The entry of the Portuguese into India has been termed many things – a seaborne empire (by CR Boxer), a world on the move (by AJR Russel-Wood), the first colonial empire and much more. A question that many historians have asked is why it was the Portuguese, the one southern European nation without access to the Mediterranean, that embarked on the voyages of exploration? The standard answer, which was reported to be what Vasco da Gama said when asked in Calicut why he had come there, was that they were in search of “Christians and spices”.

While the spread of Christianity and proselytisation were part of the process, far more important was profit. When the Portuguese came into Asian waters, they did bring in new methods of both trade and warfare, but these were not aimed specifically at “Muslim” or Arab trade – there was no direct religious sentiment involved. Rather, it was an attack on the long-range networks of trade and, therefore, must be seen in that light. The historian MN Pearson has suggested that the supposed reply of “Christians and spices” was a cliché even in the 15th century. He has, in fact, provided one of the most widely accepted descriptions, not of the Portuguese empire in India, but of the Portuguese trading practices in the Indian Ocean world.

This system has been described as “the cartaz – armada – cafila system”. The cartaz was the pass issued to traders to carry on trade. According to the historian Luis Filipe FR Thomaz, these passes enabled the Portuguese to establish different kinds of control over this trade. The first, regarded by many as the sole purpose, was to put in place an embargo on the spice trade through the Red Sea. However, the system also enabled a measure of political control over the perceived enemies of the Portuguese State and, even more, a restriction on the private trade attempted by some of the Portuguese in the east. The passes were for trade in items not claimed by the Portuguese monopoly, which was mainly on pepper. The armada was the system of protection to those who bought the passes, as these were the ships that patrolled and protected against piracy. Protection was further guaranteed by the cafila, the caravans, where ships travelled in groups escorted by men-of-war of the Portuguese armada. Thus, the Portuguese system, as it evolved, both dominated and re-directed trade.

Why the Portuguese chose to bring in a new way of organising trade in the Indian Ocean world is something that is not clear; after all, they were far from being the first “foreigners” in these lands. To some extent, the European experience may have been a subtext in the policies that they helped evolve in Asia. The idea of control of maritime spaces had begun to emerge in Europe from about the 9th century itself. The notion of aquae nostrae, “our waters”, began to make its appearance around that time, and was steadily defined over the next few centuries.

Not surprisingly, this idea emerged in the maritime states of Italy, with, for example, Venice claiming exclusive rights over the Adriatic Sea. Beyond the known waters lay the open sea, one of freedom of operation, which could not be claimed or possessed by any one power. These ideas developed in the seventeenth century into the concepts of mare clausum (the closed sea) and mare liberum (the open sea). The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius was particularly important in the clear enunciation of these concepts. However, I must reiterate that these were European notions, not Asian ones and, thus, in Asian waters, the Portuguese were the ones to introduce the notion of the sea itself being an arena of sovereignty and assertion of power, rather than being “common to all”. It is the latter, which began to be steadily eroded over the next few centuries, to make the sea open, or common, only to a select few.

But it should be remembered that when they arrived in Asia, the Portuguese came up against strong and stable political systems in India and had no entry whatsoever into China. What they then emphasised was their power over the sea and used this to try and establish a monopoly of the goods transported by sea. This policy was adopted very early. In 1505, the newly appointed Viceroy of the Indian possessions (not that there were that many as yet), Francisco da Almeida, was sent out from Portugal with orders to seize and fortify strategic locations across the Asian world. These locations were preferably to be islands, but they were definitely to be located on the major trade routes of the region. This was the policy that the Portuguese adopted.

Over the next decade or so, especially during Viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque’s tenure, they established a ring of islands and a few mainland fortresses that stretched from the Persian Gulf, across the China coast, to Japan.

In 1503, the Portuguese were granted a small area of land in Kochi (Cochin), where they built their first fort in India. This was followed by one in Kannur (Cannanore) in 1505. In 1510 came the capture of Goa, in 1511 the capture of Melaka and in 1515, Ormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, was taken. A fort was set up in Colombo in 1518. Then began a move further north along the west coast of India, with Vasai (Bassein, in Mumbai) being captured in 1533, Diu in 1535 and Daman in 1559.

By the 1560s, the Portuguese had a string of some fifty ports dotted through the Indian Ocean world. The centre was Goa, which had been formally declared the capital of the Estado da India (as the Portuguese empire of Asia was termed). In the eastern Indian Ocean, the key point was Melaka. However, they never managed to take over Aden – something that remained a gap in their system. With this ring, they could now put into place their plans for the re-organization of the trade of this world, through a judicious mixture of coercion, treaties, protection and, finally, monopoly on specific items of trade

Excerpted with permission from Empires Of The Sea: A Human History of the Indian Ocean World, Radhika Seshan, Pan MacMillan India.