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.

Book Review: “Portugal: A Companion History” by José Hermano Saraiva

This book is part of a series published by Carcanet Press Limited called “Aspects of Portugal” which includes volumes on poetry, history and other books in Portuguese which have been translated into English. Eugénio Lisboa, who formerly worked as Cultural Counsellor at the Portuguese Embassy in London writes in the preface that he was constantly asked for a good short history of Portugal written in English. Lisboa and a friend approached imminent and popular Portuguese historian and television personality José Hermano Saraiva, asking for permission to translate his ‘História Concisa’ into English. Saraiva suggested he write an entirely new volume and so this book came into being.

Published in 1997, this short and concise history is a pleasant read. It really just hits the highlights of Portuguese history. The first chapter is entitled Ancient Roots and covers the origins of the Portuguese, Roman colonization, the barbarian and Islamic invasions and the Reconquest. The chapter is only twelve pages long so it is short on detail. The rest of the book entails various chronological eras in the same manner. This book is really meant to be a rudimentary introduction to the subject.

Perhaps the highlight of this book is the section of maps which were chosen, organized and added by the editors. The maps explain a wide range of history and each one has several paragraphs of description and clarification. The final map illustrates the country of Portugal and is accompanied by an historical gazetteer of place names. There is also a handy chronological timeline and a section of brief biographies of key historical figures.

The bibliography is selective and broken down by topic such as art and architecture, military, history, economics, politics, travel, etc. I especially liked the last chapter which contained a lively discussion of the history of Portugal from 1910 to the present. This book is perfect for someone who wants a basic background on the topic of Portuguese history and the added appendices will be important as reference material for future research. An enjoyable, if brief, read.