The Portuguese Quest for Spices and Souls

   by Charles Kimball

It took Portugal eighty years to find the location of the "Spice Islands," but persistence paid off in the end. The second Portuguese viceroy of the Indian Ocean, Alfonso de Albuquerque, learned that Malacca was both a stronghold of Islam and the key to the spice trade, so in 1509 he sent four ships to check out the port. If he wanted an incident with the Malays he got one; while the Portuguese were touring the city the sultan ordered his guards to attack them, killing sixty men and destroying one ship before the rest got away. One officer who distinguished himself in this battle was Ferdinand Magellan, who suffered a wound while holding off the assailants until his comrades had time to get back to the ships.

Two years later Albuquerque personally led a fleet of nineteen ships to Malacca. The Malaccan force outnumbered the Portuguese by a factor of 15 to 1, but the superior technology of Portuguese ships and cannon prevailed, and Malacca fell after a six-week siege. To prevent any trouble with the powerful mainland states to the north (remember Siam's claim to all of Malaya), Albuquerque immediately sent embassies to Ayutthaya and Pegu, and diplomatic relations with both kingdoms got off to a good start. Afterwards Portugal sent expeditions to the Moluccas (1512), China (1513), and Japan (1543), securing trade with all of those places.

For much of the time that the Portuguese ruled Malacca, the city was on the defensive against its Malay neighbors. First of all there was the ex-sultan of the city, who established himself on a small island near Singapore and attempted unsuccessfully to regain his lost throne. A more serious threat was Acheh, which defeated all Portuguese attempts to set up a colony on Sumatra. After that Acheh made four major attacks on Malacca itself, nearly capturing the city the last time (1574-75). There was also trouble with the other Moslem states: Johore (south Malaya), Brunei (Borneo), Bantam (west Java), Mataram (central Java), Demak (east Java), and Makassar (southern Sulawesi), to name a few. All of these states had pirates in the local waters, making travel through the Java Sea unsafe for Europeans. To add to the danger, the sultan of Demak sent missionaries to Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, converting the natives to Islam with increasing speed. The Portuguese first attempted to counter this threat by seeking allies among non-Moslems. They thought they found one when the Hindu raja of Sunda Kalapa let them build a fort in his city-state, on the northwest corner of Java, but when the Portuguese returned in 1527 they found that Sunda Kalapa had been conquered by Bantam and renamed Jakarta.

Eventually the Portuguese paid toll to the sultan of Brunei so that they could sail around north Borneo and through the Sulu Sea to reach the Spice Islands without being molested. Catholic missionaries like St. Francis Xavier tried to stop the spread of Islam by converting the non-Moslem Indonesians to Christianity, but time was not on their side; usually they came to an island only to find that the natives had converted to Islam shortly before their arrival. The missionaries were only successful on islands like Amboina, where Islam had not yet established itself; if Islam got to a community first, Catholic missions had no hope of success.

The real reason why the Portuguese colony survived was because its Moslem rivals could never get along with each other. By supporting the moderate sultanates in their quarrels with the religious extremists (Acheh and Demak), Malacca was able to keep all of Indonesia from attacking it at once. But Portugal's early victories had given it more empire than it could handle. Portugal itself, with a population of 1.5 million, never seemed to have enough manpower to manage everything it had claimed in Africa, Asia and Brazil; often other Europeans like Italians, English and Dutch had to be hired to fill all the crew positions on Portuguese ships. The money made on Far Eastern ventures was spent immediately, either on payments of the king's debts or on policing the Indian Ocean. "Look at the Portuguese," wrote Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the Mogul Empire in India, in 1613. "In spite of their fine settlements they are beggared by the maintenance of military forces; and even their garrisons are only mediocre." When other European nations went out to sea, Portugal could not compete, and soon its empire sank into obscurity.

Portugal suffered a blow from which it never recovered in 1578, when its king was killed in an invasion of Morocco; Spain's King Philip II promptly claimed the Portuguese crown for himself. Spain ruled Portugal until 1640, but it did nothing to promote the Portuguese half of its enormous empire. In fact, Spain's temporary rule was harmful to the Portuguese colonies, since Spain's enemies, England and the Netherlands, now became Portugal's enemies as well. English and Dutch privateers like Sir Francis Drake found the Portuguese colonies to be vulnerable targets.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball