The Battle of Diu: its Significance and Impact

Written by Arony | Featured History | Last updated March 10, 2023

The Historic Context: How did the Battle of Diu come about?

In 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived with his fleet in India. This was the 1st European expedition to reach India by the route called Cape of Good Hope. This route was believed to connect the Atlantic and Indian oceans, thus Europe to India. This proved to be a milestone for European colonialism and the age of discovery.

Upon reaching the Calicut shore of India, the Portuguese fleet was surprised by the trade network set up by the Muslim merchants and Hindu monarchs from Africa to India, down to Malaysia, and through the islands of Indonesia to China. Although welcomed warmly by the Zamorin of Calicut, the trade goods were deemed too ordinary and did not sell well. Vasco failed to fulfil the main objective of the mission, which was to negotiate a treaty with Calicut.

Thus, in 1500 by the order of King Manuel I of Portugal, a 2nd Portuguese Indian armada was assembled. This time, a treaty was signed, but Muslim merchants were unsatisfied by this and repeatedly tried to sabotage the Portuguese trade. The Portuguese complained to

the Zamorin about this, but were ignored. Leading the Portuguese to take the matter into their own hands.

The Portuguese resistance however resulted in the Portuguese Massacre of Calicut in 1500. Subsequently, the Portuguese signed an alliance with rival Calicut, the raja of Cochin. They invited the Portuguese to build their headquarters there. In the wake of this, the Zamorin of Calicut attacked Cochin and was largely defeated by the Portuguese. Eventually allowing the Portuguese to be the main exporter of spice back to Europe by the Red Sea. This threatened Arab, ottoman, and Venetian interest in the spice trade through the red sea. Unable to oppose Portuguese and Muslim merchants, the Zamorin sent envoys to Egypt pleading for help. On the other hand, Venetians were upset by Portuguese spice trade in Europe, for they had held a monopoly in the market for a long time.

They also sent ambassadors to mamluks of Egypt after breaking diplomatic ties with the Portuguese. The mamluks were not used to naval warfare, so Venice supplied them with Mediterranean-type carracks and war galleys manned by Greek sailors, which Venetian shipwrights helped disassemble in Alexandria and reassemble on the Suez.

At the same time, Gujarat was the immediate portal of trade between the West and Far East. This is where spice, clothes and global commodities of the time were mainly traded. In Gujarat, the main portal of trade was an island called Diu. There, the battle of Chaul took place between the mamluks and the Portuguese fleet, which resulted in pyrrhic victory of the mamluks. The battle was led by Lourenço de Almeida, son of Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, who was found dead in the battle. Learning of his son's death, Viceroy Francisco de Almeida set sail with his fleet for revenge. Consequently leading him to engage one of the most pivotal moments in world history, the battle of Diu.

The Opposing Forces: Who were the Key Players in the Battle of Diu?

The spice trade included several historical civilizations across many continents.Traders used ships which sailed along the Indian coast, past the Persian Gulf, along the coast of South Arabia, and finally through the Red Sea into Egypt. Among the merchants Arabs were notorious for their monopoly in spice trade. Due to their closely guarded secret of Indian Spice production and tight grip on trade routes, they were able to convince the rest of the world that the only way they could get spices was through the Arabs.

With the fall of Christian Constantinople in 1453, Venice was able to establish a monopoly on the European spice trade through a treaty with the Muslim Mamluks in Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria placed a 33% tariff on exports that Venetians passed on to European nations. Although the origins of spices were known throughout Europe by the Middle Ages, no ruler proved capable of breaking the Venetian hold on the trade routes. After the Portuguese discovery of India in 1498 and the siege of Calicut in 1501, Portuguese were able to undersell the Venetians in the spice trade in Europe.

Simultaneously the Venetians and Zamorin of Calicut sought out the help of the Mamluks to counter the new Portuguese challenge. The Gujarat sultanate also joined them in battle to defend their most important port, Diu. The Gujarat Sultanate also acquired Ottoman support for the battle due to close ties. The battle was fought between a coalition of mamluk and Gujarat sultanate along with the kingdom of Calicut against the Portuguese.

The Battle Itself: A blow-by-blow account of the conflict

The Portuguese were lagging in logistics by the coalition, but their expertise in naval warfare made them a step ahead of their rival. Although superior in logistics, the Mamluks and Gujaratis neither had any experience in naval warfare, so this was a major disadvantage for them. In 1509 February the 2nd, the Portuguese sailed over the horizon, while the newly appointed Hussain was making final preparations for his coalition fleet. Hussain commanded some oar ships to attack the Portuguese by sallying out before they were fully recovered from their journey. However this attack was unsuccessful because they did not reach them in time.

At the beginning of dusk, the Coalition fleet returned into the safety of the channel. Meanwhile, the Portuguese Viceroy gathered his war council of captains to plan their attack. They decided to part the fleet into four groups:

When the wind reversed at 11:00 am, the start of the battle was signalled by the royal banner being hoisted atop the Flor do Mar and a single shot. The Portuguese approached, probing the channel with the head of the formation being the galley São Miguel. Quickly general bombardment ensued and the two forces proceeded to grapple. Within the harbour of Diu, the Portuguese were able to try an innovative gunning strategy: by firing directly at the calm water, the cannonballs skid across the water like skipping stones. Within the fighting, a coalition ship was sunk instantly when the broadside from Santo Espírito hit it.

Meanwhile, Santo Espírito was able to grapple with Hussain’s ship as the carracks made contact. Some men led by Rui Pereira jumped onto the Hussain’s ship, and stormed all the way to the midship. At the same time, another Mamluk carrack came to the flagships' aid, boarding the Santo Espírito from the opposite side.

Hussain’s forces were strengthened with many Gujarati soldiers, split among the coalition fleet, thus the risk of the heavy Portuguese infantry being overwhelmed was great. Rui Pereira met his death during the skirmish, but in this critical moment, Hussain’s flagship was slammed by the Rei Grande from the free side. The Portuguese received many reinforcements from this, slowly tipping the scales of the battle to their favour. Meanwhile, volleys of surgical arrow fire were thinning out Portuguese infantry by Ethiopian and Turkish bowmen atop the crow’s nest.

With foresight, Hussain had expected the Portuguese to commit to the grapple with their entire force. Therefore to prepare, he positioned nimble oar ships back, in order to attack the Portuguese from behind when they committed to the grapple. Seeing this coming, João da Nova repositioned the Flor do Mar to block a rear entrance towards the Portuguese ships, thus stopping Hussain’s plan. With nowhere to attack the Portuguese, the oar ships became easy targets for the Portuguese gunners, who easily disabled them.

After many failed attempts at entering the fray, Zamorin’s boats retreated to Calicut after a short exchange. During the battle, over 600 shots were fired by the Flor do Mar. While many faster galleys and caravels grappled stationary coalition galleys, who were unable to respond through gunfire. The coalition was able to defend against initial attacks, however three galleys were set adrift by a Portuguese salvo.

Through a long battle of attrition, the Portuguese captured most of the remaining carracks. With all the smoke and debris, Hussain’s flagship was overpowered and many abandoned ship. Portuguese manoeuvred themselves between coalition ships and the shore making sure to bring down anyone who tried swimming to shore.

By the end only one giant coalition carrack remained. Anchored too close to the shore for any Portuguese ship to grapple with it. Too large and strong with a reinforced hull to be bothered by cannon fire. It took the Portuguese repeated bombardment from the entire remaining fleet to sink the ship by sun set, thus ending the Battle of Diu.

The Aftermath: What were the Consequences of the Battle of Diu?

The Portuguese ended the battle with minimal losses and total victory. On the other hand, the coalition forces were almost entirely wiped. Due to a full takeover being considered too expensive, Dom Francisco refused to administer the port of Diu. Instead a trade agreement was signed and a trading post was established in the city. The Viceroy took gold coinage amounting 300000 xerafins, a third of which was distributed to Portuguese soldiers while a donation of 10000 was made to the hospital of Cochin.

Malik Ayyaz returned all the Portuguese prisoners fit and well, however the Viceroy ordered the torture of most coalition prisoners as revenge for his sons death. The Mamluk Sultanate collapsed shortly after a couple years when the Ottoman Empire invaded its territory. With their strong hold of Diu, the Portuguese subsequently captured many key ports in India such as Goa, Mangalore and Cannanore. Some of the artefacts of this battle and Portuguese-Indian colonialism can still be found displayed in the Convento de Cristo of Portugal.

Significance and Impact: How did the Battle of Diu shape the Region's History?

In 1538, the ottomans again tried to take control of the spice trade through siege of Diu but failed, which again resulted in Portuguese victory, thus sealing their dominance over Indian ocean trade. This resulted in European dominance over 4 centuries in the Indian ocean and spice trade. Thus continuing, the long standing rivalry between Christian and Muslim dominance over trade and land.

Seeing the Portuguese success, other colonial powers such as Dutch and English wanted to emulate similar success in India. The Dutch entered the competition by the end of the 16th century. This gave Dutch trade monopoly over the Indian ocean to Northern Europe replacing the Portuguese. However, all these were acquired by the British in the mid 19th century and lasted till the mid 20th century. As the English gradually became the leading naval power they acquired many Asian and African countries. European dominance over the trade network remained until WW2.

Lessons Learned: What can we Learn from the Battle of Diu Today?

This battle could indicate the shift from mediaeval military strategy which focused on primarily infantry to a naval based force. The Portuguese were much more experienced in naval combat and were able to project this superiority in a strategic location which would not be possible with infantry alone. This also shows us the definite need of a strong naval force to assert dominance over battle which still applies today in modern warfare.

Logistics are definitely important in a war but so is expertise and technology as shown in the war. The coalition had people who were not familiar with naval warfare and never took part in it; on the other hand the Portuguese fleet was filled with seasoned professional naval officers. The coalition also had many more ships compared to the Portuguese, however such ships were ill equipped for battle. Portuguese ships on the other hand, were well armoured and fitted with artillery and could withstand heavy assault by the sea and cannon.

The Battle of Diu in Literature and Culture: How has it been Represented over Time?

The battle of Diu has been mentioned several times by historians as one of the most important naval battles of all time and changed the course of history to come. The author William Weir, in his book 50 Battles That Changed the World, ranks this battle as the 6th most important in history. He says through the battle of Diu the possibility of Islamic dominance over the world ‘..sank to the bottom of the Indian Ocean’. Then, historian Rainer Daehnhardt says that this battle is compared only to the Battles of Lepanto and Trafalgar in terms of importance and legacy. According to the scholar Michael Adas, this battle "established European Naval superiority in the Indian Ocean for centuries to come."

The Battle of Diu and its Legacy: How does it continue to Influence Geopolitics Today?

The battle of Diu had a long-lasting legacy on Indian Ocean trade until the 20th century. However during WW2, all major European powers were ravaged. Focused on rebuilding their own nations, little room was left for the governance of foreign colonies. Thus, India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, ending the long-standing European dominance of Asia. The direct control of European colonial trade is dead, being replaced by the new trade systems of globalisation.


are now grown and processed throughout the world by different companies and distributed thoroughly according to their demand. As a result of globalisation and advances in agriculture the production of spices is no longer limited to Southeast Asia. Although it is easy to overlook spice as a modern commodity, it is hard to understate how much of an impact it has had on world history.