They used the cities they had seized on the east coast of Africa to resupply and repair their ships. For most of the 1500s, Portugal controlled the spice trade between Europe and Asia.
Despite their sea power, the Portuguese remained on the fringe of Asian trade. They had neither the strength nor the resources to conquer much territory on land. In India and China, where they faced far stronger empires, they merely sought permission to trade.
The intolerance of Portuguese missionaries caused resentment. In Goa, they attacked Muslims, destroyed Hindu temples, and introduced the Inquisition. Portuguese ships even sank Muslim pilgrim ships on their way to Mecca. While the Portuguese disrupted some older trade patterns, exchanges continued among the peoples of Asia. Some bypassed Portuguese-controlled towns. Others traded with the newcomers.
In the late 1500s, Portuguese power declined overseas. By the early 1600s, other Europeans were vying to replace the Portuguese in the rich spice trade.
How did the Portuguese use geographic factors to help them control the spice trade?
The Dutch were the first Europeans to challenge Portuguese domination of Asian trade. Their homeland (in the present-day Netherlands) was a group of provinces and prosperous trading cities which fell under Spanish rule in the early 1500s. Later, the Protestant northern provinces won independence and soon competed against Portugal to control the rich spice trade of the Indies.
In 1599, a Dutch fleet returned to Amsterdam from Asia carrying a rich cargo of pepper, cloves, and other spices. This successful voyage led to a frenzy of overseas activity. Dutch warships and trading vessels soon made the Dutch leaders in European commerce. They used their sea power to set up colonies and trading posts around the world, including a strategic settlement at Cape Town.
In 1602, a group of wealthy Dutch merchants formed the Dutch East India Company. Unlike Portuguese and Spanish traders, whose expeditions were tightly controlled by government, the Dutch East India Company had full sovereign powers. With its power to build armies, wage war, negotiate peace treaties, and govern overseas territory, it came to dominate the region.
In 1641, the Dutch captured Malacca from the Portuguese, opened trade with China, and soon enforced a monopoly in the Spice Islands. They controlled shipments to Europe as well as much of the trade within Southeast Asia. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch used military force to further their trading goals. Yet they forged closer ties with local rulers than the Portuguese had. Many Dutch merchants married Asian women. In the 1700s, however, the growing power of England and France contributed to a decline in the Dutch overseas trading empire.
While the Portuguese and Dutch set up bases on the fringes of Asia, Spain took over the Philippines. Magellan had claimed the archipelago for Spain in 1521. Within about 50 years, Spain had conquered and colonized the islands, renaming them for the Spanish king Philip II. Unlike most other peoples of Southeast Asia, the Filipinos were not united. As a result, they could be conquered more easily.
In the spirit of the Catholic Reformation, Spanish priests set out to convert the Filipino people to Christianity. Later, missionaries from the Philippines tried to spread Catholic teachings in China and Japan.
This hand-colored woodcut illustration shows Dutch merchant galleons at sea during the 1600s. Note these ships' great storage capacity for trade goods.