World History 2 20 - 2.1.4 European Colonialism

In 1488, a Portuguese ship’s captain, Bartolomeu Dias, had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, but his restless crew made him turn back before he could further explore the Indian Ocean. Dias was one of many Portuguese explorers who had ventured out into the Atlantic Ocean in the fifteenth century following Portugal’s capture of the Muslim port of Ceuta on the Moroccan coast in 1415. Ceuta lay at the end of caravan routes that brought the gold of West Africa across the Sahara Desert. After he assumed the throne in 1433, King Edward of Portugal granted to his younger brother Henry (nicknamed “the Navigator” by historians in the nineteenth century) the right to authorize exploration south of Cape Bojador on the northwest coast of Morocco. Edward also gave Henry the rights to any profits derived from trade with regions that these explorers discovered.

Eager to find the source of West Africa’s gold, Henry sponsored voyages down the African coast. Gradually, the Portuguese advanced southward, establishing trading posts as they went. Although gold was the main object of trade, enslaved people were also purchased and sold in Lisbon. Henry collected a 20 percent tax on the trade and used the money to fund yet more voyages.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, access to the known routes to spices and other Asian goods that Europeans desired lay entirely in Muslim hands. Other Europeans had long resented the monopolization of the spice trade by the Venetians and Genoese, who had been granted trading concessions by the Ottomans. Now there was an even greater incentive to find new routes to the lands of the East. It was for this reason that, in 1492, Christopher Columbus, in the employ of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, ventured out into the Atlantic in search of an oceanic route to India.

In 1494, following Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, ratifying Pope Alexander VI’s decision that all non-Christian lands west of a line drawn one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, which Portugal already claimed, were to belong to Spain. Non-Christian lands east of the line were given to Portugal (Figure 2.11). Four years later, another Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, became the first European to sail all the way to India after rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

This map shows much of the world. Spain and Portugal in Europe are highlighted. The 1493 Papal division line runs horizontally, running through the middle of Greenland, the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the eastern-most tip of South America. The 1494 Treaty line is a few more degrees west. It runs horizontally through west Greenland, the western Atlantic Ocean, and eastern South America.
Figure 2.11 Without reference to the sovereignty of the people who lived there, the Treaty of Tordesillas granted all lands in Africa and Asia to Portugal. Spain received the Americas except the easternmost portion of South America, which eventually became the Portuguese colony of Brazil. (credit: “Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494” by “Ultimadesigns”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1498, da Gama sailed north along the east coast of Africa and from there across the Indian Ocean to the southwestern coast of India, where he landed in the port of Calicut (Kozhikode) in what is today the state of Kerala (Figure 2.12). Da Gama had come to India on a quest to find an all-water route to Southeast and East Asia, the source of spices, silks, porcelains, and other Asian goods. Europeans had had access to such luxuries for centuries, but they were expensive. They had to be carried overland, which limited the amounts that could be brought to Europe, and they also passed through the hands of many intermediaries between their point of origin and their European consumers. Finding an all-water route to the source was intended to eliminate these problems, and the nation that did so stood to become very wealthy. Before the voyages of the Portuguese, trade with Asia had been monopolized by northern Italian merchants, especially the Venetians, to the envy of merchants in other countries. Da Gama hoped to change this.

This map shows the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arabia, India, Africa and parts of South America and Europe. The map highlights the India Run route from Portugal to India. The Outward Route (Inner, pre-July) runs from Europe, hugs the western coast of Africa and then crosses the Atlantic Ocean, riding the currents of the South Atlantic Gyro, to the eastern coast of South America, turns east to go around the southern tip of Africa, goes in between Madagascar and continental Africa, to India. The Outward Route (outer, post-July) goes from the southern tip of Africa, around the eastern side of Madagascar, through the Indian Ocean, to India. The Return Route (inner) goes from India, hugs the eastern coast of Africa, rounds the southern tip of Africa, travels northwest through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and ends at Portugal. The Return Route (outer) goes from the southern tip of India through the middle of the Indian Ocean, stays on the eastern side of Madagascar, and ends in South Africa.
Figure 2.12 Working for Portugal, Vasco da Gama sailed north along the east coast of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, in the southern Indian province of Kerala, establishing what became the typical sea route to India, the carreira da Índia, or “India Run.” (credit: modification of work “Map of Portuguese Carreira da India” by “Walrasiad”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Of all the goods da Gama sought, spices were the most desirable. They were used not only in cooking but also as ingredients in medicines, and their scents were employed to mask less pleasant odors. While this type of Portuguese ship, called a caravel, had relatively little space for cargo, a small amount of pepper and other spices would fit in the hold and still earn substantial profits in Europe.

Caravels did have certain advantages. They were larger and sturdier than most craft that sailed in the Indian Ocean, and they were heavily armed, as well as relatively fast and stable in heavy seas. If merchants in India proved unwilling to sell to the Portuguese at the low prices the Europeans set, the caravels’ captains blocked access to Indian ports so that Arab and Persian merchants were unable to trade.

Da Gama’s success in reaching India and the value of the goods with which he returned led to future expeditions. In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral established a factory, a trading post with offices and warehouses, at Calicut to trade for pepper, and he also secured trade agreements from local rulers in Cochin (Kochi) and Kannur, both in Kerala. To eliminate competition, Cabral had his men seize Muslim merchant ships in the harbor, strip them of their cargoes, and burn them, and he then bombarded the port. Approximately six hundred Muslim sailors were killed. Indians attacked the Portuguese factory in Calicut to avenge the assault on the Muslim traders.

Relations between local rulers and the Portuguese did not improve when da Gama returned in 1502. He demanded that all Arabs be expelled from Calicut, and when this order was refused, he bombarded the city as Cabral had done. Establishing a pattern that they and other Europeans later replicated throughout India, the Portuguese sought to divide and conquer by entering into alliance with some local rulers to the disadvantage of others, a strategy made easier in later decades by the weakening of the Mughal Empire. When the Portuguese allied with the ruler of Cochin, the hereditary ruler of Calicut, called the zamorin, invaded Cochin in response. In retaliation, the Portuguese destroyed the fleet that sailed once a year from Calicut to Egypt to sell spices for the zamorin.

Beginning in 1502, the Portuguese also attempted to increase their revenues by demanding that ships trading in the Indian Ocean carry a cartaz, a document bearing the Christian cross. The money paid for this document went into the Portuguese royal coffers, and by forcing ships to sail to a Portuguese post in India to purchase one, the Portuguese government hoped also to increase commerce for its merchants in the ports it controlled. Ships that did not carry the cartaz had their cargoes seized and were sunk. Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu captains objected to having to bear a document with the Christian cross, and all non-Portuguese resented Portugal’s attempts to dominate Indian Ocean trade.

To protect their economic interests, a diverse and formidable group of opponents assembled to thwart these Portuguese efforts. Following the destruction of his spice fleet, the Hindu zamorin of Calicut and Calicut’s Muslim merchants turned to Egypt for help. At the time, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt controlled not only that land but also the Levant (greater Syria) and much of the Arabian Peninsula as well. (The Mamluks were an elite group of formerly enslaved warriors who ruled Egypt following the defeat of the Abbasid caliphate.) In the early sixteenth century, this area was the center of the spice trade with Europe that, before the arrival of the Portuguese in India, had been carried out by Venetian merchants in the port of Alexandria. Egypt’s Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri thus asked Venice for assistance, which the city-state provided in the form of ships and gunners (Figure 2.13). At the same time, spurred by a desire to combat the Muslims of the Indian Ocean, the king of Portugal sent a fleet to India.

This woodcut portrait shows a man with a full beard wearing a tall hat and a cloak. The portrait is framed by smaller images of other people.
Figure 2.13 Shown in a woodcut portrait by his near-contemporary the Italian historian Paolo Giovio, Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Gahwri was the second-to-last Mamluk sultan of Egypt. In 1516, he was defeated in battle and killed by Ottoman forces. (credit: “Portrait of Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri” by Paolo Giovio/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1508, the Mamluk sultan’s Egyptian fleet, together with ships belonging to the Sultanate of Gujarat, clashed with Portuguese ships in the harbor of Chaul on the west coast of India. Although the Portuguese commander and his flagship were lost in the battle, the remainder of the Portuguese fleet escaped to the port of Cochin, and the Mamluk’s fleet was too badly damaged to give pursuit. In 1509, the Portuguese decisively defeated a combined Egyptian-Gujarati-Calicut fleet in the port of Diu, one of the main ports of the Sultanate of Gujarat. The Portuguese did not take control of Diu, but they received the right to establish a trading post there and a substantial payment in gold from the city’s Muslim merchants.

The Portuguese took possession of additional territory in India in subsequent years, including the city of Goa on the subcontinent’s western coast. Goa became the base of the Portuguese State of India, the name Portugal gave to its holdings in the Indian Ocean. Jesuit priests accompanied Portuguese sailors, merchants, and soldiers to these ports and began in earnest to convert Indians to Roman Catholicism. Although most Indians remained Hindu or Muslim, the Portuguese gained converts among lower-status Hindus who hoped that by adopting the Portuguese religion, they might improve their social position. Some may also have believed that becoming Roman Catholics would enable them to do business with the Portuguese, just as converting to Islam may have seemed a wise business move for members of earlier generations of merchants.

The Portuguese also won both converts and allies on the island known to them as Ceilão, or Ceylon in English (modern-day Sri Lanka), after once again taking advantage of divisions among local rulers. In 1551, the king of Kotte was assassinated, and his Buddhist successor turned to the Portuguese for assistance in maintaining his hold on the throne amid a struggle with his brother, the king of Sitawaka, an ally of Calicut. The Portuguese erected a fortress on Ceylon and also proceeded to convert some of the population to Roman Catholicism, including Kotte’s new ruler. As a result, upon his death, the ruler of Kotte left his kingdom to the king of Portugal.

In 1565, Muslim rulers on the Deccan Plateau joined forces with the zamorin of Calicut, the king of Sitawaka, and the sultan of Aceh (Indonesia) to again attempt to expel the Portuguese in the War of the League of the Indies. They also sought help from the Ottoman Empire. The assistance of the Ottoman Fleet would have helped counter Portuguese dominance of the seas, but the Ottomans’ need to suppress revolts on the Arabian Peninsula and do battle with the city-state of Venice kept them from participating.

Reports of the marvelous wealth of India and the riches amassed by Portuguese merchants encouraged the Europeans of other nations to seek their fortunes in the Indian Ocean. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted a monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean to the British East India Company (also known as the English East India Company or the East India Company).1 The British East India Company was a joint stock company in which numerous merchants pooled their money to fund trading voyages and share the profits. An expedition to India required an enormous outlay of money that few individuals could afford, and if they could, they might lose their entire fortunes if the expedition were unsuccessful. By pooling funds, none had to risk all they owned.

Dutch and French merchants also formed joint stock East India companies. While the Dutch focused most of their attention on the islands of Indonesia, France competed with England and Portugal to harvest the wealth of India. In 1661, Charles II of England received Bombay (Mumbai) as part of the dowry of his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, and leased it to the British East India Company. France, in turn, established a trading post at Surat in 1668 and founded others in the years that followed. Europeans often partnered with Indian merchants who sought new investment opportunities outside the subcontinent.

In 1685, the Mughal governor of Bengal increased taxes on English trade in the region. The British East India Company refused to pay and sought to wrest control of the territory from the Mughals. English ships blockaded Mughal ports on India’s west coast, interfering with both Mughal trade and the passage of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. In response, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb seized control of company possessions and, in 1689, began a blockade of Bombay, starving the English into submission. Company representatives were forced to pay a substantial fine before their trading privileges were returned to them.

In their attempt to resist English expansion, the Mughals turned to the French for assistance. Already rivals in trade, beginning in 1754 France and Britain found themselves enmeshed in a war in North America for control of that continent. This conflict, called the French and Indian War, soon spread to Europe where fighting broke out in 1756. As part of this now-global conflict, called the Seven Years’ War, French and British armies and navies engaged in battle in India as well. France allied itself with the Mughal Empire. In 1756, the French, who had greatly expanded their commercial activity in Bengal, pressured the region’s ruler to attack the British Fort William near Calcutta (Kolkata). The following year, the British struck back, defeating Bengali and French forces at the Battle of Plassey, allowing the British to trade unopposed in Bengal. In 1761, the British destroyed the French post of Pondicherry (Puducherry).

With both the Mughals and the Marathas weakened after years of combat with one another as well as with invading Afghans and encroaching Europeans, small states in northern India broke away from their control and recognized British authority in exchange for acknowledgment of their claims to rule. The chaos that ensued helped the British in their quest to gain control of India. In this way, through a combination of alliances and military victories and the use they made of existing divisions between its kingdoms and rulers, the British gradually gained control of India.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax