Feb 28, 2007

Book Review: The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808

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The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move by A.J.R. Russell-WoodRussell-Wood, A.J.R.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 290 pages


Russell-Wood is the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in pre-Columbian and colonial Latin America and the Portuguese seaborne empire. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 reflects the author’s desire to create a synthesis of the history of Portugal’s imperial rise and decline that captures the global nature of the Lusophonic empire, avoiding the historiographical tendency to examine narrow geographical segments or short temporal pieces of an empire that at one time nearly circled the planet. The book’s subtitle - "A World on the Move" - illustrates a theme that Russell-Wood skillfully weaves throughout the text, as the Portuguese seaborne empire was indeed a world in which people, merchandise, conveyances, flora, fauna, and cultures moved across oceans and - through the process of exchange – created new structures in their wakes.

One of the problems historians face in explaining the unparalleled success of Portugal as an early modern imperial power lies in the fact that the population of the Iberian nation was only about one million people by the end of the fifteenth century. Russell-Wood argued that a number of factors explain this meteoric rise, and chief among these was the ability of the Portuguese to identify “strategic and key points” in commerce and geopolitics that coincided with imperial interests. In addition, argued the author, the Portuguese exhibited a knack for determining the precise military strength needed for a particular engagement, rarely finding themselves overstaffed or undermanned for a battle. Finally, Russell-Wood maintained that the success of the Portuguese as imperialists owed much to their ability to readily adapt to the needs of a given commercial or military situation; Portuguese officials might opt for outright territorial possession, or they might instead settle for alternatives such as forts, feitorias, or strategic alliances in lieu of acquiring extensive territorial holdings.

Map of the Portuguese empire at its heightLeft: Map of the Portuguese empire at its height (click for larger image)

Rather than a chronological approach to the topic, Russell-Wood chose to develop thematic chapters that focus on specific topics in the history of the Portuguese empire. A chapter on transportation illustrates how the Portuguese were able to develop innovative, hybrid ship designs that combined European and Arabic features in vessels like the não and the caravel. Russell-Wood composed a lengthy chapter that described the wide range of people who left Portugal to serve the empire – including migrants, settlers, Crown officials, soldiers, missionaries, and traders – as well as the reciprocal “reflux” of indigenous peoples emigrating to Portugal. This two-way exchange of peoples, noted Russell-Wood, also led to the exchange of diseases between continents, and the arrival of Eurasian diseases in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa were matched by the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and yaws among Europeans. Moreover, argued the author, the mutual exchange of goods, plants, animals, and ideas changed the Portuguese as well as their imperial subjects, allies, and enemies. Whether they landed in “Africa, India, or Brazil,” argued Russell-Wood, “the Portuguese put an indelible urban imprint on those places they settled.”

Scholars, the learned general public, and non-specialist historians will find Russell-Wood’s work to be a thorough overview of imperial Portugal. Accompanying the text are several sections of paintings and photographs that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. The author provided detailed – though somewhat limited - endnotes, as well as a 21-page bibliography, a cross-referenced index, a six-page chronology, and a number of useful maps to help readers unfamiliar with the history of the Portuguese empire. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 could best be described, though, as an essential starting point for understanding the rise of the Portuguese as an imperial power, as well as a text that helps explain the period in which Europeans became dominant players in globalization.

1 comment:

microdot said...

sigh, another book that I have to read!
I was in Lisbon last year and it is a place like no other. The entire city is covered with porcelain tiles. The food seems to be a synthesis of all the cultures touched by the Portugese Empire.(do you know what Piri Piri sauce is?) 3 days was enough to only whet my taste for the culture.
I did pick up a collection of Fada CDs...a musical tradition I learned of back in the 70's....