Roger Crowley




Date Reviewed:

August 3, 2021

onquerors, How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire is a fascinating slice of history of which I knew nothing about. I recall hearing about Vasco de Gama being the first to sail around the southern tip of Africa, Cape Horn, but that was all I knew. Crowley's book provides a lot of interesting (and disturbing) detail about the Portuguese sailing expeditions. Remember reading about how ruthless the Spanish were to the Aztec and Inca empires? Alas, the Portuguese were just as a brutal and greedy.

Under the rule of the Portuguese King Joćo, sailing expeditions had been pushing further and further south along the seemingly endless coast of Africa. One major obstacle was that once the equator was crossed, the south-bound ships encountered strong and persistent winds that blew south-to-north along the west coast of Africa. On one momentous voyage, under the command of Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese gave up on battling south into the wind, and made the courageous and astonishing decision to sail west, out into the open Atlantic. After sailing far to the West (nearly to the coast of Brazil, though Brazil was not discovered yet), the Dias expedition then sailed south into the cold and violent waters before turning east. This trick worked - when the sailors turned north again, they found that they had sailed beyond the tip of Africa and were in the Indian Ocean. Dias made it as far as Mozambique before his exhausted crew turned around (after planting a stone marker recognizing their achievement) and returned to Lisbon to explain their voyage.

In 1493, Columbus sailed into Lisbon harbor, boasting that he had just completed a trip to the Indies. The Portuguese ignored him, they knew Columbus had not traveled far enough.

In 1495, Prince Manuel became the king of Portugal. He funded a bigger expedition to sail around the tip of Africa and onward to India. On July 8, 1497, a date that the court astrologers said was an auspicious day to begin a voyage, Vasco de Gama set sail for Indies (I had not realized that de Gama's trip post-dated Columbus' first voyage). Vasco de Gama was successful - he made it all the way to Calicut, India in May of 1498. This is the point where cheering for the intrepid Portuguese explorers turns to horror when reading of the exploits of de Gama and subsequent Portuguese commanders. Vasco de Gama passionately hated Muslims. His fleet intercepted a ship called the Miri, carrying 240 wealthy Muslims who were sailing back from their Haj. de Gama attacked - the Muslims held up gold and jewels to show that they would pay a high ransom. The Muslims mothers held up the children, to show that their were innocents on board. de Gama was undeterred, all the Muslims were slain and the Miri was burned and sank.

The rest of the book is the story of how the Portuguese guns gave them such an advantage in the Indian Ocean. Their ships would sail up to a city and bombard the port, killing indiscriminantly, and then soldiers clad in steel armor would march through the town, slaying and looting and raping. Despite being hugely out numbered, the Portuguese were nearly invincible. The battles that Portuguese lost were due to blunders such as not using their guns on the Muslim armada (the greedy Portuguese captain wanted to seize the enemy ships as a prize, and did not use their cannon, but instead boarded the Muslim ships and fought hand to hand), or the greedy soldiers would spread out through a large, maze-like city like Calicut - so intent on their looting that they became vulnerable to counterattack.

After Vasco de Gama, Prince Manuel sent two ruthless commanders to set up the Portuguese empire - first Francisco de Almeida, followed by the tireless, incorruptible (but still ruthlessly brutal) Afonso de Albuquerque. Under the direction of these two men, the Portuguese built forts along the west coast of India, and insisted that the spice trade should only go to themselves, and not to the hated Muslims. Once the Portuguese built a fort, and defended it with their superior cannons, they were impossible to dislodge. The tiny kingdom of Portugal suddenly became very wealthy.

Although Portugal ruled the trade routes with its string of fortresses, they did nothing on the interior of India. There simply wasn't enough manpower to assume direct control of the entire subcontinent. Unfortunately, the book ends with the death of Afonso de Albuquerque. So the reader learns how Portugal built their trading empire, but not how they lost it. How long was it before the British conquered India for themselves? That is beyond the scope of this book.

Despite the litany of horrors carried out by the Portuguese, this is still fascinating reading. A tiny kingdom on the periphery of Europe transformed itself into a wealthy trading power, using daring exploration and savage violence. The Portuguese learned fast - when the monsoons came, the currents and winds of the oceans, the best places to fortify and to attack.

I couldn't help but wonder what might have happened had Vasco de Gama merely traded with the Indian nations. He could have offered twice the price for their spices, and still have made an enormous profit when the spices were carried back to Europe. How different might the world have been if the explorers had not been such violent men.

I think this is the second or third book I have read by Roger Crowley, and I have enjoyed them all. I will have to check out his other works, he is the best kind of historian - able to tell fascinating but true stories about amazing (or horrifying) deeds done in the past.