- - Sunday, February 21, 2016


By Roger Crowley

Random House, $30, 368 pages

Most of us think of the Age of Discovery as a westward movement: Columbus seeking a new route to the Indies by crossing the Atlantic and — quite by accident — discovering the Americas. That discovery of offshore islands in the Caribbean was quickly followed by the subjugation of vast Native American empires like the Aztecs and the Incas on the mainland, accomplished by tiny bands of incredibly tough, confident and ruthless conquistadors.

But the pioneering Spanish conquest of the Americas was only half of the story — in some ways, the less remarkable half. Both began on the Iberian peninsula where the indigenous Christian populations of Castile, Aragon and other future components of a united Spanish monarchy, and the tough, impoverished little kingdom of Portugal, perched on the tip of the peninsula, drove out the Muslim Moorish invaders who had overrun their lands starting in the 8th century. The crusading spirit awakened by the Reconquista took on a life of its own with Spanish and Portuguese attempts to carry the fight to Muslim North Africa and beyond. Bernal Diaz, an early conquistador, tersely summed up the motivation: “We came to serve God and to get rich …”

If the crusader spirit — coupled with the thirst for gold — drew the Spaniards westward to the Americas, the same twin motives drove the Portuguese eastward. Beginning in 1415 with the conquest of the rich Moroccan port of Cueta, as popular historian Roger Crowley explains in his splendid new account, “the Portuguese pushed faster and farther across the world than any people in history … [working] their way down the west coast of Africa, round the cape, and … [reaching] India in 1498; they touched Brazil in 1500, China in 1514, and Japan in 1543.”

This was an incredible feat; in the 15th century, “Portugal’s whole population was hardly more than that of the one Chinese city of Nanjing.” Yet this tiny, impoverished kingdom of fisherman and rural peasantry, led by a feudal warrior class, created a colonial empire based on a string of strategic coastal enclaves — fortified trading posts — that imposed Portuguese commercial dominance by land while Portuguese naval superiority controlled the maritime trade routes that brought the riches of Asia and Africa — spices, silks, slaves, gold and ivory — to a resurgent Europe.

Remarkable deeds require remarkable men. In Affonso de Albuquerque, Portugal found such a man. Already middle-aged when he began his great eastward venture, Albuquerque had “fought the Ottoman Turks in Italy, the Arabs in North Africa, and the Castilians in Portugal … he had imbibed the honor code of the fidalgos [the Portuguese knightly, class], with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending ethic of retribution and punitive revenge … fiercely loyal to the crown, incorruptibly honest, and utterly sure of his abilities: to sail ships, command fleets and armies, build fortresses, and rule empires.”

All of which he did, usually with a handful of sailors and soldiers skilled in the use of naval artillery that outperformed anything African and Asian foes in their overwhelming numbers could command. He was also a man of straightforward eloquence, neither falsely modest nor claiming anything he could not deliver. As he accurately stated in a letter to King Manuel of Portugal, “I am a man who, if you entrusted me with a dozen kingdoms, would know how to govern them with great prudence, discretion and knowledge. This is not because of any special merits of my own but because I am very experienced in such matters and of an age to tell good from bad.”

Albuquerque’s legacy was a Portuguese Empire that predated British, Dutch and French colonial projects in Africa and Asia and, while quickly outpaced once such major powers entered the competition, still outlasted the British Raj in India and Africa. At its height it was glorified by Luis Vaz de Camoes, the soldier poet who penned the Lusiads, the Portuguese national epic. “Had there been more of the world,” he wrote, he and his fellow Portuguese “would have discovered it.”

In hindsight it is clear that, from the very beginning, Portugal’s reach had far exceeded its grasp. But, as a modern heir to Camoes, the Portuguese poet and author Fernando Pesoa would write, “The value of things is not the time they last, but the intensity with which they occur.” In “Conquerors,” Roger Crowley delivers a rousing and masterful account of how a handful of determined adventurers — at once ruthless and visionary — carved out the first truly global commercial empire, for better and for worse.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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