Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean

By Patricia Risso | Go to book overview

5 Maritime Competition,
Circa 1500-1860

Europeans in Asia

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Europeans learned what Asians already knew: how to use the wind systems of the Indian Ocean. They also learned the wind systems of the Atlantic and Pacific, knowledge which would give them an advantage on a global scale. However, they entered Asian waters before European naval technology greatly exceeded that of Asia and before the Industrial Revolution. 1 By many measures, economic productivity in China and possibly also in India was still ahead of that in Europe. 2 Asia had a relatively large population and possessed urban cultures that were highly complex. The role that Europeans would play in Asia was not at all obvious.

When the Europeans arrived in Asia at the turn of the sixteenth century, there were four powerful land-based Asian regimes: Ming China, Mughal India, Safavid Iran, and the Ottoman Empire, the last three Muslim dominated. The Ottomans extended their political control nearly to Vienna. They—and, by emotional extension, Muslims in general—were perceived as a military and cultural threat to the heart of Europe. Iberians also had the memory of Muslim conquest and of a centuries-long occupation that had only recently been ended, in 1492. This perception of threat colored the views of Europeans who sailed into Asian waters. The land-based strength of Asia and the European fear of Islamic expansion were important elements in the early phase of contact.

By the mid-nineteenth century, for reasons discussed in this chapter, perceptions were very different. The Qing successors to the Ming of China had been compelled to open several of their ports to Western trade, and Europeans were beginning to have economic and cultural impact in some Chinese coastal areas. The Safavids were long gone, replaced eventually by the less effective Qajar regime. The last figurehead Mughal shah lost his East India Company pension in 1858, and minor principalities were unable to resist annexation to British India. The Ottomans were the last cohesive Islamic empire, but they had suffered military and territorial losses already to Russians and Austrians, beginning

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