Book Review: Conquerers, How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley

Conquerers: How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the first Global Empire by Roger Crowley ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 7/10

Portugal has had, in many ways, a troubled history. At the extreme west of Europe, facing the Atlantic Ocean, the country has always seemed far from the action. On the edge of the Roman Empire, with no direct access to the Mediterranean, it was seen as a bit of a backwater. In later history, it also had a difficult relationship with Spain.

And yet, in the modern age, it became the first European country to build a global empire. This book sets out to explain how that came about. In the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the real wealth in Europe belonged to the maritime powers of the Eastern Mediterranean, principally Venice and the Italian cities. Their strength was their very location. They were able to dominate trade with the Levant and Egypt, monopolising the supply of products which came from the East that were so coveted by a growing middle class with money to spend on luxuries.

Venice and her competitors acquired these goods in the Middle East, but they arrived there via a complex trading system that had existed, in some form, for well over a thousand years. The Silk Roads through Central Asia were important, but perhaps more significant were the sea-borne routes through the Red Sea to Africa, India and beyond. Europeans – even the Venetians – knew very little about this world, and what they did know was mostly wrong.

The trade system in the Indian Ocean was vastly complex and also remarkably efficient. It involved hundreds of small states and cities, thousands of ships, and merchants of all nationalities and faiths working together – mostly peacefully – for the benefit of them all. Given the hatred in parts of Europe for Islam and their almost total ignorance of the other faiths in the East, any direct meeting between this system and Europeans in any numbers was likely to be difficult.

There are really two parallel stories describing what happened next; the one which recounts the remarkable story of men setting out on tiny ships to cross vast amounts of ocean about which they knew more myths than facts. The other about a culture setting out to impose their own faith and way of life on anyone they came across. The first is an inspiring tale; the second is far from it.

Portugal and Spain looked at the wealth being created in the Eastern Mediterranean with envy, but knew they were in the wrong place to compete in the trade. However, if they could find an alternative way to reach the source of the products flooding through the markets of Venice, they could strangle those markets. So, with little knowledge, and a lot of hope and faith, they set out to find that way; Spain going west, Portugal heading east.

The Portuguese started exploring down the west coast of Africa, eventually finding a way around the southern tip, and working their way up the east coast. After that, they crossed the Indian Ocean, finally setting foot in India. These voyages were remarkable feats; testing men and ships to the limit of endurance – often beyond. The mariners and map-makers were sailing into the unknown, and some of their stories and beliefs are highly amusing.

Unfortunately, to modern eyes, all this is sullied by the attitudes that went with it. Yes, it was done in the name of profit; the goal, after all, was to find a new route to the Indies. But as with Spain, the whole venture was also a crusading one. The search for wealth went hand in hand with an aggressive religious zeal that brooked no compromise. Particularly in India, there was a delicate, but stable, balance of faiths and races, who lived fairly peacefully. The Portuguese didn’t understand this, made no attempt to understand it – it was many years before they even realised the existence of Hindus, initially believing them to be an errant form of Christians!

The result was that they went in with aggression rather than trade first in their mind. They took what they wanted and demanded fealty to the King rather than diplomatic treaties. The same attitude can be seen in Spain’s conquest of the Americas; both were in the business of religious conversion by force. It is the fundamental difference between the Iberian empires and those of Northern Europe. Both Portugal and Spain build large empires, and draw huge amounts of wealth from them. But it is the Northern Empires which endure longer, based as they were on long term trade relationships rather than short term plunder. (Although ultimately no better for that.)

The book is a strong narrative telling of this story. It is a story of a number of amazing men – though not many are likeable – and incredible journeys. A story of complete culture shock experienced by both the Portugese and the peoples they encounter, who cannot, and often, will not, try to understand one another. It is told chronologically, and there is a great deal of first hand testimony, much of it fascinating.

The main characters are interesting men, often zealous, often violent, but also generally intelligent enough to gradually realise that they needed pragmatism to survive. Often reporting to monarchs who were control freaks, their freedom of action was limited, and the correspondence between these two extremes – often taking two years – is in turn moving and amusing.

The author uses the material well; the story moves along at a good pace, with the right amount of supporting material. I found myself wincing occasionally at the arrogance – and ignorance – shown by the Portugese; at times it was quite depressing to see the inevitable results of mutual  cultural incomprehension.

Portugal retained her empire for a hundred years or so, and a few outposts until quite recently, but the seeds of its collapse can be seen in its very foundation. If you are interested in understanding the mechanics of Empires and how they rise and fall, then I think you will be interested in this book. It’s a very readable account, but ultimately quite a depressing tale.

This is a review of the Faber & Faber 2015 Kindle edition.