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Conquerors
How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire
Roger Crowley
read on March 21, 2017

In the 1480's the Portuguese (a very small European power at the time) were exploring Africa for two primary reasons.

  1. They correctly assumed that by going around Africa they would be able to access India, and gain access to the trade market there, which Genoa and Venice basically monopolized at the time. This wasn't a sure thing though, since they didn't know how large Africa was (or that Atlantic Ocean connected to India Ocean. There was reasonable speculation that the Indian Ocean was actually a very large sea). They were accustomed to European scale, and assumed it to be no larger than the Iberian peninsula. Imagine the disappointment when rounding Liberia, thinking that you've finally gotten around the southernmost point, and then hitting Equatorial Guinea.
  2. They believed rumors that there was a wealthy kingdom of Christians in central Africa led by "John the Priest". And that if they alligned with him they could crusade against the Muslims in Europe/Constantinople.

Based on this, the Portuguese threw bodies at the problem until they solved it - finally rounding the Cape of Good Hope and settling east Africa and India.

What I liked about this book:

  • Maps. Lots of talk about ancient maps. How they made them, how they protected them. Maps were the most valuable IP of the ancient world. The coolest one they mentioned was Fra Mauro's map, on display today in Venice. Amazingly, about two weeks before reading about that I was in Venice, standing outside the very Library/Museum that it is in, wondering to myself if I should go it. I did bad.
  • The book gives a great sense of discovery and despair. These explorers were people that were willing/eager/expecting to die, only to have a shot at finding something new. To get on a boat and sail it further into the void than anyone else ever had. To live in that world would have been interesting. There was still mystery. No one knew how anything worked. They didn't know where anything was. Communication took years.

Anyway - great book.

Author Bio:

Roger Crowley is a UK-based writer and historian and a graduate of Cambridge University. As the child of a naval family, his fascination with the Mediterranean world started early, on the island of Malta. He has lived in Istanbul, walked across much of western Turkey, and traveled widely throughout the region. His particular interests are the Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman empires, seafaring, and eyewitness history. He is the author of three books on the empires of the Mediterranean and its surroundings: 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople, Empires of the Sea, and City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Waves.