Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire
© 2015 Roger Crowley
Roger Crowley’s Conquerors is a history that starts with hope and ends in horror, at least of the slasher-film kind. Suffice it to say, if you ever chance to meet a 15th century Portuguese officer while time-traveling, run for your life. The story opens with Portugal, recently triumphant in its bid to push the Moors back into northern Africa, joining the hunt for the Indies, but once it finds them…..well, it’s not pretty.
In the 16th century, Europe was waking up; its princes were no longer warlords, but instead men with increasing coffers and confidence. New ideas were opening the doors to prosperity, and creating tools that could create even more. Across the world, the nations of Europe knew, there are spice-kingdoms — but access to them was closed by the Ottoman Empire, now having finally taken Constantinople. What few shipments trickled through the hands of Venetian middlemen through their Arab contacts were enormously expensive. All those who could afford it wanted to find another way — and while Columbus decided to sail west, into the great unknown, on a chance that the world was smaller than the experts said it was (it wasn’t), Portugal worked to find a way east, around a similar great unknown: Africa. But just as Columbus’ trip west mixed glory and blood, so to did the Portuguese endeavors.
The mayhem begins, as it often does, in mutual misunderstanding. The Portuguese lived in a world where Europe was constantly under siege from a foreign threat, with a Moorish hold on southern Iberia and the powerful Ottoman empire controlling most of eastern Europe. When the Portuguese arrived in the Indian ocean, they brought their fear and battle-rage with them. Their attempts to purchase spices were undermined by Arab merchants serving as translators, who looked askance at any competition. Instead of viewing this as commercial rivalry, Crowley writes, the Portuguese saw the merchants through the narrow visor of a war helmet. Bombards were introduced, and within a short time the Portuguese have declared an all-out war against any Muslim activity in the Indian Ocean, quickly ratcheting up both the numbers of ships they sent and the mound of bloodshed and horror they were willing to inflict on those who did not acknowledge their new lord in the king of Portugal. The various nations and small states around the Indian ocean, both African and Asian, were baffled and horrified when the Portuguese began seizing ships — not to take as booty, but simply to destroy. They also began imposing a tax and granting safe-conduct passes to friendly ships, with unbelievable arrogance. Although I already knew there’s nothing like war to completely pull the civilized shroud off a human being – -we are worse than chimpanzees once the fury of battle has overtaken us — there are plenty of reminders here of humanity at its worse, from the firing of ships with innocent pilgrims aboard (including women and children), to the deliberate torture and desecration of those who would not comply.
On the one hand, Conquerors is very readable narrative history, especially for readers without a trace of knowledge about the subject; I knew vanishingly little about Portugal beyond its role in the Napoleonic war. The early sections chronicling their determined and often mortal attempts to chart the extent of Africa, and see if there was a way through it or around it, are inspiring. But the bloodshed that follows and dominates most of the history make it feel like a slasher film, with the Portuguese playing the implacable monster that won’t stop hunting the main characters — and once the various powers of the Indian ocean realize they had to fight, things get even bloodier.
If you want more bloodshed, try John Keay’s The Spice Route, which chronicles not only the wars Portugal raised in the Indian Ocean, but the conflicts that then pursued between Spain and Portugal, then the English and Dutch. Spice and greed drive human beings barking mad.
Roger Crowley has written other books, including City of Fortune, a history of Venice.