Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Soldier of Monarchy: Afonso de Albuquerque

In the long and glorious history of the Kingdom of Portugal, if one seeks a great military commander it would be difficult to find a name to surpass that of Afonso de Albuquerque, Duke of Goa. As both a general of ground forces and an admiral of naval forces, Albuquerque achieved far-reaching successes and this, combined with his astute judgment, strategic brilliance and the boldness and ambition of all great explorers, went a long way to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal as the first, and for some time preeminent, global maritime power. It is no great exaggeration to say that he won more victories, contacted more remote peoples and made more long-lasting decisions of consequence than anyone in Portuguese history, perhaps any other of his age from any country. The fact that he is not more well known outside of Portugal is, frankly, baffling, given his extensive list of achievements. Within the borders of Portugal, naturally and quite legitimately, he is remembered as a national hero, one of the (numerous) giant figures of the “Age of Exploration” and a military commander whose far-reaching victories earned him the title of “the Caesar of the East”.

King John II
Born sometime in 1453 in Alhandra, near Lisbon, to aristocratic parents, Afonso de Albuquerque had a privileged childhood. His father held a post at court and was related, through an illegitimate line, to the Portuguese Royal Family. Young Afonso was given the best education possible, was well trained in religion, warfare, mathematics and Latin and was a childhood friend of the future Portuguese monarch King John II. When he was old enough, he joined the army and first saw action in North Africa where he served for ten years, learning on the job as he battled with the Portuguese army against the Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks. He served under King Afonso V in the conquest of Tangier, Morocco in 1471 and later in campaigns against Castile in Spain. In 1480 he participated in the victorious campaign in Italy against the Ottoman Turks at Otranto, saving the day for the Spanish forces of King Fernando II of Aragon. When his friend became King John II of Portugal, he was given the prestigious post of “Master of the Horse” and saw further victories in North Africa.

The era of the greatest Portuguese expansion came during the reign of King Manuel I and did not initially include Albuquerque who was slightly old by the standards of the time and who the new, young monarch was somewhat suspicious of. However, his time came in 1503 when he was charged with leading an expedition to India. Albuquerque reached the subcontinent and made an alliance with some locals to make war on the ruling potentate of Calicut. He won a number of battles and was able to see his own native ally enthroned as the King of Kochi. In appreciation, the King allowed Albuquerque to build Fort Emmanuel on the Arabian Sea coast and establish trade relations between Portugal and the surrounding region of India. This was a crucial foothold for what would grow to be an extensive Portuguese presence in India and the start of a vast empire in Asia for the Kingdom of Portugal.

Ft Immaculate Concepcion remains in Ormuz
This expedition was so successful and so quickly won that King Manuel promptly sent Albuquerque back to India on another expedition in 1506, though this time as a squadron commander within a larger fleet commanded by Tristan da Cunha. Along the way they landed on the east coast of Africa, attempted sending envoys to Ethiopia and Albuquerque conquered the island of Socotra (today belonging to Yemen) and established a fortress there with the intention of controlling traffic in and out of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. The site was well chosen, though the fort was abandoned a few years later. While the rest of the expedition sailed on to India, Albuquerque was tasked with expanding Portuguese influence in the region and so he embarked on a military campaign, winning battles and capturing cities, culminating in the capture of the city of Ormuz. This was a very strategic point for control of the Persian Gulf and the local king became a vassal of the King of Portugal, breaking off his previous tributary relationship with the Shah of Persia. That was accomplished in 1507 and all with only 7 ships and about 500 Portuguese soldiers and sailors.

However, there were problems, and as Albuquerque made all of his men, regardless of rank, share in the work of building fortifications and so on, some of the more high-born officers rebelled and absconded to India to join the main fleet, claiming that Albuquerque was exceeding his authority. Left short-handed, Albuquerque was forced to abandon Ormuz, make a few raids for supplies and finally sail for India himself. Once there he found no help from the Viceroy, who Albuquerque was supposed to replace, and who had been fortified by the testimony of the malcontents who had abandoned Albuquerque and preceded him to India. Nonetheless, Albuquerque refused to have any part in a rebellion and simply bided his time, with his own loyal men, at Kochi where he was still well received. His enemies, however, would not be so considerate and after winning a decisive victory that expelled the Muslims from the Indian Ocean, Albuquerque was arrested in August of 1509.

Fortunately, this confinement was only to last for three months at which time the Marshal of Portugal arrived with a large fleet and orders from the King to set things in order. Albuquerque was released and in November of 1509 was appointed Governor of India. In January of the following year, Albuquerque set out on a military campaign to conquer Calicut. However, the offensive ended in fiasco when another Portuguese force advanced into an ambush, forcing Albuquerque to come to the rescue and fight his way back out again with heavy losses. He rebuilt his forces, best he could and learned that the fleet of the Egyptian Mamluks was sheltering at the port of Goa and the local sultans were busy fighting each other and would not be able to come together against him with full force. Seeing an opportunity, in the spring of 1510 Albuquerque attacked and seized the port of Goa. However, it was a difficult undertaking, massive forces were sent against him and the local Hindu population, originally supportive in freeing themselves of Muslim rule, turned against him and he was forced to abandon the city. Nevertheless, Albuquerque returned in November with Portuguese reinforcements, as well as more native allies and by December forced the surrender of the Sultan and his Turkish allies.

Despite numerous attacks to re-take the city, Goa remained steadfastly in Portuguese hands and the most important port in the Portuguese territories in India. Albuquerque established a mint, made contact and some alliances with other Indian rulers and was soon well placed to take control of the spice trade routes. In order to seize control of the spice trade, previously held by Muslim powers, Albuquerque was tasked by the King to capture the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia. Some Portuguese had already been seized by the local potentate and one of these men had smuggled out a letter, via a Hindu trader, to Albuquerque, begging for rescue and providing a description of the local fortifications. Against the orders of his immediate superior, Albuquerque gathered a force of 18 ships, 900 Portuguese and 200 hired Hindu mercenaries and set out for Malacca in 1511. One of the men under his command, incidentally, was the future navigator of renown, Ferdinand Magellan.

Albuquerque approached Malacca in grand style and bombastically demanded the capitulation of the local ruler, Sultan Mahmud Shah. The Sultan released the Portuguese prisoners but refused to surrender, feeling he had little to fear from a force of a little over a thousand men considering that he had at his command a mercenary force of around 20,000 and 2,000 cannon. However, Albuquerque planned a clever attack and had the support of many of the local merchants who despised the Sultan and the favoritism he showed his fellow Muslims at the expense of others. Sailing up the river that divided the city, the Portuguese troops fought a fierce battle, seizing control of the bridge that linked the two halves and then repelled a heavy assault, including war elephants, launched by the Sultan. Albuquerque and his men attacked, defeated the enemy and seized the city on August 15, 1511, the troops being allowed to pillage but with the property of those locals who had supported them and asked for protection remaining unharmed and their businesses respected. Albuquerque, always alert to the possibility of a future counter-attack, set his men to work building a fortress, in part using stones from the local mosque his forces had demolished.

In the aftermath, Albuquerque showed considerable astuteness in establishing a new system of administration, ending the discriminatory practices that favored Muslims and appointing new leaders based on merit and with an eye toward future beneficial alliances. He then sent out envoys, complete with generous gifts, to establish commercial ties with neighboring powers such as the princes in Sumatra, the King of Burma and the King of Siam (Thailand). In 1512, after having learned from local traders the location of the famous “spice islands”, he sent an expedition to claim them, the ships amassed a huge fortune in nutmeg and cloves but were wrecked on the return voyage, though they nonetheless laid the groundwork for future profits, having established good relations with the locals and even being permitted to build a fort on Ternate island in the Moluccas (part of modern Indonesia). In 1513 another expedition dispatched by Albuquerque established trade relations with the Great Ming Empire of China, which was later interrupted by a period of conflict, but business relations were eventually restored, paving the way for the establishment of the Portuguese enclave at Macau with the consent of the Ming Emperor.

Finally, in 1511 Afonso de Albuquerque set off to return to Portugal, weighted down with an immense wealth of treasure with which to impress King Manuel of the value of the regions he had secured for the Portuguese Crown. Unfortunately, his ship was sunk in a storm and Albuquerque barely escaped alive. He was able to reach Kochi in India but found, to his dismay, that Goa was under attack and many of his own countrymen had advised giving up this most valuable port. Albuquerque was having none of that and, after receiving reinforcements, set out from Cochin in September of 1512 with 14 ships and 1,700 troops, launched a bold attack, defeated the forces of the Sultan of Bijapur, led by Rasul Khan, and reestablished full Portuguese control of Goa for good.

The following year, Albuquerque received an envoy from the queen-regent of Ethiopia, a country the Portuguese had tried to contact before. This was huge news as many had believed that Ethiopia, said to be ruled by Christians, might be the rich and powerful land of legend ruled by the mythic “Prester John”. The Ethiopians seemed open to an alliance with Portugal in opposition to the common enemy of the Ottoman Turks. In support of such a campaign, in 1513 Albuquerque sailed into the Red Sea with 1,000 Portuguese soldiers and 400 Asian mercenaries to attack Aden, however, strong defenses, contrary weather and sickness among his men, caused the campaign to fail and Albuquerque was forced to return to India. Once back in the subcontinent, Albuquerque continued building up the Portuguese administration, establishing relations with more Indian princes, making alliances, business agreements and exchanging embassies, growing the Portuguese presence and influence throughout the region. In 1515 he led an expedition to recapture his old prize of Ormuz, reestablishing Portuguese control of the strategic point which would last until an Anglo-Persian alliances ejected them in 1622.

The wealth, the treasures, the exotic animals and so on that Albuquerque sent back to Portugal caused a huge sensation all across Europe and sparked the drive for other nations to set out for the distant lands of Asia over the trail first blazed by the Portuguese. Thanks largely to the victories of Albuquerque, it seemed that no matter where such future Dutch, Spanish, French or British forces went, they found that the Portuguese had invariably preceded them. Albuquerque, however, fell ill on the return voyage from Ormuz and died at sea, within sight of Goa, India. At the end, his final days had been troubled by a plot against him by jealous and ambitious men who tried to turn King Manuel against him. He died on December 16, 1515 and was first buried in Goa but his body was later returned to Portugal in 1566 with all appropriate fanfare for the Governor of Asia, Duke of Goa and Governor and Captain-General of the Seas of India. His name was seldom spoken without the appellation of “the Great” attached to it and for good reason. King Manuel I, regretful at having, for a time near the end, doubted the loyalty of so great a servant of the Crown, lavished rewards on his son and ensured that no future Portuguese would forget the name of Afonso de Albuquerque, the man who gave the Kingdom of Portugal an empire from the Persian Gulf, to India to Southeast Asia.

Portuguese control of all access points to the Indian Ocean
In total, the contribution of Albuquerque to the glory of Portugal would be difficult to overstate. A tireless man, campaigning to the end of his life, his ambition was boundless. He famously contemplated changing the course of the Nile River and capturing the corpse of the prophet Mohammed to hold hostage until the Muslims vacated the Holy Land! His victories ended the Muslim monopoly on Asian trade, expelled them from the Indian Ocean and gave Portugal the first dominate position in the lucrative importation of spice. He established the Portuguese presence in India that was to outlast all others (ending only in 1961), gave the King of Portugal control of the vital, strategic “choke points” at the gateways of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca connecting the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. He established contact and trade with numerous world powers and these new avenues for enterprise, trade routes and fortresses enabled Portugal to become, at the time, the wealthiest country in Europe. Furthermore, just as important as what he did was the foresight he showed in recognizing strategic positions and lucrative possibilities that later explorers and traders were to build upon. It is then, little wonder that he became known as “the Portuguese Mars” and, “the Lion of the Seas”.

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