I'm just off to Lisbon for a fortnight to do some research into the Portuguese voyages of discovery. I'm going to visit museums, talk to historians, inspect monuments, and the tomb of Vasco da Gama, go aboard a replica caravel - caravels were the ships with which the Portuguese first sailed round the Cape of Good Hope - and experience a great deal of very generous hospitality.
To catch up I'll just reproduce below an article from the old blog by way of deeper explanation.
'What did the Portuguese ever do for us?' to paraphrase the title of a series of historical TV programmes in the UK. The answer, as I'm finding out, is 'quite a lot'. My next project is a history of the Portuguese voyages of discovery - a change from the Mediterranean arena which has kept me at my desk for nearly a decade. I had a vague idea of following this thread at the end of City of Fortune. It was clear to the Venetians that Vasco da Gama's circumnavigation of Africa was potentially a huge threat to their business model, based on importing spices through the agency of Muslim middlemen via Egypt and the Red Sea. However the real push to this subject came from a near neighbour of mine, Pascal Monteiro de Barros, passionate about his country's history and highly persuasive. What I realised, with Pascal's input and some initial reading, was that the Portuguese exploration of the world - from Africa to India, Brazil to China - was an extraordinary story of bravery, brutality, imagination and innovation. In the nineteenth century, the history of Vasco da Gama and his successors was considerably better known than it is now. It has since been dimmed by the rise and rise of Columbus, especially in the USA, but as we survey the ever accelerating pace of globalization and ask ourselves where it started, the answer is - on the Atlantic seaboard of the Iberian Peninsula with the Portuguese.
In the wake of Da Gama, Portuguese navigators vaulted the globe. They were the imperial pathfinders, who provided the template for a wave of successors, such as the English and the Dutch. At the start of the sixteenth century Lisbon became, for a short while, the wealthiest city in Europe. The Portuguese empire connected the world and created a framework for global interactions. In time it would link the oceans, bringing firearms and bread to Japan and astrolabes and green beans to China, tea to England, pepper to the New World, Chinese silk and Indian medecines to the whole of Europe, and an elephant to the pope. It left a huge and long-lasting influence on the culture, food, flora, art, history and language of the globe. It marked the start of 500 years of domination by the West which is only reversing now. From a writer's point of view, this whole story is enriched by the fact that the Portuguese wrote a lot of vivid first-hand accounts – fantastic material to draw on.
For a sense of Portugal’s extraordinary imperial reach, watch this short video. Its haunting music also hints at the lasting nostalgia that imperial legacies leave behind.