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Reviewed by:
  • Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800
  • Timothy J. Coates
Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800. Edited by Francisco Bethencourt and Diogo Ramada Curto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 556 pp. $95.00 (cloth); $36.99 (paper).

The field of early modern Portuguese global history has long lacked a solid one-volume overview in English. For many years, the only works in English on Portugal were the general surveys by A. H. de Oliveira Marques’s very solid A History of Portugal (1972) and H. V. Livermore’s somewhat problematic A New History of Portugal (2nd ed., 1976). These two works on Portugal were counterbalanced by Charles R. Boxer’s magisterial survey, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire (2nd ed., 1991). Unfortunately, they have all been out of print for many years and are increasingly difficult to obtain. More recently, George Winius edited Portugal the Pathfinder: Journeys from the Medieval toward the Modern World, 1300–ca. 1600 (1995), and A. J. R. Russell-Wood [End Page 466] published another comprehensive view of the empire in his A World on the Move: The Portuguese in Africa, Asia and America, 1415–1808 (1992). These works, together with the recent A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400–1668 (2004) by Maylin Newitt and two general histories of Portugal, one by David Birmingham and another highly readable survey by Livermore, constituted the texts published in English that offered the reader an intelligent introductory survey of the early modern Portuguese world. In many ways this list was limited and fragmentary since some texts focused on European Portugal (ignoring or downplaying the empire), others did the reverse, and several ended their narratives in the 1600s. This situation has now been remedied with the appearance of Portuguese Oceanic Expansion edited by Francisco Bethencourt and Diogo Ramada Curto, two distinguished Portuguese historians of the empire.

The objective of this compilation is “to arrive at an understanding of the history of Portuguese expansion during the early modern period from a global perspective” (p. 9). In order to achieve this, the editors state, “our approach . . . departs in five significant ways from traditional historiography” (p. 9). This collection deliberately focuses on the empire as a whole and not its smaller units. It also looks at the longue durée and not to “periods of short or medium duration” (p. 10). The third departure from traditional approaches embraces aspects of the Portuguese world outside the formal limits of the former empire. The authors wanted to also reexamine “implicit assumptions about European expansion in general and about the Portuguese empire in particular” (pp. 10–11). Finally, the authors wanted to incorporate “different historiographical traditions that impinge upon the study of Portuguese imperial culture” (p. 11). Perhaps a couple of words might clarify these aspects. The first addresses a reality that the vast majority of work on the Portuguese Empire focuses on a particular place or region for a brief period. An empire-wide focus over a long period is rare. Much more common is an urban study of sixteenth-century Goa or a region of colonial Brazil (e.g., eighteenth-century slavery in Minas Gerais). Early modern Portuguese influences outside the formal limits of the empire are equally uncommon and are limited to a handful of works, such as Walter Rodney’s A History of the Upper Guinea Coast: 1545–1800 (2008), which includes a great deal about the Afro-Portuguese community of West Africa. Including aspects of culture is a unique and refreshing aspect of this anthology.

The collection includes fourteen essays divided into four sections. The first, “Economics and Society,” consists of five essays: the first two, by Stuart Schwartz and Jorge Pedreira, quite nicely sketch the broad [End Page 467] economic outlines of the empire. Three regional economic essays follow these: Michael Pearson discussing markets in the Indian Ocean, Luíz Felipe de Alencastro on the Atlantic, and John Thornton on the Portuguese in Africa. When read as a whole these five provide a very solid overview of Portuguese economic activities. The second section, “Politics and Institutions,” contains three well-crafted essays: A. J. R. Russell-Wood discussing settlement, Francisco Bethencourt on politics, and Isabel dos Guimarães Sá on religion and missionaries...


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