Conquerors: How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the First Global Empire
There has been remarkably little written in English, outside of academic circles, about the Portuguese and their exploration of the world. Here are a few not-too-specialist books in English.
Martin Page: The First Global Village – A highly readable introduction to the history of Portugal and its influence on the world.
Bailey W. Diffie and George D. Winius: Foundations of the Portuguese empire 1415-1580 – A serious but excellent history of the rise of the Portuguese. Explains exactly how Portugal exploded beyond Europe in 150 years,
Nigel Cliff: The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama – A popular narrative account of Gama’s expeditions set within the larger framework of the contest between Islam and Christianity.
Abdul Sheriff: Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean – A fascinating account of the rich cultural and trading civilization that developed in the Indian Ocean until the coming of the Portuguese, and their impact on it.
Alan Villiers: Sons of Sindbad – not a book about the Portuguese at all, but one I read as background. An absolutely wonderful account of a year that the Australian sailor Alan Villiers spent voyaging around the Indian Ocean on Arab dhows just before the Second World War. He describes a now vanished way of life stretching back thousands of years.
Elaine Sanceau: Indies adventure and The Perfect Prince – Sanceau wrote a string of popular, well-researched books about this period. Indies Adventure is a biography of Afonso de Albuquerque, The Perfect Prince is about King João II of Portugal. They are long out of print but can be found second hand.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam: The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama – A detailed deconstruction of the life of Vasco da Gama, unpicking fact from fiction, and an Indian perspective on Portugal’s great hero.
Paul Hyland: Backwards out of the Big World – Out of print but excellent travel book on Portugal itself, which sets the golden age of discovery within its wider history and culture.
For anyone interested in the Portuguese adventure, and who does not have time and energy to travel round the Indian Ocean, a visit to Lisbon is highly recommended. Lisbon, the start and end of all Portuguese voyaging, is a fantastic city to visit anyway. Go to the waterfront suburb of Belém to see the point of departure and return for ships sailing to the Indies. The Jerónimos Monastery there, a World Heritage site, is a stupendous example of the baroque style of Manueline architecture, a monument to the Portuguese maritime empire, inspired by and paid for by the spice voyages. It’s a pantheon to the explorers – both Vasco da Gama and King Manuel I are buried there, along with Luís de Camões, the Portuguese poet of exploration. Nearby is the romantic sixteenth century Belém tower, standing in the sea, decorated with emblems of exploration and crusade, including a gargoyle modelled on a rhinoceros, and the imposing 1950s Monument to the Discoveries looking out over the water – you can take the lift to the top and look out over the wide River Tejo and imagine the ships sailing off on their 24, 000 mile round trip to India. Elsewhere there’s the excellent Ancient Art Museum , the Gulbenkian Museum and the Castle of St George, from whose eminence you can view Lisbon rising and falling on its line of hills and sense what a fantastic natural harbour the Tejo provides. From its banks Lisbon beat to the rhythm of the monsoon for over four hundred years, dispatching ships to catch the winds, returning with cinnamon and pepper, sugar and gold.