been at the oars. They selected the strongest to man the pumps in their own
ships. The rest they executed.
The reader can see that the ships attacked by the Portuguese were not found to be
equipped for war. Rice, coconut and dried fish are hardly offensive weapons. the
behavior of the Portuguese was the same in the rest of the voyage.
On sighting Mogadishu the Portuguese bombarded it. Their aggression was probably
due to their weakness says the European recordings the passage. The aim being
to deter any local ship from coming out to attack them!!! As only the Portuguese
ships had cannons mounted on their bows this sounds odd.
The above account is at one with the present behavior
of President Bill Clinton
towards the colored people of Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. As long as the white man has
superior fire power the world will remain a pawn in their power game. This is the kind of
thing that forces poor countries like India and Pakistan to have nuclear capability.
We shall return to talk of the fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral and the havoc
they wreaked upon the unarmed ships in the Indian Ocean. Some accounts aver that the sea
we call the Arabian Sea used to be called the Sea of Peace! This was before the European