The Portuguese Soldier who saved Kochi

Most people believe that Vasco da Gama was the founder of Portuguese power in India. Quite the contrary! That honour should go to Captain-Major Duarte Pacheco Pereira.

Around 1497-98, The King of Calicut (in India’s south-western coast) was a key player in world spice trade. His honorific title was Samuthiri. The Portuguese sent their envoy, Vasco da Gama, to win trading concessions from him. Vasco bungled big time, and totally antagonised Samuthiri.  The desperate Portuguese sent another envoy to Samuthiri’s rival, the King of Kochi in 1500 and a Trade-cum-Military Pact was signed. Samuthiri was not amused.

Kerala coast in circa 1500 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Portuguese armada returned home in 1504; Samuthiri chose this opportunity to attack Kochi with 60,000 soldiers and 250 naval boats. The Kochi King had only 5000 soldiers and the Portuguese reserve force was only 200 men and 5 naval vessels under Captain-Major Duarte Pacheco Pereira. The situation seemed hopeless, yet Pacheco convinced Kochi to stand fast!

Pacheco was not a mere soldier but a remarkable scholar and strategist: he was the Portuguese Court geographer, and a cartographer who had studied astronomy and oceanography. His scientific journals covered the lunar effect on tides, the ability of chimpanzees to build hand tools and other such exotica! But could a scholarly nerd defeat brute military superiority?

The intellectual soldier – Pacheco [Public Domain]

Pacheco rightly guessed that Samuthiri’s huge army would pass through a narrow riverine pass called Kumbalam to reach Kochi; in that narrow pass they were extremely vulnerable. Pacheco’s men took hidden positions and waited there. As Samuthiri’s men arrived, Portuguese snipers effortlessly killed 1300 enemy soldiers.  

Pacheco knew that Samuthiri’s state-of-the-art Italian field-guns had a deadly range and accuracy; so, he ordered his snipers to ceaselessly fire at the artillery-crews, never allowing them to settle down. When the Artillery finally organised itself, Pacheco had already invented another new tactic.

In a crucial naval battle, all Portuguese guns suddenly went silent. Samuthiri’s commanders assumed that Pacheco had run out of ammunition, and closed-in to “finish-off” the Portuguese ships. They had actually fallen for a trick: when they approached point-blank range, the Portuguese gunners went ballistic and blew up most of the Calicut Navy. No Italian technology could save them.

Kochi is surrounded by creeks and inlets. Pacheco had mapped the tides and currents at all fords and creeks, and knew how best to defend these spots. This meant that Pacheco’s tiny but agile force could create devastating damages by guerrilla attacks on a widely spread Samuthiri army. Size had become irrelevant!

Between March and July 1504, Pacheco used his local geography-oceanography knowledge to play mind-games and demoralise the enemy. Then, the monsoons arrived and an epidemic of cholera erupted in Samuthiri’s camp. By now, Samuthiri had lost nearly 20000 men — 13000 to cholera alone. This was too much for Samuthiri: he abdicated his throne in favour of his nephew and turned to religion. When the Portuguese armada returned in August, they found Kochi happily celebrating victory!

The Siege of Kochi altered Indian power equations forever. Samuthiri ceased to be the game-changer of pepper-trade; Kochi became a new power-player. Most importantly, the Portuguese became a feared colonial power. All thanks to a scholar-soldier named Pacheco!

Main Image Credit: Pacheco’s final Battle at Kochi (1504) [Public Domain]

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