Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

Portugal’s commercial and imperial development forged economic, political, and cultural links between the West and East that eventually led to European world domination.

Summary of Event

The decade between Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery of the Cape of Good Hope (1488) and Vasco da Gama’s voyage of 1497-1499—in which he rounded the cape and made contact with India—was a time of preparation. John II of Portugal sent an exploratory party up the Congo River (then considered a branch of the Nile), and he sent PĚro de Covilhã, disguised as a Muslim merchant, through Egypt to learn the Indian Ocean’s wind and trading patterns. Other Portuguese explored the Atlantic Ocean and designed ships for the longer voyage; later admirals avoided the tortuous route taken by Dias along Africa’s west coast and sailed out into the Atlantic to catch favorable winds and currents. The return of Christopher Columbus, who claimed “the Indies” for Spain, required the formal establishment of zones of influence, as articulated in the Treaty of Tordesillas Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494) of 1494. Finally, war in Morocco (1487-1488) renewed arguments in Portugal’s royal council against overextending the nation’s limited resources. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Africa
Trade;Portugal with Asia
Dias, Bartolomeu
Gama, Vasco da
Almeida, Francisco de
Albuquerque, Afonso de
Dias, Bartolomeu
Gama, Vasco da
John II (king of Portugal)
Manuel I (king of Portugal)
Cabral, Pedro Álvares
Almeida, Francisco de
Malik Ayaz
Aguiar, Jorge de
Sequeira, Diogo Lopes de
Albuquerque, Afonso de
Serrão, Francisco
Magellan, Ferdinand

Manuel I “the Fortunate” succeeded to the throne of Portugal in 1495, and it was under his auspices that Vasco da Gama sailed. Upon reaching Africa’s east coast, da Gama found a Muslim pilot to guide his fleet across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, which was reputed to be India’s principal trading center for goods from the Far East. Calicut merchants despised Portugal’s trading goods, however, and before da Gama sailed home, his fleet exchanged shots with the city’s Hindu ruler, the Samorin. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of India

Da Gama established the standard route to India and mapped out the whole shape of Portugal’s imperial experience there. The horrendous voyage of twelve thousand miles—six to eight months each way, compared with the six to eight weeks needed to reach Spanish America—regularly cost one-third of an armada’s crew and half its ships. Although some individuals in the East stood ready to assist Europeans, ultimately the trading of European goods and gold for Asian luxuries—spices, silks, and jewels—depended on politics and war. The Portuguese believed that fabulous riches justified any risk, and five months after da Gama’s return, another fleet sailed under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral. Cabral’s fleet discovered Brazil on its outward voyage. Annual armadas followed.

By the time Francisco de Almeida sailed in 1505, Portugal’s activities in India had resulted in an alliance being formed against it. The sultan of Egypt, Arab traders, their Indian allies, and Venetian merchants all depended on established trade routes through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and they would do anything to frustrate the Portuguese newcomers. Periodic forays into the East would be insufficient to contest the resources of so many allied powers. Thus, Portugal needed to establish a continuous presence in India capable of defending its position.

Almeida sailed as viceroy of India, with a three-year term of office and a fleet of twenty-two ships and fifteen hundred warriors to support him. Following royal instructions, he fortified the island city of Kilwa Kilwa off the coast of east Africa and replaced its king with a Muslim who swore allegiance to King Manuel. The city of Mombasa remained uncooperative, so Almeida destroyed it.

Upon arriving at Angediva Island in India, Almeida loaded half of his ships—“the pepper fleet”—for a return voyage to Portugal. His men paid local harbor dues, but Almeida responded to Indian resistance with fierce brutality. The cooperative cities of Cochin and Cannanore became the chief Portuguese trading ports in India, while the Samorin of Calicut remained Portugal’s greatest enemy. Cannanore was besieged from March to August of 1507. The siege was relieved only by the arrival of the annual pepper fleet, and it made clear the dependence of Portugal’s position upon control of the seas. Almeida argued against sustaining numerous forts to hold the land, seeing them as an unnecessary drain on limited human resources. He also implemented local shipyards to maintain Portugal’s Indian fleet.

Almeida learned that Khambhat Khambhat (Cambay), not Calicut, was actually India’s greatest entrepôt. Khambhat was located in the Gujarat Plains, and Malik Ayaz, the Gujarati sultan, typical of Indian princes, was occupied at the time in defending his land frontiers against attack. The sultan had assigned command of his navy to a Russian renegade.

Ayaz played a double game in the decisive confrontation that established Portuguese control of India for a century. Almeida’s fleet of nineteen ships sailed up the coast from Cannanore with the Samorin’s fleet close behind. Ahead of Almeida, a fleet of twelve Egyptian ships, four ships under Malik Ayaz, and other ships of lesser princes waited in the Gujarati harbor of Diu. An eyewitness account speaks of three hundred ships; evidently merchantmen and small boats crowded the harbor.

On February 2, 1509, a few ships emerged from the harbor, engaged Almeida’s fleet, and returned to safety. Although Indian cannon equaled European cannon, local ships always proved more vulnerable in battle, held together as they were by ropes rather than corrosion-prone iron nails. A great chain across Diu’s harbor entrance limited access to a narrow channel protected by cannon. The next day, however, Almeida’s fleet sailed boldly through and began to bombard the allied fleet. Apparently, harbor cannon hesitated to fire lest they destroy their own ships in the crowd. It is certain that early in the battle, Malik Ayaz betrayed his allies. Relentless hand-to-hand fighting began at nine o’clock in the morning. By nightfall, the allied fleet was annihilated and the Samorin’s ships had fled.

In assembling Portugal’s entire Indian Ocean fleet at Diu, Almeida thwarted the distrustful King Manuel’s efforts to limit viceregal authority by establishing independent commanders. Jorge de Aguiar was assigned control from the Cape of Good Hope to Khambhat; Diogo Lopes de Sequeira was assigned control east of Cape Comorin at India’s tip. Almeida, however, confirmed his authority over these commanders.

Ironically, however, Almeida’s authority had already been officially superseded. Manuel had sent Afonso de Albuquerque to India in 1508 to replace Almeida (as governor, rather than viceroy). Albuquerque was ordered to establish bases to control access to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Subordinate captains staged a revolt against the imperious Albuquerque, and the sultan of Ormuz (who controlled the strait at the entrance to the Persian Gulf) opened negotiations with Almeida to accept Portuguese suzerainty. Facing a showdown at Diu, Almeida arrested Albuquerque but yielded authority when his successor’s confirmation arrived. Almeida died on his homeward voyage while fighting natives near the Cape of Good Hope.

Without rejecting Almeida’s theory of empire, Albuquerque followed royal instructions to establish key fortified trading posts, located at Goa, Melaka (Malacca), and Ormuz. Perhaps only his failure to control the Red Sea prevented Portugal from exercising complete hegemony over trade in the Indian Ocean. Goa Goa , the best harbor along the Malabar Coast, remained Portugal’s central post in India until 1961. In taking this city, Albuquerque had support from local Hindu subjects against their Muslim ruler.

The capture of Goa on November 25, 1510, brought Portugal new respect; even the Samorin and the king of Gujarat sent ambassadors. While engaged taking Goa, Albuquerque had commanded the fleet assigned to Diogo Mendes de Vasconcelos to conquer Melaka; afterward, he took Melaka himself. The following year, in a series of engagements between July 25 and August 24, Albuquerque’s nine hundred men overcame a garrison of at least twenty thousand soldiers, again with the assistance of a non-Muslim population ruled by an unpopular sultan.

Frustrated by fortifications at Aden in April, 1513, Albuquerque reconnoitered the Red Sea for another base. He wrote to King Manuel, projecting the destruction of Egypt’s Red Sea fleet. Portugal would exercise control of the Red Sea from Jidda, just as it controlled the Indian Ocean from Goa. Soon after receiving reports of the Aden failure, however, the king sent orders for Albuquerque’s replacement as governor.

One last triumph remained for Albuquerque, at Ormuz. In February, 1515, after thirteen months spent organizing Goa’s government, Albuquerque sailed in command of his most massive fleet: twenty-seven ships and three thousand men. The armada’s size and a political coup won the day. Albuquerque surprised and killed a hostile prime minister in front of the boy sultan and the Persian ambassador, who was jockeying for control of Ormuz. While fortifying Ormuz, however, Albuquerque contracted dysentery. He died after reaching Goa.

Before his death, Albuquerque also made contact with Java and Siam, and, in 1511, he sent an armada to the Spice Islands Spice Islands (Moluccas), sources of cloves and nutmeg. Francisco Serrão, a captain in this armada who was shipwrecked while returning to India, returned to the Moluccas instead. There, he joined the service of the sultan of Ternate (one of the islands). He proved useful when the next Portuguese fleet arrived in 1514. Serrão also suggested to Ferdinand Magellan, his comrade in Albuquerque’s Melaka expedition, that he approach the Moluccas from the Americas; thus, Serrão influenced the world’s first circumnavigation. Magellan’s voyage of 1519-1522 under the Spanish flag raised problems about the ownership of the Moluccas, a dispute that was settled in Portugal’s favor by the Treaty of Zaragoza Zaragoza, Treaty of (1529) in 1529. Almeida’s son had visited Ceylon in 1506; in 1518, Albuquerque’s successor, Lopo Soares de Albergaria, established a port there to control its cinnamon trade.


With his House of India effectively enjoying a monopoly on the spice trade, Manuel I became Europe’s richest monarch. For a few years, Lisbon Lisbon was Europe’s richest port. Even Venetian merchants bought pepper in Lisbon, and from 1508, transshipment of Lisbon’s spices made Antwerp Antwerp the prime European trading center. Europeans had an insatiable appetite for pepper to flavor rancid meat, and Lisbon had the lowest prices. In 1505, a hundredweight of pepper sold for 30 ducats in Lisbon and 192 ducats in Alexandria—the highest prices for a century as a result of Portugal’s Indian monopoly and the onslaught of Ottoman Turks attacking Egypt’s ruling Mamlūk Turks. The fall of the Mamlūks in 1517 permanently disoriented Mediterranean trade, providing Portugal with even greater control of the spice market.

Further Reading

  • Albuquerque, Afonso de. The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque, Second Viceroy of India. Edited and translated by Walter de Gray Birch. 4 vols. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2000. Originally published by the Hakluyt Society between 1875 and 1884, this work demonstrates the genius of the Portuguese empire’s chief architect.
  • Diffie, Bailey W., and George D. Winius. Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. A comprehensive, balanced account written by specialists, this book includes a useful annotated bibliography.
  • Hanson, Carl. Atlantic Emporium: Portugal and the Wider World, 1147-1497. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2001. Survey of the Portuguese sphere of influence from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, covering political, economic, and cultural history. Emphasizes Portugal’s contribution to the creation, for the first time, of a global economy. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Lach, Donald. Asia in the Making of Europe. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965-1993. With three additional volumes projected, this work has unprecedented depth and overwhelming detail.
  • Pearson, M. N. The Portuguese in India. Vol. 1 in The New Cambridge History of India, edited by Gordon Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A scholarly, revisionist book, claiming that Portugal little changed India or commerce in the Indian Ocean.
  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. This thematically organized account of Portuguese colonial expansion seeks to provide insights into the nature of the empire that have been obscured by strictly chronological studies. Illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Sanceau, Elaine. The Reign of Manuel: The Fortunate King. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970. A readable biography of the Portuguese monarch based on contemporary chronicles.
  • Shastry, B. S. Goa-Kanara Portuguese Relations, 1498-1763. Edited by Charles J. Borges. New Delhi: Concept, 2000. History of Portuguese trade and colonization of India beginning with their arrival in 1498. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ed. Sinners and Saints: The Successors of Vasco da Gama. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Anthology of essays by international scholars detailing the history of Portuguese trade and missionary work in India from the beginning of the sixteenth century. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references.

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

Beginning c. 1500: Coffee, Cacao, Tobacco, and Sugar Are Sold Worldwide

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

Sept. 29, 1513: Balboa Reaches the Pacific Ocean

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe