Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nigel Cliff's "Holy War"

Nigel Cliff is a historian, biographer, and critic. He was educated at Oxford University, where he was awarded the Beddington Prize for English Literature. He is a former theater and film critic for the London Times and a contributor to the Economist and other publications. His first book, The Shakespeare Riots, was a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing and was selected as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by the Washington Post.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Afonso had the long papal bull read out in Lisbon’s cathedral, a fortresslike structure that had been built on the site of the old Friday mosque, in front of an audience of international dignitaries. In glowing words, the pope praised Henry the Navigator as “our beloved son” and his discoveries and conquests as the work of a “true soldier of Christ.” He also affirmed the new Lord of Guinea’s right “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” It was the clearest possible sanction from the highest authority for any iron-fisted actions Europe might wish to indulge in overseas, and it would come to be known as the charter of Portuguese imperialism. Together with the bull granted to Henry in 1452, it would be trundled out time after time to justify centuries of European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade.
When Vasco da Gama set sail for India in 1497, his king not only charged him with discovering the sea route from Europe to Asia and cornering the trade in spices, then among the most valuable commodities in the world. He was also to locate a long-lost Christian emperor who was believed to rule over a magical Eastern realm and strike treaties that would clear the Indian Ocean of the Muslim merchants who had long dominated its trade. That done, he and his successors would sail up the Red Sea and push on to Jerusalem itself. If the old prophecies were to be believed, a Last Emperor would then take his throne, the End Times of the earth would begin, and the Last Judgment would follow as surely as day follows night.

Was this millenarian fantasy, as many have claimed, nothing more than a fig leaf for unbridled greed, an attempt to make something sordid seem palatable or even noble? Personal ambition and a royal lust for wealth and power were undoubtedly powerful motives behind the voyages of exploration. But in my book Holy War, I argue that the Age of Discovery was also the climax of the Christian Crusades against Islam that had begun four centuries before Vasco da Gama set sail.

By the mid-point of the millennium, the Crusades to the Holy Land were a distant glory, whereas the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 was a vividly remembered disaster. As Islamic armies marched deep into eastern Europe, the papacy increasingly turned to zealously Catholic Spain and Portugal, the only former Roman territories that had driven out their Muslim rulers, to shore up its dreams of a universal Church. Beginning with Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese launched a decades-long campaign of conquest in Islamic North and West Africa. As they pressed on through the Atlantic and crossed the equator, they began to dream of sailing around Africa and pursuing their former masters into their heartlands.

Even the Portuguese felt they had to obey the rule of law, and the ultimate lawgiver was the pope. Rome backed the voyages with a long series of bulls that explicitly authorized the Portuguese to conquer and subdue any non-Christians they encountered; Romanus Pontifex, the notorious papal bull described in this passage, was issued on January 8, 1455. Vasco da Gama and his men set sail on ships blazoned with red Crusader crosses, with the assurance that if death came their sins had been remitted. They exported to Africa and Asia a world-view that saw non-Christians as fair game to be civilized, converted, enslaved, or eliminated. Though their king’s apocalyptic scheme turned out to be a flight of fancy, their success allowed Europe to believe that it could turn the tide against Islam and become a global power. For good and ill, the repercussions are still with us today.
Learn more about the book and author at Nigel Cliff's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue