Vividly narrated tale, highlighting the astonishing determination, skill and savagery of the Portuguese conquistadores
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 4 December 2015
A great story, very well told, with just the right amount of detail and sense of the motivation of key individuals.
They were a remarkable crew, the Portuguese 'conquistadores'. Rather than the English term 'conquerors', the Portuguese word (the same as in Spanish) better captures the sense of (misguided) religious mission allied to merciless brutality and mercantile greed which inspired the leaders of Portugal's astonishing burst of imperialist energy in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century. Superior technology helped (far better ships and cannon), but this would have got nowhere without the political vision and iron determination of the Portuguese monarchs and sea captains. Vasco da Gama and Afonso de Albuquerque are the best known names, but there were a host of other remarkably tough, competent and self-confident 'conquistadores'.
The contrast with China is telling, The Chinese launched seven huge expeditions to India and Africa during 1405-1433, led by massive junks which dwarfed the biggest Portuguese ships of a 100 years later. According to Crowley, 'Gama's tiny ships, with some 150 men, could all have fitted inside one of Zheng He's junks'. But the Chinese intended no conquest, nor did they try to control the valuable maritime trade. All they sought was acknowledgement of Chinese superiority and tribute from local rulers. Even this political will in China died by mid-century; the Emperors 'strengthened the Great Wall and shut themselves in. Ocean-going voyages were banned, all the records destroyed.'
This left the stage to the small Portuguese state. For the 70 years roughly between 1450 and 1520 (despite the better known and far shorter voyages of Christopher Columbus), the Portuguese led the world in maritime skills and in discoveries which established contact between the equal cultures of East and West. They achieved this with unparalleled determination and savagery.
To take but one example: the capture of Goa. The far-sighted and fanatical Governor of Portuguese India during its most glorious and bloody phase (1509-1515) was Afonso de Albuquerque. He identified Goa as an excellent headquarters, given its position between two warring Indian states; its good anchorage; the fact that it had unpopular Muslims rulers and a majority Hindu population; its wealth from its role in the horse trade; it was a defensible and fertile island; and because he had a well-informed local ally in the Hindu pirate, Timoji.
Albuquerque attacked the city in 1510 and quickly captured it, but was forced to retreat to his ships after a counter-attack by the Muslim Sultan of Bijapur, but not before he ordered the killing all the Muslim prisoners. For three months the small Portuguese force was stuck in the river estuary, starving, unable to sail off due to the monsoon, and beleaguered by massively superior Bijapuri land forces. Men deserted and there was an attempted mutiny, but Albuquerque held on. Eventually, they were able to leave, only to return with new forces a mere three months later. Albuquerque's troops quickly re-took the city. The governor wanted Goa 'cleansed' (his own word) of Muslims, not least as an act of political terror which would send a clear message to all of India. In his own words as described in a despatch to King Manuel: 'Our Lord has done great things for us ... I have burned the town and killed everyone ... we haven't spared the life of a single Muslim ... We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, sire, a very fine deed.'
This is very shocking to contemporary minds - but, thankfully, Crowley spares us the obvious judgement, leaving the acts and words to speak for themselves. He also forbears to say that this murderous ruthlessness, disguised and fortified by a burning sense of absolute superiority, is the norm for all empire-builders: Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Spanish, Turkish, Dutch, British (whose empire was decidedly not won in a 'fit of absent-mindedness'), French, Russian (notably in the Caucasus), American (in the 'wild west') and German (notably during 1939-1945), to name but the best known.
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