European Trading Empires in the East Indian Ocean: History & Timeline

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

From just after the time of Christopher Columbus to fewer than 100 years ago, Europeans have had trading empires in the East Indian Ocean. In this lesson, we will explore how Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French powers attempted to colonize the islands nestled in this part of the world.

Trading in the East Indian Ocean

When Christopher Columbus set out from Spain in 1492, he had no desire to find the New World. Instead, he was hoping to discover the wealth of the Orient. He knew places like China and India existed, and he sought their luxury goods. However, even more alluring than China and India were the Spice Islands. These islands were located to the east of the islands that make up Indonesia. The Spice Islands grew much of the world's spices. Considering that black pepper was often worth its weight in gold, we really can't blame Columbus for this endeavor.

There were several countries in the East Indian Ocean that held appeal for European explorers. Indonesia is comprised of islands off the Southeast tip of Asia, and mixed in with those islands are the Spice Islands. India is on the southwest tip of Asia, and when we talk about Indochina, the modern name for this area is the Southeast Asia and includes countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Of course, Columbus didn't make it to Indonesia. Yet, other European explorers did. In this lesson, we will look at European efforts to colonize the islands of the East Indian Ocean, starting with the Portuguese.


The first to arrive in the East Indian Ocean were the Portuguese. The Portuguese sailed south past Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean. Here they went so far as to fight a naval war with the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to guarantee their trade rights to the region. They also established ports in India as way stations. Portugal had no plans to colonize the area and only wanted to monopolize the trade rights in the region.


Ultimately, the Portuguese would face their toughest enemy, not in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Dutch. While the Portuguese implemented disorganized business practices, the Dutch went to work building efficient operations in Indonesia. Most of all, the Dutch were better financed than the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company, often referred to as VOC, was founded to help finance Dutch trading missions to Indonesia. It was one of the world's first publicly traded companies. In its heyday, the corporation controlled a sizable percentage of the world's wealth. The Dutch concentrated their efforts in the islands of modern Indonesia, especially Java and Sumatra.

Logo of the Dutch East India Company

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