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.
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.
British and French
This wealth did not go unnoticed by the British. While the British were often politically allied with the Dutch, they also had publicly traded companies that were eager to expand operations in Southeast Asia. There was just one problem: the Dutch were so firmly positioned as the locals' preferred trading partner that the British couldn't find an opportunity to trade! As a result, they moved to more remote ports in what would later become Malaysia. In time, the British would focus their colonial efforts on India, eventually supplanting both French and Portuguese efforts in the subcontinent.
Conversely, the French would find their colonies as they moved farther east. They colonized much of Southeast Asia, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Additionally, they sailed out into Oceania, setting up posts in what is now French Polynesia.
Ever since Europeans began sailing beyond their shores during the Age of Exploration, the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia were a constant objective. The Portuguese were the first to arrive there, but due to trading inefficiencies, soon lost commercial control of the islands to the Dutch. The Dutch were able to build a veritable commercial empire in modern Indonesia, largely through the work of the Dutch East India Company. The Company was strong enough to withstand the colonial efforts of the British, who focused on Malaysia and India. Finally, the French concentrated on Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
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