Sunday, 20 December 2015

Albuquerque on Lances vs War Elephants

       I'm reading Thomas Trautmann's new-ish book on war elephants, Elephants and Kings, on my Kindle. It's a brilliant book, full of well-written and totally reasonable analysis of historical texts, and I find Trautmann's fundamental thesis - that war elephants were 'invented' in Iron Age India alongside the institution of kingship - convincing. I think he's also right to see the use of war elephants in Southeast Asia and Africa/Europe as derivative of Indian practice. It also has worthwhile digressions on the history of chess and the Buddha's flight from his home. My readers would probably get a lot out of it.

      Anyway, reading about elephants in war reminded me of a great passage from Albuquerque's Commentaries. The context for the piece is the first Portuguese assault on Melaka on the morning of the feast of St James (the 25th of July), 1511. Albuquerque's men attacked the mosque and a bridge leading to the city which had been fortified by the Melakan soldiers. According to the account, the king of Melaka rode out on an elephant to help defend his city. Here's the piece:
     D. João de Lima e os outros que eram na sua companhia, vendo, depois de estarem nas estâncias, que o rei se ia recolhendo por uma ladeira arriba, foram-no seguindo e pelejando sempre com os mouros. O rei e o filho, que iam em cima de seus elefantes, vendo-se apressados dos nossos, fizeram volta com dois mil homens que levavam em sua companhia. Os capitães os esperaram na boca de uma rua, e com muito esforço e boa determinação puseram as lanças nos elefantes, que vinham na dianteira, e dizem que Fernão Gomes de Lemos foi o primeiro. E como os elefantes sofrem mal serem feridos, volveram o rosto atrás, e deram pelos mouros, e puseram-nos em desbarato. O elefante em que o rei ia com a dor da morte tomou o negro que o mandava com a tromba, e dando grandes urros, o fez em pedaços, e o rei se lançou fora dele, já ferido em uma mão, e por não ser conhecido se salvou; e ele, e seu filho, e o rei de Pão, seu genro, que era vindo a Malaca havia poucos dias para casar com uma sua filha, se recolheram para o cabo da cidade.
       Earle and Villiers (1990) translate it like this:
 'When they had got back there [to the barricades], Dom João de Lima and the others in his company saw that the king was retreating by a slope above them. They went in pursuit of him, fighting the Moslems all the way. The king and his son, who were seated on the backs of their elephants, seeing our men coming after them, turned back with the two thousand men who formed their company. The captains awaited them at the entrance to a street and with all their strength and courage thrust their lances at the leading elephants. Fernão Gomes de Lemos is said to have been the first to throw his lance. Elephants cannot well endure wounds and so they turned tail and bore down on the Moslims, throwing them into confusion. In its death agony the elephant on which the king was mounted took its Malay mahout in its trunk and, trumpeting loudly, dashed him to pieces. The king, already wounded in his hand, threw himself clear and, as nobody recognised him, escaped. He, his son and his son-in-law, the king of Pahang, who had come to Malacca a few days before to marry the king's daughter, withdrew to the edge of the city.'
      In showing the elephant as the mount (vāhana) of the king, this passage corroborates Trautmann's point about elephants and kings. It's interesting, though, that Albuquerque doesn't mention cavalry - he only talks about men and elephants. In that sense Melaka's mercenary army doesn't appear to have followed the Indian tradition of a three-fold army of infantry, horses, and elephants (let alone the early four-fold army, caturaga, of infantry, cavalry, chariots, and elephants). Perhaps this absence explains the success of the Portuguese in taking on elephants with as simple an implement as the javelin (David Nicolle believed that the weapon referred to was a pike, but I think he's mistaken, given that the weapon was thrown (Nicolle 2012:40)).

     Not that I'm dismissing the javelin as a tool of war in the sixteenth century; it was clearly successful and had a long vintage in Iberia, evidently going back to pre-Roman times. The tactic of wounding an elephant enough to panic it goes back a long way, as well - we learn from the Roman historians that war elephants could easily go berserk and kill soldiers on their own side. Injuring or severing the trunk was apparently a good way to achieve this.

      Anyway, I'll definitely put something up soon about war elephants in Southeast Asia (particularly in Java). In the meantime, though, I'd recommend Trautmann's book, whether you're interested in warfare, environmental history, or the ancient world between North Africa and Java - or copious other topics that Trautmann touches on in his superb analysis.


Earle, T. F. & Villiers, J. 1990. Albuquerque. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.

Nicolle, D. 2012. The Portuguese in the age of discovery, c.1340-1665. Osprey.

Trautmann, T. 2015. Elephants and kings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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