Sea route to India

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The spice route in the 15th and 16th centuries

The sea route to India from Europe to Africa around to the Indian subcontinent and to the Spice Islands of Indochina ( Moluccas ), hence spice route called, was the end of the 15./Anfang the 16th century by Portuguese explorers opened up and then from India Armadas sail. It ushered in (along with the discovery of America ) the Age of Discovery .

The route joined the previous trade routes, above all the sea trade from the Indian Ocean , Red Sea and Mediterranean on the one hand and the caravan routes through Asia on the other, which were controlled by Islamic rulers. The development of this sea ​​route opened up the possibility of direct trade with Asia ( India trade ) for several Christian states in Europe and the achievement of high profits, which became the driving force for the colonial expansion of Europe in the following centuries.

There were different variants in the search for sea routes to India. In addition to the route around Africa, before the modern discovery of America by the Europeans, there was above all the plan to travel westwards to India and East Asia from Europe. In this way India and East Asia would have been approached from the east. The implementation of this by Columbus failed, however, because it turned out that the continent America is blocking the direct sea route, so America was unintentionally discovered. Such a sea route to East Asia was later made possible by the construction of the Panama Canal .

Course of the route

The route initially led from Lisbon around the Cape of Good Hope to East Africa and across the Arabian Sea to Goa , Calicut and Cochin on the Malabar Coast in western India. From there it led around India and Ceylon over the Bay of Bengal through the Strait of Malacca , the Sunda and Banda Seas to the Spice Islands, especially to Ambon , Tidore and Ternate .


The new trade route introduced spices such as pepper , cloves , nutmeg and cinnamon , which were of immense value in Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern times , because they were indispensable not only for seasoning dishes, but also as preservatives and the basis for medicines. Other raw materials were myrrh and frankincense .

Follow the exploration of the route

In 1291 the Vivaldi brothers from Genoa failed in their attempt to find the sea route to India. More than 200 years later, the initiative of the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator , which was completed by Vasco da Gama's voyage of discovery in 1498, was successful . The Portuguese thereby eliminated the intermediary trade of Indian, Persian, Arab, Turkish and Venetian merchants. Together with the high tariffs imposed by the Ottoman Empire , this middleman had made spices extremely expensive in Europe. The breaking of the trade monopoly of the Venetians, Turks and Arabs in the spice trade made spices more affordable in Europe and increased demand and supply.

Between 1506 and 1570, with the help of the Casa da Índia , the Portuguese crown enforced an official royal monopoly for all imports and sales of spices from the spice trade. This monopoly trade was profitable and strengthened the equity and creditworthiness of the Portuguese state.

The discovery and development of the economically more favorable sea route caused Asian trade on the old overland routes such as the Silk Road or the Frankincense Route to decline sharply.

The spice route and European expansion

In 1580 Portugal was united with Spain in personal union. At this time the Dutch were waging their 80-year war of independence against the Spanish crown. Their attacks were therefore directed against Portugal from the late 16th century. Gradually, Dutch trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company conquered the most important Portuguese branches (factories) in East Asia and brought the spice route under their control. Their most important endpoints were Batavia (today's Jakarta) and Antwerp , later Amsterdam .

Due to the high profit expectations from the Indian trade , since the beginning of the 16th century other European states started to operate or promote expeditions and colonial projects. The partly forcible development of the spice route became the starting point for European expansion and the colonization of large areas of the world. a. by Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch and French.


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  1. Richard Fletcher: An elephant for Charlemagne. Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages. License issue. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2005, ISBN 3-534-18516-1 , p. 115.