Thursday, January 10, 2019

Roger Crowley - Conquerors

This remarkably readable book tells the story of how Portugal, an impoverished nation on the western fringe of the European mainland became an "Asiatic Power" as early as 1512. It is a fascinating tale of bravery and violence, that demonstrates how there was no inherent European supremacy over the rest of the world, but rather that colonial power arose out of the systematic suppression and destruction of the people and economies of the African coast, the Middle East and, most importantly for this history, the people of India.

I read this book immediately after finishing Hans Koning's excellent Columbus: His Enterprise which looked at the impact of Columbus' voyages on the Americas. Roger Crowley's book begins in a similar place, but with the Portuguese king deciding to support the continued voyages down the African coast in search of an eastward route to the riches of India. Foremost in the King's mind was the wealth that might be obtained by getting spices and other goods that could avoid the expensive middle-men and merchants that all took their cut as goods travelled over the Indian ocean, and through the Middle East to the trading centres of Italy.

As Portuguese voyagers made the perilous journeys along the African coast, then eventually around the Cape of Good Hope, they laid down markers measuring their success and claiming the lands for their king. The era of African colonialism had begun, and very quickly the indigenous peoples became victims of the Portuguese. Rape, murder, pillage and mass destruction were weapons used to pacify the locals and seize needed resources, but this was nothing to what was to come when the Portuguese made a foothold in India.

The Portuguese discovered a thriving, and highly developed economy around the Indian ocean. They met sailors and navigators who had an astounding knowledge of the tides, currents and seasonal winds. Once the Europeans had mastered these they were able to seize the advantage, but initially they were actually only a minor power. Local kings in India were distinctly unimpressed by the gifts brought by the Portuguese who seemed to think that everyone they met would be from small undeveloped tribes. The ignorance of the Europeans was quite stunning and they tended to see the place through their own prejudices. When Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498 the Portuguese had no knowledge of Hinduism, so they assumed that they had simply found Christians who had strayed from the true path - so they brought a group of priests on their second voyage to correct the mistaken worshippers.

Faced with the highly developed economy of India the Portugeues had to use two strategies to break into the markets. Their primary aim was to smash the Muslim trade network. Their Christian bias against the Muslims meant that quickly they resorted to extreme violence. The one technological advantage the Europeans had, the large cannon on their ships, were deployed with deadly accuracy. Secondly the colonialists quickly learnt to divide and rule, turning local rulers against each other with offers of wealth and military support, combined with deceit. One local ruler, the Samudri, noted about Gama's ships "The Christians took more delight in theft and acts of aggression at sea than in trade... his port had always been open.. and that's why the admiral mustn't hinder or chase away the Mecca Muslims."

But Gama was not prepared to listen. After hanging 34 of Sumudri's messengers and Hindu fishermen they had captured, in full view of the cities population, they subjected the gathered crowds to enormous artillery bombardment. Later Gama ordered the 34 bodies cut down, dismembered and thrown in the sea so they would terrify the population when they washed ashore. He then wrote to the people:
I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce. And here is the produce of this country. I am sending you this present now. It is also for your king. If you want our friendship you must pay for everything that you have taken in this port under your guarantee. Furthermore you will pay for the powder and the cannon balls that you had made us spend.

Students of Indian history will recognise the methods adopted by other colonial powers later. Commanders who came after Gama repeated his tactics and came up with other ones - for instance encouraging marriage between the Portuguese and local people to create Christian communities. But it was through violence that Portugal's toehold became permanent in India, and the wealth poured into the colonial power, transforming its economy. That's not to say that this invasion was not contested. Peoples across the Indian ocean fought back, and on occasion were remarkably successful - not least because the Portuguese were often so riven with competition that they ignored sound military tactics in favour of personal glory. The few victories against the Portuguese elicited cheers from me, but they were few and far apart.

Portuguese colonialism in India brought nothing for the vast majority of the population. The new rulers were viewed with distrust and anger. Eventually this would lead to resistance. As Albuquerque, one of Portugal's most able, and violent, commanders in the area would conclude:

But if good faith and humanity cease to be observed in these lands, then pride will overthrow the strongest walls we have. Portugal is very poor and when the poor are covetous they become oppressors. The fumes of India are powerful - I fear the time will come when instead of our present fame as warriors we may only be known as grasping tyrants.

Portugal and the countries that followed them into India were indeed seen as tyrants, and were eventually driven out. That's another story, but this brilliantly written history is a great introduction to how India's first colonial oppressors arrived in tiny ships from across the oceans and brutally transformed the region in a few years.

Related Reviews

Koning - Columbus: His Enterprise - Exploding the Myth
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Dalrymple - Return of a King
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts

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