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🇵🇹⚓ Conquerers by Roger Crowley

Not a Book Report

I enjoy reflecting on the movies, TV, books and other media that I consume. I’m notoriously sentimental. This series documents the books that I read. These aren’t reviews or recommendations. Just a list. For me. Mostly so that I can page through what I read, where I was, and when.

Why did I read it?

I moved to Portugal nearly five years ago. I like it here. If you tell any American that you live in Portugal, then they probably now know three things about the country at most:

  • You live there
  • Ronaldo
  • The explorers/conquerers/colonizers - Portugal’s famous and infamous voyages around the globe and the trade networks and colonies they established while they pioneered what we think of today as globalization

I realized that I barely knew anything about that third bullet point (to be fair, I know very little about the second bullet point as well). I started reading history books that cover that time period and Europe’s relationship with Asia and the Middle East. I first listened to Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea that covered the Mediterranean naval battles between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire. I enjoyed it - a lot. I then picked up his deep dive on the Portuguese explorers.

What is it?

Category Value
Title Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire
Author Roger Crowley
Year Published 2015
Format Audiobook (Audible)
Length 13 Hours 7 Minutes

Publisher Summary

As remarkable as Columbus and the conquistador expeditions but far more wide ranging, the dynamic burst of Portuguese voyaging at the start of the 16th century is one of the tipping points of world history: the moment that the world went global. Within a short time span, a tiny country whose population did not exceed a million created a maritime empire that stretched from Brazil to Nagasaki.

Conquerors tells the almost forgotten story of how Portugal’s navigators cracked the code of the Atlantic winds, launched the expedition of Vasco da Gama to India, and beat the Spanish to the spice kingdoms of the East - then set about creating the first long-range maritime empire. In an astonishing blitz of 30 years, a handful of visionary empire builders, with few resources but breathtaking ambition, attempted to seize the Indian Ocean, destroy Islam, and take control of world trade. This is history at its most vivid - an epic tale of navigation, trade and technology, money and religious zealotry, political diplomacy and espionage, sea battles and shipwrecks, endurance, courage, and terrifying brutality. Drawing on extensive firsthand accounts, it brings to life the exploits of an extraordinary band of conquerors - men such as Afonso de Albuquerque, the first European since Alexander the Great to found an Asian empire - who set in motion the forces of globalization.

Portugal was the imperial pathfinder, the template for a wave of successors. Its empire connected the world and created a framework for profound interactions. It left a huge and long-lasting influence on the culture, food, flora, art, history, and languages of the globe. It marked the start of 500 years of domination by the West, which is only reversing now.

How did I read it?

Category Value
Date Started October 9, 2023
Date Finished April 15, 2024
Places Read Gyms and runs all over Lisbon

Notes - No Spoilers

  • Some of the earliest Portuguese colonies were “vengeance colonies” after they themselves were colonized by the Moors. Ceuta in North Africa being the first example of that, propelling the Portuguese nobility to keep pushing further after they failed to hold it.
  • I really had no idea how much of this story is just the consequences of the adversarial relationship between Christian Europe and the Muslim world. A primary driver to start going around Africa? Finding trade routes that bypassed Islamic control.
  • So much iteration. We think of these voyages as one big bet (and they were) but they followed years where previous voyages made just a little more progress south each time until a breakthrough was found.
  • The world was so much smaller than we think. I’ll never not be delighted to learn that the language used in the first exchanges between Vasco de Gama’s crew and the local Indian community was Spanish because the Muslim traders who ran the commerce there included some North Africans who had interacted with Spain.
  • The primary challengers to Portuguese expansion weren’t the locals but the Muslim rules and Muslim nations coming to their aid. At the Battle of Diu the Portuguese fought the Mamluk Sultanate who had sailed from Egypt to avoid losing their spide trade monopoly that ran through Alexandria. When Albuquerque had to (temporarily) abandon Goa, the army that forced him out was led by the Adil Shahi dynasty. While being centered in Bijapur, Adil Shah was a Muslim from Persia or possibly Georgia.
  • These guys were absolutely nuts. Not just crazy enough to sail around the world into the unknown, but wild enough to take a few hundred Portuguese nobles and sailors and decide to conquer places like the most cosmopolitan city in the world at the time: Malacca.
  • You get a sense for the factors that led to that audacity. In many cases, the nobility figures on these trips were in desperate and suicidal competition to outdo the “honor” of each other. The fidalgos were motivated by this desire to earn glory, comforted by the belief they would be celebrated on Earth and rewarded in Heaven, to the point that they fought like berserkers and genuinely shocked local troops.
  • I also enjoyed the tension that builds up over time between the medieval fidalgo knights and the increasing effectiveness of highly trained legions in the Swiss style. The rivalry between the two probably hurt more than it helped.
  • I also forgot how much the myth of Prester John (taking inspiration from the very real Christian community in Ethiopia) motivated this belief from the Portuguese that they could link up and essentially surround the Islamic world.
  • Some of these figures deserve entire books and movies of their own. My favorites:
    • Gaspar da Gama: Jewish man probably born in Poland or maybe the Levant, wound up in India as a merchant on the Muslim trade routes before the Portuguese arrived, saw Vasco de Gama’s fleet as they were leaving, talked his way on board by lying that he was Spanish, became an interpreter, showed up in Portugal and became a friend of King Manuel, sailed with Cabral when the Portuguese discovered Brazil, and went back to India and probably died there.
    • Pêro da Covilhã: Portuguese diplomat who spoke fluent Arabic, sent by the King on a spy mission to determine where Prester John’s kingdom was, traveled overland routes pretending to be a merchant through Barcelona and Naples (where his bills of exchanged were paid by the Medici family), made his way to Alexandria, took a boat up the Nile, traveled from Africa on a dhow to Calicut 10 years before Vasco de Gama arrived, went back west to reach Ormuz and then Cairo, found Ethiopia and the Christian kingdom of Emperor Eskender, essentially held as a friendly prisoner there, only to be “found” by a later Portuguese delegation 40 years after leaving Portugal.

Published Apr 16, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP of Product at Cloudflare.