The Indian Ocean and Asia

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The Portuguese Asian Empire, known as the Estado da India, extended over the entire Indian Ocean littoral and well beyond it into the South China Sea. The Portuguese arrived in Asian waters in 1498 and established a series of islands and enclaves connected by maritime links to each other and to Goa, its administrative and religious center and largest city. This string of outposts and cities stretched from Mozambique Island, north along the African coast to Mombasa, farther north to Hormuz and Muscat, east to Diu and Daman in modern Gujarat, south to Bombay Island, Goa, Cochin, most of coastal Sri Lanka, across the Indian Ocean to Malacca, and beyond to Timor and Macau. Macau was the second city in this system.


These critical outposts were positioned to maximize Portuguese control of Indian Ocean trade and direct it to areas for taxation. The idea was to tax the ancient and well-established Indian Ocean trade in goods such as rice, cotton textiles, horses, silks, and spices via a system of Portuguese-issued passes, called cartazes. Because the system depended on maritime strength to enforce it, it was only partially successful at best and only during its first century, from around 1520 to 1620.

Because of the tremendous distances and the loosely structured and fragmented nature of this empire, each area under Portuguese control developed local economic and social strategies to survive, if not prosper. These, in turn, shaped Portuguese activities in each region of the Estado da India, making it difficult to generalize about the empire as a whole. On Mozambique Island, the Portuguese developed a dense urban area trading in slaves, ivory, and gold. On the African mainland nearby, in the Zambezi River Valley, the Portuguese crown established land grants (known as prazos ) based on matrilineal inheritance. In Mombasa, the Portuguese built the massive Fort Jesus and attempted to dominate the maritime trade along the Swahili coast. In Ethiopia, the Portuguese first made contact in 1541 and attempted to forge an alliance with this Christian kingdom, but were expelled in 1634. Muscat and Hormuz were fortified outposts intended to control the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Diu and Daman were on opposite sides of the Gulf of Cambay and were intended to direct the maritime trade with northern India. Bombay Island and the lands immediately around it were rich farmland, some of the most productive lands in the empire. Goa was a large urban area surrounded by farmlands, and Cochin and Macau were important urban centers. Sri Lanka, especially its coastal areas, was occupied, and revenues from its villages were awarded to a variety of Portuguese in a largely futile effort to colonize the island. Macau directed trade among southern China, Japan, and Southeast Asia and developed into a major city. A couple of smaller islands in what is now Indonesia (Flores, Timor) were reminders of the spices (nutmeg, cloves) that had originally attracted the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, to the region. Some outposts were abandoned or handed over to the Spanish once the demarcation line laid out in the treaty of Tordesillas (14941495) was established in Asian waters.


At the top of the system was the governor or viceroy in Goa. He was advised by councils of finance and state, as well as by justices of the Goan High Court and the powerful town council. Each of the outposts had a captain, and the towns were governed by their councils. Positions in this imperial administration were normally awarded for three years. The church had a parallel administration, with Goa being the seat of the archbishop primate of Asia. Bishops were present in the larger cities such as Cochin and Macau. Priests, both Jesuit and Franciscan, were active throughout the region, although the Jesuits were better known and active in both China and Japan (among other areas). In China they had limited success at conversion, but their scientific knowledge attracted the attention of the emperors. In Japan, they were more successful in converting larger numbers, but their efforts were viewed with alarm and suspicion, leading to their expulsion (as well as that of all Portuguese) from Japan in 1617. The most famous of these early Jesuits was St. Francis Xavier, who died in Portuguese Asia and was later adopted as the patron saint of Goa, where he was buried.


In addition to the formal regions under their political control, the Portuguese were notable for their ability to establish unofficial communities during this period, especially in South Asia. São Toméof Meliapor (near modern Madras) and Hughly (near Calcutta) were two such places, but the Portuguese were scattered throughout the area and lived in Agra, Burma, Thailand, Yemen, and elsewhere. In South Asia, many of them were fugitives from Portuguese justice or soldiers seeking better pay or new careers. Elsewhere, many were freelance merchants. Thus, the Portuguese Asian Empire spread beyond simple political control to encompass these communities.


One often-cited figure for the Portuguese population in the Estado da India at its height in the late sixteenth century is 10,000. Because large sections of the archives in Lisbon were damaged in the earthquake and fire of 1755, the exact figure will never be known with certainty. Whatever the figure was, the Portuguese presence was a small fraction of the overall totals. In Goa itself, the Portuguese were rarely more than 2 percent of the population. Women, Portuguese as well as Asian, were a critical component in maintaining this empire around the Indian Ocean. Some Portuguese women, very limited in number, arrived in Asia, but much more common were marriages between Portuguese men and local women. The crown also went to great effort and expense to encourage two major convents for women in Portuguese Asia: Santa Mónica in Goa and Santa Clara in Macau. In addition, there were a number of shelters established with assistance from the crown and local charities (known as the misericórdia ) to assist orphaned girls and single women, and to reform prostitutes.


The survival of these widely scattered outposts throughout the region depended on accommodating local interests through intermarriage and trade. That accommodation, in turn, explains much of the longevity of the Portuguese presence in Asia well after the decline of political or economic power. The missionary activities of the Catholic church in Asia further supported and helped to define the Portuguese in Asia.

Portuguese-speaking Christian African and Asian communities emerged in many of these towns and would act as cultural intermediaries for the Dutch and English who would follow. This was especially true in India, where Luso-Indian communities living near the future cities of Bombay and Madras would be a critical asset for the British administration.


By 1610, Portuguese control was slipping. By the 1640s and 1650s, many of their outposts had been lost to the Dutch (Malacca in 1641, Sri Lanka in 1658, and Cochin in 1662), the English (Hormuz in 1622), the Omanis (Muscat, Mombasa), or other rivals. A parallel struggle with the Dutch in Brazil and Africa drained Portuguese resources and forced the crown in Lisbon to sacrifice much of Portuguese Asia to save Brazil. The recapture of Brazil and the simultaneous loss of Sri Lanka to the Dutch in the years from 1654 to 1658 marked a critical turning point in the history of Portuguese Asia. In 1661, Bombay Island was given to the British as part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry for her marriage to King Charles II. By the late 1600s only Mozambique Island, scattered holdings in the Zambezi River Valley, Diu, Daman, Goa, Macau, and Timor were left of what had been a wealthy and powerful presence throughout the Indian Ocean region.

Portuguese continued to be a language of commerce in Asia well after the decline of Portuguese power, and pockets of Portuguese speakers continued in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia until the twentieth century. The impact of the Catholic Church was (and remains) widespread in many parts of India and elsewhere in Asia.

See also Dutch Colonies: East Indies ; Goa ; Macau .


Primary Sources

Lobo, Jerónimo. The Itinerário of Jerónimo Lobo. Translated by Donald M. Lockhart. London, 1984.

Pinto, Fernão Mendes. The Travels of Mendes Pinto. Translated and edited by Rebecca Katz. Chicago, 1989.

Pires, Tomé. The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, an Account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan, Written in Malacca and India, 15121515. Edited by Armando Cortesão. London, 1946.

Secondary Sources

Boxer, Charles R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 14151825. London, 1969. The best single work on the Portuguese Empire, written by the outstanding authority on the subject.

Chaudhuri, K. N. Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge, U.K., 1985. Provides an important overview of the Indian Ocean region, placing Portuguese activities in the broader context.

Coates, Timothy J. Convicts and Orphans: Forced and State-Sponsored Colonizers in the Portuguese Empire, 15501755. Stanford, 2001.

Silva, Daya da, ed. The Portuguese in Asia. Zug, Switzerland, 1987. The indispensable annotated bibliography for study of this region.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 15001700: A Political and Economic History. London and New York, 1993. A solid, modern history of Portuguese Asia.

Winius, George D. The Fatal History of Portuguese Ceylon: Transition to Dutch Rule. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

Timothy J. Coates

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The Indian Ocean and Asia

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