Diu – February 1509 Part II


Battle of Diu – Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast.



Along with many of the Portuguese who took part in the battle, the names of these two stalwart men were recorded—António Carvalho and Gomes “Cheira Dinheiro”—yet their opponents remain almost completely anonymous. The trained fighting men, the Mamluk infantry, in flexible chain mail and open helmets with red plumes and neck and nose guards, were more agile than the heavily armored Europeans. They fought bravely but were outnumbered, hobbled by the ill intent of Ayaz, who devoutly wished them off his territory either dead or alive, and their ships were pinioned by Hussain’s tactics and outgunned by the superior firepower of the Portuguese. Alongside them fought black Nubians and Abyssinian and Turkoman archers, “highly skilled and extremely accurate.” In the aerial battle in the fighting tops, the ability of these bowmen daunted their opponents. The Portuguese were forced to take cover behind wooden screens from the hissing flight of the shafts, whipping through the air, studding the masts until they bristled, hitting their human targets again and again. By the end of the day, a third of all Almeida’s men had sustained arrow wounds. In their crow’s nests, the best the Portuguese could do was dash out from behind their screens, hurl rocks down onto the decks of the rival ships, and rapidly take cover.

But the spirit of the Mamluks and the skill of their archers were not enough. Many of Ayaz’s men were not professionals, and the tempting safety of their city gates was close at hand. While Hussain tried valiantly to save his flagship, Ayaz remained ashore, watching from a prudent distance. Even the smoke that obscured and revealed the battle in alternate glimpses was to the advantage of the enemy: the wind blew it into the faces of the Muslims, affording moments of advantage to their assailants.

Upstream, there was fierce fighting between the rival galleys. The weight of gunfire cleared two Muslim galleys; once these were boarded, the Portuguese managed to turn their cannons on the remainder. Eventually the shots pouring into the flanks of the low-slung Egyptian vessels, pinioned to the shore with only forward-facing cannons, proved overwhelming, killing their chained slaves at the oars. The crews abandoned ship and made for land.

Out in mid-channel the viceroy, dressed magnificently in a suit of mail and a superbly worked helmet and breastplate, observed the battle from the Frol de la Mar. The Frol was the largest and most magnificent ship in the Portuguese fleet, triple-decked and heavily gunned, though now eight years old and feeling its age. It leaked and required continuous pumping. At the start of the battle, eighteen of its cannons opened up a mighty broadside on the Gujarati carracks. The vibrations of the guns shaking the four-hundred-ton vessel were so violent that it began to come apart at the seams. The danger of foundering became a sudden cause of concern—the sinking of the flagship could have turned the tide of battle. Its survival was attributed to divine miracle; the rope in the seams swelled with the water, stanching all leaks so that it remained sealed and required no further pumping.

With the battle raging, Ayaz finally felt compelled to order the commander of the fustas and small dhows, the one-eyed Sidi Ali, “the Crooked,” to sweep down on the Portuguese from behind. The Frol, however, was specifically positioned to snuff out this threat. The armada, rowing furiously at combat speed, attempted to hurtle past the flagship, but the wind and the current slowed their progress, and as they came abreast of the Frol they presented an easy target. Three heavy shots hit them as they rowed past, shattering the front line, splintering the vessels, and hurling men into the water; chaos broke out in the closely packed formation. Those coming up behind were unable to avoid the debris and smashed into the broken ships; three more shots caught the whole group. The attack disintegrated. Those behind backpedaled and half-turned to avoid further catastrophe; a few braver ships, judging that they could row past before the Portuguese fired again, kept going, but the speed at which the gunners reloaded took them by surprise. This essential part of Hussain’s plan collapsed.

The Muslims had fought bravely, but their lack of trained fighters, the professional skill of the Portuguese, and the weight of their artillery made the outcome inevitable. One by one, their ships were captured or abandoned. Hussain’s flagship eventually surrendered, by which time Hussain himself had slipped away in a small boat and ridden off. Other vessels, in some of which the soldiers could not swim, cut their forward anchor cables and tried to haul themselves back to shore. Again the Portuguese launched their small boats to stab and massacre men in the water, so that “the sea was red with the blood of the dead.” Some of the small Calicut dhows managed to get out to sea and away down the Malabar Coast with the doleful news, and the largest of the Gujarati carracks, a twin-decked ship of some six hundred tons, manned by four hundred men, held out all day. It was pulled too close to shore for the Portuguese ships to board, and its hull was extremely stout. It took a sustained general bombardment by the whole fleet to sink it, sending it to settle on the bottom with its superstructure still above the water. Its crew fled to land.

At the day’s end, Almeida went from ship to ship, embracing his captains, inquiring about the wounded. In the morning there was a ceremonial gathering on the flagship to the sound of trumpets, then a counting of the costs. Numbers varied between thirty and a hundred dead, and perhaps three hundred wounded—mainly by wooden shrapnel and arrows—but the victory had been complete. The Egyptian fleet had been annihilated. All its ships had been sunk, captured, or burned. Apart from Hussain and twenty-two who fled with him, few of the Rumes survived to tell the tale. According to Portuguese sources, thirteen hundred Gujaratis had died, and an unknown number from Calicut. Three of their carracks, including the flagship, were incorporated into the Portuguese fleet, along with two galleys and six hundred pieces of artillery. The battle had been devastating.

The morning also brought a small fusta flying a white flag. Ayaz played his cards cautiously to the end. He promptly returned the Portuguese captives he had been so carefully nurturing since Chaul, all dressed magnificently in silk and supplied with purses stuffed with gold. He offered the unconditional surrender of Diu and vassalage to the king of Portugal and sent the fleet plenteous gifts of food.

Almeida did not want Diu; he considered it impossible to defend with his existing force. He demanded substantial compensation from the Muslim merchants who had subsidized the fleet in Diu, which he got, and terrible revenge. Since Lourenço’s death, the viceroy had lost any reasonableness; his reputation was to be tarnished by pitiless and sadistic paybacks. Ayaz had to surrender all the Rumes he was sheltering in the city to a variety of ghastly fates. The governor smoothly acquiesced. Some had their hands and feet chopped off and were burned alive in a great pyre; others were tied to the mouths of cannons and blasted to pieces or put shackled into captured vessels that were sunk by gunfire. Some were compelled to kill each other. The city gates were decorated with bloody rosaries of dismembered body parts “because through these gates the Muslims who had killed his son had gone in and out.” Some he kept alive on the ships. The wrath of the Franks would be remembered for a long time. It was met in the Islamic world with stoical grief: “These cursed interlopers sailed away victorious, such being the decree of God most high, and such his will which is indisputable, and against which nothing can prevail.”

Almeida sailed back to Cochin as he had come, traumatizing the coast as he went. The seaports they passed were treated to volleys of heads and hands; at Cannanore, captives were lynched by the sailors and hanged from the masts; more corpses adorned the yardarms as he made his triumphant return into Cochin to the blaring of trumpets. The royal standards of the Mamluk sultan were dispatched to Portugal and hung in the convent of the Order of Christ at Tomar. If the outcome of Diu was perhaps inevitable, its consequences were profound. It destroyed once and for all the credibility of the Mamluk sultans and Muslim hopes that the Portuguese could be swept from the sea. The Franks were in the Indian Ocean to stay.

When Almeida stepped ashore at Cochin to the celebration of his victory, Albuquerque was waiting on the beach. He had come to applaud and to claim his command. Almeida brushed past him. He refused to give up his post, citing that it was too late in the year for him to sail home and that the king had told him to govern until he sailed. Behind this lay fierce factionalism surrounding the Ormuz mutineers and the fiery reputation of Albuquerque. Charges were laid against Albuquerque that he was mentally and morally unfit to govern. “In my opinion,” one of his enemies testified, “India is now in greater peril from Afonso de Albuquerque than ever from the Turks!” Men threatened to leave India rather than serve under him; an indictment was got up against him for misgovernance. In September, Almeida ordered him out of Cochin; the fortress elephant demolished his house, and the ship carrying him to Cannanore was so worm-eaten that Albuquerque thought they were trying to kill him. At Cannanore he was effectively confined to prison, though the Portuguese administration there was largely sympathetic to his cause. Albuquerque seems to have borne this situation with considerable patience; quick to anger, he was also quick to forgive. When João de Nova, the man whose beard he had abused and who had defected, died in poverty that year, he paid the funeral expenses.

The situation was resolved only when the year’s spice fleet reached Cannanore, in November, commanded by the young but highly self-important Dom Fernando Coutinho, marshal of Portugal, a man who came with full royal authority. He carried Albuquerque with him back to Cochin and demanded the handover of power. Albuquerque finally assumed the governorship of India, to the alarm of many of his subordinates. The next day Almeida departed from India forever, to face the king’s displeasure back in Lisbon.

A fortune-teller had predicted that Almeida would not pass the Cape alive; at sea he spent the days composing his will. He left alms to prisoners, a large diamond to the king, money for his servants, and freedom for his slaves. In March 1510, his ship rounded the Cape without incident, then put in to Table Bay to take on wood, water, and supplies, and there he was killed in a pointless and obscure battle with the Khoikhoi that probably arose over the attempt of his men to steal some cattle and possibly to abduct children. The Portuguese must have been caught off guard. It was, by all accounts, a major disaster. Fifty men died that day, including a dozen captains and high-ranking nobles, almost as many as may have lost their lives at the battle of Diu.


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