Portugal’s bloody, defiant imperial adventure.
In a riveting narrative, Crowley (City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, 2012, etc.) chronicles Portugal’s horrifically violent trajectory from “impoverished, marginal” nation to European power, vying with Spain and Venice to dominate the spice trade. The story begins in 1479, when Spanish and Portuguese delegates met in Tordesillas, Spain, “to bargain for the world.” The rival countries, intent on finding a sea route to the Indies, “simply cut the globe in two with a vertical line through the Atlantic Ocean.” With Isabella and Ferdinand funding explorers such as the “unreliable fabulist” Columbus, King Manuel of Portugal made his own grand plans. “Manuel,” writes the author, “was incapable of distinguishing men of true merit from the inept, the corrupt, and the self-interested.” Among the worst was the ferocious Vasco da Gama, angry, short-tempered, and a fanatical hater of Muslims. He became the face of Portugal for sultans, villagers, and seamen as his fleet pillaged, threatened, murdered, and dismembered in their assault on Africa and India. Crowley describes in gory detail Portugal’s collision with “a polyethnic world…more deeply layered and complex” than they could understand, a world that fueled the “deeply rooted idea of holy war as a Portuguese vocation.” The author also vividly re-creates the dire conditions endured by explorers and their crews. Food deteriorated, and worms devoured biscuits and meat as well as the boards of ships; drinking water became increasingly foul, and scurvy could wipe out an entire crew in 111 days. The Portuguese project came to be overseen by Afonso de Albuquerque, a “highly intelligent, tortured man” who applied the nation’s technological expertise to a flexible strategy of defensible forts, a network of bases, and “the necessity for exemplary violence” against Muslims.
An impressive history of global clashes, religious zealotry, and economic triumph.