7: Run! The Portuguese are coming to save us


Albuquerque the Great leads the way for the Portuguese

Necessity is the mother of invention. Despite the geographical confusion due to Ptolemy and the T Map, the seafaring Portuguese eventually broke the code to the East. By gradually extending the range of their ocean voyages, they sailed around Africa to India and back. Vasco da Gama, the leader of the expeditions, returned in 1499. The Portuguese immediately sent emissaries to India to negotiate some trading deals.

Evidently the Muslim traders had already turned the Hindus against the Portuguese. This wasn’t too hard. The Portuguese under da Gama had already engaged in many barbaric acts, including piracy, massacring pilgrims on their way to Mecca, and cutting off the hands, ears and noses of a crew from an unarmed trading vessel that was only carrying rice. We would assume that this behavior that didn’t sit well with the local inhabitants.

Another expedition in 1503 found allies in Southern India. This city-state even converted en masse to Christianity so that the Portuguese would assist them in fighting their enemy. Such are international affairs – say and do anything to acquire political power. Almost a human universal.

The Portuguese assumed that this city-state would be the door to the trading riches of the East. To fulfill this political alliance, they sent an army commanded by Albuquerque the Great to defend their ally. While this was an external agenda, the internal agenda was to establish a Portuguese hegemony over the trading routes to the East by undermining the Arabs.

Albuquerque was no stranger to battling Muslims. He had already spent 10 years of his life fighting Arabs in Africa. Indeed, Albuquerque had devoted his life to destroying the power of the Muslim world. He even came up with a plan for rerouting the Nile to destroy the power of Egypt. He also wanted to turn the Persians against the Turks to fragment the Muslim’s political strength.

Ultimately, Albuquerque was unable to realize these two goals. However, he was able to conquer Socotra, a small island at the mouth of the Red Sea. By doing so he undermined Arab trade with India. He also established control of the island of Hormuz located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. This strategy opened up trade with the Persians, short-circuiting the Arabs. He also conquered Calicut and Goa, city-state-kingdoms on the southwest coast of India, which were allies and major trading partners of the Arabs. In short, Albuquerque was a maritime Crusader against the Muslim world. Due to these military exploits, he put a huge dent in the Arabs’ millennium long trade between India and Africa.

Albuquerque quickly discovered that the India-Africa trade connection over the Arabian Sea was just the tip of the trading iceberg. He came to realize that spices, silk, gold and gems, all came from the east of India. India was just an entrepôt between the Arabs and the trading centers to the East.

Albuquerque, after establishing relative control of the Arabian Sea, sailed eastward, around the tip of India. In 1505 he conquered the island of Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, a large island to the east of India. Hearing rumors of a huge trading center, he sailed on - across the Bengal Sea through the Straits of Malacca and conquered the port of Malacca in 1511.

To show their gratitude for his dynamic bravery in fighting for their cause, the Portuguese eventually removed him from his command. The King and his counselors were afraid that he was accumulating too much personal power. He died at sea - a broken man.

The Initial encounter between Europeans & Southeast Asians

It seemed  inevitable - as wealth always attracts power. But Southeast Asians were unprepared nevertheless for the European onslaught. Instead of exchanging merchandise, the Portuguese employed military force to dominate the ports.

Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and Southeast Asians had traded and coexisted peacefully for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. The Indians, Chinese, and Arabs had all come to the region as traders, not conquerors. In fact, the Chinese bribed local rulers with extravagant gifts and trade advantages to join their political system. In the prior century, the Malaccan Sultan had acquired control by allying himself with the Chinese and Arab traders - not by the use of a superior military power. This business strategy even allowed him to create a mini-empire.

Recall that in this part of the world, empires were created and maintained through wealth and prestige, both cultural and spiritual, rather than military prowess.  While Southeast Asia’s islanders formed a variety of military alliances, their mercantile empires were not due to any great battles or military victories. Instead their political groupings were based upon trading connections that created great wealth and power. For instance, Malacca became the center of a great empire due to her favorable business relationships with the Arabs and the Chinese.

Needless to say, the aggressive military and cultural presence of the Portuguese in this corner of the planet was shocking, to say the least. One reason the Portuguese were so successful so quickly at establishing control was that they possessed a superior military technology based upon guns. But remember, a superior military technology is not necessarily correlated with a more sophisticated culture – more often quite the opposite. The Portuguese were the first, but not the last, to bring Europe’s Biblical/Aryan philosophy of cultural and military domination to Southeast Asia’s trading centers.

The Portuguese doomed the port of Malacca by combining greed with religious intolerance. While Malacca had been a free port, the Portuguese began charging duty on every transaction to maximize their profits. This, of course, discouraged trade. Also, the European Catholics were physically hostile to the Muslim Arabs who had been friends and trading partners for centuries. They had even helped shape Southeast Asian culture. This aggressive mentality inhibited the free flow of ideas. In this manner, the Portuguese killed Malacca as a cultural center as well as an economic center. Ah well. Such is life. Pain and pleasure in equal measure. At least Malacca got her day in the sun.

What was the response of the Malay rulers in Malacca to the European aggression that they were so ill prepared for?

They simply gave up Malacca and moved south - establishing a new sultanate at Johor - on the tip of Malay Peninsula - across from Singapore. All the Arab trade, which had previously been channeled through Malacca, now shifted to ports at Johor - creating a great sultanate there. This created a new Arab entrepôt, which initiated the decline of Malacca as one of the great trading ports in the world. Relocating to avoid military aggression is a common Malay strategy.

The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. In many ways this event initiated the first cultural conflict between Southeast Asian trading culture and the Aryan/European military culture.

Saint Francis Xavier - the ends justify the means

When the Portuguese came to conquer the Arab trading centers, they also brought their priests with them to spread their supposedly superior culture. This was a first for Southeast Asia. Prior to the arrival of the Christians, each tradition retained their own religion with its unique rites and rituals. However, there didn’t seem to be any proselytizing going on. Conversions occurred due to persuasion, rather than force of arms. When exposed to more sophisticated ideas, tribal leaders and/or traders adopted them because they were compelling.

Hinduism, Chinese Buddhism, and the tribal religions of the indigenous population were not exclusive religions. Further, the Muslim religion of the time was simply overlaid on top of these tolerant belief systems. Part of the reason for the flexibility of Islam in Southeast Asia was that the Austronesian-speaking islanders had converted willingly, almost spontaneously, in part to obtain economic advantage - not because of military force. This was not true of Catholicism.

Saint Francis Xavier accompanied the Portuguese war ships. Loyola had converted him to the extreme poverty of Jesus by inducing a profound religious experience through fasting. A group of these men then became missionaries to spread the Word. They called themselves Jesuits because they practiced the extreme poverty of Jesus.

During Saint Francis’ travels from India to Japan, he supposedly tallied up tens of thousands of converts to Catholicism throughout Asia. However, the only Christian community still remaining is in India – an ironic testament to the staying power of his conversions. As an example, the Catholic Church that the Portuguese built in Malacca, a rough single roomed fortress-like structure, are in an advanced state of degeneration. The dilapidated ruins are a tourist site – with no signs of local veneration.

After reaching Japan, St. Francis’s beliefs went through a significant shift that compromised his original purity. In all the other communities of Southeast Asia and India, the populace was supposedly inspired to conversion by his vow and example of poverty. However the Japanese weren’t impressed, possibly because they had their own Buddhist monks who had also embraced poverty.

In a brilliant turnabout, St. Francis Xavier decided to embrace wealth in order to convert the Japanese. According to his reasoning, the Japanese were more impressed by wealth and power than they were by poverty. Evidently they were not that impressed because St. Francis left no lasting impression in Japan. This may have been due to a government inspired backlash that occurred in subsequent generations.

With this unusual approach, St. Francis established a rationalization and a precedent that his fellow Jesuits embraced. They employed his strategy in their dealings with the rest of the world. Their express aim was to convert the nonbelievers they encountered to Catholicism by word or sword.

The Jesuits seemed to believe that any means is justified to convert pagans to their one True Religion. When poverty doesn’t work, then employ wealth, power and/or the force of arms to achieve conversion. Evidently, Jesus’ counsel to  ‘turn the other cheek’ was less important than belief in the Church.

From their humble and poverty inspired beginnings, the Jesuits quickly reverted to worshipping the illusions of the external world. This action was presumably taken to facilitate cultural conversions for the good of the Catholic Church. In other words, the Jesuits shifted from the spiritual to the political path. In just one short lifetime, the Jesuits switched from rejecting materialism to embracing wealth and power. And all because of Saint Francis Xavier.

The Doctrine of Discovery & Homo Sacer

Due to the long-term ramifications, let’s take a deeper look at the underlying motivations behind the European mindset of the time period.

In the 2nd half of the last millennium, European nations colonized almost the entire non-Christian world under the Doctrine of Discovery. This was the first international agreement to set legal standards for the investigation, mapping and possession of non-European territories.

It began with a papal bull issued in 1455 that allowed Portugal to claim West Africa. After Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492, another papal bull extended the same privileges to Spain regarding the ‘New’ World. Due to conflicts, the papal-originated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) divided the entire known world between the Iberian colonial powers. The treaty further refined the Doctrine of Discovery to include only non-Christian nations. In essence, the first ‘explorers’ to plant a national flag on ‘foreign’ soil got to claim the land for their kingdom or government.

To indicate its enduring importance, France cited the doctrine to justify participating in Southeast Asian colonialism in the 1800s. Thomas Jefferson also referred to the doctrine to justify the US Government seizing Native American lands. Many legal decisions were also based upon the European precedents established by the Doctrine of Discovery.

The principles behind the document are so deeply ingrained that they are relatively unquestioned by most. The basic notion is that the Christian culture of Western Civilization, including Europe and the US, is superior to the rest of the world. Due to this superiority, these nation/kingdoms have the divine right to enslave non-Christians and seize their land.

Linked to this mentality is the notion of homo sacer, an ancient Roman legal term. It indicates an individual who has been banned from society, and, as such, is excluded from its legal protections. However, these individuals are still under the jurisdiction of the government. The US Government applied this term to rebellious Native Americans in the 1800s and to the ‘unlawful combatants’ from the Middle East in the 21st century.

Under this mode of thinking, any individual or culture that is deemed homo sacer loses all basic human rights as they are ‘outside the law’. The US employed this notion to justify unlawful imprisonment and torture. The nation/kingdoms of Western Civilization had the same underlying mindset when they refused to grant the same rights to the indigenous populations of their colonies that their own citizens took for granted.

Although these beliefs might seem outrageous from a compassionate perspective, we must resist the tendency to judge. After all the children are just taking after their parents. Recall that the Aryans, the ancestors of Western Civilization, conquered and enslaved indigenous agrarian populations wherever they spread. They tended to have a hierarchical class system. The military aristocracy had the right to treat their ‘possessions’, the lower classes, in any way they saw fit. Further it was beneath the supposedly ‘superior’ ruling class to provide goods and services, as they had the might to take what they wanted.   

The Aryan-derivative cultures presumably justified their domination under the notion of ‘might makes right’. The European-American colonial powers rationalized this same behavior with Christian-centric legal precedents – the Doctrine of Discovery and homo sacer. The Portuguese Albuquerque and Saint Francis Xavier were both agents of this underlying mindset.


Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments