Learning from Portuguese history

In the late 15th century and 16th century, the little nation of Portugal extended its reach halfway around the world as its ships plied the Indian Ocean.

Most Americans, including me, know little about Portuguese history. I’ve just picked up a snippet of it from Robert D. Kaplan’s book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, so the following thoughts are a one-source product.

The Portuguese sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, up the eastern coast of Africa, then to Arabia, India, and the Far East. It was a means for them to take Christianity back into the East and possibly stem the tide of Muslim advance. Their form of Christianity, however, bore little resemblance to the Christianity practiced by most of us in the West and the world today.

Kaplan quotes Joao de Barros, a Portuguese historian of the era, giving a justification for the killing of the local populations, in this case Muslims.

“The Moors … are outside the law of Jesus Christ, which is the true law which everyone has to keep under pain of damnation to eternal fire. If then the soul be so condemned, what right has the body to the privileges  of our laws?” (p.51)

It’s amazing what ungodly things “Christians” have done in the name of Jesus. I suspect many Christians of that time had never read Scripture for themselves, and apparently the religious leaders who did read either perverted it with their teachings intentional or were caught up in their own cultural jingoism. Of course, it’s easy to judge people from a different time.

In short, the Portuguese did a lot of bad stuff to indigenous people in the cause of bringing Christ to regions East. The Portuguese, of course, are not alone in history. And Christians are not alone. Muslims, atheists and others have done terrible things to others, all in the name of a perverted ideology.

Now this from Kaplan:

“Believing themselves a chosen people destined to be the sword of the faith, the Portuguese show us a religious nationalism as doughty and often extreme as any in history. Portugal’s spectacular and sweeping conquest of the Indian Ocean littoral falls into a category similar to that of the Arab conquest of North Africa nine centuries earlier.” (p.57)

Then Kaplan brings the lessons of this portion of history to bear on our world today.

“In the post-national West, we would do well to remember that morale is still the key to military victory: in particular, a morale fortified by a narrow, unshakable conviction, which often has been the product of religion and nationalism. What the medieval Arabs and the late-medieval Portuguese once embodied challenges us to this day. To a significant extent, American power will depend on how it confronts fanatical enemies who believe more firmly than it does.” (p.57)

Here are some takeaways from this for me:

1) Religious passion is very, very powerful.

2) That passion can easily be perverted and lead to behaviors inconsistent with that religion’s teachings.

3) It is, therefore, important that our Christian passion, our fanaticism be for the things Scripture says are important — worship, faith, hope, and love come quickly to mind.

4) It is likewise important that our passion not be for snuffing out another group, but rather be for attracting them to truth in Christ.

5) On the geopolitical stage, America faces a serious challenge from people who are fanatical about destroying the American and Western way of organizing society.

6) To stand against that fanaticism, America must retain an equal fanaticism for its principles. Representative government, religious freedom, equal rights, press freedom, civil rights, and controlled free enterprise are a few that come quickly to mind.

7) This passion should not be for destroying other cultures but for attracting them to the power of our ideals.

One thought on “Learning from Portuguese history

  1. I am afraid your critique together with the book from Mr. Kaplan is biased and also very much one sided when it comes to Portuguese history, which seems that the author know nothing about. It is simply breathtaking that a foreign author has the audacity of making this comparison:

    “Portugal’s spectacular and sweeping conquest of the Indian Ocean littoral falls into a category similar to that of the Arab conquest of North Africa nine centuries earlier”.

    This is an outrageous and wrong statement and very ignorant of the plight the Portuguese went through with religious fundamentalism that came not only from the North of Africa but from the middle east. The author clearly doesn’t understand or hasn’t done his research properly – this is simply wrong. The islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, has been consistenly white washed through this day and it is because of many American “academics” that claim they know it all, which they obviously don’t – the absence of research and consistency is worrying and to think that these books are published with these statements is just wrong and frustrating. I suggest you read the works of Evariste Levi Provencal and then you will see what it was all about!

    Did you know how many thousands of Portuguese people were taken to the North of Africa as slaves and booty when the Portuguese coast was raided for 400 years by the North African people? Did you know of the conditions they used to live once in Morocco?

    This obviously doesn’t justify any atrocities committed, if any, but the only way to fight this was, in their view, using force. Is defending oneself, its people and culture from slavery, pillage and raids an ungodly thing? It seems that in this day an age it is – guilt feelings – a trend these days. As a Portuguese historian, I am of the opinion that we have had one of the most remarkable histories in the world – I would change very few things about it.

    It is because of our struggle and war, that America exists as it does today. You should be grateful and not spout out statements like this:

    “The Portuguese did a lot of bad stuff to indigenous people in the cause of bringing Christ to regions East”

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