'Conquerors' chronicles the fear with which Portugal shaped a global empire

A fleet of Portuguese caravels first rounded the Cape of Good Hope near the southern tip of Africa in 1488. By the first decade of the 16th century the Portuguese were both trading with and terrorizing Muslims and Hindus in southern India.

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire By Roger Crowley Random House 400 pp.

In the spring of 1498, the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama believed he had found a group of Christians on the East African coastline of the Indian Ocean. After weighing anchor at Malindi, in modern Kenya, his Portuguese crewmen showed some local merchants an image of Christ on the cross. The locals responded with cries of “Christ! Christ!”

That, at any rate, is what a Portuguese chronicler traveling with Gama heard. What’s far more likely is that the Hindu men were actually shouting “Krishna! Krishna!” The Hindus presumably saw in the crucified Christ a strangely refracted image of one of their own central deities, while the Portuguese Christians heard “Krishna” as a garbled form of “Christ.” The episode was a symmetrical misconception; each group perceived in the other a distorted but recognizable version of their own religion.

Such mutual incomprehension was amusing, but it also trailed an ominous question: How would the Portuguese react when disabused of their illusions about one of the region’s major religions? The historian Roger Crowley’s excellent new book, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, supplies the disconcerting answer – the Portuguese generally responded with savage and indiscriminate violence.

A fleet of Portuguese caravels first rounded the Cape of Good Hope near the southern tip of Africa in 1488. A decade later the Portuguese reached India, and by the first decade of the 16th century they were both trading with and terrorizing Muslims and Hindus living in many coastal cities on the southern edge of what is now India.

In some ways these were complementary activities. By terrorizing Muslim merchants and the Hindus who traded with them – sacking and plundering towns, killing civilians, burning alive the entire crew of a merchant vessel – the Portuguese wanted to disrupt existing maritime trade networks and secure a monopoly on the lucrative spice market. One hero-villain of the early years of Portuguese sea exploration, Afonso de Albuquerque, articulated with blunt logic the efficiency of terror in a letter to the Portuguese King Manuel: “This use of terror will bring great things to your obedience without the need to conquer them,” he wrote.

Albuquerque was essentially advocating the value of exemplary terror: By making a brutal and bloody spectacle of a few ships and cities that disregarded the Portuguese monopoly, he could then rely on fear to decrease unauthorized trade throughout the entire region. In a different letter, Albuquerque boasted happily of a wholesale slaughter: “We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, sire, a very fine deed.”

The Portuguese were so successful at instilling fear that they inspired a new curse in certain coastal regions of southern India: “May the wrath of the Franks fall upon you.” One leader from the trading city of Calicut, presumably not familiar with radical violence as a business tactic, observed that “the Christians took more delight in theft and acts of aggression at sea than in trade.”

Crowley’s carefully researched account shows, however, that establishing economic superiority in the region was only one motive behind the Portuguese acts of terror. There was also a lingering medieval crusading impulse to destroy Muslim cities and capture their territories. The Pope even granted a remission of sins for those Portuguese who sailed to fight and trade along the Indian coast.

Many of the Portuguese had an impressive number of sins to expiate. Prisoners and convicts comprised a sizable percentage of multiple voyages from Lisbon for various reasons. Because they were considered expendable, these men were sometimes used as the initial delegates to greet strangers along a stretch of coast likely to contain hostile locals. The enormous dangers and difficulties of the 24,000-mile round-trip voyage from Lisbon to India also made recruiting soldiers and crew members quite difficult. Those with nothing to lose were more likely to join expeditions with survival rates of roughly 60%, and this selection bias compounded the violence of leaders like Albuquerque.

Crowley’s history benefits from the voluminous correspondence of powerful captains as well as the diaries of ordinary sailors. He uses this rich source material to imbue events now half a millennium distant with incredible dramatic immediacy. While he focuses on only the first 30 years of Portuguese seafaring in the Indian Ocean, the implications of this period span centuries: everything from the genetics of local Indian populations to culinary and cultural trends in Europe were affected.

Crowley’s interpretations are nuanced and fair; he admires the many instances of Portuguese bravery and curiosity on the voyages. But cruelty and greed are ubiquitous and impossible to ignore. In a rare but piercing moment of self-knowledge, even Albuquerque doubted the justness of his deeds. “I fear the time will come when instead of our present fame as warriors we may only be known as grasping tyrants.”

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