Attempted Portuguese escalade of Aden in 1513

Aden Unconquered from Dawn to High Noon!

History and culture

Mon, 27-05-2024 03:12 PM, Aden

Siege of Aden that began at dawn during an Easter weekend resulted in a disastrous failure by midday for Portugal.

Fatimah Johnson (South24)

Laziness and ladders saved Aden from Imperial Portuguese domination on 26 March 1513. A siege of Aden that began at dawn during an Easter weekend resulted in a disastrous failure by midday for Portugal. The attempted siege of Aden confounded the second viceroy of Portuguese India, Afonso d’ Albuquerque, with its strong “intimidating” [1] wall and high towers. All the scaling ladders used were reported to have cracked under the weight of the attacking force. The siege was given up due to the fatal error of underestimating Aden’s strength and not deigning to complete a military survey of the region. D’ Albuquerque is known to have later made the following dry comment: "I think that if I had reconnoitred Aden first, I would not have launched our attack where I did”. [2] 

By the time Dom Manuel I, tasked d’ Albuquerque with securing control over the Red Sea by seizing Aden, Portugal was a new firebrand power in the wider arena of the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese had impressively been the first navigators by 1513 to find a direct sea passage from Europe to India under the expertise of Vasco da Gama and in time took control of prized locations in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea like Kilwa (in modern Tanzania), Sofala (in modern Mozambique), Cochin or Kochi (Kerala, India), Malacca (Malaysia), Hormuz Island and Goa in 1510 which incredibly, Portugal retained until 1961. Further key positions were acquired in north western India: Diu, Daman, Mumbai, Vasai and Salsette by 1535. [3] The Portuguese held Aden in high regard, calling her a “noble place” [4] and held that:

…there were four things whose possession by the Portuguese must be made very strong and very sure: Aden, in order to have dominion over the straits of Mecca [the Red Sea]; Hormuz so as to have supreme rule over the straits of Basra [the Persian Gulf]; and Diu and Goa, for the sovereignty of all the other districts of India. [5]

Command of the Red Sea however, eluded Portuguese ambition and completion of their Indian Ocean project led them to what linguist Sir Edward Dennison Ross (who mastered forty nine languages, including Arabic) called “one of the most romantic episodes in the history of Portuguese adventure”. [6] A spirited Portuguese account of the attack by the famed Joao de Barros (who is compared to the great Roman historian, Livy), provides animating intricate detail not found in other sources. His account in “Decades of Asia, Volume II”, informs that prior to any hostilities the Commander of Aden at the time (Mir Mirjan or Amir Mirzan), an Ethiopian Christian by birth who accepted Islam, was asked by d’ Albuquerque on board his ship in Aden’s harbour to verbally accept the suzerainty of Portugal over Aden. It was upon the refusal of Mir Mirjan to cede control of Aden that d’ Albuquerque’s combined force of two thousand seven hundred soldiers (from Portugal and from India’s Malabar coast) and twenty ships pitted their strength against Aden’s daunting city wall. According to de Barros the zeal of d’ Albuquerque’s forces led to the error in rushing to scale the wall too quickly under which the ladders broke from the excess of weight placed on them. The crusading forces are reported to have cried out repeatedly, “To the wall”! One of the Portuguese captains, Garcia de Sousa, who had reached a turret and entered into Aden city chose to die rather than use a rope to escape the counter attack of Mir Mirjan’s own forces which he considered to be humiliating. Four hours of solid fighting saw an Adenese victory and d’ Albuquerque withdrew to Kamaran, an island adjacent to North Yemen. [7] In Kamaran, up to five hundred of his forces died of blood clogging in the chest, overwork and poor food. It was also in Kamaran that d’ Albuquerque claimed to have a vision “over the lands of Prester John [a fictitious Nestorian Christian priest-king who ruled over either India or Central Asia or Ethiopia whose legend had been created in 12th century Germany and Syria] [8] …a sign in the heavens in the shape of a cross, shining brightly…”. [9] 

This exotic detail about d’ Albuquerque’s mindset and those of his troops who are said to have genuflected and cried upon seeing the above mentioned vision underscores what (partly) drove Imperial Portuguese policy towards the attempt to capture Aden; spreading the messages of the four canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament. [10] Alongside what might be called conventional triggers for conflict (control of resources) the Portuguese had a fixation with making their version of Christianity (Catholicism) dominant in the Arabian peninsula and wider Red Sea area. Dom Manuel I is known to have wanted to destroy the holy sites in Mecca and Madina. Prior to the siege in Aden in 1513, the Portuguese had renamed a mosque in Socotra, Nossa Senhora da Vitoria (Our Lady of the Victory) and even named the Yemeni island of Perim/Mayyun in Bab El Mandeb, Vera Cruz (True Cross). [11] According to historian Roger Crowley, Dom Manuel I had a deep religious reason for encroaching on the Red Sea that he disclosed only to d’ Albuquerque and a tiny handful of indoctrinated others. It was a belief in eschatology: the triumph of a Christian king in the Red Sea would end the supremacy of Islam in the area and Jerusalem would in turn come under Christian control. With the end of one age and the beginning of another, Dom Manuel I would be celebrated as the “king of kings”. [12] Despite the fact that Prester John did not and had never existed, d’ Albuquerque’s reports to Dom Manuel I indicated he was absolutely convinced he was a real political figure in Ethiopia and would support Imperial Portugal to Christianize the Red Sea. [13] The reaction from the Islamic world to the Portuguese attempt to capture Aden strongly suggests it was perceived as religious warfare: the sheikh of Aden sent urgent news of the siege to Jeddah and Mecca and from there the news was also dispatched to Cairo. The Mamluk sultan (Qansuh al Ghawri r.1501 - 1517) commanded that supplications were made at mosques in Cairo on Fridays to avert an impending disaster: the destruction of Mecca and Portuguese entry into Cairo. [14] Interestingly, prior to the 1513 attack on Aden, Portuguese victories (Socotra, Hormuz, Muscat) provoked al Ghawri to send an envoy to the Catholic Pope in Rome (Pope Julius II) with a message that unless Dom Manuel I was persuaded by the Pope to abstain from his imperial project the Christian holy places would be destroyed in Palestine and his Christian subjects would be persecuted. [15] Perhaps seizure of Aden had been part of a megalomaniacal masterplan for Portugal to achieve Dom Manuel I’s dream; that he be king of the sea and king of Christendom or perhaps it was partly borne of a real fear to protect Christian interests. In a letter, d' Albuquerque wrote to Dom Manuel I: “It is no small service that you will perform for Our Lord in destroying the seat of perdition and all their depravity”. [16]

Imperial Portuguese naval operation in the opening decades of the 16th century C.E. took place on a veritable high sea theatre! There were intense rivalries and alliances, episodes of extreme savagery and dizzying exchanges of power. The key players were: the Portuguese themselves as represented primarily by Dom Manuel I, the ethnic Circassian Mamluk Sultanate which covered Egypt, the Levant and the west coast of modern Saudi Arabia (the Hejaz) as represented by Qansuh al Ghawri, the Republic of Venice as represented by Leonardo Loredan who was the Doge (Duke) of Venice, the Kingdom of Calicut or Kozhikode in the modern day Indian state of Kerala as represented by Samoothiri Raja, the Gujarat Sultanate as represented by Shams ud Din Muzaffar Shah II, the Ottomans as represented by Selim I, Safavid Persia as represented by Ismail I, the Ethiopian Empire as represented by Dawit II, finally the Tahirid Sultanate an Arab dynasty that hailed from Al-Dhalea and who controlled Aden at the time as represented by Az-Zafir Amir II bin Abd al-Wahhab. The main alliance in the anti-Portuguese coalition was between the Mamluks and the Venetians whilst the Portuguese attempted to cement a pact with Safavid Persia in order to have access to land based forces it could use against the Mamluks and Ottomans. Shah Ismail I was offered military assistance by d’ Albuquerque in “gaining lordship of the city of Cairo” and the infliction of “troublous injuries” on “the Turk”. [17] The Portuguese further worked with Christian Ethiopia diplomatically, militarily, on an intelligence as well as logistical basis and they pursued religious projects there (missions). At one point four hundred Portuguese men settled in Ethiopia which eventually created an Ethio-Portuguese community of three thousand. [18] There is even a story of forty Portuguese mercenaries who converted to Islam and settled in Aden though this was much after the 1513 attack, in 1530. [19]
How violent was the 1513 attack on Aden and how violent the Adeni response? A contemporary letter shows the prevailing Portuguese attitude to the inhabitants of Aden whom they referred to as Moors: “For the Moors of that land would not pay tribute in consequence of philosophical arguments, but only after much blood had been spilt among them”. [20] The record shows that as well as Amir Mirzan refusing to immediately accept Portuguese sovereignty over Aden (mentioned above) he offered somewhat naively to discuss the matter of the arrival of the twenty Portuguese sails in Aden with d’ Albuquerque in person. This was despite the fact d’ Albuquerque had just informed that the armed Portugal naval force was in the Red Sea with the onward intention of sailing to Jeddah and Suez to decimate the Mamluk fleet. Amir Mirzan’s offer of talks in the face of this information was itself immediately refused by d’ Albuquerque. The Portuguese array of weapons and accoutrements included battering rams, crowbars, spades, pickaxes, muskets, canon and gunpowder. [21] The Portuguese also burnt a significant number of merchant ships at Aden’s harbour. [22] A hole was blasted into Aden’s city wall by the Portuguese but the haphazard attack saw the Tahirid troops easily gain the upper hand. They projected rocks, arrows and spears at the Portuguese and Malabar soldiers. Many of the attacking force were seriously injured due to the ladders used for the escalade, collapsing under the weight of too many fidalgos (Portuguese noblemen), who desperate to prove their valour, caused a bottleneck on the ladders which were too short. A mere gruesome detail about the Tahirid response indicates the level of violence used: “a row of [Portuguese] heads was soon being brandished on spears from the vanquished tower”. [23] The behaviour of the Portuguese after the failed attack on Aden in 1513 may reveal how brutally they may have behaved in Aden if they had been ultimately victorious or if they were able to inflict more injuries during the attack itself instead of being forced to retreat. Indeed stories of Portuguese ruthlessness in the Red Sea vicinity after 1513 have been passed down as proof of their infamy. The writer recalls being informed as a child that the Portuguese were infamous for hacking off the noses, hands and ears of their enemies as well as the sorry victims being displayed, so none could be in doubt of the raw potency of the Portuguese Empire, something the historical record attests to. [24]
D' Albuquerque died of dysentery on 15 December 1515 onboard the Frol da Rosa in the waters around Goa. There had been every intention on the part of d’ Albuquerque to bombard Aden again in January 1514 but he was frustrated by a dearth of seaworthy ships and distracted by a need to bring Hormuz properly under Portuguese control before Aden could be confronted again. Historians broadly agree that Portuguese imperial policy was poorly conceived [25] and the inability to seize Aden made it impossible to cripple the Mamluk Sultanate via a trade monopoly of spices. In common with Constantine I of the Byzantine Empire, d’ Albuquerque as noted above, experienced a vision of a shining cross in the sky. Constantine I is said to have seen a vision in 312 C.E. of a flaming cross also in the sky inscribed with the words in hoc signo vinces (by this sign conquer). [27] Constantine I went on to defeat Maxentius in the same year for control over the Western Roman Empire but for Portugal there was to be no miraculous realization of the complete mastery of the Indian Ocean that it wished for. In time the Ottomans became the next global maritime power and they too were delirious with thoughts of conquering Aden and Yemen:

At the moment the Yemen has no lord—an empty province. It deserves to be a fine sanjak. It would be easy and possible to conquer. Should it be conquered, it would be possible to master the lands of India and send every year a great amount of gold and jewels to Istanbul.... [28]

London-based history writer


[1] Crowley, Roger, Conquerors: How Portugal forged the first global empire, Faber & Faber Ltd, London, 2015, p. 369. 

[2] Op. cit., pp.373-373. 

[3] Moner, Andreu Martínez d’Alòs, Conquistadores, Mercenaries, and Missionaries: The Failed Portuguese Dominion of the Red Sea, Northeast African Studies 12, no. 1, 2012, p. 2,

[4] Peters, Francis Edward, Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, Kindle Edition, p. 182.  

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ross, E. Denison, The Portuguese in India and Arabia between 1507 and 1517, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 4, 1921, p. 553.

[7] Op. cit., pp. 554-556


[9] Crowley, Op. cit., p. 375.

[10] Moner, Op. cit., p. 2. 

[11] Ibid., pp. 3-5.

[12] Crowley, Op. cit., p. 366.  

[13] Ibid., p. 377.

[14] Ibid., p. 378. 

[15] Peters, Op. cit., p. 176.  

[16] Crowley, Op. cit., p. 380.  

[17] Brummett, Palmira Johnson, Ottoman seapower and Levantine diplomacy in the age of discovery, State University of New York Press, USA, 1994, p. 45.

[18] Moner, Op. cit., p. 14. 

[19] Newitt, Mayln, A history of Portuguese overseas expansion, 1400 – 1668, Routledge, Oxon, 2005, Kindle Edition.  

[20] Peters, Op. cit., p. 181.

[21] Crowley, Op. cit., p. 368.  

[22] Brummett, Op. cit., p. 118.  

[23] Crowley, Op. cit., p. 372.  

[24] Ibid., p. 374.

[25] Moner, Op. cit., p. 16.  

[26] Newitt, Op. cit.

[27] Grant, R. G, The History Book, Penguin Random House, London, 2016, p. 122.  

[28] Peters, Op. cit., p. 217.

South YemenAdenMamluksOttomansChristianityArabPortugal