The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today. Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.
At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south. It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.
The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy. It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.
It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.
Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean. Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.
With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived. In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population. A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.
Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels. This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power. Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.
There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida. Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.
The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many. Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change. The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.
Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself. Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.
Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.
Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire