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European Penetration and British Conquest of India – Portuguese


After Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India, Portuguese ships monopolized the spice trade. Portugal grew rich on the trade between Asia and Europe and the Venetians, Genovese and Muslim sultans that controlled the East-West trade before de Gama’s voyage all suffered.

European consumers benefitted. The price of pepper in Lisbon was one of what was when the pepper trade was controlled by Egyptian sultans. The Portuguese offered guns, knives, cheap cloth, and fascinating items of all sorts that provided access to a new technology. In return they got gold and silver, pepper and other spices, silks and other luxuries, and finally, raw materials such as cotton and, in Brazil, tobacco and sugar.

Portugal established a pepper monopoly by 1504. Spices were so important, as without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Meat was preserved by “salting,” a process that required large quantities of pepper in addition to salt to counteract the “unpalatable effects of the slat itself.”

Cloves were the most valuable early spice. They originated from the islands of Ternate, Tidore and Bacan in the Mollucca group in Indonesia. Because of limited geographical range cloves didn’t make their way to Europe until around the A.D. 11the century. They were introduced by Arab traders who controlled the trade of many spices to Europe.

During the Middle ages, Chinese, Arab and Malay traders purchased nutmeg in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia and carried it in boats to the Persian Gulf or by camel and pack animal on the Silk Road. From the Gulf the spices made their way to Constantinople and Damascus and eventually Europe. The sultans relied on Malay, Arab and Javanese merchants to distribute their goods.

At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in India, Goa was under the rule of the Sultan of Bijapur, for whom Goa was the second most important city. It was wealthy and possessed a grand natural harbor.

On 28 February 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque, the Governor of Portuguese India, arrived with a fleet of several ships and anchored off Goa harbour. The following morning some Portuguese boats were sent out as patrol. They landed and conquered the Fortress of Pangim. In the morning of 4 March 1510, Albuquerque with 1,000 Portuguese soldiers and 200 Malabarese entered Goa.

Albuquerque’s first care was to repair Goa’s fortifications. He also established a mint, for the quick coinage of gold, silver and copper money. The Portuguese ships were armed to the hilt and their captains were not afraid to use power. Once in power, the Portuguese governed their India in the same spirit. Viceroy Albuquerque subdued the peoples along the Arabian coast by cutting of the noses of their women and the hands of their men.

Along the coasts of Africa, India, and China, the Portuguese established a series of trading posts over which they hoisted their flag as a sign that these bits of territory had been annexed to the Portuguese Crown. Such posts were often called factories after the factors, or commercial agents, who were stationed there to trade with the local population.

The Portuguese offered guns, knives, cheap cloth, and fascinating items of all sorts that provided access to a new technology. In return they got gold and silver, pepper and other spices, silks and other luxuries, and finally, raw materials such as cotton and, in Brazil, tobacco and sugar.

Armed forces were essential to this colonial system. Relatively small land forces proved sufficient both to keep “the natives” under control and to ward off rival Europeans from the trading posts. A large and efficient navy was also necessary to protect the sea routes of a colonial power. Pirates were often an unofficial adjunct of a navy, called privateers and operating only against enemies or neutrals.

But neither among the Indian and Chinese masses did the process of Europeanization go very deep. The Portuguese left the old ruling chiefs and classes in local authority much as they had found them. The local upper classes monopolized most of the limited European wares; very little that was Western touched the masses or tempted them away from their traditional ways.

From the start, difficulties arose between the missionaries, anxious to protect those they regarded as their charges, and the traders and colonial officials, driven by material incentives to exploit the local population. To local chiefs and monarchs, converts were potential traitors, likely to be more loyal to their Western faith than to their own rulers. Money and manpower were always serious problems for the missionaries, with so many to convert and tend, and with so few people and so little money to do the work. Measured in statistical terms, the effort to convert India and the Far East to Christianity did not make a serious impression on the masses; there were fewer than a million converts by 1600. The greatest missionary successes tended to occur in areas of Buddhism, then in a state of decay, and the greatest failures in areas of Islam, for Muslims seldom abandoned their faith for any other.

The Portuguese soon had to yield to newer rivals. Their banking, their business methods, their initiative were not equal to competition with the aggressive, expanding powers of northwest Europe. Though monopolizing the import of pepper from the East, they sought the assistance of the more knowledgeable merchant community of Antwerp in distributing the pepper to European markets.

After the sixteenth century the Portuguese ceased to add to their empire and to their wealth, and they sank back to a secondary place in international politics. The sixty years of union between the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies, 1580-1640, accelerated the decline of Portugal’s imperial fortunes by involving it in prolonged worldwide warfare with Spain’s great adversary, the Dutch republic.

Better-equipped and better- disciplined Dutch forces drove the Portuguese from most of their posts in present-day Indonesia and from Ceylon and parts of the Indian coast. Yet a Portuguese empire did survive along the old route around Africa to Goa, on the island of Timor off southeast Asia, and at Macao.

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