Battle of Calicut - 1502 -1503

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A Turning Point

The people who sailed and commanded the battleships for the Zamorin, used for fighting the Portuguese were a misunderstood lot. While the Portuguese and other Western scribes collectively grouped them under the heading Moors, current writers tended to group them under the Moplahs or Mappila community. The reality is far from the truth. The original seamen who commanded the small fighting craft were Pardesi Arabs and as time went by, the rice trading Marakkayars from the Tamil regions of Kayal, with their own customs and traditions, those who had moved from Kayal near Tuticorin first at Cochin and later Ponnani and Badagara, took command after the Pardesi Arabs had either been driven away or drifted. While we can discuss the change in command and the control structure of the Zamorin’s naval forces in more detail another day, we will spend some time now covering the very important sea battle of 1502/3, one that proved detrimental in ensuring Portuguese ascendancy of the seas.

Vasco Da Gama landed at the shores of Calicut in 1498 and after a somewhat hostile turn of events, took away a ton of information to aid further voyages and strategy. A second voyage captained by Cabral resulted in disaster for the Portuguese and violence at the shores of Calicut killing several Portuguese as well as subjects of Calicut, something which the Zamorin could not condone. The Portuguese had to leave with no trading arrangements or agreements at Calicut.  The Pardesi Arabs seeing that their own trade setup was under threat worked hard to influence the Zamorin and ensure that he remained firmly on their side. Cabral on the way managed to influence the Cochin Raja for more favorable terms and the establishment of a Portuguese trading post there. The next Armada of Jao da Nova was also belligerent and in an attack mode. Seeing that the Portuguese ships were large, fitted with guns, and using varying tactics, the counterattack was strategized by increasing the Malabar fleet to some 180-small craft manned by local Moplah rowers and manned by Arab captains.

Once the Portuguese king Manuel determined that the people of Calicut were heathen and not Christians, his dictum too changed to one which promoted the use of force with Portuguese naval might in order to take control of the hitherto open and free Arabian sea routes. Armed with a royal decree, and the papal bull which gave him even broader powers, Gama sailed with his armada, in 1502, destined to Malabar. The revised strategy was not to seek friendship with the Malabar trader but to wrest control of the lucrative Malabar spice trade from the Arab traders operating off the ports of Malabar.

A showdown was expected and as the Zamorin was preparing his flotilla, the Portuguese armada of 5 light caravels and 15 heavy ships, including the Flag Ship San Jeronimo sailed in with Gama in command. After their arrival and restocking at Cochin and Cannanore, they started enforcing the blockade of all Malabar ports. The Zamorin had in the meanwhile reinforced and re-equipped his fleet. Two flotillas had already been fitted out. The first flotilla consisted of comparatively heavy ships, about a hundred in number, mostly Sambuks, under the command of Khoja Ambar, and the second flotilla was then placed under the command of Khoja Kasim.

The two captains Khoja Ambar (Cojambar in Portuguese records) and Khoja Kassim who captained the Zamorin’s defense were Arabs. We note from Gaspar Correa’s account that Ambar the Arab came from Mecca by way of the Maldives, hearing of the Portuguese troubles at Calicut. Quoting Correa - Cojambar, a Moorish eunuch, who had now arrived from Makkah, and had come from the Maldives Islands in a small boat and had left there two large ships which he had brought, laden with great wealth, and which he did not choose to risk, and so had come to learn if there were Portuguese in India. He, with great pride, had offered himself to the King (Zamorin)to take our fleet. It is not clear if Khoja Ambar was from the North of Gujarat or an Arab. From the fact that he had command of two large vessels, we can guess he was an Arab.

From Danver’s book, we note - In the meantime da Gama’s fleet had completed its lading, and the factory on shore having been provided with every requisite and placed under the care of Diego Fernandes Correa as factor, da Gama, with his captains, took leave of the King, and set sail on their homeward voyage. The laden vessels were in all ten in number, and these stood well out to sea, but Vicente Sodré (who was to remain in the Indian seas for the protection of the factory at Cochin) accompanied the expedition for some distance, and with his caravels and ships ran along the shore with orders to sink everything he fell in with.

The Calicut fleet had a strategy of attacking Gama’s fleet while on its way back home, fully laden. But the plan was leaked to Gama and details were provided to him by the Cochin Raja. Correa states - Whilst the captain-major was thus employed in taking in the ship’s cargoes, the King of Cochym sent to call him, and he went immediately.  The King, in private with the captain-major, told him that he had information from some of his men, who he kept as spies in Calecut, who told him that the fleet of Calecut was now entirely ready that it consisted of several large ships, and sambuks, and rowing- barges, with much artillery and fighting-men, and two captain-majors to wit, Coja Kasim, and the other, Cojambar, a Moorish eunuch, who had now arrived from Mekkah, and had come from the Maldive.  All this was very true, and therefore the King of Cochym begged the captain-major, and enjoined him by the life of the King of Portugal his brother, not to stay and fight with the fleet of Calecut, but to depart at once with the cargo which he had got. Anyway, Gama refused to flee and stated that he would fight.

Danvers provides detail - Each of the caravels carried thirty men, four heavy guns below, six falconets above, two of which fired astern, and ten swivel guns on the quarter-deck and in the bows. The ships carried six guns below on the deck, two smaller ones on the poop, eight falconets above, and several swivel guns, whilst two smaller pieces, which fired forwards, were placed before the mast. The ships of burden carried a heavier armament.

The Portuguese continued their course, and, having thus passed the first squadron commanded by Khoja Ambar, they met the second squadron, which comprised more than a hundred ships, principally sambuks, commanded by Khoja Kassim. As expected, Vicente Sodré's vessels engaged with Khoja Kassem’s flagship. The Portuguese firepower was great, ending up forcing the Kassem’s ships to move closer to shore. By this time Khoja Ambar’s ships had arrived, but they were also battered by the Portuguese cannons.

As soon as the two fleets met, the caravels discharged all their guns at the Moorish flagship which led the van and with the first discharge, the mast of the flagship was brought down. Vicente Sodré’s caravels continued firing broadsides, and speedily three of the large Moorish ships were sunk.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese came upon a Mecca ship which had been deserted by its captain and was found to contain a very rich cargo, and a number of women and children, all belonging to Khoja Kassem, and other rich Pardesi Arabs. Vicente Sodré looted the ship, and took away the girls as a present for the Queen; but the rest of the women and merchandise, he left to his captains and sailors.

The Calicut fleet had by now scattered (many of which were sunk and more burnt). Sodré now went after the bigger vessels, which were quickly abandoned by their crew. He proceeded to burn them and then proceeded with his fleet to Cannanore, where he met da Gama, who had already arrived there with his homeward-bound vessels.

One could simply explain the opposing battle strategies thus – The Zamorin’s fleet was planning to scare the opposition with their sheer numbers and were intent on coming close to the Portuguese fleet and boarding it to create mayhem. The Portuguese preferred to stay far from their attackers and rely on their superior gun power with far-reaching cannons. The Arab fleet had artillery, but which could not tackle the larger distances. So, tracking and utilizing the wind, the Portuguese, closer to the land fought the Arab flagships which were farther out in the sea (as they wanted to cut off any Portuguese flight) with their cannon and later attacked and plundered the rest of the fleet at will, thus achieving victory with far fewer ships.

I have added two more detailed analyses of the battle, by a naval historian and a senior naval officer/historian.

Guns at Sea – Peter Padfield who has written so many books on global naval battles, analyzes the event thus. Quoting him – The Arabs, meanwhile, gathered together a vast fleet of some 70 ocean-going dhows and perhaps 100 other smaller craft to rid themselves of these crude interlopers on what they considered their trading preserve. In the main, the expedition was designed for boarding and hand-to-hand fighting, but the larger vessels, particularly the flag-ships of the two main Arab commanders, mounted artillery. It is not certain what kind of artillery this was as the Portuguese described it as consisting of bombards, a word that had come from medieval stone-throwing engines to mean any built-up, stone-throwing gun or mortar. Most authorities declare that the Arab guns were simply mortars, that is very short, high-angle pieces which lobbed their projectiles…What is certain from all accounts is that the local Indian Ocean guns were not as powerful as the Portuguese guns; some were made of wood, while 'even the iron ones,' said the Portuguese, 'are not like ours."

Hearing of the vast armada coming for him, Vasco da Gama concentrated his own fleet. Though numerically far inferior he seems to have had no doubts about the outcome, and he sailed north to meet the enemy. His orders to his captains were not to board, but to fight with their artillery. These instructions are identical with those carried by his predecessor Cabral, ... and if on the voyage you encounter any ships of Mecca and it appears to you that you are able to capture them, you are to try to take them, but you are not to come to close quarters with them if you can avoid it, but only with your artillery are you to compel them to strike sail and to launch their boats. It is therefore certain that by this time a technique had been evolved on the Atlantic seaboard which enabled a numerically inferior fleet like da Gama's to counter traditional methods of attack such as boarding and entering, and that da Gama was certain that it would work against his present opponents; he was not a foolhardy leader. In other words, by the turn of the fifteenth century, the stand-off sea-fight had arrived.

Da Gama's larger ships were 'much more equipped with artillery'. The picture, then, is of a broadside of perhaps sixteen heavy bombards ranged on carriages, either wheeled field carriages or timber beds, from the waist at the break of the forecastle right aft along the upper deck of the larger ships, with smaller swivel guns ranged along the quarterdeck above and a few on the forecastle, in other words, a formidable broadside which was certainly of greater range than anything the Arabs had.

In the event, da Gama, sailing north up the Malabar coast of India with a light wind on his starboard beam straight from the land, sighted the formidable Arab fleet coming to meet him on a reciprocal course but slightly further offshore than his own fleet. Directly Vicente Sodré saw them he ordered his caravels to haul up as close to the wind as possible and arranged them 'one astern of the other in a line to run under all the sail they could carry, firing as many guns as they could,' while he with his three ships stood on to meet the enemy. Cojambar, the Arab commander, also came straight on not attempting to gain the weather gage although his dhows were able to sail closer to the wind than the Portuguese caravels, and thus much closer than the full-bellied carracks.

After much cheering and dinning of gongs and other instruments by the Arabs, the fight was opened when the Portuguese caravels, sailing in line ahead well to windward of the enemy, came abreast of Cojambar's leading rank or bunch. Each then discharged its two heavy pieces on that side at the flagship. With this first discharge, our men made such good work that they brought down the mast of the flagship, which fell over and stove in the ship and killed many Moors; and another shot hit it full and passed through near the poop, which it shattered much... 'The caravel gunners reloaded their pieces as rapidly as they could, using 'bags of powder which they had ready for this purpose made to measure so that they could load again very speedily'. From this continuing cannonade by the caravels, three large dhows were stove in low down and sank, and many of the others seem to have been driven into confusion, colliding with each other and bunching up so that the Portuguese ships which had now arrived at the scene simply brailed up their sails and 'fired into the thick' and it was not possible to miss."

Later Vasco da Gama's main body came up, also lay to and continued the destruction with their even heavier ordnance, while Sodré followed his caravels towards the rear division of Arab craft under Coja Cassim. These mainly smaller Arab vessels seem to have been arranged in lines abreast with the larger flagship in the center of the front rank, and once again they were battered by the Portuguese guns before they could come close enough to board, although this time the Arab flagship's guns managed to hit one of the Portuguese vessels, killing its commander and two men and wounding others with splinters. Apart from this the Portuguese apparently suffered no loss while closing to allow even their swivels and small arms to come within range after the initial longer-range cannonade from windward.

The Portuguese ships kept their steerage way, keeping aloof from the Moorish ships, passing amongst them all, doing wonders with their artillery, firing both broadsides and their poop and forecastle guns, as in all directions it was not possible to miss; the Moors fired much artillery which they carried but they were small guns, and when they passed near our ships they covered them with arrows, but they did not hurt the men who lay hid... but the Moorish ships were much ill-treated, they were shattered and stove in, and many had the masts and yards shattered, which was the greatest advantage our men obtained.'

The destruction continued through the afternoon, the sea spreading with Arab wreckage and drowning men and bodies until what remained of Cojambar's once-great fleet fled the slaughter under cover of darkness.

While perhaps not one of the decisive battles of the world, this fleet action off the Malabar coast in 1502 can be seen as both an accurate forecast of what was to come and an example of what had been learned of sea fighting by the Atlantic nations. The decisive points are that da Gama and Sodré made sure of the weather gage, that is fighting from to windward, that Sodré and presumably da Gama also arranged their ships in line ahead, that they chose their own range to fight which was initially outside the range of both the enemy guns and their own swivel pieces but inside the effective range of their battery guns, and that they refused to allow the enemy to close sufficiently to board. They were able to do this last, not by better sailing because they did not have the more weatherly craft, but simply by good gunnery outside the range of their enemy's guns. This was a victory for the stand-off fight and the horizontally-aimed great gun, probably the first fleet battle of its kind. It was a famous portent.

Quoting from Rulers of the Indian Ocean - GA Ballard, who is more incisive in his analysis - A most notable clash of arms followed of great historical interest. In estimating the strength of the contending forces, we have no records for guidance except those of the old Portuguese chroniclers, who were naturally biased; but Correa’s statement that the Red Sea fleet comprised seventy dhows and the Malabar coast flotilla one hundred small craft, does not seem impossible. All were strongly manned — some carrying 600 men — and the larger vessels mounted a mortar battery as ship’s armament, useful at short ranges. The Red Sea division was commanded by Khojambar, an Arab seaman of great repute in the east, and the Malabar flotilla by Cassim, another leader well known on that coast. Everything was in favor of the oriental Armada therefore in material essentials, except on one point. The Portuguese ships alone carried long-range ordnance — by the standards of the day — and if only da Gama could maneuver so as to fight at his own range his success was reasonably assured. To get to close quarters and swamp the enemy by sheer weight was the whole object therefore of the Asiatics; to allow the enemy to get just close enough for annihilation by superior gunnery the object of the Europeans.”

Converging on opposite courses during the night, the combatants came in sight of each other next morning six miles apart; and by stripping away the masses of trivial details which obscure the accounts of the old historians and comparing what remains of their respective versions, it is possible to arrive at a fair idea of the main events of this memorable day. The wind blew straight from the land on the Starboard beam of the Portuguese and port beam of their opponents; but the latter were the further out from the shore, doubtless because Khojambar wished to be in a position to cut off da Gama’s escape should he try to break away to the westward. The Mahomedan admiral behaved in fact as if he could not conceive it possible that his adversary would do anything else; a fatally erroneous pre-conception, for when the fleets first saw each other the Portuguese were already somewhat too windward in consequence, and immediately improved the tactical advantage of the weather gauge by close-hauling on the starboard tack and standing more towards the land.

This bold and clever move was exactly the opposite of what Khojambar had expected, and virtually settled the issue of the day by placing the Portuguese so decisively to windward that da Gama could fight at his own range, which was all he wanted; but even then, the Moslem could not or would not see its true import; for instead of parrying by hauling to the wind on one tack or the other himself, he continued to steer straight on, sailing large. From that moment da Gama knew that he commanded the situation if the wind remained even moderately steady, which it did. In the Portuguese formation Sodre’s fast caravel squadron was stationed some distance ahead of the main battle line, but with the Asiatics these positions were reversed and Cassim’s swarms of small craft followed the main body composed by the Red Sea division, instead of leading it. In these dispositions, therefore, the vans of the two fleets approached and drew past on opposite courses, being separated by a distance across which the European armaments were very effective while the Asiatic were useless; a distance, moreover, which it was now too late for Khojambar to reduce.

Thus, it came about that one after another the leading Red Sea dhows, including the Mahomedan flagship, were dismantled or disabled by Sodre's gunfire with perfect impunity to himself; and drifting to leeward either collided with the consorts on their disengaged side or forced the latter still further downwind, till Khojambar's division was a welter of close-packed confusion. Following in Sodre’s wake soon came the heavily armed division under da Gama, which shortened sail at a safe distance to windward of this huge and struggling mass and lying thus, spent the rest of the afternoon in pulverizing ships and crews alike till the surface of the water was obliterated from view by wave-washed wreckage and crowds of drowning Arabs. It was a point of vantage fairly gained by superior tactics, but as all the loss was on one side this part of the action had become an execution rather than a fight.

A good many of the dhows, however, which were on the lee side of the mass—and therefore under cover of their more unfortunate consorts—extricated themselves eventually, and finding that they were now too far too leeward to retrieve the fortunes of the day or render help, made off downwind and escaped, the Portuguese having no ships to spare for chasing. In this way, a general break-up and retreat commenced as nightfall approached, but before that fairly began, Sodre had passed on to attack Cassim’s flotilla of small craft, which was coming up some distance astern of Khojambar's heavy division.

Here the Portuguese cruiser commander had to move warily as most of these light vessels were small enough to maneuver under oars or sweeps which reduced the value of the Portuguese weather position. But the latter retained the tactical asset of superior speed on any course on which they could keep their sails full; and although the vague descriptions of land historians make it impossible now to trace Sodre’s actual track, the point emerges that he maintained a successful running fight at this stage of the general action. It was in vain that the enemy rowers strove to close in and board for they were invariably repelled with disastrous loss as they drew near by the Portuguese gunners, and towards sunset, their demoralization was completed by the ruin and rout of their Red Sea allies plainly in progress at no great distance. Undercover, of darkness therefore Cassim abandoned further efforts and with what remained of his force joined the general retreat; while da Gama reassembled his whole command, not having lost a single unit, and returned to Cochin without attempting pursuit; partly perhaps because his magazines were getting depleted, but mainly because he was anxious to start for home well loaded before the fair monsoon began to wane.

So ended this decisive battle in which a host of brown men were out-maneuvered and out-fought at every point by a handful of whites. Politically and morally its effects were enormous. After this conclusive battle, the Portuguese maintained a position of naval supremacy, controlling the western seas.

However, the role of Khoja Kasim is still not clear. While Western chroniclers state that the Portuguese left the scene to catch the monsoon winds, KM Panikkar states - Da Gama’s barbarous acts of piracy reached the ears of the Zamorin even before his ships were sighted off the coast and the Lord of Mountains and the Seas was ready to meet the challenge. After Cabral’s bombardment, the Zamorin had strengthened his naval forces, and these were reinforced by a fleet of heavier vessels belonging to Khoja Ambar, one of Calicut’s leading merchants engaged in Red Sea trade. Though the Calicut fleet had the advantage of speed, it did not possess the firepower of the Portuguese ships fitted with heavy artillery. In the engagement that followed off Cochin, Khoja Ambar’s ships suffered as a result of Portuguese fire, but the Zamorin’s Admiral Kassim was able to maneuver his small ships so effectively that the Portuguese were unable to direct their fire against them. The Calicut vessels surrounded the Portuguese ships like wasps, and the result was that da Gama broke off the engagement and sailed away with his ships to Europe.

Nevertheless, the Red Sea and Turkish fleets stayed away from Calicut after this event, but the Marakkar-led ‘paroe fleets’ continued their harassment of the larger, slower Portuguese ships and the franks left Calicut in peace, while the Marakkars donned Corsair robes and continued their harassment of the Portuguese ships all the way North to Bombay and South towards Lanka and Maldives, leading the Portuguese to spend even larger amounts to retain their positions, driving up the cost of spices they took to Europe.


The three voyages of Vasco de Gama, and his viceroyalty: from the Lendas da India of Gaspar Corrêa
Guns at sea – Peter Padfield
Rulers Of the Indian Ocean – G A Ballard


  1. Unknown

    I am going to miss the old background of the blog.
    It reminded me of old paper scrolls, which is apt given the content of this blog.
    Hope it comes back in some form.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks - I am also tempted, the problem was lack of social media buttons, but I will give it a thought