India’s trade relations with Europe go back to the ancient days of the Greeks. During the middle Ages, trade between Europe and India and South-East Asia was carried through various routes.
Major trade routes were −
Through sea – along the Persian Gulf;
Through land- through Iraq and Turkey, and then again by sea to Venice and Genoa;
Third was via the Red Sea and then overland to Alexandria in Egypt and from there again by sea to Venice and Genoa.
The fourth one was less used i.e. overland route through the passes of the North-West frontier of India, across Central Asia, and Russia to the Baltic.
The Asian part of the trade was carried on mostly by Arab merchants and sailors, while the Mediterranean and European part was the virtual monopoly of the Italians.
Goods from Asia to Europe passed through many states and many hands. Every state levied tolls and duties while every merchant made a substantial profit.
There were many other obstacles, such as pirates and natural calamities on the way. Yet the trade remained highly profitable. This was mostly due to the pressing demand of the European people for Eastern spices.
The Europeans needed spices because they lived on salted and peppered meat during the winter months, when there was little grass to feed the cattle, and only a liberal use of spices could make this meat palatable. Consequently, European food was as highly spiced as Indian food till the 17th century.
The old trading routes between the East and the West came under Turkish control after the Ottoman conquest of Asia Minor and the capture of Constantinople in 1453.
The merchants of Venice and Genoa monopolized the trade between Europe and Asia and refused to let the new nation states of Western Europe, particularly Spain, and Portugal, have any share in the trade through these old routes.
The trade with India and Indonesia was highly prized by the West Europeans to be so easily given up.
The demand for spices was pressing and the profits to be made in their trade inviting.
The reputedly fabulous wealth of India was an additional attraction as there was an acute shortage of gold all over Europe, and gold was essential as a medium of exchange if the trade was to grow unhampered.
The West European states and merchants therefore began to search for new and safer sea routes to India and the Spice Islands of Indonesia, (at that time popular as the East Indies).
The West Europeans wanted to break the Arab and Venetian trade monopolies, to bypass Turkish hostility, and to open direct trade relations with the East.
The West European were well-equipped to do so as great advances in shipbuilding and the science of navigation had taken place during the 15thcentury. Moreover, the Renaissance had generated a great spirit of adventure among the people of Western Europe.
The first steps were taken by Portugal and Spain whose seamen, sponsored and controlled by their governments, began a great era of geographical discoveries.
In 1494, Columbus of Spain set out to reach India and discovered America instead of India.