First Europeans in India:

The Portuguese and the British

Nearly three decades before Babur ventured into India through the Hindu Kush Mountains to establish his kingdom in Delhi, and more than a decade before Krishna Deva Raya became the famed king of the southern kingdom of Vijayanagara, a Portuguese sailor by name Vasco da Gama circled around the Cape of Good Hope and landed at the Port of Calicut, on the Malabar coast of India.  The year was 1498.  This single event was to portend a race for supremacy in trade in the next century between the Portuguese and the British, with the Dutch and the French also taking more minor roles.  During the earlier half of the sixteenth century India was dominated by the Portuguese, who controlled the sea routes on the western shores of India, effectively blockading any ships belonging to other European nations.  Only in the second half of the century, after the fall of Vijayanagara, did the Portuguese begin to fade, making way for the British to be more active in India.  British merchants were primarily interested in spice trade in the Far East, and wanted to establish their trade posts in Java.  But the Dutch had already established their stronghold there and the British, as an after thought, began looking toward India.  Little did the East India Company merchants know that they had struck gold in India, which would someday be a crown jewel of the British Empire.  

The Portuguese: A Vigorous Campaign

The Portuguese sailed to India more for saving “heathen” souls than for profiting from spice trade.  The Indian subcontinent was populated by Hindus and Muslims.  Their souls needed to be saved, and salvation as only a Christian would know it, had to be offered to the misguided “heathens.”  The Portuguese had persisted in finding nautical route to India in order to strike a blow against, mainly the Muslims who practiced the same religion as the hated “Moors.”  After half a century of trying, the Portuguese finally succeeded in finding a route to the west coast of India. As to the goal of proselytizing “heathens,” the Portuguese never wavered, even up to the twentieth century. 

Vasco da Gama’s sturdy ship San Gabriel landed in the busy port of Calicut, which was ruled by a weak Hindu ruler, whose title was zamorin.  Only two of Gama’s four ships had managed to reach Calicut.  Unlike other ships that came ashore for buying goods, Vasco’ ships had twenty cannons mounted prominently on it.  Calicut was a thriving port where Arabs, Chinese and Hindu merchants from all over Asia  and East Africa came to purchase pepper, ginger as well as gold, ivory and silk.

Admiral da Gama kept a low profile and purchased low quality pepper and cinnamon, paying twice the price that other astute merchants paid, and returned to Portugal.  After all this was a fact finding mission by da Gama, and there was nothing to be gained by tussling with the locals.  The merchandise fetched a handsome 3000 percent profit in Europe.  Soon eleven more ships were dispatched under the command of Pedro Alvarez Cabral.  

Six of them reached Calicut, sufficient in strength (with the ominous cannons on the ships’ bow) that forced zamorin to sign a treaty allowing Cabral to have a warehouse guarded by fifty four merchants, called factors, to purchase goods when prices were low and store them in the warehouse for export.  However, on his return to Lisbon, Cabral plundered a Muslim ship in the high seas and in retaliation the Muslims plundered the factory, killing all the foreigners living there. 

Vasco da Gama returned in 1502, with fifteen heavily armed flotillas and bombarded the port of Calicut into rubble.  Eight hundred Muslims were tortured, cutting their hands and noses off first, and then sent to zamorin for his “curry.”  Such torture and plunder had achieved its intended goal.  The future factories established by the Portuguese remained safe.  The Portuguese were mighty on the seas than on land anyway.  They did not profess any ambition to acquire real estate, at least in the initial phase of their stay in India.  After an agreement with Spain (Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494), the New World, the Americas, was left for the Spanish to exploit and India and Brazil were left for Portugal.  The Catholic monopoly of Indian Ocean continued mostly for the entire sixteenth century as the Protestant fleets of the English and Dutch were still weak. 

The architect of the Portuguese Indian Empire was Dom Alfonso d’Albuquerque, viceroy of Portugal in the East from 1509 to 1515.  In 1510 he seized control of the island of Goa from the Bijapur sultans without much of a fight.  The cannons on the Portuguese frigates and prior attitudes of the Portuguese had convinced their Muslim adversaries that the defense of Goa was not worth the price.  Dom d’Albuquerque vigorously pursued the Muslims, taking care not to enlist them in his “Indian Army” which was assigned to defend Goa and other Portuguese interests.  Vijayanagara Empire in the south established a working relationship with the Portuguese, especially because the remnants of the Bahmani dynasty, who had seceded and formed their own Muslim kingdoms (Ahmadnagar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda), were constantly at odds with Vijayanagara.  The hatred of Muslims by the Portuguese found a willing accomplice with the Vijayanagara kings.  Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529) utilized the Portuguese to supply horses for his army, during his consolidation of power. 

The Portuguese guarded their superiority of Indian Ocean with zeal and enthusiasm.  West coast of India and its various ports were constantly threatened by them.  Most of the petty rulers all along the coast made peace with the Portuguese in exchange for free access to Portuguese trade ships.  Albuquerque died in 1515, but not before seeing to it that his kin in Lisbon was the wealthiest monarch in Europe, form the spice trade that brought in close to 6000% profit on the investment.  As Portuguese power grew in India, crusading Christians worried that the “heathen” population of India will influence the noble Christians in a sinful way.  The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in Goa in 1542 with the sole purpose of converting the heathens into Catholicism.  However, they did not find the task easy.  Francis Xavier showed his frustrations and contempt, when he wrote to Ignatius Loyola that “all these Indians nations are very barbarous, vicious, and without inclination to virtue, no constancy of character, no frankness.”  However, sufficient number of Hindus had been converted to Catholicism, in addition to the offsprings of intermarriages (that was officially sanctioned and encouraged), that Inquisition was introduced to Goa in 1560.  Following this action, the Portuguese power in India declined rapidly. 

Another blow to Portuguese power came after the victory of Muslim sultans of Deccan over Vijayanagara in 1565 during the battle of Talikot.  After the destruction of the glorious city of Vijayanagara on the banks of Tungabhadra, the Muslims lost no time in attacking Portuguese strongholds in the south.  Things were not going well for the Portuguese at home either.  In 1580 Philip II of Spain took possession of all Portuguese domains and unified them with Iberia under his rule, effectively closing Lisbon to Protestant European merchants.  This prompted the British and the Dutch to more vigorously pursue alternate routes to India and before long the Portuguese lost their monopoly over the Indian Ocean. 

Many of the Portuguese who came to India came to settle in India with little expectation of returning home.  The original purpose of their long journey may have been to proselytize or to act as spice merchants.  But many of them were lured by India.  Over several decades they found life in India offered them much more than what they could expect at home.  Many of them entered into servitude with the many kings, especially in Deccan.  They served as soldiers, advisors or mercenaries.  Some of them were completely ‘Indianized’ wearing Indian clothes and eating Indian curry.  Many of them married Indian girls and even converted to Islam. 

In official capacity the Portuguese remained in India and held on Goa until the 20thcentury.  It was the last foreign power to be evicted from the Indian soil, fifteen years after India gained independence from the British. 

The English: Sixteenth Century and Dismal Failures  

Compared to the Portuguese, the British had a dismal beginning in India.  Sixteenth century was a century of failure for the English merchants.  Constant skirmishes with the more powerful Portuguese naval fleet in the Indian Ocean had resulted in many defeats and losses.  In 1553 an expedition through the northern route to Cathay resulted in disaster when all the seventy members of the crew were found frozen in the Siberian ice.  Brave sea captains like Drake and Cavendish defied the Portuguese blockade and circled the globe but they were merely glorified pirates, killing and looting their foes without mercy.  Two rival English merchant companies vied for monopoly on trade.  Both obtained royal charter and Muscovy Company and East India Company competed with each other until late 18th century. 

In 1583 a merchant named Ralph Fitch was taken prisoner when a boat called Tiger was captured by the Portuguese.  From his prison cell in Goa, Fitch wrote detailed accounts of life in around Goa.  This valuable information was brought back to England in the form of letters he wrote home.  He accounted the strangeness in the behavior of the inhabitants.”  Fitch also had visited Akbar’s Agra and Fatehpur Sikri and marveled at the opulence of the populace.  His letters kindled a keen interest in the English, who were always looking for riches away from homeland.  More valuable information was sent to the Protestant Europe by van Linschoten, the Dutch secretary of Archbishop of Goa.  In 1592 he returned home with the valuable Portuguese navigation maps, which the Portuguese had thus far guarded with their lives.  The maps were published both in Holland as “Sailing Guides to the Eastern Seas” and an English version was also published in England.  The secret routes to India were now exposed and the Portuguese instantly lost that advantage they had for nearly a century.  The Dutch made a concerted effort and succeeded in reaching Java.  There they established a spice trade that proved to be enormously profitable.  The English quickly followed and for a while the Dutch and the English shared the spice trade profits in South East Asia.  In 1602 the Dutch formed United East India Company with 6.5 guilders, some ten times more than English had amassed from investors two years earlier with the blessing of Elizabeth I. 

For a while the Catholics of Portuguese and Iberia (Spain) and the Protestants of England and Holland fought against each other for superiority and control of the Far East.  The English and Dutch co-operation worked to the advantage of both in Java and the Spice Islands.  Then in 1608 Captain William Hawkins dropped anchor at Surat, a bustling port city, which had served as the principal port of the Mughal Empire, at the mouth of River Tapti.  Neither Hawkins nor his successors had little success in India.  An attempt at striking a deal with Jahangir was futile.  The Jesuits Portuguese pirates robbed and captured his crew.  The first English merchants found the Indians had no desire to trade with the English and the English could not offer any attractive commodity except for specie, which was in short supply. 

Seventeenth Century: Slow and Steady 

During the seventeenth century fortunes slowly shifted towards the British merchants.  The balance of power in the Indian Ocean changed in 1612 when captain Best arrived and blasted four Portuguese ships.  The mighty cannons commanded more respect than all the gifts Hawkins had brought with him to lure Jahangir into a treaty.  Following this ambassador of King James I, Sir Thomas Roe had a more enthusiastic reception at the Mughal Emperor’s court in 1616.  The Mughals now depended on the British to provide protection during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which thus far had been the service provided by the Portuguese.  Permission was also given for the English to build their first factory in Surat in 1619. 

The Dutch were the most powerful nation in the world in 1650 due their enormous profiteering merchants in the South East Asia.  Trouble soon erupted in the Spice Islands and the British merchants lost their favored view by the Dutch.   The camaraderie ended when the Dutch suspected British of colluding with Portuguese and Japanese merchants.  Following a massacre of ten English merchants, they were forced to abandon Spice Islands and look for alternatives.  This single event led to the establishment of the British Empire in India and soon the world’s most powerful empire was to be born.  This was not easy, however.  An attempt at reaching eastern India along the Coramandal coast of Pulicat in 1611 was thwarted by Dutch fleet that was there to recruit slaves from India for their plantations in the Spice Islands.   

Seventeenth century was the century when the John Company (as the British East India Company was referred to) saw the need to expand their bases in India so that the different parts of the country could be tapped into for more imports and profits. Bombay was part of a dowry settlement for Charles II when he married Catherine of Braganza in 1661.  It was leased to the Company for 10 pounds rent per year.  Bombay was to replace Surat as the main portal of entry in the West Coast for the British ships in 1687. 

A port in Coramandal coast was established in 1639 when the British purchased land from the Hindu king, who was ruling under the protection of Vijayanagara dynasty.  This land was about thirty miles south of Pulicat and came to be called Madras.  In 1642 a fort was built there that was named St. George.  The beginning of the British Empire started meagerly at the fringes of the Mughal Empire at first.    After the Portuguese strength faded in the Arabian Sea, the British filled it enthusiastically increasing their imports from India manifold.  Silk, indigo and saltpeter were the major exports from India coming from different parts of the country. 

Now the English merchants wanted a hub in the Northeast and the initial attempt started in Orissa.  Chief merchant Ralph Cartwright won duty free trade from the Governor Aga Muhammad Zamman who was the deputy nawab of Bengal, literally by kissing his toes.  In the grand Persian fashion, Cartwright was asked to kiss the extended toes of the nawab, before he was granted an audience.  But what Cartwright gained by his submissive gesture was lost to the deadly disease called “fever disease” i.e. Malaria.  The English merchants abandoned the Orissa ports in 1641. 

Meanwhile things were not going too well for East India Company at home.  King Charles I chose to support another company called Courten’s Association, after receiving a sum of 200,000 pounds, to show favor of the crown.  This Association, in its maiden voyage to reach India, deciding to practice piracy, plundered a Mughal ship.  As a consequence the Company merchants in Surat suffered retaliation and a fine by the Mughals.  The stocks of East India Company in England had plummeted and the very foundation of the Company was shaky.  Only after Charles I was beheaded in 1649 did the Company gain support from both chambers of British parliament.  Under Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the British East India Company received its necessary funds and energy to keep it functioning.  Charles II supported the company and Cromwell negotiated with Portuguese that effectively ended their monopoly of Arabian Sea. 

The new royal charter of 1657 gave the Company enormous powers in order to protect English subjects living in India, Including the power to make war and peace with non-Christian kings.  It was given permission to mint coins and to monopolize trade that saw profits of upward of twenty five percent.  Soon after, the new company inherited the Portuguese factory along the banks of Hughli located more than one hundred miles from Bay of Bengal.  But it was not until 1690 that permission was granted by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to build a factory closer to Bay of Bengal on River Hughli.  Here a shrine to Goddess Kali stood with steps going down the river for the devotees for ablution.  The village was called Kali-ghat that came to be referred to as Calcutta.  A base in the northeast was now firmly established and Calcutta became the third city jewel of the British India along with Madras and Bombay. 

Time and again during the long history of India, the foreigners who had come to India with visions of transforming India and its inhabitants had always themselvels been transformed.  They had invariably succumbed to the beguiling charm of India.  The British in late seventeenth century were no exception.  Many of them who were living a distance away from the main cities of Madras, Calcutta and Bombay were lured into Indian way of life.  They wore Indian clothes and many men married Indian girls.  Some of those who converted to Islam emulated  the nobles by marrying many wives or maintaining a harem full of women.   The British who were notorious for not bathing daily were introduced to the concept of Shampoo by their Indian consorts and this habit was later carried back to England, where the men who bathed every day were ridiculed by the locals.  Many of the young British men belonging to working class families had come to India seeking their fortunes.  They could not have dreamt of such luxury -servants, slaves and all - back in their homeland and had no intention of returning to England.  Apostasy became a concern serious enough to debate in the Imperial courts in England and the lords of the Company. 

The early Europeans who came to India in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were seduced and assimilated by India.  This love affair with the Indian way of life did come to an end decades later when the Company firmly established its rule over the people of India and became its undisputed masters.  The ruler and the subject grew miles apart and the ruler lived isolated in parts of the city he created called cantonments, with its clubs and parade grounds.

Important Dates

Portuguese in India

  1. Vasco da Gama sets anchor in the port of Calicut on Malabar Coast 1498.
  2. Between 1498 and 1502 a factory was established in Calicut that worked as warehouse.
  3. Pedro Alvarez Cabral attacked a Muslim vessel and in retaliation the Muslims slaughtered the Portuguese merchants stationed in the factory.
  4. Vasco da Gama returned in 1502 to slaughter the Muslims.
  5. The architect of Portuguese Indian Empire, Dom Alfonso d’Albuquerque was the viceroy from 1509 to 1515.  In 1510 he seized the island of Goa from Bijapur sultan.  Dom d’Albuquerque had close association with the Vijayanagara king, Krishna Deva Raya.
  6. 1542 first of the Jesuit missionaries arrived in India to proselytize Hindus and Muslims.
  7. Battle of Talikot in 1565.  The victory of Muslim kingdoms over Vijayanagara Empire started the decline of Portuguese power in India.

British in India

  1. In 1592 Portuguese secret navigational maps revealing sea routes in Indian Ocean were brought to Holland and published.
  2. In 1608 a British merchant ship dropped anchor in the port city of Surat.
  3. First English factory built in Surat in 1619.
  4. Land purchased on Coramandal coast in 1639.  Named Madras, Fort St, George built in 1642.
  5. Royal Charter bestowed on British East India Company in 1657.
  6. The island of Bombay was gifted as dowry to Charles II in 1661.  In 1668 it was leased to East India Company and soon Bombay replaced Surat as the western headquarter of the Company.
  7. Bengal operations began in earnest in 1658 when the existing Portuguese factory was taken over.  Calcutta was established after 1690 following permission from Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

Top | History

Views: 3809      Comments: 8

Comment Nice info...

07-Aug-2015 04:49 AM

Comment the story is give a 7 crore rupees today KBC episode.
question is who is first british ship captain in this ship.
and answer is B - william Hawkins


ankit patel
09-Oct-2014 11:41 AM

Comment Good information..

aswini kumar palo
11-Feb-2014 22:59 PM

Comment Good history

Ashish Kumar Raj
09-Aug-2013 14:17 PM

Comment Information on the European invasion to Indian subcontinent. Knowledge on Vasco-da-gama is new. very good job, admin. Thank you very much

Partha Pratim Dhar
19-Jul-2013 22:51 PM

Comment great and very useful. i have got many knowledge what i didn't know before,,,, thanks lot,,,,,,

ishaq abubaker
14-Jul-2013 16:01 PM

Comment wao its very much interesting and full of general knowledge. while reading i just imagined the situation. thanks a lot to admin.......

23-May-2013 13:54 PM

Comment it's really great

10-Jan-2013 12:29 PM

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