Notes – Conquerors: How Portugal Forged The First Global Empire

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by [Roger Crowley]

by Roger Crowley

I had always known that the Portuguese had a significant presence in India but I never knew the extent. Until now. Conquerors is a fascinating and digestible story that sheds a lot of insight into the decision making processes that lead to the conquest of India.

My notes are less on the content and more on what the book made me think about.

Prince Henrique, later known as Henry the Navigator, sponsored expeditions along the coast of Africa. He had personal visions of wealth and conquest that he sought to achieve by sea.

In the beginning, he only sent two or three ships under close management of his family.

It was here that I first felt the story had much to offer aspiring entrepreneurs. Henrique started with small opportunities along the coast of Africa and only sought to expand after he had experienced some level of traction/success.

What was fascinating though is how long it ultimately took to circumnavigate Africa and explore the eastern side. It took nearly 80 years to achieve his goals. Can you imagine a modern entrepreneur investing 80 years in one initiative?

Exploring of the unknown in that time was characterized by rumor and myth until fact emerged. At this point in the book, I often found myself comparing these voyages with modern day venture funded businesses. It’s hard to imagine massive fundings taking place on rumors and myths, yet these voyages did so. And they were extremely dangerous to those that participated.

Like modern day business, there were a multitude of reasons for circumnavigating Africa. Some goals were financial while others were to overcome Islam’s grasp of lucrative trade routes to Europe.

IE: Islamic states functioned as middle men between the lucrative spice trades of Asia and Europe. The goal was cutting out the middle man that happened to be a rival ideologically. A win/win situation.

At the time, the Lisbon waterfront became a lot like Silicon Valley. “The city was the frontier of exploration, a laboratory for testing ideas about the world. Across Europe, astronomers, scientists, mapmakers, and merchants looked to Portugal for the latest information about the shape of Africa.”

Although rumor and myth were often acted upon, arrogance in the face of the unknown was poorly received. That was ultimately why Portugal passed on supporting Christopher Columbus.

It was a monumental challenge to figure out how to round the tip of Africa. Trial and error were the strategies of the times but they were costly in terms of time, money, and human resources. Lives were frequently lost on these experimental voyages.

I was struck by the fundamental willingness of all those involved to keep the overall mission in focus but simultaneously maintain an openness to different approaches

A recurring theme for me was the impressive ability of all the stakeholders to keep the long time horizons from impacting an ability to make decisions. The ultimate goal was geopolitical empire building. It was a very long term investment in resources requiring significant patience for the end result to become a reality.

“The military code of the fidalgos valued heroic personal”

Honor, was a major contributing factor that kept the loyalty to the longterm vision on course.

Although honor was an important factor for keeping long term loyalty, there were other incentives that must align for the success of the longterm campaign.
The people risking their lives for the conquest were granted an ability to retain booty and stolen possessions. They were able to personally profit.

The alignment of incentives was a critical element of the overall campaign. As it is in modern times. Take care of your people and they will take care of you.

As time went by, the Portuguese were forced to adapt their tactics to win in an environment unique from what they were accustomed to.

The takeaway was the importance of playing to your strengths. Acknowledging weakness. Understanding when the environments of operation are different and unique. Adapting strategies to accommodate these facts. Then you can dominate with limited resources.

I really enjoyed this book. The history was fascinating but it also helped put my thoughts on entrepreneurship into perspective.

It’s always taken a massive investment in time to change the world. But today, it takes less time than ever to drive an impact. Although today’s entrepreneurs often struggle to maintain patience I found it cathartic to imagine what adventurers in during this conquest of the Indian ocean would think of our modern iterative life.

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