As Indian commodities became essential items of European life, search for sea routes to India promoted the Voyages of Discovery that profoundly changed the map and history of the world. 

Gama Vasco Da 1468-1524, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
The Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, under the patronage of the Spanish monarchy, set out from Spain on a western route and discovered the Americas. Vasco da Gama, with the patronage of the Portuguese monarchy, went around the southern tip of Africa and arrived in Calicut on the South West coast of India in 1498. Gama's arrival in India changed the pattern of inter-Asian and Asian-European trade and interactions hence forth. 
Vasco da Gama being presented to the ruler of Calicut, Zamorin (Samudra Raja), John Hamilton Moore, 1700, Original Source: Voyages and Travels, Printed by Alexander Hogg, London. Private Collection.

An 18th century report by George Trevor in ‘India, An Historical Sketch’ (Religious tract Society, London, 1799), based on contemporary records, describes the initial encounter between the Raja of Calicut, Zamorin, and da Gama thus: "The Zamorin received the newcomers kindly, and admitted them to an audience at which he appeared clothed in white calico flowered with gold and adorned with precious gems. His couch was placed in a hall furnished with rich carpets and tapestry and a golden fountain poured out its waters before it. The Portuguese, unacquainted with Indian customs, had provided no nuzzar for the prince…"

Unloading of Goods: Voyage to Calicut Series, Tournai Workshops, Belgium, 1504, Original Source: Portuguese National Library, Lisbon

To mark Vasco da Gama’s achievement of finding a direct sea route to India, King Manuel of Portugal commissioned 26 panels of tapestries called “The Discovery of India, the Calicut Tapestries” from the foremost tapestry makers of the period, Tournai Workshops in Belgium. Exquisite tapestries such as these, complex in design and workmanship, were highly valued and were proof of the owner’s status. The scenes depicted in the Calicut tapestries heightened Europeans ’s vision of exotic India, with dark skinned people in exotic costumes, and camels, giraffes, cheetahs and peacocks rarely seen in Europe.

Unloading of Goods: Voyage to Calicut Series, Tournai Workshops, Belgium, 1504, Original Source: Portuguese National Library, Lisbon

Detail shows a mythical Unicorn, believed in medieval Europe to have magical healing powers, being unloaded from the ship from India.

Unloading of Goods: Voyage to Calicut Series, Tournai Workshops, Belgium, 1504, Original Source: Portuguese National Library, Lisbon

Detail shows a letter from Zamorin "on a sheet of beaten silver with his seal made of Damascene gold according to their customs" being handed over to the king.

Rua Direita, The Main Thoroughfare of Goa, 1579-1592, Original Source: Beinecke Library, Yale University

Within one hundred years after the arrival of da Gama, Goa had become a city bustling with many nationalities seeking their fortunes. Jan Huygen Linschoten, a Dutch aide to the Portuguese Archbishop in Goa, described the city in His Discourses of Voyages into ye East and West Indies in 1598, “Who can adequately describe the other riches and products of this city? ... let antiquity no longer stand in awe of Cornith or Alexandria … it has been outstripped by the greatness of the wealth and the sublimity of this city.”

India and the Middle East, Jan Huyghen Van Linschoten, 1596, From the collection of: Kalakriti Archives

Maps were tools of sovereignity and power and were highly guarded by European powers in the 15-18th centuries. This exceptionally detailed map showing cities along the East Coast of Africa, Arabia and the Indian Peninsula was an important and powerful tool of trade that consolidated an enormous amount of information Dutchman Linschoten collected while in the employ of the Portuguese in Goa.

India and the Middle East, Jan Huyghen Van Linschoten, 1596, From the collection of: Kalakriti Archives

Detail shows coastal cities along the trade routes. This map was important for the Dutch and later British colonization of Asia in the 17th century.

The Indian Spice Trade (Exhibit Chapterisation), From the collection of: National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Initial encounter between Indian rulers and Europeans were amicable, and Europeans were dazzled by the resources and wealth of India. The commodities Da Gama procured in his initial voyage -- spices, medicines, precious metals, gems and textiles -- reaped vast profits and served to enhance European interest in expanding their presence in India. What followed was the colonial period in India and Asia, with significant consequences to the history of the region, and that history is well recorded. However, the contributions of Indian knowledge systems, especially the medical-botanical knowledge, to European colonial enterprise and the advancement of science and culture is only now being acknowledged. The next chapters will look at these contributions.

This exhibition is part of a series on the India Spice Trade. Do explore the other sections here:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

6. Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

Curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences
Credits: Story

Curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.

Curation text © 2019 Annamma Spudich, PhD.

Images outside of NCBS collection courtesy to the respective institutions and collections who have given the permission. Some images are hosted via NCBS - the original sources are cited, and more information about the respective images can be reached by clicking on the image or image captions.

Explore all chapters of The India Spice Trade:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

6. Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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