Portuguese in India

Vasco Da Gama was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by Sea via the Cape of Good Hope. Here you can read all about Portuguese in India.

Portuguese in India (1505 – 1961)

  • Vasco Da Gama led a cruise of four ships and reached Calicut, Kerala on Malabar Coast on 20 May 1948.
  • Portuguese empire in India was not a territorial regime but a maritime network within which territories, establishments, ships, persons, and administrative arrangements in Asia and East Africa were placed subordinate to Portuguese crown.
  • In Lisbon, Casa da India, a royal trading firm headed this sea-borne empire.
  • In Asia, the enterprise was under the control of an administrative set up known as Estada da India (state in India), headed by the Viceroy at Goa, head of civil and military government of the whole empire from East Africa to Moluccas and Macao, responsible only to the Crown.
  • To assist the Viceroy, informal councils were set up by the desire of the Viceroy to obtain advice on specific, usually military matters. However, these councils gradually got institutionalised with fixed membership and procedures.
  • Members of this institutionalised councils were the Viceroy (President of the Council), Archibishop of Goa (Chief Inquisitor), some important fidalgos (noble residents of Goa), the Captain of city of Goa, Chief judge of High Court and Chief Financial Officer.
  • A municipal council elected by Portuguese and European population for governance of Goa was established. The subordinate forts and settlements replicated the structure and administrative set-up in Goa.
  • Portuguese monopoly over maritime trade was challenged at the beginning of 17th century by British East India Company and Dutch East India Company.

Portuguese Trade

  • Spice trade: Spices, especially pepper was the main item which was procured by Portuguese from the Malabar region and later from Kanara on the southwest coast of India. Trade in spices was monopolised and reserved for Portuguese crown and its agents which was enforced by naval supremacy of Portuguese.
  • Horses: Tried to monopolise horse trade by centralising horse trade from Arabia to Persia via Goa. All ships with horses coming from Saudi Arabia or Hormuz came only to Goa.
  • Reverse trade: To finance the procurement of spices and other goods included precious metals (gold from west Africa and silver from America), non-precious metals such as copper, lead, tin, quicksilver, mercury, corals, alum, wines and olive oil.
  • Intra-Asian trade: Portuguese also participated in intra-Asian trade, probably larger in value and more profitable than the trade between Goa and Lisbon.

Policies of Portuguese

  • Monopoly in trade in spices: Throughout the 16th century, Portuguese made trade in spices reserved for the Portuguese Crown and its agents. This monopoly right was strictly enforced and naval supremacy of Portuguese helped in this.
  • Cartaz system: Portuguese imposed a system of Cartaz i.e., licences for traders from 1502 onwards.

Places linked to Portuguese in India

  • Hugli, West Bengal: Portuguese settlement at Hugli was legitimised by a Farman granted by Emperor Akbar in 1579.
  • Meliapor or Meliapur (Modern Mylapore, Modern Chennai): Occupied by Portuguese in 1523 and established viceroyalty of Sao Tome of Meliapor which lasted until 1749. Later, it was under the Madras Presidency of the East India Company in 1749.

Saint Thomas Basilica:

  • Saint Thomas was one of the 12 Apostles i.e., primary disciples and primary teachers of gospel message of Jesus. He travelled to South India to preach the Gospel and laid the foundation of Christianity in India.
  • Saint Thomas Christians also called Syrian Christians or Nasrani Christians are believed to be converted by St. Thomas.He died in Mylapore where a Tomb was established. San Thome Basilica was constructed by Portuguese over the original tomb.

Decline of Portuguese

By the early 17th century, the might of the Portuguese empire in the East collapsed and was replaced by Dutch and British. This can be seen from the steep decline in the number of Portuguese ships plying between Lisbon and Goa.

Factors responsible for this are:

  • Capture of Portugal by Spain: Spain captured Portugal in 1580. Fortunes of Portuguese maritime empire in Asia also declined with the decline of Spain. Spain’s naval might was reduced due to the defeat of the Armada in the naval battle of 1588 against the English.
  • Internal issues in Portugal: The Aristocracy dominated the society in Portugal and merchants did not have enough social influence necessary to mould state policies for their interests.
  • Intolerant attitude: Portuguese were intolerant and fanatic in religious issues and resorted to forcible conversions.
  • Limited focus on profits: Portuguese became victims of their early lead by remaining limited to profits. Their feitorias (trading outposts) essentially remained trading outposts lacking adequate manpower and political will to carve out a territorial empire.
  • Discovery of Brazil: The discovery of Brazil diverted colonising activities of Portugal to the West.


  • Maritime administration: The arrival of the Portuguese is widely regarded by historians as the starting point of the European era and is credited with facilitating the development of naval governance. For example, the Cholas stood as a maritime force, but a foreign power arrived in India by water for the first time.
  • Masters of progressive sea tactics: The Portuguese accustomed to weapons, matchlock troopers, and body armor, landed from ships in Malabar (16th century), illustrating the military invention.
  • The Portuguese onshore contributed to the military by creating a system of drilling infantry groups implemented in the 1630s to react to the Dutch force.


What did the Portuguese do in India?

Their primary goal was to establish a monopoly over the spice trade, which was then dominated by Arab merchants. The Portuguese were successful in this goal, and for a time they controlled much of the trade between Europe and Asia.
The Portuguese also sought to spread Christianity in India. They built churches and schools, and they converted many Indians to Christianity. However, their efforts to convert Hindus and Muslims were often met with resistance.

Why Portuguese failed in India?

The Portuguese had a small army and navy, and they were often outnumbered by the forces. They were eventually challenged by other European powers, such as the Dutch and the British.

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