Book Review: Conquerors

Conquerors:  How Portugal Forged The First Global Empire, by Roger Crowley

This book sits in a bit of an uncanny valley when it comes to its material and approach.  In a different age, this book would feel comfortable simply praising the Portuguese for their exploration of the Indian Ocean and celebrate the muscular Christianity that was involved in seeking to destroy the Muslim power on the Indian coast as well as their sea power in the ocean as a whole.  One might say that times were brutal and the Portuguese were suspicious but they used their naval technology and tactical skill effectively to overcome their limited numbers and achieve considerable wealth and powerful for such a small and peripheral European state that was by no means the most advanced of its time.  But we live in times where it is no longer cool or in some circles even acceptable at all to praise the achievements of Christendom in successful imperialism and power projection, and so this book finds itself caught between the standards of our time that make imperialism something to bemoan and abhor and the author’s evident admiration if mixed with displeasure, towards the brave and intelligent servants of the crown of Portugal who made their empire possible.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and is divided into three parts and 23 chapters.  The book begins with maps and a discussion about the legacy of European trade around the world.  The first part of the book then explores the Portuguese reconnaissance of the Atlantic and Indian oceans (I), with chapters on the plan to reach India around Africa (1), the race between the Portuguese and the Spaniards (2), the successful first mission of Vasco de Gama (3), the violence that followed this in the Indian Ocean (4), and the troubled relationship the Portuguese had with the Samudri of Calicut (5).  After that the author discusses the the contest that the Portuguese waged for control of the Indian Ocean (II), first with the look at monopolies and Holy War in the person of Cabral (6), the sad fate of the Miri in combat (7), the fury and vengeance that the Portuguese wrecked in response (8), as well as the toeholds that the Portuguese had gained around the littoral of the Indian Ocean (9).  After that the author discusses the Portuguese plans to make a Kingdom of India (10), the way that the Portuguese strangely viewed the Mamluks as being the Whore of Babylon (11), rather than the Catholics, as well as a look at the Alfonso de Albaquerque the terrible (12), three days of fighting at Chaul (13), and what happened at Diu (14).  The third part of the book looks at the conquest that the Portuguese then made (III), with chapters about the fighting with the Samudri (16), the refusal of the Portuguese to give up (17), the way that the Portuguese found themselves prisoners of the monsoon rains (18), the uses of terror (19) to control India, the conquest of Malacca (20), the use of wax bullets to impress the locals (21), the increasing riches of the Portuguese (22), and the last voyage before the death of Manuel (23).  After that there is an epilogue about the Portuguese not stopping as well as acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Ultimately, whether or not one is a fan of imperialism to the extent that I am, this book demonstrates how a small and somewhat obscure nation was able to dominate areas with far more people than they had based on their artillery and naval power.  Starting from timid and halting beginnings, the Portuguese quickly mastered the Indian Ocean and its seasonal patterns as well as what intimidation and trading would allow them to prosper.  They managed to terrify their enemies through bloodthirsty acts, sometimes deliberately conducted against civilians, while also shrewdly finding defensible territory to build trade posts, and establishing patterns of behavior that later European nations would follow in the widespread and generally successful spread of European power throughout the world.  We may take it for granted that Europe and its settler colonies are powerful and mighty but that was not necessarily the case in the early 16th century when Portugal showed other nations how a European state could punch far above its weight by profiting through inserting itself into existing trade networks and pulling the goods into Europe that would bring Europeans profit.  Although it is not always a pretty tale, this is something I think we should celebrate rather than mourn.  Others, of course, may disagree.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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