The Portuguese in the Far East

Lynne Booker


"Portugal´s early expansion is likened to man´s first explorations into space,"  wrote Charles Boxer (1904-2000), the greatest non Portuguese historian of Portuguese history.  He explained that the Portuguese invested decades of effort in exploration without being sure that there would be any gain.


But of course, as with the space programme, the Portuguese exploration paid off handsomely.  Portugal conquered empires in Africa, South America and Asia.


They found some gold, a few diamonds, but especially products that came to be worth more than their weight in gold - the spices of the Far East.  But exactly how did Portugal manage to rule the waves and bring back treasures that were the envy of the countries of Europe? 


The Pope divides the World

Three treaties signed in the 15th century by Spain and Portugal settled the economic development of the world for a hundred years.  The Pope, who presided over what was arguably the medieval European Union, validated these deals, the effects of which are still apparent today.  As well as putting an end in 1479 to one of the many wars between Portugal and Castile, the Treaty of Alcáçovas occupies a unique position in history since it was also the first European treaty to deal with a division of the world without consulting the people affected. 


The Iberian monarchs agreed that all new discoveries to the south of an east-west line to the south of the Canary Islands would belong to Portugal and new discoveries to the north of that line would belong to Castile.  When Columbus returned from his historic voyage in 1492, it was necessary to reconsider its terms, because the Caribbean Islands which he had discovered clearly lay to the south of the line and under the terms of the Alcáçovas treaty were well within the Portuguese zone.  The  outcome of the reconsideration was the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, and the two powers agreed a north-south line passing 370 leagues to the west of the Cape Verde Islands (roughly 45º W);  all new discoveries to the east of the line would be Portuguese, and those to the west would be Spanish.  Twenty eight years later, Ferdinand Magellan´s returning expedition (1419-22) showed that the world was a sphere and that the line of demarcation had to be extended to the other side of the world.  The subsequent and final demarcation treaty (Saragossa in 1529) determined the line at 17ºE of the Moluccas, the spice islands.  By this time the Spanish had also arrived in the East Indies via the Strait of Magellan and the Pacific Ocean.


Portuguese Conquest

That great Portuguese genius of conquest, Afonso de Albuquerque, executed his king´s plans to achieve a stranglehold on all seaborne trade in Asia by holding four main seaports to control the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean:  Goa, Aden, Ormuz and Malacca.  Only at Aden did he fail in 1513, and for that reason Portuguese control was never as tight as it could have been.  After his amazing capture of Malacca in 1511, outnumbered 20 000 to 1 000, Albuquerque sent Francisco Serrão further east to look for the Molucca Islands, in the sixteenth century the sole source of clove and nutmeg. 



There were always differences of opinion about the land base in India and Albuquerque encountered opposition when he fulfilled the plans of the King.  But the strategy proved successful and from their first permanent conquest at Goa in 1510, the Portuguese retained a permanent foothold in Asia until they left Macau in 1999, 489 years later. The secret of Portugal´s success was single mindedness and tenacity of purpose.  It seemed that Afonso de Albuquerque had to fail at first attempts, but each of his second attacks on Goa, Malacca and Ormuz were successful. The Portuguese ships were large, robust and equipped with heavy artillery, and far outgunned their Asian opponents, and Portugal made the most of the advantage.  Asian rulers on the other hand were concerned principally with their land empires and anything which happened at sea was of concern only to traders. 


The Portuguese concept of a seaborne empire was a magnificent strategy.  Nearly completely surrounded by another often hostile country, Portugal retained her independence and strength by looking and moving outwards.  European empire builders were adept at exploiting local squabbles and jealousies, and the Portuguese in the Far East were pioneers in this practice. 


It must be said that the Portuguese Empire was overextended.   At times Portugal possessed more than  forty coastal establishments  in their Estado da Índia  and it was not possible for a country as small as Portugal, with its limited human and economic resources, to maintain such an extensive commitment.  After the first arrival in the Indian Ocean in 1498, Portugal managed to keep up their effort for a century.  But after Portugal lost its independence to Spain, there were never enough ships or men to support the Portuguese Empire in the East.  By the end of the 16th century, Portugal appeared much weaker than their European competitors for Empire and eventually became just one of a number of trading interests in Asia. 


The Spice Islands

Arab traders had been spreading Islam eastwards and trading in spices since the 10th century. It was they who exported via India those spices which were eventually bought in Egypt by Venetian middlemen and sold on to the rest of Europe   In the 16th century cloves were only found in the Moluccas and the islands of Amboina, Ternate, Tidore and Banda supplied clove, nutmeg and mace. The Spanish contested ownership of the islands, and when the Dutch arrived in 1600, they quickly forced the Portuguese out. These islands were a source of riches to the European power that held them.  In the 19th century, French and British planters transplanted these species to other parts of the world, in particular to the West Indies; the result is that these spices, once so rare in Europe that only the rich and aristocratic could afford them, are now available on supermarket shelves for anyone to buy. 



Macau was the first (and also the last) European outpost in China 1557- 1999.  The Portuguese explorer Rafael Perestrello was the first European to reach the China coast in 1514, and in 1517 the Governor at Goa sent Tomé Pires to make contact with the Chinese authorities.  Pires and his followers were imprisoned in Canton, and their fate is uncertain. Portuguese marine artillery was immensely helpful to the official Chinese coastguard in dealing with the pirate menace off the South China coast and the Portuguese earned the trust of the Canton government.  It was this sixteenth century military aid which earned for the Portuguese the later unofficial recognition of their post at Macau. 


Because Chinese and Japanese were not officially permitted to trade directly with each other, the Portuguese seized the opportunity to become unofficial middlemen.  From 1557, Macau was the hub of this immensely profitable trade.  The Japanese coveted high quality China silks, and China was a bottomless market for Japanese silver.  The Portuguese found that the commander (capitão-mor) of the annual Japan voyage was able retire wealthy on the proceeds of just one trip.  Portuguese involvement in the Japan trade came to an end in 1639, and after Malacca was conquered by the Dutch in 1641, Macau became a city with no purpose, remote from other Portuguese outposts. 


It became a dormitory town for all European traders in Canton (before the foundation of Hong Kong) and it the port of entry for British Indian opium into China.  When the British forced the cession of Hong Kong in 1841 after the first Opium War, Macau, looking for a way of life, chose legalised gaming and it has since been a kind of oriental Monte Carlo.  During World War II Macau accepted thousands of Allied and Hong Kong refugees. Japanese forces respected Portuguese neutrality in Macau because their German ally was benefitting from Portuguese exports of wolfram. 



The Japanese terminus of its Canton/Macau trade was at Nagasaki.  This city was founded in 1571 by Portuguese traders on the site of a fishing village and it remained the centre for Portuguese trade until 1639 when they were expelled completely from Japan.  The Macau Portuguese  authorities immediately and unwisely sent an embassy to plead for a return of their trading status, but Japanese shogun Iemitsu decreed that of the party of 74, 61 should be beheaded and the remaining 13 were sent back to Macau with the message that Japan was closed.  When the Portuguese could no longer supply Japanese silver to China, they were also expelled from Canton, but managed to retain their Chinese toehold at Macao. 


Other Islands

Flores, Solor and Timor of the Lesser Sunda Island archipelago have all been associated with Portuguese rule and they became Portuguese through the efforts of the missionaries and not through the efforts of crown servants.  Portuguese first landed on Solor in 1520 and the transit station at Lamakeera was fortified by Domincans in 1562. The Dutch expelled the Portuguese in 1613 but soon left because the island did not prove profitable.  The returning Portuguese were attacked again in 1636.  The Portuguese had a presence on Flores from the 16th to the 19th centuries and they exploited the island as a source of sandalwood.  Both Flores and Solor along with other islands in the group were ceded to the Dutch East Indies in 1856.  The population of Flores is still nearly all Christian. 


Timor formed part of the Javanese Empire and originally attracted Chinese and Malay traders for its wax, honey and sandalwood.  Portuguese missionaries arrived in 1514 looking for sandalwood, and the island had no royal representative until the first Portuguese Governor arrived in 1702.  After some squabbling, Portugal in 1859 ceded the western half of the island also to the Dutch East Indies.  In 1916 at the Hague an arbitration decided on the exact location of the border between Timor and Dutch East Indies.   Timor was occupied in December 1941 by Australians and Dutch in a preemptive strike but three months later, Japanese troops overran the island and subsequent guerrilla warfare cost over 70,000 Timorese lives.  It was not obvious that Timor would be restored to Portugal after World War 2 and Salazar insisted that Portuguese troops take part in its ´liberation´. 


After the Carnation Revolution in 1974 Timor claimed independence and was immediately invaded by Indonesia which claimed to protect the island from communism.  There was support from Indonesia´s actions from other powers in the area and Timor-Timur became the 27th province of Indonesia.  In the course of their military occupation of Timor, Indonesian forces killed over 20,000 people and condoned police torture, forced sterilisations, Islamisation and a ban on teaching the Portuguese language. The country suffered permanent guerrilla warfare. After international diplomatic pressure was brought to bear, there was a UN sponsored vote on 30 August 1999 in which 80% of Timorese voted for independence.  This vote was followed by even more atrocities by Indonesian troops.  The new independent republic of Timor-Leste became the 191st and penultimate member of the United Nations on 27 September 2002, immediately after Switzerland. 



Because the world was split between the two Iberian nations with the Pope´s blessing, any other nation wishing to expand in a similar way had to resort to piracy and explicitly to reject the Pope´s authority in this matter.  It is no coincidence that the principal expansionists in Asia were Protestant England and Calvinist Netherlands seeking to throw off their Spanish yoke.  It is no surprise either that the Portuguese Empire was more vulnerable than the Spanish to Dutch raiders since the Dutch were similar to the Portuguese in terms of their sea borne empire whereas Spain´s Empire was mainly land-based.  The union of the Iberian crowns between 1580 and 1640 complicated the issue because Spain´s enemies also became enemies of Portugal. 


During the union of the Iberian crowns Portuguese concerns became secondary to Spanish issues and their Empire was less well defended.   When the Portuguese regained their independence in 1640 they added Spain to the list of their enemies, but were not able to make friends with the Dutch.  And, militarily, economically and physically the Dutch were stronger. 


Whilst during the 16th century Portugal had no European competitors in the East India trade, when the Dutch arrived in relatively large numbers in the early 17th century, Portuguese share of the trade dropped rapidly.  In the late 17th century and in the 18th century the Dutch sent to the East perhaps 10 times as many ships as the Portuguese were able to. 


The Far East trade brought to Portugal pearls and silks from China; rubies and scented wood from Burma; benzoin and pepper from Sumatra; batik from Java; camphor from Borneo; nutmeg, clove and mace from the Spice Islands; sandalwood from Timor and Solor; diamonds, sapphires and cinnamon from Ceylon.  For the first time in its history, Portugal became briefly the richest country in Europe.  D Manuel I has been rightly named the Fortunate or in everyday language, just lucky.