Book Corner – November 2015 (2)


Conquerors – Roger Crowley

If only the Portuguese had stuck to erecting stone pillars on all the lands they found during their so-called voyages of discovery, their lapidary equivalent of Kilroy Was Here. Towards the end of the 15th century sailors from Portugal started circumnavigating Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and discovering the trading posts on the eastern African coast. What they found was a whole new world which had cheerfully co-existed and traded for centuries.

Arabs controlled the trade in the Indian Ocean area and then wholesaled the goods in Egypt to the Venetians who then had a monopoly on the spices and silks from the Orient. The Portuguese discovery of a route around the tip of Africa to the spice markets of the Malabar coast and beyond offered them the attractive prospect of being able to cut out the infidel middle men and the Venetians. Enormous riches beckoned.

Crowley’s book tells the tale of the derring-do of the Portuguese adventurers as they established, against great odds, footholds in the Indian Ocean area and started to wrestle control of the valuable trading routes. He is particularly good at recounting the horrors of the conditions at sea in the cramped carracks where as well as the normal meteorological perils at sea, disease, dehydration and scurvy was rife. They found that on reaching land gorging themselves on fresh oranges helped to control scurvy – the cure for this terrible disease was within their grasp if they had only realised – but 111 days at sea without access to vitamin C was enough to ravage a ship’s crew.

But whilst you can admire the sheer courage of groups of men who really didn’t have much clue where they were going – the charts compiled on these journeys were closely guarded secrets and were regarded by the Portuguese as being as valuable as the bounty they brought back – this sensation is overwhelmed by the brutality and intolerance of the adventurers.

The underlying motivation behind this period of exploration was religious – to wrestle control from the Moslems and to find an alternative route to secure control of Jerusalem. Moslems were treated with barbarity pour decourager les autres, although I’m sure they gave as good as they got, and many innocents were slaughtered. The Portuguese had a binary view of world religions and couldn’t comprehend that the Hindus were anything other than a variant form of Christianity.

Crowley recounts how the Portuguese established footholds on the Malabar coast, saw the strategic advantage of an outpost on Goa – a colony that they retained until it was integrated into India in 1961 after a dust up with the Indians – and pursued their conflict with the Arabs into the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea areas.

The impetus for the Portuguese to set off to the east whereas the Spanish (or more accurately the Castilians) ventured west was the Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494, after Columbus’ return from discovering what he thought was the Indies.  Columbus put in first at Lisbon to boast of his discoveries. The treaty created a line of demarcation about halfway between the Cape Verde islands, which were already Portuguese, and the islands “discovered” by Columbus and claimed for Castile. Everything newly discovered to the west was to be Spanish and everything to the east (which included Brazil which is why its language is Portuguese), to Portugal.

Fascinating as the book is, rather like its subject matter, it is somewhat unsure of its ultimate direction. Starting out as a general survey it pretty much ends up as a biography of Afonso de Albuquerque. De Gama peters out from view after his initial voyage, although he died on the Malabar coast in 1524 – I saw his grave! Despite this structural flaw it is well worth reading.

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