Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean to the coast of India where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offered hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established routines for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and the pope to destroy all Muslim bases and ships, to establish forts at all the convenient harbours, to bully all local rulers to proclaim complete subservience to the King of Portugal, to build churches and convert the heathens.

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident is the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be factor, or commercial agent, representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, being shot down by muskets and cannon from Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

which Crowley emphasises inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices in Calicut harbor. He claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress and when it wasn’t forthcoming, seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, destroying many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a cultural misunderstanding was continually expanding, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It also helps to understand the Portuguese a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings (John I, 1481-1595 – Manuel I, 1495-1521) didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were steeped in the anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative begins with the murderous Portuguese attack on Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa, in 1415, which had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations and which the Portuguese finally stormed and sacked.

He leaps to the next significant moment – When Muslim armies took Constantinople in 1453 it a) made Christian kings all over Europe feel threatened and confined b) cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on.

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

This prompted navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with various projects to reach the Spice Islands by sea. While Christopher Columbus touted his idea of sailing west across the Atlantic to the Indies to the king of Spain in the early 1490s, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction, down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise round Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh. Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times the price on the quaysides at Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade, it was to make contact with the Christian communities which were widely believed at the time to exist in faraway remote India – with the geopolitical ambition of outflanking Islam, of attacking the Islamic world from the rear. John I, Manuel I had inherited the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of their medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but it was backed up by the full force of the pope. The whole European apparatus of violent state power, religious intolerance, metal armour and cannons, really big seaborne cannons, was brought to bear.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut. Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese and, if anything displeases them, are then hanged from the yardarms, before being dismembered and their scattered body parts returned to their horrified relatives waiting on shore.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had him stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors were the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts which spanned the west and east coasts of Africa, India and on to the East Indies, through this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

It’s divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this, was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west into the big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. That was if things worked out right.

Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful round of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Mostly drowned at sea. All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa,  but they went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities send spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about Portuguese navigators, and sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo putting pressure on him to take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Which he refused to do.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the nature of Europe, a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political powers, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends (as is our own time). One was about a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, Prester John. When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, to the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded him.

Still, it is important to remember that it wasn’t a mission to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

More adventure than analysis

The prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor which leads into a brief few pages describing the epic journeys which he commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. They were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim. A new emperor in 1433 decided they were a waste of time and so banned further trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building of large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

A few pages later, the main narrative opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483, one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting each chapter with an arresting image and moment. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career was only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once there I discovered that, ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’ with some detail on the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship. Crowely has some pictures of caravels but not really enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical. In another example, he mentions the various instructions issued by the popes who also – famously – brokered the deal for territory between rivals Spain and Portugal. Crowley certainly gives us the right facts in the right order, but nowhere is there any analysis of the role of the papacy in the Age of Discovery.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments, battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander. The personal, not the wider geo-political situation in either Europe or India and Islam.

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a thriller, fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, historical romance. Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that this was going to be popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

Gripping individual scenes, but not so much incidental insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the fierce, bloodthirsty visionary Afonso de Albuquerque in 1415. For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages. By page 330 he has become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it is an account about just him.

But when he died in 1515, the Portuguese Empire had, in a sense, only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of a working empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I, 1495-1521.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content. The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and that is pretty misleading.


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  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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