Portugal had a population of about one million people at the beginning of the fifteenth century. A tiny country, with an economy which largely depended on fishing and subsistence farming. A country where the kings were too poor to mint their own gold coins. But, as Mr Crowley writes, a country with big aspirations.
‘In August 1415, a Portuguese fleet sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar and stormed the Muslim port of Ceuta, in Morocco, one of the most heavily fortified and strategic strongholds in the whole Mediterranean.’
In Ceuta, the Portuguese saw a glimpse of the wealth of Africa and the Orient, and dared to dream of expansion, of conquering infidels, and of trade like that enjoyed by Genoa and Venice. After Ceuta, Prince Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator) began to sponsor expeditions down the coast of Africa in search of gold, slaves and spices. The Portuguese also explored inland Africa for the mythical Christian king Prester John. Portugal was also driven by a desire to eradicate Islamic culture, and to establish a Christian empire in the Indian Ocean.
Mr Crowley has drawn on letters and eyewitness accounts to write of Portugal’s rapid rise to power. Some of the major characters portrayed in this account of the Portuguese empire were King Manuel (the Fortunate), João II (the Perfect Prince), the governor Afonso de Albuquerque, and the explorer Vasco da Gama.
How did Portugal achieve such dominance in such a short period? By discovering a route to India around the horn of Africa – achieved by sailing out west from the African coast in order to use the Atlantic winds to sail east around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.
‘Though its supremacy lasted little more than a century, Portugal’s achievement was to create the prototype for new and flexible forms of empire, based on mobile sea power, and the paradigm for European expansion. Where it led, the Dutch and the English followed.’
I found Mr Crowley’s account fascinating. While I knew some of the history of Prince Henry the Navigator, of Vasco da Gama and (later) of Ferdinand Magellan, I had not focussed on the detail and the impact of the Portuguese empire. The history of Portuguese exploration is well worth reading: it is an epic tale of courage, endurance and brutality, of skilled navigation, of diplomacy and of religious zealotry. And, supporting the public figures we can name and read about, are many unknown sailors who suffered illness, disease and frequently death. Afonso de Albuquerque became the first European since Alexander the Great to found an Asian empire.
‘The Iberian powers who had carved up the world at Tordesillas in 1494 were conditioned to believe in monopoly trading and the obligation to crusade.’
Portuguese supremacy may have only lasted just over a century, but during that period the Portuguese reached India in 1498, Brazil in 1500, China in 1514 and Japan in 1543.
Note: My thanks to Netgalley and the Random House Publishing Group for an opportunity to read an advance copy of this book.