The Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

Author:  Roger Crowley

Publisher:  2015 by Random House

ISBN:  9780812994001

Cost: listed for $30. Sold online at Barnes & Noble for $17.95




Review in New York Times by Ian Morris, Jan. 15, 2016:

Afonso de Albuquerque died 500 years ago, after spending a dozen years terrorizing coastal cities from Yemen to Malaysia. He enriched thousands of men and killed tens of thousands more. Despite never commanding more than a few dozen ships, he built one of the first modern intercontinental empires. And this was just the beginning: The next step, he said, was to sail up the Red Sea, destroy Mecca, Medina and the Prophet Muhammad’s body and liberate the Holy Land. Perhaps, he mused, he could destroy Islam altogether.

The 18 years between December 1497, when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and December 1515, when Albuquerque died off the Indian coast, were a pivotal point in history, and in “Conquerors” Roger Crowley tells the story with style. It is a classic ripping yarn, packed with excitement, violence and cliffhangers. Its larger-than-life characters are at once extraordinary and repulsive, at one moment imagining the world in entirely new ways and at the next braying with delight over massacring entire cities.

Crowley’s craftsmanship comes through most clearly in telling this story of relentless, one-sided slaughter without glutting the reader with gore. At Mombasa in 1505 the Portuguese killed 700 Muslims with a loss of five of their own men. At Dabul on the last day of 1508 “no living thing was left alive.” At Goa in 1510 Albuquerque killed so many people that the city’s infamous crocodiles could not eat them all. And on the conquerors went, year after bloody year; but Crowley, the author of “1453” and other works of history, handles this grim tale with aplomb, keeping a fast-moving narrative in the foreground while nodding just often enough toward bigger questions in the background.

The biggest of these is surely how a handful of Europeans managed, for good and ill, to do so much. Crowley does not give us an explicit answer, but he provides more than enough information for readers to make up their own minds. Some historians have suggested that Albuquerque owed his success more to divisions within India than to any European advantages, but Crowley makes it clear that infighting among the Portuguese was even worse. The king’s court in Lisbon was a snake pit, and Albuquerque’s captains repeatedly refused to serve under him; in 1514 an attempt was made to poison him.

The theory that Christian civilization was simply superior to Muslim and Hindu cultures seems equally unconvincing. As Crowley describes it, Lisbon was less a model of Renaissance reason than a precursor of the Wild West, and most Portuguese were so ignorant about India that it took them years to work out that Hinduism was a religion in its own right, not a provincial version of Christianity. When the Europeans did finally grasp this, many also concluded — as one Italian merchant put it — that India’s cultures “are superior to us in infinite ways, except when it comes to fighting.”

Fighting — or more precisely ships, guns and ferocity — does seem to be what it came down to. Portuguese sailors learned to build ships that could plunge into the uncharted Atlantic in search of winds to carry them around Africa’s southern tip, all the while dying in droves from dysentery, scurvy and thirst. But getting to India was merely a sufficient condition; without devastating guns, the Europeans would have accomplished little.

Ships and guns gave Europeans command of the seas, but even when Indians bought or copied European weapons and hired European advisers — as they did by 1510 — they still could not compete with what Crowley calls the Portuguese “berserker fighting style.” From the humblest foot soldier up to Albuquerque himself, the Europeans were simply ferocious, throwing themselves at their enemies with reckless courage. Sometimes indiscipline brought on disaster, but often Africans, Indians, Arabs and Turks turned and fled.

Portugal’s leaders were deeply flawed, but they had strategic vision. By 1505 King Manuel understood that a few Europeans could control the Indian Ocean’s spice trade by seizing choke points at Aden, Ormuz and Malacca, and in 1510 Albuquerque saw that Goa could anchor the whole enterprise (“If you lost the whole of India you could reconquer it from there,” he told Manuel).

Manuel and Albuquerque came close to pulling off the biggest strategic coup in history, converting Portugal from the most backward fringe of western Eurasia to the center of a global empire. It is only when we ask why they failed that Crowley’s story perhaps fails too. But maybe that will be the subject for Crowley’s next book; and if it is as good as this one, it will be worth waiting for.


“Excellent . . . Crowley’s interpretations are nuanced and fair.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“In a riveting narrative, Crowley chronicles Portugal’s horrifically violent trajectory from ‘impoverished, marginal’ nation to European power, vying with Spain and Venice to dominate the spice trade.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Brings to life the Portuguese explorers . . . perfect for anyone who likes a high seas tale.”

Publishers Weekly

“Readers of Crowley’s previous books will not be disappointed by this exciting tale of sea battles, land campaigns and shipwrecks. . . . Crowley makes a good case for reclaiming Portugal’s significance as forger of the first global empire.”

The Daily Telegraph

“Crowley has shown a rare gift for combining compelling narrative with lightly worn academic thoroughness as well as for balancing the human with the geopolitical—qualities on display here. The story he has to tell may be a thrilling one but not every historian could tell it so thrillingly.”

Michael Prodger, Financial Times

“A fast-moving and highly readable narrative . . . [Crowley’s] detailed reconstruction of events is based on a close reading of the works of the chroniclers, notably Barros and Correa, whose accounts were written in the tradition of the chronicles of chivalry.”

History Today