• The landing of Vasco da Gama at Calicut on Malabar coast in 1498 with three ships, guided by a Gujarati pilot, Abdul Majid, is generally regarded as the beginning of a new era in world history, especially in the relationship between Asia and Europe.

Objectives of finding Sea Route:

  •  Although Asia and Europe had been in commercial relations with each other since antiquity, the opening of direct sea-relations between the Asia and Europe was not only the fulfilment of an old dream—according to the Greek historian, Herodotus, the Phoenicians had rounded Africa in the 6th century BC, it presaged big increase of trade between the two. This, however, was only one of the objectives of the Portuguese. For the Portuguese, the opening of a sea-route to India would give a big blow to the Muslims—the Arabs and Turks, who were the traditional enemies of Christianity, and were posing a new threat to Europe by virtue of the growing military and naval power of the Turks. A direct sea-link with India would displace the virtual monopoly of the Arabs and Turks over the trade in eastern goods, especially spices. They also vaguely hoped that by their exploration of Africa they would be able to link up with the kingdom of the legendary prior John, and be in a position to attack the Muslims from two sides. Thus, the commercial and religious objectives supported and justified each other.
  • Previous attempts: A search for a sea route to India had been attempted in post-Roman times by Genoa. In 1291, a Genoese, Ugolino di Vivaldo, had set out with two galleys to find his way to India by the ocean route, but was never heard of. Subsequently, the lead in this search was taken by Portugal. From 1418, Dom Henrique, the ruler of Portugal, called Henry the Navigator, sent two to three ships every year for the exploration of the West Coast of Africa. The occupation of Africa upto the mouth of the river Congo between 1443 and 1482 gained Portugal trade in ivory, slaves, and gold dust, and whetted their appetite. The rounding of the southern tip of Africa in 1487 by Megallan opened the sea-route to India. But it was another ten years before it was taken up by Vasco da Gama. (
  • Arab and Turks didn’t hinder trade: While the Europeans had their own objectives, their seeking a direct sea-route to India was not because the Arabs and Turks hindered in any way the trade of eastern good to Europe or were charging excessive taxes. In fact, with the rise of Islam, the Arabs had emerged as the principal traders of the world, especially in the field of long distance trade. Their merchants, sailors and geographers linked even more closely than before the sea-trade between the Mediterranean and Asia, and in Asia between West Asia, India, East Africa, South-East Asia and China. Nor were the Turks allergic to trade. The trade from the Orient flowed from the Persian Gulf via Hormuz and Basra to the Levant, and from the Red Sea via Jeddah to Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt. There were also land-routes leading to Black Sea ports. The custom duties levied on these goods was a rich source of profit to the Arab and Turkish rulers, and they had every reason to protect and cherish this trade.                     Despite the Pope banning trade with the heathens, i.e. Muslims, Genoese and Venetian merchants were active in the trade in oriental goods. In fact, the Venetian merchants had a virtual monopoly of buying the oriental goods in Egypt and the Levant, and distributing them all over Europe. Though the Venetians and the Turks fought long and bitter naval battles, neither side pushed it to a level which might harm their mutual trade. They were hence considered “complementary enemies”.
  • Genoese Interest: The principal rivals of the Venetians in Europe were the Genoese. The Genoese were also active in distributing oriental goods in Europe, but had been side-lined by the Venetians. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 was a big blow to the Genoese because the Black Sea ports, their principal mart for oriental goods, were gradually closed to them. This, and their old rivalry with Venice were the main factors which led Genoa to help Portugal and Spain with ships, money and nautical skills in searching for a sea -route to India.Christopher Columbus who ‘discovered’ America (or re -discovered, because the Norsemen had reached there earlier, as also the Red Indians) in 1492 in his effort to find a sea-route to India was a Genoese.
  • Interest in the search for a sea-route to India was spurred also by the Renaissance which challenged rooted modes of thought, and created a new spirit of daring. At its background was the economic growth of Europe from the 11th century. With growing prosperity and growth, the dietary habits of the Europeans had also changed, with more meat being consumed. Much of the cattle in Europe had to be killed during winter due to shortage of fodder, and the meat salted away. Oriental spices were even more in demand in order to make the salted meat more palatable.
  • Growing interest in oriental trade was shown by the arrival of many Genoese traders in the Indian Ocean from the thirteenth century onwards. The names of the Venetians, Nicolo Conti and Barbosa, of the Russian Nikitin are only a few among the many others who travelled on the Indian Ocean, and reached India during this period.
  • The Pope also showed his growing interest in the search for a sea-route to India when in 1453, he issued a Bull granting Portugal “in perpetuity” whichever lands it “discovered” beyond the Cape in Africa upto India, on condition of converting the “heathens” of those lands to Christianity.

(1) The Asian Oceanic Trade Network before the Coming of the Portuguese

  • In order to understand the impact of the Portuguese on Indian and Asian trade and economy, a brief review of the nature, structure and working of the Asian oceanic trade net work before the coming of the Portuguese is necessary.
  • There was no basic difference in the internal structure of trade and commerce between Asia and Europe before the rise of industrial capitalism in the west. Thus, both European and Asian merchants sought exclusive information about the markets they operated in. The bigger traders in Asia were remarkably flexible in their approach. They were prepared to trade in any commodity which was anticipated to yield a good profit. There was, thus, much less specialisation than in the modern times.
  • There was, however, a clear distinction between wholesale traders and retailers. The big merchants who were the most active in emporia or long distance trade, could be active both in domestic and foreign trade. They could also be bankers, money-lenders and insurance agents. Some of them had their own ships, although the carrying of goods, both over-land and over-seas, was also a specialised vocation. (
  • definite pattern of trade between different regions and ports had developed, as a result of wind movements, ocean currents, and distances. Thus, journeys originating in the Red Sea, or the Persian Gulf ports did not generally go beyond Gujarat, or the Malabar ports. Goods for south-east Asian ports were shipped from Gujarat, Malabar or the Coromondal. Chinese traders, and Chinese junks, or ocean going ships had earlier come to Malabar. But following a ban on foreign trade by the Ming rulers in the fifteenth century, Chinese traders did not go beyond the south-east Asian states.
  • The captaincy of ships over these vast distances needed nautical skills and experience for which the Asian sailors—Arabs, Indians, Malays and Chinese were not wanting. The captains (nakhudas) of ships were highly esteemed. They commanded good wages, and also had a part interest in the goods they were carrying.(
  • The ships also contained many small traders, to whom the word peddler can be applied.The big traders, however, did not fall in this category. Apparently, they stayed at their base of operations. In their working, Asian merchants, like Europeans, drew upon family connections, as also on associations based on community of interest, region etc. Thus, we hear of the association of merchants called Karimi, located at Aden in the Yemen, whose activities extended upto China. Burmese merchants also had their own trade associations, as also the Indians. Thus, Maniraman was an association of South Indian merchants which remained active in domestic and foreign trade for a long time.
  • we hear of rich merchant in Asia, such as the Iranian, Ramist, who around 1100 AD organised commercial activity extending from Aden to India and to China; of Gamel-al-Din Ibrahim Tibe who in the thirteenth century organised a fleet of one hundred ships which travelled to South India and the Far East. The names of Vastupal and Tejpal in Gujarat are well-known. There were also very rich Chetti merchants in Tamilnadu, in Bengal and the Maraccars in Malabar.  Considering that the Asian trade at the times was much bigger than the European trade surprising that some of the richest merchants were to be found in Asia at the time. Yet, for a long time, the Asian traders were indiscriminately called peddlers by some European scholars.
  • However, it is not these merchant-princes who mattered. What mattered was the size and range of the trading communities in Asia, the multiplicity of their activities, their undoubted entrepreneurial skills, and the financial and shipping resources which they disposed of. Also, unlike many of the European traders, the Asian traders did not depend upon their states for political or military support.
  • A second misnomer was the concept that the oriental trade consisted only of “the great and the trifling,” i.e. luxury goods. This may have been largely true for trade with Europe which imported in the main, silk and jade from China, spices from the Spice Islands and India, and some types of cloth from the Middle East. But in the Indian Ocean region, the items exchanged included the basic necessities of life, such as salt, sugar, grains and clothing, in addition to luxury items such as spices, horses, silk, Chinese porcelain, incense, ivory, glass, jewellery and finely cut precious stones, slaves etc.
  • Trade in the necessities of life was necessary because in areas such as the south-east Asian Islands, rice production was very limited, as also clothing. Salt, sugar and food-grains were needed in the Middle East. Also, pre-modern merchant ships could not have operated without low value bulk cargo which could serve as ballast (Ballast is material that is used to provide stability to a vehicle or structure. Ballast, other than cargo, may be placed in a vehicle, often a ship ).Thus, goods brought to India or China included heavy cargoes, such as dates, sugar, building material, and timber. 
  • Climate and geography also dictated the movement of goods, and the direction of trade. Thus, ships from the Middle East reached the Indian sea ports before the arrival of the monsoon. The goods were transhipped there, and carried in different bottoms to the southeast Asian countries or China. Malacca was also another point of transhipment.
  • While the Chinese did not go beyond Java-Sumatra, the Arabs and Indians traded right upto China. Thus, both the range of trade, and the bulk of the goods carried was impressive for the pre-modern world.
  • A third misnomer is that Asian ships could not carry out long distance voyages across open seas because their ships were frail, and Asians lacked the necessary nautical techniques.     But It were the Indians who had started the open sea voyage from Gujarat to Aden, and across the Indian Ocean to South-East Asia and to east Africa. Thus, when Vasco da Gama sailed for Calicut from Malindi in East Africa, he found four Indian ships there. The Portuguese Covilhan, travelling on Arab ships, had covered the itinerary which was later followed by Vasco da Gama. It has been shown that even frail boats could sail on the open seas, from the Malay peninsula to the Mauritius on the basis of ocean currents.
  • Sewed and Nailed ship: Much has been made of the Indian tradition of sewing ships instead of nailing them. According to the Arab geographers, the nailing of ships began in the region of the Persian Gulf region in the 10th century. However, sewn ships continued to be used because these had greater flexibility than nailed ships, and could be repaired more easily. This was an advantage in the shallow waters and swift currents of the Persian Gulf region. That both sewn and nailed ships were in operation in the Indian waters was noted by the Portuguese, Gaspar Correa, writing in the early part of the sixteenth century. He says that the sewn ships “remain as secure as if they were nailed.
  • Nor were these ships small in size. By the time the Portuguese came, the boats plying in the region were from 350 to 400 tonnes which was heavy tonnage for the time, and had several masts. Although the Chinese junks which were several storeyes high were the most advanced in ship construction at the time, the type of ship used in the Indian waters was the Arab boom. Since timber for ships was not available in Arabia or Persia, most of these ships were generally built in the Gujarat or the Malabar region. Thus, Indian and Arab ship building traditions had mutually influenced each other, and their trading ships were not inferior to the European.
  • Regarding nautical techniques, the Chinese had a mariner’s compass since the 10th century, but it was not widely used. Arab and Indian sailors fixed their position on the open sea with the help of stars, using the azimuthal sidereal-rose (compass card or kamal). However, the mariners compass was of great use for sailing over unchartered waters.
  • The traders who actively participated in the sea-borne sea-trade of Asia followed well established conventions which had developed in course of time. The traders were not only Arabs and Iranians but Jews, Armenians and even Genoese. Apart from Gujaratis and Tamil Chettis, the Javanese were also active in the sea trade. The life and property of these traders were protected by the rulers, and certain well defined commercial laws were observed. Custom duties were generally kept within limits. While the conventions were violated sometimes, such violation would harm the concerned state since trade was highly competitive, and in the situation, traders would move away to another port.(
  • According to convention, the rulers, while taxing trade, did not try to dominate the seas, or protect or expand their trade by armed intervention on land or sea, though while conducting military operations on land, they were not forgetful of commercial advantages.
  • In Asia, the only armaments the ships carried were soldiers and rockets as a safeguard against sea pirates who were active on the coasts of Oman and Malabar, as also in south-east Asia and China. Notable exceptions to this had been the Chola naval expeditions against Java-Sumatra in the 14th century, and Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho’s seven voyages between 1417 and 1433, carrying a large flotilla of ships armed with rockets and thousands of soldiers upto East Africa and Jeddah. While these ships conducted some trade, their primary purpose was of showing the Chinese flag and making the governments of the region more receptive to Chinese trade, influence and culture. But due to domestic reasons, the Chinese discontinued such expeditions and even banned foreign trade. These two examples suggest that under different circumstances, the tradition of trading under the protection of armed ships might have risen in Asia also. But this did not happen.
  • Due to all these factors, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were unusually prosperous in the history of the Indian Ocean. Although by the second half of the 15th century, Chinese traders had withdrawn under the orders of the Chinese Court, and the Karimi merchants of Yemen, as well as the Jews had stopped their operations—perhaps in the face of Arab competition, there was no “commercial vacuum”. Nor was there any Arab monopoly of trade in the western India Ocean, though the Arabs were certainly the richest and the most powerful group of long distance traders in the region.(
  • These factors explain why the Portuguese, who came to Asia for capturing the trade in Asian goods to Europe, stayed behind to capture the trans-Asian trade through use of force.

(2) The Portuguese Estado da India

  • When Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, he was cordially received by the Zamorin, and permitted to trade in spices, and to set up a factory (ware-house) on the coast. The spices carried back by Vasco da Gama were computed at sixty times the cost of the entire expedition.
  • Over the objections of Arab merchants, Gama managed to secure a letter of concession for trading rights from the Zamorin, Calicut’s Hindu ruler. But, the Portuguese were unable to pay the prescribed customs duties and price of his goods in gold.
  • The Portuguese wanted to enforce a monopoly over the spice trade to Europe, and claimed the right of searching the ships of Arab traders. This led to a fight in which the Portuguese living in their factory were massacred. In retaliation, the Portuguese ships bombarded Calicut before they withdrew.(
  • In 1502, Vasco da Gama returned with a fleet of twenty-five vessels, and demanded that the Zamorin should expel all the Muslim merchants settled there, and not to allow any Muslim merchants to land at any of his ports, or to have any trade relations with them. The Zamorin rejected these demands on the ground that the port of Calicut was open to all, and that it would be impossible to prohibit anyone from trade, whether he was a Muslim or not. Gama’s answer was a brutal assault on Calicut. This was followed by establishing a number of forts at Cochin, Quilon etc. to dominate the Malabar trade.
  • What was at issue here were two different philosophies of relationship between trade and the state. The Asian convention was of open trade, with the governments backing and supporting trade but not using their military or naval strength to promote or protect it. This was so even in China where the Court had always exercised close control over foreign trade, and treated items of import as “tribute”. On the other hand, the Mediterranean tradition which the Portuguese brought with them was of a combination of trade with warfare on land and sea. This approach was profoundly upsetting to the Asian traders, as well as to many of the small states of the region, such as Calicut, Cochin, etc. which, like some of the city states of Europe, were heavily dependent on trade, but followed the convention of open trade without the use of military or naval force.
  • On 25 March 1505, Francisco de Almeida was appointed Viceroy of India, on the condition that he would set up four forts on the southwestern Indian coast: at Anjediva Island, Cannanore, Cochin and Quilon.
  • Alarmed at the growing power of the Portuguese, the Sultan of Egypt fitted a fleet and sent it towards India. The fleet was joined by a contingent of ships from the ruler of Gujarat. The Zamorin of Calicut, the rulers of Bijapur and Ahmednagar also lent his support.
  • After an initial victory in which the son of the Portuguese governor, De Almeida, was killed, this combined fleet was routed by the Portuguese in 1509. This naval victory made the Portuguese navy supreme in the Indian Ocean for the time being, and enabled the Portuguese to extend their operations towards the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.(

Afonso de Albuquerque:

  • Shortly afterwards, Albuquerque succeeded as the governor of the Portuguese possessions in the east.
  • He advocated and embarked upon a policy of dominating the entire oriental commerce by setting up forts at various strategic places in Asia and Africa. This was to be supplemented by a strong navy.
  • Defending his philosophy, he wrote “A dominion founded on a navy alone cannot last.” Lacking forts, he argued, “neither will they (the rulers) trade or be on friendly terms with you.”
  • Albuquerque initiated this new policy by capturing Goa from Bijapur in 1510. The island of Goa was an excellent natural harbour and fort. It was strategically located, and from it the Portuguese could command the Malabar trade and watch the policies of the rulers in the Deccan, It was also near enough to the Gujarat seaports for the Portuguese to make their presence felt there. Goa was, thus, suited to be the principal centre of Portuguese commercial and political activity in the east. The Portuguese were also able to extend their possession on the mainland opposite Goa, and to blockade and sack the Bijapuri ports of Danda-Rajouri and Dabhol, thus paralysing Bijapur’s sea-trade on the mainland. They sacked and blockaded the Bijapuri ports of Danda-Rajouri and Dabhol till the Adil Shah came to terms by ceding Goa.(
  • From their base at Goa, the Portuguese further strengthened their position by establishing a fort at Colombo in Sri Lanka, and at Achin in Sumatra, and the Malacca port which controlled the exit and entry to the narrow gulf between the Malay peninsula and Sumatra.
  • The Portuguese also established a station at the island of Socotra at the mouth of the Red Sea, and besieged Aden. Vasco da Gama failed to capture Aden—his only failure in the area. However, he forced the ruler of Ormuz which controlled entry into the Persian Gulf to permit them to establish a fort there.
  • During this period, a major concern of the Portuguese was to bring under control the forts of Diu and Cambay which were the centres of Gujarati trade to the Red Sea. The Portuguese made two attempts in 1520-21 to capture Diu but both were defeated by its governor, Ahmad Ayaz.
  • The Ottomon Turks, under Sulaiman, were passing through the most magnificent period of their history; they were poised to attack Europe, and also to complete their conquests in Asia. In 1529, the Turks besieged Vienna which was saved by the timely intervention of the Poles. Earlier, the Turks had defeated the ruler of Iran in 1514 and then conquered Syria, Egypt and Arabia. This implied an increasing role of the Ottoman Turks in the Indian Ocean.
  • The sultan of Gujarat sent an embassy to the Ottoman ruler congratulating him on his victories, and seeking his support. In return, the Ottoman ruler expressed a desire to combat the infidels, that is the Portuguese, who had disturbed the shores of Arabia. From this time onwards, there was a continuous exchange of embassies and letters between the two countries. After ousting the Portuguese from the Red Sea in 1529, a strong fleet under Sulaiman Rais was despatched to aid Bahadur Shah, the ruler of Gujarat. Bahadur Shah received it well, and two of the Turkish officials, who were given Indian names, were appointed governors of Surat and Diu respectively. Of these two, Rumi Khan was later to earn a great name for himself as a master-gunner.
  • In 1531, after intriguing with local officials, the Portuguese attacked Daman and Diu, but the Ottoman commander, Rumi Khan, repulsed the attack. However, the Portuguese built a fort at Chaul lower down the coast.
  • Before the Gujarat-Turkish alliance could be consolidated, a bigger threat to Gujarat appeared from the side of the Mughals. Humayun attacked Gujarat. In order to meet this threat, Bahadur Shah granted the island of Bassein to the Portuguese. Following the expulsion of the Mughals from Gujarat, he once again appealed to the Ottoman sultan for help and tried to limit the Portuguese encroachments at Diu.
  • However, Bahadur Shah was killed in 1536 in a fracas with the Portuguese. Subsequent efforts to recapture Diu failed.
  • Hence The Portuguese acquired several territories from the Sultans of Gujarat: Daman (occupied 1531, formally ceded 1539); Salsette, Bombay, and Baçaim (occupied 1534); and Diu (ceded 1535).
  • The Turks made their biggest naval demonstration against the Portuguese in Indian waters in 1536.Many of the sailors had been pressed into service from the Venetian galleys at Alexandria. The fleet, commanded by Sulaiman Pasha, an old man of 82, who was the most trusted man of the Sultan and had been appointed the governor of Cairo, appeared before Diu in 1538 and besieged it. Unfortunately, the Turkish admiral behaved in an arrogant manner so that the Sultan of Gujarat withdrew his support. After a siege of two month, the Turkish fleet retired, following news of the arrival of a formidable Portuguese armada to relieve Diu.(
  • The Turkish threat to the Portuguese persisted for another two decades. In 1531, Peri Rais, who was assisted by the Zamorin of Calicut, attacked the Portuguese forts at Muscat and Ormuz.
  • Meanwhile, the Portuguese strengthened their position by securing Daman from its ruler. A final Ottoman expedition was sent under Ali Rais in 1554. The failure of these expeditions resulted in a change in the Turkish attitude. In 1566, the Portuguese and the Ottomans came to an agreement to share the oriental trade, including spices, and not to clash in the Arab seas. Following this, the Ottomans shifted their interest once again to Europe. This precluded a future alliance with the rising Mughal power and the Turks against the Portuguese.

(3) The Portuguese Impact on the Indian Ocean Trade Network

  • The Portuguese ended the era of unarmed open sea- trade in the Indian waters, and gave a big blow to the virtual Muslim monopoly of the trade in the western part of the Indian Ocean, and their trade of eastern goods to Europe.
  • However, the Portuguese effort to push out the Muslims from the trade in oriental goods, and to establish a Portuguese monopoly over the trade in West Asia had only limited success. Thus, by the middle of the sixteenth century, inspite of the large volume of spices brought to Lisbon and marketed in Europe, mainly through Antwerp, the Black Sea ports and the markets of the Levant and Egypt were as well supplied with eastern goods—spices, dyes, and cotton and silk textiles as before.(

Cartaze system and its failure:

  • Right from the beginning, the Portuguese king had declared trade in spices, drugs, dyes including indigo, copper, silver and gold, and arms and ammunition to be royal monopolies. Traders of no other country, whether in Asia or Europe, including Portuguese private traders and royal officials, were permitted to trade in these commodities. Even ships engaged in trade in other commodities had to take a permit or cartaze from Portuguese officials. The Portuguese attempted to force all ships going to Malacca or to East Africa to pass through Goa, and to pay tolls there. Any ship which was suspected of carrying “contraband” or banned goods, or which refused to be searched could be treated as a prize of war, and sunk or captured, and the men and women aboard treated as slaves.
  • The Portuguese soon found that they stood to lose more on land than gain on sea by continuing such practices, because traders who lost on sea put pressure on their governments to retaliate against Portuguese trade in their areas. Also, it was impossible to police the trade along all the lagoons on the coasts in Asia. Sea-pirates preying on Portuguese ships were active in areas such as Oman, Malabar, and South-East Asia, and Portuguese policies brought them greater encouragement and support from traders and small rulers.
  • Hence, the rules regarding giving cartazes to local traders had to be liberalised. This included Muslims traders. Trade in horses which was exclusively in the hands of Muslims, was a highly profitable trade. It was also of great strategic importance to various rulers. The Muslims were also active in trade in many other commodities, such as textile products, glass, aromatics and coffee in which the Portuguese had neither the money nor the ships to engage themselves. Hence, the dictates of trade and profit soon overcame religious prejudices.(
  • The Portuguese were unable to monopolise even the trade in pepper and spices. This was so because, in the first place, the Portuguese private traders were unhappy with the royal attempt to monopolise the trade in these commodities. Royal officials, who received small salaries, were often in league with private traders, Portuguese as well as Arabs, Gujaratis etc. to line their own pockets. In consequence, the cartaze system proved to be both corrupt and leaking like a sieve.
  • The Arab and Gujarati traders in these commodities also found ways and means the get round the Portuguese trade embargo.
  • The Portuguese control over the Indian Ocean waters remained incomplete because of their failure to capture Aden and thereby control entry to the Red Sea. The Turkish conquest of Syria, Egypt and Arabia, and the expansion of their naval power, both in the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, made it difficult for the Portuguese to effectively carry out their blockade of Bab-el-Mendel, the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
  • At the other end of the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese control even on the Spice Islands weakened. The Portuguese had to contend with a naval power there willing to take on their warships. This was the north Sumatra ruler, Sultan Ali Mughayat Shah. Using the traditional Javanese naval skills, he was able to defeat the Portuguese in many naval skirmishes, and to capture large number of guns from the Portuguese to fortify Acheh. He also approached the Ottoman Sultan for military equipment. The Ottomans had a high reputation in the field of casting guns. They supplied bronze guns of a calibre to enable Acheh in north Sumatra to withstand a siege. This enabled Acheh to emerge as a major centre of the export of spices, in competition to Malacca which was under Portuguese control. Arabs and Gujaratis who were well entrenched at Malacca, used Acheh as a centre for export of spices to the Red Sea via the Laccadives, thereby by-passing the Portuguese controlled Malabar waters.
  • Thus, the structure of the Asian trade net-work; the strength and resourcefulness of the Asian merchants, Arabs, Gujaratis, Tamils and others, who had long experience of operating the system; the naval and military strength of Turkey and of the ruler of north Sumatra, and the internal limitations of the Portuguese and of the working of the cartaz system in the Portuguese Empire of India—or the Estado da India—were important factors in limiting the success of the Portuguese.(

Limitation of Portugal:

  • It should be kept in mind that Portugal itself was a small country, and though it had developed rapidly in the field of commerce, its financial resources were limited. Thus, German and Italian merchants and merchant houses became the principal agents for distributing all over Europe the eastern goods brought to Lisbon by the Portuguese.
  • Demand in Asia for European goods which could be exchanged for purchase of pepper and other eastern goods was limited. Hence, precious metals, especially silver had to be exported. But unlike Spain, Portugal did not have the silver mines in America to fall back on, and had to depend heavily on Italian and German financiers.
  • The expectation of the Portuguese king that Portuguese control of the coastal trade of India would pay for the export of pepper and other eastern goods to Europe also remained a misnomer. Hence, the Portuguese trade to Europe remained confined to only twelve to thirteen ships being sent each year from Lisbon to India. However, this picture changed by the end of the 16th century.
  • The share of the private Portuguese traders— mainly New Christians—in the Portuguese trade to Europe rose sharply, amounting to over 90 per cent of the total. The additional cargo consisted mainly of textiles and precious stones. The Portuguese private traders financed this trade by large scale involvement in Asian trade. However, for the Portuguese government the Portuguese enterprise in the western part of the Indian Ocean remained largely a “redistributive enterprise“, i.e. its main source of income was taxing the trade of others rather than expanding trade, or opening up new lines of trade. A real expansion of trade between Europe and the East had to await the coming of the Dutch and the English in the 17th century.

Success in Far East:

  • However, it was in the Far East that the Portuguese had some limited success in expanding trade and opening up new avenues. They took over the export of textiles from the Coromondal Coast to the Indonesian Archipelago buying spices in exchange,. There was never any question of monopolising the trade in spices there, the Javanese and the Malays being active in the field. The Portuguese carried spices to China, buying Chinese silk in exchange, and taking it to Japan in exchange for silver.(
  • This exchange was very profitable because the Peking court had banned the Chinese from foreign trade for fear of piracy. Hence, the Portuguese could step in. But the Portuguese could take only one great ship every year from Macau to Japan.
  • Apart from this trade, another avenue of trade which the Portuguese opened up was trade to south America via the Philippines. There was a consistent demand for Indian cotton goods in the Philippines. Since the Spanish rulers had banned Muslims and Protestants from trading with the Philippines, it gave a good opening to the Portuguese. They also accommodated some Armenians and Gujaratis in the trade.
  • From the Philippines, Spanish galleons took the Indian textiles to South America where they were exchanged for silver.
  • The profits of the Far Eastern trade was so profitable that Portugal could afford to take a more relaxed stand on its pepper trade in the Indian Ocean.
  • Thus, the second half of the sixteenth century emerges as an era of growing partnership between the Portuguese and Asian merchants. Many Arabs and Gujarati merchants found it more profitable to load their goods on Portuguese ships, while Portuguese private traders or officials used Asian ships to evade the royal monopolies.

    Portuguese India Armadas trade routes (blue) since Vasco da Gama 1498 travel and its rival Manila-Acapulco galleons and Spanish treasure fleets (white) established in 1568

Did Portuguese bring transparency?

  • It has been argued that the Portuguese established transparency in the eastern trade by setting up a network of factories or warehouses in widely separated areas whereby markets and prices became more stabilised, hence transparent. Modern research does not support this argument.
  • Wide fluctuation in prices was a characteristic of pre-modern trade. Also, Indian and Arab merchants knew the distinction between spot and future markets. For spot markets, they had ware-houses which were necessary in order to get the best prices, buying when there was a glut, and selling when there was a shortage. Coffee was an example of such a commodity. But for fine textiles, and goods such as spices, the goods and prices had to be fixed in advance. The Asians managed this through their own trade associations and family network.
  • The Portuguese tried to fix the prices of black pepper in advance by pressurising or giving inducements to local rulers in Malabar to supply pepper to them at fixed prices, leaving it to the ruler to procure the supplies through local traders, or to deal directly with the cultivators. The Portuguese policy was unpopular because they tried to use political pressure to depress the prices paid to the cultivators, and of trying to prevent their competitors from bidding. Hence, any expansion of the production of spices was of little benefit to the cultivators.

Contribution in political system:

  • Despite claiming to be lords of the territories of the East, the Portuguese impact on the political system in Asia was small. They were too few in numbers to try to capture and keep hold of any large territories on the mainland in India or elsewhere. Hence, they wisely decided to keep their control confined to islands, and to forts on the coast which could be defended and supplied by sea. The island of Goa, which became their seat of government, was a prime example of this. Apart from this, they could, by threats and persuasions, induce rulers of small states, such as Calicut, Cochin, Craganore etc. to act as their agents or brokers in the spice trade.(
  • The Portuguese set-up at Goa was controlled by a Governor-General, assisted by a Council which included the Ecclesiastical Head. On account of their small numbers, the Portuguese encouraged mixed marriages and, in course of time, a new Indo-Portuguese or Goanese society came into being. But the society and government itself was organised on rigid racial lines, people of pure Portuguese origin being at the head of the society, and people of mixed origins at the bottom. Nor were the latter given any share in political power. The Church exercised on occasions the dreaded “auto da fe” or burning at the stake to root out heresy among Christians.
  • Thus, the contribution of the Portuguese in the field of politics or expansion of world trade remained negligible.

Other contributions of Portuguese:

  • However, the significance of the Portuguese opening the direct sea-route to India cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. It opened the way for India’s closer integration with the growing world economy, and contributed to the further growth of a market economy in India. It was also a blow to India’s “introspectiveness”.
  • As a result of the Portuguese contact, many products of the Latin American world—Maize, potato, corn, pineapple, Tobacco,chilli entered the Indian rural economy, just as new breeds of fruits had come in the wake of the Turks. Thus, the Indian peasant was not allergic to accepting new products if it meant a profit for him.
  • Other plants introduced by Portuguese: Papaya(first cultivated in Mexico), Cashew (native to Brazil),Guava(native to Central and South America). The quality of mango and citrus fruits was greatly improved.
  • Under Portuguese supervision, ship-building, using western techniques, was started at Cochin. However, some other technologies which had made an impact or had far-reaching effects, such as printing, clocks etc. though introduced in Goa, did not find acceptance on the mainland.

Why did Indian powers permit the domination of the Indian Ocean by a small, and economically backward state such as Portugal for more than a century?

  • Technologically, the Indo-Arab boom and the Chinese junk could match the Portuguese galleons and caravelles in their strength, holding capacity for goods in view of its tonnage, and capacity to sail even in the face of the wind with their lateen (triangular) sail. They had sufficient nautical skills to travel on open seas.
  • Where the Portuguese were superior was the maneuvering capacity of their ships, the Indo-Arab ships being slow and clumsy on account of their heavy sails. Also, the hulls of the Portuguese ships were stronger to withstand the shock of firing cannons.
  • But, it has been argued, it was above all the determination of the Portuguese sailors which decided the issue. The Indians, more used to fighting pirates, had no stomach for fighting on sea, unbacked by their own rulers.
  • Thus, it was not military and naval technology alone, but a number of other factors which enabled the Portuguese to establish a naval domination over the Indian seas for more than a century. The Indian powers reconciled themselves to this dominations because it did not threaten their own political positions on the mainland. Nor did it adversely effect their income from overseas trade. Hence, the task of undertaking a naval conflict with the Portuguese appeared difficult, uncertain of success, and likely to yield little financial returns.(

Other facts:

  • The rupia was the currency of Portuguese India until 1958.

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