Portugal in the Orient


Roderich Ptak*

Most historians dealing with the history of maritime Asia, particularly of the Indian Ocean, from a Eurocentric viewpoint would still consider the Portuguese voyages of 'discovery' and the establishment of the Estado da Índia as the starting point of their investigations. The Sinocentric approach is different: traditionally orientated Chinese historians would be especially interested in giving a detailed description of the early Ming naval expeditions and Chinese private trade to Southeast Asia but probably would not assign too much weight to the early European voyages to Asia. It is at the 'intersection' of these different approaches or rather of two different aspects of accentuation that the present paper will take its starting point. In short, what I intend to do is to briefly compare the most important aspects of Chinese maritime trade with those of Portuguese maritime trade in and to Asia.

Chinese shipping, it may be said without exaggeration, dominated trade and commerce in Far Eastern waters and parts of the Indian Ocean during the early fifteenth century. Portuguese maritime trade flourished in the sixteenth century. By comparing these two 'systems', each of which took the lead over other 'systems' in its respective time, we are looking at two more or less successive 'layers' of Asian maritime history even though, strictly speaking, there is a gap of some fifty to sixty years between the end of the short-lived Chinese and the beginning of the longer-lived Portuguese system. Notwithstanding this gap, it is perfectly legitimate to draw this kind of comparison as similar comparisons have been made between the different European trading systems.

Some additional introductory remarks will be necessary. Firstly, I shall begin by summarizing the lesser-known Chinese system and then shall proceed to the Portuguese system; most of the comparisons will be contained in the Portuguese 'section'. Secondly, the history of Portuguese trade in and to Asia can be traced in a large body of sources, while Chinese maritime trade in the early fifteenth century is very poorly documented. Much of what has been written on Portuguese Asia in recent times, therefore may be regarded as 'definite' and 'well-established', while much of what has been written on the Chinese is and always will remain speculative; the present study cannot claim to be an exception to this. Thirdly, it has become a 'common' practice to base studies with a 'broad' approach to the history of maritime Asia on certain models or theorems; I do not attempt to do this here but, now and then, will have to resort to some simple terms and ideas that have become part of the maritime historian's 'everyday vocabulary'. Finally, it would be impossible to go into all the details within the scope of the present survey. It shall suffice, therefore, to highlight some of the more important features of the Chinese and Portuguese trading systems.

When examining Chinese navigation and trade to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean which, incidentally, had started a long time before the beginning of the Ming period, one has to be conscious of the fact that some of this navigation was undertaken privately and that some of it was initiated and financed by the Chinese Court. Little is known about private Chinese trade - just as we have inadequate information on the so-called casado trade outside the Portuguese Estado da Índia - while there is at least some information available on the official trade. Hence, in the Chinese section of this paper we shall almost exclusively be concerned with this official trade.

During the final stages of Mongol rule over China (to 1368), Chinese overseas and coastal trade was in the hands of private merchants operating closely together with the commercial elite in the lower Yangtse valley and the port towns of southern China. These merchants maintained a network of connections extending as far as the Near East and the coasts of East Africa. Some were extremely wealthy and cannot be classified as mere pedlars. Chinese overseas trade at that time was 'free' and 'decentralized'. The capital was in the landlocked north, and the Court took little interest in the development of overseas trade and the southern coastal regions.

With the succession of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), this situation underwent a complete change. The capital was now transferred to Nanking and thereby lay within the reach of the sea. The new government, highly centralized and tightly organized, aimed at restoring peace and order in the interior of China as well as trying to secure the border regions. It therefore also attempted to control the coast line and the wealthy merchants in the coastal centres, some of whom had openly worked together with anti-Ming forces during the transitional period from Yüan to Ming. To counterbalance the influence of these merchants, the first Ming emperor, best-known under his reign title Hung-wu (1368-1398),prohibited private overseas trade but, at the same time, failed to promote official navigation to a degree that could have replaced private trade. It may be surmised, therefore, that aggregate Chinese imports and exports fell below late Yüan levels and that Chinese demand for 'maritime' goods produced in West, South or Southeast Asia exceeded the supply. This excess demand situation led many private merchants who depended on sea trade for their income, to disregard the prohibitions and to risk illegal trade, cooperate with pirates, or, in a few cases, emigrate to Southeast Asia. Some of the Chinese officials in the coastal provinces of Chekiang, Fukien and Kwangtung also participated in illegal business thereby further undermining the central government's control. The inevitable result of all this was a number of clashes between government forces and those who defied official regulations.

When the Yung-lo emperor ascended to power (reign 1403-1424), the situation underwent a further change. The Court continued to suppress private maritime activities but now was prepared to fully promote official Chinese navigation. Even though there were further reports about clashes between the government and pirates or illegal traders, it may be surmised that now, in the early fifteenth century, a growing share of China's maritime trade was in the hands of the government and that government involvement in overseas trade attained unprecedented levels. To achieve this, the Yung-lo emperor initiated a large ship construction programme. Several hundred ocean-going vessels were built in Nanking, Fukien and other places and these formed the core of the great naval expeditions that were to follow soon.

Chinese government trade under Yung-lo consisted of two basic components. Firstly, the Chinese dispatched ships or entire fleets - usually commanded by eunuchs - to overseas countries. These ships would leave from Nanking, sail down the Yangtse river, pass the coast of Fukien and Kwangtung and then go straight south to Indochina, Indonesia and into the Indian Ocean. Secondly, foreign delegates and traders would come to China to submit tribute and to conduct supplementary trade on the side. Both these 'arms' of official trade were tightly knit together as many of the Chinese activities abroad apparently served to entice the foreigners to send tribute to China.

Officially, all merchandise brought by foreigners to China was subject to a fixed set of rules and regulations. These allowed for a limited degree of 'free' trade in certain commodities but, at the same time, restricted trading activities to a few harbours where they were scrutinized by government officials. Moreover, foreigners trading with China were expected to send some of their goods as tributes to the imperial capital. The quantitative and qualitative relations between both the tribute 'part' and the supplementary 'part' of foreign trading missions to China is not well-understood but it is apparent that some of the foreign merchants who were completely free in other parts of Asia were considered as official representatives of their countries in the Chinese capital.

The presentation of tribute at Court was coded by a complicated protocol and had to be observed under all circumstances even if this entailed long delays of several months. In several cases, large groups of foreigners are reported to have come to the Chinese capital, and these embassies certainly did not only pursue economic but also political goals. There were also cases when the ruler of a foreign country undertook the journey to China in person. Thus, during the Yung-lo reign, the sultan of Malacca, a Borneo ruler and a Sulu ruler came to Nanking. It is very likely that most of these high-ranking as well as the minor foreign embassies travelled to China and were brought back to their countries of origin by Chinese ships.

The Chinese who were sent abroad by the Ming government also had a double function:they acted as ambassadors and they pursued trade. The way this official Chinese trade was conducted outside of China is poorly documented and it is impossible to say to what extent it was considered as part of 'bilateral' tribute arrangements and to what extent it was' free'. It does appear, however, that both aspects were involved and that, for the most part if not always, the Chinese saw themselves to be in a superior position. Hence, Chinese goods acquired by foreigners in China or from Chinese embassies abroad were often considered as gifts bestowed upon the foreigners by the Chinese emperor in reward for tributes sent to China. Some of these gifts, it is important to note, were very valuable and probably exceeded the value of the tribute items.

Other than these 'material gifts' China also bestowed official rank and symbolic gifts such as ceremonial robes. This was normally done at the Chinese Court but could also be settled abroad by Chinese ambassadors entitled to act on behalf of the Chinese government. In a few cases, the Chinese went as far as to confer the title of wang (king) on a foreign ruler or to 'confirm' his position as such.

The last point is of particular importance because it illustrates well that China felt superior to all other countries - morally, culturally, and physically. In the Chinese view, a foreign country's submission of tribute to China meant that this country accepted China's superiority, and that it also accepted China's claim to be the centre of the world. The emperor was the 'son of heaven', heaven had selected and entitled him to rule the empire and, ideally, the charismatic power emerging from the emperor's 'virtue' (te) was sufficient by itself to lead the 'barbarians' to submission. In a sense, then, tributary trade served to manifest a cosmologically-induced world order in which China had to take the lead and the 'barbarians' had to follow China's will and guidance.

There are of course several important questions to be raised here: to what degree was China really interested in and willing to impose its alleged superiority, and to what extent was it able to enforce its rule upon other maritime countries, in particular upon those which did not want to comply with China's claims? Were there other motives behind the 'Chinese world order' which can be held responsible for China's maritime expansion in the early fifteenth century and why is it that this expansion came only now and not at an earlier point in time? How important was the system of tribute relations within the broader context of total intra-Asian trade? Finally, which were the institutional characteristics of the Chinese trade system?

Let us begin with the first point, the question of whether or not the Ming government was able to enforce its supremacy. A large number of tribute delegations came to China during the Yung-lo reign - often more than a dozen per year - and it may be assumed that some of these did so simply because economic profits derived from the China trade out-weighed all inconveniences connected there-with. However, there may have been other reasons for sending tribute. China had the largest ships in Asia, some of which were said to have measured more than a hundred meters in length (if true, this would mean that they were even longer than the Portuguese naus and the Spanish galleys), and China's ocean-going junks carried firearms and troops. Moreover, China's fleets were huge; the largest ones comprised two to three hundred units with a total crew of twenty to thirty thousand. These armadas, commanded by Cheng Ho and others, were organized into several flotillas, some of which sailed to the Arabian Sea while others patrolled the Bay of Bengal and various places in Southeast Asia. In at least three cases the soldiers aboard these fleets were employed in wars abroad, the most spectacular one being a successful Chinese attack on Ceylon in 1411, probably involving several thousand men. In short, China's fleets participated in trade but, at the same time, they were armed and manned with well-trained combat units. Some of the other maritime countries' ground troops probably would have outnumbered the Chinese marines in the battle field but foreign navies were definitely inferior to the Ming fleets, both in terms of quantity and quality; hence, in many parts of maritime Asia, Ming superiority was real and for a small and weak country it was certainly advisable to send tribute and acknowledge this superiority, rather than to risk a Chinese punitive campaign. On the whole, however, it appears that China did not fully exploit its military strength to the extent that it occupied foreign territory; it was satisfied with recognition of its leading position over others and did not call for more.

Cantino's famous planisphere produced in Portugal in 1502. A watershed in the art of cartography, this was the first time that Asia was portrayed in a non-Ptolemaic form.

Little is known about the logistics and the costs necessary to keep up China's combined commercial and military power at sea but much has been written on the geographical range of China's fleets. Initially, Calicut in Southwest India appears to have been the western terminal point of Chinese official navigation. With the fourth of Cheng Ho's seven voyages, Chinese ships also reached Hormuz and Aden and then, finally, sailed on to East Africa. It is not known how far to the south these ships followed the African coast but it was speculated that some may have explored the Cape region and the southern parts of the Atlantic Ocean. In the central section of the Indian Ocean Chinese vessels may have touched the Chagos Islands but it is doubtful whether they also reached Mauritius, Reunion and the subarctic region.

In Southeast Asia, official Chinese navigation was mostly confined to the area west of the Sulu Islands and Celebes. While there is no written first-hand evidence of Ming government ships sailing to Timor, the Spice Islands or other parts of eastern Indonesia, it is possible that these regions lay in the range of private Chinese traders and overseas Chinese operating from the north coast of Java or from Sumatra. But it is not clear to what degree these overseas Chinese who had left China illegally, cooperated with the official Ming traders.

Be that as it may, most ports visited by Chinese government ships appear to have sent tribute to China - at least this is the impression one gets when reading Chinese sources. The most important ports and countries within the network of official Chinese trade relations were those in a strategic location: Islamic Malacca which flourished under the protection of the Ming navy and probably became the leading emporium for all trade passing through the Strait; Calicut, South India's gate to the Near East; the Maldives and Ceylon, situated on the direct route from Southeast Asia to Northwest India, the Near East and Africa; Hormuz and Aden at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea; and Mogadishu, a key port for all traffic sailing from the Near East to the southeastern parts of Africa and back. To the east of Malacca, the Javanese ports, Palembang, Champa and Siam constituted China's most important trading 'partners'. Brunei and the Sulu Islands which controlled the northern route to the Moluccas also sent tribute to China. Taken together, it appears that in the early fifteenth century all major Asian emporia had formally recognized the laws and regulations imposed on them through the Chinese tribute trade.

Given that China's mercantile power and military superiority was mostly felt in areas frequently visited by government ships, it may be assumed that China's ability to exert efficient control over other ports and countries was higher in Southeast Asia than in places far away from China. Some would probably argue here that in such emporia as Aden or Hormuz the Chinese only constituted one of many groups of traders and that Ming claims to China's formal 'suzerainty' over these port towns were not taken seriously at all by their rulers. Without being able to prove this point, I would concede that this may have been the case in the Arabian Sea but that from Calicut eastwards, China's naval superiority was felt as a real threat.

Earlier it was said that China did not attempt to annex foreign territory in the Asian maritime - unlike the later European colonial powers - but there is vague evidence of the presence of Chinese government officials in Palembang and other Southeast Asian places. These officials may have exerted control over or assisted in the administration of foreign ports, or they may have simply looked after the affairs of the local Chinese populace; perhaps their functions were comparable to those of a typical shabandar in later times. Another point of concern is the relations between the various 'China-towns' and the local rulers. The sources contain very little on this and it is impossible to decide, for example, what was the role played by the Calicut-Chinese within the framework of China's trade to southern India. Similarly, it is not clear whether the Chinese settlements in Southeast Asia were regarded by the Nanking government as 'regular' Chinese outposts or whether they were tolerated only because they would absorb some of the illegal private traders from the Chinese mainland and thereby divert private trade away from the mainland and to the Indonesian archipelago.

At this point we have to return to some economic issues. If the large number of Chinese government ships and their size is taken into account, it is very likely that China dominated much of the so-called long distance trade in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, while coastal traffic remained in the hands of other Asian seafarers. The fact that China's ships had a reputation for being safer and more comfortable than other Asian vessels can be inferred from the descriptions in the works of Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and others. China's huge ocean-going junks were the chief carriers on the routes that connected China to the rest of maritime Asia and probably also dominated intra-Asian trade outside China.

In the context of early European trade to Asia, the question was often asked whether or not the Europeans had a major impact on the Asian trade system to the effect that they altered this system in any significant way. The same question could be raised with respect to the early Ming trade. Though a definite answer cannot be given for lack of evidence, it is clear that under the regime of the Ming some commodity flows were diverted to China. The trade in horses, for example, was basically limited to the Arabian Sea but in the early Ming period, Near Eastern horses were also brought to Nanking by tribute delegations of various Indian Ocean countries. In fact, horses are among the most frequently mentioned tribute items in the Ming shih-lu, China's demand for horses being so great that various Southeast Asian countries and even the Ryukyu Islands participated in this trade.

Other examples of how demand in China influenced the direction of certain commodity flows and the overall trade pattern within Asia, are the trade in pepper, sappanwood, cloves, nutmeg and mace. In the early Ming period China required large quantities of pepper and sappanwood - both were used as payment in kind to Chinese government officials - hence, nearly all Southeast Asian countries as well as the Ryukyu Islands supplied these goods to China. However, China's demand for cloves, nutmeg and mace appears to have been limited. Therefore, the larger part of these spices probably went from Indonesia to India and West Asia. This may also have been the reason why no direct Chinese government trade developed beyond the 'Sulu zone'. No doubt, had China wished to obtain large quantities of these spices, the Ming navy would have sailed through the Celebes Sea and on to the Moluccas.

China's principal commodity exports were silk and porcelain. This is confirmed through written sources as well as through countless archaeological finds along the African and Asian coasts. In addition to commodities, China also offered 'protection services'. Those who would accept Chinese supremacy and submit tribute, would not only receive material benefits in return but, to some extent, could count on China's assistance should their position be challenged by a third party. An example is the Chinese intervention in Samudra which put an end to internal rivalry there and restored the 'legitimate' ruler to power. Another example is from a much later time: in the early sixteenth century, some seventy years after the Ming government had withdrawn its fleets from the Asian seas, the sultan of Malacca still thought it opportune to dispatch an embassy to China and ask for help against the Portuguese who had conquered his domain. Help never came, but the fact that it had been asked for, indicates that China enjoyed a long-lasting reputation as a protective power. The efficiency of this power certainly decreased from East to West but in those parts which lay within the reach of the imperial navies, China had something to offer that no other Asian maritime country had been able to offer on such a large scale up to this point. Needless to say, China's protection services were quite different from those offered under the regime of the Portuguese cartaz system, which will be described later.

Let us now turn to the next question, concerning whether or not there were other factors motivating the Ming to initiate maritime expansion. Much has been written on this question and until today no definite answer has been found. A few remarks will be sufficient to show some of the different arguments raised so far. In some earlier works it was argued, for example, that Cheng Ho may have sailed to India and Africa in search of materia medica or to collect rare animals with a symbolic value for the imperial zoo. Others believed that the chief purpose of the great Ming expeditions was to curb piracy along the China coast and in Southeast Asia. Still others considered a broader economic context either saying that imports were exclusively to benefit the Chinese Court or else that large scale trade was necessary to satisfy China's market demand for certain goods. Some would even assign an important macro-economic dimension to the early Ming trade within the total context of China's foreign trade at that time. In general, one of the reasons why there has been so much room for so many different speculations, is that very little quantitative evidence has been found in the sources; hence it is impossible to clearly determine the magnitudes in the composition of China's imports, and the material costs and benefits connected therewith.

Other than economic motives, political factors may also have played a role. A very plausible explanation that can easily be linked to the above described 'Chinese world order', is that the Yung-lo emperor, ambitious as he was, wanted to expose his power and imperial grandeur. Others say the naval expeditions covered China's sea flank during the Annam wars, or that China wanted to increase its influence over Indonesia where Majapahit power was in steady decline. A very interesting hypothesis is that China was afraid of Tamerlan who did have plans to conquer China by way of Hsinkiang, and that Cheng Ho sailed to India and the Near East in an effort to secure possible Chinese allies along the southwestern sphere of influence of the Timurid empire. Most of these hypotheses, it is obvious, rest on unstable ground. Tamerlan had already died at a time when Chinese government ships had not yet gone beyond Calicut and it is highly questionable, too, whether the Yung-lo emperor and his potential foe were adequately informed about each other's plans.

Whatever may have caused the Ming to send their fleets abroad, religion was not involved as a motive. China had no religious enemies. Portugal explored the seas not only because it hoped to obtain the riches of the Orient but also because it felt compelled to strike a deadly blow against the backdoor of Islam which threatened Europe from the south and southeast. In a way, then, Portugal pursued a different kind of Zangenstrategie - if China may be said to have pursued one at all.

No definite answer can be given with regard to the possible motives behind China's naval policy, and there is also no definite answer as to why, only thirty-five years after the Yung-lo emperor had started this policy, the great maritime expeditions were stopped by the Ming government (c. 1435). The Asian seas were pacified, some might say, hence no further reasons existed for a continuation of these expeditions; others would probably argue that the costs of maintaining huge fleets could no longer be borne. There are different views on this last point but it is clear from the sources that at the end of the Yung-lo period, China's financial situation looked bleak. Government expenditures had to be cut and, perhaps because China had no enemies at sea, all naval ventures were halted. Another important observation is that already in the final years of the Yung-lo reign, China's main focus in foreign affairs was shifting from the sea to the northern land frontier. The capital was moved north, to present-day Peking, and henceforth the emperor's main concern were the 'barbarians' beyond the Great Wall. This being so, the imperial fleets became useless. Some of the junks were even broken up, obviously to make use of the wood, others were employed in river traffic. The seamen were forced to work on construction sites, to serve as soldiers, or else they simply deserted, probably participating in illegal sea trade or emigrating to Southeast Asia.

With the termination of the great Ming naval expeditions, China closed a glorious chapter in its history. But even though China's grip over the Asian seas loosened, some of its maritime 'vassals' still continued to send tribute. Thus, the last Hormuz embassy arrived in 1441, the last Ceylon embassy in 1459, and 'nearby' places such as Malacca, Java, Champa and others, even dispatched envoys until the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century. In addition, illegal private trade and trade via the Ryukyu Islands appear to have expanded so that China continued to be supplied with tropical goods. The Court, being absorbed by internal affairs and military developments along the northern borders, rarely took notice of what was going on 'down south'; the number of reported piratical attacks and other criminal incidences was mostly considered insignificant, and nothing pointed to the possibility that one day China would be seriously challenged from the sea.

We shall now turn to Portugal which, under completely different circumstances, set out to conquer the seas. There was not only a religious enemy to deal with but there was also a commercial rival - Venice, whose long arms stretched to the Levant and even to India where Italian merchants, now and then, participated in the pepper business, channelling spices to the Mediterranean. Venice was suspected, with some reason, of collaborating with the Mussulmans, hence, when Tomé Pires wrote his famous Suma Oriental, he could not resist remarking that "quem for sõr De malaqª tem a mãao na garganta a veneza". Nothing comparable can be said with respect to the Ming naval expeditions. China had no foreign economic rival, and the production areas of pepper and other important tropical goods lay right in front of its door - in Indonesia and continental Southeast Asia.

Moreover, while China's huge junks had largely been able to follow coastal routes sailing in waters that had been explored by Near-Eastern and Indian pilots and were well-known at that time, Portugal had to search for new routes in the Atlantic Ocean before its ships could go around the Cape, enter the Indian Ocean, and make use of local navigational traditions. Portugal turned 'terra incognita' into 'terra cognita', Chinese ships rarely sailed into the unknown. In fact, China had no reason to explore the Atlantic Ocean, Australia or the lands beyond the Torres Strait, nor even Europe which, at that time, had little to offer anyway that might have attracted a Chinaman to travel so far. If Chinese and Portuguese navigation had something in common, it was that, in the realm of the Indian Ocean, both could rely on Near Eastern and local pilots, charts and maps, but that was all.

Engraving of the sha-ch'uan, a small, flat-bottomed junk used for transporting sand during the Song and Ming dynasties and later employed in coastal traffic and for coastal defense.

Whatever Portugal undertook to seal up the Indian Ocean and to divert India's pepper via the Cape route to Lisbon, the quantitative aspects of its early Asian endeavours compared poorly with those of the early Ming naval expeditions. Portuguese flotillas, often arriving in India in a badly-shattered condition, consisted of four, five, or at most of nine or ten sails. Even if a certain number of vessels always remained in Asia, the Estado da Índia was often short of ships and had difficulties in maintaining adequate communication lines. At the height of Portuguese power in Asia, there probably were no more than one hundred or two hundred ships in Asian waters flying the Portuguese flag. Some of these were locally built, others were bought from Asian countries, only a few had been constructed in Europe. China's case was different. The majority of Cheng Ho's oceangoing junks, without doubt, were Chinesemade, and China is said to have had thousands, not hundreds, of ships employed in coastal traffic and overseas. Portugal's and China's ships had one thing in common: some of them were larger than those of other seafaring Asians, they probably were sturdier and better suited to cover long distances, and they both disposed of 'modern' armour or carried soldiers who could strike a deadly blow against an enemy superior in numbers.

Although Portugal's ships were able to gun down most Asian enemy vessels due to superior technology, the Estado da Índia was always short of personnel.

There were too few Portuguese in Asia and many of the Estado's outposts were inadequately manned. Afonso de Albuquerque and others who had recognized this problem at an early stage, sought to overcome it by encouraging mixed marriages and getting qualified Asians to work for or collaborate with the Portuguese. Thus, in the course of time, many Portuguese settlements in Asia became 'melting pots' with Portuguese men taking Asian wives - particularly of Japanese, Chinese and North Indian descent whom they preferred to dark-skinned ones from Timor or Africa - and with Asian men being employed as skilled workers or in other functions in Portuguese forts and on board the Estado's ships. Of course, there were slaves, often blacks from Africa, but slavery, it has to be made clear, was not a Portuguese invention and was common practice in many parts of Asia at that time. Moreover, the Portuguese-Asian system of bondage was probably more 'humane' than many other bondage systems.

Unlike the Portuguese, it seems that the Chinese looked down on all foreigners and flatly considered them as 'barbarians'. The early Ming navy probably never suffered from a shortage of personnel, there was less or no need to collaborate with non-Chinese, and mixed marriages probably were rare and certainly out of the question for most men serving on board government ships. This may have been different in the early overseas Chinese settlements for at least we know of some mixed marriages in that context - but, again, the circumstances are not comparable to those prevailing in the Portuguese outposts. Very few European women undertook the long and hazardous journey to Asia, while the early fifteenth century Chinese 'diaspora' in Southeast Asia, situated right in front of China's southern doors, probably received enough Chinese women to secure a certain percentage of 'purely' Chinese offspring for these settlements. Moreover, due to the Chinese system of family lineage and ancestral worship, most overseas Chinese never really cut family ties with their relatives in China even if, by returning to the mainland for a visit, they ran the risk of being caught and imprisoned by the authorities. In spite of these differences between the population living in the Portuguese and in the Chinese overseas settlements, the average overseas Chinese and the average Portuguese in Asia probably had one thing in common: both were comparatively well off and were often sought after because of their skills, wealth, and connections. For the others it may have been of some advantage to have a fidalgo or a Fukienese as brother-in-law who would lend money, reveal information on distant markets, and thereby often help to pave the way to the local elite.

A section of the so-called Mao K' un map (from the Wu pei chih ) showing parts of the Straits of Malacca. These maps were really portolanos, the Chinese characters along the routes giving detailed instructions to be followed with the aid of a compass and elevations along the coastline. Malacca is indicated in the top left hand corner of the left half while the lower portions of both halves show Sumatra.

Christianity was an important, probably the most crucial, element that made it possible for Portuguese and Asians to live together peacefully in many Portuguese-Asian settlements. The early Ming system was different. The tribute states were kept under loose and thereby difficult-to-define 'control' irrespective of race or religion. China rattled the sabre but rarely intervened, its gigantic fleets probably being impressive enough to keep at least some of the 'barbarians' in awe of the Son of Heaven. While China, through its mass of ships and men, attempted to maintain 'law and order' in the Asian maritime region, tiny Portugal had to establish a network of heavily armed forts to be able to defend its position and interests against a non-Christian world. From this viewpoint, the argument that Portugal had 'terrorized' the Asian coasts, is very questionable. Portugal's guns, it has to be added here, were chiefly aimed at the Moors, rarely at those of other faiths.

Economically, China had one advantage over Portugal: it was the principal supplier of two commodities demanded in most parts of Asia - silk and porcelain. What little Portugal had to offer- wine, olives, some textiles - was only of marginal importance to the Asians. Even the African gold, gathered on the way from Europe to the Indian Ocean, did not really bolster Portugal's position since gold was available in many parts of Asia. Hence, while China was able to offer something substantial and probably contributed to the growth in intra-Asian trade, Portugal had few, if any, economic options 'to make a quick buck'. This and the dangers emerging from an unpredictable and hostile Moslem world led the Portuguese to opt for a radical way of breaking into the existing Asian trade system: Portugal attempted to seal up the western end of the Indian Ocean and divert the flow of some important commodities to the Cape route. There is no indication that the Ming Court ever intended to do something similar at the eastern end of the Asian system or that China ever thought of establishing a regional monopoly. The geographical factors were different, China had no enemies of the kind the Portuguese were faced with. In short, China was in a very privileged position (as compared to Portugal) when Cheng Ho set out to 'conquer' the seas.

Whatever China needed could be obtained from India or nearby Southeast Asia and could be brought either in Chinese junks or other nations ships. For the others, trading to China or with Chinese merchants was profitable while faraway Portugal remained largely unknown among the Asians. The distance between Lisbon and South Africa was only covered by Portuguese ships and the Lisbon government could not pull out of Asia and sit back, hoping that others would bring and sell at reasonable prices what Portuguese ships normally carried around the Cape. China could withdraw from the sea: it was far too big and attractive to be overlooked and therefore could be certain that some foreign ships would always come to trade.

Distance was an important factor for the Portuguese. The Estado da Índia was so far away from Lisbon that it was almost predestined to go its own ways. Trade between the Estado and other Asian ports quickly outgrew trade between Lisbon and Goa, the Estado built its own ships, and in many cases made its own decisions. The Cape route always remained risky and information often took a whole year to travel from Europe to Asia. The fact that it sometimes went overland, through the heartland of Portugal's foes, shows how artificial the Cape route actually was in comparison to the traditional Euro-Asian route through the Levant. In the case of the early Ming fleets, information may not have travelled faster, decision-making may even have been slower, but there was probably no need for speed and high mobility of resources anyway, since the mass of material and manpower involved in the Chinese network certainly did not call for the same degree of efficiency that Portugal had to demonstrate. Moreover, and this is a very important difference between the Portuguese and the Chinese system, the sources do not really indicate, as we already saw above, if the Ming government had put up some kind of administrative centre overseas from which it directed its fleets and tribute trade. In a way, Goa was a bridge between Lisbon and the Portuguese bases in Asia, but, quite obviously, there was no Chinese centre of a similar kind, the Chinese depot in Malacca probably being the closest one can get to such a base in this respect.

Hostility between the Portuguese and the Moslems was great, and the Moslem world took little notice of the fact that Portugal, in its quest for Asia, could point to the Treaty of Tordesillas and the authorities in Rome. Whatever the claims of Portugal on the Asian seas, the Asians ignored them and continued as best as they could to get around the Portuguese installations. Although Near Eastern trade suffered heavily from Portuguese attacks, the Estado da Índia did not succeed in curbing this trade completely. The principal reason was that the entrance of the Red Sea could not be sealed so that some pepper always leaked through to Egypt and Venice. But there were other weak geographical points as well: the Maldives were only controlled for some years, and the ports on the northwestern end of Sumatra evaded Goa's grip, too. This contributed to the emergence of a new and 'alternative' Asian system of trading routes connecting those points that Goa did not control. Hence, while Portuguese vessels called at Malacca, other ships would often go into Aceh or Johore. By the 1530's or so, there did, in effect, exist two 'overlapping' systems of trade routes, something that is not known to have existed under the early Ming. There may have been a certain degree of 'polarization' under the Chinese then, but this was different and could not compare with the kind of 'polarization' that came with Muslim resistance to the Estado da Índia.

China received tribute from all strategic places at the various entrances to the Indian Ocean, including the above mentioned ones, while Portugal, being compelled to strive for more than nominal control, only succeeded in controlling some of the strategic areas. As the Estado da Índia only disposed of limited funds, too few men and too few ships, the Portuguese decided to install a new system to extract money from their competitors. This was the system of cartazes. A pass or cartaz did not cost very much but the holder would have to call in Goa-controlled ports where he would pay duties to the Estado's authorities. The Portuguese, in return, would offer protection services by defending the holder's ship against pirates and other enemies. Early Ming China had also offered protection but, as described above, this had not been on an individual 'ship-by-ship' basis but rather on an 'inter-state level'.

Portuguese Caravelle

The Estado derived much of its income from the duties raised through the cartaz system but the system also had some unwanted effects. Some of the Portuguese ships were now bound by convoy services instead of actively engaging in trade or fighting enemy vessels. This led to a revival of Near Eastern and Northwest Indian shipping and to a further expansion of the Asian trading network that co-existed with the Portuguese route system. The reason was that many Asians flatly refused to subordinate themselves to Portuguese regulations and that the risk of being caught without a cartaz by a Portuguese squadron was not very high. There were too many routes and too many Asian ships, and the Portuguese could not be present everywhere. Thus, as before, a large number of ships managed to slip through the Portuguese controls near Aden bringing pepper to Egypt. In the middle of the sixteenth century this development and other factors caused a revival of the Near Eastern and Italian spice trade. As a result, the Estado' s share in the total volume of Euro-Asian as well as intra-Asian commodity flows is likely to have decreased.

While this by itself was not very detrimental to Goa, there were other symptoms of decay and these probably had a much more immediate impact on the Portuguese system. In recent studies it is often emphasized, for example, that many Portuguese began to abuse the system. Bribery was common, certain laws were disregarded, some Portuguese traded secretly with those with whom, under 'normal' circumstances, they were expected to fight. Many exceptions, regular or otherwise, were made as far as the cartaz system was concerned, and in certain periods private enterprise was allowed to thrive comparatively freely. However, it is difficult to weigh all these possible factors and I am not sure whether they really did as much damage to the system as some thought they did. It could be argued, for instance, that what we would perceive as bribery now, at that time was common practice everywhere in Asia and that, on various occasions, personal connections between individual casado traders and influential Asian merchants outside of the system enabled the Portuguese to raise large funds from among the Asians and to develop friendships in an unexpected way. Perhaps a simple answer to what happened would be that the Portuguese became more and more 'Asianized', not so much by mixed marriages but rather mentally. Thus, in the middle of the sixteenth century and even thereafter, the Portuguese network still expanded geographically but many of its bases and outposts appear to have drifted away from Goa's control and thereby the network as a whole weakened. Likewise, the number of traders operating outside of the system probably increased over the years; this was a loss in manpower on the one hand but may have been a gain to the system on the other, as Portuguese influence and culture continued to spread. Yet, there can be no doubt that towards the end of the century the Estado was less centralized than in the earlier periods and therefore was more vulnerable to internal disasters and the impact of hostile forces from the 'outside world'.

To some extent the ambiguous relation between government and private trade characterizing the Estado da Índia was also present in the early Ming system. Private trade and emigration from China was interdicted, as we have seen above, but, quite obviously, the Chinese settlements in Southeast Asia encountered by the Ming naval forces were left in peace except for the fact that certain individuals known to have committed crimes in China were sought out and punished. In severe cases the Estado would also punish some of the 'breakaways' but in many cases it did not.

The motives that led the average Chinese to emigrate were probably different from those that led the average Portuguese to 'break out' of the system. While a Chinese person would try to make a fortune within the realm of a Chinese settlement in an environment resembling as closely as possible that of his native mainland village, a Portuguese would also strive for wealth and fame, but he would usually be an individualist, fully adapted to the exotic environment of his host country, fascinated by the many faces of Asia, by the beauty of his Asian wives and concubines and always hoping to find an Eldorado for himself. He would rarely turn his back on the Church, but clearly tended to become absorbed by Asia much more than a Chinese (if, for a moment, it may be overlooked that China is a part of Asia, too).

Much has been speculated about the endogenous factors possibly contributing to the decline of the Estado da Índia such as the cartaz system with all its side effects, decentralization, so-called corruption, inefficient administration, poor communication within the network, mismanagement of funds and investments, inadequate maintenance and overloading of ships which caused a sharp increase in naval disasters on the Cape route, but Portuguese India continued to exist and it fared well. Even the institutional changes imposed on the system by King Sebastião which, according to some, only served to plunder the Estado and to finance the king's ill-fated Moroccan 'adventure', did not bring about the downfall of Goa.

What probably hurt most was an exogenous factor: the Dutch, who, in the early 1600's came plundering and pillaging the coasts of Africa and Asia, driven by their dislike of Castile - and thereby of the Portuguese as well who had been forced into a union with Spain -, and driven even more or rather obsessed by a new entrepreneurial spirit hitherto unknown in the Asian seas. It was under the impact of this aggressive newcomer who disposed of both navigational knowledge taken from the Iberians and an advanced shipping and military technology developed in the Netherlands, that the Estado began to suffer. All this has been described in great detail by others; what perhaps remains to be emphasized here is that the Dutch directed their attacks against the most sensitive spots of the Portuguese system. Of these the Straits of Malacca was the most important target- 'the one controlling Malacca has his hands at the throat of Goa', it could be said in analogy to Tome Pires' earlier remark-for, by letting very few fully-laden Portuguese ships pass through this bottleneck, the Dutch succeeded in practically breaking up the Estado into an Indian and an eastern part. This was finalized by the fall of Malacca in 1640/41 at a time when a number of other disasters occurred as well: Japan closed its gates to the Portuguese, the Manila-Macao traffic broke down for some years, and in China the Ming were ousted by the Manchus. The effects emerging from this so-called mid-seventeenth century crisis in the Far East aggravated the existing problems within the tiny Portuguese settlements although, in the longer run, Batavia remained the chief problem.

In contrast to the Portuguese navy, the early Ming navy was never challenged by an enemy equal or superior in technology. There was no exogenous factor in the Asian maritimes crippling Chinese government trade. Nor was there a 'Malacca syndrome' as the Chinese had never attempted to seal up parts of the Asian seas. China's decline as a sea power was totally different - it was purely Chinese-induced and had to do with developments on the Chinese mainland, not with changes in the Indian Ocean or Southeast Asia.

Map illustrating navigation by the stars and the kind of boat used.

It is of course very tempting to contemplate what might have occurred had China not withdrawn its fleets, had it continued to send huge ships to the Indian Ocean, to develop its own naval technology and naval armaments. Probably the Portuguese would have been stuck in India then, but that, needless to say, is a matter of pure speculation. What is more intriguing and also true - one of the remarkable coincidences in history - is that Prince Henry the Navigator and Cheng Ho were contemporaries. Moreover, in a sense, Portugal became the successor of China in the Asian maritime region, and Portuguese Macao was the first and, - most likely, - the last European place in the Far East.

In concluding these notes, therefore a few more lines should be devoted to the Portuguese bases such as Macao. These bases did not only serve economic purposes but were bridgeheads of European culture and civilization. A similar function may be assigned to some of the later Dutch and English bases but not necessarily to those countries and ports that sent tribute to China during the early Ming period. Only of the overseas Chinese settlements founded in Southeast Asia by private Chinese traders, can one say that some of them came to form a 'durable', albeit loose and not always wanted, adjunct of the China mainland or at least of the Chinese sphere of influence.

While in Portuguese Asia it was the Catholic Church with all its fine institutions and organizations that probably contributed most to the spread of European thought and culture, the early Ming system had no comparable 'religious superstructure' ( if that expression be permissible) and only served to pursue 'worldly' goals. In the wake of the great expeditions by Cheng Ho and others, certain Chinese ideas and thoughts were officially propagated abroad- it is known, for example, that the Ming Court had several thousand copies of the Lieh-nü chuan, a book designed for women's education, printed and distributed among the 'barbarians' to teach them chastity and proper conduct - but, strictly speaking, the official Chinese system lacked a true religious component of the kind that the Portuguese system had. If in the case of Portugal it was 'God and Mammon' that stood behind the Asian adventure, as was often said, at best it was 'Mammon and Imperial Virtue (te)' that governed the early Ming system. While tiny Portugal, backed by Rome and the Church of a whole continent, took up the immense task of spreading Christianity in Asia, China hoped-if it really did - to 'civilize' the 'barbarians' within the framework of a 'pseudo-religious' world order.

There was one other difference between the Portuguese system and the early Ming system: spreading Christianity implied that any voluntary retreat from Asia was practically out of the question, irrespective of the size of funds and the number of guns, ships and men at the disposal of the Estado da Índia. Rome would never have forgiven Lisbon had Lisbon given up too much terrain. The loss of strategically important Malacca was a military, political and economic disaster but, from the Church's viewpoint, the loss of the missions in Japan mattered much more.

China's conscience was carved by a very different pattern; there was no 'unconditional' obligation to defend the acquired overseas positions. On the contrary, sending huge fleets to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean constituted only one possibility of how to proceed with the 'barbarians'. Force or simply closing the borders were the other possibilities. In any case, China felt superior to all others - with or without tribute trade. Active government involvement overseas might entail an intensification of this trade and some material benefits, but it was not a must. Ideally, the 'barbarians', touched by the emperor's virtue, would even send tribute on their own. And if not, China would also be able to do without them. Morally and culturally, China felt self-sufficient, and, like AQ in the famous story by Lu Hsün, could deceive itself by believing that it was always right. The outside world was not necessary; if required by the circumstances, China could brush aside all the 'real reasons' that, behind the curtain of 'ideology', had led to expansion, and 'relax' by going into 'splendid isolation'. Portugal could never quit, 'God and Mammon' being one reason, the country's geographical orientation, totally maritime as it was, being another one. China was different: it usually gazed across the Great Wall rarely dipping its feet into the vastness of the Ocean.

Zheng He, eunuch and great navigator, seen from a Chinese perspective


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* M. A. in Economics (University of Guelph, Canada); Ph. D. in Sinology and habil. degree in Sinology (both University of Heidelberg. Germany; various scholarships from German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Research Council (DGF); studies and research in Peking, Shenyang, Hong Kong. Toronto; books and articles on Chinese Literature, Ming maritime trade and the Portuguese in the Far East. Assistant and Associate Professor of Sinology at the University of Heidelberg, 1983-1990; Heisenberg Scholar, 1990-1991; Professor of Chinese Language and Culture at the University of Mainz/Germersheim since 1991; courses taught in Toronto and Marbwg; Member of German-Portuguese Association.

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