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2.0 out of 5 stars A readable historical novel, 16 Sep 2012
This review is from: Unknown Seas (Hardcover)
Ronald Watkins is an American historian based in Phoenix Arizona whose grasp of Portuguese and Portuguese history is not the most secure. Portuguese names and Portuguese words are mangled throughout this book. Watkins relies at least in part on the writings of mid twentieth century historians (they are assiduously annotated; why is their work still relevant?). He refers to a book called Roteiro (which was the logbook of the pilots of the Portuguese ships) without showing how it may be consulted. Although the book is subtitled "How Vasco da Gama Opened the East", da Gama makes his appearance only on page 166 out of 304. The first half of the book is given over to the story of the Portuguese voyages of discovery between their beginning after the capture of Ceuta until the death of D Joćo II. This in itself is no bad thing, but may be better covered in books such as Peter Russell's Prince Henry the Navigator A Life.

Watkins asserts facts from time to time which are not supported by other historians. For example on page 58, he makes D Joćo I confer knighthoods on his sons in Ceuta itself, where others show that the ceremony took place in Tavira in the Algarve; he states on p 298 "Almost immediately after its discovery on their second voyage to India the Portuguese had communities in Brazil which soon prospered........." This statement is just wrong. Portugal was so challenged in terms on manpower that the discovery of Brazil was almost an embarrassment; there was a dearth of potential colonists, and not until about 1550 did the king apply importance to the development of any colonial activity in Brazil. There are many other examples of misleading statements in Unknown Seas.

I also found less than satisfying the quick resumé of post-da Gama history in the Epilogue of nine pages. There is not enough room to expose the differences in policy and opinion between the king's advisors, for example, and the Governor on the spot, Afonso d'Albuquerque the founder of the Portuguese Empire in India, who gets only one mention in the whole book. Watkins quotes from the magisterial Charles Boxer (Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415 - 1825 published in 1969) whose book covers much of the same ground, only much better and more accurately. Where Watkins scores is in the detailed description of the Vasco da Gama voyage, which he brings to life.

The second half of this book is a quick and readable canter which leads to an important historical event. The way in which Watkins presents the story is badly balanced. The first half could have been abridged, and the more attention could have been given to the consequences of da Gama's work. The book is an annotated historical novel; a good read, but less than reliable in historical fact. For the facts, go to Boxer or the more modern AR Disney (A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire).
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