Portuguese Empire

The map shows those places and coasts explored by Portuguese pioneers, sometimes overland but generally by sea. These journeys are referred to in history as the Discoveries – meaning, of course, that the relevant places were then discovered/revealed to western Europeans. The importance of the discoveries lay in the establishment of a world-wide network of connections, and in the initiation of that extraordinary expansion of European influence which has marked history since the late 15th century. □ Maps showing the extent of Portuguese discoveries quite often vary in detail, for new evidence still surfaces and historians assess the old evidence differently. For early explorations could not be confidently registered in some international court, able to adjudicate between rivals. Besides, the finding of yet more land was not in itself of particular importance: what mattered was whether it yielded something valuable at once (such as gold) or likely to be valuable soon (by way of trade). The Portuguese regarded their discoveries as trade secrets: the first port of call for returning navigators was the Casa da Índia where log-books and charts were deposited under a seal of security. There too a secret ‘planisphere’/world map was maintained, constantly adjusted by a team of map-makers and cosmographical experts. The Casa da Índia, a part of the royal palace, was on the bank of the Tagus in Lisbon. It was destroyed, with all its priceless records, by the Great Earthquake of 1755 – the collapse of the building, the devastating fires, the tidal waves. The loss of the primary, direct evidence of the journeys of the Portuguese pioneers means that historians have had to rely on oblique references and pirated documents. Thus, a voyage to Greenland and probably Northern Canada (Barcelos and Lavrador 1492–5) is known to have occurred – not from log-books but from the records of a law-suit in 1506. Don Antonio Lombardo, sailing round the world with Magellan, wrote in his diary in 1520 about the intricate passage through the Straits of Magellan: ‘Had it not been for the Captain General, we would not have found the strait, and we all thought and said it was closed on all sides. But he himself knew full well where to sail to find the well-hidden strait, which he had seen depicted on a map in the Treasury of the King of Portugal, which was made by that excellent man, Martin Behaim.’ Had someone, one wonders, indeed ventured so far south and previously reported the position of the strait to the Casa da Índia? A planisphere by Behaim still exists; embodying some Portuguese discoveries; it was made in 1492 on commission for the merchants of Nuremberg. Such pirating of Portuguese maps (theoretically punishable by death) was a considerable business. Bartolomeo Columbus, who worked in the Lisbon royal map workshop, joined his brother Christopher in Spain before 1489, bringing a copy of the secret world map, smuggled out on eleven sheets of paper, which he then sold in Italy to raise funds. Alberto Cantino, sent by Duke Ercole d’Este of Ferrara and posing as a purchaser of pure bred horses, obtained a copy of the secret Lisbon world map, by bribery, in 1502. His version surfaced in an Italian library – but only 450 years later. Even in the 1990s, Australian historians re-examining the ‘Dieppe’ maps (made by a school of copyists producing French versions of smuggled Portuguese originals) concluded that the Portuguese had explored at any rate the north-west coast of Australia (and some evidence points to the north-east and south-west coast as well) early in the 16th century.

This map shows routes between Portugal and India and some factors which determined them. □ Vasco da Gama’s long and dangerous voyage to the Indies and back – three times longer and much more intricate than the journey across the Atlantic – was a technical triumph of seamanship. Sailing vessels, powered solely by natural forces, are subject still to hazards of wind and sea; in addition, reefs, island outcrops and coastal obtrusions, now thoroughly mapped, were then little known; patterns of dominant currents and prevailing winds – shifting radically in the course of the year – had still to be established; longitude could not be fixed with much accuracy, and latitude only by the painstaking compilation of tables of the sun’s declination, seasonally, at different points on the globe; the movement of stars in unfamiliar southern skies had still to be plotted… and so on. The reduction of some of these hazards occupied Portuguese nautical science in the ten years between Dias finding open sea beyond the Cape and da Gama sailing for the Indies. In that period also the Portuguese, who had used tiny, manoeuvrable caravels for their early explorations, developed the nau, a much larger, well-armed vessel, suited to carrying substantial trade cargoes over long distances. Once da Gama had shown the way, a regular annual trading fleet – the Carreira da Índia – sailed from Lisbon to India on a two-year round trip. Additional trading posts were rapidly established down India’s Malabar and Cochin coasts and the Portuguese swarmed throughout the East, within thirty years reaching China. □ Of these Asian developments, Adam Smith wrote, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776): ‘The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind… the empires of China, Indostan, Japan, as well as several others in the East Indies, without having richer mines of gold or silver, were in every respect much richer, better cultivated and more advanced in all arts and manufactures than either Mexico or Peru… rich and civilized nations can always exchange to a much greater value with one another, than with savages and barbarians.’ The influence of the East in the development of the West was varied and great: in civility and thought, in the introduction of economic and decorative plants, in medicine, in craftsmanship; above all, in the creation of numerous trade goods – spices, fine cloth, jewels, porcelain… which triggered that rapid growth in the wealth of the West, and that sense of new horizons, and new opportunities, which sparked the High Renaissance.

Portugal’s first empire in Asia was based on control of trade: territorial occupation was generally limited to the seizure of key emporiums and entrepôts, such as Mombasa and Malacca, and the fortification of strategic towns, such as Goa and Hormuz. From these secure places, Portuguese armed ships patrolled the established sea lanes used by oriental merchants (in some places even issuing licences for a fee), attacking pirates (a serious, widespread, hazard to trade) and extending a protective arm over numerous Portuguese ‘factories’ – communities of merchants – settled in the countries of the East. Portuguese became the lingua franca among traders of all races throughout the region, as widespread linguistic traces of Portuguese words testify to this day. This map  shows the principal Portuguese forts and trading settlements and the main commodities handled by the Portuguese in Ásia Portuguesa. In the 16th century, Portugal’s superiority in ships, guns and navigational technique, the success of her soldiers and her merchants, enabled the Portuguese to dominate trade both within the region (for example, between distant China and Japan) and also between the region and Europe.

Oriental spices, of inflated economic value, had many uses: as condiments, in preserving food, in the preparation of medicines, perfumes, glues, lacquers, varnishes, dyes, in the processes of tanning, and many others. These spices reached Europe by a variety of routes, such as via the Red Sea or Persian Gulf to Alexandria, where Venetian traders would take over distribution throughout Europe. The new maritime route via the Cape, obviating caravans and a host of intermediaries, allowed the Portuguese to sell the spices at a much lower price.

A second expedition – military as much as mercantile – composed of no less than thirteen vessels, heavily armed with artillery, was set in motion, commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, of noble lineage, no mere squire. Instead of following the course of da Gama, it sailed further into the Atlantic, sighting Brazil. It is still being argued whether the discovery was premeditated or accidental. It is possible that the landfall was unforeseen, but there is convincing evidence that by that date the Portuguese knew of the existence of the continent.

From then on, in the spring of each year, a fleet would sail to India, with a complement of soldiers, adventurers and missionaries; and with merchandise to be bartered – for pepper on the Malabar coast, for example. In spite of the frightful rate of mortality en route, which might reach over 50 per cent, the numbers hankering to join increased every year. India seemed to be the answer to every problem. For the king, it provided what grew to be his main source of revenue; nobles and administrators hoped to grow fat on the profits of office; and for the others it was at least employment, for at home economic activity was stagnant.

Eastern trade involved unusual difficulties, for the traffic had long been dominated by Muslims, who, not unnaturally, sought to exclude competition, and to this end would go to any lengths. At first they stirred up trouble with the Indian princes, and later solicited the support of Turkish squadrons in an attempt to chase the Portuguese intruders from their patch – the Indian Ocean. Pedro Álvares Cabral had bombarded Calicut as early as 1500 for refusing to sell him spices; but this was only the opening salvo in hostilities which were to drag on for a century and a half. The Portuguese had to counter not only local Indian forces but the Turks, and later the Dutch and English. Finally, by the mid-seventeenth century England and Holland had taken over the Portuguese position of supremacy in trading with the Orient.

A prominent figure in the early years of the struggle was Afonso de Albuquerque, who devised an ambitious plan to occupy those ports controlling trade routes to the East. His strategic plans were largely achieved: Ormuz, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, was taken in 1507, and Malacca, commanding the shipping route east towards the Pacific, was captured in 1511. But all attempts to close the Red Sea to the Turks by seizing Aden failed, and for years the Turks continued to harry Portuguese traders both at sea and on land. The Portuguese occupied several other positions of vital importance to trade, among them Colombo, on the island of Ceylon; Pacém, on Sumatra; Ternate, in the Moluccas; and Maçaim, Damão and Diu on the western coast of the Indian peninsula.

The Portuguese in India

‘India’ was the topographical name at first used by the Portuguese to describe Asia and the Orient in general, from the East Africa coast to Japan. Throughout this vast area the Portuguese established settlements: these might be forts, or factories (the name applied to a trading station), or ports with which they traded and where they then chose to put down roots. The most impressive document describing the spontaneous proliferation of settlements beyond any official pattern is the Peregrinação of Fernão Mendes Pinto, a fascinating volume composed by an adventurer who acted out the roles of pirate, diplomat and missionary, and who was several times shipwrecked or taken prisoner.

The main seat of Portuguese power in Asia was Goa, taken by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510, which was to remain in Portuguese hands until 1960, when it was invaded by the Indian army. The Portuguese laid out an emporium on a European plan, with renaissance churches, of which imposing remains survive. Miscegenation between the Portuguese rank-and-file and the local women was encouraged, which rapidly generated a Catholic Indo-Portuguese population; and by the middle of the sixteenth century it was even considered the second city of Portugal, on account of its size and splendid buildings. The Jesuits made it their base for missionary activity in the Orient, erecting seminaries attended not only by Portuguese but by the natives of numerous Asian states. In 1584 an inaugural lecture was given in sixteen languages – from so many nations came the priests who taught there. An Italian Jesuit from Goa was to translate Euclid’s system of geometry into Chinese; a German Jesuit was responsible for reforming the Chinese calendar… such are merely two examples of the way aspects of European culture or science were disseminated in the East as well as Catholicism.

Commercial relations with China began at an early date. Already, by 1514, Tomé Pires, a Portuguese pharmacist, had compiled a book describing China, as well as other areas such as Malaysia, Java and Sumatra; it was translated into Italian and published in 1550. In 1515 Dom Manuel dispatched an embassy to the Chinese emperor, and its delegates, after great difficulty, achieved at last an audience at Peking. Soon, however, China reverted to what became its traditionally vigilant attitude by closing all gates to the outside world and excluding all foreigners from her shores.

But by then there were numerous independent Portuguese merchants trading in the China Sea. Defying such bans, they had established clandestine contacts between the Chinese ports and those of Japan, Manilla, Siam, Malacca, India, as well as back to Europe. In spite of imperial prohibitions, virtually all foreign trade with China passed into Portuguese hands, and the Chinese themselves soon came to appreciate the arrangement. In 1557 the astute mandarin of Canton found an ingenious way to circumvent the regulations by allocating to the Portuguese a small peninsula separated from the mainland by a narrow strait: Macao. Not being physically attached to China, it could carry on activities forbidden to the Chinese; what was once a small fishing-village rapidly expanded into a highly populated emporium which, until 1675, was the only ‘Chinese’ trading-post. From that date until the Opium War of 1839–44, the cosmopolitan port continued to play a vital role in Oriental trading with Europe. To this day Macao remains under Portuguese administration, its principal organ of government, the ‘Senado da Câmara’ having been established by the merchants in 1583.

The activities of merchants were closely linked to those of missionaries. In a document of 1586 Macao is referred to as ‘Porto do Nome de Deus na China’ – the Harbour of God’s Name in China. It served not only as the centre of trade but also as the back door by which the Jesuits infiltrated China and various Pacific communities.

As with China, commercial relations with Japan were for some time a Portuguese monopoly. Portuguese adventurers had settled on the Japanese archipelago in 1540, with their principal base at Nagasaki, where the landscape, with the town facing the sea, reminded them of Lisbon. Nagasaki was also a centre of Jesuit activity. Fernão Mendes Pinto (referred to above), one of the first Portuguese engaged in the Japan trade, gave money to St Francis Xavier to build a church, the first in Japan. Missionary influence there was so great that historians have even referred to the period 1540 to 1630 as ‘The Christian Century in Japan’. However, Nagasaki was destined to become known for another reason: in 1945, by an irony of history, an American plane was diverted from its original target by bad weather and dropped the last and largest atomic bomb on Nagasaki – the traditional centre of Christianity and Western influence in Japan.

Portuguese served as the international language of commerce throughout the Orient during the seventeenth century, leaving traces in many Asian languages. At this time there were numerous Portuguese traders in Africa, and Brazil had begun its astounding growth through Amazonia and to the Andes. The Portuguese language was acquiring a global spread. Today, as the official language of some 200 million users world-wide, it ranks third numerically, after English and Spanish, among European languages.

The economic consequences of expansion

This widespread dispersion of the Portuguese – throughout the Atlantic islands, Brazil, in the area of Guiné, and around the Orient – had marked consequences on both their economy and attitude to life. Garcia de Resende, a secretary to Dom João II, described in his Miscellany the astonishing events to which he was witness. What had been a comparatively small provincial court at Lisbon had become one of the largest in Christendom (Dom Manuel provided for some 4,000 retainers). It was the honey-pot to which all flocked in the hope of obtaining advancement. Everything depended on the king; nothing could be gained without his approval. All appointments to high office among the clergy were made by him (two of Dom João II’s brothers were nominated cardinals, one at seven years of age), and all grants of land and honours to the nobility were his to distribute. Royal consent was indispensable before any commercial operation abroad was undertaken. In this way the court ceased to be merely the seat of the country’s government, and became the focus of every sort of activity.

With such wealth entering the country, the king was dependent no longer on taxes and services provided by the populace, who thus lost all political influence. Legal reforms put an end to the independence of councils, and provided for the centralization of administration and the standardization of all excise. The Cortes did not meet for twenty-three years (1502–25) in spite of petitions that they should do so every decade at least. The populace also denounced the parasitical court, the excessive bureaucracy, the impoverishment of the countryside, and vociferously protested their own penury.

By the mid-century the population of Lisbon had expanded to 100,000, including some 800 wealthy entrepreneurs, and 5,000 modest artisans and tradesmen; but the rest were functionaries, clerics, squires and other retainers and hangers-on of the nobility, job-hunters, and vagrants, which created a serious imbalance between producers and consumers. The active middle class suffered in consequence, being unable to keep up in the race against an illusory middle class without any economic role, surviving on appearances and hot air. With the exodus from the productive land to the sterile cities, the situation worsened, in 1521 approaching the point of actual famine, with migrating peasants dying by the roadside, while landowners attempted to put even further pressure on the farmers to make up for their falling profits. Many people were driven to take part in risky voyages of trade overseas or in outright emigration. From this period dates the maxim: ‘Those wishing to remain afloat, must choose Church, Court, or Boat.’

Oriental spices had to be paid for with the local legal tender or bartered for silver, copper, lead, fine fabrics, and so on, but these materials did not originate in Portugal, and had to be imported from northern Europe via the Portuguese factory in Flanders. Lisbon could only remain the hub of Oriental trade as long as it held the monopoly of both the trade itself and the transport of goods by sea from India, which enabled costs to be kept low. But by the middle of the sixteenth century, with the re-establishment of direct trading by the city states of Italy, prices in Portugal fell substantially. Even the Flanders factory had to be closed down and, added to this disaster, the public debt showed another dramatic increase. The State, having the monopoly of the trade in spices, sold in bulk to the great capitalists, mostly foreigners, for few Portuguese could afford to enter the market. Not only had all the luxury goods in which Lisbon indulged to be imported, but also arms, gunpowder and naval tackle were bought in – indeed, entire ships. Loans and foreign letters of credit proliferated, and by the mid-century foreign debts exceeded the annual revenue, and the interest payable equalled the value of a year’s income from the spice trade. The foreign debt became four times the internal debt, and the interest to be paid abroad reached 400,000 cruzados, while that paid to holders of government securities accounted for only 100,000. The deficit in the balance of trade continued to widen, although disguised by the re-export of foreign goods. Even if local manufacturers maintained their output, they showed no increase in production. An emergency economy set in, with the State focusing its attention on wealth originating overseas, and distancing itself from domestic problems. In the countryside the rural community found itself increasingly cut off, with its standard of living falling. Things had little changed, when in 1580, two Venetians visiting Portugal described the lower orders as surviving on a scanty fare of salty sardines, brown bread, and very little else.


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