India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

How Europe Found the Sea-Road to India

At the end of the fifteenth century there happened suddenly and about the same time two of the greatest events in the history of the world. One of them was the discovery of America, and the other the finding of the way into the Indian seas round the southernmost point of Africa.

When the brave Portuguese captain, Vasco da Gama, and his little storm-tossed ships first beat round that point, which they called the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed across the Indian Ocean to the Indian town of Kalicut in 1498, they changed the entire history of the world. Up to that time the whole of the rich commerce of India and the East had come to Europe overland through Syria or up the Red Sea to Alexandria. The great Turkish Empire, the Venetians, and the Genoese had by means of this trade grown exceedingly rich and powerful, and the other nations of Europe were forced to buy from them alone.

But now, by the discovery of the ocean-way round the Cape of Good Hope, the wealth of the East was to fall into the hands of the seafaring nations of Western Europe. By the end of the sixteenth century this had come to pass, and was the cause of long and bitter struggles among the new adventurers for the sole possession of the rich trade with the golden East.

First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch and English—those bold seamen voyaging in little galleons, barks, and "fly-boats" no bigger than many of our yachts are to-day. It is a wonder to us how these podgy little vessels, with their high stems and sterns, clumsy masts and spars, could have braved the dangers of such long, adventurous voyages. But they seem to have been as sturdy as the men who sailed them into those unknown seas.

Vasco de Gama


For nearly eighty years the Portuguese were the strongest Power in the East Indies. They sent fleet after fleet round the Cape of Good Hope, and, after fighting and beating the Turkish ships which tried to drive them away, possessed themselves of various points in Southern India and built a magnificent city at Goa. So rich did they become that in the merchants' houses at Goa all the vessels and ornaments were of gold. Indeed, so common was silver that it was thought nothing of in those days.

At that period the Portugals, as we used to call them, and Spaniards claimed the whole of the Indies East and West as their "own house" by right of being the first to discover them. For many years the Portugals kept fleets and armies in India, and did their utmost to drive out all other traders by force of arms. In this way many English and Dutch traders suffered great injustice and often cruelty. But the Dutch, when at last they had beaten the Portugals, who had grown weaker at home, treated the English in exactly the same way.

The English traders belonged to the East India Company, which was formed in the year 1600 to trade with the Spice Islands of the East Indies. They had made little attempt to trade with India itself, or to seize land and build forts like the Portuguese and the Dutch. Their only desire was to carry on their trade in peace, and if it had not been for the cruelty of the Dutch they might never have founded an empire in India at all. However, in 1623 the Dutch, who had long hated the presence of our merchants in the Molucca Islands, although only few in number, attacked and massacred nearly all of them at Amboyna. In fact, for a long time the English were so much weaker than their enemies that both the Portuguese and Dutch thought nothing of sinking an English merchantman, drowning the whole crew deliberately, or of destroying an English trading-station. These things continually happened while England was at peace with Portugal and Holland in Europe, and in those days news took so long to reach home that, if our merchants had not made ready to fight their own battles, they would have been destroyed by either the Portuguese, the Dutch, or, later, by the French.

Fortunately for our traders, who were driven for a time from the Spice Islands trade by the massacre of Amboyna, they found a place of refuge prepared for them in India itself.

Every one of us who feels a thrill of pride in the wonderful growth of British dominion in India will find a special interest in the little town of Surat on the coast of Gujerat, for it was at this place that our splendid Indian Empire had its first beginning. In 1607 an English vessel bound for the Spice Islands was driven by stress of weather to Surat, and in December 1612, during the reign of Jehanjir, we were given by the Moghul Emperor a formal permission to trade. This was very largely due to the wonder and admiration of the Indians at the victory gained by a gallant seaman, Captain Best, with his two ships, the Dragon  and Hosander, over the Portuguese fleet, which came up from Goa on purpose to destroy them.

Several times the Portuguese came against us in great force, but each time we defeated them with heavy loss. Three years later our traders were greatly helped by an ambassador sent to Jehanjir by King James I. This was Sir Thomas Roe, a man of great tact and energy, who greatly pleased the Moghul Emperor. He wrote some interesting as well as amusing memoirs, which tell us how one day he detected the ladies of Jehanjir's palace peeping through their window-blinds and laughing at him as he stood on the balcony of his house. No doubt the quaint costume of James's time seemed as amusing to them as it would if we saw it amongst us to-day.

To Surat, then, came those English traders who were obliged to fly from the Dutch in the Spice Islands, little thinking at the time that the troubles which drove them there were really helping to build up a magnificent empire in India. For the ways in which Providence works are sometimes hard for us to understand.

For the next forty years, however, our traders continued to suffer greatly from the attacks of the Dutch, whose fleets and soldiers sent from Europe treated the English wherever they found them with great "cruelty, insolency, and cunning circumventing projects," as an old writer tells us. For our men could get no assistance from home while the war raged between the King and Parliament. But when Cromwell came into power his strong and vigorous rule at once helped our Indian merchants to hold their own and make good progress, although the Dutch managed to seize Ceylon, and continued to make savage attacks upon our ships and trading-stations whenever they could.

So right on through the seventeenth century our merchants traded and fought, while Charles II came to the throne of England and Aurunzebe to that of the Moghuls. Charles helped the Company very greatly, giving them a new and better charter and adding to their possessions the settlement of Bombay, which he had received with the dowry of his Portuguese wife, Catharine of Braganza. Then, in 1672, the French appeared in the Indian seas and occupied several stations on the south and east coasts. Consequently, at that time there was still no sign that our English merchants were in the end to win the great race for the dominion of the East.

Soon after this, however, there broke out those great wars in Europe which engaged both France and Holland in a long and desperate struggle, and while they were thus weakening one another, England began to draw slowly but surely to the leading place in Asiatic conquest and commerce.

It was then that we made good our footing on the Indian coasts. In 1685 we made Bombay our headquarters on the western side. In 1686 Madras had become our chief post on the eastern shore, and a settlement was founded at Calcutta by young Job Charnock. Of him the story is told that he went one day with his guard of soldiers to see a young widow burnt alive with her dead husband, as the custom was until the English in later times put a stop to it. So beautiful was the widow that Charnock at once fell in love with her, and vowed that he wouldn't stand by and see so lovely a creature put into the fire. So he and his guards rescued her by force and carried her away to his lodgings. He married her, and they lived very happily for many years.

Upon these three places—Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta—our Empire was first founded, and from them it eventually spread over the whole of India.