8/21/13 - the world's first global empire was portuguese

In today's selection -- before it was supplanted by the Dutch, who in turn were supplanted by the British, it was Portugal that built the world's first global empire. As with the other European empires of this era, it was built largely on slavery and spices. The legacy of this empire can be found around the world today in such notable former Portuguese possessions as Zanzibar, Brazil, Macau, Goa, Angola, Guinea, Malacca, and Mozambique. It was Portugal's Prince Henry who mastered the ship building techniques that led to the Age of Discovery, but at first Europeans were shunned by the major countries of Asia, as when the inhabitants of Calicut laughed at Vasco da Gama in 1498 because he had nothing to offer which could compare with what Arab traders had already brought to India from other parts of Asia. But with their new-found technological superiority, the tiny countries of Europe soon had one-third of the world's land and population under their control:

"Africa and Asia were the first targets against which Europeans' advan­tages were deployed. In these continents, the Portuguese led for a century and more. They figured so largely and were so successful in the opening of routes to the East that their king took the title (confirmed by the pope) 'Lord of the conquest, navigation and commerce of India, Ethiopia, Arabia and Persia', which sufficiently indicates both the scope and the eastern bias of Portuguese enterprise, though slightly misleading in its reference to Ethi­opia, with which Portuguese contacts were small. ...

"The coastal stations of West Africa were unhealthy for Europeans and could only be tolerated because of their importance in the slave trade and the substructure of long-range commerce. The East African stations were less unhealthy, but they, too, were of interest not as jumping-off points for the interior, but because they were part of a commercial network created by Arabs, whom the Por­tuguese deliberately harried so as to send up the cost of the spices passed by way of the Red Sea and the Middle East to the Venetian merchants of the eastern Mediterranean. ...

"The Portuguese dominated ... trade in the sixteenth century; their fire­power swept all before them and they rapidly built up a chain of bases and trading posts on which rested the first global empire. Twelve years after Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut the Portuguese established their main Indian Ocean trading station some 300 miles further up the western Indian coast, at Goa. It was to become a missionary as well as a commercial centre; once established, the Portuguese empire strongly supported the propaga­tion of the faith, and the Franciscans played a large part in this. In 1513 the first Portuguese ships reached the Moluccas, the legendary spice islands, and the incorporation of Indonesia, South-East Asia and islands as far south as Timor within the European horizon began. Four years later the first Portuguese ships reached China, and opened direct European trade by sea with that empire. Ten years later they were allowed to use Macao as a trading base; in 1557 they obtained a permanent settlement there [and] were in possession of a monopoly of eastern empire for the next half century. Later they would connect it to their possessions in Brazil and Africa, viewing their overseas strongholds as the anchorages of a sea-borne trading empire.

"The Portuguese [also traded] as carriers between Asian countries. Persian carpets went to India, cloves from the Moluccas to China, copper and silver from Japan to China, Indian cloth to Siam (Thailand), all in European ships. The Portuguese and their successors found this a profitable source of income to offset some of the costs of Europe's unfavourable bal­ance of trade with Asia, whose inhabitants long wanted little from Europe except silver. The only serious competitors at sea were the Arabs and they were controlled effectively by Portuguese squadrons. ... The Por­tuguese expanded their commerce eventually to trade into the Red Sea as far as Massawa and up to the head of the Persian Gulf, where they estab­lished a factory at Basra [in Iraq]. They had also secured privileges in Burma and Siam and in the 1540s were the first Europeans to land in Japan.

"Portugal's supremacy in the Indian Ocean disguised fundamental weak­nesses: a lack of manpower and a shaky financial base. It lasted only until the end of the century and was then replaced by that of the Dutch, who carried the technique and institutions of commercial empire to their fur­thest point."


J.M. Roberts & Odd Arne Westad


The History of the World


Oxford University Press


Copyright 1976, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2013 by J.M. roberts and 2013 by Odd Arne Westad


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