Conquerors: How Portugal forged the first global empire: Roger Crowley (2015)

A review by Peter Kingdon Booker

Roger Crowley is a graduate in English, and his writing carries a magisterial air. Even though he was not at first an historian, Crowley has made of this book a superb distillation of the accounts of the sixteenth century Portuguese historians such as Barros, Castanheda and Correia. He has put together their accounts and woven the truly astonishing story of Portuguese firmness of purpose and religious brutality. Portugal as a result forged the longest lasting of the European Empires; it arguably exists still today because Ceuta was their first overseas conquest, and is still in European hands. By producing in translation this combination of the original Portuguese historians, Crowley has performed a major service for the monoglot English speaking historian.

I have one mild criticism, and that is of the author´s coverage of Portuguese campaigns in Morocco. He scarcely mentions Morocco at all, and totally ignores the immense efforts made by Portugal up until 1515 to increase its hold on northern Morocco, what they knew as the Reconquista. They held coastal fortresses at Ceuta (1415), Alcácer Ceguer (1458), Tangier (1471), Arzila (1471), Azamor (1513), Mazagão (1502), Safi (1508), Aguz (1506), Mogador (1506), and Santa Cruz do Cabo de Gué (1505). The effort in Morocco culminated in the first major reverse at Mamora in 1515, and the consequent gradual withdrawal from North Africa. The second and far worse reverse came as a result of the ill-advised later invasion of Morocco by D Sebastião in 1578. This last gasp of Portuguese expansion in North Africa also bankrupted the country. Until 1515, the Moroccan campaigns were at least as successful as those in India, and in themselves merit the term of the title of this book, Conquerors.

Moroccans were of course Muslims, and Portuguese experience in their own Moroccan crusade coloured their actions against the Muslim communities they found in the East. This fact alone must have hardened Portuguese hearts against their eventual adversaries in India.

And so, the effort made by Portugal in their voyages of discovery along the coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean was made at the same time as Portugal was conducting its attempt at conquest first of the Moroccan seaboard, and their attmpts on Marrakesh and Fez. And the initial surge of conquest in India happened at the same time that Portugal was also holding and expanding its toehold in Morocco. For me, this fact makes their seaborne empire of the East even more impressive. As a small country of at most 1.5m people, where did they find the manpower to do it? We also have to recognise that their impressive fortresses and castles in Morocco and around the fringes of the Indian Ocean probably ate up far more money than the spice trade ever produced.