Book review of Roger Crowley's Conquerors – How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

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I have read Conquerors – How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley. First and foremost, I can definitely recommend the book. It is well-written and exciting. Below are some interesting insights I thought to share. I recommend reading this article prior to (or after) listening to Podcast Episode 12. The Greatest Glory (available on Patreon, SubscribeStar, and Gumroad). Pictured below: yours truly in Lisbon in 2016.

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Striking Back

Understanding Portuguese actions in the Indian Ocean and North Africa can only be done when looking at the nation’s most recent history. Portugal, like the various Spanish kingdoms, had long suffered under Muslim occupation. A common misconception is that a golden age occurred during this time, this is thoroughly debunked in the book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. This had two effects on the Portuguese psyche – they were battle-hardened and they were driven, to a large extent, by an ethno-religious hostility towards Muslims.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that slavers from the Barbary Coast raided the coasts of Western Europe. Thus, the threat from the south did not end with the conclusion of the Reconquista. For a brief overview of the Reconquista in video format, you can watch my video The Visigoths and the Reconquista.

Between 1801 and 1805, the United States, Sweden, and Sicily fought the Barbary Wars against the corsairs. This was the first United States military land action overseas. The brutal slaver raids from the Barbary corsairs did not end until the French conquest of North Africa in 1830.

Although the author does not go into length about the transgressions being done to the Portuguese, he acknowledges that a long-standing rivalry between the Portuguese and various Muslim nations had an effect on Portuguese fervour in the fighting against other Muslims in the Indian Ocean.

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Prince Henry the Navigator

Henrique, more commonly known as Henry the Navigator, was a key individual in facilitating the Age of Exploration. He was also a warrior prince of note – he was 21 years of age when he accompanied his father King João and his brothers in the conquest of the Moorish port of Ceuta in 1415.

His mother was English and he was cousin to the great Henry V, most famous for his heroic triumph at Agincourt. Perhaps his Norman blood fuelled his desire for glory! Although the desire for glory and honour was not confined to the royal family…

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Gold and Glory

In understanding the daring voyages done by the Portuguese, there are two aspects to highlight. They happen to be the same as for many other cultures – the Norsemen of the Viking Age to name one. Gold is easy to understand, the search for another way to India (to avoid the Ottomans and Mamluks in the east) was the primary catalyst for the first voyages. The successful voyages to the east brought power, prestige and splendour back to Portugal. Lisbon rose greatly in prominence as a result.

The yearn for glory is easy to understand for those who understand the essence of glory. Being the first to discover new lands, to conquer, to show one’s qualities, was a great motivating factor – as it has always been for high-thumos men. The search for new trade routes may have been the catalyst for the Age of Exploration, but the fuel for the explorers’ ambitions was a great desire for glory.

A good quote about glory can be found in an interview with the late, and great, French historian Dominique Venner in regard to the Iliad.

“He sings about bravery and cowardice, friendship, love, and tenderness. Of the need for glory that pulls men up to the height of the gods.”

– Dominique Venner

The need for glory that pulls med up to the heights of the gods is a profound passage that can explain many a valiant action throughout history. It can certainly go a long way to explain the valour and bravery of the Portuguese.

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Chivalry and Honour

Chivalry and honour are concepts closely related to a worldview based on the yearn for glory. Chivalry was still a prominent feature in Europe at the time. Again, Henry the Navigator was the cousin of England’s Henry V, and for these Norman royals, chivalry was a defining characteristic.

The Portuguese were so driven by honour that they, on at least one occasion as detailed in the book, neglected to sink an enemy ship with their superior fire-power, in favour of taking the ship in melee combat. The author also mentions that the berserker mentality and courage of the Portuguese made discipline harder, but served them well anyway in the type of warfare that took place in the Indian Ocean at the time. The aggression and bravery of the Portuguese gave them a fearsome reputation.

“Glory came from individual courage, hand-to-hand fighting and the winning of booty.”

– Roger Crowley

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The Portuguese were also devout men who believed in their divine mission to conquer in the name of their king and in the name of God. As mentioned above, the religious aspect of the warfare (likened to a crusade) is not to be underestimated. So, just as the desire for glory, faith was also an important fuel for their conquests.

Here lies
Dom Francisco de Almeida
Viceroy of India
Who never lied or fled.

Epitaph

To never lie and to never flee. Noble principles of chivalry and honour to live by.

Villainous Venice

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For anyone familiar with the disastrous Fourth Crusade, which ultimately led to the sack of the glorious city of Constantinople in 1204, it is clear that the Venetians had a tarnished reputation in the eyes of many. In this book, the author describes the various attempts by the Venetians to stifle Portuguese access to the lucrative spice-trade. The Venetians had long enjoyed a dominant position in regard to the east-ward trade. Thus, they saw the Portuguese expansion as a threat to their own wealth and power. They even sought to work with the Mamluks of Egypt to hinder the Portuguese. In order to not bring the scandal of working with the Egyptian Mamluk sultan to light, the Venetians had to keep their dealings as discreet as possible.

The Mamluk dynasty came to an end in 1516 when they were conquered by the great rising power of the day – the Ottoman Empire. Although the Portuguese were better fighters than the Ottomans, the latter proved to be a tougher enemy than the Mamluks that had faced them when they first came to the Indian Ocean.

The author, Roger Crowley, has written a book about Venice as well, perhaps I must read it and find a way to present the city in a better light!

“A very white and beautiful people, who wear hats and boots of iron and never stop in one place.”

– Sinhalese description of the Portuguese

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Spice Trade and Inspiration

On a personal note, I get motivation when reading about spices routes and exotic trading posts. My aesthetic motivation for the Golden Coffee Company is the East India Companies of the 18th century. So, even if those voyages were undertaken later than the Portuguese era of exploration, I still get the same good vibes when reading about it. When I drink coffee, I always view it as a colonial luxury (which it is). If you decide to try the Golden Coffee Company gourmet coffee, I recommend accompanying the coffee with some fine chocolate for an optimal experience. The gourmet coffee is available for Swedish customers here:
https://jotunheimnutrition.se/, for European customers here: https://www.jotunheimnutrition.de/, and soon for American customers here: https://jotunheimnutrition.com/.

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Conclusion

Reading about the valour of heroic and daring men is inspiring. This book contains many more interesting insights and stories than I have highlighted here and in the Podcast episode. I will probably return to the topic in coming posts. Again, I can recommend the book. Reading history is both important to understand the world and to get some perspective upon our own time.

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