For Adam Smith, Vasco da Gama’s opening of the sea route to India in 1498 ranked with the discovery of America as ‘the two greatest and most important events in the recorded history of mankind’ (Smith, 1776, 1976 edn, p. 626). Without belittling the achievements of Portugal’s navigators and conquistadors in the East, this inflates their import for global history. The Indian Ocean had not been totally unfamiliar to medieval Europeans, and the Portuguese entered it as crusading warlords rather than venture capitalists. The Eurasian land-mass had a common stock of disease pathogens, so the Portuguese did not carry epidemics to ‘virgin soil’ as they did to Brazil. The states and societies they encountered were comparable to their own in every fundamental respect: monotheistic kingdoms, dominated by aristocratic warriors, served by literate clerisies and officials, and with economic structures and relations at roughly the same level of development. The intruders’ sole technological advantage of any consequence was the gunned sailing ship, which could be used to terrorise harbour authorities and island principalities, though even this naval preponderance was not irreversible. Certain Asian states — Acheh in Sumatra, the Omani Arabs, the Buginese of the Moluccas — built fleets of their own to challenge European warships (Pearson, 1979).
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