Book Review: “The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company” by John Keay

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This book was recommended to me by a history friend who specializes in eighteenth century English history.  I was looking for an all-encompassing history of the East India Company and this book fits the bill.  Keay gives a very detailed history of the earliest incarnation of the East India Company starting in the Tudor era and continuing into the Stuart reign of kings down to its liquidation in the nineteenth century.  Each ship that sets out in the early years is followed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and into Asia.

The stories told are fascinating.  Keay tells us of the brave men who went on these trips, explored the coastlines, set up factories, and bargained with native chieftains and nabobs from Japan to India to China.  Some of these outposts worked well and survived and some of the men were scandalously murdered.  Many succumbed to fever and disease.  There were pirates and private traders.  Cargoes were stolen or sunk or arrived in port in England with no problems.

The inner workings of the company are covered here with the raising of subscriptions initially and then stock being issued later.  Sometimes the profits were outstanding but many times money was lost.  The East India Company at one point was abolished and then reincarnated, causing conflict in the outlying trade posts around the world.  Eventually the company raised its own army to protect the factories.  The Company became a government unto itself, creating its own trading agreements and fighting wars.

The East India Company has a vast and varied history and this book covers it all.  Some of the writing is a little dry but there are plenty of exciting stories to make up for it.  The personalities of the men involved were quite interesting.  I would recommend this book if you are seeking an overall history of this global corporation.

Book Review: “Tea for the British” by Denys Forrest

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The subtitle of this book is “The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade”.  I had no idea the history of the tea trade in Britain was so fascinating.  The author, Denys Forrest was a writer and journalist before changing careers and working in the tea industry.  Consequently he was uniquely qualified to write this book.

Forrest has researched the papers of the English East India Company and those of various tea companies in Britain.  He begins with recounting how tea first started to arrive in the country.  Early traders found tea in China where it was grown on bushes and then the leaves were harvested and brought to Europe in chests on ships.

At first tea was believed to have had medicinal purposes so it was found in chemist shops.  When Catherine of Braganza came to England to marry King Charles II, she introduced the drinking of tea for non-medicinal purposes at the Stuart court.  The trade grew and the EEC set up a building in Mincing Lane to receive and auction tea shipments.  The tea was sold in coffee shops and then grocers.  Demand became astronomical.  China limited how much trade could be done in their country so enterprising merchants brought the seeds of tea bushes to India and later Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and began growing it there to meet the demand.  Later tea was grown in Africa and even South America.  The EEC lost its monopoly in the nineteenth century and the trade in tea was opened up afterwards.

Forrest explains the different grades of tea leaves and how the tea came to be sold and consumed and innovations in the industry.  The story of how tea came to be put in teabags is really interesting.  There are lots of statistics in this book like how much tea was auctioned for and how much housewives paid for it in shops and stores, and how much tea was consumed per person in Britain.  There are stories about shops in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Norwich and histories of different vendors.

Forrest really knows his tea!  And he tells us about it with a really light touch and a keen sense of humor.  This book was published in 1973 and sadly that’s where the story ends.  He laments the invention of iced tea and wonders what will happen to the drinking of tea as the consumption in Britain had declined as the book ended.  I enjoyed this book very much.

Book Review: “The Royal House of Braganza” by Francis Gribble

In searching for books on the royal House of Braganza, this title surfaced. Originally published in 1915 and reissued in 1970, it appeared to be just what I was looking for and turned out to be a complete surprise. I had never heard of Gribble before. I’m unable to find much information about him other than he was born in Barnstaple in the United Kingdom, he lived from 1862 to 1946 and is described as a writer, critic and a prolific literary biographer.

He has a pretty extensive body of work having written biographies of Honoré de Balzac and Emperor Francis Joseph as well as books on the lovers of Lord Byron, Georges Sand, Madame de Stael, and Chateaubriand and his court of women, among others. Curiously, he wrote a great deal about women in history, appearing to specialize in the topic. This is evident in this volume as he describes the women of the House of Braganza as the “men” in the family and writes admiringly of them.

I’m not sure how historically accurate this book is. However, I will say this. It’s a great read. Gribble’s sole purpose for writing this book is to explain the fall of the Portuguese monarchy and how the personalities of the monarchs themselves contributed to their demise. Gribble obviously doesn’t think much of the monarchs of the Braganza dynasty and he tells some pretty fantastic stories. He seems to take great delight in describing the physical appearance of these monarchs, how they dressed, their mannerisms and their personalities, their mistakes and their foibles. This really makes for some fun reading and I found myself laughing as I read it.

Gribble begins and ends the book with the tale of a Parisian dancing girl and her relationship with Dom Manuel II, the last monarch of the dynasty. While this poor woman was not the sole reason for Manuel being chased from the Portuguese throne, she is described as a catalyst. Gribble wrote this book a mere five years after Portugal became a republic so he has a cogent and immediate perspective on events. From reading other histories of Portugal, Gribble’s description of the intellectuals of the University of Coimbra (think the Philosophes of the French Enlightenment) and their proposals and conspiracy to form a republic is very well described and accurate. As I say, I’m not sure about the accuracy of the history of the kings themselves here but I really enjoyed this book. If anyone out there knows of this work and can vouch for its correctness, please leave a comment below.

Book Review: “A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: Volume Two” by A.R. Disney

A.R. Disney published a two volume history of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire in 2009. Volume One covers the history of the country from the beginnings to 1807. This volume covers the history of the Portuguese Empire beginning with the conquest of Ceuta in North Africa and the exploration missions sponsored by Henry the Navigator down to 1807 and the late colonial era.

Disney bases this work on all the latest scholarship published on Portuguese history as he did with Volume One. This book is a great companion to Charles R. Boxers “The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825”. While Boxer’s book gives a generalized summary of the entire empire, this book breaks down the history by each area of the world where the Portuguese touched down. Whether this was just for exploration purposes, a stop on the way somewhere else or the establishment of a small or sprawling colony each era is given a great summary of their history.

The social history of each area is explained along with the implications for world-wide trade. I especially enjoyed the history of the Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands, São Tomé and Principe. It is fascinating how these islands were colonized, developed and for the most part ruined although in some cases, the vegetation was restored. The breakthrough to Maritime Asia and the Empire in the East is reported. The colony of Goa in India must have been a pretty remarkable place under the Portuguese viceroys stationed there.

A great deal of the book covers the history of Brazil and the Brazilian Empire. There is an informative section of maps illustrating where the Portuguese explored and settled. There is also a comprehensive bibliography. This book and Volume One give the reader a great grounding in all aspects of Portuguese history, especially for those who don’t speak or read Portuguese. I highly recommend both volumes.

Book Review: “A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: Volume One” by A.R. Disney

I’m just going to get straight to the point here. I’ve been doing in depth research into the history of Portugal and I love this book. The first of two volumes of Disney’s work covers the history of Portugal from pre-Roman times to the French invasion of 1807. The country of Portugal has no geographical reason to exist. As the country exists today, it has no political roots in its Roman, Germanic or Islamic past. Then in the fifteenth century, this tiny country on the Iberian Peninsula began an unlikely expansion into an economic empire which spanned the entire globe.

The first chapter covers ancient Portugal which included hunter-gatherers and Iron Age farmers. Disney explains the economy of Portugal during this period with its strong emphasis on the mining of natural resources. This era was followed by the Celts and then the Romans. Next, Portugal was invaded by the barbarians including the Visigoths and the Suevi. Finally, the Peninsula was conquered by the Muslims from Africa.

Medieval Portugal sees the Reconquest, the expulsion of the Muslims and rise of the Kingdom with the Burgundian dynasty and later the Avis kings. Although there is conflict and war with neighboring Castile, the time period witnessed the Golden Age as described by Disney. After this there was an era of decline which was followed by the taking of the throne by the Hapsburgs. This lasted from 1580-1640 when the House of Braganza restored the monarchy.

Disney covers the Restoration of the monarchy, the Baroque age, the years of the dictatorship of Pombal, the late eighteenth century and the invasion by Napoleonic France. All of this is told in brilliant and economical detail. Disney’s writing flows and is a joy to read. This is the first history of Portugal to be written in English in a generation and takes into account all the new scholarship since the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. Disney’s research is meticulous with copious footnotes and a long bibliography. He includes all interpretations of the latest historians. Volume Two of this history covers the Portuguese Empire and review of this work is up next. If you are interested in an exact, precise and accurate history of Portugal, this is your book.

Book Review: “A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668” by Malyn Newitt

I’ve been doing some research in Portuguese history and their seaborne empire and found this volume. Having just finished Charles R. Boxer’s book on the Portuguese Seaborne Empire, I was a little concerned this book might just be a rehash of Boxer’s. But I discovered there was no need to worry because this one is completely different. While Newitt covers the same topic, this is a more in-depth survey of the era.

Malyn Newitt is Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College, London, the same university where Boxer taught. In this book, he examines how the ideas and institutions of late medieval society, as well as Portugal’s rivalry with Castile, were utilized to expand into Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Atlantic islands allowing the country to become a global commercial powerhouse. He scrutinizes the origins of Portuguese expansion up until 1469, Portuguese expansion from 1469-1500, expansion in the East and the Atlantic from 1500-1515, the Portuguese diaspora and the empire at its height in 1580.

At that point in time, the Portuguese empire faced a huge challenge to its dominance from the heavily armed and better resourced English and Dutch which lead to a steep decline. The empire was resilient and survived in a reduced capacity from 1620 until the end of this survey in 1668. Newitt’s last chapter is an overview of the entire era.

Newitt gives a chronological survey of each of the exploratory voyages made by the Portuguese pioneers. At first these journeys were sponsored by the Portuguese monarchy with any new lands discovered coming under the aegis of the king. Motives for this exploration were trade, scientific discovery and a great desire to spread Christianity through missionaries. In the beginning, the king managed to keep some control over the trade and profits but as the empire grew, an “unofficial” empire came into being.

Reading about this era gives some perspective to our current global economic situation. I enjoyed this account of Portuguese expansion. All areas are covered such as Africa, Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, China and Sri Lanka. The book includes a glossary, maps and a complete bibliography.

Book Review: “The Portuguese Seaborne Empire: 1415-1825” by Charles R. Boxer

In the late 1960’s, a succession of books were published for a series called “The History of Human Society”. The books were edited by J.H. Plumb and covered a range of topics including Prehistoric Societies, the Spanish Seaborne Empire, Pioneer America and the Greeks. Charles R. Boxer wrote the other two volumes for the series including this one and one on the Dutch Seaborne Empire.

Charles R. Boxer was born on the Isle of Wight in 1904. After getting his education, he served in the British Army from 1923 until 1946 and was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese from December 1942 until August 1945. He worked as a professor at King’s College, London teaching Portuguese and the history of the Far East. Beginning in 1969, when this book was written, he was the Professor of History of the Expansion of Europe Overseas at Yale. He is widely known as an expert on the topic of Portuguese history.

The story begins in the Middle Ages. The Portuguese have always been a maritime people but during this era, they began their exploration down the western coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. The explorers were interested in science but they were also looking for routes to the “Indies” for trading purposes, primarily seeking gold and to spread Christianity to the un-initiated.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were engaged in shipping of spices in the Asian seas and trading slaves and sugar in the South Atlantic. One hundred years later, they were in conflict with the Dutch and the English causing the Portuguese empire in the East to decline. Boxer explains the decline and the revival of the trading empire as well as the efforts of the missionaries in all the occupied lands. The dictatorship of Pombal and its aftermath are also discussed.

The second part of the book recounts the characteristics of the empire such as the type of ships that were built for the fleets to Brazil and to India. Other topics include crown patronage, the Catholic missions, and the formation of town councils and the brothers of charity, soldiers, settlers, vagabonds, pirates, merchants, monopolists and smugglers. Some aspects of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Sebastianism, Messianism and nationalism are also covered. Boxer is forthright and honest in his assessment of the Portuguese and their methods during this great era. He pulls no punches which is very refreshing. The book includes photos, maps, a glossary and several appendices.

I was looking for books on this topic for research purposes and this volume received five-star reviews and it is certainly obvious why Boxer was chosen to write this book. Boxer’s scholarship is immaculate and he has the added bonus of being an engaging writer. This book is eminently readable and the topic is fascinating. Anyone would enjoy it.