Monday, 30 April 2012

What did the Portuguese ever do for us?

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.


  1. Hi Roger,

    Loved your two previous books. The project on Portuguese Empire sounds great...looking forward to it.
    BTW, I'm off to Istambul in August and will be 'visiting the siege!'

    1. Hi Pedro. This is rather a late reply. I've been neglecting the blog. Now I hope to make it work well. Hope you had a good trip to Istanbul.

  2. Perhaps this blog has suffered an early death but just in case it is still active I have a question (actually two).

    I was in my local bookshop yesterday purchasing a couple of books when I spotted "The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama" by Nigel Cliff. Gave it a quick scan but didn't buy as I was wondering two things:
    (1)Is this Cliff's "Holy War" under a new name for English publication?
    (2)Is it a worthwhile read?

    1. Sorry not to reply. I've been away - and struggling with the blog. The answers as follows:
      1. It's the same book.
      2. That depends on your tastes. I diddn't like it. I thought it was overwritten and concentrated too much on a holy war dimension to a much more complex story.

  3. Most delighted to find that you have a blog! And do hope as the previous commentor suggested, it hasn't suffered an early death. We need more blogs of this quality in the blogosphere. Look forward to reading your Venice book!

    1. Hello Jackie and Joel. The blog hasn't died but it has been dormant. I'm bringing it back to life. Thanks for following.