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Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First…

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

by Roger Crowley

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129593,299 (4.08)3
  1. 00
    A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal's Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492-1640 by Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert (macoram, macoram)
  2. 00
    Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus by Roger C. Smith (macoram)
    macoram: "Vanguard of the Empire" focus on the Iberian naval technology and artillery of the 15th and 16th centuries from shipwrecks and contemporaneous accounts. Both Portuguese and Spanish explorations and colonial organizations are dissected and compared. "The conquerors" is a vivid account of Portuguese 15th and 16th centuries overseas Asiatic enterprises painstakingly taken from contemporaneous letters, diaries and documents.… (more)

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I am a big fan of Roger Crowley, primarily because his books make history so available--they're easy to read, entertaining, informative, and often contain those little details that enliven conversations or are remembered later long after one should have forgotten them. But I had a problem with Conquerors as I felt despite its no-holds-barred approach to revealing how barbarian the Portuguese were in their forays into the Pacific, it was still too Euro-centric and apologetic, and there is at least one event that I believe was incorrectly related.

I'll begin with the latter point regarding historical accuracy: my question concerns the fall of Malacca, a great trading port on the coast of Malaysia in the early 1500s with traders from across the region living within the city. Crowley writes, "He [Albuquerque, one of the nastiest men in Portuguese history who had no qualms in decimating every living thing to spread terror and obedience into the hearts of Africans and Asians] gave the Chinese permission to sail away with gifts and blessings" (p. 263) before the attack on Malacca and the subsequent slaughter began. Presumably, because earlier, on page 258 he describes the "Chinese and the Hindu merchants [as] friendly" and notes that (p. 259) "He [Albuquerque again] was helped immensely by the amount of information leaking out of the city from ... the Chinese." However, most other scholars note that the Chinese traders residing in Malacca were slaughtered along with the other inhabitants. Timothy Brook writes in The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China, "When the Portuguese captured the major regional trading centre of Malacca in 1511, they butchered the large community of Chinese merchants living there. The Chinese memory of this massacre was long. Zhang Xie recalled it a century later in his survey of Southeast Asia with this understated but vivid comment: "Crocodiles...leopards...along with the Portuguese, [are known as] 'the three terrors of Malacca" (p. 122, quoted from Zhang Xie, Dongxi yang kao, p. 67). Historical accuracy is important as it is part of the soil out of which our beliefs about events and people grow. To understand Southeast Asia (and Asia) today, one needs to remember that historical memories can run deep.

As for my first and far greater concern: Portugal is credited with the "globalisation of Asia". Its entry into the region with its shiploads of macho hidalgos bent on pillage and building their 'honourable' reputations is recorded in full detail by Crowley, who covers all the atrocities that mankind can imagine--massive slaughter, torture, chopping off of hands and ears, bashing babies' brains out on rock walls, hanging men for the slightest infraction, burning trapped innocents alive, need I go on? First of all, regional trade was already well established when the Portuguese sailed into the Pacific waters--Arab, Indian, Malay and Chinese traders had been trading in those waters--peacefully--for at least 1,000 years (witness the the 826 Arab dhow loaded with Chinese ceramics salvaged in 1998 400 miles south of Singapore in Indonesian waters), and the trade continued on through Alexandria via Venetian traders into Europe. There was no need to enter with swords swinging; Portugal (and every other European nation) could have entered into peaceful trade along with every other nation in those waters, drawn the same maps, refined its navigational tools, observed natural history and the beauty of the new world it found without the violence, but it didn't. And I therefore found troubling such seemingly innocent statements as (p. 320) "The first century of Portuguese discoveries saw a successive stripping away of layers of medieval mythology about the world and the received wisdom of ancient authority...by the empirical observation of geography, climate, natural history, and cultures that ushered in the early modern age" and "No one in the European arena had predicted that this tiny marginalised country would make a vaulting leap into the East, join up the hemispheres, and construct the first empire with a global reach" (p. 321). Yes, on one level they are truthful statements, and perhaps the "The Portuguese effectively enlarged the market: European spice consumption doubled during the course of the sixteenth century" (p. 321). Accomplishments.

Such statements convey what can happen when a person or a group of people believe they hold the divine right to win--a battle, an election, a country, a people. Manuel I of Portugal, the king who believed he had the divine right to rule the Pacific region, who sent out such men as de Gama, Almeida and Albuquerque, believed he was such a man and the men he chose to lead his expeditions believed like him. But at what cost?

This book reminded me why we need to read history. ( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
A highly readable and nicely illustrated account of how the Portuguese established their dominant trade in Africa and India in only twenty years by a forerunner to cannon boat diplomacy. Unfortunately, Crowley continues to insert his favorite idea of a clash between Christians and Muslims as a key driver of events. As his own account shows, religious war was only a minor aspect and a very low priority for all participants. For the Portuguese, this was about conquest and profit - not faith.

In contrast to the usual tale of discovery and trade, Crowley paints a picture of extreme ruthlessness and shocking brutality of the Portuguese in displacing any competitors. The combination of superior ships, artillery and armor acted as a force multiplier the local rulers could not effectively oppose. The small state of Portugal managed to send out a fleet towards the East year by year, overwhelming and grinding down the medieval opposition which lacked the financial means to oppose the conquest and advance.

The odds for the individual Portuguese explorer to die abroad were high. It must have been terrible to man one of the outpost forts and wait for next year's fleet to relieve the surviving garrison troops. The sailors too were at great risk to see their ships sink or die from disease or in war. Crowley shows how lucky the Portuguese were to prevail in many instances. Only a little push more and their dream of conquest might have been crushed.

The real winners of the Portuguese expansion were the European consumers as the Indian spices quickly became six times cheaper than before when Arab intermediaries were able to control the trade route. As the Arabs still controlled the shorter route, one key task of the Portuguese was the destruction of the Arab merchant's access to the Indian markets and the establishment of a Portuguese monopoly based on their military superiority. While global trade routes were shifting towards the Indian and Atlantic ocean, the old medieval powers of Europe were battling over the old spoils of Italy and its dominance of the now no longer important trade route to Alexandria. Only a few years later, the Mughals would conquer Northern India showing the vulnerability and fragility of India's leadership structure, a development Crowley should have pointed out to his readers too. Not only the Europeans were expanding. ( )
1 vote jcbrunner | Jan 31, 2016 |
Originally posted on Tales to Tide You Over

A fascinating look at the political pressures in post-Crusade Europe through the eyes of a small country with only one major asset, its skill in navigation and sailing. Portugal embarks on an adventurous and costly plan that is grounded in imperialism, religious zealotry, and economic goals. Conquerors provides a deep history of the influences driving this decision, the personalities involved, and the atrocities committed in the name of ousting the Mamluks from Jerusalem and the Venetians from monopoly over Eastern luxury goods.

The writing style is poetic and compelling without sparing the details in the more horrific actions committed by the Portuguese. It blends excerpts from historical documents with a strong narrative style. It’s the rare history book that is hard to put down, but this is one of them, despite the occasional repetition I noticed at times. Conquerors offers both an overall sense of the economic and political pressures in Europe and a close look at the people involved in this grandiose endeavor. It neither spares the Portuguese in the descriptions nor makes them into uninspired monsters, though it might seem like that at times. We learn about their atrocities in Europe, Africa, and the East, but we also discover moments when they adapted and worked with those they intended to conquer, making it more well rounded than you might expect from the title.

Of particular interest to me is Afonso de Albuquerque, the last person to get a detailed treatment in the book. He wins this focus because his part begins when he’s an arrogant, glory-seeking, bloodthirsty young man and continues until his death, at which point he has angered the more traditional Portuguese with his tactics as he blended harsh justices with strong governance to gain the respect of the conquered people. This demonstrated both the reasons he was sent in the first place, and his ability to mature and adapt to circumstances until he became more calculated and strategic. However, in part because of the whispers of his enemies and also because of the long communication line (a year and a half), King Manuel was unable to understand or appreciate Albuquerque until too late.

It’s a characteristics of this book that while it recounts history, I feel inclined to speak in obscure notes so as not to spoil the read, but even knowing this much is only a light brush stroke on a complicated canvas.

There is not enough room in a review to cover all the bits and pieces that inspired my imagination, but among the European aspects is the changing of Papal influence, the economic impact of the Crusades on the Middle Eastern trade borders, and the treatment of non-Christians.

The aspects in India reminded me of the Western attitude that infuses much first contact science fiction along with the assumption of hostility, showing this history an important one to study. Portugal arrives in a place where peaceful trade has been established across political and religious lines, but never takes the time to learn how things are different before imposing its own image and provoking disaster. The assumption everything will be the same proves deadly in other ways as well, such as the discovery of how monsoons govern the timing of trade and war.

In other places, quick mentions entertain and educate such as the timing of the word “discovery” in the Portuguese language or how they learned to treat cannonballs as skipping stones to increase the range. There are more elements I’ve noted, but I’ve gone on long enough for you to understand just what you’re getting in reading this historical account.

Conquerors is a colorful, detailed account that coddles neither the king nor his chosen people in recounting brutal tactics that may still have echoes in Islamic countries today. At the same time, the book reveals what lies behind such actions from fanatical religious zeal to delayed and contradictory commands. It’s a complex, multilayered account of the wise and foolhardy efforts to break a trade monopoly and open new rewards for Portugal despite its limited resources and with little care for the costs.

P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review. ( )
  MarFisk | Dec 17, 2015 |
Most of us have read and/or been taught quite a bit about Columbus and Magellan. Not nearly as many people are familiar with names such as Vasco de Gama and Afonso de Albuquerque. I'm guilty of knowing little about these explorers, despite my own Portuguese heritage. This book initially appealed to me because of that reason, and I'm so glad I read it.

There is no doubt that Roger Crowley knows his topic. This is a comprehensive book, full of detail. But I never felt the content was weighed down by the facts. Crowley brings his subject to life. He doesn't simply tell us what happened, he shows it to us. I was right there on the ships, stepping out onto new land, and making friends with or fighting the natives.

With this book, Crowley gives us a fascinating piece of history from the perspectives of men who ventured out to conquer the unknown.

*I received an ebook copy from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.* ( )
  Darcia | Dec 1, 2015 |
The historical importance and sheer size of the Portuguese overseas expansion and domination in the 15th and 16th centuries has been systematically omitted or overlooked by most scholars from other countries which followed in its wake. Foreign minor explorers and adventurers who acted under the shadow of the Portuguese were often "a posteriori" overemphasized in order to artificially enhance other countries' historical importance. However History facts cannot be changed, only history books...
This book is a factual account painstakingly taken from contemporaneous documents, letters and diaries of the discovery of the maritime path to India by the Portuguese and of the building of their huge Asian maritime empire which was short-lived but stood by itself as a reference for colonial dominance, carefully maintained and closely imitated by all the other European countries that followed. The consequences of this expansion echoes even today: it was the real beginning of world cultural and economic globalization but also of European colonialism. The colonial empires that followed had an easier task: every opposition had been alienated in the Asian coast and, more importantly, a sophisticated pattern of colonial organization and domination had already been invented by the Portuguese.
This book tells a mostly dispassionate story with no nationalistic comments or unduly moral criticism. A record of the heroism, passion, dedication, daring, resourcefulness and chivalry of the Portuguese conquistadors but also of their ruthlessness, whims, cruelty, fanaticism and greed presented with a rawness which will certainly shock the unprepared casual reader.
One should not forget however the time of these occurrences: it was the end of the renaissance period still "polluted" with retrograde medieval goals, values and preconceptions: religious intolerance and fanaticism, feudal dominance, instituted violence, early and frequent death, social injustice and chivalric nonsense. To the mix uncontrollable greed was added when confronted with the unlimited wealth of the fabled Orient in sharp contrast with a mostly miserable existence at home in a poor small country like Portugal. The contemporaneous Spanish conquistadors and English Tudor pirates acted with the same mindset and were sometimes even more ruthless and greedy. It's simply wrong to summarily judge them with our "omniscient" 21th century morale as if they were living today.
Allowing for these premises one cannot avoid feeling wonder and awe for such an epic enterprise achieved by so few with so little in such a short time and with such immense long-term consequences. ( )
  macoram | Oct 20, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812994000, Hardcover)

In Empires of the Sea and City of Fortune, New York Times bestselling author Roger Crowley established himself as our generation’s preeminent historian of the great European seafaring empires, and the go-to author for post-Crusade clashes of East and West. Now, in Conquerors, Crowley gives us the epic story of the emergence of Portugal, a small, poor nation that enjoyed a century of maritime supremacy thanks to the daring and navigational skill of its explorers—a tactical advantage no other country could match. Portugal’s discovery of a sea route to India, campaign of imperial conquest over Muslim rulers, and domination of the spice trade would forever disrupt the Mediterranean and build the first global economy.
Crowley relies on letters and eyewitness testimony to tell the story of tiny Portugal’s rapid and breathtaking rise to power. Conquerors reveals the Império Português in all of its splendor and ferocity, bringing to life the personalities of the enterprising and fanatical house of Aviz. Figures such as King Manuel “the Fortunate,” João II “the Perfect Prince,” marauding governor Afonso de Albuquerque, and explorer Vasco da Gama juggled their private ambitions and the public aims of the empire, often suffering astonishing losses in pursuit of a global fortune. Central, too, to the story of Portugal’s ascent was its drive to eradicate Islamic culture and establish a Christian empire in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese explorers pushed deep into the African continent in search of the mythical Christian king Prester John, and they ruthlessly besieged Indian port cities in their attempts to monopolize trade.
The discovery of a route to India around the horn of Africa was not only a brilliant breakthrough in navigation but heralded a complete upset of the world order. For the next century, no European empire was more ambitious, no rulers more rapacious than kings of Portugal. In the process they created the first long-range maritime empire and set in motion the forces of globalization that now shape our world. At Crowley’s hand, the complete story of the Portuguese empire and the human cost of its ambition can finally be told.
Praise for Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea
“Crowley has an astonishing gift for narration; his account is as exciting as any thriller.”The Wall Street Journal
“Crowley’s page-turner history . . . deserves to be this [season’s] most recommended nonfiction book. . . . Rich in character, action, surprise, what transpired in those few desperate weeks is one of history’s best and most thrilling stories.”The Dallas Morning News
“[Crowley] offers exquisitely delicate insights and undulating descriptive passages. Yet in his descriptions of the battles, his prose is so taut and tense, it is impossible not to be caught up in the harrowing action.”The Christian Science Monitor
City of Fortune
“[Crowley] writes with a racy briskness that lifts sea battles and sieges off the page.”—The New York Times
“The rise and fall of Venice’s empire is an irresistible story, and Crowley, with his rousing descriptive gifts and scholarly attention to detail, is its perfect chronicler.” Financial Times
“A pleasure to read . . . a gripping story.”Washington Independent Review of Books

(retrieved from Amazon Sun, 19 Jul 2015 12:35:54 -0400)

Historian and New York Times bestselling author Crowley presents the epic story of the emergence of Portugal, a small, poor nation that enjoyed a century of maritime supremacy thanks to the daring and navigational skill of its explorers--a tactical advantage no other country could match.… (more)

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