May 18, 2008

Book Review: A World on the Move - The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America 1415-1808

Russell-Wood, AJR
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 290 pages

Russell-Wood is one of the preeminent scholars on the Portuguese Empire, and he has been a fixture in the history department at Johns Hopkins University for over three decades. Unlike monographs that examine narrow aspects of the Portuguese empire, A World on the Move uses the theme of movement to present a holistic synthesis of the Estado in which the author surveyed the intra-imperial exchange of people, flora, fauna, commodities, pathogens, and ideas. Monographs on the Estado da India, argued Russell-Wood, tend to place emphasis on specific regions, while suffering from what the author described as “over-zealous attempts at periodization.”

After a brief introduction, Russell-Wood began his examination of Portuguese movement with a chapter on the means by which this peregrination occurred: transportation. The innovations of the Portuguese in developing ships such as the nao, argued Russell-Wood, brought about a “revolution in the increased volume of merchandise which could be transported” in the emerging global trade networks. In addition to the carreira da India and the carreira do Brasil – the two most important trade routes established by the Portuguese – the author noted that Portuguese ships also participated in a number of regional trade networks in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Moreover, despite the traditional view of the Portuguese Empire as one that was in large measure a seaborne enterprise, Russell-Wood noted that Portuguese merchants and officials also made significant use of overland and river-based routes, as well as demonstrating the ability to adapt to local modes of transportation.

The Portuguese empire also fostered the movement of people between continents, not the least of which was the role of Portugal in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Russell-Wood, however, chose to devote only a few pages of his narrative on slavery, focusing more attention instead on the movement of settlers, state officials, church representatives, and merchants. One of the salient features of human mobility in the Portuguese empire, argued Russell-Wood, was what he described as its “multi-continental quality.” The author provided many examples of individuals who began their imperial careers in one outpost, traveling to Portuguese holdings elsewhere, and ending up in colonial setting far removed from both Portugal and their earlier postings. In addition, the demographic shortages in Portugal meant that indigenous peoples were needed to fill positions, as was the case with the training of native peoples as priests throughout the empire. Another source of labor for the empire was the use of degredados, or exiles from Portugal who could be assigned to the most inhospitable colonial destinations:
There was a ranking of places of exile from the acceptable to the least desirable: Mazagão in Morocco was close enough to give hope of return; Angola, Benguela, and Mozambique were so unhealthy as to be tantamount to a death sentence; and Brazil, the Maranhão, and India held little hope of return to Portugal.
Finally, most impressive in the imperial accomplishments of the Portuguese, noted Russell-Wood, was the fact that the population of Portugal was so much smaller than that of its European competitors, ranging from approximately one million people at the beginning of the fifteenth century to some two million by 1640.

One topic that received only a cursory examination in A World on the Move was the movement of infectious diseases between regions of the Portuguese empire. Russell-Wood did provide a general outline of the some of the major pathogenic transmissions in which the Portuguese played a critical role, such as the introduction of forms of malaria into the Americas by Portuguese carracks and caravels carrying African slaves. The author did not address the Portuguese role in the introduction of cholera into continental Europe, Africa, and the Americas, although admittedly this would have largely occurred at the end of and beyond the period Russell-Wood profiled.

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcutLeft: Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcut

Russell-Wood argued that the 1497-99 opening of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama “did not usher in a new age of an influx of commodities hitherto totally unknown to the Portuguese,” but rather meant that goods already familiar to Europeans could now be obtained in greater quantities and at more favorable prices. Portugal also became an important player in the intra-continental trade networks between European nations, and Lisbon grew in importance as a port in which a wide variety of European commodities and products were exchanged. The 1693 discovery of gold in the Brazilian region of Minas Gerais, argued Russell-Wood, was a mixed blessing for the Portuguese crown; the short-term infusion of precious metals helped reduce an unfavorable balance of payments, but Brazilian gold brought with it unforeseen consequences:
Nations other than Portugal were the prime beneficiaries of the flood of Brazilian gold. It has been estimated that from between one-half and three-quarters of all gold entering the Tagus, went to England. Much was squandered on projects of immediate personal gratification than on long-term investment in the nation’s future, the stimulus for embryonic manufacturing enterprises was weakened (a trend only to be reversed in the 1770s with Pombal’s initiatives), the transition from a barter to a monetary economy was slowed, dependency on Great Britain increased, and the State was permitted the luxury of postponing the introduction of much needed reforms.
A World on the Move contains dozens of pages of images that add a visual dimension to Russell-Wood’s text, and especially intriguing were contemporary illustrations of life in the Portuguese Empire. The author also included a number of useful maps that highlighted trade routes, ocean currents, and other information related to the theme of imperial mobility. Citations are provided in an endnote format, and Russell-Wood provided readers with a lengthy bibliography of monographs and primary source collections for further research. While prior familiarity with Portugal and the Estado da India would be helpful for readers, A World on the Move is a book that is accessible to the general reader while providing Portuguese scholars with a different perspective on topics related to the development and expansion of the world’s first global empire.

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