Book Review: The Portuguese Seabourne Empire: 1415-1825

The Portuguese Seabourne Empire:  1415-1825, by Charles R. Boxer

This was an interesting book to read, not least because it was written before the fall of the Portuguese empire in Africa which took place after the death of Salazar in the mid 1970’s.  Although the author has little to say about Guinea-Bissau and East Timor, which is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that even at the end of Portugal’s period as an imperial nation these areas were nearly forgotten.  That said, this book has a lot of insightful things to say about Portugal’s empire and some necessary comments about the society that came with it and the struggle that various people had in the empire gaining respect from the culture as a whole.  The author manages to demonstrate a sound knowledge of Portuguese imperial history and political history while also doing some good work in discussing some of the myths that Portuguese people have often had about empire.  It has been said that the Portuguese were far more racially tolerant than many other imperialists, but the author demonstrates plenty of cases where there was a great deal of racial tension and hostility and insults regarding Jews and blacks in different parts of the empire, and even the people of India around Goa.  This can be considered a sound example of history.

This book is about 400 pages long with two parts and sixteen chapters.  The author begins with a preface and a general introduction for the series as a whole.  The prologue then discusses Portugal’s peripheral status within Christendom.  After that the first part of the book gives a narrative history from 1415 to 1825 that shows the vicissitudes of empire (I), with chapters on Guinea gold and the search for Prester John from 1415-99 (1), shipping and spices in Asian seas from 1500-1600 (2), converts and clergy in Southeast and South Asia during the same period (3), as well as slaves and sugar in the South Atlantic during that same period (4).  After that the author talks about the global struggle with the Dutch from 1600-63 (5), stagnation and contraction in the east from 1663 to 1750 (6), revival and expansion in the west during that same period (7), and the dictatorship of Pombal and its aftermath from 1750 to 1825 (8).  The second half of the book then discusses the characteristics of empire (II), including the India and Brazil fleets (9), Crown patronage and catholic missions (10), purity of blood (11), town councillors and brothers of charity (12), soldiers, settlers, and vagabonds (13), merchants and smugglers (14), the Renaissance and Enlightenment (15), and finally issues of Sebastianism, Messianism, and nationalism (16).  The book then ends with six appendices that provide some statistical data as well as a glossary, bibliography, and index.

There is something deeply poignant about the Portuguese imperial experience that makes one a bit sympathetic for the Portuguese.  Empire was deeply costly for the Portuguese, especially because they had such a limited sailing tradition and one that was not regarded very well.  The long shipping runs between Portugal to and from India ended up killing a huge percentage of the people involved, and even those who made it safely to their destination seldom made it home and struggled to marry and have families, all of which are problems of empire that I can definitely relate to.  The author spends a lot of time talking about the experience of the people involved in the empire, whether those people were Portuguese citizens back at home or people running town councils or those being ruled by empire and struggling to be honored and respected.  The author spends a great deal of time in talking about the influence of religion on Portuguese society and the way in which empire was a great strain on Portugal, showing that we should not take it for granted that empires always benefited their own people by seeking to dominate over others.

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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