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: “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.

Book Review: “John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey’s Father-in-Law” by Christine Hartweg

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland is an enigmatic character in Tudor history. He makes his appearance during the last days of King Henry VIII and came to great prominence during the reign of King Edward VI. He was largely responsible for the execution of Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and for the short reign of Lady Jane Grey.

Christine Hartweg has a fascination for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the great favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. By extension, she has done meticulous research into Leicester’s father resulting in this biography. There is great detail here on the personal life of John Dudley including his early life and the execution of his father after the death of King Henry VII. It is interesting to note he had a devoted relationship with his wife, Jane Guildford. Her father had been Northumberland’s mentor and the couple had a large and loving family.

Hartweg recounts Northumberland’s rise to power including his clashes with the Duke of Somerset and his close mentoring of King Edward VI. Northumberland was a great proponent of the Protestant religion. This led him to influence King Edward to modify his will and name his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor. Northumberland arranged a marriage between Jane Grey and his son Guildford. It is uncertain if he forged this match specifically so his son could be king and he could retain some of his power. This is an intriguing question.

Another intriguing question is whether Northumberland genuinely repudiated his Protestant faith and became a true Catholic. Or was he just trying to save his own skin? The truth is we will never really know. It is clear that Queen Mary I didn’t believe him and Northumberland was unable to avoid execution. There are no definitive answers to these questions but Hartweg does a great job with the historical evidence and gives us all the possibilities. This book is highly recommended for those interested in the career of John Dudley.

Book Review: “The Path to Somerset” (The Seymour Saga Book 2) by Janet Wertman

Janet Wertman has followed her successful novel “Jane the Quene” with book 2, “The Path to Somerset” in what she has entitled “The Seymour Saga”. This volume is a richly detailed and dark account of the rise of Jane Seymour’s elder brother Edward to the position of regent and Lord Protector of England for his nephew King Edward VI. The story covers some of the most significant episodes in the reign of King Henry VIII.

Edward Seymour was one of the few people who were well liked by Henry VIII. All your favorite Tudor personalities appear in the saga including Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Margaret Douglas, Edward’s brother Thomas Seymour, Edward’s wife Anne Seymour, Stephen Gardiner and many others. This is a reliable depiction of the inner workings of King Henry’s government from 1540 until his death in January of 1547.

Wertman has written some great scenes displaying the animosity between Cromwell and Norfolk. The first meeting between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves is portrayed and very enjoyable. We see the rise and fall of Catherine Howard and Henry’s marriage to the mature widow Katherine Parr. We are witnesses to the scheming of certain men in the council to bring about Queen Katherine Parr’s downfall. The death of Henry and all the machinations behind the scenes are shown here with some exceptional dialogue. Wertman brings these people to life. A very enjoyable read and looking forward to Wertman’s next installment on the Seymour family.

Book Review: “A History of Spain and Portugal” by Stanley G. Payne

Admittedly, my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese history is scanty. I’m in the middle of some serious research on Portugal and knowing the history of the two countries is connected, this book looked like a good bet. The book was printed in two volumes and was published in 1973 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Stanley G. Payne has a long and distinguished career as an historian and is considered a specialist in Spanish fascism. His last position before his retirement was chairman of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Payne states in the preface, these volumes were written to address the need for a reasonably full and up-to-date comprehensive history of Spain and Portugal which can be used as a textbook for courses in Spanish history or as an interpretive account for other readers. His intention is to give accounts of the political and institutional history, including the church and religion, as well as social and economic history. He does not go into too much detail about literary and art history by design as these subjects are well covered elsewhere.

For each kingdom on the Peninsula, Payne gives succinct details of how the peasants lived, how the nobility came to power, how royalty took over the government, how each kingdom (Leon, Castile, Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, etc.) came into being and was absorbed into what we call Spain today. He explains the economies of each kingdom. There were sheep and cattle in Castile, trade within the Mediterranean and without by the eastern kingdoms, ironworks in the Basque area, etc. He explains how peasants worked the land, some making rent payments to the overlord and some who owned their land. There were slaves who worked the land. He talks about the soldiers who fought the wars. Payne doesn’t talk much about the actual kings and queens and only mentions a few of the most politically important ones by name.

Payne is very precise in describing the religious situation in the Peninsula. There were pagans initially and then Christians, Muslims and Jews. He chronicles the histories of these people such as how they lived in harmony for the most part until the Catholic Majesties decided they wanted religious harmony and went to war. There were forced conversions or many people were expelled. The Catholic Church was powerful but royalty always had the ability to check this power.

Personally I found this book to be masterful. The history of the Iberian Peninsula is fascinating in and of itself. But Payne’s writing and treatment of the subject matter had me totally captivated. He minces no words here. From the history of the ancients to the modern 20th century, this is a great read. To me the best material deals with the social history. I certainly learned a lot of new vocabulary! It’s not necessarily a definitive work but more of a comprehensive overview. Some may find it a bit of slog but if you stay with it, you will certainly find this work rewarding.