When the great city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it represented not only the final death of the thousand-year Byzantine Empire but also triggered a chain of events that would directly shape the modern world as we know it.
While the city had long since ceased to be the centre of imperial power it once was, Constantinople’s strategic location in the Bosphorus straits (essentially the crossroads of Europe and Asia as well as the place where the Black Sea met the Mediterranean) meant that it nonetheless retained its position as the natural endpoint for the great Eastern trade routes, the most famous of which was the Silk Road. Exotic goods from regions as far off as Arabia, Persia, India and China all made their way to Constantinople. From there, the great maritime republics of Venice and Genoa transported them by sea back to Italy and from there to Europe itself. Perhaps the most lucrative of all the goods from the East were exotic spices such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon and cloves, which today are common kitchen ingredients but in the 15th century commanded a hefty price.
The loss of Constantinople was a body blow to the spice trade in particular. The trade wasn’t completely severed but spices that were already expensive to obtain suddenly became practically unaffordable to all but the richest of Europe’s elite.
In order to satisfy the increasingly insatiable demand for spices, several European states began efforts to find an alternative route to the source of the coveted spices, known as the East Indies (modern South and Southeast Asia), that was both cheaper and more reliable (the overland trade was at the mercies of the many states it passed through before reaching its final destination).
The most famous of these efforts is undoubtedly the 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus, who proposed to sail westwards to reach the East Indies by sea. However, instead of reaching his objective, Columbus fatefully discovered the islands of the Caribbean and the coast of Central America. (On a side note, Columbus’ initial belief that he had indeed reached the East Indies is the reason Native Americans were called ‘Indians’)
Less well known but perhaps just as significant in the context of history was the discovery of the ocean route to India (via the Cape of Good Hope in modern South Africa) in 1498 by famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. His voyage is considered among the most remarkable journeys of the Age of Discovery.
Subsequent expeditions by the Portuguese succeeded where Columbus had failed. The Portuguese discovered the ocean route to the East Indies and, most importantly, they were the only ones who possessed the knowledge required to make the journey.
This was significant because reaching the Cape of Good Hope was not simply a matter of sailing down the west coast of Africa. Upon passing the islands of Cape Verde, any potential navigator had to contend with the one thing the ships of the Age of Sail could do little against – powerful currents driven by prevailing winds.
The Benguela Current flows northwards along the west African coast. It forms the eastern boundary of the South Atlantic Gyre, a large system of circulating ocean currents. It is possible for sailing ships to sail into the wind using a manoeuvre called tacking, but it is impractical and far too slow to do this for any length of time. Previous European attempts to explore the southwest coast of Africa had enjoyed very little success for this very reason. It seemed the Benguela Current would continue to form an insurmountable barrier.
It was the development of a means of bypassing a ‘hostile’ current that allowed the Portuguese to sail all the way to India and beyond.
It was known as the ‘volta do mar’ (literally ‘turn of the sea’).
In the South Atlantic, this meant sailing far out to the west, away from the African coast. They would then turn back to the east and use the eastward-blowing prevailing winds that formed the southern boundary of the South Atlantic Gyre to carry the ships to the Cape of Good Hope. From there, it was a much simpler prospect to sail to India.
The North Atlantic Gyre (which flows in a clockwise direction) meant that navigators had to perform a volta do mar in order to return to Portugal, sailing all the way out to the Azores islands (1,643 km west of Lisbon) to bypass the Canary Current before turning east and using the Portugal Current to carry the ships back to the Iberian Peninsula.
Incidentally, in 1500 a fleet under Pedro Álvarez Cabral sailed too far to the west while attempting a volta do mar and discovered what would become Brazil, which Cabral promptly claimed for the Portuguese Crown. Later, many India-bound Portuguese ships would stop to resupply in Brazil before heading eastward across the South Atlantic.
For the next 100 years, Portugal held a virtual monopoly on the spices that were so ravenously consumed in Europe. Realising that their powerful ships gave them a huge advantage over their Eastern counterparts, the Portuguese established by a force a string of strategic fortresses to cement their control of the seas, stretching from Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf to the bastion overlooking the Straits of Malacca (the main sea trade route) in the Indies. In addition, they were the first Europeans to establish a permanent foothold on the Indian subcontinent when they seized the port city of Goa, which remained in Portuguese hands until it was annexed by India in 1961.
Other European states attempted to uncover the ocean route to India themselves. The failure of these efforts prompted some to attempt to find what became known as the Northeast Passage, which was a posited northern sea route to China. While English efforts in this area did lead to the discovery of the Barents and White Seas and the subsequent establishment of the Muscovy Company (chartered to trade with Russia), it nonetheless seemed that the Portuguese monopoly on the spice trade would remain unchallenged.
Enter Jan Huygen van Linschoten.
Huygen was a Dutchman in the service of the Portuguese. He was employed as the secretary of the Viceroy of Goa. During his time in Goa, he kept a fastidious journal, recording his observations of life in the settlement and the interactions between the city’s European, Indian and Asian residents. However, by far his most important activity during his time in India was the use of his position as the Viceroy’s secretary to access maps, nautical charts and other navigational information that the Portuguese had managed to keep a secret for almost a century. He meticulously and illegally copied a significant amount of this navigational and mercantile (including maps that detailed nautical features such as currents, hazards and winds) information. In addition, he also recorded details of the trading conditions of various regions and observations regarding the best means of bypassing Portuguese-controlled sea routes.
Upon his return to Europe in 1592, Huygen set about compiling all of the information he had recorded into a single book.
When it was published in 1595, the Travel Accounts of Portuguese Navigation in the Orient changed the course of history. Within a year, a Dutch fleet departed for the East Indies. Thanks to Huygen’s efforts, this expedition succeeded where all others had failed, returning to the Netherlands the next year loaded with enough spices to offset what had been a less than smooth voyage and make a handsome profit in the process.
The moderate success of this voyage triggered a flurry of competing expeditions, most of which were successful. One such expedition, departing in 1598 and returning in 1600, turned in a measly 400% profit. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle.
And it was not just the Dutch who sought to cut in on the spice trade. The translation of Huygen’s book and information gleaned from subsequent Dutch voyages lead to the first English fleet departing for the East in 1600. This was the first expedition on the part of an organisation that had been granted (by way of a Royal Charter) a monopoly on all English trade between the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan (the southern tip of South America). It was the English East India Company (EIC).
Two years later, the Dutch followed the English example and established the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
Other countries, such as France and Sweden, would eventually establish their own East India Companies, but it was the EIC and the VOC that would successfully challenge the domination of the Portuguese. Unable to compete with the resources of the EIC and the VOC, Portuguese influence in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean steadily declined.
Soon enough it was the English and Dutch who were vying for dominance in the spice trade. Ultimately, the Dutch emerged triumphant from that struggle and their victory would eventually lead to their control of the entirety of what is now the Republic of Indonesia (previously known as the Dutch East Indies).
Pushed out of the East Indies, the English would instead turn their attention to India. Just as the Dutch came to dominate the Indies, so too would the Indian subcontinent fall under the sway of the EIC (and later the British Crown), though it was a process that would take more than 200 years. India would become the ‘Jewel in the British Crown’ and the wealth it brought would drive British imperialism until the 20th century.
The shattering of the Portuguese monopoly on the ocean route to the East was the genesis of both the British and the Dutch Empires. The rise of these two dominions also, in turn, triggered the imperialist efforts of other European states in Africa and Asia.
And it was all made possible by a naughty Dutchman named Jan Huygen van Linschoten.