September 19, 2021

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H. Cobban explores the first decades of Western European imperialism

Just World Educational Executive Chair Helena Cobban continued her exploration of the foundations of Western European dominance over the world’s trading systems, economies, and political power balance that was previously teased on the JWE blog, here .

In the first phase of the project, which she called the “500 Years Project”, she went back to 1520 AD and on January 1 she began to follow the developments in the construction and consolidation of the first maritime empires of Western Europe from year to year: a year per day.

However, through that work it became clear to her that she had to begin her exploration not in 1520, and not in 1492, but in AD 1415, which was the year that the King of Portugal John I and his three sons left their homeland and captured a North African city called Ceuta. (The banner image above is a tiled representation of Prince Henry, later called “the Navigator”, participating in the capture of Ceuta.)

After 1415, Portuguese royalty sent annual raiding / trade expeditions crawling along the West African coast and managed to round the “Cape of Good Hope” at the southern end of Africa in AD 1488, four years before the famous (and much shorter) first trip to the Americas.

Now, Ms. Cobban thinks her project should perhaps be called the 606 Year Project, although she is not currently inclined to change it.

1498 Vasco da Gama’s rout of India (in black)

After completing 175 of the project’s Phase 1 ‘year-to-day’ posts, over the summer she moved on to a new approach, which aims to look more holistically at the core decades (and core values) of each of the ‘Big Five ”of European imperialisms in the order in which they made their first big moves on the world stage.

The Big Five are, in order:

  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • England / Great Britain
  • Holland
  • France

On August 30 he publishes the first of these substantial per-empire essays, the one on Portugal. You can read it here (or here). Trace the history of the construction of the Portuguese empire from 1415 to 1580 AD 1580 was the year when a struggle for succession in Lisbon led Spain to conquer Portugal and incorporate it into a Spanish-led “Iberian Union” (which only lasted 60 years). Cobban could take a break and review the first 165 years of Portugal’s truly pioneering quest for a world empire.

You can see his summary of what Portuguese empire builders had “achieved” during those 165 years, copied from that essay, if you scroll further down here.

In this essay, Ms. Cobban also notes that from AD 1405 to 1433, the Chinese Admiral of the Ming Dynasty Zheng He had led seven naval expeditions, always peaceful, with huge ships called “star rafts” throughout the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. But in 1433 the Ming emperor decided to focus more on the challenges of the land invaders to the north and dismantled his entire fleet of the blue seas. He concludes his essay like this:

In 1498, when [Portuguse expedition head Vasco] Da Gama arrived in the Indian Ocean with his much smaller ships, encountered no Chinese star raft. It is interesting to speculate on how global history could have been different if it did.

Afonso de Albuquerque, one of the first cruelty masters of the Portuguese empire

On September 6, Ms. Cobban wrote a short supplemental blog post, “Learn more about Portugal’s use of exemplary terror”, which you can read here or here.

Then, more recently, he published a piece entitled “Language, Empire, Nation, State” which was intended to be a bridge between his study of Portugal and Spain. This piece, which you can read here or here, examines the emergence and codification of “national” languages ​​in those two political communities, and shows how closely the coding of those two languages ​​(very similar and both post-Latin) was related to the development by the two monarchies of their respective imperial projects.

Along the way, he somehow misses the theory of the centrality of “press capitalism” proposed by the influential theorist of nationalisms, Benedict Anderson.

However, interested readers are warmly invited to explore these and all other materials on the Medium-based “publication” in which Ms. Cobban is compiling her work on this project.


And here is Mrs Cobban’s summary of the Portuguese empire builders’ “achievements” during the first 165 years of their enterprise:

  1. Although Castile / Spain had captured and started colonizing the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa as early as 1402, in 1415 Portugal was the first European power to capture, garrison and hold land on the North African continent.
  2. Portugal has since used its remarkable maritime and amphibious combat capabilities to send armed raid / trade ships to increasingly distant points around the West African coast, in some of which it has overtaken local opposition and paved the way for the creation of armed trading fortresses.
  3. The Casa de Guiné quickly discovered this enslaved Africans would make up a profitable and growing share of what they seized or bought from those African commercial strongholds.
  4. African slaves could be sold to Europe or they could be very profitable be exploited in the plantations developed by the Portuguese in the Atlantic archipelagos which they had captured and occupied. These plantations formed a prototype for what Spain and other imperial powers would later develop, first in the Caribbean and then on the North American continent, and also for the plantations that Portugal itself would develop in Brazil.
  5. This whole empire building project required the establishment of a complex series of institutions in the Lisbon home-port, to ensure the continuous financing, construction, armament, procurement and expert navigation of the annual fleets, and the subsequent marketing and distribution of all the “fruits” of the empire. Lisbon quickly developed into a rich and technologically advanced metropolis.
  6. Once Vasco da Gama had successfully entered the Indian Ocean [in 1497], Lisbon has become directly connected to the richest shopping area the world had ever seen.
  7. Until then the seas around that basin had been “open” to all interested navigators and traders. Portuguese aimed at making it become a the sea is closed (closed sea) where they would monopolize the control of all significant commercial ports. They have succeeded, to a considerable extent. That success depended essentially on their ability to deploy extremely brutal force and their demonstrated willingness to use it.
  8. In continental Africa and around the coasts of the Indian Ocean they did not attempt, during this period, to exercise direct control over large areas of land. Instead, through the size, sturdiness and intimidating abilities of the commercial forts they established, they tried to dominate local companies and impose the Lisbon trading conditions on them.
  9. In Brazil, Portugal was more of a follower (of the example set by Spain in the Americas) than a leader. He established a vast colonial settlement project which would control vast areas of land and all its inhabitants and resources, introducing and assigning land to a significant number of settlers from the country of origin and trying to build an entire Portuguese-dominated society there.
  10. In all these stages of his empire building, the Portuguese were pursue an explicitly Catholic-Christian agenda together with the continuous search for profit. In Africa and the Indian Ocean, Christianization was closely linked to a harsh anti-Muslim agenda. In Brazil, Christianization was pursued as a means of exercising control over the indigenous population; and a Portuguese “innovation” in this approach was the use of the Jesuits and their system of hyperdisciplined strategic villages.

[ https://justworldeducational.org/2021/09/h-cobban-explores-earliest-decades-of-west-european-imperialism/ https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214746/a-quiet-place-part-2-bigs-16.pdf
https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214803/a-quiet-place-part-2-online-bigs-4.pdf
]