Read this article to learn about the European Traders: Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the Danes in India during the 17th and 18th Centuries !

Between the middle of the 16th century and the middle of the 18th century India’s overseas trade steadily expanded.

This was due to the trading activities of the various European companies which came to India during this period. India had commercial relations with the western countries from time immemorial.

But from the seventh century A.D. her sea-borne trade passed into the hands of the Arabs, who dominated the Indian Ocean and the Red sea. It was from them that the enterprising merchants of Venice and Genoa purchased Indian goods.


This monopoly of Indian trade by the Arabs, and the Venetians was sought to be broken by direct trade with India by the Portuguese.

The geo­graphical discoveries of the last quarter of the 15th century deeply affected the commercial relations of the different countries of the world and produced far-reaching consequences. The discovery of a new all-sea route from Europe to India via Cape of Good Hope by Vasco da Gama had far-reaching reper­cussions on the civilised world.

The arrival of the Portuguese in India was followed by the advent of other European communities and soon India’s coastal and maritime trade was monopolized by the Europeans.The European merchants who came to India during this period differed from the earlier foreign merchants and had the political and military support of their respective governments.

They were not individual merchants but represented their respective countries and tried to establish and safeguard their maritime trade on the strength of their superior naval power. In course of time, their commercial motives turned into territorial ambitions.

The Portuguese:

The Portuguese under the leadership of Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut on the 17th May, 1498 and were received warmly by the Hindu ruler of Calicut bearing the hereditary title of Zamorin. Profits of goods brought by Vasco da Gama to Portugal were 60 times cost of the entire expedition to India.


The arrival of Pedro Alvarez Cabral in India in 1500 A.D. and the second trip of Vasco da Gama in 1502 led to the establishment of trading stations at Calicut, Cochin and Cannanore. Cochin was the early capital of the Portuguese in India.

The Portuguese maritime empire acquired the name of Estado da India and its initial objective was to seize the spice trade, but after Cabral’s voyage she decided to divert to herself all the trade of the east with Europe.

A new policy was adopted in 1505, by which a Governor was to be appointed on a three-year term. Francisco de Almeida was the first Portuguese Governor (1505-09) who defeated the combined alliance of the Sultans of Gujarat, Bijapur and the Egyptians in 1509 in a naval battle near Diu.


It was Alfonso de Albuquerque who laid the real foundation of Portu­guese power in India. He first came to India in 1503 as the commander of a squadron and was appointed Governor of Portuguese affairs in India in 1509.

In November, 1510, he captured the rich port of Goa from the Bijapuri ruler with a view to secure a permanent Portuguese population, he encouraged his countrymen to marry Indian wives; but one serious drawback of his policy was his bitter persecu­tion of the Muslims. He maintained friendly relations with Vijayanagar and even tried to secure the goodwill of Bijapur. He died at Goa in 1515 leaving the Portuguese as the strongest naval power in India.

Nino da Cunha the Portuguese Governor (1529-38) transferred his capital from Cochin to Goa in 1530 and acquired Diu and Bassein (1534) from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. The next important Governor was Martin Alfonso de Souza (1542-45) along with whom the famous Jesuit saint Francisco Xavier arrived in India. The Portuguese Indian Church was organised under his guidance.

Portuguese settlements in India:

The successors of Albuquerque established settlements at Diu, Daman, Salsette, Bassein, Chaul and Bombay, San Thome near Madras and Hugli in Bengal. In 1534, the Portuguese secured permission from the Sultan of Bengal to build factories at Satgaon (called Porto Piqueno, little port) and Chittagong (Porto Grande, great port.)

Decline of the Portuguese:

The Portuguese monopoly of the Indian Ocean remained unbroken till 1595 but gradually lost many of the her settlements in India. Shah Jahan captured Hugli in 1632. In 1661, the king of Portugal gave Bombay as dowry to Charles II of England when he married Catherine of Braganza, the sister of Portuguese king.

The Marathas captured Salsette and Bassein in 1739. In the end the Portuguese were left only with Goa, Diu and Daman, which they retained till 1961. The decline of Portuguese power in India was due to several internal and external factors.

Following are some of the main causes:

i. The Portuguese failed to evolve an efficient system of administration.

ii. Their religious intolerance provoked the hostility of the Indian rulers and the people.

iii. Their clandestine practises in trade went against them, one of which was the Cartaze system by which every Indian ship sailing to a destination not reserved by the Portuguese for their own trade had to buy passes from the Portuguese Viceroy to avoid seizures and confiscation of its merchandise as contraband.

iv. The discovery of Brazil drew the colonising activities of Portugal to the west.

v. The Portuguese failed to compete successfully with the other European companies.

The Dutch:

With a view to get direct access to the spice markets in South-East Asia, the Dutch undertook several voyages from 1596 and eventually formed the Dutch East India Company or the Vereenigde ost-lndische Companies (VOC) in 1602. It was granted an exclusive right to trade with India and East Indies and vested with powers of attack and conquest by the state.

The Dutch first came to the islands of Sumatra, Java and the Spice Islands, attracted by the lucrative trade in pepper and spices. What brought them to India in the first instance was rather the requirements of the archipelago than of the European market.

The spices of the archipelago were exchanged for cotton goods from Gujarat and the Coromandel Coast.

Dutch Settlements in India

In 1605, Admiral Van der Hagen established Dutch Factory at Masulipatam. Another factory was founded at Pettapoli (Nizamapatanam), Devanampatinam (Tegnapatam, called fort St. David later under the British). In 1610, upon negotiating with the King of Chandragiri, the Dutch were permitted to found another factory at Pulicat which was fortified and named as Fort Geldria. Other commodities exported by the Dutch were indigo, saltpetre and Bengal raw silk.

The credit for making Indian textiles the premier export from India goes to the Dutch. Textiles woven according to special patterns sent from Bantam and Batavia, constituted the chief export of the Coromandel ports. Indigo was exported from Masulipatam.

Apart from spice, the chief articles of import to the Coromandel were pepper and sandal­wood from the archipelago, textiles from China and copper from Japan. In 1617, the chief of Pulicat became the Governor and Pulicat was the headquarters of the Dutch in India below the Governor- General in Batavia. Negapatam on the Tanjore coast acquired from the Portuguese in 1659 super­seded Pulicat as the seat of Governor and as the strategic centre of the Coromandelin 1689.

In 1616 Pieter Van den Broecke got from the governor the permission to erect a factory at Surat. The director­ate of Surat proved to be one of the most profitable establishment of the Dutch Company.

Factories were organised at Broach, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Agra and Burhanpur. Bimlipatam (1641), Karikal (1645), Chinsura (1653) where the Dutch constructed Fort Gustavus, Kasimbazar, Baranagore, Patna, Balasore (1658) and Cochin (1663) were other important Dutch factories in India By supplanting the Portuguese, the Dutch practically maintained a monopoly of the spice trade in the East throughout the 17th Century.

Anglo-Dutch Rivalry:

The Dutch rivalry with the English, during the 17th century was more bitter than that of the Portu­guese. By the beginning of the 18th century the Dutch power in India began to decline. Their final collapse came with their defeat by the English in the battle of Bedara in 1759. The expulsion of the Dutch from their possessions in India by the British came in 1795.

The English:

In 1599, John Mildenhall, a merchant adventurer of London came to India by the overland route and spent seven years in the East. It was on 31st December, 1600, that the first important step towards England’s commercial prosperity was taken.

On that day Queen Elizabeth granted Charter to “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies”, later called the East India Company for fifteen years. The company sent Captain Hawkins to Jahangir’s court to seek permission for the English to open a factory at Surat in 1609 which was refused due to the hostile activities of the Portuguese and the opposition of the Surat merchants.

A fireman was issued by Jahangir in 1613 permitting the English to establish a factory at Surat after the defeat of the Portuguese fleet by the English under Captain Best at Swally (near Surat) in 1612. Sir Thomas Roe, the royal ambassador of the king of England James I to the Mughal Court succeeded in getting the Emperor’s permission to trade and erect factories in certain places within the empire in 1618.

English Settlements in India:

Before Roe left India in February 1619, the English had estab­lished factories at Surat, Agra, Ahmedabad and Broach. All these were placed under the control of the President and counsel of the Surat factory. In 1668, Bombay was transferred to the East India Company by Charles 11 at an annual rent of £10. Bombay replaced Surat as the chief settlement of the English on the west coast in 1687 and it became the headquarters of the Company on the west coast.

On the south-eastern coast, the English established a factory at Masulipatam in 1611 and Armagaon near Pulicat in 1626. The Sultan of Golcunda granted the English the “Golden Fireman” in 1632 by which they were allowed to trade freely in their kingdom ports on payment of duties worth 500 pagodas per annum.

In 1639, Francis Day obtained the lease of Madras from the ruler of Chandragiri and built there a fortified factory which came to be known as Fort St. George, which soon superseded Masulipatam as headquarters of the English settlements on the Coromandel Coast.

In the north-eastern coastal region, factories were set up at Hariharpur and Balasore in Orissa in 1633. A factory was established at Hugli under Mr. Bridgeman in 1651, followed by those at Patna and Kasimbazar. In 1658, all the settlements in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and on the Coromandel Coast, were made subordinate to Fort St. George.

In 1667, Aurangzeb gave the English a fireman for trade in Bengal and in 1672 the Mughal Governor Shaista Khan issued an order confirming all the privileges already acquired by the English. In 1686, hostilities, broke out between the English and the Mughal government in Bengal. In retalitation for the sack of Hugli in 1686, the English captured the imperial fort at Thana and Hijili in Bengal and stormed the Mughal fortifications at Balasore.

After the conclusion of peace between the company and the Mughals in 1690, Job Charnock the English agent established an English factory at Sultanate in 1691 which was fortified in 1696.

Under the orders of the Mughal Emperor, Ibrahim Khan, successor of Shaista Khan issued a fireman in 1691 granting the English exemption from the payment of custom-duties in return for Rs. 3000 a year. In 1698, Azimush Shan granted the Zamindari of the three villages of Sultanate, Kalikat and Govindpur on payment of Rs. 1200 to the previous proprietors.

These villages later grew into the city of Calcutta. In 1700, the English factories in Bengal were placed under the separate control of President and council, established in the new fortified settlement which was henceforth named Fort William, Sir Charles Eyre being the first President. In 1694, the House of Commons in England passed a resolution giving equal rights to all subjects of England to trade in India.

A new company, under the title of English Company of Merchants was formed in 1698, which sent Sir William Norris as an ambassador to the court of Aurangzeb to secure trading privileges, who failed in his mission.

In 1702, the two companies resolved upon amal­gamation under the title of “The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies.” In 1715, a diplomatic mission under John Surnam (Governor of Calcutta) and William Hamilton who cured Farukhsiyar of a painful disease gained a fireman called the Magna Carat of the Company. This fireman was extended to Gujarat, Deccan and Hyderabad.

The French:

Colbert, minister of Louis XIV, created the Companies des Indus Orientals in 1664 financed by the state. The first French factory in India was established by Francois Caron at Surat in 1668 and Maracara succeeded in establishing another French factory at Masulipatam in 1669 by obtaining permission from the Sultan of Golconda.

In 1672, De la Haye seized San Thome but had to surrender it to the Dutch after his defeat by a combined force of the Sultan of Golcunda and the Dutch. In 1673, Francois Martin and Bellangerde Lespinay obtained from Sher Khan Lodi, Governor of Valikondapuram, a site for a factory. Thus the foundation of Pondicherry was laid in a modest manner. Francois Martin developed it into an important place.

In Bengal, Nawab Shaista Khan granted a site to the French in 1674, on which they built the famous French factory of Chandernagore in 1690-92. In 1693, the Dutch captured Pondicherry but was handed back to the French by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. In 1701, Pondicherry was made the headquarters of the French settlements in the East and Francois Martin was appointed as Director General of French affairs in India.

In marked contrast with the prosperity of Pondicherry, the French lost their influence in other places. The French in India declined between 1706 and 1720 which led to the reconstitution of the Company in 1720, as the “Perpetual Company of the Indies.”

The French power in India was revived under the Governorship of Lenoir and Dumas between 1720 and 1742. The French occupied Mahe and Yanam both in 1725 and Karikal in 1739. The objects of the French, during this period, were however, purely commercial.

After 1742 political motives began to overshadow the desire for commercial gain with the arrival of Dulpleix as French governor in India (1742). It resulted in the beginning of Anglo-French conflict by which the French were defeated.

The Danes:

The Danes formed an East India Company and arrived in India in 1616. The Danish settlements were established at Tranquebar (in Tamilnadu) in 1620 and at Serampore (in Bengal) in 1676 which was the headquarters of Danes in India. They failed to strengthen themselves in India and in 1845 were forced to sell all their Indian settlements to the British.