Posts Tagged ‘Roger Crowley’

Adventures in Bookland: Conquerors by Roger Crowley

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

The book is subtitled ‘How Portugal forged the first global empire’ and that gives an accurate summary of its contents. What it doesn’t convey is the sheer, breathtaking excitement of it all. Over the space of a few decades, a group of Portuguese navigators transformed the whole idea of the world, opening it up in a way that had never been achieved, even in the antiquity that Renaissance humanists so revered. They had outdone the ancients. Roger Crowley, one of my favourite historians, tells the tale with all the excitement and verve these extraordinary men deserve. Few things can match the raw courage of the Portuguese turn into the empty ocean that took them round the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. For, to make the journey possible, Portuguese navigators realised that it was no good to hug the African coast all the way south. Instead, you had to sail west, into the empty ocean, far far from any land, and then catch the trade winds south and east, past the Cape of Good Hope and into the ocean of wealth. For the Indian Ocean, and the trade it carried, was the richest in the world at the time, and the Portuguese arrived determined to grab this trade for themselves. For the Muslim traders who dominated the seas, their arrival was a rude shock (as indeed it was for the Venetians, who suddenly foresaw their domination of trade with the east undercut). The story of these conquerors, and in particular of Afonso du Albuquerque, the Duke of Goa and the man who founded the long enduring Portuguese enclave there, is extraordinary. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: City of Fortune by Roger Crowley

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Most of the places where we live are obstinately, resolutely earth bound: think of maundering suburbs, the plate-glass high rises of financial centres, the re-gentrified areas of inner cities. None of these suggest anything other than themselves: places where people live, sealed off from heaven above and oblivious of hell below. But there are a few places where the places of this world are suggestive of and open to the worlds above and below. Most of these are natural places, thin places where the boundaries are ill defined, but there are a few that are man made, and none more so than the city that is the subject of this wonderful history: Venice.

Even now, living off its beauty, with most Venetians reduced to living on the mainland in Venezia Mestre, Venice is not like anywhere else on earth. It has always been so, as Crowley ably tells in this book. People, outsiders, have always looked at Venice and wondered, how could it exist? A city without land, without anything in the way of natural resources, and yet for centuries it was the node of the Mediterranean, the eye at the centre of a virtual empire that tied together with the invisible thread of trade and money a state that stretched over the shifting miles of sea and penetrated deep into the trade routes that linked Christendom, the Islamic world and beyond. Venice, built on water, lived on money and sold itself as a dream.

Today, the dream lingers, and the wanderer, turning a corner into a quiet piazza or a still canal, can never entirely escape the feeling that the next turn might take him over an invisible boundary and into another Venice, one that still draws to itself all the trades of the unseen worlds, and sends them out again into all the different realms. Ghosts walk quietly alongside the water, heard in the slap of wavelet on quay and the drift of wind over the lagoon. Walk here and you walk among multitudes unseen.

One day, I will go back. I’m not sure if I will return.


Adventures in Bookland: Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley

Sunday, September 18th, 2016


The world was strange five hundred years ago. The unity of medieval Christendom had ruptured, breaking apart a thousand years of cultural understanding (even if that had not translated into any lasting peace between the warring European states). Meanwhile, the old bulwark against the advance of the armies of Islam, the impregnable walls of Constantinople, had finally proved pregnable in 1453. Each new Ottoman Sultan had to prove his legitimacy through war and conquest – hence the inexorable drive towards a century and more of conflict.

The Ottomans were originally a nomadic people. Naval warfare was something new to them. But, in the 16th century, they learned fast. Land conquests had made the Sultan master of the Black Sea. Now, he sought to rule the White Sea too.

Standing in his way were the Venetians, the Genoese and the Spanish, under their Habsburg kings, Charles I and Philip II.

The struggle for the Mediterranean was one conducted through generations, with fathers and then sons and even grandsons engaged in the conflict. And it was a brutal conflict, its brutality exacerbated by the demands of the chief engine of this particular naval war: the galley. In the shallow, generally calm waters of the Mediterranean, these oared sailing ships, with their ability to ram and run fast under the pull of the oars, were the most potent vessels, but their potency was earned through human misery: the men pulling the oars. For most sides in the conflict, the chief source of oarsmen was slaves. Slave-taking expeditions became a constant menace, particularly to the southern European states. All sides took part in the trade, but the Ottoman armed forces were predicated upon slavery for their most feared troops, the Janissaries, were slaves, children taken from their, usually Christian, parents, converted to Islam and then raised as soldiers.

Crowley takes this fearsomely complex war and relates it well, breaking down the long struggle into a number of key battles while not neglecting the longer-term diplomatic and economic factors that also played into the war. But, in the end, it came down to four great battles, three island sieges and a concluding naval battle: the siege of Rhodes (1522), when the Ottomans succeeded in expelling the Knights of St John, the successors to the medieval Hospitallers, from the island; the siege of Malta (1565), when the knights held, just, to their new base; the siege of Famagusta (1571), in which the Ottomans took the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus and, by their barbaric execution of the defenders, inflamed Venetian passion to such an extent that the Republic forwent trade for war and became one of the chief instigators of the Holy League that faced the Ottomans in the great naval battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571).

Four great battles in one long war. That the Sultan did not rule the White Sea as he did the Black was down to these men, men like Cervantes, who fought at Lepanto and counted it his most glorious deed, Don Juan of Austria, commander of the Holy League, who danced a galliard on the poop deck of his ship before battle began, Jean de Valette of the Knights, who fought at the siege of Rhodes and then commanded the Knights during their defence of Malta, and many others. Remarkable men for a remarkable conflict, and one that deserves to be better known. Hopefully, Crowley’s excellent book will serve to make that happen.