Friday, November 18, 2005

A Review: The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808

A delicious history of the little understood Portuguese expansionism which is often eclipsed throughout history by its descendant empire builders, namely the Spanish, the French, and the British. But it sometimes appears their legacy of pioneering explorations, voyages and trade routes appear lost in the visicitudes of time and are largely unremarked upon as globalized progenitors of the world's first international trades, wholesale commodities, migrations, transfer of cultural or linguistic legacy and blueprint for semi-developed empire to begin with.

It serves a contemporary student of global business well to delve into such historical accounts as much of the challenges or barriers to entry in many foreign markets, beyond technologies and territorial barriers, remain the same. Portuguese enterprise was largely surmounted by localized re-directions and the multiplication of foreign buyers and sellers. But at one time, the trading empire of Portugal literally ruled the world's trade routes. Russell-Wood's account was supported by The Portuguese National Commission for the Commemoration of Portuguese Discoveries, and listed in the short work, "Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece To the Present" by Anthony Pagden as the best source on Portuguese Empire.

Russell-Wood is a reknowned and respected historian, his notes and chronologies run the last fifty-eight pages. Books which leave every footprint in the sand as he has done are much to be loved. He tells a story from sourced first-hand accounts, leaves little to conjecture or speculation, and reveals what history can tell simply as to the good and ill of empire itself on its own merits and flaws.

In addition all of the included plates are well done copies of original diagrams, maps, and illustrations taken from first-hand manuscripts and accounts which help display the width and breadth and depth of knowledge to which the Portuguese chronicled their exploits either in the realms of mapping and trade routes, technologies for milling of crops, proofs of impact locally as far away as Japan, the description of various native plants and crops, first descriptions and encounters with zoological discoveries, proven influences even in Chinese artistic and African musical arts upon Portuguese colonial vestiges remaining in the New World, and even ample evidence of Mughal and Indian artistry influenced by Christian elements courtesy of the Portuguese.

However this being said, I do remember a man from Mozambique saying that he hated the Portuguese intensely. Russell-Wood has respect for his supporters, he does not pillory the past, he does not apologize to a contemporary audience for the sins of empire. But he reveals how significantly the same forces which instilled a sense of greed and wantoness at the same time, albeit over hundreds of years, helped breed the intellectual and humanist debates and status quo shifts to the present which continues to globally wrestle with a taste for compassion and redresses among the empire builders of the current day. The issues remain the same. Successful enterprises continue to profit from the exploitations of migrant labour. As it was it continues to be a huge successful and profitable enterprise, especially in Asia and especially its more illicit, ILO minimum standards excluded forms.

His first chapter reveals the long lists of Portuguese explorers from the early days of the late 1300s with Dom Fernando de Castro and his voyage to The Canaries, Infante Dom Pedro traipsing throughout Europe, the first sighting of The Azores under the scopes of Diogo de Silves to the first rounding of the Cape Bojador by an endeavouring Gil Eanes in 1434. 1441 saw the first cargoes of human slaves from Mauretanian coasts landed at Lagos, Portugal from which a horrendous trade ensued and upon which all empires profited. In the early 1440s first sugar cane cultivations took place in Madeira and by the 1450s Guinea and Sierra Leone were taken. A series of islands, conspicuous in their lack of necessity and esoteric importance to the present, were essential and vital to the trans-shipping of goods and were rounded and claimed up into the early 1500s such as Cape Verde, Sao Tome, Principe, Greenland, etc.

It is even interesting to note that Columbus of 1492 fame offered to sail for the Portuguese in 1483/4 but his services were rejected by Dom Joao II. By the late 1400s Vasco de Gama was on his way to Goa, the Corte Real brothers were exploring and nosing about in Eastern Canada and forts were being christened from Pernambuco and Porto Seguro in South America to Gale in Ceylon by the early 1500s. In 1513 the Portuguese arrived in China, Ethiopia, Santo Agostinho and Rio de la Palta. They were the international octopus of their nearly two hundred years head- start on the rest of the Europeans.

The Portuguese marvels of technology at the time of expansions included the vast and sturdy designs and flotillas of wift trading caravels, stout carracks, sturdy camelled and muled caravans, lean canoes, and wooden ox-carts with which commodities could be warily transported around and across the world. Loss rates reaching 25% on every voyage or journey meant one out of four of every vessels sailing would be lost as well as one out of every four explorers. Their lives were fraught with risk and danger, eventually the accounts of the time even mention the necessities of the business. Success or death. Such realities played heavily upon the negotiation and trading skills of the Portuguese. Where one expects many notations on violent take-overs and wars, one more often discovers localized highly specified agreements with tribal leaders, local traders, and protection by kingly fiats and treaties the world over. One might assume the Portuguese were often like a plague upon the earth, and in many ways they were. But in other ways they appear merely as opportunistic pescas (fish).

Migrants and settlers were often the lowest order of society, cut-throats and bandits, often taking local wives out of the lack of Portuguese women to marry. The interests of the Crown and Church were often complimentary, highly structured, but easily undermined through corrupt and fiendish officials and monastics. Much is noted of the greed of many in these accounts, written of by Portuguese themselves, through the institution of forced slave migrations and the enslavement of localized populations. Many commodities were thus born on the backs of the powerless, nameless, landless slaves. In the end Russell-Wood notes the slower pattern of infection and death through Portuguese-born diseases when compared to the rates of infection brought through Spanish presences globally. It is of little comfort, but was slower and lesser to a degree due to a lower concentration of carriers and local populations among the Portuguese. Better to die slower more singularly than quick in such a case? I am sure it is not intended however as it comes across. it is rather grisly.

One chapter deals wholely upon the nearly limitless lists of trade products both to and from the New World and the Old World through Lisbon, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Luanda, Goa, Malacca, Macao, or Nagasaki, all pivotal hubs of truly global trading routes. Much profit was made from the early 1400s onward in products such as malaguetta pepper, known as "the grains of paradise", tusks, skins, export crops, rye and grains, velvets, silks, apparels, woolens, cloths, textiles, brassware, bronzes, copper, leafwares, glass, bowls, silver, mercury, tin, lead, arms, guns, munitions, faience, tapestries, cinnabar, clocks, and furnishings, fish, corals, carpets, dates, grapes, alambeis, wax, indigo, tuna, sardines, mullet, sugar, wines, malvasia, resins, "dragon's blood" (sangue de dragao), woad, salt, maize, orchil, as well as species of woods such as brazilwood, the aloes (garu and calambac), camphor gum benzoins, saffrons, sharkskins, gold, mother of pearl, lacquers, medicinal musks, rhizome galangals, sorrel rhubarbs, coffee, honey, pork, cocoa, tapioca, cashews, sesame, oxen, wolves, bears, and puma skins, the list is endless.

The Portuguese brought and sold all of these products and many more, as well as provisoning the first traded commodities of cork, soap, olive oil, fruits, quince, marmalades, sumacs, cloves, maces, gingers, cinnamons, nutmegs, sugars, calicos, oranges and salt on a global scale, fairly significantly introducing truly international regualr, speculative trade in base commodities to nearly the entire world starting nearly half a millennia ago.

The fourth chapter most clearly demonstrates the hard to determine extent of transmission of styles, mores, and ideas through Portuguese trade in Africa, India, and Brazil starting first with urban imprints. From Mozambique to Timor, in Cochin and the Mattanchery, radical transformations often took place, the results were often more than the addition of large roving bands of families named Pereira to local populations. Old Goa is an example of a Rennaisance City still glimpsed through its ruins and monuments. Places like Upper Macao still display such influence. Gilded works and interior designs of several global period churches, libraries and public buildings display the construction methods and rare woods of the "Golden Age" of Brazil.

There was also much blending of Portuguese and non-European forms, collectively called Indo-Portuguese Art. Russell-Wood notes it is difficult to fully address all the influences, but concludes that through half a millennia of interactions with other peoples, Portuguese policies, " ranged between respect and tolerance for local ways of life to extreme intolerance and draconian acts of suppression." Such interactions were often denoted under official sanction and unofficial relaxation or tightening of regulations and royal edicts, papal bulls or the like. Portuguese in-bound influences included adjustment of dietary intakes, an expansion of palate, changes in sartorial fashions, the smoking of tobaccos and perhaps some added swagger. It appears an unjust imbalance nonetheless.

The significance of the spread of the Portuguese language is in its current global European language usage third (186 million) only to English (487 million) and Spanish (401 million). Formal education instituted following Jesuits, Dominicans, Augustinians and Carmalites from India to the Americas helped transfer ideas often carried from Europe to noble or samurai classes in Portugal, the Azores, Angloa, Mozambique, India, Thailand, Macao, China, Japan, and Brazil numbering 77 institutions of higher learning in total by 1759. These represented the pioneers of the spread of Christianity around the world as Europe's first official evangelizers. The Portuguese are noted to have been most engaged with Europe intellectually during the 16th century Age of Humanism and the 18th century Age of Enlightenment however it is difficult to trace a transfer of these concepts to colonial locations. Portuguese impact intellectually is most easily traced to Brazil, known as a hot-bed of Jacobinic ideas and admirers of Adam Smith, Locke, and Burke in their periods.

Finally, this book sums up Portuguese contributions as essential to all of the discoveries which took place following their voyages and the influence and extent of their knowledge of the world. Fernao de Magalhaes (Magellan), Francis Xavier, Jorge Alvares, Prester John, Martim Afonso de Sousa, Matteo Ricci, each with a story to tell makr the chronologies of history. Russell-Wood reveals these to be merely the peaks of Portuguese exploits and he helps define the vast valleys and trails of the legacies of many more unknown Portuguese who lived and died helping in some way to define the world as they knew it.

This book is a good credit to history and a good read for anyone who enjoys armchair travels. It is also a perspective of totality of influence and period which makes this read interesting. The narrative does not run linearly but cross-dimensionally. As in the The Portuguese Empire took up trade virtually with every region on earth over a period of several hundreds of years, it appears as a lasting element in the way large portions of the world continue to evolve. In effect, the borders of Portugal ill define its world affairs. As does history sometimes ill define events. A good digression to take before tackling Jared Diamond's current immensely popular treatises.

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