Subrahmayam S. and Thomaz L. F. (1991) The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean during the 16th century

Subrahmayam Sanjay and F. R. Thomaz Luis Felipe (1991) “Evolution of empire: The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century” in The Political Economy of Merchant Empire. State Power and World Trade 1350-1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 298-331.

This book is available on google for every one to read!!!

Models of expansion

Before Da Gama‘s voyage (1498), the Portuguese were already involved in overseas colonisation. Their expansion followed three main models:

  1. In North Africa, a network of fortresses involved in endemic warfare with their neighbouring hinterland.
  2. In the Atlantic Islands, an agrarian and territorial settlement by Portuguese colons.
  3. In Guinea, a network of commercial coastal emporium involved in peaceful relationships with their surrounding.

During the first phase of their expansion in Asia (1500-1530), the Portuguese applied variants of these models. In the western Indian Ocean, Albuquerque followed the bellicose North African method, while the Guinean model inspired the experience east of the Melaka straights (300).

Manueline imperial ideology

The first phase of Portuguese expansion under king Manuel I was characterised by the following elements:

  • Monarchic capitalism (direct involvement of the Crown in trade via state monopoly over the Cape route, Flanders factory, Casa da India and Casa de Guinea).
  • The importance of pareas (tributes) inherited from the medieval period, supporting the vision of the emperor as a king of king. Fitting a thalassocratic or network approach.
  • The re-conquest of Jerusalem as the goal and justification of the conquests (weakening of the Islamic states) and strong messianic overtones (301).

The Castilian moment

Manuel’s successor, João III, was heavily influenced by the Castilian empire-building principles. He gave up the Jerusalem entreprise and adopted a much more territorial understanting of what an empire was (based on conquest rather than tribute). The Society of Jesus’ influence led to a discrimination against the Muslim and Hindu traders in the Portuguese custom houses.

The crown also abandonned the edification of a monarchic capitalism. The Flanders factories were shut down (302), the state began to see commerce as beneath its dignity and started retreating from the intra-Asian routes (carreiras) it used to monopolise. The nobles overtook the middle bourgeoisie as the main beneficiaries of the trade.

The Hapsburgs’ capture of the Portuguese monarchy (1580) only accelerated the dissolution of the Manueline imperial idea. It “strenghten[ed] the purely fiscal or ‘custom house’ character of the royal role” (303).

Despite the separation of the Portuguese affairs overseas from those of Castille granted by Philip II at the cortes of Tomar in 1581 (304), the men governing Portugal followed the Castilian vision to the point of attempting to conquer Sri Lanka following the Spanish example in the Philipines (305).


The Portuguese trade with Asia did not shrink after the 1530s as it has often been said. “The substential increase that took place over the 16th century in the tonnage of the individual vessels compensated for the decline in the numbers of the vessels themselves on the Cape route” (306). While 151 ships left the kingdom for Asia in 1501-10 against only 43 in 1591-1600, the former amounted to 42,775 tons while the later reached 49,200 tons (307).

Following Frederick C. Lane’s thesis, many have considered that the Portuguese domination of the spices market only lasted a few decades. By the end of the 16th century, Niels Steensgaard estimated that a mere half of the European import of pepper was supplied by the Portuguese.

The enduring success

But H. H. Wake has shown that the Levant route became competitive only the occasional years when the Portuguese failed to meet European demand (308). Pepper represented 89% of the weight of all the merchandizes imported from Asia in Lisbon in 1547-8, but only 65% in 1600-3. Why would this proportion decrease if demand was not met (309)?

Over the period, the private trade also went on rising. Sending a vessel on the Cape route costed 23 million reis in the 1580s but 50 millions in 1600-24, in fiscal charges alone (310). From 1564 onward the Crown was farming out the Cape route to private parties among whom some of Europe’s mightiest merchants (Konrad Rott, the Fuggers, the Welsers, Giovanni Battista Rovellasca).

The end of monarchic capitalism

In coopeartion with th Kling merchants, the Portuguese monarchy set up numerous intra-Asian carreiras from 1511 to 1520 (311). But during the 1530s, the Crown’s role evolved into a form of freight-trade using vessels own by the state to carry cargoes descreasingly belonging to the king but rather to private traders.

This new system was to be severely touched by the mid-century crisis (1545-1552) likely to have been started by an acute agrarian crisis in peninsular India (312). By 1550, Melaka’s custom collection had fallen by 60% from its 1542’s level For the Estado da India this could not come at a worse moment as it coincided with the Ottoman threat in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf (313).

By 1580, all the carreiras but one had disappeared. They had given way to the concessionary-voyage (viagens) given out to nobility or soldiers for long service. The most famous was the so-called Great Ship from Amacon from Goa to Nagasaki via Macao (314). In times of financial stringency, the viagens could be sold in auction (venda geral) (315).

Portuguese society in Asia

By 1513, there were about 2,500 Portuguese in Asia. At the end of the century, they were between 14 and 16,000 (318). In the beginnin, the migrants came from the whole of Portugal, but around 1600, they came mostly from the North (Entre Douro e Minho and Tras os Montes) (319). Not all lived in the Estado da India. mercenaries, missionaries, traders and a world of interlopers called arrenegados or chatins lived under Muslim rule (320).

The settlers (casados moradores) themselves were divided between casado pretos (“blacks”, i.e. acculturated Asian) and brancos (“white”). The brancos themselves were divided between reinos born in Europe, castiços born in Asia and the mixed race mestiços (321). The most important settlements were Macao and Goa with respectively 850 and 800 casados brancos. Overall some 5000 of them may have been present over Asia in 1635 (322). By that time there were 30,000 Portuguese colons in Brazil, evidence of the country “Atlantic turning” after the 1550s (323).

The economic crisis of the 16th century in rural Portugal explains the attractiveness of emigration (324). During the early 16th century, the structure of the Portuguese colonies afforded some degree of social mobility. But after 1550, only the gentry could access the best position. The rest of the system was plagued by clientelism and nepotism (325).

Does imperialism pay?

It has often been said that the Portuguese (unlike the Dutch) were not really profit-maximizers. But the Crown benefited handsomely from the empire. By 1506, 27% of its budget came from the trade of Asian spices (328). For the state, the Cape route yield a greater return than the intra-Asian trade it was involved in.

The captains of the fleets and of the ships earned thousands of cruzados for every voyage. A Dutch estimate of 1622, assumed that the intra-Asian trade in the hands of private Portuguese traders amounted to 50 milions florins a year. So for the Crown, the casados, the fidaldgos tratantes (gentlemen involved in trade) and their cristão novo bankers associates the Asian empire did pay. It proved a useful safety valve in a time of growing inequalities in the kingdom.

One Response to Subrahmayam S. and Thomaz L. F. (1991) The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean during the 16th century

  1. Hi that is a very fascinating view, It does give one food for thought, I am very delighted I stumbled on your blog, i was using Stumbleupon at the time, anyway i dont want to drift on too much, but i would like to mention that I will be back when I have a little time to read your blog more exhaustively, Once again thanks for the post and please do keep up the good work,

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