MORE than two centuries before Aurungzeb’s death and even before the coming of Babur, a new kind of invader had appeared in India. Instead of thundering down on horseback from the Himalayan passes, he arrived on the coast by ship. Instead of plunder, he sought trade. Instead of wanting to conquer the subcontinent, he wanted to conquer the seas around it.
This invader’s name was Vasco da Gama. He had sailed his small fleet all the way around Africa from his homeland of Portugal in southwest Europe. In 1498, just six years after Columbus discovered America, he landed at the South Indian port of Calicut. “Why have you come?” someone asked him. “For Christians and spices,” he replied.
The captain’s brief answer summed up a great deal of history. Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe had depended on the East for Silk, precious stones and spices‚ such as cloves and — most prized of all — pepper. Supplies had come from India across Moslem territory. Deliveries had always been uncertain, but after the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, they became even more so. The Turks held up shipments and demanded money to let them pass. If this toll was paid, the price of the goods had to be raised. If it was not paid, the Turks would not allow the shipment to go through. Eastern goods became scarce in Europe and this sent the price still higher. It soon became plain that anyone who could bring the products of Asia directly to Europe would make a fortune. The Portuguese, as the foremost seafarers of Europe, were the first people to try to get around the Turkish blockade by setting up a sea route to India.
There were other reasons, too, behind da Gama’s voyage. The pope and the European kings feared the Ottoman Turks, whose armies had already overrun the southeast quarter of their continent. They did not want to enrich these dangerous enemies with their toll money. They also wanted to win converts to Christianity. India, with its millions of idol-worshiping Hindus, looked like a good place to begin.
Portugal itself was small, poor and many thousands of miles distant from India. It could never hope to control the vast subcontinent. So its captains tried to create a commercial and religious empire in the East, rather than a political one. They took over a string of ports on the Indian Ocean and fitted them out as fortified trading posts. Goa, on India’s southwest coast, became their capital. In a series of sea-fights, they destroyed the Arab fleet of the Egyptian Mamelukes which up to now had carried all cargoes to and from India. This gave the Portuguese command of the Indian Ocean and they carried on a busy East-West trade in spices and other goods.
Meanwhile, Catholic priests went among the people of India. Missionaries were active in the courts of Akbar and his son Jahangir. Until Shah Jahan came to the throne, they kept hoping that they might convert the Mogul emperors to their faith. Christianity appealed most, however, to poor Indians of the lower castes. By becoming Christians, such people could escape being looked down upon as inferior beings and forced by higher-caste Hindus to do unpleasant and degrading work.
Throughout the sixteenth century, huge profits from the spice trade piled up in Goa and in the capital of Portugal, Lisbon. These profits aroused the envy of other sea-going European countries. In England and Holland, companies were formed to trade with the East. Soon, English and Dutch settlements sprang up on the coasts of India and the Indian Ocean became the scene of naval battles between the fleets of the rival powers.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese no longer played an important part in India. Their share of the Eastern trade had grown much smaller. In 1664, France joined the scramble for trading rights. Meanwhile, the Dutch had established themselves in the islands to the east of India which now make up Indonesia. On the subcontinent, English merchant-adventurers took the lead. By the time of Aurungzeb’s death in 1707, they had seemed Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, the three cities which would be the foundation of the future British empire in India. Although the Moguls still seemed to be all-powerful, the English were challenged only by the French.