Even if you haven’t majored in history as a subject, you would have heard about the famous battles of Panipat, Tarain, Haldighati, Plassey and Buxar. But did you know that there was another battle, fought around Diu, in the Arabian sea, that changed the course of world history. It was a big battle, that heralded the end of the old world order and the beginning of the new.
The Battle of Diu (1509), was the culmination of a global trade war. On one side were allied forces of the Sultanate of Gujarat, the Zamorin of Calicut, the Egyptians, and the Venetians, the ‘old’ order and on the other, the Portuguese. The decisive victory of the Portuguese in this naval battle heralded the end of the old trading giants and led to centuries of European naval and trade dominance, that shaped the modern world.
The Battle of Diu was the culmination of a global trade war
At the heart of the Battle of Diu was the global trade war for the control of the lucrative spice and textile trade. Also involved, were the egos of some powerful men and a Portuguese Viceroy’s quest for revenge, after the death of his only son.
To understand what transpired, it is very important to look at the dynamics of the spice trade between India and Europe, before the arrival of the Portuguese. From the 10th century onwards, the Marakkar merchants from Kerala and the Bania merchants from Gujarat dominated the pepper and textile trade respectively. They sold these famed products to Yemeni merchants, who in turn took these goods to Egypt and sold them to the Venetians. From there, it went to the rest of Europe.
Pepper purchased in Calicut for 4.64 ducats was sold in Portugal for 80 ducats!
Each intermediary made a lot of profit in the process. For instance, the Pepper purchased in Calicut for 4.64 ducats (European gold coins) was sold in Alexandria (Egypt), the global hub of the spice trade, for 25 ducats, five times the price. The Venetians merchants then sold it in Venice for 56 ducats and by the time it reached Lisbon (Portugal), the price of pepper was 80 ducats! No wonder, the Portuguese were so desperate to find a direct sea route to India and cut out all the middlemen. The landing of Vasco Da Gama and his fleet in Calicut in 1498, and their attempt to establish direct trade links, suddenly upset the status quo, and soon there was a reaction.
Egged on by the Marakkar Muslim merchants, the Zamorin was quick to expel the Portuguese from Calicut, and they were even quicker, in finding a new ally – the Raja of Cochin. Desperate to get their hat in, in the trade, the Portuguese soon started underselling everyone else. The Zamorin, the Sultan of Gujarat and the Venetians sent envoys to Egypt asking for help. Alarm bells were ringing in Alexandria too, as the Mamluks there had the most to lose. Ruling over dry and arid Egypt, the spice trade with India was their biggest source of revenue. Finally, in 1505, the Mamluks decided to send a massive naval armada to India to fight the Portuguese. However, they had no naval expertise and they had to take help from the Venetians.
On the 15th of September 1505, a large flotilla comprising of 1100 Mamluk soldiers, Turkish and Ethiopian mercenaries, Venetian gunners and Greek sailors, under the command of a Kurdish Admiral Amir Hussain Al-Kurdi set sail for India. After long stays at Jeddah and Hormuz, they arrived in Diu, two years later in 1507.
In 1505, a fleet of about 1100 set sail and reached India two years later.
The Governor of Diu at that time was Malik Ayyaz, a former Russian slave, who had risen up the ranks under the Muzzafarid Sultans of Gujarat. Through his shrewd dealings, he had developed Diu into a major trading port. While he was pragmatic enough to realize the naval superiority of the Portuguese, he had no option but to follow the orders of his master, Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat.
In March 1508, the joint naval fleets of the Mamluks and Gujarat launched an attack on the Portuguese fleet just off the coast of Chaul, in Maharashtra. While they managed to sink the Portuguese flagship, they faced heavy losses and had to retreat back to Diu. However, in this encounter, Lourenco de Almeida, the only son of Dom Francisco de Almeida, the Portuguese Viceroy of India was killed. Enraged and grief-stricken Dom Francisco swore revenge. He is reported to have said ‘he who ate the chick must also eat the rooster or pay for it’.
What started as a trade war, now turned into a saga of vendetta. Dom Francisco even defied orders from Portugal, to hand over charge and return, before he had completed his mission.
What started as a trade war turned into a saga of vendetta
On 9th December 1508, the Portuguese fleet set sail for Diu. They first attacked the port of Dabhol in Konkan, then under the Sultans of Bijapur. They slaughtered all the inhabitants and it is said, even the dogs. Then, they sacked the important port of Chaul and reached Mahim (in Mumbai), which had been completely deserted by its inhabitants by then.
Scared by what they saw of the Portuguese aggression, at Mahim, Dom Francisco received a reconciliatory letter from Malik Ayyazz, apologizing for the death of his son. Records from the period show, that he also went out of his way, to placate the Portuguese Viceroy. This didn’t cut much ice. In response, the Viceroy wrote-
‘I the Viceroy say to you, honoured Meliqueaz [Malik Ayyazz] captain of Diu, that I go with my knights to this city of yours, to take the people who were welcomed there, who in Chaul fought my people and killed a man who was called my son, and I come with hope in God of Heaven to take revenge on them and on those who assist them, and if I don’t find them I will take your city, to pay for everything, and you’
Meanwhile, in Diu, the Mamluk and Gujarati fleet was reinforced by around 70 to 150 war boats sent by the Zamorin of Calicut. However, there were bitter differences between the Mamluks, the Gujaratis and the Malabaris. As the Portuguese fleet arrived in Diu on 2nd Feb 1509, Malik Ayyazz retreated inland, leaving the Mamluk admiral Amir Hussain to take command. However, the Mamluks, who had very little experience of naval battles, took a defensive position between the water channel separating Diu island, and the mainland. This was a mistake.
The battle began at 11 am next day on 3rd February, with shots being fired from the Portuguese fleet. The superior Portuguese artillery bombarded the Mamluk fleet. The Portuguese ship Rei Grande, rammed against Amir Hussain’s flagship tipping the scales in Portuguese favour. Hussain had kept Zamorin’s light warships inside the channel, to attack from behind. But the Portuguese anticipated this move and blockaded the channel, as a result of which the Zamorin’s fleet could not get out and served as an easy target for Portuguese artillery. By end of the day, the entire Mamluk fleet was either destroyed or captured. Amir Hussain fled inland.
It was a complete victory for the Portuguese. Three large ships and three medium-sized ships of a Mamluk fleet were captured and sent to Lisbon. To avenge his son’s death, Dom Francisco ordered all the captured prisoners be hanged, burned alive or blown with cannons. He then laid a heavy fine on the merchants of Diu, who had helped the Mamluks with supplies.
The survivors from the Zamorin’s fleet managed to escape to Calicut. Amir Hussain along with 22 Mamluks fled Diu on horseback and after a long journey, returned to Cairo.
It is as important as the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar!
This battle marked a shift in power and the beginning of the dominance of Europeans, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the French and the British, over the world seas.
The number of books on military history such as ‘50 Battles That Changed the World’ by William Weir, ‘Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World’ by James Lacey, ‘The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo’ by Edward Creasey among others, all agree that the Battle of Diu changed the course of world history. It is as important as the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar!
Surprisingly, such an important battle has been completely forgotten in India.
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