Jun 24, 2008

Book Review: The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825

Boxer, CR
Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970

CR Boxer, perhaps the single most important figure in the 20th century historiography of the Portuguese empire, composed The Portuguese Seaborne Empire for J.H. Plumb’s The History of Human Society series. This synthesis, however, might also be considered one of the high points of Boxer’s lifelong fascination with the Portuguese Estado da India, and the text occasionally references material from the author’s impressive private archival collection (relocated after Boxer’s death to The Lilly Library at Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, IN).

Boxer noted that the original motivations for the Portuguese in commencing their voyages of discovery – as outlined by chroniclers such as Gomes Eanes de Zurara - were varied: “(i) crusading zeal against the Muslims; (ii) the desire for Guinea gold; (iii) the quest for Prester John; (iv) the search for Oriental spices.” In addition, Boxer argued, Portuguese monarchs benefited from the fact that Portugal was a united kingdom, having completed their portion of the Reconquista over two centuries before the Castilians evicted the last of the Muslim forces in 1492. Moreover, the 1385 Aviz revolution, acknowledged Boxer, created both an emergent middle class and the utter destruction of most of the old noble competitors.

Portugal enjoyed a number of fortuitous factors that improved the small Iberian nation’s chances of success in its efforts to dominate the Indian Ocean trade network in the sixteenth century, argued Boxer. Chief among these was the fact that the major powers in the region lacked armed ships to protect their maritime interests, and Boxer noted that the Portuguese destruction of the “makeshift Egyptian-Gujarati fleet off Diu” in 1509 eliminated the “only Muslim naval force capable of meeting the Portuguese warships on something approaching equal terms.” Political rivalries in the region, added Boxer, allowed the Portuguese to exploit rivalries to their advantage; notable among these were the rivalries between Mombasa and Malindi in East Africa, between the Zamorin of Calicut and the Raja of Cochin, and between the Sultans of Ternate and Tidore. Finally, remarked Boxer, the attitude of many Asian rulers might be summarized in a quote from Bahadur Shah, the King of Gujarat: “‘Wars by sea are merchants’ affairs, and of no concern to the prestige of kings.’”

Left: Sixteenth-century painting of Bahadur Shah of Gujarat

Boxer viewed the post-1663 Portuguese empire as a study in contrasts, which he described as “stagnation and contraction in the East” and “revival and expansion in the West.” Boxer attributed what he believed to be a decline in the Estado da India to a number of reasons, including the dearth of Portuguese women who would travel to India, the unhealthiness of the Asian and African environments to Europeans, the chronic shortage of soldiers in Portuguese India, the “meteoric rise of Omani sea-power,” the emergence of the Marathan Empire as a land and sea menace, and what he termed the maladministration of justice (a falta de justiça), a frequent complaint in official correspondence from the period. Boxer discounted the idea of a so-called “decadence of Portuguese Asia” – a description sometimes invoked by contemporaries and emphasized by late 19th and early 20th century historians like R.S. Whiteway - as a factor in the alleged Portuguese decline, noting that contemporaries often exaggerated both the 16th-century “golden age” and the 17th century deterioration of the Estado da India. Recent scholarship, exemplified in the book Renascent Empire by Glenn J. Ames, has cast significant doubt on Boxer’s “stagnation” thesis, and it is likely that both halves of the Portuguese empire experienced improvement in the late 17th century.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, better known as Marquis of Pombal, occupies a lengthy chapter in Boxer’s book, and the author described Pombal as someone who made “a greater impact on Portuguese history than anyone else has ever done.” Boxer detailed Pombal’s efforts to crush what he viewed as a Jesuit menace, and argued that this response reflected Pombal’s view that “the backwardness and underdeveloped state (as we would say nowadays) of Portugal and her colonies were almost entirely due to the diabolical machinations of the Society of Jesus.” Yet despite the repression and severity of the Pombaline dictatorship, Boxer noted that the reign of Pombal was also associated with the abolition of slavery in Portugal from 1761-63, the abolition of racial barriers in the Asian colonies, and the reform of the “antiquated curriculum” of Coimbra University.

Left: Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo,the first Marquis of Pombal

Readers of the text receive detailed summaries from Boxer on the Brazilian fleets and on the Carreira da Índia, or the round trip between Lisbon and Goa. Boxer noted that the Portuguese Crown tried to ameliorate the inadequate wages of ship officers and crew members by allowing the use of caixas de liberdade (“liberty chests”), in which officers and men could bring home certain Asian trade goods wholly or partially duty-free. Another perk for sailors and officers was the gasalbado, a space allotment on the deck of Carreira ships that could be sold to the highest bidder. Boxer argued that there was a hidden benefit that proponents of the caixas de liberdade and gasalbado perquisites claimed would benefit the Crown:
The supporters of the system also argued that by giving the sailors a direct interest in a portion of the ship’s lading they would fight better if the ship was attacked, since they would be defending their own property as well as that of the Crown.
Boxer contested the view promulgated by a number of historians that the Portuguese empire was much less focused on forms of racial hierarchy and racial prejudice than were the English, French, and Dutch. He noted that official documents and private correspondence throughout the 17th and 18th centuries frequently contain terms such as pureza de sangue (“purity of blood”) and raças infectas (“contaminated races”). In addition, Boxer noted the refusal by leaders of religious orders to admit ordained priests of color, as well as the inability of Pombal to enforce his anti-racialist policies with the formation of an indigenous clergy in East Africa. Moreover, Jews and cristãos novos (“New Christians”) in Portugal and in the empire generally fared poorly in this environment, and Boxer noted that cristãos novos – even those between the fourth and seventh generations after forcible conversion – were “officially and legally excluded from all ecclesiastical, military, and administrative posts,” and this ban was extended in 1623 to all university and college positions.

Despite its age and the fact that the book is currently out of print, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire remains an essential component of any respectable library on European expansion, and the text has much to offer students of history and non-specialist scholars. Boxer provided an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, a glossary of terms, and a useful collection of appendices. Moreover, Boxer’s wit and intellectual curiosity shine in this book, and one can only hope that a publishing house will soon recognize that CR Boxer still has much to offer scholars and general readers by republishing this magnificent text.

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