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The capture of the Rahimi: How the Portuguese gambled and lost

Luis Dias

A friend lent me a fascinating book, ‘Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire’ by Ira Mukhoty. It lifts the veil on the lives of the women of the zenana of the Mughals, challenging so many clichéd stereotypes and fleshing out remarkably independent, enterprising courageous personalities.

At a time when Mughal history is being belittled and systematically erased from school textbooks and public consciousness, and history in general is being held hostage by politics, it is all the more vital that the discourse is kept alive.

The book uncovers much that isn’t widely known about the Mughals. For instance, in the very first page of the introduction, Mukhoty informs us that the Mughals, proud descendants of nomadic Timurids, loathed their Mongol cousins, the Uzbeks, and would have been horrified to know that their dynasty would become synonymous with the Anglicised form of Mongols, or Mughals.

Not surprisingly, the Portuguese turn up in the narrative at various points. A whole chapter in fact is dedicated to “the Perfidious Portuguese.” It deals with the chequered history of the Rahimi.

The European presence in general (not just the Portuguese) occupies barely a footnote in Mughal chronicles, in stark contrast to the reams written by Western travellers, priests, diplomats and merchants about the Mughals. Emperor Jahangir for instance writes barely a line in his autobiography ‘Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri’. “This negligence by the Mughals would have a disastrous result later on,” writes Mukhoty, with tremendous understatement.

Soon after their arrival and establishing their maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, the Portuguese in 1502 created the ”cartazes” licensing system to control and enforce their monopoly in trade in these waters. While its ostensible logic was to give “protection” to merchant and Hajj ships against pirates and rivals, its main purpose was to compel merchants to pay tax in Portuguese trading posts, directing them to the ‘feitorias’ in Goa, Malacca, and Ormuz, and thus dominating the spice and other trades. Portuguese fleets would accost ships, attacking, and even sinking them if they failed to produce the hated ‘cartaz.’

And often, even the ‘cartaz’ was not a guarantor of being left in peace by the Portuguese. With memories of Christian-Muslim conflicts in the Iberian peninsula fresh in their memories, all Muslims were ‘Moors’, and the Portuguese were encouraged “to make war on them and do them as much damage as possible as a people with whom we have so great and so ancient an enmity.” And so, then, as now in our time, to quote Mukhoty,“an inflexible faith is linked with endless greed and leads to a convenient, and widely encouraged, rapacity.”

Muslim pilgrims were for a time (1576-1581) even advised to renounce the Hajj to avoid the insult of using the ‘cartaz’, which contained images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and therefore contained the sin of idolatry. Sporadic acts of harassment and piracy had occurred, even on Mughal ships, but matters came to a head in 1613.

The Rahimi, meaning ‘belonging to the most Merciful’, was a merchant ship but also used for the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca,and the largest vessel in Indian seas, displacing over 1000 tonnes (some accounts even say 1500), with room for 1500 passengers. Europeans knew it as “the great pilgrimage ship”. She was the property of a woman, Maryam-uz-Zamani, (‘Mary of the World’, or ‘Mary of Eternity, or of the Age’), the title given to Hindu princess Harkha Bai from Amber after marriage to Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) as part of a political alliance with her father Raja Bihari Mal Kachhwaha, and now Queen Mother of the reigning emperor, her son Jahangir. A prodigious woman trader, owner of several other ships besides the Rahimi, she was phenomenally wealthy even by Mughal standards.

On September 13, 1613, the Portuguese under the governorship of D Jerónimo de Azevedo seized the Rahimi even though she possessed the ‘cartaz’, at Surat (as she was being readied for voyage to the Red Sea port of Mocha, and with around 700 Hajj pilgrims on board), and carried her off to Goa, an audacious and provocative act, even for the Portuguese.

The Rahimi had countenanced trouble from the Portuguese before, in 1609, and from the English, in 1610. But this time a line had been crossed. Perhaps it was the cumulative anger from prior insults, and the need to set an example that would deter further attacks. Or perhaps the insult to the Queen Mother was taken as a direct affront to the Emperor himself. Last and not least, the piracy was correctly viewed as an act of religious persecution, only compounding the sense of outrage.

The Portuguese were motivated not just by religious zealotry, but also resentment at the arrival of the English in the fray, and the fear of their alliance with the Mughals. By holding the Rahimi to ransom, perhaps the Portuguese wished to extort further trading concessions in their favour, and discourage the Mughals from further contact and trade with the English.

But their gambit had quite the opposite effect, only infuriating Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627), who was quick to act when it became obvious that the Portuguese had no intention of ever returning the ship.(Indeed, some accounts hint at her being set on fire in Goa the next year). He stopped all traffic through Surat (the major port for maritime trade); ordered his agent Muqarrab Khan to lay siege to Daman, then in Portuguese hands; the closure of the Jesuit church in Agra; and the suspension of all allowances to Portuguese priests in Mughal India.

Indeed, the only time Jahangir mentions any ‘firangis’ in his autobiography ‘Jahangirnama’, it is to register his satisfaction at the defeat of the Portuguese armada from Goa at the hands of the English in a naval battle off Surat the previous year, 1612: ‘Battle had taken place’ between the English and the Portuguese, ‘most of whose ships were burned up by English fire.’

The Rahimi incident only encouraged Jahangir to favour the English over the Portuguese in trade agreements, and the English now became the primary foreign power in the Mughal court. We know how that worked out eventually for the Mughal dynasty, but that’s another story.

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