E08: The Role of Portugal

The Portuguese were first to spread their searches across the sea. They began to sail southwards in the Atlantic and spent much of the fifteenth century exploring the coast of Africa and recording good places for colonisation. They began by capturing Ceuta in Morocco in 1415, Madeira in 1419. Inspired by their own Prince Henry (the Navigator), the ‘Age of Discovery’ had begun. The southern limit of the Atlantic was Cape Bojador just below 27oN in Spanish Sahara. Seamen were reluctant go farther south because difficult conditions occurred here and it was hard to sail back north against the prevailing winds. Finally in 1434, one of Prince Henry’s ships rounded the Cape. In 1439 the Azores were taken for Portugal and in 1445, the first Portuguese factory, or trading post, at Arguim (below Cape Blanco) to tap the trans-Saharan trade of Western Sudan.

The progress had now come to attention of the Pope who felt impelled to attach firm religious motives to the exploration. Two Papal Bulls were published. The first, in 1452, authorised the King of Portugal to attack conquer and subdue Saracens, pagans and other unbelievers; to capture their goods and territories; to reduce them to perpetual slavery. The second, in 1455, authorised Prince Henry to embark on a mission of conversion of non-Christians, to build churches and monasteries and to trade between Morocco and the Indies. It gave him a monopoly of discovery conquest and commerce. In 1456, the Portuguese began to colonise the Cape Verde Islands. In 1460, the year of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, his ships had got as far south as Sierra Leone. Madeira was producing substantial quantities of sugar for Portugal and the Azores large amounts of corn. In 1481, the Crown of Portugal began to administer all trade on the West African coast. Prior to this, Prince Henry had done it until his death in 1460, and often by license to Portuguese merchants.

A key event occurred in 1492 when Columbus, a Portuguese sailing under the flag of Spain discovered America. The following year, inspired by the obvious advantages of these voyages of discovery, the Pope decided to adopt a policy by which the two main protagonists Spain and Portugal could proceed in a ‘Christian’ manner. He decreed that the Earth was to be divided into two halves, the western one to be a Spanish domain and the eastern one belonging to Portugal. This was to prove a key decision, because it opened the way for Spain to grow suddenly and fabulously rich from the discoveries of South American gold, whilst the path for Portugal to follow was rather more arduous. Both courses were filled with violence for those unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

In 1497, Vasco da Gama set off to Calicut, the most important centre of the spice trade at the time. Besides spice, there was a moral dimension to the exploration for religion was being exported with as much zeal as spice was being sought. When Vasco da Gama first reached Calicut on the southwest coast of India, he was asked what he wanted. His answer was “Christians and spices.” The subsequent struggle between Christians, Muslims and Hindus was to be an ever-present problem. In 1503 the Portuguese built their first fort at Cochin, also in the southwest, whose ruler fell under the power of the invader. Two years later, the Portuguese were referring to the ‘State of India’ as if it were their own and appointed a viceroy to govern it. Goa was established in 1510. These events proved to be a turning point for almost half a millennium of history. Before this, the Muslim traders had acquired a monopoly of sea trade over hundreds of years, unhindered by other political interests, but afterwards, new politics arrived in the Indian sub-continent, enforced by the use of arms. The new age of Empire in South Asia had begun.

In 1508, despatched Diogo Lopez de Sequeira was sent by his king to try to establish an entirely new spice trade with Europe. Not surprisingly, the Arab peoples were unhappy with this strategy and despatched a fleet of ships from the Red Sea to try to prevent the Portuguese takeover of their business. A variety of battles and struggles ensued between Portuguese and Muslim combatants for years afterwards, with Malacca as focus. The Europeans in their fighting ships were simply too powerful for Arabs and Asians alike. Malacca was a focal point of the region of Southeast Asia, linking China in the east and India in the west with the vast number of islands of what were to become modern Indonesia. In 1511, the Portuguese took Malacca by force and formally entered the Moluccas a year later. Their expansionist ambitions then caused serious disruption to Muslim traders carrying goods to the Middle East via the Red Sea. The Portuguese commandeered this trade, returning goods to Europe via the usual route around southern Africa. Under the leadership of the Portuguese Viceroy, Albuquerque, who established fortified garrisons at Malacca and Ternate, the Portuguese clung on precariously to their presence in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) for decades afterwards. This period of Portuguese rule was notable for being greedy, cruel and despotic and resulted in constant enmity between cross and crescent.

In order to commence the imposition of a monopoly in the trade of spice, it was necessary for the Portuguese to build a number of fortified garrisons, which they began under the leadership of Alfonso de Albuquerque (1509-1515). Once the land-locked island of Goa had been wrested from the local Rajah in 1510, it soon supplanted Calicut as the centre of trade between the Gulf of Cambay and Cape Comorin. Malacca was taken in 1511 and Ormuz in 1515. The Portuguese made Goa into a large, well-defended city and it became a territorial power of real importance, as well as a strong naval base. It was attacked on many occasions, but whilst it was never taken, over time, its trade moved to Batavia and it never recovered its importance. As a power base for Portuguese interests, it was too far from the action in the East Indian archipelago, and even though the Portuguese also held Malacca for a time, they were unable to gain the sort of dominance that the Dutch succeeded in doing.

The Portuguese were never an important colonial power in the East Indies, although they held sway in the Indian Ocean for most of the sixteenth century, supported by a strong presence in Mozambique and East Africa. Their strategic position remained precarious and their political and religious influence was comparatively small. Nevertheless, they were an extremely important maritime force, and their ships penetrated every corner of the region. They established a presence in China at Macao in 1557, which was to be a great asset over the next 400 years. Sea trade was a successful and profitable enterprise, though it never became a monopoly, as was achieved by the Dutch. Much of the wealth created was returned to Goa, which remained under Portuguese control until 1961 when it was taken back by India.

It is also interesting that, compared to the British and the Spanish, the Portuguese – a comparatively small nation - struggled to maintain their empire with a much smaller base population, and when they did send many of their populations overseas, it was often to the swampy malaria-ridden regions of the African and Asian tropics where many of them would die from sickness.

By 1515 there were two great trading centres, one at Ormuz, a barren island at the head of the Persian Gulf about eight miles from the coast of Persia, and the other at Malacca. Between them they collected and distributed all luxury goods that eventually reached Europe via the Levant [6]. The main sources of spice were in the Moluccas and adjacent islands from the Celebes to New Guinea, and the sultans of Ternate and Tidore variously controlled these islands in competition with each other. In many places explored by the Portuguese in Asia and east Africa they found Arabs were already there and trading with the native peoples. European history books have so far been poor at describing the achievements of Arab culture during this period up to the 14th century.