Post-classical history



JUST A FEW years earlier Lisbon had been a city on the edge of the world. Now it was transformed into a commercial hub that rivaled the richest entrepôts of the East. Ships from three continents crowded its harbor. Bulging sacks of pepper filled its warehouses. Carts heaped with muslins and brocades, musk and ambergris, frankincense and myrrh, cloves and nutmeg rumbled through its alleys. Persian carpets covered its floors and oriental tapestries lined its walls. Men from across Europe flocked to look, to buy, and to taste the thrill of the new.

To the footloose, the newly expanded world brought a heady surge of freedom. The chance to see new lands, meet new peoples, and bring home eyewitness accounts, striking souvenirs, and even exotic pets was irresistible to Europe’s adventurers, and a steady stream of latter-day Marco Polos abandoned their homes and set out on lengthy journeys to the East. These were men like Lodovico de Varthema, who quit Bologna in 1502 with a raging thirst for adventure, fame, and exotic sexual encounters. According to his riveting Travels, Varthema disguised himself as a Mamluk soldier in Syria, fought fifty thousand Arabs at a time while guarding a camel caravan, slipped into the precinct of the Kaaba in Mecca and the tomb of Muhammad in Medina, conducted an impassioned affair with a wife of the sultan of Aden, and achieved a reputation as a Muslim saint before returning to Europe on a Portuguese ship.

The doughty Portuguese had not opened a path to the East for the titillation of a few daredevils. The little nation had set itself a task of monumental proportions, and the work had just begun.

Vasco da Gama had sailed east, declared an Italian banker in Lisbon, with the express object of “subjugating all of India” to his master’s will. His own iron will had set the course for decades of ruthless battles for domination. Yet India was no longer an idea, a glorious figment of the European imagination. It was a vast subcontinent, beset by its own internal strife, vibrant with its own intricate complexities, and disconcertingly oblivious to the foreigners scratching at its shores. The Portuguese had only begun to chart the coastline, while the interior was still an impenetrable mystery: that was the limitation of conducting warfare by sea.

To be fair, the banker had jumped ahead of the game. For Vasco da Gama and his men, India was a means to an end. That end was Manuel’s vaulting ambition to install himself as king of Jerusalem, and the first step in that Crusade was not the conquest of India but the expulsion of its Muslim merchants. Gama had thrown everything at the task, yet his royal nemesis was still ensconced in his Calicut palace and the merchants were still plying their trade. As for the path ahead, the Portuguese had found no Prester John waiting to put his cohorts at their command, and the few Christians they had met were powerless to rally to their cause. They had yet to stanch the flow of spices to Egypt, and they had come nowhere near the Red Sea, the channel they believed would deliver them to the Holy Land. To all but the most credulous in faith, it was clear that Manuel’s master plan would require a vast commitment of time, manpower, and wealth that would draw Portugal ever deeper into the East.

The king was undeterred. Faith, and artillery, would conquer all. Yet India was halfway around the world, and without the right man in charge the crown was impotent to control the actions carried out in its name.

The rot set in with Gama’s own relatives.

Vicente Sodré and his brother Brás had stayed on in India with a broad remit to protect the Portuguese factories and despoil Muslim shipping. As soon as their stern nephew left they decided the second of those tasks was more profitable than the first, and they sailed off to loot ships carrying spices and silks to the Red Sea. Their crews were furious, not from moral outrage but because the brothers refused to share out the spoils. One irate captain denounced the brothers to King Manuel himself; Brás, he wrote, had made off with all manner of goods “without entering them in the books of Your Lordship, besides many others that he took when he wanted, for no one dared to go against him, since his brother permitted him to do whatever he wanted.” The cocky siblings got their comeuppance when they laughed off the advice of some Bedouin herders to move their ships out of the path of an oncoming gale, and the captain self-righteously reported the consequences to the king:

“So that, my lord, the next day, the wind rose so high and the sea became so rough that the ship of Vicente was dashed against the shore, and after it that of Brás Sodré with its mast broken, each of them having six cables for the prow.” Vicente was immediately killed; the thuggish Brás scrambled ashore and thrust his sword first into a pilot he had seized from one of the vessels he had looted, and then into the hunchback pilot who had been taken from the Mîrî. The admiral himself had instructed his uncles to make use of the hunchback’s expertise; he was, Manuel’s informant added, the best pilot in the whole of India, and “most necessary for Your Lordship.”

With the fleet absent, the Zamorin seized his chance. He turned his wrath on the rebellious king of Cochin, who was still stubbornly refusing to break his treaty with the Christians, and marched across the border with a large army. The raja and the Portuguese factors, clerks, and guards were forced to flee the ruined city and hide out on a nearby island. They were still there when the next Portuguese fleet arrived, and when they reinstalled the raja on his throne, the first European fort in India, a hastily constructed wooden structure named Fort Manuel, went up at Cochin.

It was fast becoming clear that only a permanent armed occupation could hope to achieve Manuel’s aim of clearing the seas of Muslim trade. That called for a commander who could make decisions on the ground, and in 1505 Manuel appointed the first Viceroy of India. Like the titles the king had concocted for himself and his admiral, it was a signal of intent rather than an expression of reality, but it marked the beginning of a mission drift that saw the Portuguese move inexorably from sea to land. Manuel chose Dom Francisco de Almeida, a tried and trusted old soldier who had fought at the siege of Granada in 1492, and besides giving him full powers to make treaties, wage war, and dispense justice, Manuel ordered him to construct a chain of forts around the Indian Ocean.

Almeida began at Kilwa. His soldiers landed and made straight for the palace of the usurping emir, benevolently “sparing the lives of the Moors along the way who did not show fight.” A courtier furiously waved the flag left by Gama from a window and shouted “Portugal! Portugal!” The Portuguese ignored him, broke down the palace doors, and hacked and looted away while a priest and a party of Franciscan friars held crosses aloft and chanted the Te Deum. The emir fled, and Almeida appointed a puppet in his place. He commandeered the strongest seafront house, razed the buildings around it to the ground, and turned it into a heavily armed fort manned by a captain and eighty soldiers.

The Europeans moved on to Mombasa. The sultan had been expecting them, and cannonballs whistled toward them from the bastion at the harbor entrance. They shot back until the fort’s gunpowder store ignited and the building went up in flames, then sailed into the harbor with all guns blazing. The soldiers landed in force, advanced through a hail of stones and arrows, and torched the city’s wooden houses. The walls and thatched roofs went up like kindling, taking nearby masonry buildings with them; Mombasa, reported a German sailor named Hans Mayr, who was with the expedition, “burned like one huge fire that lasted nearly all night.” The surviving inhabitants fled to the palm groves outside the city, and after breakfast the next day the invaders ransacked the smoldering ruins, breaking down doors with axes and battering rams and stopping to pick off the last defenders on the rooftops with their crossbows. When they reached the palace they smashed through its sumptuous rooms, while a Portuguese captain climbed to the roof and ran up the royal standard. Great heaps of treasure were carted away, including a magnificent carpet that was sent to King Manuel. According to the German sailor, when it was all over fifteen hundred Muslim men, women, and children lay dead but only five Christians had been killed, a disparity he put down more to divine grace than human skill.

The fleet headed for India, and after putting up a fort at Cannanore the Portuguese set off for their annual confrontation with the Zamorin.

In March 1506, fully 209 vessels from Calicut—84 of them big ships—attacked the 11-strong Portuguese fleet. The Bolognese adventurer Lodovico de Varthema happened to be passing by at the time, and he threw himself into the fray.

The Zamorin had finally managed to arm himself with efficient artillery—ironically for Varthema, the cannon were of Italian manufacture—and the odds were stacked against the Europeans. Almeida’s son Lourenço, who was in command, called together his men and steeled them to their sacrifice in the words of a true Crusader:

“O sirs, o brothers, now is the day that we must remember the Passion of Christ, and how much pain He endured to redeem us sinners. Now is that day when all our sins will be blotted out. For this I beseech you that we determine to go vigorously against these dogs; for I hope that God will give us the victory, and will not choose that His faith should fail.” Then a priest, crucifix in hand, gave a rousing sermon and granted a plenary indulgence. “And he knew so well how to speak,” Varthema later recalled, “that the greater part of us wept, and prayed God that He would cause us to die in that battle.”

The drums rolled, the guns boomed, and, wrote Varthema, “a most cruel battle was fought with immense effusion of blood.” The fighting raged on into a second day. “It was a beautiful sight,” the Italian remembered, “to see the gallant deeds of a very valiant captain who, with a galley, made such a slaughter of the Moors as it is impossible to describe.” Another captain leapt on board an enemy boat. “Jesus Christ, give us the victory! Help thy faith,” he cried, and he hacked off some more heads. The Indians fled before the relentless assault, and the Europeans mercilessly hunted them down. When they returned to the scene, the young commander sent his men to count the corpses. Varthema recorded the outcome: “They found that those who were killed on the shore and at sea, and those of the ships taken, were counted at three thousand six hundred dead bodies. You must know that many others were killed when they took to flight, who threw themselves in the sea.” The would-be martyrs had to make do with victory, because according to Varthema, the Italian guns notwithstanding, not a single Christian died.

While the victor was still celebrating his triumph, a Portuguese captain who was barely younger than Lourenço’s father was busy stealing his thunder.

Afonso de Albuquerque was already fifty when he first arrived in the Indian Ocean. He was of middling height, with a ruddy complexion, a large nose, and “a venerable beard reaching below his girdle to which he wore it knotted.” As a nobleman who was distantly related to the royal family he had been well educated, and he was noted for his elegant turn of phrase. He was also a confirmed Crusader who as a young man had served for ten years in the Moroccan wars. He was a commander of the Order of Santiago, the same Moor-slaying society into which Vasco da Gama had been inducted as a boy, and he had decided the future lay in the East. There was more than a touch of Gama in the determined set of his eyes, but if he was a match for his predecessor in personal courage and sheer force of personality, the older man outstripped the younger in his capacity for unflinching cruelty—and left him behind in his willingness to turn his temper on his own people.

In 1506 Albuquerque set out with a squadron of six ships to cut off the supply chains to Egypt, Arabia, and Iran. He quickly captured a rocky island near the mouth of the Red Sea and built a fortress on it. From his new base he dispatched raiders to sweep the Gate of Tears for ships heading to Aden and Jeddah. The next year he set off for the other side of Arabia to blockade the Persian Gulf. His attack fleet anchored in the horseshoe-shaped harbor of Muscat, an ancient port at the entrance to the Gulf, and let loose an opening salvo. The soldiers scaled the high earth walls of the venerable city and stormed the streets. They sliced their way to victory and cut off the ears and noses of the men and women who were left alive. Then they took an ax to the main mosque, “a very large and beautiful edifice, the greater part of timber, finely carved, and the upper part of stucco,” and set it on fire. Albuquerque went on to terrorize a string of nearby ports and towns before continuing to his main target, Hormuz. When he arrived he threatened to build a fort out of its inhabitants’ bones and nail their ears to the door, and, having terrorized them, he wiped out their entire fleet with a virtuoso display of seamanship and superior firepower. The boy king of Hormuz became a vassal of King Manuel, and a Portuguese fort named Our Lady of Victory—built of stone, not bones—rose over the fabled city.

Albuquerque was systematically shutting down the ocean termini of Islam’s Eastern trade. As more and more spices ended up in the holds of Portuguese ships, the markets of Alexandria emptied. The Egyptians were no longer willing to stand by and watch their monopoly vanish, and nor were their allies, the Venetians.

IN THE YEAR 1500 a garden of balsam trees on the outskirts of Cairo had suddenly wilted away.

The news would have been unremarkable were it not for the fact that the Coptic monks who tended the grove claimed that the infant Jesus had planted the first sapling; the precious spice, it was said, was the essence of his sweat, which Mary had wrung out of hisshirt after washing it in a spring he had made gush forth. For centuries, under the watchful eye of the sultan’s men, the monks had extracted a resinous gum from the trees. The gum was infused in oil, and the decoction was prized as a miracle cure for all manner of ailments. Its sale was carefully controlled—the Venetians, naturally, were among the favored clients—and Europeans paid exorbitant prices for tiny vials of the holy oil. Yet all of a sudden the ancient trees were gone, as if they had never been, and Egyptians of every faith mourned their passing.

It was a curious emblem of the devastation Vasco da Gama had wrought on the spice routes. For nearly a thousand years, trade in the Indian Ocean had been conducted on Muslim terms. Suddenly, the Portuguese had torn up the old order. Swaths of the Islamic world were faced with economic decline, and a hard, swift blow had been delivered to their pride. Like the balsam grove, an ancient, settled way of life had suddenly caught a chill wind and shriveled up.

In the summer of 1504, a Franciscan friar arrived at the papal court with an ultimatum from the sultan of Egypt. The friar was custodian of the monastery of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which was still in Egyptian hands. The sultan, he warned, had threatened to demolish the Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land if the Portuguese did not immediately leave the Indian Ocean. The pope washed his hands of the affair and sent the friar to King Manuel with a letter asking him how he should respond. If the holy places were touched, Manuel replied, he would launch a massive new Crusade in their defense. He reminded the pope of his family’s victories over Islam and vowed to stay the course until the Infidel was crushed. He had already overcome such formidable obstacles, he added, that his quest was undoubtedly blessed by God.

On his way to see the pope the friar had stopped off in Venice. The Signoria officially requested the Egyptians not to act on their threat, then immediately dispatched a new secret agent to Cairo. The envoy, Francesco Teldi, disguised himself as a jewel merchantand revealed his identity only when he secured a private audience with the sultan. The European powers, he assured the Egyptian ruler, were far too disunited to march on the Holy Land. The Portuguese were threatening the livelihood of Venice and Egypt alike, and the sultan had to break them before it was too late.

Venice was Cairo’s partner in gloom. In 1498, as Vasco da Gama was crossing the Indian Ocean for the first time, such a bumper haul of spices had arrived in Alexandria that even the Venetians ran out of funds to buy them. In 1502, the year Gama returned on his second voyage, their ships went away half-empty. Three-quarters of Venice’s merchant galleys were mothballed, and the remaining ships sat out three of every four of their usual trips.

The Venetians abandoned all pretense of friendship with Portugal and threw in their lot with Egypt. The Signoria sent more spies to Lisbon—one was unmasked and was slung in Manuel’s dungeons—and for a while it even revived an ancient scheme to dig a canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, beginning at Suez. In the end the idea was shelved before the sultan had been approached, and instead Venice set about building him a navy.

In an extraordinary inversion of Portugal’s long-nursed plans, Venice was about to launch Muslim ships into the Red Sea to destroy Christian trade.

In Istanbul the Ottomans had also been watching with alarm as their Eastern commerce slipped away. The Turkish sultan was on even worse terms with his Egyptian counterpart than he was with Venice, but the three threatened powers forged an unlikely alliance. Istanbul provided Egypt with the materials to build a war fleet, together with officers and gunners to man it, and Venice’s skilled shipbuilders arrived to supervise its construction. The Venetians watched as the parts arrived at Alexandria, saw them loaded on camels and transported across the desert, and assembled them on the shores of the Red Sea.

Twelve splendid oak-and-pine Venetian-style galleys rose on the scaffolds at Suez. Turkish cannon forged from solid bronze were mounted fore and aft—though not along the sides, where oars and oarsmen took up too much space—and the armada set out for India.

After a long delay it arrived in early 1508 and anchored in the harbor of Diu, a Gujarati port strategically located at the mouth of the Indus delta in northwest India. The plan was to rendezvous with a fleet being sent by the Zamorin of Calicut, who had once again rebuilt his navy after his recent defeat, then sail south and destroy every Portuguese fort and factory along the coast. The Egyptians, though, were late, and the Zamorin’s ships had been and gone. Instead they joined forces with a squadron provided by the Muslim ruler of Diu and severely mauled a small Portuguese fleet at nearby Chaul. Among the Portuguese dead was Almeida’s son Lourenço, the hero of the battle of Calicut.

It was Portugal’s first naval defeat in the Indian Ocean, and the victory drums rolled in Cairo for three days. Yet the Egyptians failed to follow it up. The fleet returned to Diu and stayed put through the winter monsoon, the hulls fouling up and the crews drifting away. The next year eighteen Portuguese warships bore down on the port, with Almeida leading the charge on the old Flor de la Mar. The battle-hardened Europeans won a bloody victory within hours, and the avenging viceroy sailed along the coast, shooting his prisoners point-blank with his cannon and firing their heads and limbs at passing towns. The Zamorin finally sued for peace, and the Portuguese built a fortress at Calicut.

The Venetians mounted a new diplomatic offensive with the aim of persuading Istanbul to sponsor another Egyptian fleet, but the appeal fell on deaf ears. Seven years after the Battle of Diu, Turkish cannon cut down the cream of Egypt’s sword-wielding cavalry and brought 267 turbulent years of Mamluk rule to a swift end. The Ottomans turned their attention back to Europe, and they would not send another major fleet against the Portuguese for thirty years. The papacy, meanwhile, leagued with the French and the Spanish to cut Venice down to size. La Serenissima was stripped of a century of territorial gains, and though it recovered, it was never again quite the major power it had been.

Like the first Crusaders, the Portuguese were providentially lucky with their timing. With Venice humbled and its Egyptian ally crushed, Portugal’s naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean was assured. The seaways to the rest of Asia lay open for the taking.

Viceroy Almeida, for all the fury with which he avenged his son’s death, had turned out to be a less than fully paid-up subscriber to Manuel’s messianic agenda. Under the influence of the merchant lobby and groups of nobles who were making a fortune from plundering Arab ships, he had become convinced that fighting on land was a sure way to fritter away the wealth Portugal was amassing by sea. Far better, he advised the king, to use naval power to intimidate India’s rulers and step up the profitable business of organized piracy. His case was strengthened when the Kolattiri of Cannanore enlisted the help of his erstwhile enemy, the Zamorin of Calicut, to attack the Portuguese fortress in his city. The Kolattiri who had negotiated with Gama had died, and the new ruler had vowed to exact blood for a gruesome episode in which the Portuguese had sunk an Indian ship, stitched its crew into lengths of sail, and thrown them alive in the sea. A huge army besieged the fort for four months, and the Portuguese were only saved from starvation when a tidal wave of lobsters washed to their door, closely followed by a relief fleet.

Just as Almeida was urging Manuel to scale down his ambitions, the fires of religious intolerance had begun to rage in Portugal. In 1506 a man suspected of being a marrano—a “New Christian,” or baptized Jew, who secretly practiced his former faith—had caused outrage in Lisbon by venturing to suggest that an ethereal glow that seemed to emanate from a crucifix might have had a less than miraculous explanation. A crowd of women dragged the doubter from the church and beat him to death, and a priest preached a fiery sermon urging his flock to root out the enemy within. Two more priests marched through the streets brandishing crucifixes, and a mob of local men and sailors from ships in the harbor went on the rampage. In two bloody days, two thousand men and women—including some Catholics who looked vaguely Jewish—were massacred. Crusading fever, once unleashed, was hard to control.

Manuel executed the ringleaders, including the priests. Yet he was more convinced than ever that it was his historic mission to usher the East into the Christian fold, and he replaced the reluctant Almeida with Afonso de Albuquerque.

The Crusade leapt forward. Like his king, Albuquerque envisioned a colossal Asian empire united by a universal Christianity in which a subsumed Islam would dwindle away. To pay for the astronomic cost of it all, Portugal’s grip on the spice trade would have to become a stranglehold—and a crown monopoly, despite the squeals of aggrieved merchants. No longer would royal factors haggle for sacks of pepper on the quay fronts of India. The ultimate origin of the most valuable spices would have to be discovered, more fortresses would have to be built to funnel the fragrant treasure into Portuguese hands, and a fleet of floating warehouses, escorted by squadrons of fighting ships, would have to be built to ferry them home.

Albuquerque’s enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. On one occasion he contemplated diverting the Nile to dry up Egypt; another time he hatched a plot to steal the body of the Prophet Muhammad and hold it for ransom in exchange for the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. He never hesitated to hang his men from the yardarm or hack off their noses, ears, and hands at the slightest sign that insubordination threatened his grand schemes. Yet the fanatic was also a startlingly gifted naval strategist. He quickly realized that an empire founded on ships alone—especially badly maintained ships crewed by badly trained men—would soon founder. Raw recruits were now flooding in from Portugal, but many of them were simple farmhands and they had to be trained from scratch. A reserve force had to be built up to fill the boots of the sick. The vessels needed to be repaired, refitted, and reliably provisioned. What Albuquerque needed was a secure naval base, and he soon found the ideal spot.

The island of Goa was separated from the mainland by tidal creeks that made it easy to defend and formed a fine protected harbor. After Calicut it was the busiest port in India, and it boasted plenty of skilled shipbuilders. It did a roaring trade in Arabian horses from Hormuz, which were much in demand among Indian potentates and were impossible to breed in the subcontinent’s sultry air. The city was old, large, and rich—Lodovico de Varthema colorfully claimed that the king’s servants sported rubies and diamonds on the insteps of their shoes—and like the rest of north India it was in Muslim hands. With the help of an ambitious Hindu privateer named Timoja—the same man whom the Zamorin had once sent to hunt down Vasco da Gama—Albuquerque took Goa from its illustrious sultan. Within weeks he was forced to retreat before a huge Muslim army, but three months later he returned with a new war fleet. His men slaughtered the defenders on the shore, pursued them into the city, and ran amok through the streets. In the bloody sack many Goans drowned or ended their lives in the jaws of alligators while trying to swim across the river to freedom. Six thousand men, women, and children had been massacred, Albuquerque contentedly wrote home to the king, while just fifty Portuguese had lost their lives.

Goa was now the headquarters of an expansionist colonial power with bases around the western Indian Ocean, and ambassadors from neighboring states called to congratulate the warlike new ruler. To entrench the colony, Albuquerque bribed his men with land, houses, and jobs to marry local Hindu women. The mixed marriages were not without problems from the start, a chronicler reported:

On one night that some of these marriages were celebrated, the brides became so mixed and confounded together, that some of the bridegrooms went to bed with those who belonged to others; and when the mistake was discovered next morning, each took back his own wife, all being equal in regard to the point of honor. This gave occasion to some of the gentlemen to throw ridicule on the measures pursued by Albuquerque; but he persisted with firmness in his plans, and succeeded in establishing Goa as the metropolis or centre of the Portuguese power in India.

From Goa, Portuguese fleets set out to explore Southeast Asia. They had already reached Ceylon, the source of the world’s finest cinnamon, and in 1511 Albuquerque sailed on east to the Malay Peninsula. His destination was an international port city that controlled the narrow chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca, the busy shipping lane between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The city was also named Malacca, and its influence was felt far away. “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” a Portuguese factor dramatically declared. That was not mere hyperbole: Malacca was the western terminus for Chinese sailors, thousands of whom lived in their own quarter called Chinese Hill, and merchants from India, Persia, and Arabia sailed there to buy silks and porcelains. A powerful Muslim sultan ruled the city and the lands far around, but to the Christians that made it an irresistible target.

Albuquerque sailed into the harbor, flags flying and cannon blazing, and burned dozens of ships. His troops marched ashore, and after fierce hand-to-hand fighting—and a few well-aimed spears that made the enemy’s war elephants rear up and throw its army to the ground—the last sultan fled. Another fortress went up, and from Malacca the Portuguese set out for points north and south.

To the north, the king of Siam—Thailand—had long had his eye on wealthy Malacca. Albuquerque sent an ambassador to negotiate an alliance, and after finding passage on a Chinese junk he became the first European to visit Thailand. In 1513 an expedition sailed east from Malacca and reached the Chinese city of Guangzhou, which the Portuguese christened Canton. The first contacts were a disaster; the Chinese sank two Portuguese ships, and the envoys were sentenced to death for the misbehavior of their compatriots, who the Chinese were convinced were cannibals. One of the condemned men, a former apothecary from Lisbon named Tomé Pires, set pen to paper and reassured himself that it was worth paying the ultimate price to further the Crusade of the Holy Catholic Faith against the false and diabolical religion of the abominable and phony Muhammad. Eventually the Portuguese established a permanent base on nearby Macau and began to carry China’s overseas trade, while three merchants who were blown off course stumbled across Japan and founded another lucrative trading post at Nagasaki.

To the south and east, the Portuguese sailed on to Indonesia and the Spice Islands themselves. With Malay pilots as guides, squadrons weaved their way around Sumatra and Java, among the Lesser Sunda Islands, and on to the Moluccas. Here, at last, on a handful of cone-shaped volcanic islets, they found the source of the world’s cloves, nutmeg, and mace. Islam had taken root even here as Hinduism and Buddhism had waned, but the Christians found enough allies to establish a beachhead; among them was the sultan of Ternate, who together with his bitter enemy, the sultan of neighboring Tidore, was the world’s major producer of cloves.

Portugal’s possessions were only tiny pinpricks on the map, but joined together they formed the outline of a vast maritime empire. Settlements, strongholds, and dependencies stretched around the west and east coasts of Africa, across to the Persian Gulf, down the western shores of India, and deep into Southeast Asia. Astonishingly, a mere fourteen years had passed since Vasco da Gama had first sailed into the East. “It appears to me,” concluded Lodovico de Varthema after a lengthy tour of Southeast Asia, “that, if it please God and if the King of Portugal is as victorious as he has been hitherto, he will be the richest king in the world. And truly he deserves every good, for in India, and especially in Cochin, every feast day ten and even twelve pagans are baptized in the Christian faith, which is daily extending by means of this King; and for this reason it may be believed that God has given him victory, and will ever prosper him in the future.”

Manuel had not been bashful about showing off his newfound magnificence to an astonished Europe, and in 1514 he sent a spectacular embassy to the pope in Rome. The centerpiece was an elephant accompanied by 140 attendants in Indian costume and a menagerie of exotic beasts, including a cheetah from Hormuz. Embarrassingly, Manuel had skimped on his ambassador’s expenses, and the envoy had to borrow a large sum to keep the show on the road. The pope, who was a Medici and not easily impressed, nevertheless signed another bull and sent back generous gifts of his own. Determined to outdo him, Manuel returned the favor the next year by dispatching a fully laden spice ship and a rhinoceros to Rome, though the vessel carrying the horned beast sank off Genoa before it arrived.

As he basked in oriental splendor, the Portuguese king began his final push toward Jerusalem and eternal glory.

Steeled with Crusading fervor and spurred on by the lust for spices, the Portuguese had broken the Muslim monopoly of the world’s richest trading routes with astonishing speed. Yet Manuel’s megalomaniacal ambition to sweep from east and west into the Holy Land had never been matched by a realistic strategy or the means adequate to achieve it. God, he had always believed, would step in on behalf of His people and help them to carry out His supreme plan.

That plan soon began to unravel with bewildering speed.

IN 1515, TEN thousand Portuguese soldiers landed in Morocco and marched into the maws of banked Muslim cannon. The wooden fort they had come to build was blasted to splinters along with most of their ships, and the panicked Crusaders fled for home. Manuel had sent four thousand men to their deaths, and his plan to march east across Africa blew up in a cloud of sulfurous smoke.

That same year, Afonso de Albuquerque’s many enemies finally conspired to relieve him of his command, a task made much easier by Albuquerque’s rash request that the king ennoble him as Duke of Goa. The sixty-three-year-old empire builder heard the news while returning to his capital city after reconquering Hormuz, and he straightaway fell into a deep despond. He wrote a dignified letter to the king accounting for his actions, his clerk taking over as his hand shook, and died as his ship crossed the bar. He was buried in full Crusader armor, as was fitting for a man who had done more than anyone except Vasco da Gama to unfurl bloodred crosses across the East.

With the warrior gone, weaker, greedier figures came out to play.

In 1517, a massed Portuguese fleet carrying more than three thousand soldiers and sailors set out from India to seize control of the Red Sea. The invasion had been years in the making, but the timing could hardly have been more propitious. The Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim had just conquered Egypt and its dependencies, Syria and Arabia, but the former Mamluk lands were still in turmoil. For a brief moment Manuel’s ultimate goal seemed easily within reach: from Suez, it was only a few days’ march to Jerusalem itself.

The fleet arrived in Aden, where the Crusaders were unexpectedly welcomed with open arms. Aden was in the grip of a mass panic about the encroaching Ottomans, who had long been notorious for their atrocious treatment of Arabs. The Portuguese only had to say they wanted the city, reported a German merchant named Lazarus Nürnberger, and it would have been handed to them on the spot. Yet instead of accepting the key to the Red Sea, the vacillating commanders continued to Jeddah. They dropped anchor, held a conference, and decided the gateway to Mecca was too strongly defended to risk an attack. Instead they headed back to Aden, but by then its governor had lost faith in the irresolute Christians and the fleet meandered back to India. By the time it arrived, most of the men who had not already deserted had been lost in violent storms.

As corruption and profiteering became rife and the fledgling empire lost its bearings, Portugal’s old rivalry with Spain again reared its head. In 1516 King Ferdinand of Castile and Aragon had died, twelve years after his beloved Isabella had gone to her grave. The throne passed to their daughter Joanna the Mad—who earned her sobriquet from her violent jealousy of her philandering husband, Philip the Handsome—and Joanna’s son Charles. With Aragon came the thrones of Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples. From his Hapsburg father Charles had acquired the extensive family lands in Burgundy and the Netherlands. In 1519, on the death of his grandfather, he inherited the Archduchy of Austria and was elected Holy Roman Emperor. A more powerful threat to Portugal’s interests could scarcely have been conjured.

Charles I of Spain—now also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire—had barely arrived in Seville when a Portuguese sailor approached him with a startling proposal.

Ferdinand Magellan had spent eight years exploring and fighting for his nation in the Indian Ocean. He had taken part in Albuquerque’s conquests of Goa and Malacca, and when he returned home he had gone Crusading in Morocco. He was sure he deserved advancement, and yet his petitions for the captaincy of a ship had fallen on deaf ears at the Portuguese court. In frustration, like Columbus before him, he had taken himself and his accumulated knowledge to Spain.

Magellan put an astonishing case to his prospective patron. Say, he suggested, you were to extend the demarcation line drawn at Tordesillas around the eastern half of the globe. According to his calculations, you would discover that the Spice Islands were on the Spanish side of the line. Of course the line did not exist—just twenty-three years earlier no one had dreamed that Europeans would be contesting ownership of the farthest reaches of the planet—but if the Spanish were to show up in Southeast Asia, their very presence would surely force the issue.

There was only one problem: the Portuguese had a monopoly on the Cape route to the East. It was not just a question of practicality. Since Europe’s overseas expansion largely depended on the skills of navigators, it was widely accepted that the sea routes they discovered were a kind of intellectual property owned by the sponsor nation. The Spanish would have to find another way—a way that went west.

In 1506 Christopher Columbus had died, less than two years after he had finally made it home from Jamaica and still convinced he had reached Asia. By then Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian in Portugal’s service, had explored the coast of Brazil and had concluded that the landmass stretched much farther south than Columbus had envisaged. The following year, a new continent had appeared on a world map for the first time, called America, after Vespucci’s first name.

America was still seen as a barrier to reaching the East more than a destination in its own right, and it was still no clearer that it could be rounded than had been the case with Africa. Yet Magellan boldly promised to succeed where Columbus had failed—to sail west to the East. He renounced his Portuguese citizenship and signed a contract with Charles, who invested him as a commander of the Order of Santiago. In September 1519 he set out with a fleet of five ships to find a southern route around America, with a squadron sent by an irate King Manuel in hot pursuit.

Three years later a single ship limped back to Spain. More than two hundred sailors had been lost to storms, shipwrecks, mutinies, and battles, including Magellan himself, who was stabbed to death in the Philippines when he waded into a squabble between local chiefs. There were just eighteen survivors, but they were the first men to circumnavigate the globe. Portugal’s obsession with reaching the East had driven its old rival around America and across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean—a continent and an ocean whose existence had not even been suspected just three decades earlier. Soon Spanish galleons would be shipping Chinese silks and porcelains across the Pacific to Mexico and Peru and returning with small mountains of freshly mined silver.

By now Charles, too, had decided he was divinely mandated to destroy Islam and beget a new Christian world. The emperor dispatched a war fleet to follow Magellan’s course, occupy the Spice Islands, and claim them for himself. Once again Portuguese and Spanish negotiators locked themselves away to divide up the world, this time at the Spanish border town of Badajoz. Portugal’s astronomers worked around the clock to fix the Spice Islands’ position, and just to be on the safe side their cartographers hurriedly doctored their charts. The Spanish had a high-placed informant among the Portuguese delegation, but still the bad-tempered discussions broke up without an agreement. For years the Iberian neighbors skirmished halfway around the globe, and the dispute was only settled when Portugal paid Spain an astronomical sum in gold to acknowledge its rights. It was much longer before Magellan was proved wrong: the Moluccas had been on Portugal’s side of the imaginary line after all.

By then Manuel the Fortunate was long dead. The visionary king had never stopped believing in his God-sent mission, and a few months before he died, from an epidemic that struck Lisbon in December 1521, his prayers finally seemed to have been answered. That spring, reports arrived that a Portuguese expeditionary force had landed in Ethiopia and had reached the imperial court. A “Letter with the News that came to the King Our Lord, of the discovery of Prester John” was rushed into print, and Manuel dreamed his vainglorious dreams one last time. An alliance was even then being struck with Prester John, he informed the pope in a letter; soon Mecca, the tomb of the Prophet, and “the evil sect of Mafamede” would all be destroyed. The flurry of excitement turned to quiet despond when the Ethiopian monarch turned out to be far from the answer to centuries of Christian prayers.

Manuel’s ships had set out from little Portugal and had forged the first European empire. They had explored the seas from Brazil to China. They had transformed Europe’s picture of the world, and they had exploded the limits of its power. Yet set against his vast ambitions, he had failed. His plan to march across Africa, sail up the Red Sea, vanquish Turks and Egyptians, and retake Jerusalem had turned out to be nothing more than a mirage. For all his grandiose talk about leading the Last Crusade, Manuel had never left home.

King John III, Manuel’s estranged nineteen-year-old son and successor, was crowned with imperial pomp but inherited an empire as directionless as a rudderless ship. What he desperately needed was a larger-than-life figure who could stamp his authority on his far-flung lands.

For one last time, Vasco da Gama was pressed into service.

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