The Battle of Chaul was a naval war in 1508 in the harbour of Chaul (Maharashtra) in India between the Portuguese and Egyptian fleet sent by the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. The battle ended in a Mamluk victory and was the first Portuguese defeat at sea in the Indian Ocean.
In May 1498, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea, arrived on the Western sea coast of India at Calicut, Kerala. Since then, the Portuguese tried to gain control over the highly lucrative spice trade that was traditionally in the hands of Arab and Muslim merchants of Malabar.
Just two years after the Vasco da Gama reached India, the Portuguese realised that the prospect of developing trade had become an impossibility due to the opposition of Muslim merchant elites on the western coast of India, who incited attack against Portuguese feitorias, ships, agents, and sabotaged Portuguese diplomatic efforts.
The Portuguese tried to enter into a treaty with Zamorin of Calicut in a successive expedition but in vain. Thus, the Portuguese signed an alliance with the Raja of Cochin, a sworn enemy of Calicut. The Raja of Cochin invited them to establish headquarters in Cochin. In response, the Zamorin of Calicut invaded Cochin, but the Portuguese were able to devastate the land and cripple the trade of Calicut. In December 1504, the Portuguese destroyed the Zamorin’s yearly merchant fleet, bound for Egypt and laden with spices.
When King Manuel I of Portugal received news of these developments in India, he appointed Dom Francisco de Almeida as the first Viceroy of India in order to order to safeguard Portuguese interests and also to curb hostile Muslim shipping. Dom Francisco departed from Lisbon with twenty ships and his son, Dom Lourenco, who was himself nominated captain-major of the seas of India.
The Portuguese had mainly active in Calicut, but the northern region of Gujarat was even more important for trade and an essential intermediary in East-West trade. The Gujaratis brought spices from the Moluccas and silk from China and then sold them to the Egyptians and Arabs. However, the Portuguese monopolising interventions were disrupting the Indian Ocean trade seriously, threatening Arab and Venetian interests.
Unable to oppose the Portuguese, the Zamorin of Calicut and the Muslim communities of trade in India sent envoys to Egypt pleading for help against the Portuguese.
The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt was the leading middleman between the spice-producing regions of India and the Venetian buyers in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 16th century. The Venetian buyers then sold the spices in Europe at a significant profit. Egypt was otherwise mostly an agrarian society with little ties to the sea.
The Republic of Venice broke diplomatic relations with Portugal and started looking for ways to counter its intervention in the Indian Ocean. They sent an ambassador to the Mamluk court and proposed that rapid and secret remedies be taken against the Portuguese. Mamluk soldiers had little expertise in naval warfare. So the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, requested Venetian support in exchange for lowering tariffs to facilitate competition with the Portuguese. Venice supplied the Mamluks with Mediterranean-type carracks and war galleys manned by Greek soldiers.
The Egyptian-Ottoman fleet, which the Portuguese called under the generic term “the rumes”, was sent to India. They left Suez in November 1505 with 1100 men strong to counter the Portuguese expansion in the Indian Ocean. They were also ordered to fortify Jeddah against a possible Portuguese attack and quell rebellion around Suakin and Mecca. The command of the expedition was entrusted to a Kurdish Mamluk, a former governor of Jeddah, Amir Hussain Al-Kudri.
The expedition included not only Egyptian but also a large number of Turkish and Ethiopian mercenaries and Venetian gunners. They reached Diu, a city at the mouth of the Gulf of Khambhat, Gujarat, in September 1507.
The Sultan of Gujarat also supported the campaign against the Portuguese. At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in India, the Gujarati were the main long-distance dealers in the Indian Ocean and an essential intermediary in the East-West trade between Egypt and Malacca, mostly in trading cloths and spices. In the 15th century, the Sultan of Gujarat appointed Malik Ayyaz as the governor of Diu. A cunning and pragmatic ruler, Malik Ayyaz turned the city into the main port of Gujarat.
Malik Ayyaz received Hussian and his expedition well in September 1507. But, besides the Zamorin of Calicut, no other rulers of the Indian sub-continent were forthcoming against the Portuguese, unlike what the Muslim envoys to Egypt had promised.
Course of Battle
In March 1508, Malik Ayyaz and Amir Hussain’s fleet sailed south and clashed with Portuguese ships within the harbour of Chaul. The Egyptian fleet fought over three days and won the Battle of Chaul.
The son of Viceroy Dom Francisco de Almeida, Dom Lourenco, was the Portuguese commander and the captain-major of the seas of India, who was tasked with overseeing the loading of allied merchant ships in the Chaul and escorting them back to Cochin. The Portuguese, under Dom Lourenco, were inferior in number with only a light force. Dom Lourenco died in the Battle of Chaul, and his body was never recovered.
Although the Portuguese were caught off guard, the Egyptian fleet suffered too many losses to be able to proceed towards the Portuguese headquarters in Cochin. Amir Hussain was left with no other option but to return to Diu with Malik Ayyaz and prepare for a Portuguese retaliation. Hussain reported this battle to Cairo (the capital of Egypt) as a great victory. However, the Mirat-i-Sikandari, a contemporary Persian account of the Kingdom of Gujarat, details this battle as a minor skirmish.
The first Portuguese Viceroy of India, Dom Francisco, was enraged upon hearing the death of his only son in Cochin. The presence of the Egyptian fleet in India posed a grave threat to the Portuguese, but the Viceroy now sought to personally exact revenge for the death of his son.
The Portuguese later returned under Dom Francisco in 150, attacking the Egyptian fleet in the harbour of Diu, Gujarat, leading to a decisive victory of the Portuguese in the Battle of Diu (1509).