HOW PORTUGAL FORGED THE FIRST MODERN GLOBAL EMPIRE

Washington Times on February 21, 2016, published a review of a new important book on one of the first empires of a small European nation – Portugal (Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley, Random House, $30, 368 pages). Excerpts from the review below:

Most of us think of the Age of Discovery as a westward movement: Columbus seeking a new route to the Indies by crossing the Atlantic and — quite by accident — discovering the Americas. That discovery of offshore islands in the Caribbean was quickly followed by the subjugation of vast Native American empires like the Aztecs and the Incas on the mainland, accomplished by tiny bands of incredibly tough, confident and ruthless conquistadors.

But the pioneering Spanish conquest of the Americas was only half of the story — in some ways, the less remarkable half. Both began on the Iberian peninsula where the indigenous Christian populations of Castile, Aragon and other future components of a united Spanish monarchy, and the tough, impoverished little kingdom of Portugal, perched on the tip of the peninsula, drove out the Muslim Moorish invaders who had overrun their lands starting in the 8th century.

If the crusader spirit — coupled with the thirst for gold — drew the Spaniards westward to the Americas, the same twin motives drove the Portuguese eastward. Beginning in 1415 with the conquest of the rich Moroccan port of Cueta, as popular historian Roger Crowley explains in his splendid new account, “the Portuguese pushed faster and farther across the world than any people in history … [working] their way down the west coast of Africa, round the cape, and … [reaching] India in 1498; they touched Brazil in 1500, China in 1514, and Japan in 1543.”

This was an incredible feat; in the 15th century, “Portugal’s whole population was hardly more than that of the one Chinese city of Nanjing.” Yet this tiny, impoverished kingdom of fisherman and rural peasantry, led by a feudal warrior class, created a colonial empire based on a string of strategic coastal enclaves — fortified trading posts — that imposed Portuguese commercial dominance by land while Portuguese naval superiority controlled the maritime trade routes that brought the riches of Asia and Africa — spices, silks, slaves, gold and ivory — to a resurgent Europe.

In Affonso de Albuquerque,Portugal found such a man. Already middle-aged when he began his great eastward venture, Albuquerque had “fought the Ottoman Turks in Italy, the Arabs in North Africa, and the Castilians in Portugal … he had imbibed the honor code of the fidalgos [the Portuguese knightly, class], with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending ethic of retribution and punitive revenge … fiercely loyal to the crown, incorruptibly honest, and utterly sure of his abilities: to sail ships, command fleets and armies, build fortresses, and rule empires.”

Albuquerque’s legacy was a Portuguese Empire that predated British, Dutch and French colonial projects in Africa and Asia and, while quickly outpaced once such major powers entered the competition, still outlasted the British Raj in India and Africa.

In hindsight it is clear that, from the very beginning, Portugal’s reach had far exceeded its grasp. The reviewer is Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

Comment by Bertil Haggman: Later other small nations created empires. The Netherlands created its own. Sweden built an empire around the Baltic Sea. For more on empires in world history see Imperien und Reiche in der Weltgeschichte – Epocheübergreifende und globalhistorische Vergleiche – Teil 1: Imperien des altertums, Mittelalterliche und früneuzeitliche Imperien (Hrsg. Michael Geber und Robert Rollinger), Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden, 2014.

On the Dutch empire see Ulbe Bosma, Amsterdam, “Dutch Colonial Empire” and on the Swedish empire see Professor Jens E. Olesen, “Das schwedische Reich – ein frühneuzeitliches Ostimperium?” of the University of Greifswald in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. Pomerania is a former Swedish territory in Germany.

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