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Thrilling History at its Best
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.