Both the Chinese and the Portuguese sought involvement in the Indian Ocean trade but each group used methods that juxtaposed each other. The Chinese had a lot of goods that those involved in the Indian Ocean trade routes desired. On the other hand, the Portuguese did not really have any goods to trade; no one needed iron pots or the wool clothing that they produced. This led the Europeans to take a different approach; since they could not trade in the way others could, they had to use coerce their way in.
Their methods involved the conquest of various Indian Ocean nations and therefore it was much more abusive than the ways of the Chinese. Following the descriptions of Malacca, Ceylon, and Hormuz as found in personal accounts by Ma Huan and Tome Pires, one is able to see that China and Portugal wanted involvement in Indian Ocean trade for different reasons, and they both did this in contrasting ways. China was already content with their power and position in the world along with their existing monopoly in the trade routes, so their expeditions were often diplomatic in nature.
Whereas the Portuguese felt threated and used the Indian Ocean nations as a way to conquer more land and build upon their empire. For instance, in the 15th century, Malacca, a Malaysian state, became very important to Indian Ocean trade because of its great commercial success. Its location was ideal because it provided a convenient location for the storage of goods that traveled between the South and East Asian trade routes. From the Chinese perspective, Malacca proved to be an opportunity to learn about foreign culture and customs.
This is shown when Ma Huan talks about the “pure and simple” customs, for instance how the women wear their “hair in a chignon behind [their] head” and “wrap a white cloth kerchief [round the lower part] and wear a short jacket of colored cloth [on the upper part]”. This portrays China’s interest in Malacca’s cultural differences. Therefore, this supports the idea that China’s travels were diplomatic in nature and served for the purpose to inform and entertain the readers about life in these Indian Ocean nations.
It also showed that the Chinese had an open and accepting attitude towards these other trading nations, because the text indicates a more inquisitive nature versus a critical one. In contrast, the Portuguese writings about Malacca appeared more documental, as if it served for the purpose of keeping a record of all the commercial affairs in the nation. The Portuguese also conveyed an interest in Malacca but for a very different purpose than the Chinese.
While it appeared that the Chinese were genuinely interested in learning about the cultural aspects of Malacca, it was evident that the Portuguese placed an intentional emphasis on its commerce and trade. An example of this would be when Pires talked about the various trade routes and noted “those from Cairo take their merchandise to Tor, and from Tor to Jidda, and from Jidda to Aden, and from Aden to Cambay”. His descriptions are a lot more thorough than the Chinese’s; this was because the Portuguese were focused on the successful rule of their newly conquered port city.
The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511 and the text began at 1512, so I can assume that the in-depth descriptions were necessary for them to understand Malacca’s involvement in and how they proceeded to maintain its success. This ties back to power because Pires’ writing reflected their true intentions of how they just wanted to focus on learning about Malacca’s commercial system in order to better rule the nation. This further allowed Portugal to serve their higher purpose of expanding their empire and getting involved in the Indian Ocean trade.
So one can infer, if the Portuguese were able to successfully persevere their power, they would have the better advantage to expand their empire. Similarly the Chinese wrote thoroughly on the customs of Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka), focusing on social differences between China and the trad foreign Indian Ocean countries. Specifically, Ma Huan was able to accentuate the extreme diversity by including cultural anecdotes and legends.
Ma Huan, begins with noting the naked people on the island he goes through before his arrival to Ceylon saying that the “men and women have naked bodies, all without a stich of clothing, like the bodies of brute beasts”. His response to this occurrence shows that, their behavior was quite different from that of the Chinese. He most likely includes this information to entertain his readers since it shows the great difference between these foreign nations.
With this in mind, he never showed any bigotry, and this reflected the open-minded attitude that the Chinese had for other cultures; they were interested in learning more about how other people lived. He also goes on to talk about specific customs such as how the people covered their bodies in cow feces, their burial rituals, the way they dress, their diet, etc. This was followed by a brief description of goods and currency, although, this was not nearly as extensive as the Portuguese’s descriptions.
The small portion of the text that focused on trade and produce was only a general statement and not nearly as in depth as one would be for someone with the purpose of conquering a nation. This could be attributed to China’s self-satisfaction in regards to their power and their influential position in the trade routes. They were aware that their valuable goods were in demand so they did not find it as necessary to be conscious of the other country’s economies.
For this reason, one can infer that the Chinese did not have as much of an interest in the commercial advantages of Ceylon, because their writing showed more curiosity towards their customs and culture. In comparison, the Portuguese saw Ceylon as a profitable resource that they could exploit to their own advantage. When Pires writes about Ceylon, his central focus was on their assets concerning their economical stability to produce and trade goods. One of the first things he says about the island is that “the land is well provided with everything, except that there is a scarcity of rice. It has lenty of other foodstuffs. ”
Immediately, he groups all of the island’s resources as benefits and mentions its one weakness. This is because from the author’s point of view, Ceylon was a large opportunity for them to gain access into the Indian Ocean trade and gain the resources they needed. The Portuguese had already conquered Ceylon in 1505; their mission was concerned with outlining the specific goods they produced and how they went through the trade routes. It can be noted that the author focused on the Island’s said resources but did not make any mention of their culture or customs as the Chinese did.
An example of this is when he mentions Galle, a city in Ceylon that conveniently houses five ports making it favorable for access to and from others ports and goods. The author mentions, “the best part of the Island is from Galle up to the point opposite Comorin” saying that “here are found precious stones in this King’s land, where all the trade is. It is an island for trade and navigation’. His statement follows their views on state power because it placed priority on commerce and travel. Since the Portuguese had already conquered Ceylon, it showed the importance for them to maintain the island’s prosperity.
It also shows how the Portuguese state was fixated on the idea of trade and not just in their own empire but the in the countries in which they ruled over. Hormuz, (present-day Iran) provided yet another opportunity for China to seek entertainment from foreign civilization. Although the Chinese do not often comment on a country’s particular wealth, Ma Huan felt that it was important to mention it in his writings. Particularly he mentioned, “foreign ships from every place and foreign merchants travelling by land all come to this country to attend the market and trade; hence the people of country are all rich”.
However, after this he does not mention anything else about their wealth, this could have potentially been to establish Hormuz as another prosperous and well off country. Since China was in the same position, it might have made the text more relatable and serve as something for Chinese people to compare their own culture to, because they might feel more comfortable to compare the lifestyle of their country to one of similar wealth. To further support the idea that China was writing for the purpose of entertainment, Ma Huan writes a whole page on unusual forms of amusement in Hormuz.
For instance, he talk about a goat who dances while balancing on poles and a monkey who can identify who stuck its head while it was blind folded. These pieces of information would be quite trivial for someone who was interested in their trade. These anecdotes clearly serve no other purpose than to entertain the Chinese people, who from a powerful point of view, did not have any reason to expand their empire and used this as an opportunity to learn more about the foreign islands. From the information Ma Huan writes about, one can deduce that his writing was meant to be informal, with the intention to amuse his audience.
Similarly to the other countries, the Portuguese already captured Hormuz in 1507, prior to the time this source was written. For this reason, they viewed Hormuz in a completely different way, they saw the island as an opportunity to get closer to Persia. Specifically, Hormuz was even mentioned as “the key to Persia… and on the mainland [it is bounded by] the great Persian province” At this time the Persian Portuguese war was going on, it began in 1507 with the capture of Hormuz and then lasted until 1622 when it was reclaimed by an AngloPersian force.
It was vital for the Portuguese to keep control over their conquered nations because their state was heavily focused on military power, so capturing Hormuz was good both for expanding their empire but also for having something to hold over Persia’s head. The Portuguese’s desire in Hormuz included interest in trade, but was mainly targeted for military advantage and convenience. Above all, after analyzing the text one can see that China wrote in an informal way to entertain their audience because they did not feel threatened by any other power and had a secure position in Indian Ocean trade.
Whereas, the Portuguese wrote formally focusing on trade and economy because as a militarily motivated state, they wanted to expand their empire and gain entrance into trade by conquering the islands involved. It should be taken into account that as with all primary sources bias is found, but in this situation, it provides an insight into each country’s motives behind writing the text and how they perceived the other people they encountered on their journey. Along with this comes certain limitations but similarly, it helps to provide first hand what they experienced and what in their mind they believed was important.