7 Maritime Asia and Europe
(1) The Three-Cornered Indian Ocean Trade Network
One of the objectives of the Europeans who came to maritime Asia (then known as East India) was to obtain pepper and spices, which were already an essential part of the triangular Indian Ocean trade network when the Europeans first arrived in East India. Apart from pepper and spices, they also encountered Indian cotton, raw silk thread, silk fabrics, various dyes, tea, china, and precious stones in East India. Let us take a closer look at this three-cornered Indian Ocean trade network.
Three-Cornered Trade by Islamic Merchants
Before the Europeans discovered the Indian sea route via the Cape of Good Hope, the triangular transit trade was mainly conducted by Islamic merchants. Although they included Arabs and Persians, most of these merchants were Indians (particularly Gujaratis), Burmese, and Indonesians. As payment for pepper and spices, the Europeans gave them silver which they took back to India and exchanged for cotton. This Indian cotton was transported to the Spice Islands, where it was exchanged for pepper and spices. These were then carried west and exchanged for silver, which was transported back to India by the same route.
The Struggle for Supremacy over the Transit Trade
When the Portuguese discovered this three-cornered transit trade and realized its potential for profit, they seized it by force. After Henry the Navigator_s capture of the Moroccan city of Ceuta on the opposite coast from Gibraltar in 1415, the arena of the struggle between Christendom and Islam broadened from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. In 1509, Egypt and Gujarat sent a combined fleet to challenge the dominance of the Portuguese, but they were defeated by the Portuguese fleet under the command of Francisco de Almeida off the Indian coastal town of Diu. Portugal occupied Goa in the following year and Malacca the year after that. In 1538, Turkey sent a fleet of 76 ships from the Suez to India, but they were repulsed by the Portuguese. Portugal_s acquisition in 1543 of the right to impose duty at Hormuz_the point of intersection between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea which it had taken over in 1507_was the decisive turning point in the struggle for domination of the transit trade, resulting in a shift of the western base of the three-cornered trade from the Middle East_Venice route to the Lisbon_Antwerp route. In the seventeenth century, ascendancy over the transit trade again shifted from Portugal to Britain and the Netherlands, and the base moved north to Amsterdam and London.
The Flow of Silver from Europe to India
Although the balance of power changed in the seventeenth century, the basic triangular structure of silver from Europe, cotton from India, and pepper and spices from the Spice Islands remained in place. Let us now examine in more detail the reasons for the long-term stability of this structure by examining each of these commodities in turn.
Gold and silver, particularly silver, flowed from Europe to India because there were no other commodities that India required in large quantities. In addition to their use as materials for silver rupees and gold pagodas, they were in great demand as ornaments and accessories. Precious metals were transported to India from Venice in latter half of the medieval period, from Lisbon from 1497, and from Amsterdam and London from around 1600.
The India-Spice Islands Cotton Trade Route
From ancient times cotton was an exclusive product of India and was in great demand in the Spice Islands as material for clothing. In 1585, the English merchant and traveler Robert Fitch observed that the high-quality fine cotton fabric Dhaka muslin was not only used in India but was also sent to Pegu (present-day Myanmar), Malacca and Sumatra.