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4.3 out of 5 stars84
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 3 December 2012

This is as good a read as you are going to get. While superbly informative on the incredible, swift rise of Portugal in the mid to late 1400s, the book is written with a light touch and is a racy, thrilling read.

The book tells how the Kings of Portugal, faced with the ever present threat to western Christendom of Islamic invasion, formulated the wildly audacious and far-seeing plan to outflank Islam by sending explorers on a dangerous, harrowing 24,000 return journey by sea around Africa and thence to India and the Far East.

With great cost and brutality for all concerned, the Portuguese succeeded dramatically in fatally weakening Islam's eastern flank and tilting the balance of power decisively in favour of Christendom.

At about the same time the Spanish discovered the Americas with even vaster long term effects for Western civilisation. The years 1490 to 1540 must be the most important and decisive years in world history and it was little Portugal that started it all off.

My only very minor quibble is the slightly mocking (PC?) tone that is sometimes adopted by the author towards the crusading dreams of the late medieval Kings of Portugal. Of course their hopes of retaking Jerusalem were over-ambitious, but only with the help of 500 years hindsight.

Yet the near superhuman feats of Bartolomeu Dias, Pedro Alvares Cabral, Vasco da Gama and Afonso de Albuquerque changed history for hundreds of years to come.

On his way round Africa, Cabral is blown west and accidentally finds Brazil in 1500. Not bad? He then continues East and survives a harrowing return voyage to India.

Cabral is described by the author as 'hapless' yet because of the likes of Cabral, Brazil is today a new, emerging superpower with the Portuguese language, western values and democracy (and yes, one must concede that pre-modern Brazil, just like everywhere else, was not exactly a bed of roses)

One can only wonder how likely 'hapless' conduct in the rest of us would be to trigger events one millionth as important as finding such a vast new territory.

Overall though, this is a really brilliant, wonderful story of extreme heroism and boldness (and yes, bucket loads of shocking, authentic early modern violence).

It is a must-read for anyone who loves history. Furthermore, 500 years after these events is is unPC to feel just a small sense of relief that in our own era North & South America, most of sub-Saharan Africa, India, Japan and many other Far Eastern countries, Australia, New Zealand and Oceania are either Western democracies or increasingly accede to the West's ideas of freedom and human rights.

One might wonder what these vast territories would be like today if the Portuguese & Spanish had not tipped the balance of history so decisively in favour of the West. Would they now be part of a many times larger Islamic culture instead of that of the Christian/secular West or Hindu / Buddhist secular East? The stakes in the 1490s were very high indeed and it seems that those early monarchs in Lisbon and Madrid were all too aware of it.
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on 2 September 2014
I expected to read an account of Gama's life and discoveries as the title says, but I didn't expect an account of everything before and after! Starting with a history of the rise of the Muslim empire, it covers the crusades, the conquest of Constantinople, the founding and historical achievements of Portugal as a nation, Prester John, the start of African slave trading, the role of spice and search for the route to India - all this before Gama even takes the stage.
Then we have his voyages around Africa for the first time, to reach India. Here the crusade becomes apparent - Gama's purpose is not primarily to establish trade but to use it to defeat the Muslims, Christians v Muslims ( and Portugal v Spain and Venice).
A fascinating account of how the Portuguese established their empire and trade monopoly with India, of the cruelties inflicted and battles fought and, after Gama, the expansion east to Indonesia, China and Japan. We are used to stories of how the British empire was built, here is the story of another similar expansion from a small country to the further reaches of the East.
You might expect such an account to be dry and sketchy. Well, the Author has certainly dug out fascinating details, quoting the way that floor rushes were covered but the bottom layer could be 20 years old, and smelt accordingly. And he has a wry sense of humour "the call for crusade was met with a collective shrug, and they carried on feasting". The detail is amazing, and contemporary accounts are rewritten to produce an interesting narrative. Instructive and entertaining, thoroughly recommended.
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on 21 September 2012
I always wonder why anyone would be so mean and dishonest as to badmouth a book they haven't read. To seek out that book on Amazon with no intention of buying it, and quote at length from an old review to tell others why you're not going to buy it, reeks of bile.

A quick search reveals that Cliff's book has been well reviewed around the world. The New York Times named it a Notable Book of the Year. William Waldegrave (currently provost of Eton and fellow of All Souls) in the Spectator called it an "excellent book" which "tells the story with the swagger and excitement it deserves." So why single out a lone bad review (a review which also trashes three other books by respected writers without finding a single thing to like about any of them)?

Cliff has a track record as both researcher and writer; the London Review of Books called his first book "a brilliant debut, both scholarly and enthralling." For my money, The Last Crusade is not only a gripping story vividly told in finely honed prose, but also a solid piece of research argued from an original point of view. As Waldegrave says, the iron-willed Vasco da Gama and his adventure-packed voyages remind one of Odysseus and Aeneas. Yet no other recent writer, academic or not, has brought this great story to the wider audience it deserves. Sometimes it takes a "populariser" to do that.
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on 21 September 2012
Vasco da Gama's voyages had more immediate impact than Christopher Columbus or Magellan's. In a few years, Europe went from not knowing whether you could sail round Africa, to colonies in India and shortly China and Japan. This turned Portugal (and Vasco da Gama) rich, and transformed the economies of the Mediterranean and eastern Europe, as Europeans could buy spices (relatively) cheaply through Portugal, not ruinously expensively through the overland route.

This book is mostly an excellent and well researched guide for the non-expert on how that happened. There is a good mix of context and strategy (eg Venice's attempts to retain its spice monopoly), original sources, and colourful detail - the realisation that Europe had little to sell that the more sophisticated Indians wanted to buy, or the history of 'Prester John'. The style is clear and readable (apart from occasional purple prose of "he looked out, over the storm tossed Atlantic" type that you can skip).

The problem is the 'Crusade' title, or rather the author's desire to make it relevant. The book starts with the founding of Islam and ends with Al Qaeda, which I could live without. Portugal is not mentioned until Chapter 3, and Da Gama until Chapter 5. This is at the expense of, for example, a better understanding of why Portugal, rather than anywhere else, led the colonial era, or why European influence expanded so rapidly in Asia.

So there is scope for a better book on the subject and by the author. But for both a good read and overview of the subject, I would recommend.
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on 11 March 2013
History unknown to many of us revealed in an entertaining and facinating way. A real understanding of Islam in europe and the way it shaped Iberia.
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on 10 September 2012
Do you want to read a broad academic account of Vasco da Gama, taking into account all the historical background which must be understood first? Or do you wish to read a well written account of the voyages ? Nigel Cliff uses some 180 pages to tell us about the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam, and also a full account of Portuguese kings, and of the technical and ideological levels in that country which peceeded the voyages. Frankly, I got bored with the lengthy background even though it is extremely well written and researched. If you start on about page 180 you may read a rivetting account of the actual voyages. A truly gripping, even exciting series of events. I think that the book is well worth buying for this account alone. For the specialist it is excellent all round. I would have given it 5 points if it were not for the long background chapters. This book is worth 5 stars as an academic book, 4 stars as a general reader's book, and 5 stars if you were to excise the first 180 or so pages...
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on 14 February 2014
I have read the bulk of the book and am currently going through the explanatory lists at the end. I found it fascinating - especially the information around how the power of religion in the East and West/Europe have coloured and affected current relationships between countries. School lessons about the great explorers never touched on the depths of what happened. I guess I had quite a romantic view of those great voyages and the realities of what really happened - how various nations just felt it commendable and a great honour to just take over in the countries where they landed - was really quite horrific. In the name of trade and religion I feel we have much to answer for in what we have today. I was also fascinated at the origins of some of our language.

I feel great frustration that I just can't retain all that information.
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on 11 May 2013
This is an epic book. Mr. Cliff explains that the Portugese discoverers never intended to be discoverers as much crusaders. Their ultimate objective was not to expand the map but rather find the elusive Prester John, a mythical Christian King living somewhere in India, probably. The idea was to hook up with him & his mighty army and attack the muslims in the back so that Jerusalem could finally be reconquered. This in turn would bring on the end of days. Armed with this apocalyptic agenda the brave Portugese sailors set out, crusader crosses stitched on their sails, and while they did not achieve their original objectives they did plenty of other really impressive things. Nigel Cliff is a doubleplusgood writer and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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on 24 March 2014
Although the Portugese have a reputation as particularly harsh colonials, I had not appreciated the extent of the cruelty and violence that accompanied the exploration and exploitation of the East. Cliff paints a vivid picture of a harsh and violent time and some of the iron willed characters who were responsible for Portugal's maritime empire.

The book puts the European discoveries and exploration of both the Americas and the Indies in the context of a much older story: the conflict between Islam and Christianity, especially in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa.

Cliff does justice to his characters' virtues while not shying away from their flaws and crimes. I liked this balanced and well written history.
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on 22 March 2013
If you ever wondered what the world looked like 500 years ago...if you ever wondered how we came to have such distrust of the Muslim world (and vice versa)....if you would just like a clear, elegant and totally absorbing account of how explorers opened up the sea routes to the East....and if you are open to having treasured assumptions challenged and overturned - this is definitely the book for you. I bought it on the basis of rave reviews (not always a reliable guide!), and am so happy to add these words in praise of one of the best popular histories I have read for a very long time. Buy it, read it, pass it on!
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