Portugal, Spice and jewels!


The journey:

The critical determinant of the timing was the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. The monsoon was a southwesterly wind (i.e. blew from East Africa to India) in the Summer (between May and September) and then abruptly reversed itself and became a northeasterly (from India to Africa) in the Winter (between October and April). The ideal timing was to catch the late summer monsoon to India, and return with the early winter monsoon, minimizing the time at sea.

The India armada typically left Lisbon in the early Spring (March–April). That would bring it to the Cape of Good Hope around June–July, and to the East African middle coast by August, just in time to catch the summer monsoon winds to India. Arrival in India was usually around early September. The return trip from India would typically begin in January, taking the winter monsoon across the Indian Ocean and down East Africa, double the Cape in reverse around April, and arrive in Lisbon by the Summer (June–August). Overall, the round trip took a little over a year.


Harbour for safety: (off mozambique): The original object of Portuguese attentions had been the southerly Swahili city of Sofala, the main outlet of the Monomatapa gold trade, and the first Portuguese fortress in East Africa was erected there in 1505. But Sofala's harbor was marred by a long moving sandbank and hazardous shoals, making it quite unsuitable as a stop for the India armadas. So in 1507, the 9th Armada seized Mozambique Island and erected a fortress there simply because its spacious and well-sheltered harbor was so much more preferable.


The timing of the journey was critical and thus such knowledge was key to the balance of forces to which Law refers. Timing is thus also part of the networks in play


Trade, Spice, Cultural networks: Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments of Southeast Asia came to be associated with economic activity and commerce as patrons entrusted large funds which would later be used to benefit local economy by estate management, craftsmanship promotion of trading activities Buddhism, in particular, travelled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy. Islam spread throughout the East, reaching Maritime Southeast Asia in the 10th century; Muslim merchants played a crucial part in the trade Christian missionaries, such as Saint Francis Xavier, were instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the East.] Christianity competed with Islam to become the dominant religion of the Moluccas However, the natives of the Spice Islands accommodated aspects of both religions easily.

The Portuguese colonial settlements saw traders such as the Gujarati banias, South Indian Chettis, Syrian Christians, Chinese from Fujian province, and Arabs from Aden involved in the spice trade. Epics, languages, and cultural customs were borrowed by Southeast Asia from India, and later China. Knowledge of Portuguese language became essential for merchants involved in the trade Colonial pepper trade drastically changed the experience of modernity in Europe and in Kerala and it brought, along with colonialism, early capitalism to India's Malabar changing cultures of work and caste. Indian merchants involved in spice trade took Indian cuisine to Southeast Asia, notable present day Malaysia and Indonesia, where spice mixtures and curries became popular. European people intermarried with the Indians, and popularized valuable culinary skills, such as baking, in India. The Portuguese also introduced vinegar to India, and Franciscan priests manufactured it from coconut . Indian food, adapted to European palate, became visible in England by 1811 as exclusive establishments began catering to the tastes of both the curious and those returning from India.


While the India armadas were used to ferry troops, officials, missionaries and colonists between Europe and Asia, their primary objective was commercial. They were engaged in the spice trade, importing Asian spices to sell in European markets, especially the five "glorious spices" – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace.

The Glorious Spices





Mace (spice)








(Ternate & Tidore)

(Banda Islands)

(Banda Islands)

Black Pepper, grown locally in Kerala, composed as much as 90% of the return cargo of the early armadas. But the other glorious spices could also be found in Calicut, Cochin and other major markets on the Malabar coast of India – cinnamon was imported in large amounts from Ceylon, while, from further east, via Malacca, came long pepper (from Java), cloves (grown exclusively in the Moluccan islands of Ternate and Tidore) and, in smaller amounts, highly valued nutmeg and mace (grown only in the Banda Islands).

The armadas also loaded less glorious spices found in Indian markets, notably locally-grown ginger (the principal 'filler' cargo), cardamom and tamarind, balms and aromatics like Artemisia indica (wormwood), galbanum, camphor and myrrh. Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls.

The main product brought back to Lisbon was black pepper. Pipernigrum was as valuable as gold in the age of discovery. In the 16th century, over half of Portugal’s state revenue came from West African gold and Indian pepper and other spices. The proportion of the spices greatly outweighed the gold.

It is estimated that the average India carrack brought back between 6,100 and 6,800 quintals of imported spices and goods—or, around 25,000 to 30,000 quintals for the average yearly India armada (4–5 ships). Exceptionally large armadas and/or behemoth ships could push it up to 40,000 in some years. It is estimated that around 15% of the cargo was lost at sea, spoilage, etc. over the long run.

A greater difficulty involved determining the cargo on the outgoing journey. The following list, from the Fourth Armada of 1502, gives an idea of the kind of European items brought by the Portuguese to sell in India: "cut and branch coral, copper in pigs and sheets, quicksilver, vermilion, rugs, Flanders brass basins, coloured cloths, knives, red barret-caps, mirrors and coloured silks."  But, by and large, European products did not sell well in Asia, which meant that ship holds were frequently empty, or nearly so, on the outward leg. Outbound ships carried little more than the metal bullion – principally silver, but also copper and lead – needed to purchase spices in Asian markets

However, if they stopped by Mozambique Island on the outward leg (as almost all India armadas did), they could expect the local Portuguese factors to have a stockpile of East African trade goods – gold, ivory, coral, pearls, acquired during the year at several points along the Swahili Coast – ready to be picked up by the armadas for sale in India.




On John Law:


"important turning point in the balance of power between Europe and the rest of the world" Rise of European domination.



I want to argue that it is not possible to understand this expansion unless the technological, the economic, the political, the social, and the natural are all seen as being interrelated. My argument is that the Portuguese effort involved the mobilisation and combination of elements from each of these categories.


the idea that artefacts may be treated in isolation from, or at best as a function of, social factors seems to me to be fundamentally mistaken


how to manage long distance control in all its aspects. It was how to arrange matters so that a small number of people in Lisbon might influence events half-way round the world, and thereby reap a fabulous reward.




How, then, were the Portuguese ...to obtain a stranglehold on the vital Indian Ocean spice trade that had previously been monopolised by Muslim sailors? In short, how were they able to exercise long distance control?


The mediaeval European sailing vessel was unable to operate with any degree of safety or certainty beyond European waters. Its range and endurance were limited, its carrying capacity small, its ability to handle adverse weather conditions was restricted and its ability to find its way out of sight of land or soundings was doubtful



some of the features of these vessels that, when taken in context with other aspects of the Portuguese system, generated an envelope of mobility and durability appropriate to the Eastern trade.


First, they were virtually impregnable to attack by boarding from small craft.


the castles (the housing built on the hull fore and aft) incorporated that environment in a way that was favourable to the Portuguese and therefore extended the envelope of mobility and durability available to the vessels.




Their cargo capacity...meant that they did not have to make frequent stops en route and


a) could steer the most efficient course, one which routinely took them thousands of miles from land.


b) They were relatively independent of their surroundings.


c) One might say that their architecture incorporated and appropriately handled the paucity of appropriate ports of call.


d) It also, however, incorporated the trader's need for a relatively speedy passage between Goa and Lisbon.



the envelope of mobility and durability in the face of a range of environments was extended by a combination of technological artefact and human resources.


Explore this main point.




by means of appropriate rigging, pilotage and manpower, the Portuguese incorporated these trade winds within the Carreira on their own terms and thereby increased the size of the envelope within which the vessel might move and maintain its integrity.


How does this reflect the ANT approach - does no depend on subjectivity of 'skills of sailors/meaning givers as sole direction of causal explanation...and thus avoids heroic histories of 'brave' men... wise/wily etc



Carracks could be sailed with relatively small crews, something that was particularly important given the high degree of mortality on the long. In addition, it was possible to reduce the number of stops along the way... scope of independent action for these vessels was increased.


in an enhanced position to control or exert force upon other, non-artefactual, elements of that structure.... Dependence on the capacity to extract compliance. Seamen, merchants, masters, envoys, it was necessary to keep all of these in line and to make use of their efforts if the Carreira da India was to work and the vessels were to sail reliably with their loads of spices for the European markets. And such compliance was not only required from the human components of the system. It was also expected from its inanimate parts - from the hulls and sails that made up the vessels and the environments in which those vessels sailed.



as a function of their mobility, durability and capacity to exert force, Portuguese vessels also had the capacity to return to their point of origin. They were able to set sail and return months or even years later in a relatively predictable manner. This was, of course, a sine qua non if the spice trade was to be monopolised. It was also vital if other types of control were to be maintained at the periphery, if the periphery was to belong, in any sense at all, to the centre.


that there be no degeneration in communication between centre and periphery. No noise must be introduced into the circuit. Periphery must respond, as it were mechanically, to the behest of centre. Envoys must not be distorted by their passage, and interaction must be arranged such that they are able to exert influence without in turn being influenced. ..They must have the capacity to return, again unscathed, in order to report to centre... it was the Portuguese and the Spanish who, for the first time in history, developed the technical capacity for relatively undistorted communication at a global level.



next section:

Where shorelines were not visible or depths were too great (or where, of course, neither had been observed) these methods of navigation were of no assistance. The mariner had travelled outside the envelope described by his rutter into the unknown, and at once the durability, the mobility, the strength and the capacity of his vessel to return were all were put at risk.


the Portuguese problem. In the fifteenth century their explorations were beginning to take them beyond the charts and rutters of their time. And it was not simply that no-one had been there to observe and report back before. It was also, and more fundamentally, that their journeys to Madeira and the Azores took them deep into the north Atlantic, far from the coastline and the limits of sounding.


i.e. beyond knowledge and technicity



they no longer contributed their quantum of force when the destination ...had little context appropriate ...and the vessel no longer contained, within itself, the environment necessary to ensure such independence.


the Portuguese problem was to build a new navigational context for their vessels that was less dependent upon European geography, one, that would render their vessels independent of a broader geographical environment, and hence make possible an undistorted system of global communication and control



instruments (and portuguese mariners astrolabe)and tables of data used in their practice, though not novel in scientific terms, nevertheless mark a major breakthrough in methods of navigation and the construction of a system within which global mobility and communication might be ensured.


The new navigation proposed by the commission hinged around the determination of the latitude by means of solar or stellar observation,20 a method particularly appropriate for journeys that were mainly in a northerly or southerly direction, such as those undertaken by the Portuguese; in the Atlantic and, to some extent, the Indian Ocean.



three sets of rules telling the mariner how he should use the instruments and data provided to determine the latitude

The simple rules, the simple data and the simple instruments were supplemented by systematic training, at least from the turn of the sixteenth century. This was key in that it made navigations simple for unsophisticated mariners.

BUT it came from the way in which they were juxtaposed with the right kinds of people and instruments. It came from a specially constructed and relatively stable structure.


The construction of tables and instruments (astrolabes) and their availability on all voyages was necessary and standardised the process and make the route automatically calculable -not so necessary to have expert navigators.


Documents, devices and drilled people: I want to argue that it was this combination that was the key to the success of the commission. For documents, devices and people have in common that, placed in the right structure, they are potentially mobile, durable and able  to act upon that structure.



Latour, argues that power is a function of the capacity to muster a large number of allies at one spot, suggests that inscription, and in particular its printed reproduction, makes possible the concentration of a far wider range of allies than had previously been possible.



In this case the primary problem for long distance control may rather be concerned with a special aspect of durability, that of fidelity.


It is no good sending out agents who do not report back. Fidelity may be increased if the agent is placed in a well designed structural envelope. It may also be increased if he or she is properly prepared, primed, as it were, with the appropriate range of allies, before being sent out.


The question then, is whether the west has been able to exert particularly effective long-distance control via people as a result of an innovation analogous to that of the printing press. Has it, in other words, found a special way of keeping people faithful?




Drill broke actions down and then reassembled them into a prescribed, regular and observable structure. Previously unreliable actions were converted into ranks of dependable, gestures.


The 'model' worker was one who had been drilled, who was a reliable automaton, and who accordingly offered a more convenient way of exercising power. The argument may also be made with respect to devices and machines. It is a commonplace that the technological history of western Europe reveals the way in which devices displayed an increasing capacity to harness natural forces.


It is possible to sit in a control-room in Houston and influence events at the other end of the solar system.





Points Law does not deal with:


The Armada - groups of ships set sail for the Spice islands across east coast of Africa and then on to the East.

"In the first decade (1500–1510), when the Portuguese were establishing themselves in India, the armadas averaged around 15 ships per year. This declined to around 9–10 ships in 1510–1525. From 1526 to the 1540s, the armadas declined further to 7–8 ships per year, with a few exceptional cases of large armadas"



Under Royal control/patronage, command

Separately from the Casa, but working in coordination with it, was the Armazém das Índias, the royal agency in charge of nautical outfitting, that oversaw the Lisbon docks and naval arsenal. The Armazém was responsible for the training of pilots and sailors, ship construction and repair, and the procurement and provision of naval equipment – sails, ropes, guns, instruments and, most importantly, maps. The piloto-mor ('chief pilot') of the Armazém, in charge of pilot-training, was, up until 1548, also the keeper of the Padrão Real, the secret royal master map, incorporating all the cartographic details reported by Portuguese captains and explorers, and upon which all official nautical charts were based. The screening and hiring of crews was the function of the provedor of the Armazém.



Capital for funding: Ships could be and sometimes were owned and outfitted by private merchants, and these were incorporated into the India armada. Few native Portuguese merchants had the wherewithal to finance one, despite eager government encouragement. In the early India runs, there are several ships organized by private consortiums, often with foreign capital provided by wealthy Italian and German trading houses.... Marine insurance was still underdeveloped, although the Portuguese had helped pioneer its development and its practice seemed already customary


Carracks were not necessarily huge ships to take huge cargo: In the 1550s, during the reign of John III, a few 900t behemoths were built for India runs, in the hope that larger ships would provide economies of scale. The experiment turned out poorly. Not only was the cost of outfitting such a large ship disproportionately high, they proved unmaneouverable and unseaworthy, particularly in the treacherous waters of the Mozambique Channel.

Over-large carracks vulnerable (contra-Law)...to attacks from other competing nation for whom a bit of plunder was useful: English privateer Sir John Burroughs  captured the Madre de Deus in the waters around the Azores islands. The Madre de Deus, built in 1589, was a 1600t carrack, with seven decks and a crew of around 600. It was the largest Portuguese ship to go on an India run. The great carrack, under the command of Fernão de Mendonça Furtado, was returning from Cochin with a full cargo when it was captured by Burrough. The value of the treasure and cargo taken on this single ship is estimated to have been equivalent to half the entire treasury of the English crown. The loss of so much cargo in one swoop confirmed, once again, the folly of building such gigantic ships


Carracks not enough for protection against attack (castellated or not)

Caravels served as forward lamp, scouts and fighting ships of the convoy. Caravels on the India run were often destined to remain overseas for coastal patrol duty, rather than return with the main fleet.

In the course of the 16th century, caravels were gradually phased out in favour of a new escort/fighting ship, the galleon which could range anywhere between 100t and 1000t. Based on the design of the carrack, but slenderer and lower, with forecastle diminished or removed to make way for its famous 'beak', the galleon became the principal fighting ship of the India fleet. It was not as nimble as the caravel, but could be mounted with much more cannon, thus packing a bigger punch.


Durability much to do with Portuguese expertise in itself (contrA-Law): Portuguese India ships distinguished themselves from the ships of other navies (especially those of rival powers in the Indian Ocean) on two principal accounts: their seaworthiness (durability at sea) and their artillery. With a few exceptions Portuguese ships were not typically built to last longer than four or five years of useful service. That they managed to survive a single India run was already an achievement, given that few ships of any nation at the time were able to stay at sea for even a quarter as long without breaking apart at the seams;


Incentives to sailors: In addition to the cash salaries paid by the Casa da Índia, captains and crew members were allowed to engage in trade on their own account (up to a certain amount). That is, they were authorized to import into Portugal a pre-specified volume of pepper and a certain number of boxes of assorted goods. These were to be purchased in India out of their own pockets, of course, but the crown would allow these cargoes to be brought back on crown ships free of freight charge and duties, and sold in Lisbon markets (at pre-set prices), for their own personal profit.


Economies of spice and factories: an armada could not just sail into an Indian city and expect to find enough supplies at hand in the city's spice markets to load up five or ten large ships at once. Should it even try, it would likely provoke an instant scarcity and quickly drive up the prices of spices astronomically.

Instead, the Portuguese relied on the ancient 'factory' system. That is, in every major market, the Portuguese erected a warehouse ('factory) and left behind a purchasing agent ('factor'). The factor and his assistants would remain in the city and buy spices from the markets slowly over the course of the year, and deposit them into the warehouse. When the next armada arrived, it would simply load up the accumulated spices from the warehouse and set sail out at once.


Competition from other trading states: The Portuguese India armadas challenged this old spice route, for a brief period disrupted it, but they did not eliminate it. Despite Portuguese efforts to secure monopolies at the source, enough spices still slipped through the old Venetian-Arab route and forced competition on the sale end in Europe.

Realizing that the Mediterranean was saturated with spices supplied by Venetian merchants, the Portuguese decided to avoid head-to-head competition that might cut into their profits there, and focused on selling their spices in northern Europe, a market the Venetians had barely touched. To this end, the Casa da Índia set up a factory (feitoria de Flandres) in Antwerp in 1508. The factory had two purposes: firstly, to serve as a distribution center of the Portuguese spices to the rest of northern Europe; secondly, to acquire the silver bullion needed by the Portuguese India armadas to buy spices in Asia.