Portugal’s Empire: Ruthless and Intermingling

Kongo: Power and Majesty

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 18, 2015–January 3, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Alisa Lagamma
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 308 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)


Let us hear no more…of Ulysses and Aeneas and their long journeyings, no more of Alexander and Trajan and their famous victories. My theme is the daring and renown of the Portuguese, to whom Neptune and Mars alike give homage.

The words are those of Portugal’s national poet, Luís de Camões, in the dedicatory prologue to his epic poem The Lusiads (1572).1 If his epic is a hymn of praise to the achievements of the Portuguese as a people who wrought mighty deeds in far-off lands, its hero is Vasco da Gama, whose ships anchored off the southwest coast of India on May 20, 1498, after a 309-day voyage from Lisbon that took him around the Cape of Good Hope, up the coast of East Africa, and across the Indian Ocean to the Indian port of Calicut. That voyage would come to be seen as an epoch-making event, marking the beginning of a new age in the history of both Portugal and the world.

In Conquerors, Roger Crowley, who has won acclaim for his vivid narrative accounts of conflict in a Mediterranean world contested between Christendom and Islam,2 now follows Vasco da Gama and his immediate successors as they move far beyond the confines of Europe and lay the foundations of the first global empire in world history. This was the achievement of Portugal, located on the western rim of Europe, a country with little more than a million inhabitants in the middle years of the fifteenth century when the story of their overseas voyages begins in earnest. “Their achievement,” writes Crowley in his prologue, “has largely been overlooked.”

This is nonsense. Not only have the origins and establishment of Portugal’s overseas empire received an almost obsessive amount of attention from generations of Portuguese historians from the sixteenth century to our own, they have also generated an extensive English-language literature. In the nineteenth century the Hakluyt Society began the publication of English translations of texts relating to Portugal’s overseas voyages, including, in 1898, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497–1499.

The famous British historian Charles Boxer devoted much of his remarkable life to the study of the Portuguese empire. The crowning achievement of the no less remarkable British Hispanist Peter Russell was his iconoclastic study of the life of Henry the Navigator, and recent years have seen the appearance of valuable surveys of Portuguese imperial history in English.3

What, then, does Crowley contribute to an already extensive literature? He is well versed in both the primary and the secondary sources, and his knowledge of the late medieval and early modern world allows him to relate the creation of the Portuguese empire to the broader themes of European and world history in his chosen period. For instance we begin, very strikingly, with the appearance in Beijing on September 20, 1414, of the first giraffe ever seen in China, an exotic trophy brought home by one of the succession of fleets sent out by…

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