Author :
02 Dec 2014

On November 26, 2014, the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) conducted the Scholars Round Table Conference (SRTC) on a research paper authored by Ms Sohinee Basak (Research Associate) titled “Portuguese and Coastal Gujarat in the 16th and 17th Centuries”. It is aptly said that those who ignored history are doomed to repeat their past failures. The medieval maritime history of India tends to be neglected in the mainstream studies, and consistently viewed as a broader malaise in terms of the lack of maritime consciousness. Cmde (Retd) Ranjit B. Rai (Indian Defence Forum) who charismatically enticed the audience with his eloquence and deep knowledge on maritime history chaired the SRTC. The external discussants Lt. Cdr. Kalesh Mohanan of Indian Navy History Cell and Assistant Professor Geeta Arya of Lakshmibai College (University of Delhi) provided very useful inputs.

In the opening remarks, Captain Gurpreet Khurana, Executive Director of NMF, warmly welcomed all the participants. In a thoughtful demeanour, he reminded the audience of India’s fate as a nation from the wise pages of history by quoting the phrase – “We Indians never lost our freedom until we lost the command of the seas around us”.

The Chairman shared his life experiences serving in the Indian Navy and his intimacy with the subject of history, which included writing on the epochs of Vasco Da Gama and his brother. He acknowledged,“Historians were the operators at sea” because they recorded the crucial past events which continues to marvel humankind today. Drawing from the historical works of Winston Churchill, he sealed the importance of history right from the very beginning. This brought forth the state of Gujarat’s momentousness in India’s coastal history. He emphatically spoke on the advent of Portuguese arrival in India by skilfully igniting the minds of the audience.

The author of the paper, Ms. Sohinee Basak, expounded on her comprehensive paper astutely. She embarked on her presentation with the arrival of the Portuguese power in India through Vasco da Gama’s voyage in 1498. Quoting K.M. Panikkar’s opinion on Vasco Da Gama’s arrival to India, she spoke of this voyage as a turning point in the history of India and Europe. Reference was also made to K.N. Chaudhuri who wrote “the Portuguese success in reaching the western coast of India in 1498 represented a revolutionary change in the direction, Organisation and ultimately in the control of trade … Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean”

Adeptly using maps of Gujarat and Indian Ocean, the author highlighted the trading routes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and explained how the Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean trading network by realising the strategic importance of Gujarat and the Arabian Sea. The Gulf of Cambay at that time had no direct shipping connectivity with Europe; the Portuguese acted as a connecting link between Europe and Gujarat, as they loaded their Cambay goods on to their homebound fleet, which sailed from Goa to Lisbon. On the economic aspect, the mercantilist Portuguese empire’s dependency on the twin pillars of forts and cartaz was highlighted. They used these two pillars for controlling the trade with Gujarat from four important centres, ie. Bassein, Daman, Chaul and Diu. Cartaz was a naval trade license (or pass) issued by the Portuguese in the Indian ocean. The "cartazes" began in in 1502 to control and enforce the Portuguese trade monopoly over a wide area in the IOR. By taking advantage of local commerce, the cartaz was issued by the Portuguese at a low cost, granting merchant ships protection against pirates and rival states, which abounded in these seas.

The Portuguese control of the Straits of Malacca disturbed the traditional pattern of Gujarati trade. As a result, the Gujaratis shifted trade to the neighbouring ports. The societal impact of Portuguese on coastal Gujarat can be gauged by studying the respective response of the Gujarati ruling class. Even though the Portuguese initially followed the policy of converting the locals (Diu being an exception), cooperation between Gujarati Baniyas and Portuguese Jesuits accrued mutual benefits. Portuguese animosity to the Muslim society was prevalent at that time due to the after effects of the Crusade era. Indians resisted the Portuguese only when their interests were hampered. The Battle of Diu (1509) was the first instance of such resistance off the Gujarat coast.The author touched upon the competition that existed between great powers at that time. The rise of the Anglo-Dutch empires, and their naval supremacy brought changes to the Portuguese trading networks.

The author concluded that the presence of the Portuguese had an immense impact on the economy and society of Gujarat, even though they were not able to bring major structural changes in the traditional trading system of the Indians. The relationship between the Portuguese and the Indian merchants and traders evolved over the years. Gujarat witnessed the evolution of a society where people from different caste and creed assimilated under the umbrella of economic interests. This resulted in multiculturalism clearly depicted by the mix attires, freedom to worship and exchange of ideas in the society. Moreover, the Portuguese paved the way for the rise of Dutch and English penetration into India’s heartland.

The first discussant congratulated the author and note that economic issues usually tend to supersede the sociological aspect. Since the Portuguese relations with India coincided with the Mughal rule, meaningful inputs were provided by offering a comparative analysis of the two empires on the Guajarati society. To offer new perspectives of how the ruling class viewed the Portuguese, it was suggested to search the archives of Gujarat and look into the regional history, which would provide details about the merchants and Mahajansof that era. A survey work of the French traveller, Charles Dellon who wrote the book L'Inquisition de Goa (1687) would be useful for better understanding of the religious elements.

The second discussant said that he understood the limitations of researching the periods of 15th and 16th century since primary sources are hard to find. While describing the Battle of Diu (1509), the author was advised to include the projection of naval power, so that maritime perspective could be more comprehensive. It was noted that the Portuguese  (unlike the English and the Dutch) had not explicitly exhibited expansionist policies in India, which was evident from their concentrations in the main ports and coastal areas. However, naval supremacy was a tool to regulate oceanic trading to their advantage.

The chairman suggested the Portuguese resort to cartaz (pass) effectively made seas off  India “Mare Clausum” as opposed to “Mare Liberum”. It was recalled that that even Mughal emperor Jahangir’s wife had to obtain cartaz for proceeding to Haj. It was suggested that the author address the naval issues of ‘convoying’ and ‘control of shipping’ employed by the Portuguese at that time, and to bring out the evolution of these concepts into their modern day ‘avatar’. Overall, the SRTC was a success and the author gained valuable insights from various perspectives.


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