Portuguese India Armadas, Seaworthiness and Artillery

Portuguese India ships distinguished themselves from the ships of other navies (especially those of rival powers in the Indian Ocean) on two principal accounts: their seaworthiness (durability at sea) and their artillery.

With a few exceptions (e.g. Flor de la Mar, Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai), Portuguese India naus were not typically built to last longer than four or five years of useful service. That a nau managed to survive a single India run was already an achievement, given that few ships of any nation at the time were able to stay at sea for even a quarter as long without breaking apart at the seams.

The success of the India nau depended on 15th-century innovations in Portuguese shipbuilding that greatly improved the seaworthiness and longevity of the ship. Notable among these were the use of iron nails (rather than wooden pegs) to hold planks, the mixing of lead in the seams, and a caulking technique that improved upon traditional oakum with ‘galagala’ paste (a mixture of oakum, lime and olive oil, producing a kind of putty that could be pressed between the planks). Hulls were amply coated in pitch and pine tar (imported in bulk amounts from northern Germany), giving the India naus their famous (and, to some observers, sinister) dark tone.


Naval artillery was the single greatest advantage the Portuguese held over their rivals in the Indian Ocean – indeed over most other navies – and the Portuguese crown spared no expense in procuring and producing the best naval guns European technology permitted.

King John II of Portugal is often credited for pioneering, while still a prince in 1474, the introduction of a reinforced deck on the old Henry-era caravel to allow the mounting of heavy guns. In 1489, he introduced the first standardized teams of trained naval gunners (bombardeiros) on every ship, and development of naval tactics that maximized broadside cannonades rather than the rush-and-grapple of Medieval galleys.

The Portuguese crown appropriated the best cannon technology available in Europe, particularly the new, more durable and far more accurate bronze cannon developed in Central Europe, replacing the older, less accurate cast-iron cannon. By 1500, Portugal was importing vast volumes of copper and cannon from northern Europe, and had established itself as the leading producer of advanced naval artillery in its own right. Being a crown industry, cost considerations did not curb the pursuit of the best quality, best innovations and best training. The crown paid wage premiums and bonuses to lure the best European artisans and gunners (mostly German) to advance the industry in Portugal. Every cutting-edge innovation introduced elsewhere was immediately appropriated into Portuguese naval artillery – that includes bronze cannon (Flemish/German), breech-loading swivel-guns (prob. German origin), truck carriages (possibly English), and the idea (originally French, c. 1501) of cutting square gunports(portinhola) in the hull to allow heavy cannon to be mounted below deck.

In this respect, the Portuguese spearheaded the evolution of modern naval warfare, moving away from the Medieval warship, a carrier of armed men, aiming for the grapple, towards the modern idea of a floating artillery piece dedicated to resolving battles by gunnery alone.

According to Gaspar Correia, the typical fighting caravel of Gama’s 4th Armada (1502) carried 30 men, four heavy guns below, six falconets (falconete) above (two fixed astern) and ten swivel-guns (canhão de berço) on the quarter-deck and bow.

An armed carrack, by contrast, had six heavy guns below, eight falconets above and several swivel-guns, and two fixed forward-firing guns before the mast. Although an armed carrack carried more firepower than a caravel, it was much less swift and less manoeuvrable, especially when loaded with cargo. A carrack’s guns were primarily defensive, or for shore bombardments, whenever their heavier firepower was necessary. But by and large, fighting at sea was usually left to the armed carvels.

The development of the heavy galleon removed even the necessity of bringing carrack firepower to bear in most circumstances. One of them became famous in the conquest of Tunis and could carry 366 bronze cannons, for this reason, it became known as Botafogo, meaning literally fire maker, torcher or spitfire in popular Portuguese.


According to historian Oliveira Martins, of the 806 naus sent on the India Run between 1497 and 1612, 425 returned safely to Portugal, 20 returned prematurely (i.e. without reaching India), 66 were lost, 4 were captured by the enemy, 6 were scuttled and burnt, and 285 remained in India (which went on to meet various fates of their own in the East.)

The loss rate was higher in certain periods than others, reflecting greater or lesser attention and standards of shipbuilding, organization, supervision, training, etc. which reveals itself in shoddily-built ships, overloaded cargo, incompetent officers, as well as the expected higher dangers of wartime. The rates fluctuated dramatically. By one estimate, in 1571–75, 90% of India ships returned safely; by 1586–1590, the success rate fell to less than 40%; between 1596 and 1605, the rate climbed above 50% again, but in the subsequent years fell back to around 20%.

That only four ships on India runs were known to be captured by the enemy seems quite astonishing. These were:

  • (1) 1508, the ship of Job Queimado, originally part of the 8th Armada of Tristão da Cunha that set out in 1506. It was captured in 1508 by the French corsair Mondragon (said by one account to be in theMozambique Channel, but it is unlikely Mondragon would have taken the trouble of doubling the Cape; it was more likely captured on the Atlantic side, probably near the Azores). Mondragon was himself tracked down and taken prisoner by Duarte Pacheco Pereira in January, 1509, off Cape Finisterre.
  • (2) 1525, Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai, the great carrack built in Goa in 1512. It had been used to carry Vasco da Gama in 1523 to serve as the new viceroy of India, and was on its way back to Portugal in 1525, with the former governor D. Duarte de Menezes, when it was taken by French corsairs. (However, some have speculated that there was no foreign attack, that Menezes himself simply decided to go piratical and took command of the ship.)
  • (3) 1587, São Filipe, returning from an India run, was captured by English privateer Sir Francis Drake, off the Azores. The triumph of the São Filipe cargo, one of the wealthiest hordes ever captured, was overshadowed only by the even wealthier trove of paperwork and maps detailing the Portuguese trade in Asia which fell into English hands. This set in motion the first English expedition to India, under Sir James Lancaster in 1591.
  • (4) 1592 Madre de Deus, the gigantic carrack captured by Sir John Burroughs near the Azores, already described above.

This does not count, of course, ships that were attacked by enemy action and subsequently capsized or destroyed. It also does not count ships that were captured later in the East Indies (i.e. not on the India route at the time). The most famous of these was probably the mighty Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina (not to be confused with its earlier Mount Sinai namesake), captured in 1603, by Dutch captain Jacob van Heemskerk. The Santa Catarina was on a Portuguese Macau to Portuguese Malacca run with a substantial cargo of Sino-Japanese wares, most notably a small fortune in musk, when it was captured by Heemskerk in Singapore. The captured cargo nearly doubled the capital of the fledgling Dutch VOC.]

Ships losses should not be confused with crew losses from disease, deprivation, accident, combat and desertion. These tended to be horrifically high – one third, or even as much as one half, even in good years.


The admiral of an armada, necessarily a nobleman of some degree, was known as the capitão-mor (captain-major), with full jurisdiction over the fleet. There was also usually a designated vice-admiral (soto-capitão), with a commission to assume command should tragedy befall the captain-major. The vice-admirals were also useful if a particular armada needed to be split into separate squadrons. If an armada carried a viceroy or governor of the Indies, he typically assumed the senior position (although in practice many delegated the decision-making during the journey to their flagship’s captain).

Each India ship had a capitão (captain). As the position of captain could be quite profitable, it became quite attractive to lesser nobles and men of ambition hoping for a quick and easy fortune. The crown was often happy to ‘sell’ captain positions on India runs as a form of royal patronage to candidates with little or no experience at sea. Nonetheless, the captain was formally the king’s representative and highest authority on his ship. Everyone, even noble passengers of greater formal rank, were under his jurisdiction. The supremacy of a captain’s authority was curtailed only if the captain-major came aboard his ship, and when he docked inGoa (jurisdiction passed to the Vice-Roy or Governor).

Another important figure on an India ship was the escrivão (clerk), the de facto royal agent. The clerk was in charge of the written record of everything on the ship, especially the cargo inventory, which he tracked with meticulous precision. The clerk was carefully screened by the Casa da Índia, and was the crown’s most trusted agent on board ship, and expected to keep an eye for crown interests. This gave him, in practice, a greater authority on the ship than his formal title suggests. At departure, the clerk was presented with the keys to the hold (porão). and a royal signet to seal the cargo. Nobody, not even the captain, was allowed to visit the cargo hold without the clerk present. It is said that rations could not be distributed, nor even a cup of water drawn from a barrel, without notifying the clerk. Upon the capture of an enemy ship, the clerk was immediately escorted aboard the captured vessel to seal the holds, cabins and chests, and take inventory of the loot.

Technical command of the ship was in the hands of the piloto (who combined the roles of pilot and navigator) and his assistant, the soto-piloto (second or under-pilot). The pilot and his assistant not merely steered the ship, but were responsible for all navigational matters – charts, instruments, plotting the course, etc. As captains were often quite inexperienced, the pilot was usually the highest trained naval officer aboard. Captains frequently deferred to them on the running of the ship.

Lacking a formal navigation school, early pilots were trained by apprenticeship. New pilots received their instruction, both practical and theoretical, first-hand from master pilots aboard ship and kept a tight lid on their professional secrets.[24] This changed in the late 1550s or early 1560s, with the establishment of formal courses of instruction for India pilots in Lisbon by the cosmógrafo-mor Pedro Nunes, which included a final examination and formal certification.

Despite their general secretiveness, several early India pilots compiled written navigation manuals, probably initially merely as notes for themselves, but eventually passed on and copied by others. These included general instructions on how to read, plot and follow routes by nautical chart, how to use the principal nautical instruments of the day—the mariner’s compass, the quadrant, the astrolabe, the nocturlabe and the cross-staff (balestilha)—and astronomical tables (notably that of solar declination, derived from Abraham Zacuto and later Pedro Nunes’s own) to correctly account for “compass error” (the deviation of the magnetic northfrom the true north) by recourse to the Pole Star, Sun and Southern Cross, the flux and reflux of tides, etc. These manuals often contained a roteiro (rutter), giving the detailed instructions (by geographical coordinates and physical description) of the routes to India. Two of the few which have survived were Duarte Pacheco Pereira’s Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis (c. 1509) and João de Lisboa’s Livro da Marinharia (c. 1514).

Relative to the ships of other nations (e.g. French, Dutch), clerks and pilots on Portuguese vessels held an unusually high degree of authority.

Next in a ship’s hierarchy was the mestre (master). The ship’s master was the officer in charge of all sailors, ship’s boys and the rest of the crew. His primary job at sea was to ensure the crew implemented the technical manoeuvre orders of the pilot – raising and lowering sails, etc. As such, the master required a good degree of sailing knowledge – knowing how to translate the pilot’s instructions into sail & crew instructions. He was often sufficiently trained in navigation to take over pilot’s duties if the pilot and under-pilot were incapacitated. But a ship which lost all three officers would usually be in serious trouble.

Assisting the master, was the contramestre (or soto-mestre, boatswain). The boatswain was the crew enforcer – he ensured the master’s orders were implemented by the crew. In practice, they usually partitioned the deck between them, with the master in charge of implementation in the stern, and the boatswain in the bow (ship). The boatswain was also in charge of the maintenance of rigging, anchors and supervising the loading and unloading of cargo, etc. The boatswain had his own assistant, the guardião(boatswain’s mate).

The bulk of the crew were all-purpose sailors – usually half of them marinheiros (seamen), the other half grumetes (ship-boys). The partition between the two classes was akin to the modern distinction between able seaman and ordinary seamen, e.g. ship-boys were assigned the drudgery duties, swabbing and scrubbing, moving cargo, etc., while seamen would be given ‘higher’ responsibilities, e.g. assigned to hold the wheel on the quarterdeck (tolda). The contramestre (boatswain) was considered the head of the seamen, and served as the intermediary between the seamen and the higher officers (master, pilot, etc.). The guardião (boatswain’s mate) had authority only over the ship-boys; seamen would not obey a guardião’s order.[27]

Then there were the specialized crew. A Portuguese India nau usually had two estrinqueiros, skilled sailors in charge of the windlass that operated the round sails (one for the main mast, another for the fore mast). The meirinho (bailiff), a judicial officer, was in charge of dispensing punishment and supervising on-board dangers (fires, gunpowder stores, weapon caches). The capelão (chaplain) was in charge of saving souls, the barbeiro (barber surgeon) in charge of saving lives. A large nau usually had a number ofpagens (pages), who not only attended upon the officers and the cabins, but also served as runners delivering orders across the deck.

The despenseiro (purser/steward) was in charge of food stores and rations. Unlike ships of other nations, Portuguese vessels did not usually have a cook aboard, sailors were expected to cook their own meals themselves at the ship’s ovens. Rations were composed primarily of ship biscuit (the main staple, rationed at 2 lb per person per day). Other provisions included wine, salt, olive oil, salted cod, sardines, pork, cheese, rice, and the like, with fresh fruits and vegetables available on the initial part of the journey. Rations were suspended if the ship was at dock and the men ashore. On the return journey, the crown would only supply enough biscuit and water for a ship to reach the Cape of Good Hope; the ship’s crew would have to find its own provisions thereafter.

Perhaps the most valued of the specialized positions was the repair crew. This was usually composed of two carpenters (carpinteiro) and two caulkers (calafate) that fixed anything that was broken, plus the cooper(tanoeiro), who ensured the cargo and water stores remained preserved. A nau might also have mergulhadores (divers), crew specially trained to go down the outside of the ship to check and help repair hull damage below the water level.

Military personnel aboard a nau varied with the mission. Except for some specialists and passengers, most of the crew was armed before encounters and expected to fight. But every nau also had, at the very least, a small specialized artillery crew of around ten bombardeiros (gunners), under the command of a condestável (constable). As naval artillery was the single most important advantage the Portuguese had over rival powers in the Indian Ocean, gunners were highly trained and enjoyed a bit of an elite status on the ship. (Indeed, many gunners on Portuguese India ships were highly skilled foreigners, principally Germans, lured into Portuguese service with premium wages and bonuses offered by crown agents.).

Ships that expected more military encounters might also carry homens d’armas (men-at-arms), espingardeiros (arquebusiers/musketeers) and besteiros (crossbowmen). But, except for the gunners, soldiers aboard ship were not regarded as an integral part of the naval crew, but rather just as passengers.

The following is a sample composition of a typical 16th-century Portuguese India nau (carrack):

  • 1 captain (capitão)
  • 1 clerk (escrivão)
  • 1 chaplain (capelão)
  • 2 pilots (piloto, soto-piloto)
  • 1 master (mestre)
  • 1 boatswain (contramestre)
  • 1 boatswain’s mate (guardião)
  • 2 windlass operators (estrinqueiros)
  • 45 seamen (marinheiros)
  • 48 ship-boys (grumetes)
  • 4 pages (pagems)
  • 2 carpenters (carpinteiro and carpinteiro sobressalente)
  • 2 caulkers (calafate and calafate sobressalente)
  • 1 cooper (tanoeiro)
  • 1 steward (despenseiro)
  • 1 bailiff (meirinho)
  • 1 barber-surgeon (barbeiro)
  • 1 constable (condestável)
  • 11 gunners (bombardeiros)

Total = 127 crew

Plus any soldiers and passengers that might be taken aboard.


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