Portuguese Colonial Empire in the Age of Discovery

Portuguese Colonial Empire in the Age of Discovery

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Age of Revolution

As regards the Portuguese, their colonial interest was restricted to their colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and the tiny area of Portuguese Guinea. Interestingly, Portuguese rule in these areas was not strong. The reason was that trade, not political administration, dominated the purpose of their encounter with Africans during this period.

It was because of this that no major political responsibility was taken by Portugal, unlike the other European powers, with regard to colonies in Africa, creating the unique nature of Portuguese enterprise or activities in Africa between 1750 and 1900.

The establishment of colonies and colonial rule, as well as the strategies employed by the Portuguese to keep their holdings in Africa, have an interesting history, despite their dwindling fortunes during this period, occasioned by economic, political, and strategic factors.

Portuguese Enterprise

Between 1750 and 1900 the Portuguese did not achieve much as far as their attempt to establish colonial rule in Africa was concerned. But if colonialism is taken to mean the occupation and control of one nation by another, then some of the attempts made by Portugal to establish political control over some parts of Africa can be highlighted as examples.

It is important to stress that the driving force behind Portuguese enterprise in Africa, and elsewhere in the world, was trade and economic exploitation of their colonies, and it is this more than anything that drove Portuguese desire for political control of these areas.

Indeed, Portugal, like many of the other colonial powers, had always treated its colonies like private estates of the motherland, where resources had to be repatriated for the development of the latter.

No real political administration and structure were put in place in the colonies. In the case of East Africa, the area was more or less a stopping place for the Portuguese on their way to Asia. The chief result of their rule in this region was that it contributed greatly to crippling the old Arab settlements that were once the pride of the East African coast.

Portugal viewed its East African possessions with mixed feelings. While the area did not give them the wealth they had expected, they nevertheless wanted to contain Arab influence in the area and deal directly with the indigenous Africans. It was for this that the Portuguese attacked communities in the area and established a presence in Mombasa, Sofala, Kilwa, Mozambique, and Pemba.

There were many obstacles as far as its East African project was concerned. First, many of the Portuguese settlers in East Africa died from tropical diseases. Many others were killed in the continual fighting on the coast.

Second, due in large part to disease and fighting, Portugal never had a population large enough to carry out its colonial plans in East Africa. Most of its personnel were kept busy in Brazil and their empire in the Indian Ocean.

Third, competition from the British and the Dutch East India Company helped to weaken the Portuguese hold on the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean.

Then there were numerous revolts from the Arab leaders of the region. For instance, in 1698 Sultan bin Seif, the sultan of Oman, and his son, Imam Seif bin Sultan, captured Fort Jesus, which had been the military and strategic base of Portuguese holdings in East Africa.

Indeed, in 1699 the Portuguese were driven out of Kilwa and Pemba, thus marking the end of Portuguese colonial interest in East Africa north of Mozambique. Earlier in 1622 a revolt against the Portuguese led by a former Portuguese mission pupil, Sultan Yusuf, helped to prepare the disintegration of Portuguese military strength in Mombasa.

Consequent upon these issues, Portuguese holdings in East Africa were far from a successful colonial rule. By 1750 Portuguese interests in East Africa were replaced by a new socio-political order led by the leaders of Oman.

In the interior of Africa, the Portuguese did not achieve anything substantial as far as colonial rule was concerned. The Mwenemutapa (known to the Portuguese as Monomotapa) did not provide fertile soil for the establishment of Portuguese colonization.

The Portuguese, for their part, were more interested in what they would get instead of what they would give. Besides, the area was already experiencing decline owing to the emergence of several dynasties in the region. This situation was not helped by contact with the Portuguese.

Elsewhere, in Guinea there was Portuguese influence, but it was not enough to be described as colonial rule. By 1750 Portuguese colonies in Africa were limited to Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea, but colonial rule was more pronounced in the first two colonies. The Portuguese also held important islands in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa.

During this period Portuguese colonies, especially Angola, remained the supply base for the Brazilian slave trade. The Portuguese sought to create a highly polished elite conditioned by their culture. This aspiration did not materialize.

Indeed, the Angolan colony, which was an example of Portuguese colonial interest in Africa, was a mere shambles, in which the criminal classes of Portugal were busy milking the people for their own benefit. To this end, Angola, like Mozambique, could be described as a trading preserve from which the interior could be reached.

Politically, Portuguese colonies lacked effective administration. The historian Richard Hammond has painted the picture in a sympathetic way when he argued that Portugal could not effectively control its colonies.

He was merely echoing the voice of a Portuguese official, Oliveira Martins, who wrote that Portuguese colonies were a web of misery and disgrace and that the colonies, with the exception of Angola, be leased to those “who can do what we most decidedly cannot.”

The reason why Portuguese colonies were so painted is not hard to understand. A. F. Nogueira, a Portuguese official, said, “Our colonies oblige us to incur expenses we cannot afford: For us to conserve, out of mere ostentation, mere display, mere prejudice . colonies that serve no useful purpose and will always bring us into discredit, is the height of absurdity and barbarity besides.”

In 1895 the minister of marine and colonies, the naval officer Ferreira de Almeida, argued in favor of selling some of the colonies and using the proceeds to develop those colonies that would be retained.

It is obvious from the issues Portugal contended with in Africa that the intent was to have a large space on the map of the world, but that Portugal was never ready to administer them practically.

This notwithstanding, it is safe to say that the Portuguese implemented the policy of assimilation in governing their colonies. The aim was to make Africans in the colonies citizens of Portugal.

Those who passed through the process of assimilation were called assimilados. It is important to note that the number of assimilados ceased to grow after the unsuccessful effort of the liberal Bandeira government to make all Africans citizens of Portugal.

It is not clear whether the Portuguese were sincere in their efforts to assimilate Africans in their colonies. It appears that the policy was a mere proclamation that did not have the necessary political backing.

Indeed, the idea of equality was a farce. The government did not provide the necessary infrastructure such as schools, finances, or other social institutions upon which such equality, demanded by true assimilation, could be built.

The process of education in Portuguese territories in Africa was far from satisfactory. The aim of Portuguese education was essentially to create an African elite that would reason in the way of the Portuguese. However, the Portuguese officials were not committed to the cause of educating Africans at the expense of Portugal.

Consequently, most schools were controlled by the Catholic Church, as a reflection of the relationship between church and state. This meant that the state was dodging its responsibility to provide education for the people of its African colonies.

Historian Walter Rodney has criticized the type of education in Portuguese colonies in Africa. He believed that the schools were nothing but agencies for the spread of the Portuguese language.

He argued further that “at the end of 500 years of shouldering the white man’s burden of civilizing ‘African Natives,’ the Portuguese had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in eastern Angola was less than 30 years . As for Guinea-Bissau, some insight into the situation there is provided by the admission of the Portuguese themselves that Guinea-Bissau was more neglected than Angola and Mozambique.”

Later in the 20th century, the Portuguese encouraged state financing of education in the colonies and ensured that a few handpicked Africans were allowed to study in Portugal. Sometimes, provisions were made for the employment of such assimilados in the colonial administration. This development notwithstanding, Portuguese colonies in Africa did a poor job in education.

Another important aspect of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa is its attitude toward labor and the recruitment of it. For a long time the slave trade provided an avenue for the recruitment of labor in Portuguese territories. However, in 1836, slave trafficking was abolished in Portugal’s colonies, although it continued in practice under the name of contract labor.

Under this new practice, every year the Portuguese shipped thousands of people from Angola to coffee and cocoa plantations on the island of São Tomé as forced laborers. Mozambique also offered an avenue for migration of labor to work in mines in British-controlled Rhodesia.

Sometimes, the migrants were happier working in the mines than being forced to work at home. All the same, the Portuguese controlled the recruitment of this labor to Rhodesia, taking revenue from each worker that they allowed to leave. This was another way to generate revenue.

The historian Basil Davidson has commented that a distinguishing feature of Portuguese colonies was the presence of large systems of forced labor put in place to exploit and oppress the indigenous people. There were reasons for this development.

First, in the case of Angola, the increasing prosperity of the cocoa industry and the attendant increase in the demand for labor made forced labor a desirable alternative.

Second, toward the end of the 18th century, the supply of labor was affected by the spread of sleeping sickness in the interior. Consequently, the Portuguese had to rely on forced labor for its supply.

The colonies were subjected to a great deal of economic exploitation. From the start, Portuguese enterprises in Africa were dictated by the desire to procure slaves. Indeed, slaves constituted almost the sole export of the colonies.

This continued up to the end of the 19th century. In Angola, the Portuguese established their rule of ruthless exploitation for the purpose of procuring large numbers of slaves for the Brazilian market.

The exploitation of Angola for slaves came to be known as the era of the pombeiros. The pombeiros, half-caste Portuguese, were notorious for their activities, which consisted of stirring up local conflicts in order to capture slaves for sale at the coast. The pombeiros were the masters of the interior whom the slave dealers relied on for procurement.

Intellectual Reaction

In 1901 a decree was issued by the government in Lisbon to put a stop to recruitment of labor by violent means. In Luanda, some pamphlets were published to denounce the practice of forced labor. This was an intellectual reaction to the phenomenon of forced labor. In practical terms, it did not have any substantial effect on the practice.

There was a violent reaction to the phenomenon of forced labor, starting with the Bailundo Revolt of 1902. In 1903 fresh regulations were issued to tackle the issue of forced labor, but they achieved little or no success.

Portugal’s objection to forced labor was not born out of their concern for Africans, but such a stance was taken whenever the authority felt that certain individuals were gaining too much local power. Indeed, the official view, embodied in a law of 1899, was that forced labor was an essential part of the civilizing process, provided it was done decently and in order.

The Portuguese attitude to race was one of superiority on their part and inferiority on the part of Africans. No colonial power was entirely free from racial prejudice.

Segregation, whether pronounced or not, was often used as a means of preserving the racial purity of European settlers in Africa. In the case of the Portuguese, the authority was interested in ensuring the racial purity of Portuguese agrarian settlers in Angola.

However, the conditions in the colonies did not favor or encourage Europeans to settle in large numbers. Consequently, white populations could be maintained only by settling convicts and by miscegenation.

Because of this, racial mixing in Portuguese colonies was accepted—it was necessary to maintain the population. Portugal’s colonial history provides a particularly illuminating case of Europe’s impact on the racial and ethnic character of Africa as far as racial-demographic engineering was concerned.

No substantial infrastructure development can be ascribed to Portuguese colonial enterprise in Africa. Even though the Portuguese treated their colonies as the “private estate of the motherland,” no major policies and programs were put in place to address infrastructural development. For instance, even though Angola produced excellent cotton, none of it was actually processed in Angola.

Additionally, communication was poor. The Portuguese settlements were isolated from one another. For instance, when Lourenzo Marques was engulfed in crises in 1842 and the governor was killed in a raid organized by the indigenous people, it took the authorities in Mozambique a year to hear of the happening by way of Rio de Janeiro. But Portugal was lucky to benefit from development initiated by other countries.

In 1879 the Eastern Telegraph Company’s cable, en route to Cape Town, established “anchor points” in Mozambique and Lourenzo Marques. In 1886 the telegraph line reached Luanda en route to the Cape. This provided the first major link between Portugal and its overseas colonies.

Furthermore, in 1880 Portugal and the Transvaal concluded a revised version of their existing territorial treaty of 1869, in which they agreed to build a railroad from Lourenzo Marques to Pretoria.

British control of the Transvaal stalled the progress of the work. Portugal on its own did not make efforts to connect its colonies in Africa in a manner that would make sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development.

Lastly, bureaucracy was not effective as far as Portuguese colonial rule in Africa was concerned. There was no regular cadre of trained civilian recruits on which to draw. The effect of this was that there was an almost complete absence of the routine competence that a good administration needs. This affected the coordination of Portuguese colonial activities in Africa.

Between 1750 and 1900 the Portuguese presence in Africa was one of economic exploitation much more than actual colonial rule. In fact, the Portuguese had no major administrative systems in place in their African colonies.

Instead, the primary motive for the creation of the colonies was economic, initially the slave trade and later other lucrative commodities. The Portuguese colonies lacked basic infrastructure and lagged behind European colonies in Africa.

The Golden Age

For two centuries, Portugal lived in what was known as “the golden centuries of discoveries”. This was the apogee of Portugal as a country, and forever the benchmark of its culture. Throughout the 20th and now the 21st century, these years are mentioned ad nauseum as the seemingly lone landmarks of the Portuguese culture.

The age of discoveries, fueled by the rise of the “dynamic thinkers” of the new Portugal, started with the Kingdom of Dom Joao I (John I). On July 25, 1415, a Portuguese fleet with King Joao I and his sons Prince Duarte, Prince Henry “The Navigator”, and Prince Afonso, along with Supreme Constable Nuno Alvares Pereira, set out to conquer North Africa starting with the coastal towns of Ceuta and Tangier. These towns were bustling trading centers. On August 21st, Ceuta and Tangier were conquered by the Portuguese.

In early 15th century, Henry the Navigator founded the famous sailing school in Sagres and from there launched several sea expeditions which culminated in the discovery of the Archipelagos of Madeira Island and the Azores islands. Along with the invention of the sextant and major innovations in boat and sail design, Henry the Navigator made Portugal’s empire expansion possible and led to great advances in geographic knowledge. The discoveries were financed by the wealth of the Order of Christ, founded by King Dom Dinis (D. Dennis) in the 13th century for the Templar knights, who found refuge in Portugal after being pursued all over Europe. The Templars had interest in financing such expeditions, as they were searching for the legendary Christian Kingdom of Prester John.

In 1434, Gil Eanes, an experienced sailor under Henry’s watch, was the first sailor to round Cabo Bojador (Cape Bojador), a headland on the northern coast of West Sahara at latitude 27° North. Gil Eanes made several trips up and down the coast of Africa, thus marking the beginning of the Portuguese exploration of Africa.

One of the most remarkable achievements of the Portuguese sailors, was the rounding of the Cabo da Boa Esperanca (Cape of Good Hope) by Bartolomeu Dias (Bartholomew Dias) in 1487. The cape was named because it was hoped that India and its coveted spices would be found soon, therefore circumventing the land routes.

Other remarkable sailing feats in the 15th century included: Pero de Barcelos and Joao Fernandes Lavrador exploration of North America, Pero de Covilha reaching Etiopia in search of the mythical kingdom of Prester John, and the arrival of Vasco da Gama, one of the most successful sailors in history, at India on May 20, 1498.

In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral landed in Brazil, and in 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in India. Goa, Damaou and Diu remained Portuguese colonies until they were annexed by India in 1961.

In 1578, tragedy struck, and forever altered the history of Portugal. King Sebastiao (Sebastian), at the ripe age of 19, decided to augment the Portuguese empire in North Africa, against the advice of the nobles. King Sebastian himself led the forces and left on a foggy morning from Lisbon to never be seen again. He left no heir to the throne, and because Philip II of Spain was the son of a Portuguese princess, the Spanish king became Philip I of Portugal in 1581. Portugal maintained its autonomy including law, currency, colonies and government under a personal treaty between the two countries. Portugal was further ruled by Philip III who tried to force integration, thus attacking and alienating the Portuguese nobles who were not in favor of the integration.

On December 1, 1640, Duque de Braganca (Duke of Braganca), a royal family descendent, led a revolution and, after several years, regained control of Portugal. The Duke of Braganca became Joao IV of Portual (John IV).

Vasco de Gama

Following in Bartolomeu Dias’s footsteps, Vasco de Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa. In 1499, he was the first European to travel all the way to India by sea. His voyage officially linked the two countries, and gave Portugal easy access to build a colonial empire in Asia.

The total distance traveled in de Gama’s voyage to India was greater than any previous exploration. His voyage inspired the famous Portuguese poem, Os Lusiadas , written by Portuguese national poet Luis de Camoes.

Treaty of Tordesillas 1494

Following Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Americas in 1492, the Pope Alexander VI, a member of the infamous Borgia family, hoped to settle any disputes over new territories between Castile and Portugal.

His initial papal bulls on the matter were to lead to the Treaty of Tordesillas, negotiated by King João II of Portugal and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile, which divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the two Catholic powers.

In this treaty the Portuguese received lands outside Europe east of a line that ran 370 leagues west of Cape Verde, and the islands reached by Columbus on his first voyage, namely Cuba and Hispaniola.

Ferdinand Magellan

Colonial rationale and resistance

Colonial powers justified their conquests by asserting that they had a legal and religious obligation to take over the land and culture of indigenous peoples. Conquering nations cast their role as civilizing “barbaric” or “savage” nations, and argued that they were acting in the best interests of those whose lands and peoples they exploited.

Despite the power of colonizers who claimed lands that were already owned and populated by indigenous peoples, resistance is an integral part of the story of colonialism. Even before decolonization, indigenous people on all continents staged violent and nonviolent resistance to their conquerors.

The Spanish and Portuguese Compete to Reach the East

Nevertheless, the Spanish had no intention of losing out to the Portuguese and the two powers were locked in competition, each wanting to be the first to reach the East by sea. In January 1492, shortly after the conquest of Granada, a Genoese explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus finally succeeded in obtaining the sponsorship of Ferdinand II and Isabella I to voyage across the Atlantic. Columbus presented a radical proposal to the Spanish monarchs – he believed that it was possible to reach Asia by sailing westwards. Earlier on, Columbus had presented his project to the Portuguese king, John II, but was rejected. Columbus was rejected by Ferdinand and Isabella as well, at least twice, before securing their patronage in 1492.

‘Columbus before the Queen’ (1843) by Emanuel Leutze. ( Public Domain )

Contrary to popular belief, Columbus was not denied sponsorship because of the belief that the earth was flat, but rather because the experts at the Portuguese and Spanish courts believed that Columbus had grossly underestimated the distance between Europe and Asia. In this matter, the Portuguese and Spanish experts were right. Columbus, however, was extremely lucky, as there was a previously unknown land mass, i.e. the Americas, on the western route between Europe and Asia.

As a result, Columbus is remembered in the West as the man who discovered the New World. Had the Americas not existed, Columbus might have been relegated to a footnote in history and perhaps remembered as the ‘man who sailed west and never returned’. In the years following the discovery of the New World, Columbus maintained that he had found the western route to Asia, and may have genuinely held that belief, despite the increasing evidence that the land he had discovered was not Asia, but another continent.

Columbus aside, the discovery of lands to the west of Europe (be it Asia or another continent) escalated the conflict between Portugal and Spain. When Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493 Spain claimed the new lands he ‘discovered.’ This was disputed by the Portuguese, who referred to the papal bulls of 1455, 1456, and 1479 to stake their claim on the new territories.

In response, the Spanish simply obtained new papal bulls to counter the old ones. Conveniently for them, the pope at the time was Alexander VI, a native of Valencia and a friend of the Spanish king. Therefore, papal bulls that favored the Spanish were easily obtained. One of these bulls, Inter caetera , stated that all lands to the west and south of a pole-to-pole line of 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde islands would belong to Spain, apart from any lands ruled by Christians, which would be left untouched. Another bull, Dudum siquidem , entitled Extension of the Apostolic Grant and Donation of the Indies , gave Spain all the mainlands and islands of ‘India’ to Spain, even if they were situated east of the line.

Pope Alexander VI. Detail from a fresco of the resurrection, painted in 1492 - 1495 by Pinturicchio. ( Public Domain )


Portugal's geography, politics, and personality came together to encourage it to become a nautical power. The country faces outward to the Atlantic, with 1,118 miles (1,800 km) of coastline. But, looking eastward toward the most vibrant trading centers, Portugal found itself relatively far away, with difficult land routes and no coastline on the Mediterranean. While to the west, Portugal had navigable rivers and deep, natural ports, including Lisbon and Setubal, to provide safe harbor, to the east were disadvantages of cost, time, and hazard.

One such hazard was enemies, including the kingdoms that became Spain on its own peninsula and the powerful Moors to the south. The Moors, in fact, still held the territory south of Lisbon as late as 1200.

Despite foreign conflicts, the people of Portugal were relatively tolerant. Portugal's population originated from a variety of different tribes, including Celtic, African, Iberian, English, and Germanic. This encouraged a cultural broad-mindedness that gave the Portuguese critical access to tools like the compass (from Islamic countries) and maps (from Jews).

By the fifteenth century, Portugal was united internally and at peace with Spain. At the same time, it was hemmed in by the Moors to the south. The possibilities for expansion and trade were revealed when Henry the Navigator went on a crusade that seized the city of Ceuta in 1415. This trading center was filled with shops, precious metals, jewels, and spices. However, the captured city's trade stopped with the departure of the Moors, and Portugal was left with a hollow victory. If Portugal could find a route around the Moors to the East, it could participate in this rich trade directly.

Their primary trading need was pepper, which both helped preserve food and made heavily salted meat palatable. Because of Portugal's location, goods from the East went through many middlemen, and the costs to the Portuguese were high. With direct access to the East, Portugal hoped to lower prices and capture a portion of the wealth of trading. But trade was not the only reason exploration became a national goal for the Portuguese. In fact, it was 20 years before the acquisition of African slaves brought the first returns on their investments. There was another reason—conversions.

Portugal was at the forefront of the struggle between Christian and Islamic religion. Like Spain, many of its territories had been held by Islamic powers. Islamic strongholds were just across the Gulf of Cadiz, and the Popes were formally blessing crusades against the Moors. Though there was a political basis for the enmity, there was also a rising tide of religious fervor within Portugal that led to forced conversions and trials of inquisition. Within this context, the zeal for gaining religious converts rose, and the spread of Christianity became an important motivation for exploration.

To this was added the curious legend of Prester John, a wise and powerful Christian leader located in the East. The story probably originated from misinformation about the Mongol Empire, a bogus letter from Prester John to European rulers, and wishful thinking. But the Portuguese accepted the existence of Prester John as fact, and pursued a strategy to link up with this Christian ally and outflank the followers of Islam. Rather than being contained and controlled by the Moors, Portugal would contain and control its rival.

Besides trade and conversions, curiosity was also a powerful motive for exploration that should not be underestimated. Henry the Navigator had seen the economic stakes in Ceuta and had sacrificed a ransomed brother to the cause of the spread of Christianity. But he was also hungry for new knowledge, and Portugal's adventures in exploration really began with his leadership and his financial backing of a center for exploration in Sagres. It was there that better maps were drawn, navigational instruments were adopted, and a new kind of ship, the caravel, was developed. Quick, lightweight, and able to sail windward, the caravel become the key vehicle for discovery. Christopher Columbus's (1451?-1506) Nina and Pinta were both caravels. Most significantly, Henry systematically sent voyage after voyage down along the coast of Africa. This was unprecedented. He persisted even when the only benefit to Portugal was increase in the extent of known geography. Progress came to a halt when Henry's captains came to a bump on the coastline known as Cape Bojador. This was purportedly a point of no return to pass it meant being killed or lost forever. Fifteen times over the course of 10 years captains were sent to take on this challenge for king and country, and 15 times they came back with word that it was impossible. Finally, Henry made Gil Eannes (?-1435?) swear that he would not return unless he had gone south of the Cape and, in 1435, Eannes rounded Cape Bojador, opening up territories south for further exploration. By Henry's death in 1460, the Portuguese had gone all the way to what would become Liberia, 1,864 miles (3,000 km) into unknown territory by 1482, the Portuguese had gone as far as the Congo by 1485, Bartholomeu Dias (1450?-1500) had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and by 1499 Vasco da Gama (1460?-1524) had completed his trip to India. For the next hundred years, Portugal dominated the spice trade and was a world power.

Vasco da Gama

It was during the Age of Discoveries that Europe developed sea routes and trading connections with Asia. Explorer Vasco da Gama, born in Portugal’s Alentejo region, was the first European to reach India by water, having developed a route around Africa. He is also credited as having a strong influence on Portugal’s booming empire at that time, having opened a path for Indian spice trades to Europe. Portugal was the first country to introduce real cinnamon to Europe, after other attempts had failed.


People from the Neolithic period traded in spices, obsidian, sea shells, precious stones and other high-value materials as early as the 10th millennium BC. The first to mention the trade in historical periods are the Egyptians. In the 3rd millennium BC, they traded with the Land of Punt, which is believed to have been situated in an area encompassing northern Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and the Red Sea coast of Sudan. [6] [7]

The spice trade was associated with overland routes early on, but maritime routes proved to be the factor which helped the trade grow. [1] The first true maritime trade network in the Indian Ocean was by the Austronesian peoples of Island Southeast Asia, [8] who built the first ocean-going ships. [9] They established trade routes with Southern India and Sri Lanka as early as 1500 BC, ushering an exchange of material culture (like catamarans, outrigger boats, lashed-lug and sewn-plank boats, and paan) and cultigens (like coconuts, sandalwood, bananas, and sugarcane), as well as connecting the material cultures of India and China. Indonesians in particular were trading in spices (mainly cinnamon and cassia) with East Africa using catamaran and outrigger boats and sailing with the help of the westerlies in the Indian Ocean. This trade network expanded to reach as far as Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the Austronesian colonization of Madagascar by the first half of the first millennium AD. It continued into historic times, later becoming the Maritime Silk Road. [8] [10] [11] [12] [13]

In the first millennium BC the Arabs, Phoenicians, and Indians were also engaged in sea and land trade in luxury goods such as spices, gold, precious stones, leather of exotic animals, ebony and pearls. The sea trade was in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The sea route in the Red Sea was from Bab-el-Mandeb to Berenike, from there by land to the Nile, and then by boats to Alexandria. Luxury goods including Indian spices, ebony, silk and fine textiles were traded along the overland incense route. [1]

In the second half of the first millennium BC the Arab tribes of South and West Arabia took control over the land trade of spices from South Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea. These tribes were the M'ain, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Saba and Himyarite. In the north the Nabateans took control of the trade route that crossed the Negev from Petra to Gaza. The trade enriched these tribes. South Arabia was called Eudaemon Arabia (the elated Arabia) by the Greeks and was on the agenda of conquests of Alexander of Macedonia before he died. The Indians and the Arabs had control over the sea trade with India. In the late second century BC, the Greeks from the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt learned from the Indians how to sail directly from Aden to the west coast of India using the monsoon winds (as did Hippalus) and took control of the sea trade via Red Sea ports. [14]

Spices are discussed in biblical narratives, and there is literary evidence for their use in ancient Greek and Roman society. There is a record from Tamil texts of Greeks purchasing large sacks of black pepper from India, and many recipes in the 1st-century Roman cookbook Apicius make use of the spice. The trade in spices lessened after the fall of the Roman Empire, but demand for ginger, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg revived the trade in later centuries. [15]

Rome played a part in the spice trade during the 5th century, but this role, unlike the Arabian one, did not last through the Middle Ages. [1] The rise of Islam brought a significant change to the trade as Radhanite Jewish and Arab merchants, particularly from Egypt, eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant to Europe. At times, Jews enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the spice trade in large parts of Western Europe. [16]

The spice trade had brought great riches to the Abbasid Caliphate and inspired famous legends such as that of Sinbad the Sailor. These early sailors and merchants would often set sail from the port city of Basra and, after many ports of call, would return to sell their goods, including spices, in Baghdad. The fame of many spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon are attributed to these early spice merchants. [17] [ failed verification ]

The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th and 8th centuries. [18] Arab traders — mainly descendants of sailors from Yemen and Oman — dominated maritime routes throughout the Indian Ocean, tapping source regions in the Far East and linking to the secret "spice islands" (Maluku Islands and Banda Islands). The islands of Molucca also find mention in several records: a Javanese chronicle (1365) mentions the Moluccas and Maloko, [19] and navigational works of the 14th and 15th centuries contain the first unequivocal Arab reference to Moluccas. [19] Sulaima al-Mahr writes: "East of Timor [where sandalwood is found] are the islands of Bandam and they are the islands where nutmeg and mace are found. The islands of cloves are called Maluku . " [19]

Moluccan products were shipped to trading emporiums in India, passing through ports like Kozhikode in Kerala and through Sri Lanka. [20] From there they were shipped westward across the ports of Arabia to the Near East, to Ormus in the Persian Gulf and Jeddah in the Red Sea and sometimes to East Africa, where they were used for many purposes, including burial rites. [20] The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf as entry ports to trade with India and China. [21] Merchants arriving from India in the port city of Aden paid tribute in form of musk, camphor, ambergris and sandalwood to Ibn Ziyad, the sultan of Yemen. [21]

Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (14th century). [20] Chinese traveler Xuanzang mentions the town of Puri where "merchants depart for distant countries." [22]

From there, overland routes led to the Mediterranean coasts. From the 8th until the 15th century, maritime republics (Republic of Venice, Republic of Pisa, Republic of Genoa, Duchy of Amalfi, Duchy of Gaeta, Republic of Ancona and Republic of Ragusa [23] ) held a monopoly on European trade with the Middle East. The silk and spice trade, involving spices, incense, herbs, drugs and opium, made these Mediterranean city-states rich. Spices were among the most expensive and in-demand products of the Middle Ages, used in medicine as well as in the kitchen. They were all imported from Asia and Africa. Venetian and other navigators of maritime republics then distributed the goods through Europe.

The Ottoman Empire, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, barred Europeans from important combined land-sea routes. [24]

The Republic of Venice had become a formidable power and a key player in the Eastern spice trade. [25] Other powers, in an attempt to break the Venetian hold on spice trade, began to build up maritime capability. [1] Until the mid-15th century, trade with the East was achieved through the Silk Road, with the Byzantine Empire and the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa acting as middlemen.

In 1453, however, the Ottoman Empire took control of the sole spice trade route that existed at the time after the fall of Constantinople, and were in a favorable position to charge hefty taxes on merchandise bound for the west. The Western Europeans, [ which? ] not wanting to be dependent on an expansionist, non-Christian power for the lucrative commerce with the East, set out to find an alternative route by sea around Africa. [ citation needed ]

The first country to attempt to circumnavigate Africa was Portugal, which had, since the early 15th century, begun to explore northern Africa under Henry the Navigator. Emboldened by these early successes and eyeing a lucrative monopoly on a possible sea route to the Indies, the Portuguese first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 on an expedition led by Bartolomeu Dias. [26] Just nine years later in 1497, on the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama continued beyond to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi and sailed across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, on the Malabar Coast in Kerala [5] in South India — the capital of the local Zamorin rulers. The wealth of the Indies was now open for the Europeans to explore the Portuguese Empire was the earliest European seaborne empire to grow from the spice trade. [5]

In 1511, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca for Portugal, then the center of Asian trade. East of Malacca, Albuquerque sent several diplomatic and exploratory missions, including to the Moluccas. Learning the secret location of the Spice Islands, mainly the Banda Islands, then the world source of nutmeg, he sent an expedition led by António de Abreu to Banda, where they were the first Europeans to arrive, in early 1512. [27] Abreu's expedition reached Buru, Ambon and Seram Islands, and then Banda.

From 1507 to 1515 Albuquerque tried to completely block Arab and other traditional routes that stretched from the shores of Western Pacific to the Mediterranean Sea, through the conquest of strategic bases in the Persian Gulf and at the entry of the Red Sea.

By the early 16th century the Portuguese had complete control of the African sea route, which extended through a long network of routes that linked three oceans, from the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) in the Pacific Ocean limits, through Malacca, Kerala and Sri Lanka, to Lisbon in Portugal.

The Crown of Castile had organized the expedition of Christopher Columbus to compete with Portugal for the spice trade with Asia, but when Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (in what is now Haiti) instead of in the Indies, the search for a route to Asia was postponed until a few years later. After Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, the Spanish Crown prepared a westward voyage by Ferdinand Magellan in order to reach Asia from Spain across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On October 21, 1520, his expedition crossed the Strait of Magellan in the southern tip of South America, opening the Pacific to European exploration. On March 16, 1521, the ships reached the Philippines and soon after the Spice Islands, ultimately resulting decades later in the Manila Galleon trade, the first westward spice trade route to Asia. After Magellan's death in the Philippines, navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano took command of the expedition and drove it across the Indian Ocean and back to Spain, where they arrived in 1522 aboard the last remaining ship, the Victoria. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, Spain controlled a vast trade network that linked three continents: Asia, the Americas and Europe. A global spice route had been created: from Manila in the Philippines (Asia) to Seville in Spain (Europe), via Acapulco in Mexico (North America).

One of the most important technological exchanges of the spice trade network was the early introduction of maritime technologies to India, the Middle East, East Africa, and China by the Austronesian peoples. These technologies include the plank-sewn hulls, catamarans, outrigger boats, and possibly the lateen sail. This is still evident in Sri Lankan and South Indian languages. For example, Tamil paṭavu, Telugu paḍava, and Kannada paḍahu, all meaning "ship", are all derived from Proto-Hesperonesian *padaw, "sailboat", with Austronesian cognates like Javanese perahu, Kadazan padau, Maranao padaw, Cebuano paráw, Samoan folau, Hawaiian halau, and Māori wharau. [11] [10] [12]

Austronesians also introduced many Austronesian cultigens to southern India, Sri Lanka, and eastern Africa that figured prominently in the spice trade. [28] They include bananas, [29] Pacific domesticated coconuts, [30] [31] Dioscorea yams, [32] wetland rice, [29] sandalwood, [33] giant taro, [34] Polynesian arrowroot, [35] ginger, [36] lengkuas, [28] tailed pepper, [37] betel, [38] areca nut, [38] and sugarcane. [39] [40]

Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments of Southeast Asia came to be associated with economic activity and commerce as patrons, entrusted large funds which would later be used to benefit local economies by estate management, craftsmanship, and promotion of trading activities. [41] Buddhism, in particular, traveled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art, and literacy. [42] Islam spread throughout the East, reaching maritime Southeast Asia in the 10th century Muslim merchants played a crucial part in the trade. [43] Christian missionaries, such as Saint Francis Xavier, were instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the East. [43] Christianity competed with Islam to become the dominant religion of the Moluccas. [43] However, the natives of the Spice Islands accommodated to aspects of both religions easily. [44]

The Portuguese colonial settlements saw traders such as the Gujarati banias, South Indian Chettis, Syrian Christians, Chinese from Fujian province, and Arabs from Aden involved in the spice trade. [45] Epics, languages, and cultural customs were borrowed by Southeast Asia from India, and later China. [3] Knowledge of Portuguese language became essential for merchants involved in the trade. [46] The colonial pepper trade drastically changed the experience of modernity in Europe, and in Kerala and it brought, along with colonialism, early capitalism to India's Malabar Coast, changing cultures of work and caste. [47]

Indian merchants involved in spice trade took Indian cuisine to Southeast Asia, notably present day Malaysia and Indonesia, where spice mixtures and black pepper became popular. [48] Conversely, Southeast Asian cuisine and crops was also introduced to India and Sri Lanka, where rice cakes and coconut milk-based dishes are still dominant. [28] [30] [29] [36] [49]

European people intermarried with Indian and popularized valuable culinary skills, such as baking, in India. [50] Indian food, adapted to the European palate, became visible in England by 1811 as exclusive establishments began catering to the tastes of both the curious and those returning from India. [51] Opium was a part of the spice trade, and some people involved in the spice trade were driven by opium addiction. [52] [53]