Review of “Holy War” by Nigel Cliff

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Nigel Cliff’s Holy War is a reinterpretation of the explorations conducted by Vasco da Gama. Specifically, he tells the story of the deeply flawed, fanatically religious, but very brave men who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope from Portugal to India, and in the process broke up the monopoly of the spice trade that the Islamic world had exercised over Europe.

Cliff sets the stage for the main story by describing the early growth of Islam and the intolerance followers of Islam and Christianity had for one another. He observes,

“The modern concept of Europe was born not from geography alone, nor simply from a shared religion. It slowly emerged among a patchwork of fractious peoples that found common purpose in their struggle with Islam.”

To Cliff, the original motivation behind the Portuguese expansion was not so much trade and profit, as it was religion and a desire to rid the world of Islam. (Cliff’s interpretation asks the reader to choose between fanaticism and greed as motivators, not exactly a happy outcome in either event.)

To understand the remarkable events of the 15th and 16th centuries, modern readers must be aware of significant differences between current technology and our perception of the world and those of the people of that time. Navigation on the high seas was exceedingly difficult. Using Polaris, mariners could determine their latitude, but only in the Northern Hemisphere. More importantly, there was no known way of measuring longitude other than by estimating speed, direction, and time from a know starting point. The Americas remained undiscovered because sailors seldom ventured very far west from the European land mass. Indeed, the Portuguese discovered Brazil accidentally by straying farther west than they had intended while trying to find favorable winds to round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope!

Vasco da Gama, born either 1460 or 1469 and died 1524

The peoples of Europe and of the Middle East were at constant loggerheads with one another owing to religious differences. Because of the difficulties of traveling through Muslim lands, Europeans had only very infrequent contact with East Asians, and knew very little about China and India, except that they were the source of that era’s “gold” – spices. In the absence of refrigeration, food spoiled quickly and so spices (which grew in India and farther east, but not in Europe or the Islamic world) were relatively precious because they made food palatable.

In the 15th century, the Christians of Portugal and Spain were engaged in a bitter struggle with the Muslim Moors, who had conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. In 1415, King John of Portugal initiated an aggressive campaign against the Muslims and astonished his contemporaries by conquering Ceuta, an important trading port on the African side of the Pillars of Hercules, in a single day. Cliff argues that that victory “left a legacy that would burden the ambitious young nation for centuries to come.”

King John of Portugal

The Portuguese were determined to find Prester John, a legendary king of a great Christian power to the south or east of the Muslim lands. They hoped to link up with him by sailing around Africa. In fact, there was a predominantly Christian country, Ethiopia, south of the Islamic world with which the Europeans had lost contact. However, it was nowhere near as powerful as they fancied.

The Portuguese began their southern quest in earnest in the 1440’s when their control of Ceuta proved to be a liability–the Muslims simply ignored it and traded with nearby Tangiers. Rounding Africa proved to be a daunting task: it took more than 50 years of exploring the west African coast before a small flotilla of three ships and about 160 men led by the intrepid Vasco da Gama actually made it to India in 1498. Da Gama’s mission was to win allies and wealth (including spices) that would enable Portugal to invade the Arab heartland and conquer Jerusalem. In the latter respect, he was unsuccessful, making more enemies than allies, and discovering that Islam had penetrated the African continent and even India much more than the Portuguese had believed. On the other hand, he was enormously successful in expanding European knowledge of geography and opening up a profitable trade in spices for Portugal.

The 1497 Voyage of Vasco De Gama Around the Cape of Good Hope to India

The Portuguese were fortunate in their timing because the most powerful Muslim country of that time, the Ottoman Empire, was more concerned with expanding into southeast Europe and Iran than protecting trading opportunities in India. Consequently, the Portuguese were able to build forts and establish semi-permanent trading stations in India – Goa being the most prominent. From these fortified locations, the Portuguese traded profitably with the Indians and raided Muslim shipping from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. However, the crusader spirit petered out in the 16th century when Prester John proved nowhere to be found and the profits from the spice trade and piracy directed against Arab shipping provided a greater incentive than religious zeal.

1558 image of Prester John, a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient

By 1600, the Portuguese monopoly of the seaway around Africa was ended as the English and the Dutch began to build strong navies and sought colonies in the East. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of the Portuguese expansion involved a significant shift of the balance of power between the Islamic world and Europe. Cliff summarizes:

“As centuries of cribbed fantasies gave way to clearly charted facts, new mental as well geographical horizons opened up. Colonies were founded, churches sprang up in unheard-of places, and Islam’s supremacy no longer seemed unassailable. Vast wealth in natural resources—bullion, manpower, and of course spices — fell under Christian control, and at long last the West had the means to hold off and eventually repel the Ottoman challenge at its gates. But for that, the fate of much of Europe, the settlement of America, and the discovery of new worlds then unknown might have taken a very different path.”

But as to the Portuguese motivation, Cliff concludes:

“In the end, the religious certainty that drove Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorer halfway around the world was also their undoing. For all their astonishing achievements, the idea of a Last Crusade — a holy war to end all holy wars — was always a crazy dream.”

Evaluation: This is a very enlightening and entertaining book. Cliff is a good raconteur, and his descriptions of the privations of the early explorers make riveting reading. Many ships were lost because of foul weather or just bad navigation, and the crews suffered horribly from scurvy. On the other hand, the Portuguese were far from sympathetic actors on the global stage; they were greedy and rapacious, often using their new-found superiority in naval artillery to slaughter Muslims or primitive Africans. Cliff asks that we understand Portuguese exploration as part of a “holy war” instead of a war for territory and land. He makes an interesting though not definitive case, but certainly provides much “spicy” food for thought.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2011

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11 Responses to Review of “Holy War” by Nigel Cliff

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This is a time period I need to learn more about. I think the actions of the people then are still impacting us. Sounds like a book that could teach me quite a bit.

  2. sandynawrot says:

    Like Kathy, I know virtually nothing about this part of history. Nobody can boil these types of books down quite like JIm! I would be intimidated by something like this, but they are very rewarding if well-written.

  3. I bet my brother would love this one…

  4. Barbara says:

    They bumped into So. America looking for a way around Africa? Wow – that’s really wandering off course!

    I wonder how many wars have been caused by the desire to make one’s own religion everyone’s religion? Anyway, the need for spices was certainly an impetus to exploration and this book appears to tell a fascinating story. Mankind always wants to know what’s around the next curve or over the next hill. Nice review, Jim.

  5. Alyce says:

    It’s so strange and difficult to wrap my modern mind around how challenging it was to navigate the seas and how long it took to discover/explore new locations. I had never hear of Prester John before.

  6. zibilee says:

    I almost grabbed this book last month at SIBA, but for some reason, I didn’t. Now I am wishing that I did because there seems to be so much here to chew on and think about. This was a great review, and now I really want to check this one out when I can. The intricacies of this story sound fantastically interesting to me. Great review today! I loved getting this sneak peek!

  7. I love your husband’s reviews…gives me my dose of non-fiction!!

  8. Trisha says:

    I love the topic here, and it sounds like the writing is well worth the effort. Thanks for the review.

  9. stacybuckeye says:

    Jim reads so many good books. I think he and my husband would get along very nicely 🙂

  10. amymckie says:

    Huh, really interesting sounding book. I’m not sure I take fanaticism as the sole driver, but I’m sure it played some part. Interesting to think of what would have happened had Ethiopia and Europe found each other back sooner too isn’t it? I wonder what that might have changed too…

  11. Alex says:

    It’s interesting to compare Cliff’s points to what we are taught in school and the current general view of the Discovery period (I’m Portuguese btw). The official view favors the religious reasons which Cliff also defends, but it’s the general belief that it was mostly trade driving the entreprise. Of course, the Church was so powerful back then that they had to gain something out of it, hence the missions.

    I’m always curious about books like these written by non-Portuguese, but, as you may understand after reading it, it’s not always easy to put patriotism aside and read about how we were “greedy and rapacious”, even if it’s true 🙂

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