Key Takeaways from the Portuguese Era of Expansion

A relatively minor nation, over a relatively short period of time, through extremely bold actions, started something that sent the world on a trajectory which brought us to the world we live in today.

I just finished the book Conquerors, which tells the story of the rise of the first global empire of the Portuguese.

It’s hard to be brief and also give a sweeping characterization of what happened during this period, in part, due to sensitivities due to the victims of the murderous and oppressive process. That sensitivity must, nonetheless, be balanced with a sense of awe of the scope of what they did, the risks involved, and the will they showed against constant mortal peril. Above all, historical contextualization is important, and the medieval background formed their decision-making. My modern mind often finds their decisions outrageous and horrifying.

Key Facts that Revised my Thinking

I have a certain mythology of my own that I must overcome when reading about this period of history. I had a US education where we had a confused “celebration” of Columbus Day, complicated by juvenile feelings of sympathy toward the native populations. But we also maintained several non-obvious biases regarding tiny details. Some of these had some truth regarding the Spanish Empire, but the early Spanish Empire was arguably less important in the global sense than Portugal. For me, this book contained a great amount of uncharted intellectual territory.

Causalities Levels were Borderline Suicidal

Journeys very often made it back with nothing but a fraction of the crew (and often ships) that departed. People on the ship lived under the constant threat of death, and those in command, amidst this social environment, had to make decisions that balanced sailor’s lives against their objectives.

War Technology Really Really Mattered

I have been sobering up a more realistic picture of Cortez, due to other books I’ve been reading. This guy had dozens of soldiers and seemed to have a baffling confidence in their ability to face an entrenched empire that could call upon forces of 1,000s. Part of this is some kind of extinct mercenary culture and way-of-thinking that I surely don’t understand. But another part was obviously the cannons.

The Portuguese, unlike the Spanish, were almost always walking into relatively well-developed (and defended) trade areas. They just didn’t seem to care. Engagement after engagement, they learned more and more to rely upon (and make assumptions based on) their technological edge… with ship-mounted cannons mostly. Although, there was more war-related technology from Europe that mattered.

These capabilities were genuinely superior, and often completely unknown, to the native rulers that they were facing. I don’t yet have a firm grasp on the context of this. China was focused inward during this period, and somehow Europe was quickly advancing, even if starting from a more primitive position. Even more important was the fact that the new tech had political implications — which further funded its advancement.

Actually MORE impressive ships of the Chinese a century earlier, but why no cannons? No one was stopping you…

The political reality of the nation of Portugal when they stumbled and marauded their way into the Indian Ocean was vastly different from that of China which had sent even more (initially at least) expeditions into that area. The Portuguese explorers were there on borrowed time. They had to produce for country, for glory, and for riches.

The Process was Incremental, Punctuated by Big Gambles

Innovations were necessary in order to build their globe-spanning empire, but it started relatively modestly in a process. First they started out going along the Western coast of Africa, every journey going further than the last. However, they hit walls at various places. Sometimes these were rough or rocky seas, toward the beginning, it was once pure mythology that kept them from going further. But the greater leap-in-faith by far was the use of Southerly winds to drive hard away from Africa, catching a strong East-ward wind at latitudes near the Cape of Africa.

That gamble is intriguing because there is no half-way version of it. You can’t kind of catch these winds but still remain close to the continent (which makes it crazy dangerous). In a time when this was totally unproven, I can’t help but believe that they thought they were going to die. Similar big gambles happened at various points through the entire process.

Small innovations were fueled by frequent feedback, and large innovations were taken against with educated guesses and tremendous risk. This is a formula that is effective for technology today as well.

Portuguese Mythology Pivoted Around Muslim Conflicts

…and religious identity.

I’m weak in my knowledge of this part of history, but I do know that firstly, the Crusades happened not too too long before the events in this book took place. And clearly, the Crusades were a part of a must longer-lasting and entrenched way of looking at the world in terms of one owns religion versus the other. Spain had only very recently expelled Muslim populations from their area, and continued persecution of Jews in some form or another throughout most of the events.

Our modern minds are tempted to say that their antagonism of the Muslim world was a reason for their colonial activities, but I think this is the wrong view. Their international relationships were very strongly defined by the conflicts of dominant monotheist religions. It just happens to be the case that technological advancement and exploration aligned with their preexisting ethos.

Successes Resulted in Tremendous Leverage

I still can not understand how a few dozen sailors could just waltz into an land completely unknown to them and start making demands of a sovereign that had 1,000s or 10,000s of direct subjects. But this is a story that repeated itself in the book multiple times. As they discovered the limitations of their weaponry versus the native populations, they didn’t soften their tactics, they drove harder and with less caution. Experience showed that leaning on their advantages bore fruit.

The trade and political control that resulted was also astounding relative to the number of people actually participating in these expeditions. There was a meaningful shift in power economically and politically from Venice to Portugal, and in the European arena their position changed dramatically as a result of these activities half a world away.

Their Holdings were “Shallow”, Along the Coasts

With a small group of people projecting tremendous power, some obvious practical considerations prevailed. Political control was important, but overt political control was only necessary or relevant for key strongholds on the Indian Ocean costs, along with other parts of the world.


At that time, the goal wasn’t global rule. The peoples sent abroad literally numbered in the 1,000s, so the absurdity is apparent on the face of this. The particular type of control they attained was driven by the strategic considerations, in particular, control of the seas and trade.

This pattern continued to an extent throughout the entire age of European colonialism, but the level of control deepened greatly.

Commanders Loved Forts, Conscripts Hated Building Them

Forts were crucial for consolidating their gains, but forts don’t build themselves. The book conveys a sense of subtle, visceral, hatred of fort-building that the common sailor must have hated. Due to elements not elaborated on, some very specific European technology was important for building up-to-date forts that could exercise the full extent of the artillery technology.

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