European Exploration in India & Southeast Asia

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  • 0:01 Portuguese Efforts in…
  • 1:16 Bases
  • 2:42 The English Arrive
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While many in the United States focus primarily on the exploration of the New World during the Age of Exploration, a great deal of economic empire building was happening in the Indian Ocean.

Portuguese Efforts in India and Southeast Asia

With the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 promising all non-Christian lands east of Brazil as fair game for Portuguese colonization, it is not surprising that the Portuguese began to look for ways to explore toward the east. Of course, the formidable political barrier of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the very real geographic barrier of Africa, stood in the way until Vasco da Gama was able to sail around Africa and completely avoid the Ottomans in 1498.

Upon arrival in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese found a very wealthy system of trade routes connecting the Swahili coast of Africa to India and the Spice Islands, all the way to China. Immediately, the Portuguese began to try to take over the whole operation. Normally, they would have faced real challenges, but this was a unique window in history. In India, central rule was weakening quickly, while in China, seaborne expeditions had taken a back seat, despite the work of Zheng He in the previous years. Instead of finding two organized empires, the Portuguese found chaos and began to work to capitalize on the weakness of the other powers in the region.


However, the Portuguese were inefficient. Portugal now had holdings in South America, Africa, and South Asia. There was no way that any one of these could be focused on strategically, and since all were financed by the Crown, there was limited means for other powers to invest. In time, other pressing concerns of state became more important than a few colonies that, while profitable, were only beneficial if the homeland was safe. Unluckily for the Portuguese, two other European players arrived in the region at this time as well, although one would be far more a threat to the Portuguese presence than the other.

Almost at the same time that the Portuguese arrived in South Asia, Spanish galleons began to trade from the city of Manila in the Philippines. However, the real threat to the Portuguese presence in South Asia came from the Dutch. The Dutch set up joint stock companies that were able to receive investments from private citizens in exchange for a share of the profits of the venture. This made Dutch trade much more profitable, as the Dutch could commit more resources to a given venture. At first, the Dutch were content to remove India from Portugal's sphere of influence, and the Portuguese managed to continue trade in the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. However, soon the Dutch were forced out of India, and then they once again out-competed the Portuguese in Southeast Asia.

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