Empires - Portuguese settlement

Early European presence in India was dominated by the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut (on the Malabar Coast) in 1498. He asked for and received trading concessions from the local ruler, for trading rights in Calicut, Cannanore and Cochin on the Malabar coast of Southwest India. Vasco da Gama had sailed around Africa to reach India, and though he had come essentially to trade, his ships also brought priests and a few soldiers - a pattern that was to characterise the Portuguese approach to India and her other colonies.

Drawing of workers at an indigo manufacturing plant.
Traditional process of making dye in the 17th century.

Arab traders are thought to have persuaded the local ruler to withdraw these privileges, at which point the trading posts were attacked. They managed to defend themselves so effectively that the Portuguese established effective control of the spice trade in this area of South India.

Portuguese expansion

Portuguese concessions were then extended, in 1503, to the construction of a factory (a trading post run by factors) and later a fort at Cochin (present day Ernakulam). The Portuguese governors of these concession areas were determined to expand and consolidate Portugal's hold over the west coast. They moved energetically, taking Goa in 1510 (seized from the Sultan of Bijapur, one of the most powerful kingdoms in the South), Bassein (north of Bombay) in 1534, and Daman (a small island off the Gujarat coast) in 1538. In the same year they started constructing a factory at Hugli in Bengal (on the east coast).

Indeed Goa first became the headquarters for Portugal's Indian operations in 1530, and later for the entire overseas empire in the East, and remained in Portuguese hands until occupied by Indian troops in 1961.

Portuguese strategy

Portuguese possessions in India were part of a larger plan for the whole of Southeast Asia, and for disrupting India's trade with the Arabs on her west coast.

Portugal was determined to dominate the spice trade as a whole. India was only a supply point for some items (pepper) but was a transhipment point for other spices of value (cloves, cinnamon, etc). Thus her strategy was to create a network of concessions and trading privileges.

All other European trading companies, particularly of the Dutch, Danes, French and the British essentially emulated the Portuguese strategy.


Portugal's union with Spain in 1580, together with its internal problems, and general focus on Brazil as its most lucrative colony, left Portuguese possessions in India and South East Asia vulnerable to attack. By 1650 Portuguese influence was failing. Other European powers were building on the remains of Portugal's possessions.

Drawing of coconut grove with many coconuts scattered on the ground.
Coconuts in a coconut grove, 1682.

A Portuguese window on India

During the 150 years of Portuguese influence, India was 'revealed' to Europeans largely through Portuguese eyes. Indeed, the influence was so profound that early Portuguese texts, such as botanical reports, were regularly used by later scholars when studying the subcontinent and its people.

Most words that entered the Anglo-Indian lexicon are Portuguese derivations of Indian words, which were often later anglicised, as attested in Hobson-Jobson, the glossary of Anglo Indian terms that was indispensable to every British administrator in the 19th century.

More images of Empires