Book Review: Conquerors by Roger Crowley

Roger Crowley has written several books about sea power and conquest: the 1453 capture of Constantinople by the Turks, a history of Venice, and the failed Ottoman siege of Malta. His most recent is Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, which combines these two interests. In it, tells the incredible story of how a host of daring adventurers charted the coast of Africa, made their way to India, then forged an empire that spanned the entire Indian Ocean, from Africa to the Spice Islands.

Behind the individual tales of these men’s heroics is another story of a very deliberate effort that spanned the better part of a century. Portugal was a small, poor kingdom at the very edge of Europe, but a series of kings spent several decades and an immense fortune trying to reach India. They took a systematic approach: mapping the African coast, charting the winds and currents, and building new ships designed to withstand the rigors of sailing the Atlantic. Lisbon became a veritable hub of science and industry as the monarchy enticed cartographers, cannon founders, astronomers, shipwrights, and sailors from all across Christendom.

Henry the Navigator
Henry the Navigator

This obsessive focus began under Prince Henry the Navigator, who wanted to cut Muslim middlemen out of the trans-Saharan trade. He was driven both by the fantastic profits to be made on gold and ivory and by the ever-present conflict with Islam. Portugal had completed its Reconquista in the 13th century, but its knights continued to participate in Castile’s struggle with the Moors. The Portuguese fidalgo was characterized by militancy and religious zeal, creating a volatile domestic situation—when he was not fighting the Muslims, he was liable to fight the Castilians or his own countrymen.

Starting in 1415, Henry began to channel this restless energy outward, seizing territory on the Moroccan coast which would be the basis for future voyages into the unknown. In trying to find a sea route to India, Portuguese kings envisioned a massive flank attack on the Muslim powers, striking them from their vulnerable rear. Above all, their target was Egypt, which dominated the trade routes to India and provisioned spices to the Mediterranean world. The Portuguese would do service to God and reap considerable profits by taking over those routes—trade and crusade were inextricably linked in their minds. Their long-haul effort paid off: 72 years after the first forays into Africa, Bartolomeu Dias’ rounding of the southern tip of Africa; another ten years later, Vasco da Gama made his triumphant entrance into the Indian Ocean, inaugurating a new phase in the Age of Discovery.

Crowley shows the Indian Ocean through Portuguese eyes as a completely alien world. In their single-minded obsession with fighting the Muslims, they mistook Hindus for Christians (and cries of “Krishna!” for Christ), not understanding the world they had stumbled into. Especially confusing to them was the Indian Ocean system of trade, which was relatively free—the numerous emporia dotting India’s west coast were open to anyone. The Portuguese, for their part, wanted a monopoly—the entire point was to exclude Muslim merchants. In Calicut, where da Gama’s expedition first arrived, negotiations with the ruler were plagued by incomprehension and mistrust. Repeatedly frustrated by both an inability to understand the local way of business, the Portuguese soon resorted to force.

Portuguese empire
16th-c. map of the Portuguese empire in the Indies.

Once again, their remarkable preparation paid off. Planners in Lisbon were able to compile reports on local customs, trade information, and geographical data to figure out the “locks” to the Indian Ocean: the Bab el-Mendeb, leading into the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and Goa. This analysis guided the program of Portuguese conquests, which saw considerable success under the formidable Afonso de Albuquerque. His victories effectively shut the Muslim powers out of the Indian Ocean and won Portugal a virtual monopoly for most of the following century. In place of the free trade that had existed for the past 1,500 years, the Portuguese instituted a mercantilist system whereby merchants had to receive permission to trade through their ports.

Afonso de Albuquerque

Greedy and cruel though the Portuguese could be, they were not cowards. They constantly put themselves up against incredible odds, supremely confident in their courage and skill. Crowley has an eye for the almost superhuman feats that built their empire. Among the most entertaining is the story of Duarte Pacheco Pereira, the commander who was left with just a few hundred men and five ships to defend Cochin against the massive army of Calicut. The rest of Pereira’s comrades departed for Portugal early in 1504, planning to return that summer. They fully expected to come back and find the standard of Calicut flying above the ramparts, but instead found Pereira and his small band triumphant.

Once the main body of Portuguese had departed, the ruler of Calicut—whom the Portuguese had ruthlessly antagonized since their arrival in India—assembled an army to conquer Cochin. He drew on allies from neighboring lands, gathering a force of over 50,000 men before marching south. Cochin was sited on the edge of a lagoon on India’s southwest coast, where low-lying islands and peninsulas created a maze of channels and mangrove swamps. Pereira had observed the tides and charted them against the phases of the moon, allowing him to predict when the channels would be flooded and when they could be forded. Forearmed, he was able to position his few ships and men—outnumbered over a hundred to one—to beat back wave after wave of attacks across the narrow fords. After five months of constant assaults, the army of Calicut had lost a third of its men to casualties and disease, forcing it to retire. An incredible combination of raw courage and scientific enterprise had won the day for the Portuguese, a microcosm of their larger achievement in the Indies.

The Battle of Cochin also reminds us that the Portuguese conquest came with a high human cost. Two-thirds of da Gama’s crew succumbed to scurvy on his first voyage to India, and various other ailments carried off high numbers on later voyages. Hardened in the face of death and inflamed with religious fanaticism, they went on to commit terrible atrocities—da Gama horrified his own men by setting fire to a ship filled with Muslim men, women, and children. As dazzling as their conquest was, it was stained deeply in blood.

Crowley narrates the glorious and the macabre alike with dramatic flair, never breaking pace even when explaining the more intricate aspects of exploration. The establishment of the Portuguese Empire was one of the foundational events of the modern world, and one is left marveling that it was accomplished by a handful of scurvy men in rickety, worm-eaten ships. It is equally astonishing how much scientific and technical preparation went into the project to justify such incredible risks—in our own time, perhaps only the moon landings compare. In the final assessment, it is amazing what a small, backwards country did to create a world of global trade, scientific research, and discovery. Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire succeeds brilliantly in telling that tale.