Author: Roger Crowley
Review by: Kirk Bowman, Jon R. Wilcox Chair in Soccer and Global Politics, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology
One of the great curiosities of history is how Portugal, a peripheral, poverty-stricken country of less than a million inhabitants, was capable of conquering and holding territory from Brazil to Macao, especially in light of the global ambitions of its larger rival European powers.
With never more than a few thousand men in arms, worm-eaten ships and crew often suffering from scurvy, the Portuguese established the first global empire, one that would last for nearly six centuries. This fearless seafaring people has permanently altered the world. The Portuguese brought firearms, bread and tempura to Japan, astrolabes and green beans to China, slaves to the Americas, tea to England, pepper to Europe, silk and medicines to the New World and coffee seeds from Ethiopia to Brazil. In 1540, 400 Portuguese volunteers saved Christian Ethiopia from being overrun by Muslim invaders.
In a swashbuckling and fascinating read, Crowley details the forces that coalesced to bring about this outcome. First was the leadership of King Manuel and Alfonso de Albuquerque, the Duke of Goa and perhaps history’s greatest visionary of global empire building. Second was the seafaring acumen and technology led by Prince Henry the Navigator and the Sagres School, which developed both innovative navigational technology and superior ships. Third was the relentless drive for empire forged by the zealous calling to defend Christianity from Islam and the allure of vast fortunes from spices, silk and gold. Finally, better weapons and ferocious fighters provided advantages in battle even against far larger armies.
Portugal’s leaders were flawed and suffered from divisions and infighting. Yet their successes reveal the power of strategic vision. Albuquerque knew that holding Goa was the key to maintaining the empire and Manuel realized that a tiny navy could control the spice trade merely by conquering several strategic choke points. The deaths of Albuquerque and Manuel brought inferior leaders to the project, and the vitality of the endeavor quickly evaporated.
Crowley’s Conquerors is not only a riveting read of the most unlikely of historical processes, but also a reminder of the importance of leadership and strategic thinking for any global power.