William Waldegrave

Man with a trade mission

Man with a trade mission
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The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama

Nigel Cliff

Atlantic Books, pp. 547, £

About the second part of the title of Nigel Cliff’s excellent book there can be no argument. Vasco da Gama’s voyages do indeed remind one of those of Odysseus and Aeneas — in the range of adventures, mostly disastrous, which befell the tiny ships, and also in the iron will of their leader. His ruthless pursuit of his goal left a trail of destruction behind him, both for his own companions and for those whom they encountered along the way. It is the first part of the title, which claims that Portugese policy was the last fling of medieval crusading, about which there may be more doubt.  

The Christian Iberians had been engaged for a century in rolling back the frontiers of Islamic conquest which had swept up the post-Roman imperial territories in North Africa and Spain, and briefly reached across the Pyrenees. By 1492 all Spain was in the hands of the Christians. Attempts to invade North Africa from Spain and Portugal were ignominiously repulsed, leaving only the enclave of Ceuta (Spain’s Gibraltar) in Christian hands. The Levant and Asia Minor were lost for good: how else to attack the Moors except by sea, from the rear, and with the help of Prester John, the fabled Christian king whose empire was somewhere in Africa, or perhaps India? Then the road to Jerusalem could be opened again.

As Cliff shows, there was much fine rhetoric of this sort in the courts of Spain and Portugal. And it is true that the monarchs and warrior bishops of Iberia, whose Christianity had been honed in the battle for territory against Islamic opponents, talked the language of crusades for a great deal longer than many in Europe.

Motives are always mixed. But it is hard to read the consistent and determined policy of Portugal, continued through the reigns of Henry, Afonso, John and Manuel, as other than commitment to the brilliant strategic insight that if marginal Portugal in the far west was not to be subsumed forever into Spain, it must find its own source of wealth out at sea. As Manuel put it just before Vasco da Gama sailed in 1497:

We will wrest new kingdoms, states and great wealth by force of arms from the hands of the Infidels … those eastern riches …which have, through their business dealings, aggrandised such mighty states as Venice, Genoa, Florence, and the other great powers of Italy.

Spices, silks and precious stones were the oil of the day. A single shipload made you rich. But astride the trade routes and controlling access to the far distant sources of these commodities lay the Islamic countries, Arabian, Turkic and Persian. If only one could find a way round them…

The doggedness of the policy was remarkable. The Portuguese had problems to solve which no one in the world had solved before. First, they had to discover whether it was possible that Africa had a southern cape which could be rounded. This involved sailing and charting south of the equator, where there was no pole star to navigate by. King John summoned a committee of experts, which invented new instruments and tables that allowed the sailors to plot latitude south of the equator from the sun. Then there were armaments and ship design: better canon, stronger ships. Backed by all this planning, and a determination equal to Vasco da Gama’s own, Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and returned. What is more, the Portuuese found they could pay their running costs by the profits of a trade new to Europeans (though not to Arabs): African slavery.

And so it was done, and Vasco da Gama’s little squadron crossed the Indian Ocean to the Malabar coast of India. There, people were astonished not that Europeans had finally arrived, but that it was the Portuguese. ‘Where were the Castilians, the French, the Venetians?’ they asked. The traders in India did not much mind who came; but the panic in Venice and Egypt as the news leaked out was immense.

In the moment of their triumph, the Portuguese found themselves faced with an insoluble problem. They were just too small. There was no Prester John to ally with. At first, they believed (since they knew of only two religions, Christianity and Islam) that the Hindus were long-lost Christians. Admittedly, they had become a little unorthodox in their depiction of the Holy Family, but they worshipped saints in something like churches, and chanted something that sounded a bit like ‘Christus! Christus!’ Pennies dropped slowly.  Ganesh was not a rather peculiar representation of St John. ‘Krishna!’ was what was being chanted; and the sexual behaviour of the women was quite contrary to Iberian Christian practice.

There were few such moments of comic relief. The Portuguese drive to the East became little more than organised piracy; any residual crusading Christian mission melted under the attractions of an eastern way of life. But it remains astonishing that marginal little Portugal reached around India to China and founded Macao and the Spice Islands itself. Followed by the Dutch and then on a far grander scale by the British, the Portuguese were the first precursors of true globalisation.

This excellent book tells the story with the swagger and excitement it deserves, though Cliff takes a little time to get into his stride. Some early passages veer a bit close to 1066 and All That. ‘As the Dark Ages had finally lifted, a large class of expensively armed and trained warriors was left with nothing to do than attack one another.’ But when he is interpreting the journals of the voyages, and the texts translated by the Hakluyt Society and others, he finds a surer touch. He pushes his ‘last crusade’ a little far: economics was surely the driver beneath the rhetoric. But he is right that people do not fight for bread alone.  Shale oil, after all, the modern equivalent of the Cape route, is not just about bringing down the price of the fuel in our tanks.