Politics & Diplomacy


Georges Winius*

The Cross of S. Tomé de Meliapor (Couto, VII/10b)

When it came to innovating ad hoc imperial structures in what the late John H. Parry called "The Age of Reconnaissance", no European power could hold a candle to Portugal. It had one arrangement for the Atlantic islands, a modification of this pattern for Brazil; then it had another scheme for the West African coast and a different one for the Estado da Índia Oriental (which included the East African coast). Finally, its relations with Macau and the Portuguese stations in Japan were again unique. Thus it did not surprise me particularly when I discovered in 1983 that besides all these systems, there existed yet another variant which nobody had drawn attention to - one which fell somewhere between semi-rule and no rule at all.

This was in the Bay of Bengal, and I only became aware of its special nature little by little. First, I read of runaway soldados from Goa escaping to that region in the Reformação da Milícia e Governo do Estado da Índia of Francisco Rodrigues de Silveira, while writing a paper on him for the Second International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History. Later, I visited Mylapore and became interested in the East Indian coast. Slowly I began piecing the remarkable story together of how Portuguese presence in the entire bay area must be classified as a separate Portuguese colonial genus, in effect a "shadow empire". It represented neither an official initiative nor an extension of royal power of any great degree, but did extend Portuguese commercial, cultural and religious influence in an informal way.

The Portuguese "shadow empire" in the region was neither conquered nor financed by Goa or Lisbon, but settled peacefully by migrant individuals, mostly casados - soldiers married and retired from active service - and fugitives. Then, its few officers did not follow the usual pattern of salaried, three-year nominations, but were unsalaried and named for irregular terms, sometimes even for life. There was no convoy or port duty system, and in almost all instances, its inhabitants did almost exactly as they pleased at all times. Indeed, for years on end, the most important city, São Thomé de Meliapur, or Mylapore, had no captain at all. The colonial inhabitants' only really infallible ties were with the Catholic Church and the Portuguese Padroado, the royal responsibility for the church and its missions within the area of the papal donation.

It is this informal empire that I wish to explore in the following pages. I will suggest how and why the Portuguese presence evolved - or at least how I think it did - how it declined (or perhaps rather how it adapted to circumstance) and what its governmental, religious and commercial parameters were. This article is in effect an update of one I wrote six years ago for Itinerario, 1983/2. It appeared in the early days of that journal when few libraries subscribed to it; hence copies are extremely hard to locate. Then, as I only later discovered, the Portuguese trading operations in Bengal did not come to quite such an abrupt end as I had believed. As a result, I would like to modify some of my conclusions in the light of subsequent research.

One might alternatively term what I am about to describe as the "Bengali Portuguese Presence", to distinguish it from the rest of the Estado da Índia Oriental, for I notice that most maps label as the Bay of Bengal the whole body of water between Nagapattinam on the East Indian coast to Rangoon in Burma, near the site of the old Portuguese fort at Syriam. These places were at the "shadow empire's" extreme limits, while its capital, if it had one, was São Thomé de Meliapur. The sites of other major settlements arced up the coast through Pulicat and Masulipatnam to the Hughli area and then descended again to Pegu. Of these areas, São Thomé probably held the single greatest number of people, while the greatest concentration of hamlets was in and around Hughli -some forty in number.

The heyday of these communities was from around 1570 to 1610, and it corresponds closely with that of the private trading in the Estado's west coast heartland, and probably not coincidentally. The private trading on the west coast was carried on by a mixture of Hindu vanias and other traders and Portuguese casado families, themselves of mixed European and Indian ancestry after the first generation -- and thus a part of the general trading picture. Seeing that both Gujarati and Konkani traders traditionally had close trading links, both in cotton cloth and foodstuffs, with Coromandel and Bengal, 1 and that Goa initially derived much of its foodstuffs from there, it is more than likely that both groups of merchants on the east and west coasts shared a related and even integrated prosperity. Moreover, Bengal had close ties with Malacca, even before the Portuguese captured that town, and no doubt at least some of the Portuguese emigrants to Bengal seem to have come from there and not from the Portuguese west coast. Much of their trade must have been with that emporium and not with Goa and its satellites on the Arabian Sea.


In the beginning, probably the most attractive single thing for the Portuguese about this region on the far side of the Cape of Comorin, was the legend of Saint Thomas the Apostle. The quest for Eastern Christians-- to borrow a title and phrase from the late Francis Rogers-- was at least as great a magnet for the wide-ranging Portuguese of the discovery era, as was trade. As early as 1501, in his letter to the Catholic kings, Dom Manuel I wrote that Pedro Álvares Cabral had sent him "definite information": the sepulchre of St. Thomas was to be found on the sea coast, in a city which is called Maliapor, of a small population; and he brought me earth from his tomb. 2 By 1507, according to the chronicler, Gaspar Correia, Viceroy Francisco de Almeida had already sent out a small expedition from Cochin to the east coast of India, with the dual object of discovering the tomb and investigating trade possibilities. 3 But Dom Francisco seems to have had too many other things on his mind to act upon the information brought him, though Correia says he did report it to Lisbon and it seems to have formed the basis for Duarte Barbosa's description of 1516. Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, who first appeared in Asia en route to Malacca in 1509, also bore instructions in his regimento to search for Mylapore.

No further contact appears to have been made, though, until 1517, when a second group of explorers, six in number and travelling in a native vessel, not only found what they believed to be the "Casa de São Thomé," the dwelling of St. Thomas, but wrote a letter from it, describing it first-hand and giving a new rendition of the legend that the saint had been killed by an arrow on a hill six leagues distant. His bones lay buried in a chapel which formed part of the "Casa".4 The hamlet Mylapore was reported as being adjacent to the dwelling, but the writer, one Manuel Gomes, does not say whether it was presently Christian or Hindu.

"Enseada de Bengala", map by João Baptista Lavanha in Quarta Década da Ásia by João de Barros, published in 1615.

While the six men were actually on their way from nearby Pulicat, where it appears that other, nameless Portuguese had already established themselves, the discovery of the long sought-after shrine easily distinguished Mylapore as the preferred place for future settlement. At the same time, or nearly so, another development occurred which favoured trade with the already established Portuguese cities on the Malabar and Kanarese coasts. In 1522, the Governor Dom Duarte de Meneses named one Manuel de Frias as feitor da costa do Coromandel, i. e. business agent of the Coromandel coast, with the idea that he might organize the provision of rice and other commodities from that region for Goa. 5 This all formed a neat conjuncture of God and Mammon, and thenceforward, São Thomé de Meliapor was on its way. Only the next year, in 1523, Dom Duarte dispatched a ship with a skilled mason on board and materials for the repair of the tumbledown "house" of the apostle. In the course of excavations, three skeletons were found, one with a spear next to it, which seemed to corroborate earlier legends of St. Thomas' interment. 6 Thus, the finding of the actual relics, or at least the supposed ones, did nothing at all to discourage an already promising situation. It was not long thereafter that a capitão do Coromandel was named, with authority over the navigations of the entire Bay of Bengal.

São Thomé grew rapidly during the 1530's, despite citizens' complaints that the captains were too youthful (the post no doubt being considered minor) and only interested in becoming rich. 7 The chronicler, Gaspar Correia, passed through on two occasions, in 1531 and 1534, and was amazed to find that all the city's plans for expansion had been realized in so short a time, with empty spaces within the wall becoming noble streets and rows of houses. 8 In 1537, São Thomé was said to have some fifty households, while seven years later, St. Francis Xavier estimated the number of casados, presumably each with a menage of some sort, at one hundred. 9


In 1540, São Thomé appears to have had a narrow escape, one that can most likely be attributed to the plucky attitude of its citizenry. For while the fortresses and towns of the west coast may have been held tightly in reign by the governors or viceroys and their captains, the city of the Apostle Thomas was not about to allow itself to be mismanaged by an avaricious set of whippersnappers bent only on its exploitation. A citizens' letter of 1537 was in fact written directly to none other than the king, Dom João III himself, with a plea that a permanent captain be appointed from among their own number, one who would have their own interests at heart. It must have taken about three years for word of this insubordination to have worked its way back to Goa - and when it did, the punishment must have been instantaneous. The viceroy, the irascible Dom Garcia de Noronha, seems to have lost hardly a moment in commanding his Captain of Coromandel, Manuel da Gama, to close the whole operation and bring the Portuguese inhabitants, together with the holy relics, presumably, to the west coast - where they could be kept under control. 10 Gama indeed seems to have carried out the deportation in part, but Noronha soon sickened and died, apparently sparing both Gama and the settlers further inconvenience. Thereafter, the settlers seem to have won their case in part, because São Thomé got its own appointed captain after 1542, or thereabouts, and despite a few bad ones, most appear to have been content to live and let live, being increasingly nominated from among old India hands who sought mostly a pleasant place to retire. A report on Portuguese India compiled for King Philip II after 1580 said as much, and the fact that the post was unpaid, did not follow the usual three-year term, and seems frequently to have been vacant, substantiates this. The only other official at São Thomé, also unpaid, seems to have been a scribe. 11 One can only conclude that the government at Goa finally decided that further pestering of the distant Portuguese settlers was not worth the expense and trouble.

There is every reason to believe that the settlers were not overly fond of viceregal central authority. The soldier/memoir writer, Francisco Rodrigues de Silveira, reported in his Reformação da Milícia e Governo do Estado da Índia Oriental that swindling and deliberate mistreatment of the soldado class in Goa was what had driven them to escape, especially to Coromandel and Bengal, and other documents imply that the soldados and casados who had taken refuge there were "criminals" (from the Goan point of view12 or simply "tired and worn out" (from their own). 13 All in all, there is every reason to believe that the compromise eventually reached between central authority and the settlers represented a neat balance between centripetal and centrifugal forces.


Two factors must have worked together to keep the crown interested in the area. One was no doubt patronage. Having a place to send fidalgos (nobles) whose service entitled them to some sort of reward, even if more apparent than real, must always have seemed attractive to both Lisbon and Goa alike - and if one reads between the lines of the report to King Philip II just mentioned, one can perceive this. 14 The second factor was the Padroado. Not only was the discovery of the supposed relics of St. Thomas the Apostle at Mylapore a powerful magnet in those times, but the discovery of the Thomas or Syriac Christians, plus other, immense missionary possibilities along the Coromandel Coast, acted as a spur for the regular clergy. So long as these were involved in the region, the crown had to maintain an active presence. Hence, even though the Portuguese colonists there displayed much of the independent pioneer spirit, the crown was not about to leave them entirely unsupervised and it continued to appoint officers with at least nominal jurisdiction. The colonists may have been quite willing to accept this if only because the local nayaks were of two minds about the Portuguese and sometimes threatened their existence in the areas.

In order to suggest how the missionary activity and the hostility of the Vijayanagari nayaks or local governors seem to have been interrelated, it might be appropriate to take a look at the growing Latin Catholic (as opposed to St. Thomas Christian) activities in the area. This will make it all the clearer why the Portuguese settlers in the area were perpetually in a state of insecurity, and indeed why throughout the entire bay area the "shadow empire" was always in danger from the inland side.

Not until 1539 did the regular orders become involved in the Coromandel area. Or perhaps one should say instead that nowhere in the Estado da Índia Oriental was missionary activity very successful until then. For after the great hope died down that India was already a great Christian nation and after the joy of finding at least a number of St. Thomas Christians there had begun to wear off, the clergy of the Padroado began to consider that their successes were limited to areas within Portuguese jurisdiction, and that their best means of converting Hindus were through intermarriage and material incentive. At the same time, they began to pay more missionary attention to the St. Thomas Christians themselves.

The St. Thomas Christians, at the time of Portuguese establishment in south India, were between eighty thousand and two hundred thousand in number and were located mostly in coastal areas around Cape Comorin, i. e., from about Mangalore and Cochin in Kerala up to above present-day Madras to Pulicat. 15 Their headquarters, if they can be said to have had any, was wherever their Syriac bishop happened to reside (then in Cochin), for the St. Thomas Christians had contact from about the seventh century with the Syrian Christians of the Middle East and received their bishops from them (indeed some authorities believe the St. Thomas legend is no more than legend and that the whole indigenous Indian Christian population is wholly the result of Syrian-Armenian missionary efforts).

However this may have been, the St. Thomas communities were traditionally ruled through Syriac bishops, who until 1597 had the blessing of the Pope, and were thus Catholics not subject to the Padroado. Such in itself tended to irritate the adherents of the Padroado, who considered the independence of the Syriac church from it as something of an irregularity which ought to be corrected. At the same time, the Syriac administration and service to its Thomasine flocks was considered 'sloppy' and even scandalous. The Latin dislike for the Syriac ritual aside, it was noticed that the St. Thomas clergy, too few in the first place, often sold the Sacraments; that parishioners were horribly ignorant about their faith; that nobody seems to have confessed or done penance, and that thousands of believers had never been baptized because their parents could not afford this luxury. 16 Hence it was that the Latin-rite fathers of the Portuguese Padroado around Cochin began to devote their best efforts to the St. Thomas Christians.

Until the coming of the regular clergy to the Coromandel coast, not much in the way of missionary activity was undertaken either among the Hindus or the native Christians. In Mylapore, for instance, there seems to have been only one priest, a certain António Penteado, who managed to get himself appointed as keeper of the "Casa de São Thomé" through connections with the royal family, and had grandiose plans for building it into a monastery. But he was choleric, arrogant and ignorant, or so said his parishioners, and a visiting clergyman complained in the 1530's that he had not baptized a single Indian. 17 This all changed when the Franciscans arrived on the Costa da Pescaria, or Fishery Coast in 1538 and baptized perhaps as many as 20,000 Hindu paravas, or low caste fishers. 18 In 1542 they were followed by none other than the Jesuit "Apostle of the Indies", St. Francis Xavier himself. Thereafter, the region became a target area for the two orders, to be joined toward the end of the century by the Augustinians. No doubt after their all-too-modest achievements on the Indian west coast, the east coast successes made it seem that there might be a fair chance to convert India after all, or at least the southern part of it, and at the same time to set the St. Thomas Christians right.

It is not certain whether the attacks the Portuguese settlers experienced periodically in their communities around the Bay were directly due to this proselytization or not. The Hindus of South India are still disturbed when a harijan community converts en masse to another religion, as some have recently been doing, 19 and it would hardly be surprising if this had also been the case four hundred years ago when missionaries began to make inroads. Moreover, the Portuguese, like the contemporary Spaniards in the Americas, regarded pagan temples as structures which virtually begged for treatment with crowbars and sledge hammers. Hence occasionally, even though they were present in the region on the suffrance of the Rajdom of Vijayanagar, they could not resist the holy impulse to pulverize a graven image or three while in the vicinity of some unguarded-looking shrine. Accordingly, the hostile actions of the nayaks seem to have depended on their feelings of pique, even though to the north and west, the Goan viceroy and their own raj were united in their struggle against a common enemy, the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda.

In 1544, for instance, the Badagas, mercenaries of the local nayak, attacked the native Christians at Punaikkayal, on the Costa da Pescaria, intimidating and robbing a number of them. And in 1559, Rama Raya, then briefly the Vijayanagari ruler, swooped down on São Thomé itself and carried off twenty-five of its citizens, along with the relics of the Apostle. The reasons for this incursion are not clear; perhaps it was in retaliation for damage done to temples, as some have alleged, or perhaps he merely needed the money. 20 At any rate, he returned both the captives and the bones after the community had paid a stiff ransom: fifty thousand pardaos. Once more, in 1577, the nayak of Thanjavur angrily approached another Portuguese coastal settlement to the south, Nagappatinam, and threatened the sixty casados, two hundred Eurasians and three thousand Indian Christians there, scaring many of them into the available boats before he withdrew. And there were many other such incidents which kept both clergy and settlers in a state of uncertainty. This was no passing phenomenon, for ultimately, the Bengali Portuguese "empire" seems to have declined nearly as much from native Indian attacks as from Dutch and English ones.

Nagapattinam, which I just mentioned, was not far from the Costa da Pescaria and about three hundred kilometres south of Mylapore, and it seems to have been settled by the Portuguese almost as early as was the town of São Thomé. In this case, however, instead of being a mere hamlet when the Portuguese arrived, it was already well populated and possessed the best harbour on the entire coast. When the Portuguese settled there, between 1518 and 1530, they merely added their own quarter to the pre-existent ones of the Hindus and Moslems. There seems to have been a capitão there by the time Xavier arrived in 1545, and true to the east coast tradition, he was also unpaid. 21 Other coastal settlements, this time to the north of São Thomé, were, as already mentioned, at Pulicat and also at Masulipatam. But neither of these places seem to have had more than a dozen or two Portuguese families until late in the sixteenth century.

Portuguese stone, on an inner wall of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Expectação, built in 1547 on the Great Mount, Madras, Tamilnadu, India - the legendary site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas the Apostle.

Once they had established themselves along the Coromandel coast, one can conjecture that the Portuguese casados and fugitive soldiers (who probably soon took wives and considered themselves as "casados" as well) opened trading with Bengal and the countries to the east, namely Arakan, Pegu and even Tenasserim, near present-day Thailand. Bengal and Coromandel were famous for their cotton cloths of all varieties and grades, while the countries on the eastern side of the Bay possessed a climate unfavourable for cotton growing and depended on India to supply them. 22 In return, the casado traders from Coromandel could obtain gemstones, silver and spices. Thus, the next logical places for Portuguese settlement were in those areas themselves where they had been doing business, though it is far from certain that all the Portuguese who settled in Bengal had first been in Coromandel. That Hindu merchants from the same Coromandel region had not completely preempted this trade is perhaps explained by the Hindu tendency around 1500 to regard sea voyages as defiling, though there were many exceptions to the rule. At any rate, the casados in Coromandel were in the best trading position, and the opening of Bengal to Portuguese residence provided a golden opportunity for those of them who had not struck permanent roots.


By the second half of the sixteenth century, Bengal was far from a terra incognita for the Portuguese. Even from the days of Albuquerque and Duarte Barbosa, its rich trading potential in cloths, sugar, ginger and spices had been appreciated, but through the years, one expedition after another sent there by the viceroys and governors of Goa had become entrapped in the dangerous maelstrom of regional politics, where Moslems ruled a docile Hindu population and regularly practiced on one another the dirtiest tricks in the book. One emissary, for instance, a certain Martim Afonso de Mello, sent out by Governor Nuno da Cunha from Goa in the mid-1530's, was cordially invited by the Sultan of Gaur, Mahmud Shah, to have dinner with him, then suddenly taken prisoner by his men. All attempts from Goa to free him failed. But when an even more treacherous ruler, Sher Shah, descended upon Gaur from the west and threatened his kingdom, Mahmud freed the Portuguese and enlisted their help. When this indeed proved useful, he rewarded them with charge of his customs houses at the mouths of the Ganges, principally at Satgaon. But then he himself was double-crossed by Sher Shah, with whom he thought he had made peace, and in the fight that followed, Mahmud lost his life. Of course, without his patronage, the customs concession at Satgaon proved worthless, and the Portuguese soon drifted away.

What Goa and official expeditions had failed to accomplish earlier in the century, Portuguese traders did in 1579-1580. By then conditions were much more auspicious. The crooked Sher Shah was gone and Akbar was ruling. Moreover, he desired a Bengali trading connection for the profit of his eastern dominions. When a suitably gentlemanly merchant captain, one Pedro Tavares, arrived to do business in the Hughli region, he was invited to visit the capital, then Fatehpur Sikri, and was given several interviews with the great Mughal himself. Akbar took a liking to him, and Tavares returned to Bengal with a farman, or patent, permitting him to found a city wherever in the region he liked, with full religious liberty to preach and to make converts. The result was the founding of Ugolim, or Hughli, on the banks of the river of the same name, not far from the site of the earlier customs house at Satgaon. Whether "Partab Bar", as the Mughals called Pedro Tavares, was a fidalgo and an ex-appointee of the crown administration in Goa or elsewhere is not known: Frei Sebastião Manrique, writing years later, merely calls him "a respectable man well-versed in politics and affairs of state".23

Pedro Tavares is known to have been named as Hughli's first captain, but how long he ruled is not known, or under what conditions from Goa. He and his successors governed with the aid of four assistants elected by the citizenry, and since the names of only three other captains seem to be connected with Hughli during the fifty or so years of its formal existence as a virtually self-governing entity within the Mughal empire, it might well be suspected that, like Nagapattinam and São Thomé, Hughli's chief officers did not follow the usual three-year term of service practiced on the west coast, but were rooted in the community. Certainly, the city did not appear to suffer under their oppression, but grew swiftly: by 1603, a visitor estimated its Portuguese inhabitants at five thousand, and it had virtually eclipsed Satgaon, which was soon again in their hands. Just up-river, they founded a second community, Bandel, a few years later, and in 1599, the Augustinians built a large convent there, overlooking the Hughli River. The Jesuits were also active in mission work among the Bengali-Hindu population. Increasingly, the Portuguese grew independent of the Mughal emperor, refusing his officials entrance to Hughli without permission and themselves levying taxes on Mughal vessels. 24 Sometime in the early seventeenth century, they even seem to have stopped paying their annual and rather small tribute to Agra. Yet, curiously, Hughli never seems to have had a fortress. 25 It should also be noted here that Hughli and Bandel were not the only places in the debouchment of the Ganges where Portuguese established themselves; there were numerous other Indo-Portuguese settlements throughout the delta region, some probably amounting to no more than one or two families and their adherents. Probably none of these ever bothered to seek farmans from the authorities to legitimize their presence.

If Hughli took liberties with the rulers under which it operated, the Portuguese to the east and south along the coast were even more independent, if indeed "independent" is the word for it: they tried their hands at empire building and king-making. The same Mahmud Shah who had awarded the Portuguese the customs houses in Satgaon in the 1530's had given them another at Chittagong in East Bengal (presently in Bangladesh) and there the Portuguese customs officers quietly remained in residence while Chittagong slowly grew. By about the 1590's, the Portuguese settlement there rivalled that of Hughli, though it was then subordinate to the King of Arakan, in presentday northern Burma. Relations with him were good until 1602.

Farther south, in Pegu, by that same year, 1602, two Portuguese traders-turned-soldiers-of-fortune, Salvador Ribeiro de Sousa and Felipe de Brito e Nicote, had helped the same King of Arakan, Selim Shah, in some of his campaigns. He rewarded them with customs houses and a fort; meanwhile, the Portuguese flocked to avail themselves of the new opportunities26 and soon a Portuguese community rose around the new fort, built at a place called Syriam, near present-day Rangoon. One can gather that after one hundred years of residence in Asia, the original Portuguese casados had multiplied through their marriages with Indians into a mestiço people, though constantly augmented with new white stock from Europe via ex -soldados escaping from Goa. 27 There were enough of these floating merchants available to move in quickly, where new possibilities presented themselves. 28

But, by 1602, it would seem the whole "empire" had reached its zenith. Most of the trade of the entire Bay was in Portuguese hands, and it almost seemed as if the whole east coast might become theirs with a bit of daring and political manipulation. One contemporary Englishman, Samuel Purchas, foresaw this and remarks: here they might build their fleets and be furnished of sustenance, might send at any time to all places in the south (which in Goa cannot be done but with the Monsoons) and might cause that no ship of Moors should lade pepper, cinnamon or other commodities at Martavan, Reitav, Juncalao, Tanasserim and Queda for Surat or Mecca, but with custom [duty] from them and passes from them.


Instead of achieving this, everything went wrong for the Bengali Portuguese in the next years and decades. Starting in 1602, the capture of the rich, forty kilometres-long Sandwip Island by Portuguese adventurers from Chittagong caused the Arakanese ruler, the aforementioned Selim Shah, to become suspicious that Brito e Nicote (who had nothing to do with it), might show himself to be equally ambitious. He besieged Syriam, while Brito e Nicote tried to raise help at Goa, offering Philip II the crown of Pegu. Then Selim attacked Sandwip twice, ultimately forcing the Portuguese to abandon it; meanwhile, he expelled them from Chittagong. In 1607, he murdered hundreds of Portuguese and their adherents who had settled peacefully in another town within Arakan, Dianga (probably present-day Bunder). By 1604, the Mughals were also beginning to tire of Portuguese independent conduct and built a fort at Hughli to watch over them; instead, the Portuguese wiped it out. The Mughals, slow to anger, did nothing for the moment, but another king, that of Ava, whom Brito e Nicote really did offend, went on the warpath and ultimately ran Brito e Nicote to ground in 1613, impaling him above the entrance to his own fort at Syriam, just as help was on the way from Goa. Then, in 1632, the Mughal, Shah Jahan, apparently was unable to tolerate Hughli any longer and gave orders to capture it, carrying off many of the besieged Portuguese to Agra, whence he later released them and allowed them to return.

But the bloom was off the Bengali "empire" anyway. About the same time, 1608, the Dutch and then the English appeared in the Bay, both settling at Masulipatam and the Dutch at Pulicat, whence the Dutch East India Company set out to sweep the Portuguese from the entire Bay through use of the same kind of pass system the Portuguese had earlier employed on the Indian west coast. 29 Then in 1640, the English established their Fort St. George only a dozen kilometres above São Thomé. Only one year later, the Portuguese at Nagapattinam, fearful of Dutch attacks, hurriedly swore allegiance to the restored Portuguese monarch, Dom João IV, and placed themselves under Goa's protection. 30 Meanwhile, beginning in 1642, São Thomé endured repeated blockades, sieges and plundering for the remainder of the century.


Much additional research is needed in the archives of Portugal, of the Vatican and in the private correspondence of the Honourable East India Company servants at the Tamil Nadu Archives, Egmore, Madras, to determine exactly what happened thereafter to the "shadow empire". It is obvious, of course, that it did not survive all the various blows which rained down upon it in anything like its old glory. But the Portuguese presence does not appear by any means to have been annihilated. In fact there seem to have been two responses, one of the Indo-Portuguese personnel who had formerly served the entrepreneurs in minor capacities, and one of the ship-owning and entrepreneurial classes themselves.

If São Thomé de Meliapor itself is any measure, the English at nearby Fort St. George quickly recognized the utility of attracting its residents as their employees -- doubtless as stevedores, linguists, soldiers and indirectly as fishers; even as the fort was being built, company officials offered free land within its walls to those Indo-Portuguese willing to settle there and work for them; before long a considerable community had accepted the offer. In 1642, the English even persuaded an itinerant French priest, Fr. Ephraim de Nevers, to reside there and act as their chaplain; moreover, the first church built there was Catholic and not Anglican. 31 Thereafter, the Indo-Portuguese served their English masters in every possible capacity, from soldiers and militiamen to punchhouse keepers. I have not found widespread evidence for such symbiosis between the Indo-Portuguese and the Dutch at such an early date, among other reasons because the Landmonsterrollen, or muster rolls, of that company date only from the eighteenth century. But if one considers that Goan officials were already accusing the Indo-Portuguese population at Pulicat of doing business with the Dutch enemy in 1622, it would not be surprising if many of the smaller fry among the Indo-Portuguese inhabitants of Masulipatam, Pulicat and other towns had enlisted with them almost at once, even though there is no indication that the Dutch were prepared to be as broad-minded in matters of religion. 32 At any rate, the V. O. C. rolls are full of Portuguese names in the eighteenth century. 33

What became of the Indo-Portuguese entrepreneurs themselves is another matter. Doubtlessly, some were ruined, some took to the bayous of the Hughli and became traderpirates, and some went to Nagapattinam, continuing to trade in the teeth of the Dutch and English threats, moving after the Dutch captured that city in 1659 to another town nearby, Porto Novo, under the nayaks of Senji. Even though the Dutch managed to establish a factory there in 1680, they did not attempt to oust the Indo-Portuguese community, which remained, along with a medley of native trading groups. Moreover, the port's foreign presence was soon augmented by the presence of the English, Danish and Swedes. 34 It is also noteworthy that the Mughals in effect protected the Portuguese communities around Hughli and Bandel through their own policies of deliberately extending equal privileges to all Europeans within their territories, while enforcing among them peace and obedience to their laws. 35 Thus the Portuguese were able to exist alongside their stronger enemies for at least the rest of the century, meanwhile maintaining their religion and forms of civil government. 36

Then there exists another line of inquiry, one uncovered by Leiden University researchers into the Dutch and English companies in the Bay area. This suggests that at least some Portuguese entrepreneurs on the Coromandel coast went into partnership with the English company's servants, who were notorious for their "moonlighting" activities.

It should be recalled that the English and Portuguese were old allies in Europe, an alliance disturbed by the accession of Philip II of Spain to the Portuguese throne as Philip I in 1580. While peace was made again in 1604 between England and Philip III and II, this did not automatically mean that the Honourable East India Company would follow suit - and in fact, it did not. But, just after the Portuguese Restauração of 1640, in 1642, a new peace was concluded between the English crown and Dom João IV - and even before this time, the Honourable East India Company found it advantageous to cease hostilities with Goa, in the form of a non-aggression pact made with Goa in 1635. (Significantly, the V. O. C. did not, for it was just then engaged in a protracted battle with Goa over rich cinnamon lands in Ceylon, and it remained on a wartime footing with Portugal, on and off for the next generation).

Almost immediately after the peace of 1642 between Portugal and England, V. O. C. commanders began to voice complaints that Portuguese ships were flying English flags and even carrying Englishmen on board in order to ward off their seizure under the Dutch pass-and-patrol system designed to suppress Portuguese competition with the Dutch company in the Bay region. One letter calling attention to the practice, written in 1644 by the new Dutch governor of Malacca, Jeremias van Vliet, warns that: If we allow the English to conduct this back-and-forth trade, it would be an inwardly-eating cancer [for the Company]. 37

While the V. O. C. integrated this "back and forth" or intra-Asian commerce as an important part of its total operations, the less tightly-organized English company was apparently unable to do so. In fact, in 1674, its directors gave up their last pretenses to profit from such operations and authorized its servants and factors resident in Asia to trade privately in all products of Asia - no doubt because these had already long pre-empted the profits from their "daytime" employers. It is therefore likely that what the Dutch were complaining about was not the official activities of their then much smaller British rival, but the artifices concocted by ingenious Englishmen to further their extracurricular activities. Merchants like João Pereira de Faria, Cosmo, Luís de Madeiros (or Madeira) and Lucas Luís de Oliveira soon moved from Nagapattinam or São Thomé to Fort St. George, where they became prominent free merchants and commanders of the militia; thereafter, until well into the eighteenth century, there were always Portuguese names prominent among the city's trading community. 38

Thus it was that by 1680 at least, if not long before, the Dutch East India Company directors had given up all hopes of reserving the intra-Asian trade for their organization - quite likely in the face of just such informal alliances between Englishmen and the old inhabitants of the "shadow empire." For in that year the V. O. C. directors wrote from Amsterdam: The European competitors make it impossible for the Company to maintain this [monopoly] right, which we thought we had conquered from the Portuguese, employing their flags and servants, or else their passes, allowing them to appear as English. Because of the consequences, we dare not put a stop to it. 39

These quotes might therefore suggest (even before all the letter books of the English private traders filed at the Tamil Nadu archives in Egmore, Madras, have been examined) that, adaptable as ever, the Indo-Portuguese merchants, or at least some of them, had found the means to remain in business. If so, one might also twist the idea another way around, and assert that the English private trading networks had in effect absorbed the old Portuguese Bengali country trade. In that case, then perhaps it would be appropriate to speak of an "Anglo-Portuguese Shadow Empire" - if indeed this is not drawing matters out to too fine a decimal-place.


One of the several puzzles involving the Indo-Portuguese migrants to Bengal concerns their exact relationship to the Mughals. I have already spoken of Pedro Tavares and his visit, while the writings of Edward Maclagan and Fr. John Correia-Afonso have done much to call attention to the relations between the Jesuits and the Mughal court. But there is much evidence of Portuguese presence in Agra which can be explained by neither Jesuit or other missionary activities, nor by the brief captivity of the prisoners from Hughli. Rather, they seem the result of the continual "leakage" of members of the soldado class from unsatisfactory conditions in Goa. This is mentioned either directly or indirectly by a variety of authors, including Correia and Couto, but it is perhaps best explained by Francisco Rodrigues de Silveira, as alluded to earlier in this article. Silveira was a former soldier in India who turned memoir writer after his return to Portugal in 1598, and it is his theory that neglect and non-payment of soldiers' pay in Goa led to their desertion, especially, he says, to Bengal. 40 From his use of the term, it is probable that he means the area comprising the mouths of the Ganges and not that of the whole Bay.

Given the context in which he writes, it is clear that he is not speaking of casados who legally became merchants, but rather of those who merely "took off" for a different life, presumably, as the French visitor François Pyrard reports, by evading surveillance at the various checkpoints between Goa and Bijapur, or as another writer, Jacques de Coutre suggests, by following the beaches between the palm groves. 41 While a few escapees seem to have had commerce as their goal, probably many more simply practiced what they knew best, or at least were presumed by the Indians to know: they took service as mercenaries with the various sultans of central and south India. We read about their more spectacular exploits in the accounts of Couto and Correia, among others.

Of course, through being the biggest and the richest, Agra was the most prominent among capitals where the adventurers took service; it is known that after the Jesuits established themselves at Akbar's invitation in 1580, there came to be at least two parishes serving the Portuguese community, whose members seem to have represented all occupations -- though one gathers that the principal one was still military service with the Mughal. 42 What role Agra played in the migration of soldados from Goa to Bengal, however, is not clear. It would seem logical that many of the Portuguese spoken of by Silveira had first been in the Mughal service before drifting on to Hughli - but of course this is only speculation and unsupported by any documentation I have yet encountered. The only certainty is that Portuguese, whether reinóis or Indo-Portuguese mestiços, lived in nearly all parts of India (not to speak of Arakan or Pegu) and managed to keep informed of one anothers' whereabouts. Hence, their passage from one place to another along the networks, in this case from Goa to Bengal, would hardly have been surprising. 43 One might also suspect that one reason the area around the debouchment of the Ganges was so full of (Indo-) Portuguese pirates is that some of these men were more used to arms than to shipments of salt or bolts of cloth - and that they were quicker to revert to force than were the (Indo-) Portuguese who had entered the region as traders via the maritime route.


The phenomenon of the independent, wandering Portuguese entrepreneurs is by no means confined to the Bay of Bengal, of course, for the early settlers of Macao and the discoverers of Japan appear to have been of exactly the same type. Moreover, it also existed in the Brazilian New World, if not in the Zambesi Valley of Africa. And it even recalls the French coureurs de bois of early North American expansion history. It is interesting that after 1580, the Philippine kings turned a blind eye to Portuguese trading activities in the Caribbean, and this sea was soon filled with what one imagines to have been the same sort of free-lance activity as in the Bay of Bengal; 44 in fact there is still a suburb of Havana which bears the name "Portugalete". And on land, the activities of the bandeirantes in Brazil and those of the degredados in Africa bear a suspicious resemblance to the same patterns.

Just what dynamics were behind these have received little attention from historians, whose primary business it might not be, anyway; only the late Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre, has offered any partial explanation. He attributes the phenomenon, at least in Brazil, to a kind of hybrid vigor, the hybrid in this case being a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, negroid and Amerindian strains. But he is wise enough to put some of the onus on experience and environment rather than on biology alone - which in most minds would be enough to render his argument old-fashioned and unacceptable. 45

For in its pure form, such a biological theory would not be taken seriously nowadays, save perhaps in that extra skin pigmentation may have provided some useful protection against a tropical sun. Rather, those sixteenth century Portuguese peasants who went to India or Brazil as soldiers or as plantation auxiliaries were hardy, full of folk wisdom (as Freyre himself asserts), and quite capable of surviving with only the barest trappings of civilization. Intermarriage with Indians or Amerindians would have produced children who had accrued knowledge from both cultures, but were completely accepted by neither.

Hence, I suspect that the largely mestiço Portuguese in the Bay of Bengal had to seek and follow their own opportunities, while using about as much of the formal Portuguese empire as they found advantageous - its priests, plus an occasional scribe or notary to facilitate their (testamentary) transmission of property. And they might have been willing to acknowledge a captain's authority once in a while if they thought this would help them against their enemies. (On the other hand, they appear to have had no sense of statecraft or diplomacy, and this may have cost then the terrible siege of Hughli in 1632.)46

It must have been Portuguese of just this sort that Garcia da Orta had in mind when he wrote: It is true that the Portuguese are not very curious, nor good writers: they are more friends of action than of speech. They work to acquire through their lawful trading, but they do not treat the Indians badly... 47

In any case, these friends of action worked hard, and they made the Bay of Bengal their sphere of influence, indeed a "shadow empire" of Goa. But during all the intervening centuries, they have paid the price of non-recognition for their achievements. One great drawback of people who lack eloquence is that they do not gain credit half so quickly as those who loudly sing their own songs.


1. Duarte Barbosa, Livro em que dá relação do que viu e ouviu no Oriente ed. Augusto Reis Machado (Lisbon: Agência Geral das Colónias, 1946), 190.

2. William B. Greenlee (ed. & comp), The Voyage of Pedro Álvares Cabral to Brasil and India (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1938), 49.

3. Gaspar Correia, Lendas da Índia, 4 vols. (Lisbon, 1858), I, 139.

4. António da Silva Rego (ed. & comp), Documentação para a história das missões do Padroado Português do Oriente, 12 vols. (Lisbon: Agência Geral das Colónias/Agência Geral do Ultramar, 1947-1958) I, 296-299.

5. António da Silva Rego, História das Missões do Padroado Português do Oriente, I, 1500-1542 (only volume published), (Lisbon: Agência Geral das Colónias, 1949), 417.

6. Francisco de Andrade, Crónica do Dom João III, 4 vols. (Coimbra, 1795), I, 104-109.

7. Silva Rego, Documentação, II, 249-255.

8. Correia, Lendas, as cited in Silva Rego, História das Missões, 453.

9. Silva Rego, Documentação, III, 165.

10. Correia, Lendas, IV, 112 & 157.

11. "Livro das Cidades e Fortalezas" in Studia 6 (1960), fl. 56, located between pp. 352 & 353.

12. Joaquim Heliodoro da Cunha Rivara (ed. & comp), Archivo Portuguez Oriental, 6 fascicules with supplements (Nova Goa, 1857-1875), facs. 6, 1131.

13. Silva Rego, Documentação, III, 252.

14. "Livro das Cidades e Fortalezas" in Studia 6, fl. 56, and also section on Negapatão (Nagapattinam), fls. 54 & 55.

15. Joseph Thekkadath, History of Christianity in India, (Volume II: From the Middle of the Sixteenth Century to the End of the Seventeenth Century (1542-1700) (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1982), 24.

16. Ibid, chapters 2 & 3; see also Silva Rego, Documentação; II, 178.

17. Silva Rego, Documentação, II, 197, 356.

18. Silva Rego, História das Missões, 369. In a lengthy quote from the usually reliable Oriente Conquistado a Jesus Christo, by Fr. Francisco de Sousa.

19. Dick Kooiman, "Untouchability in India through the Missionary's Eye", Itinerario, 1983-1, 115.

20. Thekkedath, History of Christianity, 201.

21. "Livro das Cidades..." in Studia 6, fls. 54v & 55.

22. Ibid, fls. 83v-84; also, Barbosa, Livro, 184-187, and Garcia da Orta, Collóquios dos Simples e Drogas da India, ed. Conde de Ficalho, 2 vols. (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1891-1892), II, 30.

23. Travels of Fray Sebastien Manrique, 1629-1643, ed. C, E. Luard and H. Hosten, 2 vols. (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1926-1927), I, 34.

24. Joaquim José A. Campos, History of the Portuguese in Bengal, with introduction by B. P. Ambàsthya (Patna: Janaki Prakashan, 1979. A reprint of the 1919 original.), 58-59. A pioneering work, if one showing some of the defects of its sixty-six year of age. Unless otherwise cited, all my information about Bengal has this as its source.

25. Manuel de Abreu Mousinho, Conquista de Pegu pelos Portugueses (the Breve discurso em que se conta a conquista do reino de Pegu, 1617), with introduction by M. Lopes de Almeida (Barcelos: Portucalense Editora, 1936), passim.

26. See Henry Davison Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, 1640-1800, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1913), II, 148. Other Europeans of the seventeenth century almost spoke of Portuguese and "mestiços" interchangeably. See, for instance, Fr. Norbert's comment on the same page, and I, 34-35 and 388.

27. Quoted in Campos, Portuguese in Bengal, 21.

28. See António Bocarro, Década 13 da História da Índia, 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1876), I 153-159.

29. There is not a great deal of literature on this; I have used the unpublished Leiden University M. A. thesis of M. P. M. Vink entitled: "Pascedullen en protectierechten; de V. O. C. als redistributieve onderneming in Malacca, 1641-1662." (1988).

30. On 3 December 1641. See Documentos Remetidos da India, Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, Livro 49, fl. 214.

31. Love, Vestiges, I, 34-35, 49, and 388; see also Thekkedath, History of Christianity, 205-207. The Dutch do not appear to have tolerated Catholic priests in settlements they controlled until the eighteenth century. It was only in 1754 that the Dutch East India Company granted the Indo-Portuguese of Nagapattinam two churches in the city "because the Company cannot do without the support of these people". See V. O. C. 2822, O. B. P. 1754, fls. 805-806, Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague.

32. In 1622, D. António Manuel, in his capacity as the newly-appointed capitão de Coromandel, reported that the Indo-Portuguese were actively trading with the Dutch at Pulicat and conducting themselves so far from the interests of Your Majesty that it would almost seem they were not your vassals. The Indo-Portuguese inhabitants, he said, had even ruined any chance of a surprise attack on the town by tipping-off the Dutch. See Documentos Remetidos da India ou Livros das Monções, 10 vols. -- date (Lisbon, Academia Real das Ciências-Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda: 1880 -- date), VIII (1977), 359. Many Portuguese inhabitants of São Thomé deserted to the Dutch during the V. O. C. blockade of 1642.

33. Little has so far appeared on the subject. See the unpublished M. A. Extensive Indo-Portuguese participation was at a later date. It is entitled Indo-Portuguees personnel van de V. O. C. Een onderzoek naar de aanmezigheid van Indo-Portugezen in dienst van de V. O. C. in Bengalen en Coromandel. (1989) See also, Frank Lequin, Het personeel van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Azië in de achttiende eeuw, meer in het bijzonder in Bengalen, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1982), I. 108.

34. See the paper of Dr. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, "The South Coromandel Portuguese in the Late 17th Century: a Study of the Porto Novo-Nagapattinam Complex", presented to the IV International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History, 11-16 Nov. 1985.

35. The Mughals, who were not important traders in their own right and possessed no navies, were able to exercise indirect control of their seas through such divide et impera tactics.

36 Books AA 41 & 42 of the Archivio Generale Agostiniano, Rome, illustrate that the Portuguese communities and their missions in Bengal still existed until at least 1714. See especially AA 41, fls. 83-92v and 143-145v.

37. Daghregister gehouden in's Casteel batavia, etc., 1643-1644, ed. H. T. Colenbrander ('s Gravenhage, 1899), 127. After the conclusion of their peace in 1642, the English helped alleviate the seasonal blockades of Goa by maintaining communications between the Portuguese settlements, especially Goa and Macau, but also other destinations.

38. See Love, Vestiges, I, 154-156,197,433,444; II, 496-497, among other citations.

39. V. O. C. 1342, O. B. P. 1680, fl. 1521r & v, Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague.

40. Francisco Rodrigues de Silveira, Reformação da milícia e governo do Estado da Índia Oriental, Add ms. 25: 419, British Library, London, fl. 108.

41. Jacques de Coutre, "Como remediar o Estado da Índia", ed. B. N. Teensma, Intercontinenta nº 10 (Leiden: Leiden Centre for the History of European Expansion, 1989, 9.).

42. This emerges from Goa 34-I, fl. 226, Archivum Historicum S. I., Rome. See also, Alain Desoulières, "La communauté Portugaise d'Agra," Arquivos do Centro Cultural Português (Lisbon-Paris: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian), 1986, 145-173, but especially 160.

43. There is no mention in Rodrigues de Silveira of fugitive soldies living in Coromandel, and so it would seem that they descended to Bengal via the Jamuna and Ganges Rivers. They must therefore have passed through the Mughal territories to get there.

44. Lewis Hanke, "The Portuguese in Spanish America, with Special Reference to the Villa Imperial de Potosi", Revista de Historia de America, 51 (1958), 1-48.

45. See Gilberto Freyre, New World in the Tropics; the Culture of Modern Brazil (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959) Chapter II.

46. Orta, Collóquios, II, 248.

47. The Bengali Portuguese do not seem to have understood the importance of good diplomatic relations and protocol. See Travels of Fray Sebastien Manrique, II, 395-396. By neglecting to send a delegation to the accession of Prince Khurram to the Mughal throne as Shah Jahan, they may have raised his suspicions and incited antagonism to the point where he effected his plans to besiege Hughli.

* A native of St. Louis, George Winius graduated from Bowdoin College in 1950. He obtained his Ph. D. from Columbia University in New York before teaching at Hood College, the University of Florida (Gainesville) and Leiden University. He is the author of several publications related to the Portuguese Empire.

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