How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire
Roger Crowley
Faber and Faber 432pp £20

A generation before Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico, the Portuguese had set out to find the sea route to India and establish control over the trade routes of the western Indian Ocean. These exploits were every bit as daring and, in the long run, even more important for the development of the modern world than the exploits of the Castilians. Roger Crowley has told this story in a fast-moving and highly readable narrative, which covers the voyages of Dias and da Gama and the battles and conquests of Almeida and Albuquerque. His detailed reconstruction of events is based on a close reading of the works of the chroniclers, notably Barros and Correa, whose accounts were written in the tradition of the chronicles of chivalry. Crowley has many descriptions of battles and tales of Portuguese fidalgos heroically fighting the Muslim enemy, often against seemingly impossible odds.

This story has been told by Whiteway, Morse Stephens, Prestage and many others, though seldom with Crowley’s narrative skill, but more recently Sanjay Subrahmanyam has introduced a different emphasis. For him, the Portuguese India project was mired in the domestic politics of Portugal, in the rivalries of the military orders of Santiago and Christ; far from being a priority, it was relations with the Kongo kingdom and the conquest of Morocco which preoccupied the court. The Portuguese were able to exploit the interruption of the spice routes at the end of the 15th century but the high profits they initially received were soon reduced once the route via Egypt was re-established. As with Cortés’ conquests, the victories of the Portuguese owed a great deal to the collaboration of local allies and the rivalries of the Indian and African states. Portuguese strategy was dictated by the huge problems in supplying the fleets, repairing ships and paying men. Moreover, the Portuguese soon found that supplies of gold and silver were essential for the purchase of spices and obtaining access to bullion made them move the commercial centre of their operations to the Netherlands and in the East shifted the focus to the gold-bearing regions of Africa. Recent historians have also stressed the emergence of the ‘shadow’ empire established by the large numbers of deserters and renegades who took the Portuguese diaspora to regions far beyond the control of the viceroys.

The establishment of the Estado da India involved a claim to sovereignty over the sea, while the crown’s patronage over the church extended its authority over all Christians east of the Tordesillas line, claims which were without precedent in European and Asian experience.

Most of these issues get mentioned in Conquerors, though not always with the emphasis that other historians would give them. However, the book only takes the reader as far as the death of Dom Manuel in 1521. At this time the duel with the Ottoman Turks had only just begun, the conquest of Diu and the Provincia do Norte lay ten years in the future and the remarkable story of the Jesuit missions did not begin until the 1540s. So 1521 seems an arbitrary point to stop and this reviewer finds it strange that Crowley dismisses Calicut as a ‘regional back water’. Arguably, as the century wore on, Calicut mounted the first serious challenge to Portuguese naval supremacy under the inspiration and organisation of the Kunjali admirals.

Malyn Newitt is the author of A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion 1400-1668 (Routledge, 2005).

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