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Conquerors: How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the First Global Empire

 

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Prologue: The Prow of Europe

On 20 September 1414 the first giraffe ever seen in China was approaching the imperial palace in Beijing. A watching crowd craned their heads to catch a glimpse of this curiosity ‘with the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, and a fleshy boneless horn, with luminous spots like a red cloud or a purple mist’, according to the enraptured court poet Shen Du. The animal was apparently harmless: ‘its hoofs do not tread on living creatures . . . its eyes rove incessantly. All are delighted with it.’ The giraffe was being led on a rein by its keeper, a Bengali; it was a present from the faraway sultan of Malindi on the coast of East Africa.

The dainty animal, captured in a contemporary painting, was the exotic trophy of one of the strangest and most spectacular expeditions in maritime history. For thirty years at the start of the fifteenth century the emperor of the recently established Ming dynasty, Yongle, despatched a series of armadas across the western seas as a demonstration of Chinese power.

The fleets were vast. The first, in 1405, consisted of some 250 ships carrying twenty-eight thousand men. At its centre were the treasure ships, multi-decked, nine-masted junks 440 feet long with innovative water-tight buoyancy compartments and immense rudders 450 feet square. They were accompanied by a retinue of support vessels – horse transports, supply ships, troop carriers, warships and water tankers – with which they communicated by a system of flags, lanterns and drums. As well as navigators, sailors, soldiers and ancillary workers, they took with them translators to communicate with the barbarian peoples of the West, and chroniclers to record the voyages. The fleets carried sufficient food for a year – the Chinese did not wish to be beholden to anyone – and navigated straight across the heart of the Indian Ocean from Malaysia to Sri Lanka with compasses and calibrated astronomical plates carved in ebony. The treasure ships were known as star rafts, powerful enough to voyage even to the Milky Way. ‘Our sails’, it was recorded, ‘loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing the savage waves.’ Their admiral was a Muslim called Zheng He, whose grandfather had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and who gloried in the title of the Three-Jewel Eunuch.

These expeditions – six during the life of Yongle, and a seventh in 1431–3 – were epics of navigation. Each lasted between two and three years and they ranged far and wide across the Indian Ocean from Borneo to Zanzibar. Although they had ample capacity to quell pirates and depose monarchs and also carried goods to trade, they were primarily neither military nor economic ventures, but carefully choreographed displays of soft power. The voyages of the star rafts were non-violent techniques for projecting the magnificence of China to the coastal states of India and East Africa. There was no attempt at military occupation, nor any hindrance to its free trade system. By a kind of reverse logic they had come to demonstrate that China wanted nothing by giving rather than taking: ‘to go to the [barbarians’] countries’, in the words of a contemporary inscription, ‘and confer presents on them so as to transform them by displaying our power.’ Overawed ambassadors from the peripheral peoples of the Indian Ocean returned with the fleet to pay tribute to Yongle – to acknowledge and admire China as the centre of the world. The jewels, pearls, gold, ivory and exotic animals which they laid before the emperor were little more than a symbolic recognition of Chinese superiority. ‘The countries beyond the horizon and at the end of the earth have all become subjects,’ it was recorded. The Chinese were referring to the world of the Indian Ocean, though they had a good idea what lay further off. Whilst Europe was pondering horizons beyond the Mediterranean, how the oceans were connected and the possible shape of Africa, the Chinese seemed to know already. In the fourteenth century they had created a map showing the African continent as a sharp triangle, with a great lake at its heart and rivers flowing north.

The year after the giraffe arrived in Beijing and twenty-one thousand sea miles away, a different form of power was being projected onto the shores of Africa. In August 1415, a Portuguese fleet sailed across the Straits of Gibraltar and stormed the Muslim port of Ceuta in Morocco, one of the most heavily fortified and strategic strongholds in the whole Mediterranean. Its capture astonished Europe. At the start of the fifteenth century Portugal’s population numbered no more than a million. Its kings were too poor to mint their own gold coins. Fishing and subsistence farming were staples of the economy, but its poverty was matched only by aspiration. King João I, ‘John the Bastard’, founder of the ruling house of Aviz, had snatched the country’s crown in 1385 and asserted the country’s independence from neighbouring Castile. The assault on Ceuta was designed to soak up the restless energies of the noble class in a campaign that combined the spirit of medieval chivalry with the passions of crusade. The Portuguese had come to wash their hands in infidel blood. They fulfilled their contract to the letter. Three days of pillage and massacre had ransacked a place once described as ‘the flower of all other cities in Africa . . . [its] gateway and key’. This stunning coup served notice to European rivals that the small kingdom was self-confident, energetic – and on the move.

Three of João’s sons, Duarte, Pedro and Henrique, had earned their spurs at Ceuta during a day of fierce fighting. On 24 August, in the city’s mosque, ritually cleansed with salt and renamed Our Lady of Africa, they were knighted by their father. For the young princes it was a moment of destiny. In Ceuta the Portuguese had been afforded a first glimpse of the wealth of Africa and the Orient. The city was the road head for the caravans trafficking gold across the Sahara from the Senegal River, and the most westerly entrepot of the Islamic spice trade with the Indies. Here, wrote the Portuguese chronicler, came all the merchants of the world, from ‘Ethiopia, Alexandria, Syria, Barbary, Assyria . . . as well as those from the Orient who lived on the other side of the Euphrates River, and from the Indies . . . and from many other lands that are beyond the axis and that lie beyond our eyes.’ The Christian conquerors had seen for themselves the stores of pepper, cloves and cinnamon, then wantonly destroyed them in a search for buried treasure. They had looted the booths of an apocryphal twenty-four thousand traders and smashed their way into ornately carpeted dwellings of rich merchants and beautifully vaulted and tiled underground cisterns. ‘Our poor houses looked like pigsties compared to those of Ceuta,’ wrote an eyewitness. It was here that Henrique particularly first perceived the wealth that might be reached ‘beyond the axis’ if the Islamic barrier could be outflanked down the coast of Africa. Ceuta marked the beginning of Portuguese expansion, the threshold of a new world.

It was Portugal’s fate and fortune to be locked out of the busy Mediterranean arena of trade and ideas. On the outer edge of Europe, peripheral to the Renaissance, the Portuguese could only look enviously at the wealth of cities such as Venice and Genoa which had cornered the market in the luxury goods of the Orient – spices, silks and pearls – traded through the Islamic cities of Alexandria and Damascus and sold on at monopoly prices. Instead they faced the ocean.

Twenty miles west of the sea port of Lagos, the coast of Portugal ends in a rocky headland looking out over the Atlantic, Cape St Vincent. This is the prow of Europe, the continent’s south-westernmost point. In the Middle Ages certainty about the world ended here. From the cliffs the eye takes in a vast sweep of water and feels the buffet of the wind. The horizon curves west to a vanishing point where the sun sinks into an unknown night. For thousands of years the inhabitants of the edge of the Iberian peninsula had looked out from this coastline into nothingness. In dirty weather the rollers pound the cliffs with a terrifying ferocity, and the tops of the waves rear and dip with the long-range rhythm of a vast sea.

The Arabs, whose extensive knowledge of the world stopped a little beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, called this the Green Sea of Darkness: mysterious, terrifying and potentially infinite. Since ancient times it had been the source of endless speculation. The Romans knew of the Canary Islands, a smattering of rocks a hundred miles to the south-west, which they called the Fortunate Islands and from which they measured longitude – all points to the east. To the south Africa faded into legend, its bulk and point of termination unknown. In ancient and medieval maps painted on strips of papyrus or vellum, the world is usually a circular dish, surrounded by ocean, America is uninvented, the extremities of the earth separated by an unsurmountable barrier of dark water. The classical geographer Ptolemy, whose influence in the Middle Ages was profound, believed that the Indian Ocean was enclosed, unreachable by ship. Yet for the Portuguese the prospect from Cape St Vincent was their opportunity. It was along this coast, over a lengthy apprenticeship in fishing and voyaging, that they learned the arts of open sea navigation and the secrets of the Atlantic winds that were to give them unequalled mastery. In the wake of Ceuta they started to use this knowledge to make voyages down the African coast that would eventually crystallise in the attempt to reach the Indies by sea.

The crusading enterprises against Muslims in North Africa would be deeply intertwined with the Portuguese maritime adventure. In a symmetrical arc, the royal house of Aviz started its ascent at Ceuta in 1415 and was destroyed nearby 163 years later. In between, the Portuguese pushed faster and further across the world than any people in history. From a standing start they worked their way down the west coast of Africa, rounded the Cape and reached India in 1498, touched Brazil in 1500, China in 1514 and Japan in 1543. It was a Portuguese navigator, Fernão de Magalhães (Magellan), who enabled the Spanish to circumnavigate the earth in the years after 1518. The Ceuta campaign was the starting point for these projects; it was conceived in secret as an outlet for religious, commercial and nationalistic passions, fuelled by a background hatred of the Islamic world. In the ‘crusades’ to North Africa, several generations of Portuguese conquistadors were first blooded. Here they learned the martial appetite and reflex violence that would traumatise the peoples of the Indian Ocean and allow small numbers of invaders enormous leverage. In the fifteenth century Portugal’s whole population was hardly more than that of the one Chinese city of Nanjing, yet its ships exercised a more frightening power than the armadas of Zheng He.

The astonishing tribute fleets of the Ming were comparatively as advanced and as expensive as moon shots – each one cost half the country’s annual tax revenue – and they left as little behind as footprints in the lunar dust. In 1433, during the seventh expedition, Zheng He died, possibly at Calicut on the Indian coast. He was most likely buried at sea. After him, the star rafts never sailed again. The political current in China had changed: the emperors strengthened the Great Wall and shut themselves in. Ocean-going voyages were banned, all the records destroyed. In 1500 it became a capital offence to build a ship with more than two masts; fifty years later it was a crime even to put to sea in one. The technology of the star rafts vanished with Zheng He’s body into the waters of the Indian Ocean; they left behind a power vacuum waiting to be filled. When Vasco da Gama reached the coast of India in 1498, the local people were only able to give garbled accounts of mysterious visitors with strange beards and incredible ships who had once come to their shores. Zheng He left just one significant monument to his voyages: a commemorative tablet written in Chinese, Tamil and Arabic, offering thanks and praises to Buddha, Shiva and Allah respectively: ‘Of late we have despatched missions to announce our mandates to foreign nations, and during their journey over the ocean they have been favoured with the blessing of your beneficent protection. They escaped disaster or misfortune, and journeyed in safety to and fro.’ It was an open-palmed gesture of religious tolerance, set up at Galle near the south-western tip of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where the fleets made their turn up the west coast of India into the Arabian Sea.

The Portuguese came with no such blessings or magnificence. Gama’s tiny ships, with some 150 men, could all have fitted inside one of Zheng He’s junks. The gifts they offered to a Hindu king were so pitiful that he refused to inspect them, but they announced their intentions with red crosses painted on their sails and bronze cannon. Unlike the Chinese they shot first and never went away; conquest was a rolling national project, year after year deepening their position until they became impossible to dislodge. The Galle monument still exists. It is crested by two Chinese dragons contesting the world, but it was Portuguese seamen from primitive Europe who first linked the oceans together and laid the foundations for a world economy. Their achievement has largely been overlooked. It is a long-range epic of navigation, trade and technology, money and crusade, political diplomacy and espionage, sea battles and shipwrecks, endurance, reckless courage and extreme violence. At its heart was an astonishing burst of some thirty years that forms the subject of this book, when these few Portuguese, led by a handful of extraordinary empire builders, attempted to destroy Islam and control the whole of the Indian Ocean and the world’s trade. In the process they launched a maritime empire with planetary reach and the great age of European discoveries. The Vasco da Gama era of history set in motion five hundred years of western expansion and the forces of globalisation that now shape the world.