Review: ‘Conquerors’ by Roger Crawley


Published by: Random House
Publication Date: Dec 1, 2015   
Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780812994001
Price: $30.00

In Conquerors, Crowley gives us the epic story of the emergence of Portugal, a small, poor nation that enjoyed a century of maritime supremacy thanks to the daring and navigational skill of its explorers—a tactical advantage no other country could match. Portugal’s discovery of a sea route to India, campaign of imperial conquest over Muslim rulers, and domination of the spice trade would forever disrupt the Mediterranean and build the first global economy.

Crowley relies on letters and eyewitness testimony to tell the story of tiny Portugal’s rapid and breathtaking rise to power. Conquerors reveals the Império Português in all of its splendor and ferocity, bringing to life the personalities of the enterprising and fanatical house of Aviz. Figures such as King Manuel “the Fortunate,” João II “the Perfect Prince,” marauding governor Afonso de Albuquerque, and explorer Vasco da Gama juggled their private ambitions and the public aims of the empire, often suffering astonishing losses in pursuit of a global fortune. Central, too, to the story of Portugal’s ascent was its drive to eradicate Islamic culture and establish a Christian empire in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese explorers pushed deep into the African continent in search of the mythical Christian king Prester John, and they ruthlessly besieged Indian port cities in their attempts to monopolize trade.

The discovery of a route to India around the horn of Africa was not only a brilliant breakthrough in navigation but heralded a complete upset of the world order. For the next century, no European empire was more ambitious, no rulers more rapacious than kings of Portugal. In the process they created the first long-range maritime empire and set in motion the forces of globalization that now shape our world. At Crowley’s hand, the complete story of the Portuguese empire and the human cost of its ambition can finally be told.

My Review

I found this book very easy to read; it was interesting and covered the main points of the Portuguese imperial endeavour at its beginning. The exploratory endeavours of Portugal in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were spurred on by a mixture of religious and commercial interests, helped by messianic kings and a medieval culture of honour among the ruling class. Before their explorations down the west coast of Africa and eventually in to the Indian Ocean, Portugal had been a small, impoverished nation on the cultural as we as literal edge of Europe.  The years between 1480 and 1515 changed that.

Crowley focuses on the first two decade of the sixteenth century after describing the earlier years of Atlantic exploration. He also focuses on the leaders of the expeditions, Vasco de Gama, Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque in their attempts to lay the foundations of the empire. They acted ruthlessly, not to say savagely, to force Portuguese influence on the trading networks of the Indian Ocean. In less than twenty years they went from rounding the Cape of Good Hope to Malaysia to control the trade routes from east to west and back again. The author does not gloss over the unsavoury facts of conquest and the characters of important individuals are sketched clearly. Extracts of letters between the governors and king are included that illustrate both character and conditions, and the diaries of eye witnesses are extensively mined for less ‘official’ narratives.

I think more extensive illustrations would have been useful, such as of the ships used. Modern maps would have been helpful however, as the early modern maps, hand drawn used are difficult to decipher.



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