Conquerors: or Portugal goes to India

I read Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire courtesy of the publisher, via Net Galley.

UnknownRoger Crowley has done a wonderful job of acknowledging the truly stupendous effort that was required for Portugal – tiny, generally-ignored-by-Europe Portugal – to get a trading foothold in India… while also detailing, in occasionally remorseless detail, just how barbarous the Portuguese practises were in getting and maintaining that foothold.

I believe it’s important to acknowledge things like the astonishing insight that, in order to take advantage of winds and currents, ships needed to swing way, way out west from the African coast in order to then be driven east, around the Cape of Good Hope, and into the Indian Ocean. I think we should acknowledge the hundreds of unnamed sailors who died on the voyages of exploration – from scurvy, dehydration, disease, fights with inhabitants encountered along the way – who families didn’t know their fates sometimes for years, and whose names are not commemorated in geographic features. And understanding historical context is important too: wanting to get to the Indian Ocean in order to screw the Egyptian Muslims is definitely unpleasant, but (and this is not to downgrade the unpleasantness) I want to know why they did it.

Crowley does these things. Using what can only be limited information – since who cares about sailors drawn from jails and the lowest classes – he gives an indication of what life must have been like on these tiny, tiny carracks travelling across a big big ocean. And while I might have liked just a little more context about why the Portuguese king – furthest west of Christians! – had quite such fervent crusading dreams, he does do a good job of setting these remarkable few decades of exploration into a global political context.

But with all the yes-they-were-remarkable (the leaders, that is; your grunt sailor really has no choice) because of their tenacity, and vision… it was impossible for me to not to be appalled by the actions of the Portuguese, both as they travelled the coast of Africa and when they got to India. (Please note that I am of course not singling the Portuguese out as particularly barbaric!) The actions taken against Muslim traders and their families for example were shocking and, in the established context of trading in the Indian Ocean, unnecessary. And their arrogance in dealing with Hindu rulers, likewise.

I think the aspect that surprised me most – which it really shouldn’t have, because I did actually know some of it but hadn’t put it together – is just how well-established trading was in the Indian Ocean. It makes sense, too: after all, it’s basically like a great big lake (rough and all, I know) with land on three sides – land with really different stuff that just screams out to be traded. And with monsoon winds that are regular to make criss-crossing if not straightforward then timetable-able – well of course the various different civilisations, from Malacca and what is now Malaysia over to what is now Oman, with India in between, they’re going to do what humans do: explore, and look for ways to make money. To some extent Crowley presents this pre-existing as idyllic; few disagreements between merchants or rulers, and so on. I have no doubt this was not the case, humans being humans, but it was long-established and everyone seemed to be getting something out of it, so why rock the boat.

And then along come Europeans, en masse (there were a few random Euros about previously, but never in big groups). They already dislike Islam and are looking to completely stop them from trading in this area (which, nicely for the Portuguese, will also screw Venice). They completely misunderstand Hinduism, because a) they’ve never encountered it before and b) they’re expecting to meet Christians (who do exist in the east, just not quite in the numbers the Europeans thought), so logically the Hindus must be Christians. And the Portuguese Christians demand exclusivity in trading rights (wha-??) and that the Muslims be kicked out (WHA-??) and if you don’t like our terms we will shoot our fancy guns at you until there is death and destruction.

Another aspect I enjoyed of Crowley’s book is his analysis of the Portuguese themselves. This is largely focussed on the leaders, since that’s who get books written about them in the day (early 16th century), and because they do shape policy after all. Finally I discover that Albuquerque is a Portuguese name! (…this one didn’t go to America, so I assume it was a relative.) The difficulties of leading men in what were, admittedly, difficult conditions – human enemies all around (largely of your own making but in the end that doesn’t matter when they’re fighting you), plus scurvy and weird new diseases… and a king whose letters only reach you once a year, who is getting advice from your enemies back home, and who wants you to pay the sailors with money you make from your trading thank you very much. Crowley does a generally good job of presenting these men as actually human, rather than icons, although at the same time they were clearly exceptional men to do what they did.

Another aspect that surprised me, which had a big impact on the Portuguese: this period is really a turning point in understanding how wars are fought (well, for the Portuguese anyway; Agincourt was a while back…). The fidalgos are all about one-on-one combat, personal honour, reckless charges and self-sacrifice. Albuquerque in particular isn’t stupid; he sees how impossibly pointless these tactics are, and starts making changes. He starts making men train in squads, to work together, and with weapons that can be used in such conditions. The fidalgos however are so insulted by this that at one stage they apparently tried to break the weapons! Of men who might be able to help them not die in battle!! I just can’t even.

Parallels have been drawn between this age of European exploration and the modern space age. I think these are warranted to some extent. The money, the dreams, the bravery and tenacity required – these the two periods have in common. I’m glad the moon did not have inhabitants for the Apollo astronauts to patronise and threaten, though.

Crowley has written an accessible book about a remarkable and depressing period in world history.

2 responses

  1. Sounds like I should pick it up. 🙂

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