Trade with Asia 1500-1800: Discoveries
In the late medieval period, merchants transported Asian spices and luxury goods along lengthy land and sea routes to the Levant. From here European traders carried the goods to Mediterranean ports. In 1453, however, Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, rendering the shipping lanes of the eastern Mediterranean virtually impassable. The supply of Asian goods was no longer reliable, and those that did reach Europe were extremely expensive. A new route to the East was needed.
Portuguese navigators, supported by royal patronage, were already exploring the west coast of Africa. These voyages were greatly facilitated by important advances in shipbuilding and naval gunnery. In 1488 the Portugese rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Ten years later Vasco da Gama succeeded in reaching the Malabar Coast of India, crossing the Indian Ocean with the aid of monsoon winds.
Rarities and novelties
Western fascination for exotic goods from Asia existed even before direct contact was established. Whether products of nature (naturalia) or man-made wonders (artificialia), objects from the East were much prized in Europe. They were often richly mounted to emphasise their value.
After the Portuguese discovered the sea route to India, Lisbon became the leading marketplace in Europe for Asian rarities and novelties. Princes and scholars avidly collected these exotic objects and arranged them in cabinets of curiosities. These chambers of art (Kunstkammern) and wonder (Wunderkammern) enhanced the status of these collectors, who sought to symbolically possess and understand the diversity of the outside world.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 23 September - 5 December 2004.