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: “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.

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.