Schoolchildren all around the world know that European empires in the Western Hemisphere sprang from an accident — Columbus's unwitting contact with the Americas — and that the consequence was new colonial cultures and trade links across the Atlantic. It was a very different story in Asia.
The demand for tropical spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and, above all, pepper — which were widely used as sauces and preservatives and were often regarded as aphrodisiacs — was the most urgent impetus for this huge effort.
The overall revival of European culture following the tragedy of the Black Death in the early fourteenth century fueled this rising interest in Asia.
Eastern products have been trickling into the Mediterranean for ages through the Middle East's economic network. Several important difficulties accompanied this trading pattern from the perspective of a more active Europe.
Another issue for Europeans was paying for products from the East. In Eastern markets, few items from a less developed Europe were appealing. As a result, Europeans had to pay in currency — gold or silver — for Asian spices and fabrics.
Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese successors sailed into a world of Indian Ocean trade, regularly unlike anything they had ever seen before. It was massive, both in terms of geographical scope and the range of persons who took part. East Africans, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Malaysians, Chinese, and others were all free to trade.
The Portuguese saw an opportunity in these circumstances since their ships could outgun and outmaneuver rival naval forces, while their onboard guns could destroy coastal defenses. Despite having a slower overall economy than Asian producers, Europeans had caught up in the crucial areas of naval technology and naval combat.
The Portuguese established a "trading post empire" in the Indian Ocean, to control trade rather than vast territory or populations, and doing so by the power of armies rather than economic rivalry.
The Portuguese gradually adapted themselves to the traditional patterns of Indian Ocean commerce after failing to control it as they had anticipated. Because they were unable to sell their commodities, they got actively involved in transporting Asian goods to Asian ports and marketing their shipping services.
The Dutch and English, who both entered the Indian Ocean trade in the early seventeenth century, were far more significant as European competitors for the spice trade than the Spanish. They rapidly conquered and ousted the Portuguese, often by force, while also competing fiercely with one another.
The Dutch worked to control not just the transportation of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace, but also their production, operating in an area with fragmented and weak governmental power. The Dutch took possession of several tiny spice-producing islands with much bloodshed, compelling its inhabitants to sell solely to the Dutch and destroy the crops of those who refused.
The British East India Company functioned in a different way than the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch monopoly kept the British out of the lucrative Spice Islands because they were less well-funded and economically sophisticated.
Both the Dutch and the English, like the Portuguese before them, became deeply involved in Asian commerce. They were able to buy Asian products without having to pay for them in gold or silver from Europe because of the earnings from this "carrying trade."