Portugal & Spain - Quest for Monopoly in the East

By the time of Henry's death in 1460, private entrepreneurs had begun to play a more important role in African expeditions, and by the mid 1470s the Portuguese had established trade links with tribes on Africa's Gold Coast (modern Ghana) and were taking enormous amounts of gold out of Africa and back to Europe. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias led the first successful expedition around the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean, and he was followed a decade later by Vasco da Gama.

Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor, had become convinced that the African route could be shortened considerably by heading due west into the Atlantic. He first went to the Portuguese with his proposal but was rebuffed and so sought sponsorship from Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain. On August 2, 1492 he set sail with his small fleet of three ships. Early in October he landed in the Bahamas, then went on to explore the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. A settlement was established on Hispaniola (Haiti) as a result of his return visit the following year.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese were tightening their grip on the trade route to India opened by Vasco da Gama. They were determined to exclude not only other Europeans but also the Arabs from these lucrative markets. For the moment, the Portuguese were even willing to espouse a commonality in their venture with other Christian states not yet perceived as a threat to their monopolistic desires:

It is true that there does exist a common right to all to navigate the seas and in Europe we recognize the rights which others hold against us; but the right does not extend beyond Europe and therefore the Portuguese as Lords of the Sea are justified in confiscating the goods of all those who navigate the seas without their permission.

Superior naval power, in part the result of recent technological advances in armament, enabled the Portuguese to smash Moslem opposition in the Indian Ocean and thereby gain control of the spice trade. The Moslems, learning rather quickly from these encounters, built up their land forces on the European model and managed to repulse further encroachments into Moslem territory. This was, however, another case of an emerging and aggressive society creating havoc for a society characterized by a high degree of cooperative organization and tolerance. To underscore this point, historian G.B. Sansom quotes the observations of a fifteenth century traveler in the Arab world:

Security and justice are so firmly established that the merchants bring thither from maritime countries considerable cargoes, which they unload and unhesitatingly send to the markets and bazaars, without thinking of the necessity of checking the accounts or watching over the goods. ...Every ship, whatever place it may come from or wheresoever it may be bound, when it puts into this port is treated like other vessels and has no trouble of any kind to put up with.

At least to some considerable extent, these Arab states had discovered the benefits of open and free commerce. The European empire-builders, on the other hand, viewed the quest for wealth as what economist Lester Thurow has called a "zero sum game" in which there must be a loser for every winner. Thus, to accomplish their objective of monopolizing trade with the Orient, the Portuguese had to somehow break up this peaceful arrangement and did so by concentrating their naval power against the Arabs. They first seized two islands that controlled access to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, then attacked and captured the city of Malacca, which commanded the strait through which all commerce with the Orient had to pass. By establishing a small number of strategically-located military bases throughout the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese thereby achieved (for a time) a significant degree of control over the trade between Europe and the Far East. At great expense in the maintenance of these fortresses and naval forces, a small number of merchants, the Portuguese crown and the aristocracy were assured of ever greater personal wealth. As is consistent with every case presented thus far in this work, those who actually produced wealth were forced to absorb the burden of higher prices for survival goods as well as cover the expenses of the State. These circumstances have been readily identified in both the Portuguese and Spanish socio-political structures by historian Eric Wolf:

In both kingdoms royal control of commerce enhanced the power of the kingship and provided a tribute-taking elite with wealth to purchase goods abroad without altering the tributary structure at home. Yet in both countries that wealth did not suffice to cover the costs of administration and war. Royal bankruptcies and debts transferred control of exchequer and trade to foreign merchant-bankers...

External factors also contributed to the eventual displacement of Portugal in Africa and Asia by northern Europeans. Firstly, the land route for trade with Asia still competed quite successfully because of Moslem and Turk resistance, corruption among Portuguese officials, and the large number of shipwrecks that occurred during the long journeys. The cost of competing with the Portuguese had been too high for Spain. After only one ship from Magellan's fleet returned, the Spaniards abandoned their attempts to challenge the Portuguese in the Orient. When the Portuguese finally gave up their hegemonic position to a new hierarchy of European states, they did so to the economically more powerful Dutch and English. And, from this point on the balance of power in Asia substantially shifted in favor of the northern Europeans. Another factor in removing Spain from the competition for Asian footholds was the promise of creating an empire in the Americas, which satisfied the desire for land among the younger sons of Spanish nobles who were not in line for inheriting estates back home.