HOLY WAR by Nigel Cliff


How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations
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Historian and Economist contributor Cliff (The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in Nineteenth Century America, 2007) presents Portugal’s outreach to India as a deployment by a fundamentalist Christian monarchy against Islam.

The author offers shocking documentation that Vasco da Gama's voyages to India's east coast were not only aimed at the spice trade of the merchants whose annual, monsoon-driven convoys kept the European supplied from Venice. In addition, King Manuel’s ambition “required India’s rulers to switch their entire trade to the West and oust every last Muslim from their lands,” just as his own kingdom and the neighboring Spanish monarchs were then doing to their Moorish and Jewish subjects. Scrupulous attention to coastal navigation was combined with overland exploration by undercover agents to investigate the structure of the trade routes. Both strands succeeded, but not completely—nobody was able to discover the mythical Prester John and his kingdom. For failing in this respect, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who mapped India's east coast and its ports, was disgraced on his return Portugal. Covilha, one of Manuel's spies, was afraid to return and was discovered, many years later, in Ethiopia. Superstition may have provided part of the fuel for the project, but there was nothing fantastical about the gunpowder and shot of Gama's cannons, and the brutality applied to the Zamorin of Calicut and his people on his next return. Throughout the narrative, Cliff examines the roots of many succeeding atrocities and massacres, all levers in the service of opening foreign markets to competition and securing what even then was called “fair trade.”

A useful addition to a continuing lively discussion of Christianity and Islam, situated both in respect of religions and culture, as well as empires and trade.


Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-173512-7
Page count: 560pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2011


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