Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire Hardcover – December 1, 2015 by Roger Crowley (Random House)
Roger Crowley is a wonderful combination of historian and storyteller. Each of his books that I have read, including The Conquerors, makes the period and the characters come alive as though one were reading a page turner novel. The story of Portugal's 15-16th century voyages to the Indian Ocean is one that I think most people are vaguely familiar with - but much more attention is given to Columbus and other westward voyages. Crowley tells the story in a very detailed, but assessable and very readable, book. What I liked and learned from this book: - the impressive sailing skills required to sail from Lisbon to India, including the need to first sail West to swing Eastward around the Cape; the sheer human endurance required of these long voyages; the economics of the era and how the Portuguese were able to disrupt the Venetians' and Egyptian Mamluks' monopoly of the spice trade; the fact that Indian Ocean culture was in many ways more "advanced" than contemporary European society (the Indians laughed at the "gifts" the first Portuguese offered); and the tie-in to the Crusades. I found the last point fascinating. I tend to think incorrectly of history in terms of "periods" as though the middle ages ended and the modern era began on a certain day. In Crowley's telling, the Portuguese viewed their voyages as a continuation of the Crusades with the aim of not just disrupting Muslim trade - but battling Islam wherever it was and maybe taking another run at "liberating" Jerusalem via the Red Sea. Instead their actions led to the Ottoman's grabbing greater control of the Middle East from the Mamluks (which is a prequel to another fine Crowley book - Empires of the Sea).