- Portuguese Trade in Asia under the Habsburgs, 1580-1640
Although the Portuguese were the first Europeans to reap the financial rewards of direct trade with the Far East in the sixteenth century, by the time the Braganzas restored political autonomy to Portugal in 1640, the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company were well on their way to replacing Portuguese merchants in the India trade. The ascendancy of Northern Europeans and their joint stock companies seemed to indicate that royal monopoly of trade could not compete successfully against privately funded initiatives. James C. Boyajian's work, first published in 1993 and now out in paperback, challenges the notion of Northern European trading superiority by carefully documenting the actual practice of Portuguese trade in the East, especially during the critical period when the kingdom of Portugal was ruled by the Habsburg Kings of Spain (1580-1640). This carefully researched, compelling study of Portuguese trade practices enriches our understanding more generally of the role of overseas traders in Iberian society.
Building on the revisionist work of scholars such as Charles Boxer and Vitorino Magalhães Godinho, Boyajian confirms that the royal monopoly on pepper constituted but a fraction of Portuguese trade with India and the Far East. Private merchants made their fortunes trading in other spices, and also in diamonds, silks, and cottons. Yet his work pushes well beyond that of earlier scholars in that he identifies a significant number of New Christian families involved in the India trade. While the role of New Christians in Spanish and Portuguese America has been studied at some length, Old Christians appeared to have retained control of trade with the East. Boyajian's research in the records of the Goa Inquisition, however, demonstrates that New Christian families played a substantial role in the India trade. Besides selling Eastern goods in Europe, they also became involved in trade within Asia. Much of their early profit, for instance, came from trading between different regions of India as well as with China and Japan. By the late [End Page 1288] sixteenth century they were also important participants in the transpacific trade linking Manila and Acapulco. Thus in the early seventeenth century, a network of Portuguese New Christian merchant families had developed truly global reach, trading in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and America.
Boyajian's rich analysis moves beyond the global flow of merchandise to examine connections between trade and the Inquisition. As European wars sapped the Spanish treasury, Philip III and Philip IV turned to wealthy New Christian merchants to replenish their coffers, rewarding some with coveted titles of nobility. At the same time, competition from Dutch and English traders in Asia after 1600 cut into Iberian profits: increased supply brought down the prices of Eastern goods in Europe while the increased demand from competing European traders made Asian products more expensive at their source. In the resulting Iberian economic downturn of the 1630s and '40s, New Christian merchants became targets of the Inquisition. The restoration of Portuguese political autonomy in 1640 also brought accusations that they had been involved in Portuguese separatist plots. Vividly demonstrating the global reach of New Christian families, trials initiated by the Inquisition in Goa often incriminated merchants not only in Lisbon and Seville, but also in faraway Mexico. With declining profits in Asia and increased vulnerability to the Inquisition, Portuguese New Christians turned more and more to trade between Africa and Brazil. Boyajian concludes that it was not a superior trade model that allowed the Dutch and the British to control the Asian trade, it was the combination of political and social concerns in Spain that caused Portuguese merchants to focus their attention (and their investments) on other regions.
Portuguese Trade in Asia under the Habsburgs illuminates complex trade and social networks within an emerging global system. It is essential reading for those concerned with the interplay of state goals and private enterprise, as well as the influence...