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From the rise of Islam until the 16th century, Muslim traders dominated the commerce of the East by land and sea. A major share of this lucrative trade that plied up the Red Sea and from there overland to the Mediterranean ports was obtained by the Venetians and partially by the Genoese. After 1381, Genoa began to decline, but Venice’s supremacy as the maritime leader in the Mediterranean continued unchallenged. The arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean in 1498 reduced the flow of trade to the Mediterranean and spelled ruin not only for Venice, but also for two other rival and powerful states – Egypt and Turkey.

Inspired by the spirit of discovery and a crusading mission to spread Christianity, the Portuguese in the 15th century, embarked on an ambitious program of militant and mercantile activities that paved the way for expansion and colonization. However, the underlying motive of the Lusitanian crown was a desire to control the extremely lucrative commerce of the Indian Ocean, particularly the spice trade, by wresting it from the Muslim merchants who controlled it. From their vantage geographical position and taking advantage of their superior nautical skills and advanced shipbuilding industry, the courageous and enterprising people of the Iberian Peninsula were the first Europeans to penetrate the Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf.

Portuguese expansion in the Indian Ocean started with their campaigns in Africa’s western littoral south of the Sahara, for procuring goods and slaves. The voyage of Bartolomeu Dias around Africa’s southern tip in 1487-1488 represented the penultimate act in a chain of chronological events. At about the same time, Portugal acquired vital information about the wealth of the Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf commercial system from Pedro da Covilham, who undertook two journeys to investigate the Indian Ocean trade. It was in course of his second journey that he traveled from Cairo to the Arabian Gulf, visited Hormuz, Aden and Jeddah, and sent back to Portugal an extensive report about the Indian Ocean trade.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR DOCUMENTATION & RESEARCH (C) 2014