This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Portuguese and Spanish Empires.
Thanks to their skills in long-distance navigation and their network of trading posts, the Portuguese took over trading routes linking the Persian Gulf, the African coast and the Western coast of India which were previously controlled by Arab intermediaries.
From their base in Malacca, they became involved in trade with the Far East and transported Chinese merchandise, including silk and porcelain, as well as spices from the Indonesian archipelago, to India.
Goods from China and India were also sent via Macao to Japan.
But the key element in Portugal’s Empire was its maritime connections between Lisbon and India.
In March and April, Portuguese ships left Europe for a journey of 7 to 8 months. After their passage around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, they sailed into the Indian Ocean just as the monsoon winds began to blow from west to east, which helped them continue their journey to India. They arrived in Calicut and Goa in September or October.
After the monsoon season and with the arrival of easterly winds, they returned to Europe in December or January. The return journey also took about 7 to 8 months with the ships arriving back in Lisbon, usually during the summer. This meant that the crews were away from home for about twenty months.
Given its small population, around 1 million inhabitants, Portugal limited the number of ships chartered for trade between Lisbon and India. During the 16th century, there were no more than 6 or 7 Portuguese ships a year on these routes.
The Portuguese compensated for the small number of ships sent each year by increasing their size and loading capacity. Over several decades, the annual tonnage brought back to Lisbon from the Indian Ocean increased from 2,500 to 5,000 tons.
The French historian Pierre Chaunu has estimated that Portuguese ships transported a third of the world’s spice production at this time.