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Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

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As remarkable as Columbus and the conquistador expeditions, the history of Portuguese exploration is now almost forgotten. But Portugal's navigators cracked the code of the Atlantic winds, launched the expedition of Vasco da Gama to India and beat the Spanish to the spice kingdoms of the East - then set about creating the first long-range maritime empire. In an astonishing blitz of thirty years, a handful of visionary and utterly ruthless empire builders, with few resources but breathtaking ambition, attempted to seize the Indian Ocean, destroy Islam and take control of world trade.
Told with Roger Crowley's customary skill and verve, this is narrative history at its most vivid - an epic tale of navigation, trade and technology, money and religious zealotry, political diplomacy and espionage, sea battles and shipwrecks, endurance, courage and terrifying brutality. Drawing on extensive first-hand accounts, it brings to life the exploits of an extraordinary band of conquerors - men such as Afonso de Albuquerque, the first European since Alexander the Great to found an Asian empire - who set in motion five hundred years of European colonisation and unleashed the forces of globalisation.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2015

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About the author

Roger Crowley

11 books600 followers
Roger Crowley was born in 1951 and spent part of his childhood in Malta. He read English at Cambridge University and taught English in Istanbul, where he developed a strong interest in the history of Turkey. He has traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean basin over many years and has a wide-ranging knowledge of its history and culture. He lives in Gloucestershire, England.

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Profile Image for Matt.
899 reviews28k followers
May 28, 2022
“[I]t was Portuguese seamen from primitive Europe who first linked the oceans together and laid the foundations for a world economy. Their achievement has been largely overlooked. It is a long-range epic of navigation, trade, and technology, money and crusade, political diplomacy and espionage, sea battles and shipwrecks, endurance, reckless courage, and extreme violence. At its heart was an astonishing burst of some thirty years that forms the subject of this book, when these few Portuguese, led by a handful of extraordinary empire builders, attempted to destroy Islam and control the whole of the Indian Ocean and the world’s trade. In the process, they launched a maritime empire with planetary reach and the great age of European discoveries…[This] era of history set in motion five hundred years of Western expansion and the forces of globalization that now shape the world…”
- Roger Crowley, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

When thinking of the great empires that have risen and fallen throughout history, Portugal does not spring first to mind. Certainly, it does not have the name-recognition of the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, or the British, even though it clung to some of its overseas possessions until late in the twentieth century.

Despite falling short of ubiquitous, Portugal’s imperial endeavors do not lack for drama. By sailing east around the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese landed like a meteor in the established cultural, religious, and economic pathways of the Indian Ocean. Small numbers aside, the Portuguese made their presence felt, employing guile, ruthlessness, and a monomaniacal sense of mission to achieve their goals. These goals included, in no particular order, the domination of the spice trade, an imperial presence in India, and the retaking of Jerusalem.

In Conquerors, Roger Crowley argues that – in the span of about a century, from the late 1400s to the early 1500s – Portugal reset the world’s very trajectory.


Conquerors is an extremely engrossing work of popular history, taking a complex, long-ago subject and turning it into an effortless page-turner. Designed to be reader-friendly, Crowley divides the action into three big sections, each tied to a dominant personality. The chapters within each section are time-stamped, which is a simple yet helpful thing.

Part one covers Portugal’s initial foray into the Indian Ocean, describing how Portuguese sailors and navigators learned how to sail west into the Atlantic, catch the right winds, and then sling past the southern tip of Africa. The chief figure in this opening act is Vasco de Gama, who is credited with making the first voyage to link Europe with Asia.

In part two, de Gama is still around, though less as an explorer and more as a murderer. In particular, Crowley provides an extended description of de Gama’s interception of the pilgrim ship Miri, filled with Muslim passengers traveling to Mecca. De Gama looted the ship and killed the vast majority of the pilgrims, including women and children.

When they weren’t slaughtering innocents, the Portuguese attempted to create a long-distance colonial empire. This required making at least some friends, or at least pretending to be friendly. By exploiting rifts between local power centers, they gained permission to build a fort in Cochin, giving them their first toehold in India. At this point, de Gama mostly exits the stage, and Crowley introduces us to Francisco de Almeida, chosen by King Manuel I to be the first viceroy of Portuguese India. Almeida’s chief contribution was the overwhelming naval victory over the Sultan of Gujarat at the Battle of Diu.

The third and final section of Conquerors flows through the person of Alfonso de Albuquerque, who devoted himself to securing spices and spreading Christianity in equal measure. Crowley is clearly enamored of Albuquerque, who – if nothing else – was very good at accomplishing what he set out to do. Before dying of an illness, he conquered Goa, Malacca, and Ormuz, survived a shipwreck, and engaged in diplomacy to strengthen relations with those he had not displaced or killed. Though he has a prominent statue in Lisbon, he is not remembered as fondly outside of Portugal.


Conquerors is an unabashed narrative, with only the bare minimum of analysis. The tale unfolds on a very large canvas, spanning two oceans and three continents. Nevertheless, Crowley confines himself to personal stories, sticking close to men like Almeida and Albuquerque, and marinating in the details of storms and battle. Crowley evokes a visceral sense of place, mining the surviving first-person accounts to close the distance between past and present. His battle scenes can get repetitive, but they are very well done.

The downside to Crowley’s style has nothing to do with what’s on the page, and everything to do with what’s left off it. Specifically, there is very little context given to the actions of King Manuel and his subjects, or of the wider world in which those actions occurred. For example, Crowley assumes that his readers have ample foreknowledge about – among other things – the political makeup of India, the workings of the Mamluk Sultanate, the role of Venetian traders, and the general relationship between West and East at the turn of the sixteenth century. While authors have to make certain assumptions, it’s a bit strange that Crowley makes so many, especially when he is clearly trying to appeal to a broad audience.


Crowley tends to highlight spectacle, lavishing attention on the most action-packed moments. As a result, Conquerors is seeded with exemplary set-pieces that unfold cinematically before the eyes. The battle-oriented storytelling, combined with the Portuguese-heavy perspective, runs the risk of glorifying what was ultimately a brutal and heavy-handed incursion. For the most part, though, Crowley avoids this, mainly by graphically presenting Portuguese crimes, oftentimes in their own prideful words.

Like so much of history, the period covered in Conquerors defies balance, the scales wobbling between human ingenuity and human greed; courage and cruelty; grandness of vision and shortness of spirit. It is about men big enough to set sail in leaky, worm-eaten ships, defying wind and waves with nothing but sun and stars for guidance. It is also about men so small that after traveling halfway across the world, their first thought is to intimidate, to plunder, and to kill.
Profile Image for Max.
337 reviews287 followers
June 24, 2019
Riveting, bloody history. Crowley makes the people and the action come alive on the page. Conquerors is not a mere recitation of facts, but a look deep into the thoughts and emotions of the Portuguese explorers who found the way to India and the way to dominate the Malabar Coast. Their methods were brutal. They were fearless, bloodthirsty, arrogant and hateful. They killed countless thousands for territory, plunder, religion, revenge or just to show that they were not to be messed with. This is much more than the history I remember from school about the Portuguese and the spice trade. Fortunately, the Portuguese kept good records giving Crowley much material to work with and he uses it well.

Of all the states in fifteenth century Europe, how did a small and poor country like Portugal become the one to open a direct route to India? Crowley answers this question and many more as he not only gives us the history of Portugal’s discovery and exploitation of India but explains the motivations and reasoning of the leaders. He recounts the determination of King Joao II and King Manuel I to find a way around the African continent to India culminating in the successful voyage of Vasco da Gama from 1497-99. The kings were driven by three things: 1) A desire to find the fabled Prester John, a Christian ruler on the other side of the Muslim world, and ally with him against the Muslims. 2) The opportunity to access the riches of India including spices, gems and gold. 3) And perhaps most importantly to establish their prestige and Portugal as a major player in Europe.

Starting out, the Portuguese were naïve. Their experience was based on encounters with West African tribes as they methodically advanced down the African Coast. They had no concept of how the world bordering the Indian Ocean worked. When Vasco da Gama landed in India he and his crew were taken aback when they immediately encountered a Castilian speaking Tunisian. What they found was a sophisticated world they could not comprehend. Anchoring in Calicut, Gama was taken to the ruler, the samudri raja. The Portuguese thought he was the Christian Prester John, perhaps mistaking Krishna for Christ, although they did wonder why the pictures of the saints had so many arms and legs. The samudri was not impressed with Gama and his men. The gifts they brought, trinkets and foods they had used in trade in Africa, were insulting. The sumudri expected gold. What the Portuguese didn’t get was that Calicut was a center of trade that encompassed many religions and cultures. The Portuguese were the barbarians. Into Calicut came spices and gems from India and other south Asian countries, Chinese porcelain via Malacca, and products from Arab lands from North Africa to Persia.

The Portuguese believed they had a God given destiny and they had an iron will. They also were out for profit. The spice trade to Europe was controlled by Venice and Genoa working through Arab intermediaries who got the goods to Cairo. Along the way many middlemen were paid. If the Portuguese got the goods directly they could cut the cost by more than 80%. Status was also very important to the Portuguese king, Manuel I. He had to write to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that his ships “did reach and discover India” in an obvious slight to whatever that adventurer Columbus had found. A couple of years later a Portuguese expedition to India stumbled onto the coast of Brazil, but it was considered unimportant.

The Portuguese carried with them intense hatred of the Muslims with whom they fought continuously in North Africa. The Portuguese were battle hardened fighters and seasoned sailors. They were confident in their canons, which were superior. The Muslims were well established traders in India. Initially the Portuguese had to rely on Muslims as translators first to take the Portuguese to Arabic then the Arabic to Maylayalam, the language of Calicut. The Muslims saw the Portuguese as competitors and helped foster discord which given the Portuguese ignorance and arrogance would have developed anyway. After doing some trading, Gama finally wanted to leave, but the samudri wanted his tax money first. One thing led to another and Gama took off without paying taxes and taking Hindu hostages with him on his return to Portugal. The Portuguese now were considered completely untrustworthy at best and dangerous enemies at worst.

In 1500 another expedition was launched from Portugal under the command of Pedro Alvarez Cabral. He was as hardened as any Portuguese commander and the king’s instructions were clear: Destroy Muslim ships. When Cabral landed at Calicut a new sumadri was in command but relations were no better especially when Cabral informed him of his intentions to capture any Muslim ship on open water and began doing so. This news riled the public which attacked the Portuguese loading spices on shore. Suffering casualties Cabral fled Calicut but turned back and took out his revenge capturing ten ships in Calicut harbor and killing the five to six hundred people aboard. Then he leveled his guns on the city delivering a ferocious bombardment destroying many buildings. There was now no doubt about how the Portuguese planned to engage their new trading partner. Cabral had left with thirteen ships but only seven ships, five loaded with spices, made it back in 1501. The others were lost to storms and accidents, something that proved to be all too common.

In 1502 the next expedition with twenty ships left under Vasco da Gama’s command. The Portuguese would now fight first, talk later. They finally figured out that Hindu’s were not Christians and considered them pagans under the influence of Muslims. The first thing Gama did upon arrival in India was to capture a Muslim ship, the Miri. About 250 passengers were returning from Mecca, some were rich. They offered Gama everything they had to let them go. Gama took nothing. After some fierce resistance, Gama set the ship on fire and watched them burn. He did pull off twenty children who were to be converted to Christianity. Gama was sending notice: Be afraid, very afraid. This incident was long remembered in India. Gama was determined to avenge the death of Cabral’s men killed in the prior expedition. He captured 34 Muslims and fisherman and entered Calicut harbor with them hanging from the masts so everyone could see. Residents lined the beach looking in horror. Gama opened fire killing many as they fled then he turned his guns on the buildings and houses in the town. Gama then cut down those he had hanged, cut off their heads, hands and feet and put the body parts in a fishing boat. He attached a note and sent it to shore. The note began “I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce. And here is the produce of this country. I am sending you this present now. It is also for your king….”

The Portuguese sent more ships and men each year to the Malabar Coast to establish a permanent presence and expand their very profitable and growing spice trade. New commanders took over, but all were every bit as vicious as Vasco da Gama, and this is what King Manuel expected of them. More and more local leaders threw in their lot with the Portuguese seeing them as invincible. The Portuguese protected their new vassal states and built forts to protect their landholdings and their spice trade. They continued to hunt down and destroy Muslim shipping. In one encounter in 1504 an entire Muslim convoy was set on fire killing 2,000. They felt justified by their religion and motivated by greed and long standing hatred. Despite initial misconceptions about India the Portuguese soon built up a good understanding of trade, politics, geography, weather and what to expect. Over the past decades they had become skilled observers and record keepers with their exploration of the African Coast and African rivers.

One commander stood out, Afonso de Albuquerque. His initial forays plundering ports along the Arabian coast earned him the reputation as “The Terrible.” His message to each town, submit and pay tribute or be destroyed, was not different than that of his predecessors. Nor was the zeal and cruelty of his crew, mostly criminals from Lisbon prisons, who looted, raped and destroyed. But Albuquerque was exceptionally intimidating, highly intelligent, supremely confident and a gifted strategist. Albuquerque was made governor of India by King Manuel, but first his predecessor Francisco de Almeida had a vendetta to settle, the death of his son in battle by Muslims the Portuguese called Rumes. On December 31, 1508 Almeida attacked the rich Muslim trading port of Dabul. His forces overran the city with orders to leave nothing alive. After killing every man, woman, child and animal in sight, Almeida burned the town down killing those who hid in cellars. Like the Miri this horrific event was long remembered in India. Almeida believed Dabul had helped the Egyptian fleet involved in his son’s death. He found the fleet at the port of Diu. A fierce battle ensued and as usual it involved intense hand to hand combat at which the Portuguese excelled. The Rumes (Muslims soldiers and sailors of many different nationalities) were defeated with few surviving and the entire Egyptian fleet destroyed. When the governor of Diu capitulated, he was forced to hand over all remaining Rumes in the town. Almeida devised especially grisly deaths for all of them.

When Albuquerque finally took over from Almeida he started a three year campaign that would transform the Portuguese presence in India. His target was the Island of Goa which he believed was very defensible and could be held as permanent Portuguese territory. It had a deep harbor and ships entering or leaving were easily observed ensuring tax collections. It occupied a central position between two large rival states. It was the center of the profitable horse trade from Arabia and Persia to India, a nice addition to the existing spice trade. Albuquerque also sought to professionalize his fighters in the mold of Swiss mercenaries that had been very successful in the Italian wars. This meant discipline and regimentation. The Portuguese had been wildly successful with their medieval brawl warfare. The Indian forces had never seen the fearlessness and ferocity of the Portuguese fighting men. But Albuquerque knew this approach didn’t scale. The Portuguese were consistently outnumbered and their ambitions were big, very big.

In 1510 Goa was taken easily then lost as the Muslim leader, Adil Shah, assembled a large force to retake the Island. But Albuquerque considered it essential to take back Goa and he did in a crushing attack. As he reported to King Manuel “Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for...I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without pause our men have slaughtered...wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire…We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, sire, a very fine deed.” Other port cities quickly took notice and sent ambassadors to the Portuguese in Goa. Albuquerque had ordered that Hindus be spared. Albuquerque was in for the long term and initiated a mixed marriage policy allowing Portuguese men to marry Hindu women who converted to create a permanent Christian community. And oddly for someone who killed people like insects he abhorred and tried to outlaw the Hindu practice of suttee in which widows were immolated on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. He even gave women property rights.

In 1511 Albuquerque set his sights on Malacca 1500 miles across the Indian Ocean on the Malay Peninsula. Malacca was a city of 120,000, bigger than Lisbon, almost the size of Venice. Malacca was a center of trade tying the Indian Ocean states to those in the Pacific taking in Chinese and Javanese goods as well as those from India and Persia. Albuquerque considered it strategic and would take it with only 1,000 Portuguese sailors and soldiers. His first attack had to be abandoned after he found his position vulnerable. But as before, Albuquerque learned much from loss. He quickly organized a second attack with a different plan that was successful. He employed the troops he had trained to use pikes in the Swiss regimented manner. They methodically cleaned out pockets of resistance. After nine days the sultan and his troops had to retreat into the jungle. As before, Albuquerque made sure every Muslim man woman and child was killed. He formed alliances with the Burmese, Hindus and Javanese. The Chinese also had helped him. Albuquerque did not allow the city to be burned but did let his men loot it. It was rich in treasure, much of which was lost on the return voyage when Albuquerque’s ship sank in bad weather and a commandeered Chinese junk got away. Albuquerque left a base and ships behind. From here the Portuguese explored Indonesia and China reaching Canton in 1515.

Upon Albuquerque’s return in 1512 he found Goa again under attack. With reinforcements and weapons sent by King Manuel including captains trained in Swiss military tactics as requested, Albuquerque in fierce fighting soundly defeated Adil Shah. This time he agreed to let the Muslim’s leave but demanded that Portuguese who had defected be handed over. He agreed not to kill them but afterwards he did slice off their ears, noses, right hands and left thumbs. With this victory Albuquerque saw his plan come to fruition establishing Portugal as an Indian power to be reckoned with. As Crowley notes “Albuquerque himself was the first European since Alexander the Great to establish an imperial presence in Asia.” Goa was well situated and fed enormous wealth into Lisbon.

In 1513 Albuquerque went into the heart of the Muslim world exploring the Red Sea. His hope was that ultimately he could establish bases there and divide the Muslim world in half. But it was not to be. In 1515 his health deteriorated and he died in Goa in 1515. He would be replaced by men who lacked his discipline and vision. King Manuel would die in 1521 with the Portuguese expansion sputtering. Still Goa survived as a Portuguese colony for over 400 years spawning a unique mixture of Indian and Portuguese people and cultures.

Crowley stands out as an excellent crafter of readable history. This book is both informative and a page turner. I knew little about how the Portuguese found India and how they established themselves, but I enjoyed learning it. There is much more in the book than presented in this review. The savagery and cruelty is disturbing and not for the faint of heart. Having read a number of histories that included depraved violence, I still recoiled at the vindictiveness of the Portuguese. With that as a caveat, I highly recommend Conquerors.
Profile Image for Ian.
692 reviews65 followers
December 20, 2016
The decade of the 1490s was without doubt one of the most significant in human history. Nowadays we see the European (re)discovery of the Americas in 1492 as the event which more than any other shaped the world we live in today, but at the time it was Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498 that seemed the more significant event. Mr Crowley tells the story of how, within 20 years of that event, a tiny, poverty stricken country on Europe's western fringe created a global empire based on sea power, an event so astonishing that some contemporaries viewed it as a manifestation of the biblical proverb "The last shall be first."

The author explains that, prior to 1498, the western part of the Indian Ocean was a closed sea dominated by Muslim merchants. This, as he puts it, was the world of Sinbad, a trading network that stretched from Mozambique to Egypt and along the Persian Gulf right down the western coast of India and on to Sri Lanka. In this environment, the Portuguese ships that burst into the Indian Ocean after 1500 were like cats amongst mice. Entire fleets of merchant ships were sent to the bottom and almost every important port was either sacked or the ruler forced to become a Portuguese vassal. The Portuguese success was certainly helped by the fact that the major Muslim power of the time was the Mamluk Sultanate in Cairo, once vigorous but now weak and ineffectual. Nevertheless much of the impact also came from the character of the Portuguese noblemen, the fidalgos, who combined greed, ambition, and religious fanaticism with seemingly limitless reserves of endurance and a honour code that regarded the slightest disinclination to fight as the greatest possible social disgrace. The result was a group of people who displayed extreme levels of aggression and a "beserker" fighting style that often simply unnerved their opponents. Some of their victories were remarkably asymmetrical. The wealthy city of Malacca, in present day Malaysia, had a population of around 120,000, (around an eighth of the entire population of Portugal) but fell to an attack by around 1000 Portuguese soldiers and sailors. In many ways these victories were even more impressive than those achieved by the Spanish in the New World, since the latter encountered stone age cultures that fought on foot with weapons like clubs and slingshot, whereas the Portuguese faced enemies who had gunpowder, cannon, steel swords, chainmail, cavalry and war elephants. However, in acknowledging the achievements of the Portuguese, the author does not overlook the fact that their arrival in the Indian Ocean precipitated a bloodbath, and that they were often guilty of extreme brutality.

The book covers the sudden rise of the Portuguese empire up to about 1520, and as such does not cover their subsequent journeys to Indonesia, China and Japan, nor how their dominance came to be challenged by new powers such as the Dutch and the Ottoman Turks. Although a little more limited in scope than I might have liked, this is a first rate narrative of a remarkable period in history.
Profile Image for Dmitri.
180 reviews121 followers
July 15, 2022
"Unlike Columbus, the Portuguese had not burst into silent seas. For thousands of years the Indian Ocean had been the crossroads of world trade."

"This was a polyethnic world in which trade depended on social and cultural interaction and accommodation between Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, local Christians and Jews. It was more complex than the Portuguese could initially grasp."


In 1497 Vasco da Gama embarked on a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to land in Calicut on the subcontinent of India. Nine years earlier the explorer Bartholomeu Dias had traced the west coast of Africa and discovered the Atlantic trade winds. As a small country in the shadow of Spain, Portugal looked to gain gold and access to the spice business then dominated by Venice and Genoa through the Mamluk middlemen of Egypt.

A third more fanciful goal beyond pepper and precious metal was to join forces with Prester John, a fabled Asian Christian who would help defeat Islam, an idea endorsed by the Pope. It helped that Prester was rumored to hold a treasure trove of gold. Although Prester wasn't found in Asia, Portuguese spies located him in Ethiopia. They met emperor Eskender but weren't allowed to return to Europe. Eastern allies were also thought to be followers of St. Thomas or Nestorius.

Europe was increasingly hemmed in by Islamic empires on the east and south, although the Moors had been recently expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the Reconquista of 1492. Spain and Portugal vied for a trade route to outflank the Muslims, Columbus exploring the western ocean and Gama the southern. Portugal became the first Europeans to reach Asia by sea, landing on the west coast of India. They almost warred with Spain for possession of Hispaniola.

When Gama reached the Indian Ocean he found a vast trade network between Arabia, Africa, India and China for slaves, horses, gold, diamonds, cotton, spices, tea and rice. On the Malabar coast of India he was greeted by Tunisian traders who spoke Spanish and Italian. After 300 days and twelve thousand miles at sea he was asked "What brought you here?" A commonwealth of Islamic trade that existed from the Mediterranean to the China Sea was to be challenged.

The Portuguese mindset was defined by monopoly rights as existed in northwest Africa. The default mode was violence using shipmounted cannon. Having left Lisbon with trading goods of trinkets and garments only fit for an African chief Indian locals were unimpressed. In Calicut Hindu temples were assumed to be Christian churches. The king, bedecked in jewels and gold, was puzzled by a lack of tribute. Gama was angered by his reception and feared Muslim treachery.

As Gama tried to leave without paying port taxes matters began to unravel. Taking Hindu hostages and making threats to return, stuck in the ocean for three months by monsoon winds, he bombed Muslim cities on Africa's coast in spite. On his return the King of Portugal declared himself 'Lord of Commerce in Africa, Arabia, Persia and India'. Within six months a second expedition was launched with thirteen ships and twelve hundred men led by Pedro Alvares Cabral.

In the first five years of the 16th century Portugal dispatched eighty ships to gain mastery of the Indian Ocean. Cabral's fleet had eight ships lost on the way but he found Brazil by mistake. His orders beyond trade were to loot and destroy any Arab ships sighted. Despite proper tribute in Calicut relations went no better. Cabral demanded hostages, secure posts, tax exemption and trade monopoly. 'Christian' Hindus would need Catholic instruction to correct their errors.

Arguments between the Arab and Portuguese traders led to a burned down trading post and bombed out city, hundreds dying on all sides. After Cabral returned to Lisbon Gama was sent to exact retribution. This time he would extort gold and hostages up the east coast of Africa. En route he burned a ship returning from Mecca murdering two hundred men, women and children although ransom was offered. Aware now Hindus weren't Christian they became fair game too.

On reaching Calicut Gama demanded nearly five thousand Muslims expelled. Unsatisfied with the reply he bombarded the city, captured, hung and mutilated fishermen, sending body parts ashore with demands for free trade and war reparations. Trade resumed with Gama blockading ports and building forts. When he set sail for Lisbon in 1503 he left destruction and discord in his wake. The following period saw a plague of Portuguese ships and takeover of ports.

Francisco de Almeida left in 1505 with orders to take Africa's coast, enlist Prester John in Ethiopia, blockade the Red Sea, attack Arab ships, exact Persian tribute, capture India and lay claims in Southeast Asia and China. Egypt's Sultan sent a fleet from Suez to meet them and the naval battle saw Almeida's son dead and his flagship sunk. In reprisal he razed a Muslim city and destroyed the Mamluk navy. On the way home he was killed rustling cattle in South Africa.

Afonso de Albuquerque arrived the same year and began a brutal Indian Ocean empire, securing Cannapore, Cochin, Calicut and Goa and conquering the cities of Ormuz on the Persian gulf and Malacca in the straight between Malaysia and Indonesia, aiming to control the spice trade. He became Governor of Portuguese India until 1515, followed by the English and Dutch in 1600 and French in 1674. Portugal's territory expanded, enduring until ended by Nehru in 1961.

The story shows the development of gunboat diplomacy where trade mixed with war and piracy. Gama and others were veterans of corsair attacks on Muslim cities and ships in North Africa with elements of crusading. Actions on the Indian Ocean were a natural extension. Roger Crowley paints a vivid portrait of the events and period. I hadn't read about the Portuguese before but saw parallels with the Spanish in Mexico and Peru and later the British in India and China.
Profile Image for Sebastien.
252 reviews284 followers
April 6, 2017
I really enjoyed this read. Excellent use of primary texts, told in a narrative type way that focuses on direct accounts of primary players in the history. This gives a nice worm's eye view of the action and story and makes for a very readable text and history.

The one negative is that I thought the macro, bird's eye view of the history was lacking. I would've been interested in grander scope analysis of the economics and trade flows going on. There was a bit of it but not very much. But there was some nice info on technology and advantages that Portugal held at the time.

Still, this was excellent. Really gets you into the spirit of the times, and while I had a general idea of the horrors and atrocities committed the primary accounts and way Crowley brings it all to life really makes the granular details jump out. This text encompasses the horrors of war, war crimes, crimes of religious persecution, crusading, imperialism, negotiation tactics, role of technology, spirit of exploration, political intrigue and the chase for power. Given the narrative style and character driven storytelling these things feel more real (and often times upsetting), but completely riveting. Crowley also superbly executes a deep delve into the mindsets of the actors involved in this history, which is helpful because one can get a better feel for psychological underpinnings and belief systems that motivated the peoples of the time (this can be a hard bridge to gap with a modern reader so it is a great accomplishment imo).
Profile Image for Nika.
116 reviews115 followers
April 28, 2021
The Portuguese, with their bronze cannons and capable fleets, both ruptured a self-sufficient system and joined up the world.

Roger Crowley narrates the story of the Portuguese conquests in the Indian Ocean. The great adventure started with the discovery of a sea route from Europe to India.
Crowley allows the reader to look at this story from different angles. In my opinion, he has chosen the right perspective. The author shows that the Portuguese were intruders who disrupted life and trade in the Indian Ocean. The cities and small states across the Indian Ocean found themselves subject to the violence that the European invaders inflicted upon them. Crowley gives the reader an idea of how these people from the West and their actions must have been perceived by the local peoples and rulers, mainly Hindus and Muslims.
The aggressive style of handling things and rapidity with which the western interlopers moved to their goals must have shocked the locals who had lived by their own rules for a long time and been accustomed to Oriental diplomacy. The latter was described as pompous, flowery, and slow-paced. Exchanging gifts and numerous preliminaries before starting negotiations were commonplace.
The complexity of this world eluded the Portuguese.
This was a polyethnic world, in which trade depended on social and cultural interaction, long-range migration, and a measure of mutual accommodation among Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, local Christians and Jews; it was richer, more deeply layered and complex than the Portuguese could initially grasp.

The famous explorer named Vasco da Gama initiated the process of conquest with his voyage to Calicut (India).
"In the year 1497 King Dom Manuel, the first of that name in Portugal, despatched four vessels to make discoveries and go in search of spices. Vasco da Gama was the captain-major of these vessels; Paulo da Gama, his brother, commanded one of them, and Nicolau Coelho another."

The Portuguese conquest had become possible partly because the Chinese ruling dynasty had decided to withdraw its fleet from the Indian Ocean.
Since Gama’s journey, Portugal had been intent on gaining control over the Indian Ocean and making a profit from this.
Among other factors, rivalry with Spain spurred the actions of the Portuguese. A window of opportunity existed but it was narrow. Seizing the moment was deemed important.
And the conquerors from Portugal did seize the opportunity in Goa, Calicut, Aden, and other places in order to gain control over the region’s trade.
Recruiting men to sail to India was relatively easy.
Portugal was a poor marginalized country. The prospects of the wealth of the Orient from where precious items (spices, horses, silk, gemstones) came to Europe were enticing enough to encourage the Portuguese men to volunteer in these maritime adventures. They might become rich or they might die (“India with its sapping climate and blows of dysentery and malaria quickly used men up”). They were ready to take the risks. To fulfill their plans, an understanding of geography and accurate navigation were needed. Knowledge became wealth and power, and had been acquired at breathtaking speed.

The Portuguese strategy worked medium term. Revenues from the spice trade made from early sixteenth century Lisbon a vibrant city to the waterfront of which came merchants from different parts of the world.
Lisbon was a dynamic, brawling, and turbulent place in the early years of the century. With the wealth of the Indies pouring into the wharves on the banks of the Tejo, entrepreneurial merchants, tradesmen, sailors, and chancers came to the “New Venice,” attracted by the smell of spices and the demand for luxury items. If much of the waterfront was being laid out in a grand imperial style to reflect the aspirations of the Grocer King [Manuel], it was also a city of squalor and hysterical passions.

How did “never more than a few thousand men” from Portugal manage to impose their will across the Indian Ocean?
To this end, they took full advantage of their technological supremacy. The European cannons and guns were often the factors that carried the day. It soon became apparent that local leaders could do little against the western weapons.
The Portuguese fleet with its mighty ships and skilled sailors started being regarded as a redoubtable and unpredictable force. They left a gloomy bloody trail in many places they happened to visit. With some exceptions, the Portuguese preferred a short and fierce fight to lengthy negotiations, which they often saw as a trap.
Using their advanced weapons, the suspicious invaders practiced spreading terror among local populations. The commanders could ruthlessly order their men to kill everyone they were going to encounter on their way. As the author notes, killing, burning, and plundering quickly became a dire pattern of the conquest.

Crowley seeks to comprehend the motives behind such violent behavior.
First, the Portuguese were often heavily outnumbered by their local opponents. They chronically suffered from a shortage of manpower and supplies, including food and drinkable water. A fleet from Lisbon carrying reinforcements and vital supplies could arrive only once a year due to the weather conditions. As soon as the monsoon season began, the Portuguese ships were locked in the hostile Ocean for several months.
Second, the Portuguese were driven by ideological motives, such as their deeply rooted hatred of Islam and crusading spirit. They believed that they were on the right side of history.
The honor code of the Portuguese nobles (fidalgos) should also be mentioned. For fidalgos, personal bravery, which often boarded on recklessness, was above all other considerations. This attitude sometimes created problems for the Portuguese cause.

Albuquerque was one of the most talented among the Portuguese admirals and governors in the Indian Ocean. According to the author, Albuquerque’s death was the beginning of the end for the Portuguese messianic dream, which the governor of Portuguese India shared with the king of Portugal and the king’s inner circle. Their ambitions were almost limitless - Portugal had to turn into the biggest world empire; its king would defeat the forces of Islam and recapture Jerusalem.
However, the governors who replaced Albuquerque were not especially apt and committed blunders that would prove fatal to the enterprise.
Albuquerque, endowed with a strategic vision, did a lot to make the Portuguese dreams come true. He worked hard to instill innovative military techniques in the men under his control. Fidalgos construed these practices as not a very decent way of waging war.
Albuquerque needed either to convince or to coerce them into accepting these new rules. In this, he was only partly successful. The governor often had to pursue his policies in the face of multi-faced opposition. He firmly supported a mixed-marriage policy, dismissing the clergy’s protests, because this constituted the only way of establishing a long-lasting Portuguese colony.
Albuquerque was the man of an early modern period, brutal and pious, intelligently cautious and recklessly intrepid.
He could be pragmatic and made optimal choices. But his astute sense of reality was at times blurred. He shared with his contemporaries the belief in the semi-mythical Christian king of Africa Prester John.
Such a conjunction of a quasi-mystical conscience and a business-like approach was common in the modern-early period.

The author wants to do justice to both parties. He talks about various atrocities the Portuguese invaders committed in the course of their conquest. However, Crowley writes also about their actions that were enlightened given the context. Albuquerque tried to eradicate the horrific practice of the immolation of Hindu widows on their husband’s funeral pyres. The Lion of the Sea, as he became known, also seems to have promoted some social improvements to the lives of the indigenous population.

Although the Portuguese empire of a global dimension lasted less than a century, it provided Europeans with valuable knowledge on many topics, from geography to linguistics, and set an example for future global empires.
Greed, thirst for power and ideological considerations soldered together and shaped the Portuguese actions in the Indian Ocean.

On the downside, I find that the book at times makes the events look more coherent than they might have been. However, Crowley notes that the Portuguese often had to make decisions on the spot and act impromptu, without any plan and depending on changing circumstances.
Profile Image for Kuszma.
2,106 reviews131 followers
March 29, 2020
Mert az érmének, mint mindig, két oldala van.
1.) Innen nézve Afrika déli sarkán túl egy ismeretlen világ csak arra vár, hogy a fehér ember elvigye oda Krisztus nevét, és ha már arra jár, elhozzon helyette annyi kincset, ami csak a hajó gyomrába belefér. Ha pedig történetesen portugálok vagyunk, és az idők során hihetetlen mennyiségű tengerhajózási tapasztalat összegyűjtésével ellensúlyoztuk szárazföldi birodalmunk szegénységét, hát könnyen arra a következtetésre juthatunk, hogy ezeket a kalandokat a Jóistenke direkt nekünk tartogatta. Rúgjuk be hát a karavellákat, és uccu neki! Mutassuk meg a sok pucér, tudatlan bennszülöttnek, miféle vitézek vagyunk mi! És egyben törjünk borsot (höhö, borsot, érted!) a nyavalyás velenceiek orra alá, kiknek eddig monopóliumuk volt a fűszerkereskedelemre, mert uralták a Földközi-tenger útvonalait. De ha mi közvetlenül az Indiákon jutunk hozzá a fűszerszámokhoz, akkor máris mi diktáljuk az árakat.
2.) Onnan nézve viszont adott az Indiai-óceán végtelen térsége a maga gazdag, magasan kulturált birodalmaival. Ebben a zárt gazdasági rendszerben a muzulmánok a kereskedők, a politikai hatalmat pedig itt hinduk, ott muzulmánok birtokolják, akik ugyan össze-összecsapnak, de alapvetően megtanultak együtt élni egymással. Aztán ebbe a többé-kevésbé harmonikus világba betörnek az orkok. Pusztítanak, gyilkolnak válogatás nélkül, felgyújtják városainkat, elrabolják hajóinkat, fegyverzetük (különösen messzehordó ágyúik) félelmetesek, összefoglalva: igazi ördögök. És úgy néz ki, hosszabb időre akarnak itt berendezkedni. Jaj nekünk! Jó lenne egy Gandalf meg egy Aragorn, hogy elzavarja őket!

Ez az ambivalencia határozta meg érzéseimet olvasás közben. Egyfelől nehéz nem bámulni, amit a portugálok elértek. Európa egyik legszegényebb királyságáról van szó, aki azonban elszántsággal pótolja hiányosságait, és pár hajóval képes teljesen átszabni egy távoli óceán komplett világrendjét. Vegyük észre, az 1500-as évek elején vagyunk, Magyarország határain az Oszmán Birodalom még csak most ér hatalma zenitjére, még nem jutottunk el Mohácsig, Buda elfoglalásáig. Az Indiai-óceánon viszont az iszlám a gyengébbik fél - egyetlen picike birodalom néhány ambiciózus hajóskapitánya úgy szétkapja őket, mint annak a rendje. A hatalmas kairói Mameluk Szultánság tehetetlen, az indiai muszlim birodalmak pedig konkrétan vinnyogva rejtőznek el a ruhásszekrényben, ha csak meghallják a "portugál" szót. Ez a picike birodalom le tud rabolni egy olyan régiót, ahol milliók élnek, mindezt személyes bátorságra, ravaszságra, no és persze tűzerejükre és fémvértjeikre támaszkodva. Dacolva az ellenséggel és az ellenséges éghajlattal négyszáz évre megvetik a lábukat Goán, ami pedig olyan messze van Lisszabontól, hogy én azt ki sem merem számolni.

Másrészről viszont ezek a pacákok tényleg állatok. Hajlamosak csak úgy különösebb indok nélkül tömeggyilkosságokat elkövetni, ha valamit nem tudnak elrabolni, akkor felgyújtják, és először kiirtják a karonülőtől az aggastyánig a lakosság muzulmán részét - csak ezután kezdeményeznek tárgyalást velük. És ráadásul azt gondolják, az efféle eljárást Isten valamiért komálja. Hogy ha majd a mennybe jutnak (mert mondjuk zabrálás közben torkon lövik őket nyílvesszővel, vagy az általuk lángra lobbantott mecset a fejükre omlik), akkor Szent Péter majd megveregeti a vállukat, hogy "jól van, ecsém, derék lácsó legény vagy" Hm, én nem hiszem ezt. Szerintem rohadt prosztó dolog komplett civilizációkat vaddisznó módra szétdúlni. De hát ilyen az, amikor a vallási fanatizmus az emberi kapzsisággal frigyre lép.

Crowley meg remek, mint mindig. Ezek a vitorlás hajókkal bőven kidekorált történelmi szakmunkák elég egyértelműen neki valók.
Profile Image for F.E. Beyer.
Author 1 book77 followers
January 25, 2022
As Roger Crowley explains in "Conquerors", in the early 16th century Portugal, a poor country on the periphery of Europe, came to control trade in the Indian Ocean thanks to bravery, cruelty, navigation skills and cannons. They fought against kings and sultans on the Swahili Coast of Africa and the Malabar Coast of India with no more than 1500 troops at a time. Before they could start fighting they had to find a way to the Indies and did this after eighty years of working their way down the coast of West Africa.

“Behind the Africa initiative lay a very old dream of militant Christendom: that of outflanking Islam, which blocked the way to Jerusalem and the wealth of the East.”

This is a story to rival or even eclipse those Columbus discovering America, Cortes conquering Mexico and Pizarro doing the same in Peru. But the names of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese captain who made it around Africa, and Alfonso de Albuquerque the man who consolidated the Portuguese presence in India are not so well known. The Indians didn’t manage to get the Portuguese out of Goa until the 1960s! Magellan, the captain who circumvented the world under Spanish patronage, is the only Portuguese explorer the Anglo world taught me about as a kid -- and then I grew up to discover Magellan was killed halfway through the journey! In the Indies, the Portuguese were known as the Franks or Ferengi, the common term for Christian Westerners at the time. The Thais call us Farang to this day.

The Portuguese made it around Africa with the counter-intuitive move of sailing away from the West African coast. This allowed them to catch the winds to take them past the bottom of Africa. This way they discovered Brazil, sailing too far west and landing there by accident. But “Conquerors” does not deal with South America. Once in India, da Gama was surprised to meet with some Castilian speaking Tunisians and find a thriving multicultural civilization. The rulers were generally Hindus but the traders were Muslim, due to the fact that it was taboo for Hindus to eat at sea. The Muslims knew all about Europe and Asia, but the Christian knowledge of the world at the time was limited. Da Gama caused havoc in India before having to sail back before the Monsoon.

After da Gama, Almeida and Albuquerque solidified the Portuguese position. They used diplomacy, threats and terror to achieve their aims. One terror tactic was cutting off the noses ears and hands of Muslim prisoners and then setting them free. Albuquerque was a skilled leader and commander, introducing pike-wielding phalanxes of foot soldiers, much to the disgust of the noblemen who wished for the glory of one on one combat. Albuquerque, following the orders of King Manuel, made a real attempt to control the Red Sea and from there the plan was to launch an attack on Jerusalem, but the failure to capture the city of Aden scuttled these plans. Portuguese pressure in the area was one of the factors in a shift of power in the Muslim world, away from the Mamluk Sultans in Cairo to the Ottomans in Turkey. "Conquerers", however, does not give much information on the politics of the Middle East and India -- which is fair enough, otherwise, this manageable, concise work would balloon out in length. The Venetians, who had controlled the entry of spices into Europe worked with the Muslims to try and get the Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean.

My interest in the Portuguese Empire was sparked by a visit to a Brazilian BBQ in Shanghai in 2007 called Vasco da Gama. "What does Vasco da Gama mean?" I asked. Despite being twenty-eight I had no clue - I’d been to Macau and seen the Portuguese colonial buildings, the azulejos, the calcadas and eaten the Portuguese tarts - but I had no idea how the Portuguese got to Macau. Slowly I've been piecing it all together - it's quite the job as the Portuguese made it to the most far-flung places and often didn't leave much behind.

Crowley maps the Portuguese progression clearly, occasionally I encountered sentences that made no sense or something mentioned in the narrative that would not be explained until much later. This is minor quibbling, Crowley, like Max Hastings, can condense a huge amount of information and turn it into a cohesive narrative. I’d say one of his strengths is relating the tactics of maritime battles. I’m sure he had a lot of help with the translation of original sources, his bibliography looks pretty thorough. Crowley's message is that the Portuguese were cruel and backwards compared with the civilizations of the East, but they were great navigators and incredibly determined and astute with the trump card of superior weaponry.
Profile Image for Andrew.
655 reviews183 followers
June 4, 2016
Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, is an interesting book by Roger Crowley on the Portuguese conquest of the Indian Ocean. The book follows the Portuguese conquest of Cueta in Morocco, through the journey's of exploration around the African coast, to the conquests of coastal cities on the Western coast of India, the city of Malacca in modern Malaysia, and Ormuz in Persia, amongst others. This is more of a narrative history, following the likes of Henry the Navigator, King Manual, de Gama and Albuquerque. Many of these individuals were courageous explorers, ruthless tacticians, and brutal conquerors. Following fidalgo traditions, the Portuguese did not take India lightly, and mixed ruthless diplomacy with brutal naval bombardments, massacres and genocide of Muslim subjects in India and piracy in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were obstinate in their early wars. They thought little of being outnumbered tenfold, and stubbornly took possession of territory, lost it due to infighting and betrayal, and then took it again. The Portuguese conquerors did not forgive slights, and led personal vendetta style attacks on their foes, the Mamluks in Egypt (at the time the rulers of Mecca and the guarantors of the Islamic trading sphere in India), the Ormuz Sultan, and the Samduri of Calicut.

This book was brutal and fascinating. It chronicles the rise of a peripheral and poor kingdom on the Western extremities of the Atlantic Ocean. This state had a personal vendetta against Islam, and the crusading spirit of the Portuguese led to brutal and horrifying massacres of entire Muslim populations in Western India.

Crowley does not take sides in this account, however. The reality of the conquest is explained in detail, and it is fascinating how such a small kingdom came to dominate the Indian Ocean so thoroughly, with underwhelming numbers and little financial clout. Their foes outnumbered them, had similar cannon and musket arms, and were familiar with the climate and geo-strategic needs of the area. The Portuguese fought back using terror. They burned trading vessels at sea, sacked coastal trading hubs from Africa to Malaysia, put thousands of innocents to the sword, and built and manned forts across a fifteen thousand mile span of ocean. They engaged in bitter infighting that often hampered their forward progress. But the indomitable will of megalomaniacs like Albuquerque and his compatriots seemed to win the day. Against many odds, the Portuguese came to dominate the Indian Ocean trade for over a century.

Conquerors is a book that at times was hard to enjoy. The accounts are both horrifying and fascinating. Crowley has done a good job laying out the facts, and engaging the narrative of each side in the conflict to try and remain unbiased. The book obviously deeply chronicles the early years of Portuguese conquests, and heavily favours such factors throughout. Even so, the book has done a good job showing the horrifying cost of conquest, and the intricate cultural world the Portuguese smashed to pieces. As a narrative history, the book relies primarily on accounts, quotes and letters from the time period these events took place. Therefore, the level of detail in many of the events is lacking. Crowley focus' on the personal courage and actions of the conquerors and conquered, but does not go into greater detail on the underpinnings of Portuguese success, which is sorely missed in this account.

All in all, however, this was a highly enjoyable narrative history of Portuguese conquests in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century. Crowley gives all the gruesome details, but it is difficult not to respect the indomitable will of this crusading state, with all its self righteousness, its brutal and thoughtless slaughter, and its ever hungry need for plunder. This book is recommended for those looking for a good narrative history, but I would hold back if a more detailed account is wanted. This book is a better as a background and introduction to the subject.
Profile Image for George.
60 reviews42 followers
July 15, 2016
"Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire" by Roger Crowley is a good introduction to Portugal's development of its maritime empire in the Indian Ocean.

This book covers approximately a 40-year period (1480 to 1520) and is primarily focused on the Portuguese point of view of the events described.

Portugal's armadas were the sharp "tip of the spear" of modern European colonialism that was erupting in the late 1400s and would impact world history for several centuries.

The small kingdom of Portugal, on the Iberian Peninsula (in southwestern Europe), had something to prove. Having driven out the Moors who had dominated their lands for several centuries, they had a "chip on their shoulder." King Manuel and his armada captains had big ambitions: To break the European spice trade monopoly controlled by the Venice-Alexandria axis. Their aim was to outflank the existing trade network by sailing directly to India via the southern tip of Africa. In terms of today's business language, the Portuguese crown developed a "disruptive innovation."

Indian ocean trade had existed for more than a thousand years prior to the Portuguese arrival. The armadas did not respect the people nor the trade networks they encountered. The Portuguese were violent, brutal, and orchestrated relentless acts of terror throughout the region. And they were successful: Lisbon became a trading hub to rival Venice. Yet, the cost of their "success" was their barbaric behavior. I wonder what would have happened if they had taken a more peaceful approach.

In some ways, the Portuguese development of their India spice trade empire reminded me of the Wright brothers' development of the airplane. Each developed a technology over several years, each kept its technology somewhat secret, each was successful, and each made mistakes in dealing with competitors.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about Portugal's development of its maritime empire in the Indian Ocean. I also recommend it to anyone interested in disruptive innovation.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Narrated by: Jonathan Davis
Length: 13 hours and 7 minutes
Release Date: 2015-12-01
Publisher: Recorded Books
Profile Image for Dimitri.
764 reviews191 followers
September 2, 2020
How "Boys Own" is this tale of the first generation of Portugese expansion? Crowley usually injects a bland pointer sentence of 4 words or less just before things go awry for Alfonso De Albuquerque, but his "Santiago!" fueled battle scenes roar.

The contrast between the cautious & cumbersome exploration of the African coasts until Vasco Da Gama and the self-confident, truly brutal entry upon the trade network of the Indian Ocean is felt.

So is the shift from a sheer cannon-centred approach to something more akin a game of thrones. The Portugese never lost their medieval mindset or crusading zeal, but after 20 years of peeling away layers of myth, the idea to crush the Muslim world in a pincher together with Prester John had taken a reality check. They were here to stay, to trade from a network of fortress factories ...but alongside the rest.

Do I miss anything ? A European context, perhaps, with more time spent in spice rival Venice and at courts reluctant to go crusadin'.
Profile Image for Maria Espadinha.
1,002 reviews351 followers
January 15, 2020
Paz à sua Alma

O Berço dum Império que já morreu.
Não contrariando expectativas, trata-se duma narrativa didáctica mas algo maçuda.

Para os apreciadores da nossa História!
Profile Image for Derek.
1,387 reviews42 followers
February 15, 2022
An extremely well-written yarn about Portuguese brutality in its age of exploration and empire building. I loved this book almost as much as I loved author’s book on Malta. I would have preferred slightly more analysis because I remain a little unsure about why Portugal was able to defeat such a broad coalition of opponents, which sometimes included Venice, Egypt and the Ottomans.
Profile Image for Sean.
320 reviews14 followers
April 18, 2018
This book blew my mind. Full stop. The Portuguese exploration of the African coastline and the race to conquer the Indian spice trade is at least as impressive a feat, and perhaps even more improbable, than America’s moon landing. That being said, their achievement is soaked in gore and nothing about this story is nice – death was a constant companion, and they had no qualms about killing. The men who faced down the Mamluks and conquered Goa, Cochin, and Malacca are aliens to the 21st century West, poor men living at the edge of the world, reared on provincial rivalries, acute violence, and religious intolerance. They were clever, brave, methodical, and hungry.

Some of the bits that caught my attention:

• “Our poor houses looked like pigsties compared to those of Ceuta[…]’ Two things worth pointing out here. First, the Portuguese spent as much time fighting the Muslim-held North Africa kingdoms as they did exploring the Indies. (Remarkably, Ceuta, a city just across the straits from Iberia, is still in European hands, albeit Spanish hands.) The Portuguese had developed a taste for fighting the Moors centuries earlier and couldn’t give it up. This desire to tilt at their southern neighbors meant resources for trade and exploration weren’t always available.
Second, these overseas expeditions weren’t the vanguard of a powerful empire (yet). These were poor men propelled by a violent inertia but keenly aware of their cultural inferiority.

• Weapons technology and use. “He had developed the use of large bombards on caravels and carried out test firings to determine their most effective use on the decks of pitching ships. The solution was to fire the guns horizontally at water level; any higher and the likelihood was that the shots would whistle overhead. In some cases, if the guns were positioned sufficiently low down in the bows, the cannonballs could be made to ricochet off the surface of the water, thus increasing their range. The Portuguese also developed berços, lightweight breech-loaded bronze swivel guns, which could be carried by ship’s boats and had the advantage over the conventional muzzle-loaders in their rate of fire—up to twenty shots an hour. The superiority of their artillery, which was augmented by recruitment of German and Flemish cannon founders and gunners, was to prove a telling advantage in the events about to unfold. “ It’s difficult to overstate how important their grasp of artillery, from foundry to doctrine, would prove for the Portuguese. Note that they didn’t bother aiming for the sails, something you see much later.

• How did they do that? “It is evident that by the end of the century, Portuguese navigators must have had a clear idea of how the winds of the southern Atlantic worked, but how they acquired this knowledge in the southwest quadrant of the sea remains unknown. The possibility of secret exploratory voyages in the interval since Dias’s return remains speculative; the confidence to commit the ships to the deep ocean, relying on solar navigation to judge position, must have come from somewhere.” You can’t sail around Africa by sticking to the coast. At a certain point, you have to venture West into the Atlantic – for hundreds and hundreds of miles – and then follow the prevailing winds back east. Only a lunatic would try this on purpose without some idea of what might happen.

• Not an office job. “The men would be fed on an unbalanced diet of biscuits, meat, oil and vinegar, beans, and salted fish—and fresh fish, when they could be caught. All foodstuffs deteriorated as the long days passed, the biscuits more wormy, the rats hungrier—though it was usual for ships to carry cats, and sometimes weasels, to control the rodent population. The one likely hot meal a day, if conditions were reasonable, would be cooked in a sandbox. It was not food that would run short but drinking water, which became increasingly foul as the voyage progressed and had to be mixed with vinegar. As the barrels emptied, they would be refilled with seawater to maintain the balance of the ship.”

• Not an office job, part two. “Increasingly emaciated, thirsty, sleep-deprived, and weakened by seasickness, those unused to the shipboard life succumbed to dysentery and fever, and, almost unnoticed, despite whatever dried fruit, onions, or beans were initially included in their diet before they became inedible, the whole crew experienced the slow but steady advance of the sailor’s disease. Without adequate vitamin C, symptoms present themselves after sixty-eight days; men start to die after eighty-four; in 111 days, scurvy wipes out a whole crew.”

• The Portuguese thought Hindu Indians were Christians – albeit odd Christians – for many years. “When they were shown a picture of Christ on the cross and his mother, “they prostrated themselves, and as long as we were there they came to say their prayers in front of it, bringing offerings of cloves, pepper, and other things.” Their ships evidently possessed cannons and gunpowder; they lit up the night sky with a spectacular display of rockets and bombards in honor of their coreligionists; their shouts of “Christ! Christ!” split the air, and they warned Gama, via an exchange in imperfect Arabic, neither to go ashore nor to trust Muslims. They were unlike any Christians the Portuguese had ever seen. “These Indians are tawny men,” he noted in his diary. “They wear but little clothing and have long beards and long hair, which they braid. They told us that they ate no beef.” In the midst of this cultural confusion, it is likely that these long-hoped-for coreligionists were actually shouting, “Krishna! Krishna!”

• Their initial experience of the Indian Ocean trading zone, running up the eastern coast of Africa, into the Red Sea, and down the Indian west coast, was disorienting. “The Portuguese had come to the Indian coast with their visors lowered. Hardened by decades of holy war in North Africa, their default strategies were suspicion, aggressive hostage taking, the half-drawn sword, and a simple binary choice between Christian and Muslim, which seemed genuinely not to have factored into calculation the existence of Hinduism. These impatient simplicities were ill suited to the complexities of the Indian Ocean, where Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and even Indian Christians were integrated into a polyethnic trading zone.

• Stories of the Chinese trading fleets lingered. These fleets had been recalled, and the Chinese had retreated from the outside world. “They also heard tales, dating back many years, of mysterious visitors who “wore their hair long like Germans, and had no beards except around the mouth.” Evidently these men had come with formidable technical resources. They landed, wearing a cuirass, helmet, and visor, and carrying a certain weapon attached to a spear. Their vessels are armed with bombards, shorter than those in use with us. Once every two years they return with twenty or twenty-five vessels. They are unable to tell what people they are, nor what merchandise they bring to this city, save that it includes very fine linen cloth and brass-ware. They load spices. Their vessels have four masts like those of Spain.”

• Venice, long the middleman of the Islamic spice traders plying the India route, found itself in the awkward position of a Christian nation working with Muslims to subvert the Portuguese. “Back in Venice, the diarist Girolamo Priuli predicted doom for his city if the Portuguese could buy spices at source and cut out the Islamic middlemen. “These new facts are of such importance to our city that I have been carried away with anxiety,” he wrote. And Manuel rubbed it in. He suggested to Il Cretico “that I should write to Your Serenity that from now on you should send your ships to carry spices from here.” It was the start of covert commercial war between Venice and Portugal, in which information was the key. “It is impossible to procure the map of that voyage,” Venetian spies reported. “The king has placed a death penalty on anyone who gives it out.”

• Gama here is Vasco de Gama, of elementary school fame. These guys didn’t mess around – this is how they made a deal. “But Gama had not finished. Late in the evening, to speed things up and to increase the terror, he ordered all the bodies hanging from the yards to be hauled down. Their heads, hands, and feet were cut off and the truncated corpses thrown into the sea. The decapitated body parts were stowed in one of the fishing craft. A letter was drafted, translated into Malayalam, and fixed by an arrow to the prow; the boat was then towed toward the beach. The letter read: I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce. And here is the produce of this country. I am sending you this present now. It is also for your king. If you want our friendship you must pay for everything that you have taken in this port under your guarantee. Furthermore you will pay for the powder and the cannon balls that you have made us spend. If you do that, we will immediately be friends.”

There’s a good deal more. For example, the story of how a few hundred men held off an army of many tens of thousands because their commander had watched the tides and knew how to position his men to fend off their opponents, or the story of an angry and prideful captain who stormed a town armed with a cane (he didn’t make it).

I can’t recommend this highly enough. Crowley is a fine writer and the book reads like a novel.
Profile Image for Vicky Hunt.
771 reviews44 followers
August 23, 2018
With Pen and Sword

From the voyages of the Chinese Star ships (and the genetic traces China left behind) to the arrival of the Caravels and Carracks of Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco de Gama, Alphonso de Albuquerque, and Dom Francisco de Almeida on the Malibar Coast; Roger Crowley masterfully unveils the world of the Indian Ocean and the magnificence of the coveted spice trade from India. But, these traders brought overwhelming firepower to the table. The Portuguese under Manuel I of Portugal launched a large scale effort to dominate the market and drive out the Muslim trade.

“Portugal is very poor; and when the poor are covetous, they become oppressors.”

In the early half of the 15th Century, China had mapped much of the area with their treasure fleets in a soft show of power. (They had mapped Africa as roughly a triangle with a great lake in the middle as early as the 14th Century.) But, once they stopped exploration with the end of the Ming Dynasty, and Constantinople fell to the Muslims, Venice dominated the European market for spices from India, controlled by the Muslims.

This of course was the root reason for the frantic search for alternate routes to India that was prevalent at the time of Columbus’ voyage in the last decade of the 1400’s, the period now known as the Age of Discovery. But, Portugal was absorbed with finding a route around the tip of Africa, and Portuguese sailors unlocked the riddle of the winds, jettisoning out into the Ocean, around the Cape of Africa, opening up that trade route for a new spice market in Lisbon that would propel Portugal to the level of the first Global Empire the world had ever seen. This became enmeshed inextricably with a crusade to hook up with a mythical Christian King called Prestor John and wipe out the Islamic Empire from both sides.

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire tells the story of how a tiny marginalized country on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, blocked off from Mediterranean trade routes, discovered the Southern Hemisphere with a pen and a sword, from the prow of Europe. They monopolized that market for over a century, and Western domination would continue for a couple more centuries. The book goes into many details of the India Venture: such as the Battle of Mombasa, the spice fleets, fortification, ship artillery, and all that came with this globalization of trade that ushered in the modern age. I am left to mull over the deeds of these piratical “grasping tyrants” while I sip my coffee, and enjoy cinnamon in my tea, and sugar’s fine appeal in all its many forms.

I read this book as part of my Journey Around the World in 80 Books Voyage for 2018, and I highly recommend it as something that would be the perfect starting place for anyone delving into the history of this time period. It really is the perfect history of the beginning of modernity. I will be leaving my view of the two stout Portuguese carracks: Sao Gabriel and Sao Raphael, with their angelic sails in the wind, as I turn toward Spain for a view of the Mediterranean Sea. But, I won’t lose sight of the discovery, as I’ll be visiting the court of Isabella.
Profile Image for Tariq Mahmood.
Author 2 books1,023 followers
February 8, 2017
This invaluable book of a most intriguing time in history when a tiny and poor European country managed to almost dethrone the main enemy of Christian Europe by strangling the rich spice trade away from the Mamluk sultans of the Muslims. The book also explains 'gunboat diplomacy' in quite some detail. How the Portuguese with their ships, guns and muskets posed as extraterrestrial beings appeared in the coasts of Africa, India, and the Middle East to plunder in the name of 'trade' completely disregarding local cultural values choosing to enforce their terms based on their superior firepower. Again and again, local ports are attacked and pillaged in the name of their King and Christianity, repeating in many port cities enforcing the colonist will of their king.

The book is written such that it reads like a story, engaging and captivating as it presents the very riveting set of events which are mostly historical footnotes. The book is a must read for all historical buffs eager to understand how 'free trade' was established by the West. The narrative style of history clearly explains the mindset of the Portuguese before diplomacy and political correctness was refined to its current state.
Profile Image for Natali.
413 reviews302 followers
January 8, 2020
It is amazing to read this book knowing that 500 years after these events Portugal would be named the 3rd most peaceful country in the world on the Global Peace Index. The inception of the empire was anything but peaceful and the author tells the tale of Portugal as pirate terrorists, forcing their way into the spice trade through unspeakable violence and cultural insensitivities. It is a book about the inception of globalization by way of Game of Throne style battles that actually happened, bloody and barbaric and true. It is a wonderfully written book but tough to read.

And yet, this is a country that learns its lessons. Centuries later, Portugal would so protect its neutrality that it flew its flag at half mass for Hitler’s death because neutral is neutral. The revolution in the 1970s was notorious for it’s bloodlessness. And now the Portugueses are fierce in their protection of peace instead. I can’t say how a country makes this turnabout but I can only say that it is a remarkable thing to behold.

I am glad to have read this book and have very high regard for the research it must have taken to write it. It is a page-turning historical masterpiece and I would definitely seek out the author’s other works.
Profile Image for Viola.
330 reviews48 followers
December 15, 2019
Neliels ieskats Portugāles vēsturē. Lasot gramatas par lielajiem ģeogrāfiskajiem atklājumiem sāk likties,ka liela daļa šo jūrasbraucēju bijuši sapņotāji ar putniem galvā.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,785 reviews191 followers
October 13, 2015

‘How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the First Global Empire’

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.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Chrisl.
607 reviews87 followers
February 21, 2016
Five hundred years ago, the exploring ships of Portugal were the first Christians to get east of Islam, establishing their Indian Ocean empire. By reading Crowley, and learning more about the Christian Fanatic Empire Builders, I think of them rather like Comanche in Caravels, with German cannon.

A Quote from mid-book, when the some Portugal ships first arrived near the Islamic heartland, around the Persian Gulf :

"Some of the ports along the Omani coast submitted meekly. Others resisted and were sacked. Swarms of criminalized seamen from the Lisbon jails looted, murdered, and burned. Exemplary terror was a weapon of war, intended to soften up resistance farther down the coast. In this fashion, a string of small ports went up in flames. In each one the mosque would be routinely destroyed ... "

Profile Image for Stephen.
1,501 reviews92 followers
October 25, 2019
Roger Crowley’s Conquerors is a history that starts with hope and ends in horror, at least of the slasher-film kind. Suffice it to say, if you ever chance to meet a 15th century Portuguese officer while time-traveling, run for your life. The story opens with Portugal, recently triumphant in its bid to push the Moors back into northern Africa, joining the hunt for the Indies, but once it finds them…..well, it’s not pretty.

In the 16th century, Europe was waking up; its princes were no longer warlords, but instead men with increasing coffers and confidence. New ideas were opening the doors to prosperity, and creating tools that could create even more. Across the world, the nations of Europe knew, there are spice-kingdoms — but access to them was closed by the Ottoman Empire, now having finally taken Constantinople. What few shipments trickled through the hands of Venetian middlemen through their Arab contacts were enormously expensive. All those who could afford it wanted to find another way — and while Columbus decided to sail west, into the great unknown, on a chance that the world was smaller than the experts said it was (it wasn’t), Portugal worked to find a way east, around a similar great unknown: Africa. But just as Columbus’ trip west mixed glory and blood, so to did the Portuguese endeavors.

The mayhem begins, as it often does, in mutual misunderstanding. The Portuguese lived in a world where Europe was constantly under siege from a foreign threat, with a Moorish hold on southern Iberia and the powerful Ottoman empire controlling most of eastern Europe. When the Portuguese arrived in the Indian ocean, they brought their fear and battle-rage with them. Their attempts to purchase spices were undermined by Arab merchants serving as translators, who looked askance at any competition. Instead of viewing this as commercial rivalry, Crowley writes, the Portuguese saw the merchants through the narrow visor of a war helmet. Bombards were introduced, and within a short time the Portuguese have declared an all-out war against any Muslim activity in the Indian Ocean, quickly ratcheting up both the numbers of ships they sent and the mound of bloodshed and horror they were willing to inflict on those who did not acknowledge their new lord in the king of Portugal. The various nations and small states around the Indian ocean, both African and Asian, were baffled and horrified when the Portuguese began seizing ships — not to take as booty, but simply to destroy. They also began imposing a tax and granting safe-conduct passes to friendly ships, with unbelievable arrogance. Although I already knew there’s nothing like war to completely pull the civilized shroud off a human being – -we are worse than chimpanzees once the fury of battle has overtaken us — there are plenty of reminders here of humanity at its worse, from the firing of ships with innocent pilgrims aboard (including women and children), to the deliberate torture and desecration of those who would not comply.

On the one hand, Conquerors is very readable narrative history, especially for readers without a trace of knowledge about the subject; I knew vanishingly little about Portugal beyond its role in the Napoleonic war. The early sections chronicling their determined and often mortal attempts to chart the extent of Africa, and see if there was a way through it or around it, are inspiring. But the bloodshed that follows and dominates most of the history make it feel like a slasher film, with the Portuguese playing the implacable monster that won’t stop hunting the main characters — and once the various powers of the Indian ocean realize they had to fight, things get even bloodier.


If you want more bloodshed, try John Keay’s The Spice Route , which chronicles not only the wars Portugal raised in the Indian Ocean, but the conflicts that then pursued between Spain and Portugal, then the English and Dutch. Spice and greed drive human beings barking mad.

Roger Crowley has written other books, including City of Fortune , a history of Venice.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,228 reviews625 followers
December 3, 2015
I had very high expectations from this one based on the author's earlier books I've read or am currently reading (the siege of Constantinople and a history of Venice are both excellent and the book about Lepanto seems quite good also) and the book starts very well with the early years of Portuguese exploration after they defeated the Moors at Ceuta (in Marocco) in early 1400's and got a hold on the North African coast, while later slowly going down the coast, exploring the inland rivers, some up to 500 miles upstream

then the now obscure 1480's Dias voyage which established fairly conclusively that despite Ptolemaic geography, Africa was indeed separated by a presumed Antarctic continent so it could be gone around and the way to India was doable, while also showing how to actually do it by swinging in the mid-Atlantic and going South and only at very southern latitudes turn east towards Africa (way which led to the discovery of Brazil in 1500, so immediately after Da Gama pioneering voyage of 1498 - the included maps showing this clearly)

while the Da Gama voyage is relatively well covered too, after that the story starts becoming much more confusing and the book starts even having occasional repetitive paragraphs which become a bit annoying after a while; still the remarkable way how this small nation mobilized itself so extensively after Da Gama came back and started sending annual expedition of considerable size and then with two commanders in chief of considerable military and organizational ability, started actually devising a strategy of domination (taking strategic points which were easy to provision from water and hard to reach from land - Goa is the prime example but there were others - and holding them with forts and guns, while playing on the rivalries and conflicts of the local rulers and making strategic alliances) is also well covered, but then the book sort of ends in the 1515-1520 period with just a little about the century of Portuguese dominance and nothing really about how that was ended by the Dutch (and later English), though some Portuguese strongholds remained until mid 20th century

Overall a great start and a reasonably good follow-up, but an abrupt ending that reads like the book stops in the middle - also with lots of end-notes the book is quite short as pages go too; I would say that for someone not familiar with this story, the book would probably work better than it worked for me, but while the details of what followed after Da Gama's groundbreaking expedition were to a large extent new for me, I really expected more
Profile Image for Maria.
920 reviews102 followers
March 16, 2016
"...Apesar de todo o seu feito e da sua estratégia militar em ter procurado fechar todas as passagens navais para o Índico, foi destituído de governador por D. Manuel I, o que o deixou desiludido com o monarca, morrendo pouco tempo depois.

«Os meus pecados certamente são grandes para o rei. Condena-me pelo amor pelos homens, e os homens condem-me pelo amor que tenho ao rei.»

Acompanhado de imagens, cartas e de uma extensa bibliografia. Conquistadores de Roger Crowley é um relato emocionante dos feitos dos portugueses pelos mares nunca dantes navegados. Um povo pobre, mas cuja bravura fez com que desejasse conhecer novos mundos e daí extrair ouro, especiarias e implementar a nossa cultura a outros povos.

Muito bom. "

Opinião completa em: http://marcadordelivros.blogspot.pt/2...
Profile Image for Taylor Pearson.
Author 3 books721 followers
May 5, 2020
I went to Portugal at the beginning of the year and anytime I take a trip somewhere, I try to pick up and read at least one book on the place (Wikipedia pages are also fantastic). Conquerors is the tail of how the tiny Portuguese nation, sidelines and far out on the edge of Europe for its entire history, rose, over a period of decades to be a truly global empire, controlling the seas from East to West.

This book is wonderfully written and gripping, reading more like a Tom Clancy novel than a nonfiction book. The work covers the era from Vasco de Gama until the death of Albuquerque, a span of only a few decades. In that short stretch of time, Portugal managed to blast her way into an imperial control of the Indian Ocean and the vast wealth derived from the trade there.

What I did not realize was the extent to which the European colonization era which began with Portugal rounding the Cape of Africa, was in large part an outgrowth of the Crusades. Though the motivation of the footsoldiers was more economic, the motivation of the King and Generals was largely religious zeal. They saw it as their destiny to reach Jerusalem from the Indian Ocean and complete the work of the Crusade.

Though they failed in that, they did conquer the Indian subcontinent. Also striking was how hard it was to rule an empire reached only by a 24,000-mile round trip using mail. At best, a note to or from the King would take a year and a half to be answered. The telegraph machine was truly a world-changing piece of technology to reduce the OODA Loop.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
488 reviews676 followers
August 15, 2020
Without specific intention, I seem to have turned into a Roger Crowley fanboy, as shown by that I have now read every one of his books. Crowley is a British maritime historian, all of whose books are tied to the Mediterranean in the pre-modern portion of the second millennium, many centering around the interaction of Christianity and Islam. Conquerors is somewhat of a departure—still a maritime history, even more so than most of his books, but focused not on the Mediterranean, instead on the nearly unbelievable accomplishments of the Portuguese in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans between 1490 and 1520. Crowley makes the colorful, dramatic, and heroic deeds of the Portuguese leap off the page.

It is this type of history that schoolchildren should be taught, though of course in today’s America they are not, rather being stuffed with a nasty mix of lies and the celebration of people of no consequence. (Some are still taught truth: those who will probably, or hopefully, be tomorrow’s ruling class, when our current ruling class has been defenestrated.) When I was in Lisbon two years ago, in the good old days when one could travel, before the Wuhan Plague and the stupid feminized reactions to it upended the world, I spent quite a bit of time in the city’s port area, where the River Tagus empties into the Atlantic, and from where the great Portuguese expeditions departed. There, in 1960, to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese built the Discoveries Monument.

The monument is a stylized ship, in limestone, along the prow of which are lined up sculptures of the important men of the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Thirty-one of them, together with one woman, the mother of Henry the Navigator—Queen Philippa, born English, the oldest child of John of Gaunt and sister to Henry IV. The sculptures celebrate these men, without apology, who range from Vasco da Gama; to his son Christopher, who led a successful crusade in Ethiopia against Muslims terrorizing Christians; to men more obscure, such as Pedro Nunes, great mathematician of navigation. Many of the men on the sculpture feature in this book; I wish I had read Conquerors before I went to Lisbon, since I would have grasped the pride of the Portuguese in their heroes better. (And on a side note: we flew the Portuguese national airline, TAP. It was incredible. It was a joyous, fun experience, like flying in the 1980s. There was no attempt to minutely control the passengers in the interests of fake security; there were no constant fascist demands blaring overhead to not get up and to not dare stand near anyone else; the flight attendants were not surly fat women and male homosexuals, but friendly young women, no doubt many looking for husbands. Fly TAP if you can!)

The incredible story of Portuguese expansion began in 1415, when the Portuguese took the Moroccan port of Ceuta by storm, despite it being viewed as an impregnable Muslim position. The Muslims of North Africa were numerous, rich and powerful; the Portuguese had maybe a million people and were too poor to even mint gold coins, scraping out a national living by fishing and subsistence farming. The new king, John I, who had seized the crown in the face of Castilian objection, was ambitious and correctly saw this mini-crusade as a way to externally direct the chivalric energies of the Portuguese nobility, all eager to continue the success of the Reconquista against the enemies of Christ who had occupied Christian lands for too long (and who to this day, unfortunately, occupy too many). John and Philippa’s son, the famous Henry the Navigator, fought in Ceuta, and it was he who began the Portuguese thrust into the Atlantic and down the west coast of Africa, thereby earning his sobriquet. The crown directed and paid for these expeditions, hoping both for gold and glory, and, critically, insisted on centralized collection of information that was then kept under lock and key, but used to plan and guide the next expedition.

The Portuguese, and all Westerners, knew little about sub-Saharan Africa. Two legendary kingdoms fired their imagination—that of Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali and supposedly fabulously wealthy from his control of the gold trade, and that of Prester John, supposedly a mighty Christian king. The Portuguese hoped to find rivers that allowed eastward transit of Africa to the lands of these kings, and to gain from both connections. Of course, they were to be disappointed. Mansa Musa did exist, and Mali probably was fairly wealthy for a second-rate kingdom (though Mansa Musa is often bizarrely held up now, in these ethnonarcissist days, as the richest man to ever live). Prester John did not exist. Navigable rivers did not exist, either, so the Portuguese kept going south, expedition after expedition, leaving stone monuments at each point reached, looking for gold, allies, and rivers. John I died in 1481, and was succeeded by John II, the “Perfect Prince” (or as Isabella of Castile referred to him, “The Man”), who presided over the most glorious period of Portuguese expansion.

John II was also the Portuguese king who showed Christopher Columbus the door, whereupon, as we all used to know, he petitioned John’s Spanish rivals, Ferdinand and Isabella. By this time, the Portuguese were well aware of the possibility of reaching Asia by going around Africa, but they did not know exactly when they would round Africa, since they were the first to explore the west coast of Africa. In 1486, Diego Cão turned back at Cape Cross, in modern Namibia. The Portuguese were still probing inland as they went. Never daunted, they kept sending small teams of men up rivers and across deserts, many or most of which did not return. A hundred miles upstream the Congo River, for example, in 1911 a marker carved by men from Cão’s expedition was discovered, high on a cliff, where they were stopped from going further by rapids and waterfalls. The men never returned; the inscription is broken off in mid-sentence, and no record of this trip inland resides in the Portuguese records. Yet they kept forging ahead. King John even sent engineers to destroy the rocks that formed rapids on the Gambia. The engineers failed, but it never seems to have occurred to them to do otherwise. More than anything else, this attitude, of seeing no limits to what men of spirit and drive can do, is what makes the difference in civilizational success, or at least civilizational accomplishment. Think of fifteenth-century Portugal as a country filled with saner Elon Musks.

Following Cão’s return, John II sent out Bartholomew Dias, in 1487. These were still small expeditions, two or three ships. Dias, when he reached Namibia, for reasons nobody knows, perhaps intuition, perhaps calculation, sailed west, into the wide and uncharted ocean. Not a little west—a thousand miles west, deep into the Antarctic cold. And then back, around the Cape, though out of view of the Cape, and anchoring on the east coast of what is now South Africa. He turned back, then, but he was still the first man to round the Cape, and this maneuver is what made it possible, when hugging the coast would have resulted in being blocked by contrary winds.

John II did not follow up this success immediately, however, tied up dealing with campaigning in Morocco against the Muslims, and with an influx of Jews moving to Portugal in 1492, those who had refused to convert to Christianity at the command of Ferdinand and Isabella (who, soon enough, in 1496 were given the same hard choice by the Portuguese). In this time, Columbus sailed to the New World and returned, and the Portuguese and Spanish sparred over who would control what areas of the globe—a matter settled at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, where the Pope drew a longitudinal line between the two powers. The Spanish got most of the New World (except Brazil, which is why it speaks Portuguese today, although it had not been discovered in 1494). The Portuguese, barred from going west, got a new incentive to round Africa.

King John died in 1495, and was succeeded by his cousin, Manuel, “The Fortunate,” his only legitimate son having died in a horse-riding accident. (That sort of thing was surprisingly common; we forget that horses, and coaches, were actually quite dangerous, even into the twentieth century.) Manuel saw himself as God’s instrument to accomplish both God’s glory and Portuguese glory, between which he did not much distinguish, which seems odd to us but historically was a very winning strategy for everyone involved. By this time, exploration had already enriched Lisbon, so that the crown was able to finance bigger and better expeditions, and the city had been transformed from a backwater to a sparkling hub of activity, where the Fuggers opened a branch to provide banking services to the newly wealthy Portuguese. Given his drive and new opportunities, one of Manuel’s first acts was to finance a large and carefully planned expedition, to be led by Vasco da Gama, the most remembered of the Portuguese explorers, in part because he kept a detailed journal, unlike Dias, who was largely forgotten for quite a long time. (I bought a copy of Gama’s journal, translated, published by the Hakluyt Society in 1898, and available, like a vast range of similar books published over the past century and more by the Society, in a high-quality reprint. It is fascinating.) He sailed to Kenya, then across the Indian Ocean, to Calicut in India, a major trading center, including for spices imported from yet further east. This inaugurated the Portuguese dominance of the Indian Ocean trade, and the rest of Crowley’s book is a tale of how this was finally accomplished and Portuguese power cemented.

In short, it was accomplished by violence in the service of dominating trade, with a large side helping of beating down the Muslims, in the form of the decayed Mamluk sultanate, on principle. The Mamluks exercised a vague suzerainty over the Muslims of the Malabar Coast, who were directly ruled by Hindu overlords in a mostly peaceful symbiosis. The Portuguese arrived knowing essentially nothing about the cultures, trade networks, or anything else of the Indian Ocean. For some time, they thought that Hindus were merely a particularly odd and heretical sect of Christians, since they had never heard of such a religion. What made the Portuguese succeed was a combination of technology, which both in shipfaring and weapons far exceeded anything the Muslim or Indian world could offer, and attitude, of willingness to take existential risks at the drop of a hat, eagerness to fight, and disinterest in compromise.

Having bullied a series of local lords, loaded up on spices, and generally disrupted every place he landed, Gama wound his way home, discovering that it was nearly impossible to return to Portugal except at specific seasons, dictated by the monsoon winds. This reality would govern later Portuguese policy, because it meant whoever was in charge in the Indian Ocean had only very intermittent contact with the king, and could in practice do largely as he pleased, for good and bad.

King Manuel, no fool, upon Gama’s return quickly outfitted a large and powerful return expedition. Between 1500 and 1505, Manuel sent eighty-one ships, with the goals both of trade and conquest, with expeditions led by Gama and by others. As before, massive volumes of information were collected, centralized, and synthesized, all to the benefit of Portugal. Not everyone at court thought this was a wise investment, but Manuel was not interested in the opinions of others. Other Europeans weren’t happy, either, especially the Venetians, who had a cozy trading relationship with the Mamluks that allowed them to monopolize the spice trade, a monopoly the Portuguese were threatening both by providing an alternative route to market and by providing cheaper spices by cutting out middlemen. The Mamluks were least happy of all, especially when the Portuguese blockaded the Red Sea, and were confused how the “Franks” had gotten to the Indian Ocean, attributing it to their ability to breach a mythical wall constructed by Alexander the Great barring access.

In 1503, overall command of the Indian Ocean was given to Afonso de Albuquerque, the man most responsible for shaping Portuguese dominion in the area. He was super-competent, and he knew it. Albuquerque had many excellent subordinates, as well—for example, men who were not afraid to remain behind facing overwhelming odds in a small fort, knowing it would be half a year before a new Portuguese fleet could relieve them. Albuquerque tirelessly organized the Portuguese presence to seek all the crown’s goals, which were always twin—riches, and crushing the Muslim foe, with the ultimate aim of restoring the Holy Land. His enemies were many, and not just among foreigners—the Portuguese, like the Spanish, and perhaps like any group of wildly ambitious men reaching for the main chance, engaged in fierce infighting and jockeying for internal power and advantage, so Albuquerque was always busy, and always using all his talents.

Albuquerque sailed up the Indian coast, establishing forts and trading partnerships, mostly by coercion and playing off one Hindu prince against another, sometimes by defeating Mamluk fleets, and across to the Arabian Peninsula, capturing Ormuz, then sailing up the Red Sea. Crowley narrates numerous skirmishes and battles, which may sound boring, but in his hands is not. The Mamluks were no match for the Portuguese at sea; nonetheless, the Portuguese were prevented from total victory both by having little land presence or soldiery outside the coasts, and by their habit of letting their lust for glory hamper their better tactical judgment—preferring to close with Mamluk ships and fight hand-to-hand, rather than simply standing off and pounding them with their far-superior cannon. Yet Albuquerque ground all his enemies down, and gradually established a permanent Portuguese presence in India, among other things encouraging marriage with local women, creating a Christianized population in several areas of critical importance—most of all Goa, which the Portuguese held until 1961, when they were forced to give it up. At the same time, they kept up the pressure on the Mamluks. They even reached Ethiopia, a Christian kingdom, and met a king whom they thought of as Prester John—a monarch hemmed in by Muslim enemies, and a sad comedown from the all-conquering king of legend.

From their rapidly-consolidated dominance . . . . [review completes as first comment].
Profile Image for Harikrishnan Tulsidas.
Author 1 book5 followers
April 1, 2016
Five hundred years of European domination of the oceans. This was set into its course by a “tiny marginalized” Portugal. How could this tiny nation do what the great powers of Europe at that time could not even imagine? Portugal made ‘discovery’ a matter of state policy and put in place a robust system for acquiring knowledge and applying it.

The real aim was to break the Mamluk - Venetian trade monopoly on spices and other trade from India, though religious zealotry of defeating Islamic power and recapturing Jerusalem was also put forward as a lofty objective. Middle ages Europe had some vague notions of a powerful eastern Christian king called ‘Prester John’, teaming up could be the answer to take back lost Jerusalem. With these aims in forefront, the Portuguese fleet broke the calm of the Indian Ocean and dug the foundations of modern day colonization.

It was Bartolomeu Dias who perfected a novel technique to swing around the southern tip of Africa to enter Indian Ocean. But he had to return before reaching India. Better equipped and prepared Vasco da Gama was successful and land in Kappad beach on 20 May 1498. India never considered this spot as important and today an obscure stone monument with inscription "Vasco da Gama landed here, Kappakadavu, in the year 1498." Later in nearby Calicut Vasco da Gama kneeled before a Hindu temple mistaking the image inside for “Our Lady” and “tawny” inhabitants as some heretical Christian sect.

Non-European countries do not see these historic acts of exploration and discovery in a good light. This is understandable. But Europeans also jeered at the “grocer king” of Portugal, even though they also followed a century later and excelled in setting up grocery shops all over the east.

The story moves to the exploits of Afonso de Albuquerque, who was instrumental in firmly establishing Portuguese power in Indian Ocean. Albuquerque captured Goa and established the first overseas territory of Europe in the east. He encouraged his men marry local women and established an unique multi-racial culture in India, a theme that was resisted by a section of Portuguese, including the clergy. Had this experiment been more widespread the story of colonization would have taken a different hue.

Albuquerque toiled for nearly a decade as Governor of India to strengthen the foundations of the new empire, often with very little support from Lisbon. He died in Goa drawing curtains on an era of discovery which was never reenacted again.

Prose of this book has a poetical quality, that could leave one with the saltiness of the raging oceans, breeze of the palm fringed coasts and the rage of valiant explorers who changed the history of the planet to join two worlds.
Profile Image for Omar Ali.
218 reviews196 followers
May 8, 2016
A great read. A detailed and fair account of the rise of the Portuguese empire; violent, vicious, greedy, fanatically religious and cruel..but also very capable and almost insanely courageous and venturesome. A great story, though he ends it rather abruptly and with a less than satisfying epilogue. Also, don't expect data..
Profile Image for Todd Payne.
39 reviews
April 1, 2017
Gripping account of Portuguese conquistadors whose accomplishments, and reign of terror, equaled those of their Spanish rivals but seem somehow less known. Inspires one to learn more about the peaceful Chinese expeditions to the Indian Ocean before they burned their ships and closed off their society -- the exact opposite of their European counterparts.
Profile Image for Sorin Hadârcă.
Author 3 books210 followers
May 15, 2017
Amazing how Crowley narrates the events of long ago, as if everything has happened just about now. No deed goes unnoticed, no account neglected, and all that in good perspective.
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