Portuguese–Mamluk naval war

gigatos | January 10, 2022


The Luso-Mamluk naval war was a naval conflict between the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and the Portuguese Empire in the Indian Ocean, caused by the Lusitanian expansion in India following the definition of the route to the Subcontinent through the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. The conflict took place during the initial twenty years of the sixteenth century, from 1505 to 1517, and was interrupted not by a truce between the belligerents but by the fall of the Mamluks at the hands of the Ottomans.

The arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean

Just two years after Vasco da Gama reached India by sea, the Portuguese realized that the prospect of developing in the Subcontinent a trade like the one they had practiced in West Africa had become impossible, due to the opposition of Muslim merchant elites in the west coast of India (the Malabar) who incited attacks against Portuguese feitoria, ships, and agents, sabotaging Portuguese diplomatic efforts and leading to the c. so-called “Calicut Massacre” in December 1500 following which the Portuguese of the Second Army of India (Cabral, 1500) bombarded Kozhikode (pt. Calicut), the main spice export port linking India to Egypt and then to Venice. In the five years immediately following, the tensions between Calicut and Lisbon grew systematically, with the Portuguese admirals that from year to year followed each other in India engaged in acts of boycott-embargo against the Zamorin (Battle of Kochi, etc.). The supply of spices became therefore difficult and expensive for Egypt and, above all, for the Venetians who were supplied with spices by the Egyptians.

The Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean became harassing for the entire Muslim range facing it, not limited to clashes between the Portuguese and the Muslim potentates of the Indian coast. Arab ships were also directly attacked: in 1503, the first Egyptian ship was plundered and sunk by the Portuguese of the Fifth Army of India (the following year, 17 Arab ships were destroyed by the Portuguese of the Sixth Army of India (Albergaria, 1504) in the Indian port of Ponnani.

The object of contention was not only economic but also ideological. The Lusitanian sovereign promoter of the indian expeditions, Manuel I (reigned 1495-1521), was not in fact, as was the case for his predecessor John II, interested in exploiting the eastern explorations as a simple expedient to enrich the royal treasury. A traditionalist ruler, even “medieval” in his eagerness to spread the Catholic religion and promote the “holy war”, Manuel I intended to exploit the recently acquired Indian bases to build outposts to be used in a great pincer maneuver against Islam, which envisaged on the one hand the rekindling of hostilities by land in Morocco and on the other the opening of a new “eastern” front against the Holy Land and Mecca. The crusade ideology was strongly pregnant in the intentions of the Portuguese admirals themselves, who on several occasions showed themselves to be intransigent in their relations with Muslims, whether they were Indians, Arabs, Turks or others.

The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt

Having succeeded the Ayyubids in the government of Egypt and Syria in the middle of the 13th century, the Mamluks did not bring revolutionary innovations to the Egyptian-Syrian economy. The system was based on agricultural production and on the taxation of international trade which, in the Middle Ages, had a fundamental junction in Egypt and Syria. In the fifteenth century, internal upheavals in the Mamluk sultanate put a powerful crisis in agricultural production and the Mamluks reacted by intensifying the exploitation of the tertiary sector: they taxed the urban middle classes, increased the production and sale of cotton and sugar in Europe, and exploited their position of transit in trade between the Far East and Europe. The latter proved to be the most profitable method and declined in the implementation of trade relations with the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa and Barcelona, and in the increase of commercial duties. Thus, in the fifteenth century, the long-standing trade between Europe and the Islamic world began to constitute a significant part of the sultanate”s revenue as the Mamluks imposed taxes on merchants operating or passing through their ports. Sultan Barquq (reign 1382-89 and 1390-99) had also established a state monopoly on luxury goods, among which spices played the lion”s share: the state set the prices; collected a percentage of the profits that ended up in the sultan”s personal treasury (and governed (or tried to govern) the flow by making it converge on Cairo.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the expansion of the Portuguese empire into Africa and Asia began to significantly diminish the revenues of the Mamluk-Venetian monopoly on trans-Mediterranean trade.

Clash of interests between Mamluks, Venetians and Portuguese

In 1502, Venice, eager to eliminate the Lusitanian threat to its monopoly on spices, began a tight diplomatic game to deal with extra-Lisbon problems. First of all, it formally interrupted diplomatic relations with Lisbon, recalling the ambassador Pietro Pasqualigo. Another ambassador, Francesco Teldi, was sent to the Mamluk court in Cairo to suggest the adoption of “rapid and secret remedies” against the Portuguese. The Venetians affirmed that they could not intervene directly and therefore encouraged the Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri (reigned 1501-1516) to contact the Indian princes of Kochi and Kannur (pt. Cannanore) to encourage them not to trade with the Portuguese and the sovereigns of Calicut and Cambay to spur them to fight against them. It was so concluded a sort of alliance between Venetians and Mamluks against the Portuguese. The Serenissima, however, was not limited to these measures “indirect”. In 1503, two Italian military engineers arrived in India with Vasco da Gama together with the IV Armada indica, known only as João Maria (Gianmaria) and Pêro António (Pierantonio), took to the camp of the Zamorin of Calicut, engaged to fight the Portuguese in Kochi, and offered him their services. Portuguese chroniclers agree in identifying the two as secret Venetian agents, expert cannon forgers, who came to teach the Malabari how to produce European cannons in order to bridge the technological gap between the Indian and Portuguese artillery.Despite the Marcian reserve, information about this alliance with the “infidels” leaked out in the immediately following War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516), to the detriment of the public image of the Serenissima.

In September-October 1504 (or maybe 1503), after his treasurers had told him about the damage to the Egyptian treasury caused by the Portuguese (decrease in revenue from customs duties on the spice trade and pilgrim traffic), the Sultan al-Ghuri sent an embassy to Rome through the mouth of the terrified Grand Prior of the Monastery of St. Catherine (Egypt) (such “Fra Mauro”) angrily demanding that Pope Julius II restrain the Portuguese otherwise he would have inflicted on Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land the treatment reserved by the Lusitanians to Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. The threat was forwarded to Lisbon by the worried pontiff but it only served to warn King Manuel I of Portugal that the sleeping giant Mamluk had been awakened by the thunder of his cannons on the Indian coast and that there was such a threat that it was obligatory for the Portuguese to guarantee their position in the Indian Ocean before it was too late.

In 1505, Sultan al-Ghuri ordered the first expedition against the Portuguese. However, Egypt was an agrarian society with few ties to the sea, and Mamluk soldiers had little experience (if any caste aversion) in naval warfare, so the sultan requested Venetian support in exchange for lowering the tariffs imposed on the Marcians to facilitate their competition with the Portuguese. Venice provided the Mamluks with Mediterranean-type carracks and war galleys maneuvered by Greek sailors that Venetian shipwrights helped to disassemble in Alexandria and reassemble in Suez. Galleys could mount cannons fore and aft but not along the sides because the cannons would interfere with the oarsmen. The indigenous ships (the dau), with their sewn wooden planks, could carry only very light cannons. The command of the expedition was given to a Kurdish Mamluk, former governor of Jeddah, Amir Hussain Al-Kurdi (pt. Mirocem). The expedition (which the Portuguese refer to by the generic term “Rūmi”) included not only Egyptian Mamluks but also a large number of Turkish, Nubian, and Ethiopian mercenaries, as well as Venetian artillerymen. Thus, most of the coalition”s artillery was composed of archers that the Portuguese could easily overwhelm.

The fleet left Suez in November 1505, 1100 men strong. They were ordered to fortify Jeddah against a possible Portuguese attack and quell rebellions around Suakin and Mecca. They spent the monsoon season on the island of Kamaran and landed in Aden, at the tip of the Red Sea, where they were involved in costly local politics with the emir of Tahirid, before finally crossing the Indian Ocean.

At the same time, King Manuel I organized and launched the Seventh Army of India (Almeida, 1505) which brought to Kochi Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first viceroy of India with express orders not only limited to safeguarding Portuguese feitoria but also to restrain hostile Muslim ships.

In 1506, a Portuguese squadron under Alfonso de Albuquerque, part of the Eighth Army of India (Cuhna, 1506), began raiding the coasts of Arabia and the Horn of Africa after defeating a Muslim fleet. In 1507, a fleet of about 20 Portuguese ships entered the Red Sea and raided Indian ships there, bringing the Indo-Mamluk trade to near collapse. The Portuguese also attempted to establish a base at Socotra in 1507, to stop the Mamluk trade across the Red Sea, but the island proved too inhospitable and ineffective as an outpost, so much so that the Lusitanians left after a few months.

In August-September 1507, a Mamluk fleet of about 50 ships was stationed in Aden, ready to cross for India.

Battle of Chaul (1508)

The fleet, also under Amir Husain Al-Kurdi, was sent to India in 1507. The Mamluks allied themselves with the Muslim Sultanate of Gujarat, the leading naval power in India at that time and already an avowed enemy of the Mamluks. The fleet was warmly welcomed in Diu, and Husayn Al-Kurdi joined Malik Ayyaz (pt. Meliqueaz), a former archer and slave of possible Georgian or Dalmatian origin in the service of Sultan Mahmud Begada of Gujarat as governor of Diu. Together, Husain and Ayyaz sailed towards the Portuguese, meeting them in the battle of Chaul in which they succeeded in defeating the Admiral General of India (pt. Capitão-mor do mar da Índia), Lourenço de Almeida, son of the now installed Portuguese viceroy of India, D. Francisco de Almeida. However, it was a Pyrrhic victory: although they had an overwhelming numerical advantage, the Muslims succeeded by chance in sinking Almeida”s flagship; Mirhocem risked his life in the melee; all the Portuguese ships, except the flagship, returned to the Lusitanian headquarters in Kochi; Meliqueaz was much less interested than the Mamluks in the fight without quarter against the dangerous Portuguese adversary.

Battle of Diu (1509)

The news of the death of his son was a terrible blow for the viceroy Almeida, who made it a personal matter and decided to take personal revenge on the Mamelukes and began to amass ships and men in Kochi. On December 6, however, Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived in Cannanore from the Persian Gulf with orders from the king of Portugal to replace Almeida as governor. Almeida, already resentful of Albuquerque”s failure to prevent Mirochem”s fleet from leaving the Red Sea, refused to remit the powers of his office and rebelled against the Crown, taking to the sea in command of the Armada da Índia on December 9.

Along the route to Diu, Almeida fought some Calicut ships and opened hostilities with the Sultanate of Bijapur, conquering and destroying its flourishing port of Dabul (see Battle of Dabul), and resuming the sea on January 5, 1509. At this point, in the Moslem line-up, the relationship between Mirochem and Meliqueaz had already deteriorated. The two fleets clashed on February 3 in the battle of Diu, which ended with the victory of the Portuguese and the coalition Gujarat-Mamluk-Calicut almost wiped out. The Mamluks fought bravely until the end but were able to counter the Portuguese naval force: modern ships with a crew of experienced sailors, armored infantry armed with arquebuses and clay grenades, more cannons and more skilled artillerymen. This victory marked the beginning of European domination of the Asian seas that would last until the Second World War.

The treatment of the Mamluk prisoners by the Portuguese, however, was brutal. The viceroy ordered that most of them be hanged, burned alive, or cut to pieces, tied to the mouths of cannons, in retaliation for the death of his son. Commenting in the aftermath of the battle, Almeida reported to King Manuel, “So long as you are powerful at sea, you will keep India as your own; and if you do not possess this power, little use will you have of a fortress on the shore.”

On November 4, 1509, Albuquerque succeeded Almeida as governor of Portuguese India when the Marshal of Portugal, Dom Fernando Coutinho, arrived in India in command of an Armada 3,000 men strong sent by King Manuel to impose Albuquerque”s orderly succession to office.

Albuquerque had been sent by the king to conquer the tips of the Muslim trade triangle in the Indian Ocean: Aden (Arabia), Hormuz (Persia) and Malacca (Malaysia). In January 1510, Albuquerque set sail for the Red Sea in command of 23 ships, 1,200 Portuguese soldiers, 400 Portuguese sailors, 220 auxiliaries from Kochi, and 3,000 “slave-soldiers” (pt. escravos de peleja). Having discovered that the Mamluks were setting up a new fleet in Suez, the governor resolved not to target Hormuz but Suez and destroy the new Egyptian force before it was ready. Instead, he ended up aiming at Goa when he discovered that the Sultan of Bijapur, Yusuf Adil Khan (pt. Hidalcão, reigned 1490-1510), had gathered there the remains of the Mamluk fleet destroyed at Diu and had reinforced them with new ships to send against the Portuguese, probably in retaliation for the destruction of Dabul the previous year. The city was poorly defended as Yusuf had recently died and his heir, Ismail Adil Shah (reign 1510-1534), was young and inexperienced.

Mamluk resistance prevented the Portuguese from completely blocking the Red Sea trade. However, the disruption of supply was enough to drive prices in Egypt to astronomical levels.

Having defeated a garrison of Turkish mercenaries stationed in the fort of Panaji on February 16, Albuquerque occupied Goa without a shot in the arm on February 17, well received by the Hindu population who resented the Bijapur Muslims. Despite the measures taken to defend the city (including the launching of ships that the sultan was having built to the detriment of the Lusitanians), however, Albuquerque was forced into a bloody siege by Ismail Adil Shah, who appeared in the marshes and estuaries of Goa with an army of 40,000 Turkish and Persian mercenaries. The governor neatly withdrew what remained of his troops to the ships and anchored himself in the Mandovi Delta, where he resisted a naval siege until mid-August while he waited for the monsoon to allow him to put out to sea.

Albuquerque returned to the assault on Goa on November 24, wresting it after a bloody infantry assault the next day from General Pulad Khan of Bijapur. He massively reorganized the city”s defenses (e.g., building a stone fort) and organized a river patrol of six ships. Confident of his hold on Goa, Albuquerque left the city and headed for Malacca to conquer it.

For the duration of the following year, while Albuquerque conquered Malacca, Goa would be besieged by the reorganized forces of Pulad Khan who once again overpowered the Portuguese due to numerical superiority, built a bridge and fortress at Benastarim and occupied the island of Goa but failed to take the city. Pulad Khan, suspected of embezzlement, was replaced by Adil Shah with Rassul Khan who also failed to recapture the city.

Battle of Goa (1512)

In October 1512, Albuquerque returned from Malacca at the head of 20 ships and 2,500 men. He isolated the Bijapur forces in the fort of Benastrim, where they were entrenched, after which he defeated them in the open field and weakened any possibility of resistance with a heavy naval bombardment of eight days that convinced Rassul Khan to surrender and leave Goa definitively in Portuguese hands.

Venetian Diplomacy

The Mamluks tried again to secure the help of the Venetians against the Portuguese and intervened by pleading their cause to the Pope. The Venetians, for their part, sought new allies for the Mamluks. The Republic of San Marco had been at peace with the Ottoman Empire, the traditional enemy of the Mamluks, since Doge Leonardo Loredan (in office 1501-1521) had signed the treaty that ended the last Turkish-Venetian war (1499-1503). Before renewing the peace with Istambul in 1511, Doge Loredan mediated to secure Ottoman support for the Mamluks against the Portuguese. The rapprochement was such that Venice authorized Ottoman supplies in its Mediterranean ports (e.g. Cyprus) nor did it scruple, in vain, to ask for Turkish support in the War of the League of Cambrai.

A Mamluk-Venetian commercial treaty was signed by the ambassador to Cairo, Domenico Trevisan, in 1513. After that point, however, following the overthrows of the Mamluks and Safavids of Persia against the Ottomans (see Battle of Cialdiran), Venice increasingly favored a rapprochement with the Ottoman Empire.

Portuguese Diplomacy

On the other hand, the Portuguese, who feared a new expedition of the Mamluks, organized a rapprochement with Persia and strove to establish an alliance that could give bases to the Portuguese on the northern coasts of the Indian Ocean, thus creating an eastern threat to the Ottomans and Mamluks. Governor Albuquerque received an ambassador from Shah Isma”il I (1501-1524) in Goa and returned the embassy in the person of Rui Gomes.

In his letter to the Shah, Albuquerque proposed a joint attack on the Mamluks and the Ottomans:

After their victory at the Battle of Diu and the elimination of rival Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese endeavored to systematically destroy Muslim trading vessels.

Albuquerque therefore failed to stop the spice trade through the Red Sea and to establish a commercial monopoly for the spice trade between Europe and India. This campaign, however, was a serious threat to the Mamluk port of Suez and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which put the Mamluk sultan under tremendous pressure. Qansuh was therefore forced to seek Ottoman assistance, his traditional rivals (see Turkish-Mamluk War (1485-1491)), against the Portuguese.

In 1514-16, the Ottomans collaborated with the Mamluks against the Portuguese. They provided an admiral in the person of Selman Reis, as well as weapons and artillery. Selman Reis entered the service of the Mamluks and led a group of 2,000 armed Levantines, perhaps against the wishes of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, before Sultan Qansuh in Suez in April 1514. Artillery defenses were also established in Jeddah and Alexandria.This concentration on the Portuguese front, however, had the ultimate effect of weakening the Mamluk forces that could be turned against the Ottomans in the Levant. The investment was enormous: the fleet cost about 400,000 dinars to the Mamluk sultan.

The Portuguese were thus able to establish trading posts in the Indian subcontinent and take over the spice trade to Europe, which had been a major source of income for the Mamluk state. Mamluk Egypt was financially crippled and eventually defeated by Ottoman Sultan Selim I in the Turkish-Mamluk War (1516-1517): Cairo was conquered by the Ottomans on January 26, 1517.

Egypt, on the other hand, lost its status as a great power and, deprived of the resources of the Indian Ocean trade, passed substantially into the background for the next three centuries.



  1. Guerra navale luso-mamelucca
  2. Portuguese–Mamluk naval war
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