Portuguese East Indies

Sure, Columbus may have discovered the Americas for Spain, leading to European domination of two entire continents, but Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama succeeded in their shared mission. Columbus and Gama had been searching for new routes to trade with India and China (routes that avoided the hotly contested Mediterranean Sea and the Ottoman Empire that essentially presided over it). In 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, landing on the Indian subcontinent on May 20th, 1498. The gates were opened forever, and it did not take long for Portugal to press its hand in the Portuguese East Indies. 

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Table of contents

    Portuguese East Indies in History

    Like its Iberian neighbor of Spain, Portuguese maritime supremacy blossomed during the early decades of the Early Modern Period (1450-1750). Spain and Portugal were at the top of their game throughout the 16th century, significantly surpassing France, Britain, and the Netherlands in overseas expansionism. During the 16th century, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas seemed to exclusively divide the world between the imperial imaginations of Spain and Portugal. Within said treaty, Portugal was given the rights to all lands east of the 46°37′W line, spanning from the eastern coast of Brazil to Australia, with the Portuguese East Indies between.

    Treaty of Tordesillas:

    A Papal order that issued ownership of all newly discovered lands west of the 46°37′W line to Spain and all newly discovered lands east of the 46°37′W line to Portugal (for reference, the 46°37′W line runs halfway through modern-day Brazil).

    Portuguese East Indies Vasco da Gama Study SmarterFig. 1- Portrait painting of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

    The Portuguese East Indies refers to the territorial holdings of Imperial Portugal within the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

    The Rise of the Portuguese East Indies

    Vasco da Gama spearheaded the domination of the Portuguese East Indies. He landed at Calicut in southwestern India in 1498, immediately negotiating trades with the locals. Gama returned Portugal a hero and would later lead multiple Portuguese armadas into the seas of the Portuguese East Indies. Gama and Portuguese naval commander Pedro Cabral set lasting precedents for Portuguese imperialism in the early 16th century by bombarding Calicut whenever trade negotiations began to fall out of Portugal's favor.

    Seven years later, in 1505, the Portuguese King Manuel I ordered nobleman Dom Francisco de Almeida to establish four forts on the coast of Southwestern India; in exchange, Almeida would become the first governor and ruler of the Portuguese State of India. Maintaining his office did not come without its challenges. In 1509 the Portuguese Maritime Empire faced off against a naval coalition of the Mamluk Sultanate, Gujarat, and Calicut during the infamous Battle of Diu.

    The Battle of Diu:

    Near the city of Diu, within the Gulf of Khambhat off the coast of India, the fate of the East Indies would be decided. Would the intrusive Portuguese under the command of a vengeful Dom Francisco de Almeida (whose son was recently killed in combat) assert European dominance in India, or would the combined forces of the Mamluk Sultanate, Gujarat, and Calicut, backed by both Venice and the Ottoman Empire, be able to defend their seas from the European invaders?

    Portuguese East Indies Battle of Diu Study SmarterFig. 2- Map depicting the Battle of Diu in 1509.

    The Battle of Diu commenced on February 3rd, 1509. Based in Cairo, Egypt, the Mamluk Sultanate was one of the foremost states overseeing control between west and east-- a trade that Vasco da Gama's discovery threatened. Determined to punish the Portuguese for their ambitions, the Mamluk Sultan ordered the Kurdish Governor Amir Husain Al-Kurdi to lead a coalition fleet against the Europeans.

    Unfortunately for the Islamic coalition, the Portuguese captains were highly competent sailors in command of well-trained and well-supplied crews. The outnumbered Portuguese fleet outmaneuvered the stagnant Islamic fleet within the Gulf of Khambhat, smashing Husain's flagship and capturing many smaller ships. The Battle of Diu was a watershed event in World History that saw a definitive transition from Islamic to European control over the Indian Ocean.

    Portuguese victory at the Battle of Diu opened up nearly a century of uncontested, monopolistic Portuguese control over the East Indies. It would be a century of imperial domination defined by trading posts (also known as feitorias), vast armadas, and a powerful joint stock company stemming from the Portuguese East Indies' command base in Goa.

    Spice Trade:

    The long-standing agricultural production and economical transportation of various spices important to Southeast Asia, including cinnamon, ginger, pepper, clove, turmeric, nutmeg, cassia, and cardamom.

    The Portuguese established forts in Malacca, Sumatra, and Siam through diplomacy and naval might in the early 16th century. Portugal did not aim to conquer inland territories or establish permanent colonies on foreign shores. Instead, the small European country extended its strength over the Portuguese East Indies spice trade, siphoning its profits back to mainland Portugal.

    Portuguese East India Company

    To be clear, the Portuguese East India Company was not the aforementioned powerful 16th-century joint stock company; that had been Casa da India, a state commercial organization established by Portuguese King Manuel I to oversee Portugal's monopoly of the spice trade within the East Indies.

    Portuguese East Indies Map Study SmarterFig. 3- European art depicting the East Indies (India and Southeast Asia).

    The company had been a smashing success for a time, but new players were coming to the table by the 17th century. The British and Dutch East India Companies were on the rise in the Indian Ocean and East Indies. At the same time, Portugal's involvement in the Iberian Union (1580-1640) dragged the nation into many unwanted and costly wars alongside Spain. The Portuguese East India Company did not bask in the glorious profits of the monopolistic spice trade. Instead, the fledgling company's failure represented the diminishing strength of the Portuguese Maritime Empire (especially in the Portuguese East Indies).

    East India Company Timeline

    The timeline below offers a brief progression of events related to the history of the Portuguese East India Company within the Portuguese East Indies:

    • February 1509: The Portuguese emerge victorious at the Battle of Diu.
    • 1543: Portuguese Goa is wracked by a cholera outbreak.
    • 1622: the Merchant Duarte Gomes Solis issues a proposal requesting the creation of a Portuguese East India Company to revitalize competitive trade through a joint-stock company in the Indian Ocean and East Indies.
    • August 1628: Portuguese King Phillip III issues a charter for the creation of the Portuguese East India Company.
    • April 1633: The Portuguese East India Company is liquidated, ending its five years of existence.
    • 1669-1685: The Portuguese monarchy attempts to establish new Portuguese East India Companies, but they also fail.

    While the Portuguese East India Company was a blunder, it is essential to remember that the British and Dutch East India Companies were among the most influential organizations in the world, leading into the 17th and 18th centuries. Simultaneously, both companies directly opposed Portuguese imperial rule in the East Indies, taking over the spice trade that had once filled Portuguese pockets.

    East India Company Slavery

    Slavery endured from the Portuguese East Indies beginning in the 16th century until 1876 when the institution was explicitly prohibited. During that nearly 400 years, all manners of slaves were transported within and without the East Indies; Japanese slave girls were traded among Portuguese masters, while African laborers were imported to support colonial construction efforts. In general, the breadth of the Portuguese East India Company's involvement in Indian Ocean slavery is not as prevalent, or at least not as well documented as the persistence of slavery within colonialism as seen in the English and Dutch maritime histories.

    Portuguese Contribution to India

    Portugal shook up Indian history long before the mighty English Maritime Empire landed on India's shores. Diplomatically, the Portuguese presence in Goa acted as an indomitable presence in regional political affairs. When it came to the devastating Mughal-Maratha Wars that wracked India's Deccan Plateau, Mughal ruler Aurangzeb made allies of the Portuguese due to their strong finances, trading opportunities, and naval support. No coalitions were rising against the Portuguese as during the Battle of Diu; now, powerful Indian rulers were relying on the strength of the Portuguese East Indies.

    Portuguese East Indies India Study SmarterFig. 4- Portuguese official followed by an entourage of Indians.

    The Portuguese control of the spice trade saw many goods flood into India, including copper, quicksilver, velvet, and saffron. At the same time, scarlets from Florence, cloths from Holland, and European clothes and metals also made their way into the Indian economy and society. The printing press in India was installed in 1556 at Saint Paul's College in Goa. Portuguese texts introduced European thoughts, ideologies, religion, and histories into the Indian imagination.

    While significant developments were occurring in the Portuguese East Indies, the disarray caused by Portugal's arrival in India and Southeast Asia primed the East Indies for later European domination through the Dutch and the British.

    Portuguese East Indies - Key takeaways

    • The Portuguese East Indies describe the Portuguese domination of India and Southeast Asia mainly during the 16th century.
    • The Portuguese established trading posts (feitorias) and fortresses in critical locations within the East Indies to manage their monopolistic control of the spice trade.
    • Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first European to land on the shores of India by way of maritime travel, unlocking the doors for the establishment of the Portuguese East Indies (including the establishment of Portuguese India).
    • The Portuguese East India Company, created in the 17th century, was a far cry from Portugal's prior successes in the East Indies and the contemporary successes of the British and Dutch East India companies.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Portuguese East Indies

    When did the Portuguese first arrive in India? 

    The Portuguese first arrived in India on May 20th, 1498. 

    Why did the Portuguese fail in India? 

    The Portuguese failed in India after the Dutch and British East India companies began to dominate the East Indies. 

    Where did the Portuguese first land in India? 

    The Portuguese first landed in Calicut on the southwestern shores of India. Cooperation and conflict with Calicut continued for years after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed at its shores. 

    What part of India was Portuguese? 

    The Portuguese established strong coastal bases in India, particularly their base in Goa, but they didn't push far inland. Portuguese influence persisted largely on the southern Indian coastline. 

    When did the Portuguese establish East India? 

    The Portuguese established the East India Company in 1628, but the company only lasted 5 years. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How successful was the Portuguese East India Company?  

    The first European explorer to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and land on India's shores came from which country? 

    Who won at the Battle of Diu? 


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