Some notes on the Portuguese and Frankish pirates during the Mamluk period (872-922AH./1468-1517AD.)
By Wan Kamal Mujani
Journal of General Studies, Vol.8 (2007)
Introduction: In Islamic history the word ‘Mamluk’ means a slave, more specifically a white slave, used in the military establishment. In the Ayyubid kingdom, the Mamluks served in the armies and later took the throne and appointed themselves as the sultans. For more than two hundred and fifty years they ruled Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. The era of Mamluk rule can be divided into two periods. The first is from 648AH./1250AD. until 783AH./1381AD. and is known as the ‘Turkish Mamluk’ period. The second period covers 784AH./1382AD. to 922AH./ 1517AD. and is known as the ‘Circassian Mamluk’ period. It is widely accepted among historians that the Mamluk kingdom reached its zenith under the Turkish sultans and then fell into a prolonged phase of deterioration under the Circassians.
Between 872AH./1468AD. and 922AH./1517AD., the period under consideration, seven individuals were installed as sultans. Two of them (al- Ashraf Qaytbay and Qansuh al-Ghawri) ruled for a combined total of fourty-four years while the remaining five (al-Nasir Muhammad, al-Zahir Qansuh, al- Ashraf Janbalat, al-‘Adil Tumanbay and al-Ashraf Tumanbay) reigned for a total of only five years. Indeed, there was a good deal of political turmoil during the reign of the latter five sultans. Even under the rule of the two longest reigning sultans, there were internal and external problems.
The Mamluk regime encountered multiple challenges from sea-based competitors who heightened their encroachments and undermined the economy of Egypt. One of these opponents was the Portuguese who arrived in the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century as the first western power to contest the Mamluk monopoly of the spice trade. The Mamluks recognised the immediate effects of this threat and tried vainly to avert the Portuguese menace. The Portuguese navigators disturbed the flow of spices from Calicut to Egypt and looted the fleets of merchants bound for the Red Sea. They disrupted business contacts between India and the Far Eastern countries and the Mamluk territories, Egypt, Syria and Arabia.
These events weakened the role of Egypt as the middleman in the spice trade between the East and the West and the sultanate was deprived of an indispensable source of revenue, a condition which further undermined its economy. Indeed, the Portuguese incursion not only posed a serious threat to Mamluk trade but also caused a rise in the cost of protecting that trade.