During the age of exploration and expansion, Portugal was a huge player in the game of conquest for control of the spice trade. The Indian Ocean had been a busy thoroughfare for centuries; the spice trade had been carried on by sea in the region since the days of the Tang dynasty. In 1510 Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque established his headquarters at Goa, which was located on the western coast of India south of where Bombay is presently located. The Portuguese desired control of Malacca for two reasons. First, it would help destroy the Arab spice trade network by blocking passage through the Straight of Malacca. Second, it would provide the Portuguese with a way station en route to the Spice Islands and other points east.
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The Portuguese fleet led by Afonso de Albuquerque attacked and raided Arab shippers. In 1511, Albuquerque attacked Malacca itself. By gaining control of the small area of Malacca, the Portuguese would enjoy huge benefits. They would gain control over the main access route to the Spice Islands. The Portuguese’s success was basically a matter of guns and seamanship. Their fleets were relatively modest in size. They used the maneuverability of their light ships to maintain their distance while bombarding the enemy with their powerful cannon. These tactics gave the Portuguese military superiority over lightly armed rivals.
Afonso de Albuquerque was not the only person in search of wealth and riches. Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama, also from Portugal, preceded Albuquerque’s voyages. Da Gama’s voyages inaugurated an extended period of European expansion into Asia that lasted for several hundred years. The entrance of European fleets was a sure sign of the downfall of Muslim control over trade in Southeast Asia. The Muslims, who were either Arabs or Indian converts, had taken part in the Indian Ocean trade for centuries and had established a strong presence in the seaports. Losing control over Malacca meant losing control over the spice trade.
With the entrance of Portugal into the Indian Ocean spice trade came future European participation in the trade. European forces entered the spice trade waters many decades later. Spices were practically a priceless possession during the era of exploration; Europeans would pay anything for the precious spices. By gaining control over the spice trade, a country became very wealthy and powerful. The underlying reason for Portugal’s conquest was economic wealth and military power. These desirable controls continue to underlie many conflicts among nations today. During the 1940s, for example, the Pacific War began as a product of disagreement over the rich resources of Southeast Asia.
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