February 21, 1999
© Akhilesh Mithal

New Military History of India Needed


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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 India’s history will fail to think of the fight on waters of the sea and the oceans. India was enslaved by the Brits from 1757 onwards.

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 clothes.

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 pigeon’s 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 Gama’s 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 Zamorin’s 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 Velho’s 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 Zamorin’s 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 great discovery’.

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 even more!”

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 tales’.

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 tortured.

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 man’s 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 ship’s 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 intrusion.


© Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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