Friday, July 15, 2005

Portugal's 'Booty' Policy of Expansion in Melaka

Before I begin discussing today's subject, I would just like to note today is the 34th anniversary of Kissinger's secret visit to China. What an incredible moment, one that changed everything for Hong Kong. Optimism ran so high that then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose was dispatched to Beijing a few years later, hoping to extend the lease on their Colony - oops - Territory. No dice on that front though of course...

As I continue to get through Malyn Newitt's book on the expansion of the Portuguese empire, he explains at once the breathtaking audacity of once-poor Portugal to set up colonies in the East, but to actually claim sovereignty over all the oceans of Africa and India. King Dom Manuel's title that he chose for himself after da Gama's voyage was: 'King of Portugal and of the Algarves on this side and beyond the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea and the Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce, of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.' Essentially, he was saying that he had the right to take any ship on the high seas that did not pay duty to Portugal, whether it was on the Indian Ocean or the South Atlantic. Indeed, piracy and plunder was the only way by which the then-poor Portuguese monarchy could afford expansion. Newitt writes:

"Portugal's expansion in the Atlantic had always been driven by two different sets of interests - the Crown's commercial monopolies and the trading interests of private citizens and islanders. Now the eastern enterprise also was to be driven ahead by two competing interests. As the Crown gradually elaborated its plans to establish a great new commercial monopoly and maritime dominion in the Indian Ocean, the individuals who embarked with the fleets determined to make their fortunes more directly by plunder and piracy...the interests of the Crown and the servants complemented each other as plunder and piracy seemed to be the only way by which the king could pay for the Indian enterprise."

He's also writes with amazement that Portugal's King Manuel was able to pull it all together:

"It is still extraordinary to contemplate the daring with which this idea of an eastern empire was conceived. A small, poor and isolated European kingdom with little accumulated capital or developed industry and with the most primitive instruments of government was aspiring to create a state on the other side of the world and to enforce a trade monopoly on merchants from numerous rich, populous and powerful kingdoms, many of which had the military might to crush any army that Portugal could possibly put into the field. Portugal was planning to establish a militarised state which would be administered by a royal bureaucracy, which would be defended by a paid professional army and navy and which would operate a vast royal commercial monopoly."

The use by the king of German and Florentine banking families to finance this vision makes today's venture capitalists look like small fry. Especially when the rules didn't seem to apply to the Portuguese at all. Newitt describes this with acid tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly at the end:

"The policy of plunder could be represented as a complementary aspect of the policy of monopoly. Refusal to accept the Portuguese claims to a monopoly of the spice trade was considered reason enough to attack ships or towns, while the proceeds of plundering their enemies allowed the Portuguese to supply their fleets, purchase their cargoes of spices and secure the loyalty of their men. The trophies of victory did not always have such a utilitarian purpose, however. After the capture of Malacca in 1511 Albuquerque's share of the plunder consisted of six bronze lions which he wanted for his tomb, a bracelet which Albuquerque had been told had magical powers to prevent wounds from bleeding and 'some girls from all the different races of the country' to send to Dom Manuel. Booty was an addiction which the Portuguese would find it hard to give up. [Italics are mine - Ed.]"

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