Vasco da Gama's voyages into the Indian Ocean opened up Asia for European commercial development through the control of the sea. Not sufficiently powerful to conquer the great Asian civilizations, the European nations fit themselves relatively peacefully into the Asian commercial network.
European nations worked along the interstices of Asian civilizations and introduced little external change. When the Europeans posed a threat, the Asian civilizations isolated themselves from the West.
The Asian Trading World and the Coming of the Europeans
Vasco da Gama's initial trip to India revealed one of the most problematic aspects of European trade with Asia, which was that Asian merchants were interested in little from Europe other than bullion. The Portuguese also discovered that Muslim rivals had already established themselves within the Asian markets. One weakness was also discovered. The Asian and Muslim raiders were politically divided.
Bonds of Commerce: The Asian Sea Trade
Bonds of Commerce: The Asian Sea Trading Network, c. 1500
The Asian trading network was composed of three main zones: an Arab zone in the west based on carpets, tapestry and glass; an Indian zone in the center based on cotton textiles; and a Chinese zone to the east based on silks, paper, and porcelain. On the fringes of the system lay Japan, the Southeast Asian islands, and East Africa. The most valued of the raw materials within the system were spices, which were traded over great distances. Less valuable products were normally exchanged within each of the subordinate zones.
Because much of the trade was carried along the coasts, it tended to concentrate in certain well-defined ocean straits. These geographical features -- the mouth of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Malacca -- the Portuguese rapidly discovered. No single power controlled the Asian trading network, and military force was virtually absent.
Trading Empire: The Portuguese Response to the Encounter at Calicut
The Portuguese rapidly decided that exportation of bullion to Asian markets was not desirable and that force could obtain what peaceful trade could not. No Asian fleets were prepared to defend the trading network against European power. The Portuguese defeated a combined Egyptian and Indian naval force at Diu in 1509. It was the last Asian attempt to halt European naval depredations. After 1507, the Portuguese began a program of capturing towns and building fortifications at strategic points along the commercial network. Such fortified trading centers included Ormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Goa on the western coast of India, and Malacca on the Malaysian peninsula.
The Portuguese sought to establish a monopoly over key trade items within the Asian system, particularly spices. In addition to a trade monopoly over critical commodities, the Portuguese attempted with less success to license all ships trading in the Indian Ocean.
Portuguese Vulnerability and the Rise of the Dutch and English Trading Empires
The Portuguese were never able to enforce their monopoly schemes. Corruption, lack of numbers, and resistance among Asian peoples weakened the system. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch and English penetrated the Asian trade system. Initially, the Dutch were more successful. The Dutch captured the Portuguese fort at Malacca and built a new trade post at Batavia on the island of Java in 1620. The English lost the struggle to dominate the spice trade and were forced to retreat to India. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch trade empire consisted of fortified trading centers, warships, and control of the spice trade. More successful than the Portuguese, the Dutch still abandoned forcible monopolization in favor of peaceful incorporation into the Asian trade system. The British adopted the Dutch approach to Asian trade.
Going Ashore: European Tribute Systems in