The end of a Silk Road Era - Portuguese Domination

Persia and the Roman Empire were forever at war over territory. Even after the change over to the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanids the feuds continued causing mass casualties on both sides. The recurring bubonic plague ravaged even more lives across the region and made both empires vulnerable to invasions from others. Whilst these mighty Empires warred with each other neither noticed the threatening force that would change the history on earth forever. The Byzantine and Persian Empires would never be the same again.

Islam started during the 7th century and unified Arab tribes under one banner for the first time. Within a decade after the prophet’s death, the Muslims conquered Mesopotamia, Byzantine Syria, Byzantine Egypt, large parts of Persia, and established the Rashidun Caliphate. They were determined to expand and spread Islam to all four corners of the earth. Their expansion would finally be stopped by Pelagius' victory at Covadonga which many hail as the start of the Reconquista, the Christians’ push back to regain their land from the Muslim Moors.

The origin of the Kingdom of Portugal lay in the reconquista. After establishing itself as a separate kingdom in 1139, Portugal completed its reconquest of Moorish territory by reaching Algarve in 1249, but its independence continued to be threatened by neighbouring Castile until the signing of the Treaty of Ayllón in 1411. Free from threats to its existence and unchallenged by the wars fought by other European states, Portuguese attention turned overseas and towards a military expedition to the Muslim lands of North Africa. There were several probable motives for their first attack on the Marinid Sultanate (in present-day Morocco). It offered the opportunity to continue the Christian crusade against Islam; to the military class it promised glory on the battlefield and the spoils of war and finally, it was also a chance to expand Portuguese trade and to address Portugal's economic decline. In 1415 an attack was made on Ceuta, a strategically located North African Muslim enclave along the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the terminal ports of the trans-Saharan gold and slave trades. The conquest was a military success, and marked one of the first steps in Portuguese expansion beyond the Iberian Peninsula, but it proved costly to defend against the Muslim forces that soon besieged it. The Portuguese were unable to use it as a base for further expansion into the hinterland and the trans-Saharan caravans merely shifted their routes to bypass Ceuta and/or used alternative Muslim ports.

Although Ceuta proved to be a disappointment for the Portuguese, the decision was taken to hold it while exploring along the Atlantic African coast. The centuries of contact with Muslims taught the Portuguese navigation techniques and sciences that enabled the creation of Portuguese nautical innovations such as the Caravel - the principal Portuguese ship during their voyages of exploration in the Age of Discovery. At the time, Europeans did not know what lay beyond Cape Bojador on the African coast. King Henry of Portugal wished to know how far the Muslim territories in Africa extended, and whether it was possible to reach Asia by sea, both to reach the source of the lucrative spice trade and perhaps to join forces with the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John that was rumoured to exist somewhere in the "Indies".

What started out as a reconquest (and flexing a bit of muscle) and a curiosity of what lies beyond the horizon, set in motion events that would make Portugal one of the strongest naval forces to sail the seas. Fast forward a few decades and Vasco da Gama reaches India in 1498 but he failed in his mission to secure trading rights from the Zamorin in Calicut, who were in favour of the established merchants who reached Calicut via the Silk Road. The settled traders in the kingdom, amongst whom were Arabs, opposed the new comers and asked the Zamorin not to allow them easy passage into the spice trade, however, due to Portuguese perseverance the Portuguese State of India was founded six years after the discovery of a sea route between Portugal and the Indian Subcontinent to serve as the governing body of a string of Portuguese fortresses and colonies overseas. This spelled the beginning of the end for the Silk Road/Spice Route trading partners and it did not sit well with them…

In 1509, a major conflict during the Portuguese naval expansion in the Indian Ocean would pit the Portuguese Empire against a powerful alliance. Portugal’s hunger for hegemony over the trade in spices would be met with great resistance. The focal point of the conflict was the city of Diu. The city was an important trade centre, with a vital strategic position on the Indian subcontinent. Against Portugal’s naval expansion a powerful Coalition was formed in Northwest India. This coalition was aided by the Sultanate of Gujarat, the powerful Mamluks Sultanate, the Calicut Zamorin, the Ottoman Empire, and even Venice. The profitable spice trade in the Red Sea was precious to each member of the Coalition. Portugal’s ambitious politics were seen as a considerable threat to the income of each country. The Portuguese victory was critical: the great muslim alliance were soundly defeated, easing the Portuguese strategy of controlling the Indian Ocean to route trade down the Cape of Good Hope, circumventing the traditional spice route controlled by the Arabs and the Venetians through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. After the battle, Portugal rapidly captured key ports in the Indian Ocean like Goa, Ceylon, Malacca and Ormuz, crippling the Mamluk Sultanate and the Gujarat Sultanate, greatly assisting the growth of the Portuguese Empire and establishing its trade dominance for almost a century. The Battle of Diu was a battle of annihilation and one of the most important of world naval history, for it marks the beginning of European dominance over Asian seas that would last until World War Two.

At the same time Afonso de Albuquerque attacked Hormuz Island to establish the Fortress of Ormuz. This conquest gave the Portuguese full control of the trade between India and Europe passing through the Persian Gulf. They would hold this position until 1622. The presence and influence of the Portuguese in Hormuz is reflected in the Admiral Carpets that were woven during this time in Khorasan, Iran. Even though there are no surviving written records to confirm this, the carpets all have boats on them with European figures dressed in Portuguese attire of the time (see the photographs of one such surviving carpet of the 17th century now housed in the Osterreichisches Museum, Vienna), giving the impression that it was woven for the Portuguese and they were indeed exported to Goa and Portugal.

The Portuguese ruling the Spice route and trade caused huge problems for many countries who used the established Silk and Spice routes for centuries and whose economies depended on it. It wouldn’t be long before these countries would plan an attack to regain their positions in the area and again Diu became the area of concentration of forces. Since 1517, the Ottomans had attempted to combine forces with Gujarat in order to fight the Portuguese away from the Red Sea and in the area of India. Diu in Gujarat (now a state in western India), was with Surat, one of the main points of supply of spices to Ottoman Egypt at that time. However, Portuguese intervention thwarted that trade by controlling the traffic in the Red Sea. In 1530, the Venetians could not obtain any supply of spices through Egypt. The Portuguese had attempted to capture Diu by force in February 1531, unsuccessfully. Thereafter, the Portuguese waged war on Gujarat, devastating its shores and several cities like Surat.

Soon after however, the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, who was under threat from the Mughal emperor Humayun made an agreement with the Portuguese, granting them Diu in exchange for Portuguese assistance against the Mughals and protection should the realm fall. Once the threat from Humayun was removed, Bahadur tried to negotiate the withdrawal of the Portuguese, but on 13 February 1537 he died drowning during the negotiations on board of a Portuguese ship in unclear circumstances, both sides blaming the other for the tragedy. It is believed that the Portuguese came to know about Bahadur Shah’s negotiations with the Ottomans on the side, to expel the Portuguese and they assassinated him for this betrayal. The Persian miniature pictured here portrays this assassination of Bahadur Shah. After the failed siege, the Ottomans returned to Aden, where they fortified the city with 100 pieces of artillery. The cannon of Hadim Suleiman Pasha founded by Mohammed ibn Hamza in 1530-31 for an Ottoman invasion of India, pictured here was taken in the capture of Aden in 1839 by the British and is still visible today at the Tower of London.