The Impact of Portuguese on Maritime Trade in the Indian Ocean

Published: 2021-08-02 08:50:06
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In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese transformed maritime trade in the Indian Ocean through almost complete domination of the seas and control of profits made from trade. They were the leading country in European overseas exploration at the time, being the first to discover a route to India via the Cape of Good Hope around Africa. The Portuguese established over fifty major trading posts between West Africa and East Asia, including Hormuz and Melaka, and by doing so they were able to control and dominate over most of the trade and commerce in the Indian Ocean. To eliminate the Muslim traders, or the “middlemen”, they developed direct trade routes to gain the most profit from commerce in the Indian Ocean. Their use of ships with advanced technology also aided in their domination of the seas, as they carried gunpowder and utilized cannons on board for the purpose of protection and to efficiently conquer trading posts.
During the sixteenth century, maritime trade underwent a huge technological transformation. Most of the maritime technological advancements were influenced by the Chinese. In the 12th century, the Chinese introduced the rudder which made it easier to steer larger ships. The square sails used on ships were replaced by the triangular lateen sail, which worked better with crosswinds on the ocean. Perhaps the most impactful invention developed by the Chinese, the compass, allowed mariners to navigate their way through the ocean more easily than using the mapping of the stars for navigation. As these advancements reached Europe, explorers were able to begin to voyaging the oceans for purposes of discovery, trade, and conquering new lands. As a result, new direct routes were discovered and the importance of trade for items such as silk, spices, and porcelain significantly increased. Many European countries, such as Portugal, established trading ports in major cities to gain the most profit from the exchange of goods. Therefore, several European countries were able to grow their economy through commerce and solidify their presence around the world as a dominating force in trade. Although their maritime voyage led to some disputes between countries, the positives of trade far outweighed the negative aspects. Maritime exploration and trade had the ability to unify a vast number of countries, encouraged the spread of ideas and religion, and aided in the spread of necessary and luxury goods otherwise unavailable in some countries.The Portuguese were able to secure domination in the Indian Ocean primarily due to their control over the Muslim trading ports and their subjects. In Document 1, Muslim merchants write the following to the ruler of Calicut: “The true intent of the Portuguese is coming into these seas is to take possession of your city, and not to trade for the spices as they pretend. The place you have given them for a trading post, they will convert into a fort, from where they will make war on you when you least expect it.” This quote shows the impact of Portuguese control from a Muslim perspective. Although the motive for Portuguese exploration of the Indian Ocean was to trade and profit from spices, it seemed that at times they were ruthless and aggressive with the Muslim merchants. As they moved into the Muslim ports, they took over and controlled the port completely and required the Muslims to comply, leading them to be called “pirates” rather than merchants. Documents 2 and 4 support this idea as well. The power of the Portuguese is clearly expressed in Document 2, where a government official employed in a Portuguese trading post stated “And after the king of Portugal made himself master there, and these Muslims saw that they could not defend their position there, they began to leave Calicut, so that very few of them remain today.” The Portuguese had powerful weapons on their ship that set them apart from other countries, so they were able to threaten the Muslim merchants enough for most of them to flee. The document also mentions that although the Muslims were previously able to withstand and overpower the Hindus, the Portuguese were so advanced in their weaponry they were able to conquer the once powerful Muslims. Therefore, with total control over the port at Calicut, the Portuguese were able to make a large profit off of luxurious goods. Lastly, Portuguese dominance is clearly expressed in Document 4, as the ruler of the Sultanate of Aceh, a Muslim state, stated “When our ships arrive there, the Portuguese stop and take possession of as many as they can. Any ship they cannot capture they sink with cannon fire, either leaving the Muslims aboard to drown or capturing and enslaving them.” This quote shows the effect that the sophisticated weaponry and the ambition of the Portuguese to have total control had on the Muslim traders and their ships in the Indian Ocean. Because of the threatening nature the Portuguese held in the Indian Ocean, the Muslims felt that they were unable to protect themselves due to their lack of powerful weapons and many died as a result of their attacks. These examples show that the Portuguese had no mercy towards the Muslims and even resorted to violent attacks to dominate the ports and use it to their advantage for a significant profit.
The Portuguese were also able to impact maritime trade in the Indian Ocean due to their enormous profits and monopolization of trade. By taking control of major port cities, the Portuguese had a significant economic advantage over many countries. For example, the
Portuguese felt a sense of competition from the Turks in the Ottoman Empire within the spice trade and quickly made efforts to try and stop them from having any advantage over them. In Document 3, a Portuguese court official wrote to the King of Portugal stating “If the Turks were allowed to travel freely to India, and establish their own trading-posts, and trade in merchandise wherever they wished, Your Majesty’s own profits would suffer greatly.” This quote shows that the main objective of the Portuguese was to have total control of the spice trade, and the only way for them to make sure this wasn’t stripped away from them was to make efforts to stop the Turks from trading with India. The Portuguese quickly acted on any kind of competition from other countries to ensure that all profits from trade went directly to them. The sizeable profits made by the Portuguese through trade are represented in Document 7. Document 7 shows an inlaid box made for export to Portugal from India, made of luxurious materials such as “teak, ebony, and other precious hardwoods, with ivory details.” Due to Portugal’s control of trade within the Indian Ocean, they were able to import expensive goods that other countries were unable to obtain. Items like the box shown, as well as spices and gold, helped the Portuguese grow their economy and hold a leading position in global trade. Although Portugal was successful in their trading for the most part, they came across some issues as well. As written in Document 6, “…the pepper that goes to Portugal from Cochin is not as good as the pepper that goes to Arabia and Persia because the Portuguese had made a contract with the king of Cochin to buy the pepper at a very low price. Because of that, the Indian pepper growers bring their worst product to the Portuguese and sell them pepper that is green and full of filth.” The Portuguese made great efforts to purchase luxurious goods for a cheap price in order to make the most profit, but in some instances, this caused them to receive cheaper, lower-quality products from some countries in return. Countries that fairly traded with the merchants in Cambay, such as those in Arabia and Persia, received higher-quality goods from the merchants, proving that Portugal’s methods were not always successful.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that Portugal made a significant impact on maritime trade within the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century. Through domination of the seas and the people they encountered, advanced weaponry, and monopolization of the import of luxury goods, they were able to significantly benefit their economy and rise up to be the leading country in trade at the time. Their trading methods and tactics set an example for countries to follow, such as the Dutch, and their discoveries made along their journeys allowed other countries to continue finding maritime routes to profitable port cities. Portugal’s dominant role on the seas and trade set the stage for a world that would continue to be unified by commerce.

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