Portugal was the first European nation to build an extensive commercial empire reaching eastward to Africa and Brazil and westward, through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, to India, China, Southeast Asia and Japan.

Portuguese contact with these regions, which had been virtually unknown to Europeans, led to the creation of highly original works of art, some intended for export and others for domestic enjoyment. During the 16th century, their commercial dominance expanded and this naval empire connected civilisations from all the known continents, transforming commerce and initiating unprecedented cultural exchange and linked continents and cultures as never before. This 2007 exhibition, at the Freer Gallery of Art, explored the artistic achievements that flourished when these traders exposed new creative techniques and imagery to the world as they transported goods from port to port, establishing a truly global trade after the great ‘Age of Discovery’ that began in the mid-1400s.

Portuguese Age of Discovery

As the western-most country in Europe, Portugal was the first to significantly probe the Atlantic Ocean, colonising the Azores and other nearby islands, then on to exploring the west coast of Africa. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias was the first to sail around the southern tip of Africa. These African voyages soon led the Portuguese to Asia – and in 1498 Vasco da Gama repeated the earlier experiment, making it as far as India. From these explorations, Portugal would establish ports as far west as Brazil, as far east as Japan, and along the coasts of Africa, India and China. Portugal soon had control of the sea routes eastward to India and the Spice Islands (now part of Indonesia) to commence a period of great commercial prosperity. Trade with China came next, although it took decades for the Portuguese to establish a permanent base at Macau, an island off China’s southern coast.

Portuguese in Macau

The Portuguese used Macau to launch their religious missions to Japan alongside their annual trading trip on the ‘Black Ship’, a carrack or cargo ship, that sailed to Nagasaki, using the prevailing monsoon winds to facilitate the journey. Once this trade link was established, Nagasaki grew into a busy port for foreign trade and attracted other foreigner traders, including the Dutch and the British. A consequence of this was an intensive missionary effort by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Japan, which during the Momoyama period (1573-1615), ran up against the might of the emperor and the Tokugawa shogunate that eventually ended in their expulsion from the country in 1639. In Japan, the Jesuits were supported by the commercial activities of the Portuguese. These first traders were known to the Japanese as ‘Nanban’, or ‘Southern Barbarians’, as they arrived in their ships from the south. Eventually, the Portuguese lost their trading position to the Dutch, who were more focused on trade than saving souls: the Dutch were allowed to remain after the expulsion of the Catholic Portuguese.

The Jesuits

However, the Jesuits ultimately went on to establish far more successful missions in China. Several Jesuit painters were employed at the court of Qianlong Emperor’s (1711-1799), including the celebrated Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who was also known by his Chinese name Lang Shining. This presence in China facilitated a flow of information from Europe to Asia, and vice versa, as the priests not only brought religious objects with them, but also the latest maps and globes and astronomical charts, as well as other luxury objects. As a result, Europeans were regarded with curiosity and some interest in the imperial courts in Ming and Qing-dynasty China, Mughal India, and to some extent, in the early days, in Japan. However, with the exception of the scientific instruments taken to China, the long-term cultural effect of these initiatives was limited.

The exhibition was divided into six main sections, with the introductory, the largest section focused on the impact of the Portuguese discoveries on Europe and the exchange of knowledge with the peoples whom the Portuguese encountered. The ‘Age of Discovery’ focused on Portugal in its European context, on the origins of Portuguese expansion, and on the works of art and exotic objects that document the flow of information to Europe from Africa, Asia, and America. The next two sections focused on Africa and Brazil. ‘The African Coast’ centred on the three principal areas in west and central Africa that produced works of art connected with the Portuguese: Sierra Leone and the kingdoms of Benin and Kongo. ‘Brazil and the New World’ traced the development of Portugal’s most important land-based colony in the first two centuries after Cabral’s arrival, before the discovery of gold in 1690s.

Maps and Early Trade Routes

To explore this global influence and trade, the exhibition presented approximately 250 objects produced by each of the cultures touched by Portugal’s early trade routes. The trade route along West and Central Africa was represented by hunting horns and saltcellars made of ivory, and a section of religious works that included terracotta statues from Brazil. Maps of the world (as then known) used by the Portuguese ships for navigation also formed a fascinating display to emphasise the reach of the Portuguese at this time.

Luxury Objects from Asia

Objects from the section ‘Portuguese in Asia’, included scientific instruments made by Jesuit missionaries for the imperial Chinese court, religious objects and textiles, including a chasuble from Macau, rock-crystal and gold, both religious and domestic, objects made in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), paintings and filigree silver and gold ware, as well as intricately inlaid cabinets from India. From Japan, there was a selection of lacquerware, including a 17th-century tiered food box depicting foreigners, as well as several pairs of folding screens portraying the ‘Southern Barbarians’ in Japan. Ceramics from the kilns of southern China, including some 16th-century blue-and-white wares that were sometimes embellished with Portuguese coats-of-arms and inscriptions. An example of this in the exhibition is a bowl with ‘ Ave Marie’ inscribed on its side with the Portuguese coat of arms, armillary sphere of King Manual I, and a Buddhist lion from the important Jingdezhen kilns.

Estado da India

Another section, ‘Indian Ocean from Muscat to the Spice Islands’ related the history of the Estado da India (State of India), the string of coastal settlements, trading posts, and fortifications that supported the Portuguese fleets and the success of their trading, as well as the contacts of the Jesuit missionaries with the Mughal Empire in northern India. The Estado da India eventually stretched from Mozambique to Macau. As Jack Turner wrote in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, ‘For centuries spices had arrived in Europe from their remote origins in the Indian Ocean world via a network of merchants and entrepôts stretching as far afield as China and Indonesia. While a great deal about the spice trade was then pure conjecture, it was an article of faith that the traffic in spices was a pillar of the commercial strength of the Islamic powers of the Levant and Indian Ocean. It also was beyond dispute that Venice, long the dominant European players in the spice trade, had enriched itself by acquiring spices from those same Islamic powers. Essentially, Portugal’s ambition was to supplant Venice as the prime supplier to the European market, enriching the kingdom and funding the crown’s imperial ambitions in the East while beggaring the religious enemy (and the Venetians) at the same time. Gama’s voyage to India, and the ambition of importing spices via the Cape of Good Hope, represented a dramatic slashing of this Gordian knot. The Portuguese believed a crusading empire would be built on the control of the spice trade’.

The Hunt for Spices

Spices were at the heart of this early trade. Since the travels of Marco Polo, it had been known that pepper grew in southwest India on the Malabar Coast. This spice could also be found farther east – in Borneo and Sumatra. The only true cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, could be found in Sri Lanka, but early explorers had only vague idea of the island’s location – the Portuguese eventually arrived in 1505. More mysterious still were the mythical ‘spice islands’, or the Moluccas. Located in the far east of the Indonesian archipelago, this chain of small, scattered, volcanic islands were the sole producers of clove, nutmeg (kernel) and mace (the outer coating) of Myristica fragrans. These spices shaped the pattern of Portugal’s expansion and drive for commercial trade. The empire’s operating method was not like later expansionist empires to control vast swathes of other countries, rather they set up a network of trading stations and coastal forts , where the key assets were centres of production and distribution of the merchandise. As Jack Turner noted, ‘Within two decades of Gama’s voyage, Portugal had established a presence in every major spice-producing centre. Territorial acquisitions were backed by the ambiguous goad of taxing and sinking all maritime competition. The first expedition to the Moluccas set out in 1511, after a successful attempt to conquer Malacca. This allowed the Portuguese to control the European spice trade. However, the Portuguese never quite achieved a real monopoly over the Indian Ocean spice trade, and with a few decades the Venetians were back and able to revive their land-based trade route’.

Portuguese in China

In the section devoted to China, the exhibition explores Portugal’s first contact, which began soon after their conquest of Malacca in 1511. Led by Jorge Álvares, the Portuguese arrived in the Pearl River estuary in 1514 aboard a charted junk from Malacca. Several successful voyages from Malacca to the port of Canton (Guangzhou) followed. After an outbreak of hostilities with the local government and the closure of the port to foreigners, the traders began clandestine trade along the coast, first to the north in the provinces of Fujian and again around the Pearl River delta, where they finally established their principal settlement on the Macau peninsula in 1557. By 1583, they had become firmly established and the Emperor tacitly had approved their presence and by the end of the century the settlement had become one of the great commercial ports of Asia. It was from Macau that the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, in 1582, was dispatched on a mission to the Chinese mainland, arriving in the capital (Beijing) and seat of the Chinese court, where he died in 1610. His knowledge of mathematics and science allowed him access to increasingly exalted intellectual circles and made him an invaluable source of information that eventually led him to the imperial court. The Jesuits presence survived the demise of the Ming dynasty and found new life and close relationships within the Qing courts, although it never manifested into mass conversions as they had hoped.

Portuguese in India

In India, the Portuguese had established the headquarters of the Estado da India on the west coast, in Goa. The spice trade may have first attracted the Portuguese to the area, but they soon diversified and were and entered the field of luxury goods, which also served as ambassadorial gifts. Artworks and furniture that survive from the period attest to the extraordinary skills of the artists and the craftsmen working in Indian and Sri Lanka, as well as to the richness and rarity of the materials used in their manufacture, include gold and silver filigree, ivory, tortoiseshell, pearls, and precious and semi-precious stones. Goa was an entrepôt for all these luxury goods, including silk and cotton cloth produced in the textile centres of India, were sent to Europe and to other Portuguese ports in Asia, Africa and South America. One of the objects on show, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a ‘Goa Stone’ container. Goa stones, named for the place where they were manufactured by Jesuits in the late 17th century, were manmade versions of bezoars (gallstones from ruminants). Both types were used for their medicinal and talismanic powers. These treasured objects were encased in elaborate containers made of gold and silver and often exported to Europe. Rare surviving examples are recorded in European treasuries, including one made for the Duke of Alba in the late 16th century that is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The stone was usually a compound of organic and inorganic materials, including bezoar, shell, amber, musk, resin, and crushed precious gems, which would be scraped and ingested with tea or water.

Indian miniatures painted in the late 16th and 17th centuries by artists from the Mughal courts, especially during the reign of Akbar (r 1556-1605) and his son Jahangir (r 1605-27), provided an unusual window onto the activities of the Portuguese in India. Some images depict historical events in which the Portuguese participated, others include identifiable images of Europeans in India, with some portraying the Jesuit priests who arrived at the imperial court in Fatehpur Sikri in 1580. The Mughals’ curiosity about other worlds, as well as their receptivity to new ideas, made this artistic interchange possible.

Cabinets of Wonder

Encompassing the world showed how the early trade routes developed through the skills of the early Portuguese explorers and traders using the only tangible thing left – the precious objects that were cherished at home and in other parts of the world, often displayed in ‘cabinets of wonder’, predecessors of the modern museum. Elements of these cabinets from royal and aristocratic collections can be found in museums and private collections around the world. These paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, maps, early books, textiles, scientific instruments and objects d’art assembled in the exhibition provide a rich treasure trove that documents a ‘new world’ during its formation.

Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries was on view from 23 June until 16 September, 2007, at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery and National Museum of African Art, Washington DC. Catalogue available.