The Malabarese soldier

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Vijay, a fellow blogger and history enthusiast asked a question some weeks ago about the Malabarese soldiers who accompanied or fought for the Portuguese in various wars. It was an interesting question, considering the turbulent situations in medieval Malabar. Were they Nairs, the traditional warriors, or conscripts from the Christian trader communities, were they the ‘low class converts’, or soldiers from other classes such as Thiyya or Ezhava or hillmen like the Kurichiyars or otherwise or were they Moplah’s?  Considering that the Frinigi or Parangi – the Portuguese settlers were equally hated by all of the indigenous people, was it the lure of money that created this new mercenary class of Malabarese soldiers? How did they fare? How were they equipped and treated? Did they get equal opportunities? Interesting questions indeed! An anthropologist thrives in these situations, looking at the conqueror or occupier, the conquest or the spoils, the relationships and various angles, the land and the terrain, but I will not go in such a direction for I am no anthropologist, I will view the facts as an amused and deeply interested history buff, which I am and will try to bring them across to you in a somewhat coherent fashion.

And so I decided to do some checking. A detailed research is quite difficult for it means poring through a number of ancient Portuguese texts and working out meaningful translations, since this topic has not interested many in the past to elicit an English article. But I think I have sufficient information for a small note, so here goes. I will not continue beyond the Portuguese period and into the Dutch and British times, for the time being. The British times have been very well accounted anyway.

The greatest help in this area came from an interesting two volume book written by Sir William Wilson Hunter. The volume 1 covers the early period in good summary and my intention was to start there and augment the information with those from those who concentrated on the Portuguese period and written great works – people such as Panikkar, Subramanyam, Danvers, Mathew, Maleknadathil, De Souza and so on. The second half will be completed some other time.

We have to start with Vasco Da Gama, but naturally. He was of course not one to enlist any kind of local support and went back home fairly quickly, he was convinced he was in Christian lands though somewhat confused why he was not obtaining cooperation from the Christian Zamorin (I still find it difficult to believe he was so naive) against the Muslims. But we can zoom in to Almeida’s (1505-1510) period and then drift on to Albuquerque (1509-1515), the first statesman, who possessed a strategic vision. 

The first Malabarese who worked on the Portuguese side were soldiers supplied by the Rajah of Cochin. They find mention in the 1504 battle led by Pacheo when he was placed in charge of the defense of Cochin. Having only 150 Portuguese and a small number of Malabarese auxiliaries at his disposal, Cochin was vastly outnumbered by the Zamorin's army of 60,000. Nonetheless, by clever positioning, individual heroics and a lot of luck, Duarte Pacheco successfully resisted attacks for five months, until the Zamorin finally called off his forces. So now you can see that they are grouped under the title ‘auxiliaries’.

Some time back I wrote about Joao Da Cruz a Chetty or a Nair youth, who excelled himself amongst the Portuguese and rose to become a fidalgo, but that was just an individual. But many others joined the enemy’s forces as well after these initial forays. Now you must remember that many Nair men of those times were a kind of on demand soldier who worked for one or other naduvazhi, though the relationship lasted for a long time and they hardly defected to another. However they were loaned for ‘akambadi’ or escort activities to other wealthy citizens and traders or sent to take care of issues singly or as a group. If the headman or eventually the king ordered you to fight against other Nairs, you did so as a professional soldier. So at this stage, do not cloud your mind with patriotism and the such, it was just the usual Cochin against Calicut skirmishes, but one side had additional Parangi support, viewed from the Malayali mind. It must be noted here that the Nair foot soldier did not always fight for one chieftain or one noble. There have been many instances of one lot joining the other after a battle. They were in some ways mercenaries who allied with the best payers, I suppose. But this is gemeral conjuncture at this point of time. 

So for a lot of Nairs in the Cochin, teaming up with their better paying Portuguese collaborators was but natural. In history they are termed Malabarese. Many a Moplah also joined these groups. Interestingly as you pore through these musty old history books, you come across many battles fought in Malabar where the Zamorin or the Cochin king had many tens of thousands of Nairs whereas the Portuguese or Dutch had tens to hundreds of white soldiers with guns and a score of armed auxiliaries, but in many of these cases the Portuguese or Dutch win the battle. Whether it is discipline or just misinformation in the books, I cannot confirm, but that is how it is written in many books. Anyway many auxiliaries were available, armed with lances, swords and shields, possibly bows and arrows too. The way battles were fought then were different from the skirmishes during the British period of the guerilla type and the intent was not to move in action. Until then the battle was a formal stationery type of specified duration and fought in big fields, like a competition. I will get to that description another day.

I would assume thus that the source of the militia into the Portuguese forces, was mainly through the Cochin ranks and possibly because they paid better, in gold and not just rice. But let us try and find out more. For that we have to read the conclusions of WW Hunter in his book History of India Vol VI. The results were interesting to say the least, for it turns out that Malabarese soldiers had been fighting in those times not only for Malabar rulers or noblemen, not only for the Portuguese, but also for the Vijayanagar kings in their armies and not only was this force comprised of Nairs but also Moplahs and Christians. Now one must take “nairs’ with a pinch of salt, for in many cases, it is believed that they participated as group heads leading groups of faithful Thiyyas and hill men as I described previously.

So as we saw, the practice of enlisting native soldiers commenced with Pacheo. Albuquerque later employed two hundred native soldiers in the attack at capturing Goa (1510), and later used one thousand natives during Goa’s subsequent defense. His Indian troops consisted partly of Nairs, partly of the native Christians of Malabar, and interestingly it was these soldiers who first forced their way past the bastions of Goa. 

As Hunter puts it, After its final recapture, Albuquerque advanced with a mixed force of one thousand Portuguese and two thousand native troops. How far the native soldiers in these early operations were drilled, it is difficult to say, but the contemporary records disclose bodies of Asiatics as a regular part of the trained Portuguese forces, both on shore and in distant sea expeditions. To quote only a few examples: Albuquerque employed a mixed force of 1700 Portuguese and 830 Indians against Aden in 1513; and 1500 Portuguese with 700 Indians against Ormuz in 1515; while Soarez in 1516 sailed for the Red Sea with 1200 Portuguese, 800 Indian soldiers, and 800 Indian seamen.
The cavalry remained for the most part European; the infantry consisted largely if not chiefly of Indians. In 1520 the commandant of Goa seized part of the adjacent mainland with 250 horse and eight hundred Canarese foot soldiers, so by now you can see that it was not just Malabarese. As Hunter continues, Human beings were cheap in India in those times of wars, raids, and famines: a slave was valued in Bengal at fourteen shillings, " and a young woman of good appearance at about as much again." The slave population was also put into military service later.

Later you can see that while setting out on the expedition against Aden in 1530 Nuno da Cunha got together a fleet of four hundred vessels, most of them small craft fitted out by natives, with a force of 3600 Portuguese soldiers, 1460 Portuguese sailors, 2000 Indian soldiers, 5000 Indian seamen, and 8000 slaves. But all was not quite well, for the Portuguese in India, especially the lowest ranks were, as they wrote, an unmanageable and a reluctant foot-soldier. 

Hunter continues - Albuquerque, following the example of Alexander the Great in his Asiatic conquests, and of Hamilcar in Spain, encouraged his troops to marry native wives. The Lisbon court supplied dowries for these unions which at once created the nucleus of a female Catholic population and yearly added infants to the Faith. It soon appeared, however, that such nuptials had another aspect. In 1513 Duarte Barbosa raised his voice against " paying more for marriages to men who afterwards became Moors, than the worth of what Goa has produced up to the present, or ever will produce." But the priests defended the system, the Government provided posts for the husbands, and the records show a frequent desire that "the married people" should be greatly favoured. A languid population of half-breeds sprang up, and employment had to be found for them. In 1569 the attacking force on Parnel included 100 Portuguese, 50 Moorish horse, and 650 half-caste soldiers. Three years previously, in 1566, a militia, chiefly natives and half-breeds, had been organized for Goa— divided in 1630 into a body of regulars 2500 strong, and a defensive reserve of 5000 men.

As the flow of pay from the treasury dried up, the Portuguese soldiers and their half-caste descendants degenerated into a military mob, selling their muskets to native princes and stooping to every disgrace to fill their stomachs. In 1548 the King of Portugal was implored to allow war-service grants to the soldiers, "for they walk day and night at the doors, begging for the love of God. And if it would but end here it would be a lesser evil. But they go over to the Moors because they give them wages and allow them to live at their own liberty." "What stipends they received they gambled away.

The native infantry were disciplined and directed by Portuguese officers, but sometimes led by their own. Antonio Fernandes Chale, for example, a Malabar native Christian, held important command under Portuguese generals, and was raised to the dignity of a Knight of the military Order of Christ. Slain in action in 1571, he received a state funeral at Goa. In the previous year, 1570, the viceroy manned the defensive works of Goa against Adil Khan with 1500 native troops under Portuguese officers, holding his little force of seven hundred Portuguese as a reserve to support whatever position might be hardest pressed. "I certify to your Highness," wrote Pedro de Paria to the king as early as 1522 about the Calicut troops, “that they are as good as ours” and are practiced in shooting three times a week. The differences in drill and weapons were not so decisively in favor of the European system in the sixteenth century as they afterwards became. The chivalrous confidence of the first Portuguese adventurers in their Christian saints degenerated among their half-caste successors into a vague hope of supernatural succor, a habit of “always awaiting the benefits of our Lord working miracles on our behalf—which is a trying thing.”

Meanwhile, the officers of the Indian Department at Lisbon and at Goa embezzled pay for seventeen thousand soldiers, while only four thousand were actually kept up. The native troops became masters of the situation and rose in mutiny. After many troubles they had to be disbanded, and, when re-established on a different footing, commenced in our own day a fresh course of mutiny and revolt.

Antonio Fernandes of Chalium

I then tried to find some more detail on Antonio Fernandez, the convert soldier who rose up the ranks and who always delivered success. The mentions are not many but he seems to have merged well into the Portuguese ranks and is mentioned briefly by many historians. Let us look at some of his battles

1570 - Three thousand of the enemy began to invade the island of Joao Lopes, whereupon Antonio Fernandes de Chale, with 120 men, engaged them and killed a large number, and the rest took to flight. Adil Khan, in order to divide and weaken the Viceroy's forces, again persuaded the Queen of Garcopa to attack Onor. She collected an army of 3,000 of her own men, which, with 2,000 of the Adil Khan's soldiers, besieged the fort. It was in July, 1570, that the news of this further trouble reached the Viceroy. He immediately dispatched Antonio Fernandes de Chale with two galleys and eight other vessels with such men as they could accommodate. In five days Antonio Fernandes reached Onor, and having joined Jorge de Moura, the commander there, fell upon the besiegers, putting them to flight.

Danvers provides some more data of the 1571 battles - Peace having been thus concluded, the next care of the new Viceroy was to send relief to Chale, which he dispatched thither in two galleys, one galleon, and four ships,, under the command of Dom Diogo de Menezes; and subsequently two more galleys and three other vessels followed. These reliefs reached Chale too late, as the fort had already been surrendered to the Zamorin on certain conditions. The surrender was made, in opposition to the opinion of the majority of his officers, by Dom Jorge de Castro, who gave way to the entreaties and tears of his wife and the other ladies there. At this point I have to suppose that Antonio Fernandez (who was obviously from Chale – Chalium, it appears he converted some time ago) participated in that fight as well.

Dom Diogo de Menezes took on board his vessels all the people of Chale who were subjects of the King of Thana, and carried them to Cochin. He then divided his fleet with Mathias de Albuquerque, and cleared the sea of pirates. He next captured, and demolished, a fortress (built by a Naik, subject to the Adil Khan) at the mouth of the River Sanguicer, in which action there  fell Antonio Fernandes Chale, a Malabarese, who for his bravery had often occupied important commands under Portuguese captains. Being a Knight of the Order of Christ, his body was carried to Goa, where it was interred with great ceremony and state.

Mentions of Malabarese in the Vijayanagara army

This is the description of the arrangements for a fight between the Vijayanagar and Bijapur armies.  The Vijayanagar forces were made up of large drafts from all the provinces - Canarese and Telugus of the frontier, Mysoreans and Malabarese from the west and centre, mixed with the Tamils from the remoter districts to the south; each detachment under its own local leaders, and forming part of the levies of the temporary provincial chieftain appointed by the crown. According to Couto, they numbered 600,000 foot and 100,000 horses. His adversaries had about half that number. As to their appearance and armament, Paes mentions that the common soldiers were clad in the lightest of working clothes, many perhaps with hardly any clothes at all, and armed only with spear or dagger.

So it is all rather clear that the fighting forces roamed around for work and found work amongst the various kings and conquerors of the area. But there is more to all this and further study will provide details of their day to day activities while outside the home territory.

A History of British India - William Wilson Hunter
A Forgotten Empire, Vijayanagar: Robert Sewell
The Portuguese in India – FC Danvers

Pics – Scenes from the movie Pazhassi raja


  1. Vijay

    Thanks Maddy for following up on my question.It appears that the practice of using the valor of colonial troops to provide both bulk and "cannon fodder" is widespread among the colonizers- not just the Brits. BTW that is not limited to using non-white troops. See the movies "Gallipoli" and "Breaker Morant" to see how the British used white Australian troops in WW I and the Boer war.

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very interesting account.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Vijay..

    Yes, you can imagine how few came in those arduous ship they needed these soldiers to catch up with the enemy.

    yup - i have also trudged alongside the war graves of gallipoli..many an Aussie and kiwi land up in Istanbul to meet up with their ancestors

  1. Maddy

    thanks PNS -
    glad you enjoyed it

  1. Orion'z Belt

    Nice Bit of information......Why I think you should be writing a book of your own...with all this research that you have done..its really great stuff..

  1. Orion'z Belt

    why...its great historic piece of research you have done sir...I think you must write a book of your own...All The Best...Keep up your Good Work.

  1. Pranai Ponnath

    But sir wouldn't they lose their caste of they crossed seas or went outside 9f Kerala.?