The Siege of Hormuz 1622

Daniel Costa

The Terrible and the Gulf he created

The arrival of Portuguese ships in the Persian Gulf at the beginning of the sixteenth century was a unique event in the history of the Middle East. For the first time, a European power was conducting naval operations in the region, with dramatic impact on the local communities and the regional power states. The naval attack Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, nicknamed The Terrible, executed on both shores of the Persian Gulf in 1507 and the full conquest of Hormuz in 1515 represented an aggression that was to ignite a century-long war between the Portuguese and the Persian Empires. Albuquerque’s incursion in the Gulf was not an isolated event, but part of a grand plan designed by King Manuel I, whose messianic vision for the Portuguese expansion in the East encompassed the complete asphyxiation of Muslim trade, the ultimate destruction of Mameluke Egypt and, eventually, the reconquest of Jerusalem itself. Within this plan, Hormuz was one of the keys. The importance of the island resided, not in its resources, but in its geographical position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, connecting it to the Gulf of Oman and the markets of India. This represented an asset that, once secured, would give the Portuguese full control of the maritime trade in the region. Hormuz was, at the time of Portuguese arrival, a thriving commercial center, a city of 50.000 people where nobles, civil servants and merchants worked towards prosperity and trade. In religious matters it is also said that represented an example of religious tolerance, with the upper class attending religious ceremonies of other religions. In 1515, a force of 26 vessels and 2100 soldiers reached Hormuz in March and Albuquerque, and after a series of negotiations and taking advantage of a complicated political situation, managed to build a fort which asserted Portuguese domination. With the complete submission of Hormuz, one of the region’s most famous and lucrative commercial entrepôts, the Kingdom of Portugal had managed to control one of the three most important chokepoints of the Indian Ocean, the other two being Aden and Malacca. While Albuquerque conquered Malacca in 1511, he failed in his attack on Aden in 1513. Nevertheless, the tiny Portuguese Kingdom was now a global Empire, master of the Indian Ocean. Regarding Hormuz, the island’s control, together with Portuguese naval superiority, set the terms for the full commercial domination of the region for the next century. In fact, overtime, the importance of Hormuz increased dramatically, and around 1620 it represented one of the most profitable possessions, accounting for about 1/5 of the entire Estado da India revenue. Immediately after their conquest, the Portuguese choose to respect the traditional trade, not interfering with the taxation practices. Also, the agreed tribute between The Terrible and the King of Hormuz was not enforced and by 1521 payments were not constant. Although this light approach had its advantages locally, in Lisbon the vision was blunter. Feeling the lack of expected revenues, King Manuel I gave instructions for two fortresses to be built, a fleet and, more damaging for the local rulers, the appointment of Portuguese officials to the customs house. This led to revolt, a significant exodus from the city and, in the end, a new agreement between the Portuguese and the Hormuzians, which more than doubled the amount of tribute to be paid by the local officials to the Portuguese. This was the first event of a serious of tensions that will continue to surface throughout the sixteenth century between the Portuguese and the local ruling class. Portuguese rule over Hormuz and the Gulf trade wasn’t as smooth as one might expect. The Ottomans tried, until the 1550’s, to halt Portuguese expansion and encroachment in the Indian Ocean but were ultimately unsuccessful. The attacks on Diu in 1538, Hormuz in 1552-54 and Bahrain in 1559 were repulsed and the Sublime Porte was defeated by the Portuguese navy as well as by decease. After that, the absence of further Ottoman initiatives in the Gulf is a curious fact. In contrast with Ottoman activity in the waters of the Gulf during the first half of the sixteenth century, the main political power in the region was almost absent. The great Persian Empire, ruled by the Safavid dynasty since 1501, was embroiled in a costly land conflict with the Ottoman Empire since the 1530s and, until the reign of Shah Abbas, showed no real interest in naval affairs. There were many Persian dominions along the Gulf’s shores, but they were mostly of a tributary nature. It can be justly said that, together with Ottoman disinterest for the Gulf after their defeats, the Persian fear of Ottoman aggression and the inexistence of a Persian navy helped to maintain the status quo as constructed by Afonso de Albuquerque, throughout the sixteenth century. However, with the onset of the new century, all that was about to change. New powers began to emerge, with the Dutch making their first incursion in the Indian Ocean in 1596 and the English entering the Gulf in 1613. At the same time Shah Abbas became increasingly interested in his southern borders and between 1602 and 1614 the Persians captured a series of Portuguese possessions, among them Bahrain and Gombroon (near present day Bandar-Abbas). Hormuz was becoming seriously threatened and the Portuguese were moved to action.
The Siege of Hormuz 1622
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The Siege of Hormuz 1622
An attack on a Portuguese carrack

The road to War

Sensing the danger, King Philip sent ambassadors to the Persian court with the objective of attracting Shah Abbas’s friendship and sympathy. The most notorious, the nobleman Don García de Silva y Figueroa, departed to Persia in 1614. To achieve such an ambitious prospect, he was to propose an alliance against the Ottomans, and the channelling of the precious Persian silk through Portuguese maritime routes. Figueroa’s journey is worthy of a story by itself, given that only after 4 years, in 1618, was he able to see the Shah in Qazvin. By that time the Portuguese had lost Gombroon, the English had gained a foothold on Jask and the Shah was about to sign a treaty with the Ottomans. Things had changed dramatically since the ambassador had received his instructions from the King. Diplomacy had been too slow, his mission became hollow. The Shah had already conquered one of the main water sources of Hormuz, there was no Ottoman threat to Persian interests and the meddlesome English were already doing business in Persia (a viable option to the silk export problem). In this regard, it must be said that Anglo-Persian dealings started with a bizarre meeting at Hampton Court, in 1611, when the Persian ambassador presented himself to King James. Oddly, this ambassador was an Englishmen, named Sir Robert Shirley, who had entered the Shah’s service during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. His proposal was to open a direct route for Persian silk to reach Europe, bypassing Ottoman interference over the land option. The payment, however, had to be made in bullion, something the English (through the East India Company – EIC), with problems financing the existing operations, had to decline. Although an agreement was not reached, the EIC directors provided passage home for the ambassador, his family, plus King James’s ambassador to the Shah and his family as well. Interest had been stirred. Thus, in 1613, the first English vessel to sail to Persia carried mainly passengers, even if some didn’t reach their destination alive. Sadly, the English ambassador, his wife and newborn child died just a few days apart at Sind, modern day Pakistan. While tragic, this didn’t end English interest in trading with Persia, and after some incertitude from both sides, the English landed at Jask in 1616, factories were opened at Shiraz and Isfahan and, two years later, the first consignment of raw silk reached London, being sold for three times its cost. A profitable relationship had been established. As for the Portuguese, with diplomatic prospects uncertain at best and the Shah’s increasingly aggressive stand, the collision course with the Persians was ever more likely. At their regional capital in Goa, Portuguese officials started to plan for the defence of Hormuz since the early 1610’s. Their strategy had three axis: to secure the southern shores of the Gulf; to repair the main fortifications, which had been neglected; and to ask for reinforcements from Portugal. First, in 1616, the Viceroy in Goa urged the officials in Hormuz to attack Sohar, 200 km west of Muscat, present day Oman. Sohar, while nominally part of the Kingdom of Hormuz, had been ruled by an Arab chief, who had been challenging the Portuguese for 40 years. The expedition was successful, and the city was taken. An incursion was also made in Khor Fakkan, a town with an excellent supply of drinking water some 120 km north of Sohar, where the Portuguese built a small fort in 1620. These demonstrations of power provided security on the southern shores of the Gulf and sent warnings to any possible rebellious leaders but, successful as they were, they could not save Hormuz from attack. In Lisbon preparations were made to send crucial additional forces to the east. On the 1st of April 1619, Commander Ruy Freire de Andrade and a fleet of five warships and more than 2.000 men raised anchor on the Tagus River. Their destination: Hormuz. Before their arrival, Goa would appeal the King, in February 1620, for funds to repair, among other places, the defences of Hormuz, but it would be too late…
Ancestry UK

Clash of Empires at Hormuz

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.
The Siege of Hormuz 1622
Portuguese defending Hormuz (a Safavid depiction)
The Siege of Hormuz 1622

Daniel Costa

I'm a geographer passionate about history. Recently I have been studying the Age of Discovery, more specifically the fascinating and almost unknown history of the Portuguese presence in the Persian Gulf in the 17th century. My Master's thesis, called "The Wavering Power", tells the story of the Portuguese rule in Oman from 1622 and 1650.
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