Portuguese Era

UAE Civilization during the Western Powers Eras in the Gulf Region

From the rise of Islam until the 16th century, Muslim traders dominated the commerce of the East by land and by sea. The Venetians acquired the major share and the Genoese the minor share of this lucrative trade that crowded the Red Sea and expanded from there to the Mediterranean ports. After 1381, Genoa began to decline, but Venice’s supremacy as the maritime leader in the Mediterranean continued unchallenged. The arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean in 1498 reduced the flow of trade to the Mediterranean and spelled ruin not only for Venice, but also for two other powerful rival states – Egypt and Turkey.
In the 15th century, inspired by the spirit of discovery and a crusading mission to spread Christianity, the Portuguese embarked on an ambitious scheme of military and mercantile activities that paved the way for further expansion and colonization. However, the underlying motive of the Lusitanian Crown (Portuguese) was a desire to control completely the extremely lucrative commerce of the Indian Ocean, particularly the spice trade, by wresting it from the Muslim merchants who controlled it. From their vantage geographical position and with the advantage of their superior nautical skills and advanced shipbuilding industry, the courageous and enterprising people of the Iberian Peninsula were the first Europeans to penetrate the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf.
Portuguese expansion in the Indian Ocean started with their campaigns for procuring goods and slaves in Africa’s western coast, south of the Sahara. The voyage of Bartolomeu Dias around Africa’s southern tip in 1487-1488 represented the penultimate act in a chronology of historical events. At about the same time, Portugal acquired vital information about the wealth of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf commercial system from Pedro da Covilhã, who undertook two journeys to investigate the Indian Ocean trade. It was in the course of his second journey that he traveled from Cairo to the Arabian Gulf, visited Hormuz, Aden and Jeddah, sending an extensive report about the Indian Ocean trade back to Portugal.
In 1498, the great explorer Vasco da Gama embarked on his epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and landed at the Indian port of Calicut, thereby opening the sea route to India. This single event was destined to revolutionize Oriental commerce, and it led to the militarization of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf and the establishment of Portuguese hegemony over them. Perhaps no other event during the Middle Ages had such far-reaching repercussions on the civilized world as the opening of the sea route to India. Previously, the sea trade from India, via the Gulf and the Red Sea routes, was chiefly in the hands of the Arabs. For centuries, they had succeeded in maintaining this profitable connection uninterrupted, and the predominant mariners of that age hailed from Oman and the coastal Emirates. The Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf were, throughout this period, a peaceful and unarmed waterway, where the commercial communities never aspired to achieve military domination.
It soon became evident that Portugal’s overall strategy in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf was to monopolize its commerce. This meant destroying the Muslim mercantile stratum that constituted a significant segment, and obtaining control of the trade routes by occupying the strategic ports. Da Gama’s voyage had so enhanced Portugal’s stature, that King Manuel I promptly assumed the grand title of ‘Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India’ and resolved to overthrow Arab commercial supremacy by armed force. The adoption by the Portuguese of the Mediterranean style of trade and warfare by land and sea, took the people of the region by surprise completely.
Three stages characterized the period of the 16th century Portuguese penetration and the establishment of the Estado da India, the Portuguese Empire in the Asian maritime provinces. During the first stage, from 1500 to the end of Afonso de Albuquerque’s governorship in 1515, they fought their way into the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman and established themselves there by force of arms. During the second stage that lasted from 1515 to about 1560, the vice-royalty of Goa reached the height of its maritime power and was able to establish a semi-monopoly of the pepper and spice trade. Through a chain of fortified settlements in the Indian Ocean,  backed up by a regular naval patrol, the Portuguese sought to enforce their monopoly of the commerce by compelling the local traders to buy safe-conduct passes, or cartazes, from the Estado da India and to pay customs duties to it. The final stage witnessed the decline of Portuguese power in the face of indigenous resistance and external competition from other European powers.
The early decades of the 16th century witnessed the foundation of the Portuguese Empire with Lisbon’s single-minded determination to seize the most profitable ports in East Africa, the Malabar Coast, the Konkan Coast, the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca. Albuquerque captured Socotra in 1507, as a base for blockading the Red Sea, and then turned his attention to Hormuz, which commanded the entrance to the Arabian Gulf, in order to wrest both of these important trade routes from Muslim hands. Since 1507, the Portuguese managed to strangle Oman’s maritime commerce by controlling several key mercantile ports and cities in the Gulf. These ports included Julfar (now the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah in the UAE) and Khasab, and the coastal towns between Ras al Hadd and the Musandam peninsula. The ports in this latter area included Sur, Quriyat, Muscat, Muttrah, Sib, Sohar, Khorfakkan, Dibba and Lima.
Qalhat, on the coast of Oman, welcomed Albuquerque, but Quriyat and Muscat were sacked because they resisted and Sohar, though protected by great forts, surrendered without resistance. But Khorfakkan (a town in the modern Emirate of Sharjah), which was then a busy and flourishing port, suffered the same fate as Muscat.
The town was captured and set on fire and all buildings were razed to the ground, women and children were taken prisoners and several men were put to death. Albuquerque described Khorfakkan as “a very large place” and as a town with very good houses in which there lived many wealthy merchants from India. There were large stables for horses that were exported to India. In the interior, there were estates with well-built houses, many fruit and vegetable trees, as well as numerous water pools used for irrigation. In the harbor, there were fishing boats and nets.
The arrival of the Portuguese marked a turning point in the history of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf for many reasons. Through the first half of the 16th century, they sought to establish their exclusive sovereignty in the Indian Ocean by removing the Muslim traders and by imposing the system of cartazes, or naval passes, with their superior, well-armed ships over the unarmed Muslim merchant vessels. The transfer of eastern trade from the hands of the Arabs of the Gulf, who for centuries had been a seafaring race, marked the beginning of the area’s economic decline. On the European side, the Portuguese diverted the pepper and spice trade from the main traditional emporia of Alexandria and Venice to Lisbon and Antwerp for distribution to the rest of Europe.
The Portuguese, in fact, played a significant role in transforming not only the direction of the Indian Ocean trade system, but also its fundamental character and composition from what it had been between 600 and 1500 A.D. They took over the role of intermediary for trade between the ports of the Indian Ocean from the members of the indigenous mercantile strata. These transformations affected the local Arab commercial communities, along with those from the other Indian Ocean societies. Under the impact of their encroachment and domination, the commercial Arab societies in the Gulf left the coast and temporarily retired into the interior, and many old mercantile cities of Oman and the rest of the Arabian Gulf declined.
Throughout the 17th century, the Portuguese hold on the Arabian shore grew progressively weaker. Several factors contributed to the decline of the Portuguese hegemony in the Arabian Gulf. An important contributory cause was the ongoing indigenous resistance to the Portuguese occupation of the Gulf ports and their economic strangulation of the commercial communities of the region. Two major concerted uprisings against Portuguese hegemony along the Arabian shore had taken place earlier in 1521 and in 1526, in which Hormuz, Bahrain, Qalhat, Sohar and Muscat were involved. In 1602, Shah Abbas I, the ruler of Persia, succeeded in driving the Portuguese out of Bahrain and Hormuz was captured in 1622 by a joint Anglo-Persian military operation. For the Portuguese, the fall of Hormuz was a symbolic defeat for the Estado da India.
In the same year, the Persians seized Khorfakkan, but were ejected from there by the Portuguese Admiral Ruy Freire da Andrada in 1623. Shortly afterwards, Ruy Freire was himself displaced by an Arab force under the first Imam of the Ya’arabi dynasty of Oman, Nasir bin Murshid. Muscat and the Oman coast were ultimately seized from Portugal by the force of a national drive created by the rise of this new Arab dynasty. Ya’arabi forces under Imam Nasir bin Murshid also ousted the Portuguese from Julfar and Dibba in 1633, where the Portuguese had built forts earlier, and retook Sohar in 1643. Under the leadership of the new Imam, Sultan bin Saif, the fight continued until Muscat, the last Portuguese stronghold, was recaptured in 1650. By the end of the 16th century both Britain and Holland began to show an interest in forging direct trading links with the East. The arrival of English and Dutch ships in the Indian Ocean as commercial rivals for the mastery of the sea represented the greatest challenge that the Portuguese had to face in Asia. In the end, this contest proved fatal to their power and economic prosperity and led to the decline and fall of their Eastern Empire.
Although the Portuguese power declined in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, their chroniclers and missionaries left behind detailed accounts and narratives about their progress in the East. A large number of documents, in print and manuscript form, shed valuable light on contemporary local Arab affairs and contain exciting information about places, persons and events relating to the modern UAE. The principal geographical text from the first half of the 17th century is The Travels of Pedro Teixeira. The only references to Umm al Quwain in the early times is found in the book of Balbi, the Venetian jeweler, and in the Portuguese book of Duarte Barbosa who referred to it as “Malquehoan”.
For nearly a century and a half, the Portuguese held supreme, though not unchallenged, control in the Gulf. The Ottoman conquest of parts of the Middle East posed a challenge to the Portuguese from time to time. However, they could not expel the Portuguese permanently from either the Arabian Gulf or the Indian Ocean because of their rivalry with Safavid Persia with whom the Portuguese had pursued a policy of cooperation against the Ottomans. It was not until the rise of the Ya’arabi movement in the beginning of the 17th century that Oman was finally liberated from Portuguese domination.
One of the best-known places in the region, Julfar is featured prominently in a great many European documents of the 17th and 18th centuries. Particularly fascinating are the accounts of this prosperous port-city in the Portuguese documents and narratives. One of the earliest Portuguese sources was The Book of Duarte Barbosa which described Julfar as a “very large place where there are many and honourable people and great merchants and navigators who fish for aljofar, or seed pearls, and many large pearls which the merchants of Ormuz come to buy”. After Julfar, Racoima (modern Ras al Khaimah) is mentioned by the same source as a “very big place”. The pearling industry of Julfar is mentioned by the early Portuguese traveler Pedro Teixeira, who wrote that a fleet of 50 terradas sailed from there each July and August to fish for pearls off the coast of Qatar and Bahrain. He added that Julfar had given its name to a type of pearl found in local waters. In his Decades De Barros, he gave a detailed account of the revenue and expenditure of Hormuz under Portuguese occupation and mentioned that the Julfar district paid 7,500 ashrafis, which was the largest amount paid. Moreover, there are descriptions and old drawings of several Portuguese fortresses that were established at Dibba, Bidya, Khorfakkan and Kalba, which are parts of the UAE today.