Dr Pius Malekandathil, scholar of Portuguese history and professor at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, Delhi (Courtesy: Sahapedia)

In Conversation with Dr Pius Malekandathil on Portuguese Settlements and Expansion in Early Modern Bengal

in Interview
Published on: 09 August 2019

Deepashree Dutta

Deepashree Dutta holds a Masters degree in history from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, an MPhil in medieval Indian history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and is currently pursuing a PhD there. Her research interests include culture and religion of early modern Bengal, Mughal India and history of Portuguese presence in India.

This interview was conducted at JNU by Deepashree Dutta on January 23, 2019.

Dr Pius Malekandathil is a historian and professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The focus of his work is the maritime history of the Indian Ocean, with an emphasis on Portuguese history. He has authored numerous books and articles, including The Indian Ocean in the Making of Early Modern India, The Mughals, the Portuguese and the Indian Ocean: Changing Imageries of Maritime India and Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean, to name a few.

Here, Dr Malekandathil discusses the nature and various facets of Portuguese expansion and settlements in early modern Bengal (approximately, 1526–1858). Through this discussion he teases out the distinctive characteristics of Portuguese presence in Bengal and the Bay of Bengal region, particularly vis-a-vis that of the western coast of India.

Deepashree Dutta (DD): The arrival of Vasco da Gama with three vessels at Calicut in 1498 marked the beginning of Portuguese presence in India. Over the subsequent half a century the Portuguese went on to successfully establish their stronghold on the western coast of India. Can you briefly summarise the early years of Portuguese arrival in India and the nature of settlement that they established on the western coast?

Pius Malekandathil (PM): When Vasco da Gama landed in India in 1498, the initial mission was to find a trade route to India and then to conduct trade. For the Portuguese to carry out trade, however, required collaborators and settlement bases in the region. Hence, in 1503, the Portuguese established a fort at Cochin, followed by one at Cannanore a year later.

During the initial days, the Portuguese presence and power in India was not localised. It was only felt when the vessels came. However, with the arrival of the first resident viceroy in 1505 and establishment of Cochin as the capital of the Portuguese state in India, Portuguese power got localised and solidified. Supporting satellite power structures were erected in other pepper ports of the Malabar coast. From Cannanore, the Portuguese tried to control the trading activities of the ports of Cranganore and Coilon such that in most of the pepper ports of Kerala we find the Portuguese initially establishing factories and later fortresses. From Kerala, the Portuguese gradually expanded and occupied Goa in 1510, Malacca in 1511 and Hurmuz in 1515.

The initial focus of the Portuguese was to obtain spices, hence the focus on the Malabar coast, the core area of pepper production. Soon the pepper trade carried out in exchange for bullions from Portugal proved unprofitable, and they had to seek other items of trade to balance out the cost. This led the Portuguese to try to control the textile trade from Gujarat for which they established their base at Goa, which is equidistant from the Malabar and Gujarat coast. Hence, textile from Gujarat was used to procure gold from Monomotapa (in present-day Zimbabwe), which in turn was used to get spices from Malabar. This was the initial pattern of commodity procurement established by the Portuguese. Eventually, the Portuguese crown went on to establish a string of ports along the western coast, starting from Gujarat up to the Malabar coast, with the Portuguese armada patrolling the area.

DD: From the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese, while establishing their stronghold on the western coast, gradually ventured into the east of Cape Comorin, which resulted in the creation of a second pattern of activity along the Bay of Bengal. What, according to you, characterised this second pattern of Portuguese activity in the region, and how is it different from that along the western coast?

PM: In 1511, when the Portuguese occupied the great Southeast Asian entrepot of Malacca, they already had a sense of the geography of the eastern coast of India with Portuguese privateers venturing into the region. In fact, the inception of this second pattern can be traced to the Portuguese viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque’s (1509–15) policy of encouraging intermarriage. Albuquerque wanted the Portuguese civilian population in India to sustain the different establishments that he had set up. He pursued a policy of encouraging Portuguese intermarriage with local women. At the same time, to ensure that the Portuguese married settlers did not become a burden on the state, Albuquerque granted them the right to conduct petty trade and resort to alternative means of earnings like tailoring and baking. Hence, these Portuguese married settlers began to move to the east coast, along with their local relatives as well as on their own, to the ports of Negapatnam, Pulicat, Masulipatnam, Bengal, etc., situated along the Bay of Bengal, which had long been the area of commercial activities of the Muslim merchants of the west. In the course of time, these private traders began to settle down in this region. Thus, while the west coast of India saw a crown-sponsored Portuguese expansion, in the east coast or the Bay of Bengal region the growth was promoted by the settlement of private traders.

DD: As far as the littoral regions of the Bay of Bengal are concerned, the commercial importance of Bengal was recognised quite early by the Portuguese. Can you briefly explain the commercial position that Bengal came to occupy with regard to the Portuguese trading activities and networks established in the region?

PM: By the time of the Portuguese occupation of Malacca (1511), Portuguese documents refer to Bengal as a region that requires all their merchandise, meaning that the commercial importance of the region had already caught the attention of the Portuguese. In fact, starting from 1518 till the 1530s, we get references to the arrival of several Portuguese official embassies to Bengal to check out the prospect of trade in the region. In a parallel manner, the Portuguese crown also started dispatching annual trading vessels to Bengal, known as carreira de Bengala or voyage to Bengal, which continued till the 1560s. Apart from the officials, after the 1520s, we also get increasing mentions of the married Portuguese settlers or privateers, known as casados, moving towards the region. The period after the Portuguese viceroy Albuquerque’s (1509–15) death is significant in this case, since he had pushed for establishment of centralised control, both politically and economically. The next viceroy, Lopo Soares de Albergaria (1515–18), initiated a strong policy of decentralisation of trade which resulted in increasing movement of Portuguese private traders to Bengal. Thus, by the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese, both in their official and unofficial capacities, were making forays into the region.

Politically, Bengal in the 1530s witnessed significant changes when the Afghan Sher Shah Suri defeated the Bengal Sultan in 1538 and the Mughal emperor Humayun in 1539. Thus, Bengal, with the accession of Sher Shah, got connected with the areas of core political power and the markets of Delhi. As a result, for the Portuguese, Bengal became a strategic bridging geography from where pepper could be diverted to meet the demands of both the markets of Delhi and Ming China. Thus the mid-16th century saw the development of a pepper-trading network where the Portuguese officials, to make more wealth, would divert state funds to obtain pepper from Cochin and then with the help of casado traders dispatch it to Bengal, where the Portuguese and other local settlers would ensure the subsequent distribution.

DD: The most important ports of early modern Bengal were Chittagong, in the eastern delta, and Satgoan—and later Hooghly—in the west. The Portuguese, both in official capacity, as well as privateers during the early years of the sixteenth century, primarily settled and conducted themselves from the port of Chittagong, which emerged as the porto grande (big port). However, from the 1540s, there is clear evidence of a shift of the bulk of Portuguese trade westwards, towards Satgoan and later Hooghly. What accounts for this shift in the mentioned period?

PM: Chittagong, the porto grande, in the eastern part of the Bengal delta, was for a long time the main centre of trade from Bengal because of its connectivity with China and Southeast Asia. From the 1540s onwards, however, there was a westward shift of the bulk of Portuguese trade in Bengal towards Satgoan and later Hooghly, which can be ascribed to several possible reasons. The first was the incorporation of Bengal within the Suri empire in the 1540s, which connected particularly the western part of the region to the networks of the Delhi market. The second reason, interconnected to the first, was the construction of the Grand Trunk Road by Sher Shah, which created a new channel of commodity movement to the Delhi market. Thus, the demand of the Delhi market was now felt acutely in the western part of Bengal. The third possible reason was the shift in the Gangetic course, which resulted in the silting of Satgoan and increasing commercial viability of the port of Hooghly. A combination of these reasons, according to me, can account for the westward shift.

DD: Portuguese presence in Bengal was characterised by settlement of both the officials and the privateers, with the latter predominating. How can one characterise relations between the officials and the privateers in the region concerned and were there changes in relations over time?

PM: As far as the Portuguese presence in Bengal is concerned, the official element was limited to the annual crown-sanctioned carreira de Bengala. The rest of the time the region was predominated by the Portuguese privateers, working outside the control of the central administration in Goa. In other words, Bengal essentially acted as a fringe area and came to be peopled by Portuguese privateers and renegades, who were looking for means of earning and making fortunes outside the jurisdiction of the Goan central authority. What further facilitated this arrangement was the complete lack of official interest in Bengal all through history. While in the case of Tamil Nadu, we find that attempts were made to bring the private settlements under Portuguese official control, in the case of Bengal no such attempts were made. Thus, the entire expanse of the Bengal coast, starting from Pipli in present-day Odisha to Tenasserim and Pegu in the east remained the core area of the Portuguese private traders. We find instances when despite enjoying complete independence, individual privateers in Bengal became powerful and wrote either to the viceroy in Goa or the crown in Portugal, asking for legitimisation. Thus, the privateers in Bengal, while remaining independent of the Goan authority, used the province from time to time, according to convenience, as a frame of legitimisation.

DD: The church formed an integral part of the Portuguese maritime empire. As a result, by the mid-16th century India witnessed the entry of a number of Catholic religious orders as well as priests. Given the nature of the Portuguese settlement in Bengal, what can we say about the nature of the Catholic missionaries in this region?

PM: The Portuguese crown, as the padroado[1] patron, used to send Catholic missionaries to India in phases. Missionaries predominantly from the four Catholic orders of Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit and Augustinian were sent to work in India. The Franciscans came to India in 1517, the Jesuits in 1542, the Dominicans in 1549 and the Augustinians in 1572. These four orders emphasised on different activities and represented different ways of living their own religiosity, and were dispatched by the crown at different periods to suit their own separate motives.

From the initial days of Portuguese presence in Bengal, we find Jesuit missionaries in the region and, occasionally, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. From the 1580s onwards, however, the Augustinians, despite their marginal presence in the rest of India, came to enjoy significant power in Bengal. The reason for this can be traced to the political changes taking place in Portugal, which in 1580 came under the Spanish Habsburg empire. With the ascendancy of the Spanish crown in Portugal, the Jesuits, responsible for the main vigour in the missionary movement in Asia, fell out of favour. The Jesuits are believed to have spread the rumour that the Portuguese king Sebastian had not died and would come back to reestablish the kingdom, free from the bondage of the Spaniards. Therefore, the Spanish crown went on to favour the Augustinians over the Jesuits. A direct result of this was the appointment of an Augustinian, Dom Alexis de Menezes, as the Archbishop of Goa (1595–1612), who later went on to become the viceroy (1612–15). It was under Alexis de Menezes that we find Augustinians being sent as major negotiators to the frontier zones of Safavid Persia, Ottoman Turkey and Bengal, and being granted the ecclesiastical right over Bengal, bypassing the ecclesiastical control of Cochin. Hence, the Augustinians went on to establish churches all over Bengal and gradually dominated the religious life of Portuguese settlers in Bengal, particularly those around Hooghly.

DD: The year 1632 witnessed the famous sacking of Hooghly from the Portuguese by the imperial forces of Shah Jahan. According to you, where can we locate this incident in the history of Mughal–Portuguese encounters?

PM: Akbar’s farman of 1578–79, granted to a Portuguese trader Pedro Tavares from Satgoan, Bengal, allowing the Portuguese in Bengal to officially establish a city in Hooghly, marks a watershed in the history of Mughal–Portuguese relations in Bengal. Given the lack of Portuguese official presence in the region, the farman legalised Portuguese activities, for the first time, in Hooghly. Hence, we find that the relation between the Mughals and the Portuguese in Bengal went smoothly through the reigns of both Akbar and Jahangir. However, under Shah Jahan the relationship suddenly became bitter. Both contemporary and later chroniclers cite a number of reasons for this, including the refusal on the part of the Portuguese to help Shah Jahan during his wars of succession as a prince, the increasing economic prosperity of the Portuguese in the region, Portuguese involvement in slave trade, etc. Moreover, in 1632, Shah Jahan’s troop laid siege on and sacked Hooghly from the Portuguese and took 400 men, including missionaries, as captives to Agra. However, despite the intensity, the hostility proved short-lived since the Portuguese returned to Hooghly within a year, with the Augustinians enjoying a grant of 777 bighas of land in Bandel, near Hooghly, from Shah Jahan himself. After that, there were no further instances of clashes, even during Aurangzeb’s time. The Portuguese concentration, however, due to various reasons, seems to have constantly moved from one place to another in Bengal—starting from Chittagong to Satgoan to Hooghly and then to Bandel.

DD: The Portuguese settlement in Bengal has been variously labelled as the ‘shadow empire’ on the one hand and the ‘tail wagging the dog’ on the other. How would you characterise the Portuguese presence in Bengal and did it fit these labels?

PM: The Portuguese enclaves in various parts of the world each had their own specificities and characteristics. However, when one attempts to locate these individual settlements within the entire structure of Portuguese settlements, they often end up using categories and labels in relation to the other parts or the entire structure. When George Winus in his article ‘The “Shadow Empire” of Goa in the Bay of Bengal’[2] used the term ‘shadow empire’ to describe the nature of Portuguese presence of Bengal, he did so to highlight the unofficial and private nature of their presence in the Bay of Bengal region vis-a-vis the western coast. However, the usage of the term ‘empire’ in this case is questionable, since there was an absence of centralised power structure in Bengal. Bengal rather was characterised by local power structures set up by the Portuguese privateers and renegades on the basis of exigencies, with attempts made to associate themselves with the central authority in Goa being occasional and limited. Thus, there are limitations to the usage of the term ‘shadow empire’. As far as the term ‘tail wagging the dog’ goes, it gives as an impression of totality, with the region under consideration—in this case Bengal—being the tail. Attempts at times were made to incorporate Bengal into the centre, particularly by the ecclesiastical, and there also were times when happenings of the regions affected the policies of the centre. Bengal, though, remained largely outside the rules and regulations of the estado (Portuguese Company), characterised by its own specificities. Moreover, I believe, instead of labels, one should consider the great amount of specificity that the Portuguese in Bengal had in terms of their relations with the Mughals, Arakanese and the other local powers of the region.

DD: By the second half of the eighteenth century, Bengal came under British control. What was the fate of the Portuguese of Bengal under this new political circumstance?

PM: When Bengal came under British control, the English did not have enough men, personnel and resources to administer. They depended on Portuguese descendants who joined the English in trading activities and army. The Portuguese eventually got absorbed into the Anglical culture, particularly post the setting up of a number of English-medium schools in Bengal. Till the eighteenth century, Portuguese was the lingua franca of trade, then English and Anglical culture took over. Thus, there was a strong process of Anglicisation and the groups of Luso-Indians in Bengal gradually diminished, giving way to the growth of Anglo-Indians instead.


[1] The Portuguese padroado can be loosely defined as a combination of rights, privileges and duties granted by the papacy to the Portuguese crown as patron of the Roman Catholic missions and ecclesiastical establishments in vast regions of Asia and Africa, and Brazil in Latin America.

[2] Winius, ‘The “Shadow Empire” of Goa in the Bay of Bengal.’


Winius, George. ‘The “Shadow Empire” of Goa in the Bay of Bengal.’ Itinerario 7, no. 2 (1983): 83–101.