The Portuguese Soldier Who Saved Kochi - Storytrails
Every sight has a story to tell

The Portuguese Soldier Who Saved Kochi

Most people believe Vasco da Gama to be the founder of Portuguese power in India. But did you know that there was another Portuguese captain who had a major role to play in India’s colonial history?

Around 1497-98, the king of Calicut (in India’s south-western coast) was a key player in the world spice trade. His honorific title was “Samuthiri” (or Zamorin). The Portuguese sent their envoy, Vasco da Gama, to win trading concessions from him. But Vasco messed up and ended up completely antagonising the Zamorin. The desperate Portuguese sent another envoy to Samuthiri’s rival, the king of Kochi (formerly called Cochin) in 1500 and a trade-cum-military pact was signed. Naturally, the Zamorin was not pleased. 

Kerala Coast, year 1500
Cities along the Kerala coast circa 1500 CE

The Portuguese armada returned home in 150, and Kochi was vulnerable to attacks till the next Portuguese armada arrived. The Zamorin chose this moment to attack Kochi with 60,000 soldiers and 250 naval boats. The Kochi king had only 5,000 soldiers and the Portuguese reserve force was only made up of 200 men and five naval vessels under Captain-Major Duarte Pacheco Pereira. The situation seemed hopeless, yet Pacheco convinced Kochi to stand fast! 

Pacheco was not a mere soldier but a remarkable scholar and strategist: he had been the Portuguese court geographer, and a cartographer who had studied astronomy and oceanography. His scientific journals covered the lunar effect on tides, the ability of chimpanzees to build hand tools and other such exotic subjects! According to some historians, he landed in Brazil before Pedro Alvares Cabral (the official discoverer of Brazil) did! But could a scholarly expert defeat brute military superiority?

Portuguese sailor Duarte Pacheco Pereira
Portuguese sailor Duarte Pacheco Pereira

Pacheco guessed that the Zamorin’s huge army would pass through a narrow riverine pass called Kumbalam to reach Kochi; in that narrow pass they would be extremely vulnerable. Pacheco’s men took hidden positions and waited there. As the Zamorin’s men arrived, Portuguese snipers effortlessly killed 1,300 enemy soldiers.  

Pacheco realised that the Zamorin’s state-of-the-art Italian field-guns had a deadly range and accuracy; so, he ordered his snipers to ceaselessly fire at the artillery crew, never allowing them to settle down. By the time the Calicut artillery finally organised itself, Pacheco had already invented another new tactic.

In a crucial naval battle, all Portuguese guns suddenly went silent. The Zamorin’s commanders assumed that Pacheco had run out of ammunition, and closed in to “finish off” the Portuguese ships. They had actually fallen for a trick: when they approached point-blank range, the Portuguese gunners went ballistic and blew up most of the Calicut navy. No Italian technology could save them. 

Kochi is surrounded by creeks and inlets. Pacheco had mapped the tides and currents at all fords and creeks, and knew how best to defend these spots. This meant that Pacheco’s tiny but agile force could cause devastating damage via guerrilla attacks on the widely spread opposing army. Size had become irrelevant! 

Between March and July 1504, Pacheco used his local geography-oceanography knowledge to play mind games and demoralise the enemy. Then, the monsoons arrived and an epidemic of cholera erupted in the Zamorin’s camp. By now, he had lost nearly 20,000 men — 13,000 to cholera alone. This was too much for the king; he abdicated his throne in favour of his nephew and turned to religion. When the Portuguese armada returned in August, they found Kochi happily celebrating their victory!

The Siege of Kochi altered Indian power equations forever. The Zamorin ceased to be the game-changer of pepper trade, and Kochi became a new power player. Most importantly, the Portuguese became a feared colonial power.

After his heroics in Kochi, Pacheco returned to Lisbon. The king of Kochi gave him an emotional farewell and King Manuel I of Portugal conferred an honour on him. He later became the governor of a Portuguese colony in the Gold Coast (Ghana). However, his success brought the wrath of powerful enemies in Lisbon upon him. These jealous nobles foisted false charges of corruption on him and he was dismissed. His original sponsor, King Manuel I, had died and the new king did not realise Pacheco’s value.  Although he was proved innocent some years later, Pacheco had lost all his power and wealth by then and died in obscurity.  

A Story by


  1. Duarte Pacheco’s victory at the Battle of Cochin (1504) – National Library of Portugal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons <>
  2. Cities Along the Kerala coast circa 1500 – Walrasiad, CC BY-SA 3.0 < BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons <>
  3. Portuguese sailor Duarte Pacheco Pereira – National Library of Portugal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons <>



You might also be interested in

His face can be seen on Portuguese bank notes. There are gardens in Lisbon and in Goa that are named after him. He wrote one of the first books printed in India. And yet, his body was actually dug up and burned in a posthumous public denouncement. This is the story of Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese physician who fled to India.
Centuries before the anti-colonial resistance in India, Rani Abbakka Chowta fought valiantly against Portuguese colonisation. As the queen of Ullal, she resisted the Portuguese navy's oppressive tactics, forged alliances, led a guerrilla army, and even eliminated their admiral. The tales of Abbakka's bravery live on in folklore and performing arts. Read on to know more about one of India's first female freedom fighters.
It was because of the system of matrilineal succession in Kerala that Sethu Lakshmi Bayi became the queen, even though she wasn’t born into the ruling dynasty. But as fate would have it, she was the one who paved the way for the end of the practice. This is the fascinating story of one of the most dynamic rulers of the Travancore kingdom.
The ancient town of Muziris in southern India attracted traders from all around the world as far back as the first century BCE. Traders from Rome came with gold and left with something they considered even more precious – black pepper. The port thrived until a catastrophic flood wiped out all traces of it in the 1300s. For many years after, Muziris remained shrouded in mystery until recent excavations revealed some of its fascinating history.
How did a German missionary preach to the locals who spoke neither Danish nor German in the Danish colony of Tranquebar? He learnt Tamil, of course. And he became so proficient at it that he translated the Bible into Tamil. This is the story of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, the man who published the first ever translation of the Bible in an Indian language.