On the 20th of June 1620, after a painful 15-month journey around Africa, the Portuguese high-seas fleet arrived at Hormuz. The King had delivered Ruy Freire precise instructions, albeit conflicting ones. In a detailed document, Philip II had ordered the Commander to seek and destroy all European vessels from the waters of the Gulf without, and he was clear on this, harming Persian interests. The Kingdom of Portugal was at peace with the Persians and this was to be maintained, no cause for conflict was to be provoked. The English were the enemy. However, in a separate letter, the King also instructed Ruy Freire to build a fortress in the island of Qeshm, some 22 km west of Hormuz. The island was, since 1608, under the Shah’s rule and building such a fortress would probably be seen as an act of aggression. The reason for such a move was most likely the water supply, since Hormuz lacked fresh water and the main water source of the island (Gombroon) was captured by the Persians in 1614. Politically, the King thought the action would perhaps be seen as small local affair that would not disturb the general peace, such as the assault on Gombroon by Persian forces in 1614 didn’t result in a full-scale war. Whatever the King’s designs, events would reveal the tragic implications of his instructions.
After his arrival Ruy Freire informed the King of Hormuz, Mohammed Shah IV, and the Captain of Hormuz, D. Francisco de Sousa, of his intention to execute the King’s orders and land at Qeshm to build the fortress. Dissension started brewing. The Hormuzian King approved the venture and offered men and money to Ruy Freire. On the other hand, Francisco de Sousa argued strongly against it. He felt such an action was unnecessary because the Persian officials in Qeshm had been continuing to provide water to Hormuz, it would destabilize the situation and end the peace with the Shah. Eventually it was agreed to consult the Governor in Goa. While waited for a reply, in November, Ruy Freire set up a four-warship squadron and headed out towards Jask in order to wait for the English fleet that was supposed to arrive from Europe. He was adamant in fulfilling his King’s orders.
On the 25th of December, off the coast of Jask, the first major battle between European powers in the Indian Ocean took place. The English fleet of four ships, totalling 206 cannons, appeared off the horizon. Ruy Freire’s fleet also had four ships but with only 158 cannons. After a brief skirmish and an exchange of artillery fire, no decisive outcome was reached. Although English losses were far greater than those of the Portuguese, their fleet had not been destroyed and remained at full capacity. After several days, frustrated by the English refusal to fight, Ruy Freire adopted the strategy of using his squadron in a static position to cut off English access to the port of Jask. This was to prove a fatal mistake. On the 7th of January the English attacked the Portuguese formation and slaughtered the Portuguese flagship, São Pedro, as a temporary calm in the winds prevented the other three Portuguese ships from manoeuvring to help the main galleon. The 64-cannon ship bore the heavy brunt of the attack and when the English broke off, the Portuguese had sustained about 360 casualties, dead and wounded, against 7 from the English side. In the aftermath of the battle, a vigorous storm swept away the Portuguese fleet and, on their return on the 12th of January, the English had already landed at Jask and quickly loaded the silk., sailing for Surat immediately. Unable to destroy the English fleet or to prevent the shipping of the valuable cargo, Ruy Freire returned to Hormuz to repair his ships and launch his assault on Qeshm.
At Hormuz, while the fleet was at sea fighting the English, a letter arrived from Goa. The Governor was firmly against the venture in Qeshm for the same reasons the Captain of Hormuz had stated initially. After Ruy Freire’s return the Council met to discuss the matter. Although passionate discussions took place, the attack was eventually approved. In early May, the Portuguese Commander appeared off the coast at Qeshm leading a Portuguese force of thirty-three vessels and 3000 men. Defending the area in and around Qeshm were about 4.000 Persians. A force of 1.000 Persian cavalry tried to prevent the landing but to no avail. The heavy bombardment from the Portuguese warships proved too strong and the Persians were driven back. Ruy Freire was able to land his forces and start the construction of the fortress. Contrary to the idea that the attack could go unnoticed or be quietly accepted, the Persians reacted fast. The governor of Lar, Imam Qoli Khan, immediately sent a force of 10,000 men to expel the Portuguese, and further 25,000 were expected soon. The newly built Portuguese fortress was totally besieged by land on the 20th of June. Despite the enormous Persian advantage in terms of manpower, the Portuguese had a strong defensive position and still commanded the sea, which meant they could cause a lot of damage to Persian interests along the coast. During the 9-month siege the Portuguese attacked, sacked and burned several coastal towns on the Gulf, like Kuhestak, Gombroon, Jask, Kong, Laft, Rams, Bramy and Julfar. In October, the Governor in Goa learned Ruy Freire had not followed his instructions to leave Qeshm alone and, although disappointed, sent a squadron of ten vessels under the command of Simão de Melo to reinforce the Portuguese forces in Hormuz. He was perfectly aware the annual English fleet would arrive at Jask at any moment, and he was right. The sight of a five ship English squadron led by John Weddell in mid-December could not have come at a better time for the Persian officials. At Kuhestak, a meeting took place between Imam Qoli Khan’s representative and the EIC officials during which it was agreed the English would use their navy to help dislodge the Portuguese from Qeshm and Hormuz. In exchange for this alliance with a Muslim nation in an open attack against a fellow Christian one, the English were seduced with promises of commercial advantages on the Persian port of Bandar-Abbas, increasing trading rights, a share of the plunder and a veiled threat of not getting the expected silk if they don’t cooperate. In the first days of 1622 the Anglo-Persian alliance was sealed.
A few weeks later, on the 30th of January 1622 the English fleet was sighted at Hormuz. Realizing the Portuguese fleet was not giving battle and that Ruy Freire was besieged in Qeshm, they set sail and anchored close to Qeshm, which they began shelling immediately. After having landed several pieces of artillery the bombardment continued from land as well, which was made worse by the infantry attacks from the Persian side. The Portuguese held firm for several days, but the situation was becoming desperate. Although a small naval attack on the English was made by a squadron returning from a raid on the Persian shores, the main Portuguese fleet was not put to sea and the besieged realized they were on their own. Ruy Freire continued to refuse surrender, but his men had had enough. On the 11th of February, capitulation terms were agreed, and the Portuguese surrendered. Ruy Freire, betrayed by his own countrymen, was imprisoned by the English and sent to Surat. The Portuguese officials and soldiers were allowed to retreat to Hormuz but the Hormuzians were handed over to the Persians and slaughtered. As for the Portuguese fortress, dispossessed of its creators, it still stands on the eastern tip of Qeshm, after 400 years.
Following Qeshm and Ruy Freire’s demise, the main siege of Hormuz was about to begin. Inexplicably however, no specific measures had been adopted to reinforce the island’s defences during the battles in Qeshm. One of the main Portuguese possessions in the Estado da India was tremendously vulnerable. On the 20th of February the English fleet appeared off Hormuz. A small engagement took place in which a Portuguese squadron destroyed several small Persian vessels that were sent from the mainland. But, for some reason, orders came from Hormuz for the squadron to retreat. The Captain of Hormuz ordered the whole fleet to be anchored along the fortress. This incomprehensible decision paved the way for the enemy’s invasion of the island. That same day, the Persians landed 9.000 soldiers and sappers. Due to fear or incompetence, inactivity was paramount. The Portuguese hastily retreated to the fortress despite the protests of several officials. The town was taken and the encirclement complete. For the next two months, while the Portuguese fleet was being systematically destroyed by the English, the garrison was courageously keeping the Persians at bay on land. Some sorties were made from the fortress, with considerable success, and several attacks were repelled, including six in one night that cost the attackers an estimated 800 dead at the expense of almost 200 Portuguese casualties. The situation was, however, increasingly desperate, for water was becoming unhealthy, food was affected by worms and dysentery was spreading fast.
Hope of relief also died quickly. Although a letter from the Governor had managed to reach the fortress with a report that a fleet of 20 small galleys with 1000 soldiers had already departed from Goa, it was already too late. Apart from the supply situation, there had been more breaches in the walls, the defenders were exhausted. In the beginning of May events turned decisive. Reports differ on which side asked for negotiations, but it seems plausible to assume the Portuguese were the most interested. On the 4th of May 1622 the unthinkable happened, when the Captain of Hormuz handed over the keys of the fortress to an Anglo-Persian delegation. Portugal had lost the crown jewel of its eastern Empire. According to some sources there were 1400 dead from the Portuguese side during the siege. The survivors totalled 2500 and experienced different fates, as in Qeshm. The Hormuzians that had sided with the Portuguese were handed over to the Persians and killed. As for the Portuguese, they were kept under English watch and subsequently ferried to their possessions of Muscat and Sohar, in Arabia.
The siege of Hormuz in 1622 marked a new era in Gulf affairs. The English improved their commercial prospects with the Shah and were able to expand their dealings in the Indian Ocean, eventually becoming the dominant power. As for the Persians, they regained Hormuz but the island never assumed the importance of past times. The port of Bandar-Abbas, in mainland Persia, was their future. Finally, for the Portuguese the loss was a serious military tragedy and a costly commercial setback. But, regarding their presence in the Gulf, although their wavering power, they would rule Muscat until 1650.