How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

Roger Crowley

Random House, New York, 2015, 400 pages

Book Review published on: January 16, 2017

Crowley has written several books about the wars between Christendom and Islam in the Mediterranean. Here he tells how the Portuguese created their maritime trading empire in the sixteenth century.

Portuguese mariners began exploring the Atlantic and coastal Africa in the 1420s for political, commercial, and religious reasons. Prince Henry, their principal sponsor, harnessed new sailing and shipbuilding techniques to extend Portuguese influence southward. The goal was to chart the African coast and the islands in the Atlantic systematically to search for an ocean route to Asia and break the Muslim-Venetian monopoly of the trade with India, thereby enriching Portugal and destroying Muslim power.

The Portuguese trading empire resembled those formed by the Scythians and Mongols, but their contemporary analogues were the Venetians and the Chinese. By 1510 they were in Goa (India), in 1535 they reached Macau (China), and by 1543, Japan. Their empire encompassed stations in Africa, the Persian Gulf (Aden and Hormuz), Malacca, China, and Japan. They forcibly established trading rights, built trading posts, and depended on local expertise throughout their expansion, using ships and cannon to open trade when negotiations failed. The discovery of open ocean routes to Asia opened the way to the contemporary world beginning with the Portuguese, who were followed by the Spanish, Dutch, English, and French.

Crowley’s account shows how commercial goals were accompanied by a crusading impulse. A mixture of religious zeal and commercial opportunism made the Portuguese governor, Alonso de Albuquerque, the protagonist in Crowley’s story, realize Portugal could control the silk and spice trade by occupying a few strategic points: Aden, Hormuz, Goa, and Malacca. Goa became the linchpin of the Portuguese trading empire.

The Portuguese followed the Chinese when the Ming engaged in maritime colonialism, controlling the main ports on the major East-West ocean trade networks through force or threats. The Portuguese would also control the port cities and dominate the commerce along the trade routes between them. Neither the Ming, the Portuguese, nor their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century successors sought territorial dominion; they wanted political and economic command of commercial lifelines, nodal points, and networks. By holding ports and trade routes, they controlled trade, which was essential for stability and prosperity. Crowley judiciously uses the voluminous official correspondence of the leaders and the diaries kept by their subordinates to give this account of five hundred-year-old events dramatic immediacy. The Portuguese accomplishment included changing the genetic makeup of the South Indian population as well as European culinary and cultural habits.

Crowley tries to present a nuanced and fair interpretation of these events; he admires Portuguese bravery and curiosity but emphasizes their cruelty and greed while de-emphasizing the duplicitous tactics of the Indian rulers and Muslim merchants. In this, he mirrors our contemporary belief that the use of force in international relations began with fifteenth-century European colonialism. This premise is false, as violence occurred in world history from its beginnings—everywhere. In fact, the actions of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English in Asia were relatively benign compared to the punishment they inflicted on each other in Europe. Discovering an ocean route to India made Portugal the center of a global empire instead of a backward fringe of Europe. In the end, Portugal did not retain its dominant position due to internal and external factors, but that is another story.

This good book has great implications for our contemporary globalized world. Crowley’s skill as a writer makes this an enjoyable book to read, too.

Book Review written by: Lewis Bernstein, PhD, Woodbridge, Virginia