In the 15th century, Portuguese navigators started Europe's colonization of Asia. The Portuguese trading empire established itself in Asia with the seizure of Goa in India in 1510 and Malacca in present-day Malaysia in 1551. The Spanish and Portuguese were able to establish their large empires in Asia because they encountered virtually no resistance. The Sultanates in Malaysia and Indonesia were easy to overcome, Filipinos were just tribal farmers, and the Mughals in India didn't have much of a navy. The Portuguese and Spanish established themselves by building forts and trading out of them. Goa remained in Portuguese hands until 1961. There was a great deal of intermarriage between the Portuguese and local Kankani-speaking women. Portugese born on Indian soil were called “Castees” while those of mixed parentage were called “Mustees” or “Mestiz.”

After de Gama returned from his second voyage the Portuguese set about building their empire in India. Their first viceroy in India destroyed the Muslim Fleet. The next viceroy, Afonso Albuquerque, gained control over the Persian Gulf in 1507, established a Portuguese trading center in Goa in 1507, captured Malacca in 1511, which opened trade routes with Siam (Thailand), the Spice Islands (in present-day Indonesia) and China.

The papacy charged Portugal with converting Asia to Christianity. Equipped with superior navigational aids and sturdy ships, the Portuguese attempted to seize rich trade routes in the Indian Ocean from Muslim merchants. They established a network of forts and trading posts that at its height extended from Lisbon by way of the African coast to the Straits of Hormuz, Goa in India, Melaka, Macao on the South China coast, and Nagasaki in southwestern Japan.

Portugese caravels with Portugal’s scarlet Cross of Christ dominated the seas and wrested control of the spice markets and East-Westtrade route from seafaring Muslim merchants. At its height the Portuguese empire included Brazil, large parts of Africa and almost all the important trading areas in China, India, southeast Asia and present-day Indonesia. [Source: Howard la Fay, National Geographic, October 1965].

Groups that financed voyages during the Age of Discovery included the Order of Christ, a wealthy religious organization that sprang up from the crusading Knights of Templar. The Portuguese king held on monopoly on pepper, perhaps the most profitable of all the spices. The two main casualties of Portuguese trade were Venice and the Muslims. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992 <>]

Merle Severy wrote in National Geographic: "After the discovers became conquerors, they learned it was more profitable to keep Muslim trade and regulate and tax it. The Portuguese took their biggest profit from inter-Asian trade—selling Arabia's stallions to waring Indian princes, carrying cotton textiles around the Bay of Bengal and Timor's sandalwood to China, and bartering China's silk for Japan's silver." European and Asian trade was not simply a one way street. The Portuguese introduced corn, tobacco, pineapple, papaya, sweet potato, cashews and other plants to Asia. <>

Violence and the Ease With Which the Portuguese Established Their Asian Empire

The Spanish and Portuguese were able to establish their large empires in Asia because they encountered virtually no resistance. The Sultans in Malaysia and Indonesia were easy to overcome, Filipinos were just tribal farmers, and the Monghols in India didn't have much of a navy. The Portuguese and Spanish established themselves by building forts and trading out of them. The Dutch later moved in and took possession of many of the Portuguese forts by force, which in turn were taken away from them by the English. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

"Portuguese galleons," historian K.N. Chaudhuri told Severy, "maximized the advantages of Europe's gunpowder revolution and artillery. With an added deck and gunports, the galleon became a floating fortress and floating warehouse." Portuguese mercenaries worked for everyone from Indian princes to the king of Siam. Their ability to use firearms often made the difference between victory and defeat. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

The Portuguese ships were armed to the hilt and their captains were not afraid to use power. "Vasco de Gama cut up the bodies of casually captured fisherman and traders," wrote Boorstin, "and sent a basketful of their hands, feats and heads to the Samurai of Calicut simply to persuade him into a quick surrender. Once in power, th Portuguese governed their India in the same spirit. When Viceroy lmeida was suspicious of a messenger who came under a safe-conduct to see him, he tore out the messenger's eyes. Viceroy Albuquerque subdued the peoples along the Arabian coast by cutting of the noses of their women and the hands of their men. Portuguese ships sailing into remote harbors for the first time would display the corpses of recent captives hanging from the yardarms to show that they meant business.” [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Alvares Cabral sailed to India in 1500 and lost 6 of 13 ships. "God gave the Portuguese a small country for a cradle, a Jesuit missionary once wrote, "but the whole world for a grave." When Cabral arrived two year after de Gama there were clashes with Muslim traders in Calicut and the Portuguese ended up establishing their capital in Cochin, a rival kingdom down the coast. [Source: Howard la Fay, National Geographic, October 1965].

Afonso de Albuquerque

Afonso de Albuquerque, or Afonso the Great, was the formidable Portuguese soldier who is credited with creating the Portuguese empire after Dias and De Gama figured out how to get to the Far East. Starting in 1503, he conquered the strategic Indian ocean ports, one by one, wrestling control of lucrative spice trade away from the Muslims. His most important achievements were the 1510 capture of Goa, the river moated trading center in western India that remained a Portuguese procession until 1961, and the establishment of control over in 1511 over the Straits of Malacca, off of present-day Singapore, the route which nearly all the ships carrying silk and spices from China and the East Indies had to travel through. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Later Albuquerque captured the straits of Hormuz chocking of the Muslim trade into the Persian Gulf and sent emissaries that discovered that most of the spices originated in the Moluccan islands in the East Indies. To attain immorality Albuquerque planned to capture Jerusalem from the Arabs by digging a canal to the Nile, and starving the Egyptian Mamluks by draining the life-giving waters into the Red Sea, and seizing Mohammed's body in Medina and holding it ransom. For their part the sultans who controlled the Holy Land and the Middle East threatened to destroy Christ's tomb in Jerusalem. [Ibid]

Portuguese and the Spice Trade

After Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India Portuguese ships monopolized the spice trade. Portugal grew rich on the trade between Asia and Europe and the Venetians, Genovese and Muslim sultans that controlled the East-West trade before de Gama's voyage all suffered. European consumers also benefitted. The price of pepper in Lisbon was one of what was when the pepper trade was controlled by Egyptian sultans.

Portugal established a pepper monopoly by 1504. Why were spices so important? One reason: Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Meat was preserved by "salting," a process that required large quantities of pepper in addition to salt to counteract the "unpalatable effects of the slat itself."

The Malabar Coast of India and the islands of Indonesia have traditionally been the sources of peppercorns for pepper. The best pepper is said to come extra large peppercorns named after Tellicherry on the Arabian Sea.

Cloves were the most valuable early spice. They originated from the islands of Ternate, Tidore and Bacan in the Mollucca group in Indonesia. Before the birth of Christ, visitors to the Han Dynasty court in China were only permitted to address the emperor if their breath has been sweetened with “odoriferous pistols”---Javanese cloves. Because of limited geographical range cloves didn’t make their way to Europe until around the A.D. 11the century. They were introduced by Arab traders who controlled the trade of many spices to Europe.

During the Middle Ages, Chinese, Arab and Malay traders purchased nutmeg in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia and carried it in boats to the Persian Gulf or by camel and pack animal on the Silk Road. From the Gulf the spices made their way to Constantinople and Damascus and eventually Europe.

For a long time the spice trade was controlled by north Moloccan sultanates, name Ternate, founded in 1257, and Tidore, founded in 1109. Both were based on small islands and often fought among themselves. Their most valuable crop was cloves. Protecting their kingdoms were fleets of kora-kora , war canoes manned by over 100 rowers. The sultans relied on Malay, Arab and Javanese merchants to distribute their goods.

Portuguese and the East Indies Spice Trade

The Portuguese arrived in the East Indies (Indonesia) in 1510. On the way back from Banda they were shipwrecked and made their way to Ambon and were subsequently invited to Ternate, where they came in contact with the sultan that controlled the source of nutmeg and cloves.

In 1511, Portuguese, in pursuit of controlling the valuable spice trade, captured the strategic commercial center of Meleka on the Malay Peninsula. This opened the way for direct passage to the islands that produced spices. The Portuguese wrested control of the spice markets and trade route from seafaring Muslim merchants.

In 1512, Portuguese explorers under Afonso de Alburqueque reached the Moluccas and claimed them for Portugal. They also loaded their hold with nutmeg and mace and sent them to Seville and made a fortune. The Portuguese restricted production of spice such as nutmeg and cloves to the islands of Banda and Ambon to conserve their monopoly.

In a effort to create a clove monopoly the Portuguese struck a deal with the sultan of Ternate in which they promised to help the Ternate sultan fight his enemy, the sultan of Tidore, in return for exclusive rights to cloves produced under the sultan. The sultan had no intention of complying with the terms but was forced to. The local Muslim resented the Portugese importation of pigs and their rough justice and rebelled when one sultan was executed and his head was displayed on a pike. In the meantime the Tidore responded by forming an alliance with the Spanish.

Piracy, Monopolies and Free Trade and East-West Trade

Jean-Philippe Vergne of Bloomberg wrote: “The rise of piracy coincides with the international trade revolution. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal around the Cape of Good Hope and opened the route to the East Indies. Over the next 15 years, Portugal sent armadas to the Indies to eliminate the competition from Muslim traders. This marked the beginning of a new form of economic organization: the establishment of trade monopolies by European states. The Portuguese crown wanted to capitalize on the new trade opportunities that were opened by da Gama. To do this, a royal charter was granted to Carreira da India, a trade organization, giving it the exclusive right to import spices to Europe. [Source: Jean-Philippe Vergne, Bloomberg, May 29, 2013 /*\]

“At the beginning of the 17th century, other European powers entered the race to set up monopolies with the support of the Indies companies. This is how, in 1602, the United Provinces granted the Dutch East India Company a 21-year monopoly on trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. This led to the ruin of well-established merchants and triggered two reactions: Some companies stood up to monopolies by establishing a parallel, illicit trade route; others tried to take over, by force, areas controlled by a monopoly. /*\

“States considered both actions piracy. For example, pirate organizations operating in the late 17th and early 18th centuries supplied the island of Manhattan with slaves, circumventing the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on the trade. The historian Marcus Rediker estimated that, at the beginning of the 18th century, incessant pirate attacks led to a crisis for the British Empire and threatened the stability of international trade. Admittedly, sea pirates weren’t motivated by some high-minded idea of free markets. Rather, they were independent merchants who had become outlaws as a result of the monopolistic practices of European states. And many resorted to violence after being deprived of their right to trade. /*\

In his treatise “The Free Sea,” the 17th-century legal scholar Hugo Grotius wrote that waters and navigation are “free” because the sea is a public good that doesn’t belong to anyone. Iberian and English sovereigns, however, claimed that the parts of an ocean that linked their territories could be legally appropriated. Grotius’s viewpoint eventually won. Freedom of the open seas -- now more than 50 percent of all water surfaces on Earth -- was achieved through a series of treaties, starting with the 1856 Declaration of Paris, which also abolished privateering. As the historian Anne Perotin-Dumon put it, to eliminate piracy, “trade monopoly had to be given up altogether.” /*\

Portuguese Sea Travel and Seamen

Portugal during Age of Discovery had a population of only a million or so, with a few thousand scattered around the world. The ships that left Lisbon harbor were sent off with salutes from trumpets and canons. Degredados (convicts with sentences commuted to exile) were the first people sent ashore.

Sea travel between China and the West was dictated by important wind and ocean currents, the most formidable of which was the monsoon which decided when shipa could travel from east to west and visa versa. Currents along the east African coast determined how far ships could travel and still make it back to Arabian ports in a single season. Portuguese ships carried Arab and African pilots.

The 24,000 mile roundtrip voyage between Lisbon and Goa took 18 months and only the captain, noblemen and officers had descent living conditions. Many of the mariners were desgredados. They slept in crowded decks that resembled those used by slaves, drank filthy water and ate the food was often rotten or spoiled. Thousands of mariners died from scurvy at sea and malaria on land. Many also died of dysentery and typhoid. "If you want to learn to pray, go to sea," went a Portuguese proverb. The only thing that made the journey worthwhile was that each man was allowed to bring back a duty-free "liberty chest” in which they were allowed to bring back all the spices they could to sell back home.” [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Portuguese was the lingua franca in most of the coastal ports in Africa and Asia during the 16th century. Portuguese mariners took lovers all over their empire. The Portuguese captains encouraged their bachelor soldiers to get married to help stabilize the empire.

Sailors were enticed by tales of rivers of gold in Africa and gold, silver, pearls and precious stones in Asia. Sailors to the New World enjoyed telling stories about men who had no heads or heads that grew beneath their shoulders; Patagonians with a single large foot; Labodoreans with tails; 500-foot-long sea serpents; and mermaids and mermen that feasted on eyes, noses, fingers toes and sexual organs of blacks and Indians. Columbus wrote that he had a meeting with three Sirens. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Portuguese Navigation Secrets

In order to preserve their monopoly on Asian trade the Portuguese kings demanded that the locations of the trading centers and the routes there be kept secret. "It is impossible to get a chart of the voyage" to India, an Italian agent wrote, "because the King has decreed the death penalty for anyone sending one abroad."

The Portuguese had to be especially careful because they hired foreigners such as Vespucci (Florentine Italian) and Colombus (Genoese Italian) to captain their vessels. In 1481 one Portuguese mariner petitioned King John II to exclude foreigner's particularly Genoese and Florentines because the routinely stole royal 'secrets as to Africa and the islands."

When Drake passed through the Straight of Magellan in 1578 he learned that South America was not connected to a "southern continent." The information from Magellan voyages had been kept secret for more than half a century. Sebastian Cabot (1476?-1557) had earlier tried to sell Magellan's "Secret of the Strait" to both Venice and England.

The Portuguese were good at keeping their secrets for a hundred years or so. Until the mid 16th century, mariners from other European countries had rely on 'ancient writers, casual overland travelers, occasional turncoat sailors, and spies." The age of secrecy was brought to an end with the widespread use of the printing press and the profits made from selling sea charts.

Some historians even suggest that Portuguese mariners beat Columbus to the new World but the kings were so worried about secrecy it was never recorded. "But," according to historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, "the only evidence of a Portuguese policy of secrecy with regard to the discovery of America is a lack of evidence of a Portuguese discovery of America.

Discovery of 16th-Century Portuguese Shipwreck Off Namibia

In April 2008, the wreck of a 16th-century Portuguese ship was found in the beach sands of the Sperrgebiet—the rich and off -limits De Beers diamond-mining lease near the mouth of the Orange River on Namibia's southern coast. Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic, “A company geologist working in mining area U-60 came across what at first he took to be a perfectly round half sphere of rock. Curious, he picked it up and immediately realized it was a copper ingot. A strange trident-shaped mark on its weathered surface turned out to be the hallmark of Anton Fugger, one of Renaissance Europe's wealthiest financiers. The ingot was the type traded for spices in the Indies in the first half of the 16th century.” [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, October 2009 ***]

“Archaeologists would later find a staggering 22 tons of these ingots beneath the sand, as well as cannon and swords, ivory and astrolabes, muskets and chain mail—thousands of artifacts in all. And gold, of course, fistfuls of gold: more than 2,000 beautiful, heavy coins—mainly Spanish excelentes bearing the likenesses of Ferdinand and Isabella, but also a smattering of Venetian, Moorish, French, and other coinage, as well as exquisite portugueses with the coat of arms of King João III. ***

“It is by far the oldest shipwreck ever found on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa, and the richest. Its dollar value is anyone's guess. The discovery of human toe bones in a shoe found pinned beneath a mass of timbers indicates that at least one person did not survive, those were the only human remains recovered from the wreck. And few personal possessions were found among the artifacts. These facts lead archaeologists to believe that despite the breakup of the ship along the surf line, many if not most of those aboard made it to land.” ***

Possible Story Behind the 16th-Century Portuguese Shipwreck Found Off Namibia

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic, “Some inspired detective work among the rare manuscripts and royal archives in Lisbon has cobbled together enough bits and pieces to tell the tale of a long-forgotten voyage: A 16th-century Portuguese trading vessel, carrying a fortune in gold and ivory and bound for a famed spice port on the coast of India, is blown far off course by a fierce storm while trying to round the southern tip of Africa. Days later, battered and broken, the ship founders on a mysterious, fogbound coast...None of the castaways ever return home. [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, October 2009 ***]

“The story begins on a fresh spring day in Lisbon—Friday, the seventh of March, 1533, to be exact—when the great naus of that year's India fleet sailed grandly down the Tagus River and out into the broad Atlantic, flags and pennants flying and colorful silks and velvets draped from their towering castles. These were the pride of Portugal, the space shuttles of their day, off on a 15-month odyssey to bring back a fortune in pepper and spices from distant continents. Goa, Cochin, Sofala, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Ternate: Storied places that once had been as remote as the stars were now familiar ports of call, part of the Portuguese vernacular, thanks to Portuguese ingenuity and cutting-edge technology. The outbound ships that sailed down the Tagus River in 1533 were sturdy and capable; two of them were brand-new and owned by the king himself. One of these was the Bom Jesus—the Good Jesus—captained by one Dom Francisco de Noronha and carrying 300 or so sailors, soldiers, merchants, priests, nobles, and slaves. ***

So what did happen? It seems that four months or so after its grand departure from Lisbon, the first fleet of 1533 was struck and scattered by a huge storm. Details are sketchy. An account of the voyage by Captain Dom João Pereira, the fleet's commander, has been lost. All that remains is a clerk's acknowledgement that the report was received and a mention that the Bom Jesus disappeared in wild weather somewhere off the cape. It is easy to envision what might have happened next: The storm-battered ship was caught up in the powerful winds and currents that surge along the southwest African coast and was driven helplessly northward for hundreds of miles. As the windswept scrub of the Namib Desert hove into view, the doomed nau struck an outcrop of rock about 150 yards from shore. The shuddering blow broke off a big chunk of the stern, spilling tons of copper ingots into the sea and sending the Bom Jesus to its grave. ***

"A winter storm along this coast is no joke," says Dieter Noli, the mine's resident archaeologist, who has lived and worked along this stretch of the Namib Desert for more than ten years. "It would have been nasty, with winds of over 80 miles an hour and a huge breaking surf. Getting ashore would have been just about impossible. On the other hand, if the storm had blown itself out and the ship wallowed ashore on one of those quiet, fog-shrouded days we also get around here, well, now that opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities." ***

And then what? This is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, an uninhabited wasteland of sand and scrub stretching for hundreds of miles. It was winter. They were cold and wet, exhausted and bereft. There was no hope of rescue or a search party, for nobody in the outside world knew they were alive, let alone where to start looking. Nor was any ship likely to pass this way by chance; they were far off the trade routes. As for somehow getting back to Portugal—well, the crew might as well have been shipwrecked on Mars. ***

“All the same, things needn't necessarily have ended badly for the castaways, according to Noli. The Orange River lay only 16 miles to the south of the wreck, a source of fresh water whose bloom they might have noticed as they drifted by its mouth. And there was plenty of food about: shellfish, seabird eggs, and loads of desert land snails.What's more, the Portuguese could have met the local survival experts. Winter was the season when hunter-gatherers known today as Bushmen ventured north along this shore in hopes of finding the carcasses of the southern right whales that occasionally wash ashore here. ***

“How the Portuguese fared in these encounters would have been up to them, says Noli. "If they had the wit to trade rather than try to take, there is no reason to believe everybody wouldn't get along. The few small bands of hunter-gatherers along the river had no population-resource pressures to contend with, and so no reason to be aggressive to the newcomers. On the contrary, a big, strapping Portuguese dom could well have been seen as an attractive prospect for a son-in-law." ***

Sleuthing Details from the 16th-Century Portuguese Shipwreck

"This is a priceless opportunity," Francisco Alves, the doyen of Portuguese maritime archaeologists and the head of nautical archaeology under the Ministry of Culture told National Geographic. "We know so little about these great old ships. This is only the second one ever excavated by archaeologists. All the others were plundered by treasure hunters." "So much is unknown," says Filipe Vieira de Castro, the Portuguese-born coordinator of the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University. Castro has spent more than ten years studying Portuguese trading vessels, or naus, lately developing computer models based on the slender archaeological pickings available. "This wreck will give us new insights into everything from hull design, rigging, and how these ships evolved, to little day-to-day things such as how they cooked meals on board and what people brought with them on these great journeys." [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, October 2009 ***]

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “Pinning a name and a story to an anonymous, five-centuries-old shipwreck found unexpectedly on a far-flung shore takes canny sleuthing and more than a little luck—particularly if it is thought likely to have been an early Portuguese wreck. Although the Spanish Empire left mountains of paperwork in its wake, a catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and fire in November 1755 virtually wiped Lisbon off the map and sent the Casa da India, the building that housed the vast majority of precious maps, charts, and shipping records, tumbling into the Tagus River. "That left a huge hole in our history," says Alexandre Monteiro, a maritime archaeologist and researcher who works with the Portuguese Ministry of Culture. "With no India archives left to peruse, one has to revert to other, more imaginative ways of finding information." ***

“In this instance, a vital clue came from the coins found in abundance on the wreck—particularly those beautiful and rare portugueses of King João III. These were minted for only a few years, from 1525 to 1538, after which they were recalled, melted down, and never reissued. Finding so many sparkling new portugueses on the wreck is a strong indication that the ship sailed during this 13-year window in time. Moreover, the load of copper ingots suggests the ship was on its outward passage to India to buy spices rather than returning. ***

“Although the complete Casa da India records are long gone, some tantalizing snippets remain in libraries and archives that survived the 1755 earthquake. Among these are the Relações das Armadas, the so-called narratives of the fleets. A thorough study of the most complete narratives shows that 21 ships were lost on the way to India between 1525 and 1600. Only one of these went down anywhere near Namibia: the Bom Jesus, which sailed in 1533 and was "lost on the turn of the Cape of Good Hope." ***

“Another intriguing pointer to the Bom Jesus comes from a letter Monteiro unearthed in the royal archives. Dated February 13, 1533, it reveals that King João had just sent a knight to Seville to pick up 20,000 crusadoes' worth of gold from a consortium of businessmen who had invested in the fleet that was about to sail for India—the fleet that included the Bom Jesus. Archaeologists had been puzzled by the huge quantity of Spanish coins found among the wreckage—about 70 percent of the gold pieces were excelentes, unexpected for a Portuguese ship. "This letter would go a long way toward explaining that," says Monteiro. "Spanish investors, it seems, had an unusually large stake in the 1533 fleet." ***

“A rare 16th-century tome called the Memória das Armadas even offers a tantalizing glimpse of the Bom Jesus. Issued as a commemorative volume, a sort of Renaissance-era coffee-table book, it contains illustrations of all the fleets that sailed for India each year after Vasco da Gama pioneered the route in 1497. Among the pictures for 1533 is a vignette of two rigged masts under full sail disappearing into the waves and the words "Bom Jesus" together with a simple epitaph: perdido—lost. ***

Fast-forward five centuries to the maritime archaeology site. "If it hadn't been for those copper ingots weighing everything down, there would be nothing left here to find," says Bruno Werz, director of the Southern African Institute of Maritime Archaeology, who was called in from Cape Town to assist with the excavation. "Five centuries of storms and waves would have washed everything away." Werz and a team of researchers have been poring over the wreckage, measuring, photographing, scanning the site millimeter by millimeter with a state-of-the-art, three-dimensional laser scanner. They are trying, among other things, to piece together the ship's final harrowing moments, which would not have been pretty—the mangled remains of the hull and forecastle and a tangle of sails, spars, and rigging sloshing about in the swell, drifting north with the current and probably breaking apart as it went. Mine workers found a huge wooden rigging block three miles farther up the coast.” ***

Saint Francis Xavier

The Spanish devoted more attention to Christianizing the local population than the Portuguese. St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary who devoted his life spreading Christianity in Asia, led the effort to convert local people on places controlled by the Portuguese. Known as the sainted Apostle of the Indies, he was born the youngest son of a Basque aristocrat. When he was 28 he helped found the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He arrived in Goa 1542 and buried many dead Portuguese voyagers in India. He went to Japan in 1549 and helped Christianity advance there very quickly, especially in southern Japan. He also went to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Saint Francis Xavier died in 1552 at the age of 46 on the island Sancian off Guangdong province in China in present-day Macau in China during a proselytizing mission. After he died his body was packed in lime and shipped to Goa. His body was buried and later exhumed by Jesuits who cut off his right arm and sent it to the Pope as a gift. What remained of the body was placed in a gold and glass coffin in Goa cathedral.

The coffin was opened once a year, on St, Xavier's feast day on December 3rd, in Goa cathedral until 1755 when the king f Portugal took control of the body and decided it could not be seen without his orders and was displayed to the public once every ten years.

Now the well preserved body is on view anytime through windows on the side of the coffin. The body is shriveled and shrunken and the skull is visible from the head but the saint's red hair is still largely in place. The arm is a relic in the Vatican. In 1949 it went on a world tour, beginning in Japan.

Decline and End of the Portuguese Empire in Asia

Most of the profits—and most of the manpower—from Portugal’s East-West trade went into guarding the 15,000 miles of sea lanes between Goa and Lisbon. Even so, in one year alone, Portugal lost 300 ships to pirates. At homes farms and industries decayed. The government was forced to buy food and other necessities abroad. In the end , after mortgaging the country to the hilt, Portugal flooded the spice market and prices plummeted." [Source: Howard la Fay, National Geographic, October 1965].

Money from the empire ended up in the hands of Antwerp merchant syndicates and was wasted on Moroccan wars, dynastic marriages, and ostentatious displays. What sealed the decline were events not in Asia but in North Africa. Some 163 years after Prince Henry the Navigator attacked Ceuta, the Portuguese army headed by King Sebastion was defeated by the Moors. The Portuguese empire by this time had been large disassembled by the Dutch and British. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

In 1578, Portugal entered a reckless war with Morocco in an efforts to annex it. The Portuguese set up a stronghold in Cuenta, on the northern coast of Africa just below the Straits of Gibraltar. Their ambitions to claim Morocco, however, came to an end during a four-hour Battle of the Three Kings on August 4, 1578 when a force of 25,000 Portuguese soldiers where crushed by a 50,000-strong Moorish force. According to legend only 50 men survived and hundreds of guitars littered the battle. Among the dead were the Portuguese monarch, King Sabastão, and his nobles. The Moroccan sultan died of a heart attack. The defeat spelled the end to the great Portuguese trading empire and allowed the Spanish, British, French and Dutch to take over the trade routes to Asia and the territories in the New World. The Portuguese managed to hold some fortresses on the Moroccan coast but they never again presented a threat to the Moroccans or any one else.

After the disastrous war in Morocco, Portugal's vast empire collapsed in a very short time. With its monarch dead and resources exhausted, Philip II of Spain absorbed Portugal in 1580 with only slight resistance. After Spain absorbed Portugal it took over some of their colonies. Naval and land battle between colonial powers in Southeast Asia in the 17th century gave the English and the Dutch East India Company the lucrative spice trade route the Portugese had established. Most Portuguese possessions were seized by the Dutch, who created a vast, though short-lived commercial empire in Brazil, the Antilles, Africa, India, Ceylon, Malacca, Indonesia and Taiwan and challenged Portuguese traders in China and Japan. [Source: World Almanac]

Portugal never reaped the vast amounts of gold of silver from its empire in Asia and Brazil like the Spaniards did in Peru and Mexico. It has been said Portugal's colonies drained more wealth than they produced. Today some inhabitants of India think that Vasco da Gama was an American businessman or an Indian king. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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