Portugal, the world’s first superpower

Vasco de Gama, the great explorer

Vasco de Gama, the great explorer

My girlfriend is Portuguese. One of the terrifying parts of relationships is not knowing how you’ll get on with the extended family you are afforded. In my case, it’s great; I like them hugely, they’re warm, interesting and quite similar to me, except for being Portuguese of course. All is well.

Because of that, they give me things I like. C’s father bought me this book above by Martin Page, First Global Village: How Portugal Changed the World. For a microsecond I thought this was a brainwashing experiment by him; is he trying to convert me to an Iberian? Because he should know that I’m not easily converted, and that I hold strong views on things you know. Can’t think what, but I do. Oh yes! But despite knowing him for two years and beginning to understand the travails of Portugal in the 21st century, I realised I knew embarrassingly little about the country’s history, so the book has been a total revelation.

And I really mean that. I had no idea their influence on navigation, exploration or shipping; on India; on the influence the Romans have on the entire country (bacalhau, salted cod, was eaten and prepared by Roman soldiers in an identical fashion today; there was no other way of preserving fish back then, or now, apparently…). They brought tempura, guns and “arigatou” (“thank you”) to Japanese culture as well as building Nagasaki. They commanded power from Brazil to Africa to India to Japan, all the while never having more than 1.5m people in the country. At the time (1500s), the United Kingdom boasted many more, and Italy roughly four times that number. Their history is unique, and it maddens me that the rest of the world doesn’t know more about them. Such is the Portuguese’s deference and humility…

It wasn’t all good though. Some Portuguese are quick to claim that they were the first to outlaw slavery, they were also the first to adopt it as part of business, law and society.

I am well aware Britain has had a pretty shocking past – overall, we must be front-runners for the Most Barbaric Country In History award, surely – but it was only after watching 12 Years A Slave (incidentally, the best film I’ve seen in three years) that I realised how little I know about Britain’s slavery past. C, on the other hand, was educated in Portugal and their education system is a bit more open; she’s well aware of all the horrors her ancestors committed, and the book goes into full graphic detail. Hard to imagine a time when a goat’s value on the common market would be compared not to one human being’s life, but three.

Anyway. A great book, but it made me wonder what other countries (all of them!) I know little about, and which books would provide a brief-but-brilliant overview of their history. Recommendations welcome…

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