Southeast Asian Powers
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Who held the greatest advantage and had the greatest power in the Southeast Asian spice trade?
Summary of Content
The native kingdoms of Southeast Asia flourished rose and fell for centuries. Each of them controlling some part of the spice trade. When the Portuguese fist reached India in 1497, the power shifted from native rule to foreign rule. For about 70 years the Portuguese captured cities and built forts to cement their status as the sole European power in the spice trade of Southeast Asia. The empires of India and China were far to powerful for the Portuguese to try and take over so they just sought after trade agreements. The Japanese empire only traded with the Portuguese for a short while before they turned there back on foreign trade for a few centuries. Portugal's title of being the only European country in Southeast Asia did not last for long. In 1521, Magellan conquered the Philippines and claimed them for Spain. In the late 1500's and early 1600's, the Dutch also challenged the Portuguese, seizing the Malacca's from Portuguese rule.
The kingdon of Pagan arose in the fertile rice-growing Irrawaddy Valley in present day Myanmar. In 1044, King Anawrata united the region. He is creditied with bringing Buddhism to the Burman people. Buddhism had reached nearby cultures long before, but Anawrata made Pagan a major Buddhist center. He filled his capital city with magnifcent stupas, or dome-shaped shrines, at about the same time that people in medieval Europe were beginning to build Gothic cathedrals. Pagan flourished for some 200 years after Anawrata's death, but fell in 1287 to conquering Mongols. When the Burmans finally threw off foreign rule, they looked back with pride to the great days of Pagan.
Indian influences also helped shape the Khmer empire, which reached its peak between 800 and 1350. Its greatest rulers controlled much of present-day Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. The Khmer people adapted to Indian writing, mathematics, architecture, and art. Khmer rulers became pious Hindus. Like the princes and emperors of India, they saw themselves as god-kings. Most ordinary people, however, preferred Buddhism. In the 1100's, King Suryavarman II built the great temple complex at Angkor Wat. The ruins that survive today, though overgrown with jungle and pocked by the bullets of recent wars, are among the most impressive in the world. Hundreds of carved figures tell Hindu myths and glorify the king. Although the images of Vishnu, Shiva, and the Buddha reflect strong Indian influence, the style is uniquely Khmer.
The trading empire of Srivijaya, in Indonesia, flourished from the 600's to the 1200's. Srivijaya controlled the Strait of Malacca. Both Hinduism and Buddhism reached this island empire. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, however, the local people often blended Indian beliefs into their own forms of worship, based on nature sprits. Later, Islam spread to Sumatra, Java, and other islands. Local rulers adopted the new religion, which cemented commercial links with other Muslim trading centers around the Indian Ocean
After Vasco da Gama's voyage, the Portuguese, under Albuquerque's command, burst into the Indian Ocean. In 1510, they seized the island of Goa off the coast of India, making it their major military and commercial base. Albuquerque then moved to end Muslim power and turn the Indian Ocean into a "Portuguese lake". Albuquerque burned coastal towns and crushed Arab fleets at sea. The Portuguese attacked Aden, at the entrance to the Red Sea, and took Ormuz, gateway to the Persian Gulf. In 1511, Albuquerque took Malacca, massacring the city's Muslims and making the Europeans hated and feared. In less than 50 years, the Portuguese had built a trading empire with military and merchant outposts rimming the southern seas. They seized cities on the east coast of Africa so they could resupply and repair their ships. For most of the 1500's, 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 strenght nor the resources to conquer much territory on land. In India and China, where they faced far stronger empires, the mearly sought permission to trade. In 1542, Portuguese ships reached China, and the emperor allowed them to establish a trading post. The following year, Portuguese traders headed for China were blown off course and landed in Japan, thereby becoming the first europeans to set foot in that islanf kingdom. These accidental discoveries were soon followed by Portuguese merchants and missionaries, each in their own way eager to establish themselves in Japan. For nearly a century Portugal earned an enormous profit as the middleman in the trade between China and Japan, swapping Chinese silk for Japanese silver and taking a commision from both sides. In 1557, Portugal established a large, permanent colony at Macao, on the southern coast of China, which became the headquarters of its activity in the Far East. Portugal's overseas empire reached its greatest extent in the mid-16th century, a few decades after Gama's epochal voyage. By that time Portugal owned a series of fortified trading posts along the east coast of Africa and the west and east coasts of India and also controlled the Indian Ocean island of Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, as well as Hormuz, Malacca, the Spice Islands, and Macao. It also had a base in Japan.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to challenge Portuguese domination in Asia. In 1599, a Dutch fleet returned to Amsterdam from Asia after more than a year's absence. It carried a cargo of peppers, cloves, and other spices. The success of this voyage led to a frenzy of overseas activity. By the late 1500's, Dutch warships and trading vessels put the Netherlands in the forefront of European commerce. They used their sea power to set up colonies and trading posts around the world. At the southwestern tip of Africa, the Dutch built the Cape Town settlement, where they could repair and resupply their ships. In 1602, a group of wealthy Dutch merchants formed the Dutch East India Company. In the next decades, the Dutch strove to make themselves the major European power in the east. in 1641, they captures Malacca from the Portuguese and opened trade with China. Before long, they were able to enforce a monopoly in the Spice Island, controlling 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. At the same time, they forced closer ties with local rulers than the Portuguese had. Many Dutch merchants married Asian women. Trade brought the Dutch enormous wealth. At home, Dutch merchants built tall mansions along the canals of Amsterdam and hired artists like Rembrandt to paint their portraits. In the 1700's, however, the growing power of England and France contributed to the decline of the Dutch trading empire in the East.
While the Portuguese and Dutch set up bases on the fringed of Asia, Spain took over the Philipinnes. Magellan had claimes 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 spirit of the Catholic Reformation, Spanish priests set out to convert the Filipino people to Christianity. Later, missionaries from the Philipinnes tried to spread Catholic teachings in China and Japan. The Philipinnes became a key link in Spain's overseas trading empire. The Spanish shipped silver mined in Mexico and Peru across the Pacific to the Philipinnes. From there, they used the silver to buy goods in China. In this way, large quantities of American silver flowed into the economies of East Asian nations.
Unlike the Chinese or Koreans, the Japanese at first welcomed western traders. In 1543, the Portuguese reached Japan. Later came the Spanish, Dutch, abd English. They arrived at the turbulent time when strong daimyo were struggling for power. The Japanese quickly acquired western firearms and built castles modeled on European designs. In fact, the new weapons may have helped the Tokugawa shoguns centralize power and impose order. Japan was much more open to European missionaries than China. Jesuits, like the Spanish priest Francis Xavier, found the Japanese curious and eager to learn about Christianity. A growing number of Japanese adopted the new faith. The Tokugawa shoguns, however, grew increasingly hostile toward foreigners. After learning how Spain had seized the Philipinnes, they may have seen the newcomers as agents of an invading force. By 1638, the Tokugawas had barred all western merchants and forbiden Japanese to travel abroad. In order to keep informed about world event, they permitted just one or two Dutch ships each year to trade at a small island in Nagasaki harbor.
The Ming Dynasty
Portuguese traders reached China by sea in 1514. To the Chinese, the newcomers had little to offer in exchange for silks and porcelains. European textiles and metalwork were inferior to Chinese products. The Chinese therefore demanded payment in gold or silver. The Ming eventually allowed the Portuguese a trading post at Macao, near Canton, present-day Guangzhou. Later, they let Dutch, English, and other Europeans trade with Chinese merchants, but only under strict limits. Foreigners could trade only at Canton under the supervision of imperial officials. When each year's trading season ended, they had to sail away.
The Qing Dynasty
The Chinese economy expanded under the new empire. New crops from the Americas, such as potatos and corn, boosted farm output, which in turn contributed to a population boom. The Qing maintained the Ming policy of restricting foreign traders. Still, Europeans kept pressing to expand trade to cities other than Guangzhou. In 1793, Lard Macartney arrived in China at the head of a British diplomatic mission. He brought samples of British-made goods to show the Chinese the advantages of trade with westerners. The Chinese thought the goods were gifts offered as tribute to the emperor and looked on them as rather crude products. Further misunderstanding followed. The negotiations faltered. In the end, Qianlong did receive Macartney, but the meeting accomplished nothing. Later, in a lettter to King George III of Britain, Qianlong rejected the request for trading rights.
Before the 1700's, European traders made very little impression on India, which was enjoying one of its greatest periods of strength and prosperity. In 1526, Babur had founded the Mughal dynasty. European merchants were dazzled by India's splendid court and its many luxury goods. There seemed little value the Europeans could offer to the sophisticated civilization of Mughal India. Besides producing spices, India was the world leader in textile manufacturing. It exported large quantities of silk and cotton cloth, from sheer muslins to elaborate chintzes. Handicrafts and ship-building added to the country's wealth. The Mughal empire was larger, richer, and more powerful than any kingdom in Europe. When Europeans sought trading rights, Mughal emperors saw no threat in granting such concessions. The Portuguese and later the Dutch, English, and French thus were permitted to build forts and warehouses in coastal towns. When Akbar's successors ended his policy of religious toleration, conflicts rekindled between Hindu and Muslim princes. Years of civil war drained Mughal resources. Rulers then increased taxes, sparking peasant rebellions. Several weak rulers held the throne in the early 1700's. Corruption became widespread, and the central government eventually collapsed.
THE OLD SPICE TRADING ROUTE
The native kingdoms of Southeast Asia flourished with the spice trade through the Arabian peninsula to the Mediterranean for centuries. When the Portuguese fist reached India in 1497, the region would change forever. In about a decade the Portuguese had already taken over many coastal cities and built forts to enforce their presence. Soon, the spice trade to Europe was controlled only by Portugal. Although Portugal had a strong navy and many coastal cities under its control, the empires of India, China, and Japan were far to strong to be taken over by the Portuguese, so they just sought trade agreements. Portugal's title of being the only European country in Southeast Asia did not last for long. In 1521, Magellan conquered the Philippines and claimed them for Spain. In the late 1500's and early 1600's, the Dutch also challenged the Portuguese, seizing the Malacca's from Portuguese rule.
The country that held the greatest advantage and had the greatest advantage in the Southeast Asian spice trade was Portugal. They were the first nation to round the tip of Africa and open up access to the spices of Southeast Asia that wasn't regulated by Italy. For about 70 years their empire in Europe and Southeast Asia flourished due to the fact that they were the only European country with control over the spice trade. Once other countries started trading in Southeast Asia, the Portuguese had already gained billions by todays standards in the spice trade.
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Levinson, Nancy S. Magellen and the First Voyage Around the World. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. 1-132.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Vasco Da Gama and the Portuguese Explorers. Chelsea House, 1993.
"Vasco Da Gama" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasco_da_Gama
"Spice Trade" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spice_trade
"History of Southeast Asia" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Southeast_Asia
"Dutch East India Trading Company" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_East_India_Company