Excerpts: The Theft of India by Roy Moxham

The theft of indiaTHe PoRTuguese

Terror, Luxury and Decay

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Gujarat was probably the most important trading centre in India. Broach, at the mouth of the great River Narmada, was its principal port and market. From there, goods were despatched to the Indian interior, southern and western India, Arabia, Central Asia, Europe and to the Far East. At the beginning of the century, much of the pepper and other spices of the Malabar Coast, and from the Far East, had been taken north to Gujarat for sale. When the Portuguese took control of the spice trade in Malabar and the East, and shipped directly to Europe, Gujarat’s trade suffered. Nevertheless, with its access to the routes into northern India and Arabia, Gujarat was still a major business centre.

The Gujaratis were considerable shipowners. Moreover, the Gujarati merchants regularly travelled on business to Arabia and the Far East. In other parts of India where trade was mostly in the hands of Hindu merchants, these were inhibited by the Hindu prohibition on ‘crossing the black sea’. Hindus who did travel were liable to be ruined by being expelled from their caste. In Gujarat, not only were there many Muslims who were, of course, free to travel, but also many well-off Hindus who had converted to Jainism. To become a Jain was perfectly acceptable to most Hindus since they regarded the Jains as a Hindu sect. Moreover, they were much admired for their belief in the sanctity of all life. Naturally, adhering to such a belief meant the Jains were unable to indulge in warfare, a common occupation of upper- caste Hindus. The Jains were free to focus their energies on moneylending, banking and trade. Moreover, their religion had no restrictions on travel, so they were able to conduct business abroad. Both the Jains and the Muslims established themselves as major overseas traders.

The Portuguese, having secured domination over Malabar, wanted to gain control over Gujarat too. Their first opportunity came in 1533, when the Mughals attacked Gujarat. In 1534 the ruler of Gujarat entered into a pact with the Portuguese to resist the Mughals. In return for their help, he gave them the district of Bassein and its dependencies, including the islands that would eventually become Bombay. The Portuguese greatly strengthened the existing fort at Bassein and built many more. Two years later, they managed to obtain the island fort of Diu. The Gujaratis tried to reclaim Diu in 1538 and again in 1546. The later siege was an epic battle. The governor of India (later viceroy), João de Castro, commanded the Portuguese relief. From Bassein, he sent one of his commanders on a preliminary foray to intercept any ships taking supplies to the enemy. This he did with great savagery. The mutilated bodies of the men he killed were cast into the mouths of the rivers so that they would drift up to the towns as a warning of Portuguese vengeance. When the commander returned to Bassein, the yardarms of his ships were decorated with the hanging bodies of sixty Muslims.

It needed all the naval and military resources of the Portuguese to raise this siege of Diu, which could well have terminated their attempts at domination, but they prevailed and massively extended the fortifications. The reprisals after the second siege of Diu were savage. The governor told the king of Portugal that he had sent a commander with twenty ships to:

Burn and destroy the whole coast, in which he very well showed his diligence and gallantry, because he caused more destruction of the coast than was ever done before, or ever dreamt of, destroying every place from Daman up to Broach, so that there was no memory left of them, and he butchered everyone he captured without showing mercy to a living thing. He burnt twenty large ships and one hundred and fifty small ones and the town squares were covered in bodies, which caused great astonishment and fear in all Gujarat.

At Gogha, the Portuguese heaped up the bodies of those they had killed in the temples. They then cut the throats of cows and defiled the temples by sprinkling them with the blood.

In 1559, again as a result of a temporary alliance with a ruler of Gujarat, the Portuguese acquired the port of Daman. This they also heavily fortified. From these strongholds, the Portuguese set about the subjugation of Gujarat. The Portuguese were well aware that they could never actually conquer Gujarat. The population of Portugal was only about one million, which severely limited the number of troops that could be despatched. Moreover, Brazil had become a drain on manpower. Many soldiers that were despatched to India died on the seas of scurvy or in storms. Those that did survive were subsequently depleted by tropical diseases. Unable to capture and hold large swathes of Gujarat, the Portuguese mounted a war of terror.

The slaughter started in Portuguese territory, where many of the Muslim traders were put to the sword. The Portuguese then went to Magdala (a town largely populated by people from the Horn of Africa, of which there were many in Gujarat), close to Surat, and set it on fire. They killed all the inhabitants except one man. He was left to live, with his hands cut off, to tell others of the atrocity. Hansot, close to Broach, was set on fire too. In Diu, they attacked the city adjacent to their fort. Many coastal towns were destroyed, including Una, Mahua, Gogha and the major port of Gandhar. Somnath was attacked and many of its famous temples and mosques destroyed.

Finally, a Portuguese expedition was sent to Broach, whose soldiers were absent. The Portuguese arrived by ship in the night to begin the slaughter. Once they had killed all those who had come out on to the streets, they set fire to the houses and burnt those hiding within – ‘the nobility and the people, the gardens and the houses, were reduced to ashes’.

These actions had the desired effect. The Gujarati merchants, the Vaniyas, were famously pragmatic. Their conciliatory behaviour, even when savagely provoked, was well illustrated by the Gujarati proverbs – ‘the Vaniya is ready for compromise’; ‘the Vaniya always changes allegiance according to circumstance’; ‘the Vaniya will not commit himself to anything’. Accordingly, the Gujarati merchants meekly took a Portuguese cartaz for their voyages and meekly paid at Diu the Portuguese levy on all imports and exports into and from Gujarat. Diu became the biggest financial contributor, after Goa, to the exchequer of the Portuguese state in India.

The pragmatism of the Gujarati merchants eventually paid dividends. Portuguese officials and the commanders of Portuguese ships were keen to conduct business on their own account, even though this was frowned upon by their government. They were strictly forbidden to deal in spices, which were the preserve of the crown, but Gujarat had much else to tempt them with. Gujarati cloth, sold willingly by the Gujaratis to their oppressors, became the staple of this private Portuguese trade. Even more pragmatically, several Gujarati merchants set up business in Goa itself. They became wealthy. Gujarati goods found their way to Goa and from there to Portugal. The Gujaratis in Goa even loaned the Portuguese governor money when it was urgently needed.


Excerpted from ‘The Theft of India’ written by Roy Moxham, published by HarperCollins.


In the three centuries that followed Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route from Europe to India, European powers made a beeline for India’s fabled riches, its spices, gold and gems. Though they ostensibly came for trade and commerce and the thrill of discovering a new land, the lines between exploration and exploitation soon blurred.

The Theft of India documents the intense rivalry for spoils that played out between the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese and the impact this had on Indians. It details the political intrigue, the agreements and the betrayals, the oppression, swindling and greed of these foreign powers as they each tried to strengthen their grip on this vast and ‘exotic’ land.

About the Author:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARoy Moxham’s work, though, is no dry study of textual materials. Through probing research, he unearths eyewitness accounts and memoirs from the era. Moxham supplements these with an exhaustive study of academic works on the subject. The result is an unflattering picture of the ‘civilized’ West as it systematically strips India of its riches.


  • Moxham’s ‘The Great Hedge of India’ was a well-written and extremely readable book, so I shall have to get hold of this one, too.

  • C K Ramachandran

    Good to hear that Roy Moxham continues his discovery of colonial India and its plunder by the great western powers, aided and abetted by Indian accomplices. His story of the Great Hedge was a thrilling account of clever British strategem to build a low cost custom barrier. He followed this up with the story of an East India Company Wife and then with his Malabar Dreams, each one revealing some new facet of the human side of the colonial life. Looking forward to reading his latest offering – the Theft of India.

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