VASCO DA GAMA’s voyage, in 1497, was not a voyage of discovery or even of commerce.
Guided by de Covilha’s information, Portugal opted to send to the Indies not a mariner, but a mercenary-soldier, merchant and diplomat, who bore resemblance to the conquistadores who would plunder central and south America for Spain soon after.
Da Gama did not sail with merchant ships, but rather with square riggers, each armed with 20 guns. Some of his 170 men had sailed with Diaz, and Diaz himself accompanied the ships out of the harbour.
They made landfall at Mombasa on Africa’s east coast, a port under Moslem influence, where da Gama’s force met local opposition.
They did better at Malindi, near Kenya and Tanzania, where they secured the services of a navigator who knew the waters, enabling the Portuguese to make landfall in Calcutta in May of 1498.
There, da Gama learned that the trade goods he had brought along, cloth and hardware, were not desired by the merchants, who in any case were closely allied to their Moslem counterparts and reluctant to enter commercial arrangements with da Gama.
Even so, he managed to load up with pepper and cinnamon, retraced his path, and returned to Portugal in September 1499, two years after his departure.
The profits reaped from the voyage were 60 times greater than the original investment.
It was one of the most impressive maritime feats of the time in terms of knowledge and wealth obtained, for which da Gama and his men were well rewarded.
Once again, a merchant had gone to an area where certain goods were inexpensive, made purchases and trades, and then had taken them to a place where they were priced.
In 1501, Portuguese spices showed up in Antwerp, which became an important entrepot for the shipments.
The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, were taking business from the Venetians who, till then, had a monopoly of the spice trade in that part of Europe.
These setbacks for Venice were exacerbated by the Turkish conquest of Egypt, which cut off the route the Venetians had used to the Orient.
After 1512, Venetian merchants were reduced to purchasing spices from the Portuguese in order to meet commitments.
In time, Venice would come to terms with the Turks, but in the future would have to pay high tariffs on their imports.
For the time being, the trade in silk, cotton, glass and wines remained in Italian hands, but the impact of the new routes was being felt.
In the 16th Century, the Mediterranean remained the centre of commercial life, but it now was being challenged.
Within months of da Gama’s return, a larger fleet under the command of Pedro Cabrai was sent to Calcutta and in 1502, da Gama set out on a second voyage.
This was more a military than a commercial expedition. Da Gama forced the Sultan of Kilwa, a kingdom not far from Mombasa, to pay tribute, bombarded Calcutta when the city’s merchants continued to oppose trade with Portugal, and forced the Moslems out of the area by military means.
The Portuguese goods were inferior and higher priced than those of the Moslems. Another Portuguese mariner, Afonzo d’Albuquerque, sailed to the area and wreaked havoc wherever he went, capturing the strategic city of Goa in 1510 and opening communications with Siam, Java and China.
Three years later, Portuguese vessels reached the Moluccas, south of the Philippines, one of the major sources for spices, cloves in particular.
Portugal not only was the major power in Africa and an important presence in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Asian mainland, but was also the master of a wide swath of wealthy islands in the south Pacific.
By then, too, it had significant bases in the Atlantic; namely the Canary Islands, the Madeira group, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands.
In 1475, Portugal lost the Canaries to Spain. However, this change would yield important consequences.
The Madeiras, which may have been known to the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans, were discovered by the Portuguese in 1418. Commercially, these islands became the most profitable of the four island groups.
There, the early explorers found hard woods which were harvested and sent to Portugal to be made into high-quality furniture.
The Malvoise grapevines, native to Crete, were introduced, and from them came the famous Madeira wine, soon a favourite in the Iberian Peninsula, England and elsewhere.
More importantly, the climate and soil were right for sugar cultivation and since the demand for sugar was high, the settlers grew cane, processed it, and the product was sold throughout Europe.The Europeans were already familiar with sugarcane, which was taken home by Alexander the Great’s soldiers, though the sweetening agent of choice in Mesopotamia and Egypt had been honey.
Sugar cultivation began in the Mediterranean in the 6th Century.
The Crusaders who came across it called sugar, ‘honey from the reeds’. Small quantities were used in Spain and England. This would now change.
Sugar from Madeira entered Spain in larger quantities and its popularity spread.
The Azores, which apparently were known to the Greeks and Romans, were thought to be St Brendan’s Isles, a mythical place mentioned in medieval records.
They were taken by Portugal in 1432, and were soon settled by Portuguese tradesmen and artisans who serviced ships bound to and from the Indies..
Likewise, the Cape Verde Islands, discovered by one of Prince Henry’s mariners in 1456, provided the same assistance to shipping.
Portuguese ships arriving in Lisbon from India and China were laden with spices and gems as well as ketchup (from a Chinese word meaning ‘brine of pickled fish’) and fruits (most citrus originated in southern China and Malaysia), but the cargoes were mortgaged to German and some Genoese bankers.
The king permitted foreign bankers to invest in one of the voyages that departed in 1505 and funds flowed into Portugal from Italian and German banks.
The voyage was a success, with profits close to 200 percent.
It was the first and last time the king utilised banking services. Next, he financed the voyages, but upon landing and unloading, the cargoes were sold to the bankers and then shipped to Antwerp.
In time, the king would sell the cargoes in advance of landing or would borrow against future cargoes.
As in south central Africa, Portugal was not interested in creating a political empire; it was primarily concerned with commerce, extraction of precious metals and, eventually, the slave trade.
It was a small country, with a population of fewer than 2 million; insufficient to colonise effectively while maintaining a presence of any consequence at home.
The enormous wealth that entered Lisbon corrupted the court and resulted in unwise expeditions.
In 1578, King Sebastian commanded a crusade against the Moors in North Africa in which he and 8 000 troops were lost, whereupon Cardinal Henry became king. When Henry died in 1580, there were seven claimants to the crown, the most powerful of whom was King Philip II of Spain, who invaded Portugal and was named King Philip I of that country.
Spanish kings ruled Portugal for 60 years, and by the time Portugal was once again independent, its empire was in decline.
Subsequently, Portugal was crushed by new forces in the colonial race, the Netherlands and England and, to a lesser extent, France. By the end of the 18th Century, all that remained of the empire was Brazil, Macao, part of Timor, Goa, some posts in India and some ports and
colonies on the African coast.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:email@example.com