16th century proceeded with amazing rapidity, and for more than a century
they remained lords of the waters and sent many precious shiploads to
Lisbon. The armed control of the sea trade was quite easy for the Portuguese,
for they found a flourishing and unprotected free trade system when they
entered this ocean. Except for an occasional pirate, bearing rather primitive
arms, there was nobody in these waters who had made it his business to use
force for the control of trade.
     This prevailing free trade system of the India Ocean, with all its
flexibility, was nevertheless very vulnerable. For this trade was not restricted
exclusively to luxury goods, like spices, precious textiles, gold and ivory.
Though they played a major role in this trade, there was also considerable
division of labour in the course of which some ports had become entirely
dependent of long-distance grain shipments. As no duties and other
protection costs distorted the price level in this free trade system, everything
was much cheaper here than in the Mediterranean where the Egyptians and
the Venetians operated a tight monopoly.
     What the Portuguese did was to protect the Mediterranean practice in the
Indian Ocean. They were keen observers and quickly seized upon the
strategic points from which they could control the vast network of Asian
maritime trade. Their fortified outposts served as customs stations where
Asian merchants had to acquire cartazes (letters of protection) which saved
them from being attacked and ransacked by the Portuguese on the high seas.
     The Portuguese king soon made the spice trade, particularly pepper trade,
a royal monopoly. Their spice imports rose from less than a quarter of a
million pounds in 1501 to more than 2.3 million pounds per year by 1505,
when Venetian merchants found that they could buy barely one million
pounds of spice in Alexandria, though their annual purchase in 1495 had been
3.5 million pounds. Arab and Venetian merchants remained in the spice trade
throughout the century of Portuguese power in Asia, but the balance of trade
had shifted dramatically, and the Portuguese persisted in short-circuiting
Arab middlemen carriers as the European demand for spices continued to
increase.
     The Portuguese king never wanted to undersell the Venetians, as they had
initially suspected. He adjusted his sole price to the Venetian one, while
simultaneously forcing his Indian      suppliers to part with their pepper at a