Portuguese trade empire in Asia
The arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in India in 1498 meant that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover a direct sea route to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope and, subsequently, Southeast Asia. Their main motive in seeking out the maritime route was the profitable spice trade, as well as their “religious fervour [and] national pride”.1 The capture of the port of Malacca in 1511 enabled the Portuguese to gain a foothold in the Southeast Asian spice trade. By the end of the 16th century, because of competition from the English and Dutch in the region, Portuguese dominance declined in Asia.
The fall of the Mongol empire in China in 1368 led to reduced trade along the overland trans-Asian route.2 In the mid-1400s, the Turks gained control of the Levant (a large area in western Asia) and the overland trade routes, causing a shift of the traditional spice routes from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. Because the Portuguese did not want to be dependent on the Muslim Turks for their spices, they were determined to find a maritime route to Asia to profit from the highly lucrative spice trade.3 During the 15th century, the Portuguese Crown encouraged voyages of exploration and despatched fleets to Africa and subsequently Asia. Within Africa, they attempted to secure a port that would give them better access to trade within Africa and counter Muslim influence on the continent.4
Portuguese explorations to the east
In 1488, Bartholomeau Dias’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope revealed the sea route to the East Indies.5 Prior to the discovery of this route, spices from Asia were sent to Europe through a combination of land and sea routes. In May 1498, the landing of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Calicut off India’s Kerala Coast marked the successful discovery of the maritime route linking Europe and Asia.6 Da Gama’s voyage assured the Portuguese King Manuel that it was possible to redirect the spice trade from overland routes to the Cape route, and simultaneously spread Christianity to the east to counter the growing Middle Eastern Islamic empire.7 After Portuguese navigator and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral led an expedition of 13 ships to India in March 1500, Portuguese ships began making annual trips to India.8
Because of increasing tensions with Muslims at the Malabar coast and in the Middle East, King Manuel decided to strengthen the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean. In 1505, he despatched a fleet of 20 ships under Dom Francisco de Almeida with the instructions to establish fortresses in Kerala, East Africa and on the island of Socotra.9 Almeida, who was appointed by King Manuel as the first governor (1505–09) of Portuguese India, was also tasked to explore Sri Lanka and Malacca with a view to establishing forts there.10
Taking over Almeida in 1509, Afonso de Albuquerque, the second governor (1509–15) embarked on an ambitious expansionist programme in the Indian Ocean, which began with the seizure of Goa in 1510.11 Unlike Almeida who believed in enhancing naval power,12 Albuquerque believed in entrenching a Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean through “an extensive network of permanent bases”.13
The first Portuguese trading post in India was built in Calicut, a key pepper port on the Malabar coast.14 Following the king’s instructions, Cabral established a factory in Calicut in 1500, which was destroyed by unhappy Muslim merchants there. A new factory was built in Cochin by da Gama when he visited India a second time in 1502.15 In 1513, a fort was built in Calicut.16
In February 1510, Albuquerque seized control of Goa and established it as the Portuguese headquarters in the East. He believed that Goa, located between Kerala and Gujarat, was a strategic port as it had a strong “defensive position with a sheltered inner harbour”.17 Moreover, Albuquerque wanted to take advantage of the horse trade between India and the Middle East for which Goa was the port of entry.18
In August 1511, Albuquerque captured Malacca, a strategic maritime port visited by traders of many nationalities, and one that linked China, Indonesia, India, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.19
Between 1518 and 1522, the Portuguese built two more fortresses in India and another in Sri Lanka. By the mid-16th century, they had several fortresses along the northwest coast of India and controlled several ports in western India. In 1522 and 1568, the Portuguese built fortresses in Ternate and Ambon (both in Indonesia) respectively.20
Around 1555, Macau became an official Portuguese settlement when a private trader obtained permission from Chinese officials to set up a trading base at Macau. Prior to that, Portuguese private merchants had started to trade from the port of Nagasaki, Japan around 1542. The Portuguese became the trading link between Macau and Nagasaki, connecting the major markets of China and Japan, as the two countries refused to trade directly.21
The Portuguese also encouraged the development of casado settlements at their trading posts. Casados were young, single soldiers who married and settled down with local women.22
Portuguese trade in Asia
From the time of the establishment of their presence in the Indian Ocean to the early 17th century, the Portuguese directed and controlled Asian trade with their king being a major participant.23 However, by the late 16th century, the Crown had found it more profitable to tax private trade. Hence, it decided to privatise its trade monopolies in Asia by awarding concessions to private traders. This created a boom in Portuguese private trade in Asia.24
In the early years of the 16th century, the Portuguese traded mainly in pepper and other spices via the Cape route.25 Some of the important commodities that the Portuguese traded in included kampar from Sumatra; pepper from Malabar and Indonesia; mace and nutmeg from Banda; cloves from Ternate, Tidore and Amboina; cinnamon from Ceylon; gold, silk and porcelain from China; silver from Japan; horses from Persia and Arabia; and cotton textiles from Cambay and Coromandel.26
The Portuguese tried to monopolise trade in the region. Besides building fortresses and factories, the Portuguese also implemented the safe-conduct pass (cartaleza) or the cartaz system in the 16th century. It was a means by which the Portuguese attempted to control trade in the Indian Ocean by seizing and confiscating the merchandise of those ships that had not purchased the pass.27
The Portuguese also developed a system of transoceanic trade routes (carreiras) that linked the various ports in Asia and Lisbon. Under this system, the Crown provided the vessels and controlled most of the cargo shipped on them, while private traders were allowed free use of allotted cargo space.28 The captains of the vessels plying these routes were often tasked to be ambassadors and forge relations with the rulers of the ports they visited.29
The Portuguese also developed a new type of vessel, the nao da carreira da India, that were fitted with gun-decks for battle and had ample cargo space. This enabled the Portuguese to control trade in the Indian Ocean, together with their fortresses, factories and settlements at their trading outposts.30
Portuguese East India Company
In the 1600s, the English and Dutch – who had gained naval supremacy over the Portuguese – had also found the sea route to the spice trade in Southeast Asia.31 The competition from the Dutch and English reduced Portuguese profits from the spice trade. Prior to the arrival of the English and Dutch, the Portuguese trade monopoly had already been under threat by the resurgence of the spice trade route via the Middle East in the mid-1500s. Moreover, the Portuguese had to protect their port cities from attacks by the English and Dutch. As such, the Portuguese Crown found it increasingly difficult to fund their military and trade endeavours.32
The Portuguese enacted a scheme in 1570 that allowed private traders to participate in the spice trade provided they paid a “fairly high customs duty”.33 When this scheme failed, the Crown decided to make contractual agreements in 1578 with private traders who were required to bring in a specific quota of spices annually, enabling them to gain monopoly over the particular commodity. This scheme was aborted in 1597, and the spice trade was again monopolised by the Crown.34 In 1628, a major policy shift occurred – the Portuguese decided to establish a joint-stock company with the king as its major shareholder.35
In 1624, the Portuguese nobleman, Dom Jorge Macarenhas was tasked to lay the groundwork for the formation of the commercial company, the Portuguese East India Company or Companhia das Indias Orientais. The objective of the company was to get the private ventures and Portuguese settlements in Asia and Africa to invest in the private company, to relieve the financial burden of the Crown. The Portuguese joint-stock company was finally established on 27 August 1628. As there were few private investors, the Crown became the major investor, accounting for 80 percent of the capital invested in the company.36
Decline of Portuguese dominance
By the late 16th century, the Portuguese trade empire – a maritime empire of trading networks that connected ports, forts and settlements – stretched from East Africa to Japan.37 However by the end of that century, because of competition from the English and Dutch, coupled with their rising supremacy in naval power, Portuguese dominance declined in Asia.38
1. Nicholas Tarling, ed, The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, vol. 1, pt. 2 (Singapore: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 10. (Call no. RSEA 959 CAM)
2. Bailey W. Diffie and George D. Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415–1580 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 36. (Call no. RCLOS 325.3469095 DIF-[GH])
3. Tarling, Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, 10.
4. Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 49.
5. C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825 (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 33. (Call no. RSEA 325.3469 BOX)
6. Anthony R. Disney, A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: From Beginnings to 1807, vol. 2 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009),121–22 (Call no. R 946.9 DIS); Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500–1700: A Political and Economic History (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 61. (Call no. RSEA 950.3091712469 SUB)
7. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 126.
8. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 125; Pedro Calmon, “Pedro Álvares Cabral,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 16 July 2018; Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 64.
9. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 128; Donald Ferguson, “The Discovery of Ceylon by the Portuguese in 1506,” Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 19, no. 59 (1907): 289. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
10. Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 64–69; Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 227; Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 128; Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 64.
11. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 129.
12. Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 229.
13. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 129.
14. C. R. Boxer, Four Centuries of Portuguese Expansion, 1415–1825: A Succinct Survey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 13. (Call no. R 946.9 BOX)
15. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 127; Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 64.
16. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 134, 137.
17. Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 251; Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 129–30.
18. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 129–30.
19. Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 74; Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 255.
20. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 134, 137.
21. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 183; Francisco Bethencourt and Diogo Ramada Curto, eds, Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 101. (Call no. RSEA 325.34690903 POR)
22. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 130, 147. (Call no. R 946.9 DIS)
23. Chandra Richard de Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company 1628–1633,” Luso-Brazilian Review 11, no. 2 (1974): 152 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 40–41.
24. Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 174–75; Bethencourt and Curto, Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 27–28.
25. Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 67.
26. Boxer, Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 51.
27. Kirti N. Chaudhuri, “The Portuguese Maritime Empire, Trade, and Society in the Indian Ocean during the Sixteenth Century,” Portuguese Studies 8 (1992): 63. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 82.
28. Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 75; Bethencourt and Curto, Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 26.
29. Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 75–76.
30. Chaudhuri, “Portuguese Maritime Empire,” 63.
31. De Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company,” 152.
32. De Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company,” 153–54.
33. De Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company,” 154.
34. De Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company,” 154.
35. De Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company,” 152.
36. Subrahmanyam, Portuguese Empire in Asia, 170; De Silva, “The Portuguese East India Company,” 156, 163, 194.
37. Chaudhuri, “Portuguese Maritime Empire,” 66; Bethencourt and Curto, Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 20.
38. Bethencourt and Curto, Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 26–27; Disney, History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, 168.
The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.