Book review: Conquerors: How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the First Global Empire

THE opening pages of Conquerors are brimming with eye-popping facts, images and incidents.

Roger Crowley

Faber & Faber, £20

A giraffe from Malindi on the coast of East Africa being led into the imperial palace in Beijing in 1414; magnificent Chinese armadas plowing the Indian Ocean until the emperor decided to ban any such voyages and make it a capital offence to build a ship with more than one mast; and the Portuguese themselves, poor and unheralded, standing on the prow of Europe, staring out at what the Arabs called the Green Sea of Darkness and readying to launch themselves into the oceans and into history.

As readers, we are in good hands. Roger Crowley is an accomplished writer of popular history with three successful books in a similar vein already under his belt. He knows his craft. There is not one dull page.

Crowley calls the decision by Bartolomeu Dias, leading a flotilla down the west coast of Africa shortly after Christmas 1487, to turn away from shore and sail out into the Atlantic “a decisive moment in the history of the world”. 

This was educated guesswork by Dias, hoping to pick up westerly winds far out in the ocean. It worked. On the third of February, they came ashore east of what we now know to be Africa’s southernmost point and then carried on for another two hundred miles as the coast “unmistakeably turned to the north-east”. 

Literally and figuratively, a hoped-for corner had been found and turned and nothing would be the same again.

Later, Vasco da Gama’s crew would sail out of sight of land for 93 days and 4,500 miles across open ocean in an even more ambitious manoeuvre that would eventually lead to them reaching the coast of India. The next expedition looped out so far it landed briefly in Brazil.

Crowley cannot but admire the Portuguese for their endless audacity, intelligence, ingenuity and courage. 

All are breathtaking. Alfonso de Albuquerque emerges as one of the towering figures of the age. But there was a very dark side to the Portuguese achievement. 

Crowley lays bare the brutality the Portuguese used to impose themselves on the Indian Ocean. 

Beginning with de Gama’s attack on a Muslim pilgrim ship, they were at times prepared to slaughter all in their path in the name of king, commerce and religion. Prepare therefore to be sickened by some of what you will read.

As with much popular history written with this kind of élan, one does sometimes wonder whether Crowley has smoothed things out in the interest of grand narrative sweep. 

The Portuguese started “the runaway train of globalization”, he claims, when in reality they extended and accelerated (massively, to be sure) movements that were already underway.

And the Portuguese as merciless intruders in a gentle trading paradise: was it quite that simple? Oddly the first shots in the long war for the Indian Ocean, in the fighting that broke out in Calicut in 1500, were not fired by the Portuguese. 

Crowley briefly alludes to Goa, the most strategically positioned trading post on the west coast of India, being “fiercely contested” in “frontier wars” by Muslim kings and Hindu rajas, to a local population heavily taxed and oppressed by Islamic mercenaries, to insurrections being put down. 

Muslims fleeing a Portuguese attack are all put to the sword by Hindus, without, in the words of Albuquerque, “sparing the life of a single creature”. Perhaps, ‘exemplary violence’ was not the sole preserve of the Portuguese.

When he originally took control of Goa, Albuquerque, as fierce as any of the conquerors, granted complete religious tolerance for both Hindus and Muslims. 

He banned the practice of suttee, the immolation of Hindu widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres. 

Later, he granted property rights to women and encouraged mixed marriages, and provided for orphans and fatherless children. 

But these questions only serve to underline Crowley’s achievement in Conquerors: Eye-opening, thought-provoking popular history. Recommended.



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