46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2011
This is history at its best and history at its worst. At its best because it takes one subject (Vasco da Gama's pioneering voyage around Africa to the coast of India) and tries to place it within the broader scope of world history. This is something you rarely encounter in history texts, which typically focus upon their one particular subject as if it happened within an isolation tank. Yes, it's true that the Crusades were much more than just some medieval joust between Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin, but raged on in one form or another for well over half a millenium and are still a significant rallying point in the Mideast to this day. And this book should be applauded for taking the voyages of discovery, and in particular the voyage of da Gama, and placing it within the context of those continuing Crusades. Because a good part of what motivated the Portuguese crown to undertake these voyages was indeed a desire to connect with a mythical/legendary Christian kingdom in either Africa or India (or both) and unite with them to strike a blow against Islam. [Immediately prior to reading this book, and purely by chance, I had just finished reading a collection of academic papers concerning the legend of Prester John, and in truth there was an embassy from Ethiopia to Portugal which reignited this legend and was an important spur to the initiation of the voyages down the coast of Africa).
That said, however, I must now turn to the worst. Although the author must be applauded for placing da Gama's voyage within the context of world history, he must at the same time be derided for trying to force-fit it into only one particular aspect of that world history. Because even by examining the author's own evidence, it quickly becomes apparent that although the voyages may have been initiated by a desire to defeat Islam and recapture Jerusalem, they most certainly only continued because they proved to be economically profitable. You quickly notice that for all the bombast, the Portuguese never made a serious effort to either connect with Ethiopia or to probe into the Red Sea, but instead concentrated all of their efforts on the trading ports of India and later on the Spice Islands themselves, the source of much of India's wealth. In short, it was convenient for the Crown to project a public image of being on a Crusade, but the bottom line was that it was mainly interested in filling the coffers of its treasury.
Or as Kurt Vonnegut once so famously said: "And so it goes."
There are other negative aspects to this book. For one thing, it is not well referenced. To give just one example, there are several pages devoted to the initial meeting between da Gama and the Zamorin (a local ruler) in India, played out for us in much detail. But there is not one footnote to reference for us where exactly this detail comes from. This type of omission happens far too often throughout this text. Also, in trying to (over)hype his thesis, he has the bad habit of throwing in contemporary phrases that are totally out of context for the period he is writing about. He talks about medieval "superpowers" and of certain Islamic states trying to create a "new world order." We also see such terms as "putting boots on the ground," "mission drift," and "stay the course," which are merely cloying at best but deceptive at worst.
There is more, but other reviewers have touched on some of it, and as I do not like my reviews to be overly long, I will stop at that.
Still, I give this book four stars because it does read well and because, as stated in the beginning, it does place an interesting event within a much overlooked context of world history. In a sense, he is correct that the Crusades, far from being an isolated event in the past, have not yet truly ended.
Read it. In this case, the "history at its best" outweighs the "history at its worst."
63 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2011
How many movies and television specials, not to mention books, have we had about the kings and queens of England? Bunches. Those dang Spanish Catholics always trying to marry Elizabeth I ... or sending an armada against England. "Holy War," however, shows you the point of view of the Spanish in all of those situations, which is incredibly interesting and instructive.
The book reads like a novel. Christopher Columbus heads west to get to the East, to India; Vasco da Gama heads south around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean ... no one has ever done that before. Columbus tripped over a few desultory islands and was credited with discovering a continent. Da Gama sailed into the ports of India not just once, but three times, and took the prize of intercepting the flow of spices and treasure that had been flowing out of the East, through Egypt, into the hands of the Venetians in the North of Italy. Now that was no longer the case; eventually, all the merchants of Alexandria had to sell was coffee ... the Portuguese had become the center of European trade and Venice was a power no longer.
But the really important point this book makes clear is that the king of Portugal saw the interruption of trade and his amassing of treasure as a way to send the Knights Templar from Portugal along with thousands of other crusaders to strike through to Jerusalem and free it from the control of Islam, killing thousands of Muslims as a side benefit if they refused to convert.
The point is made that September 11 is merely the latest step in a war between Christianity and Islam that's been going on for a long time. Christopher Columbus doesn't seem that far removed from us in time, but we see his effort on behalf of Spain only as the way America was discovered. At the same time Portugal was striking at Islam and the spice trade. These days, it's obvious that Christianity's in the driver's seat, but as the winner 500 years ago, the West is complacent ... or has been complacent enough to have forgotten the long-term battle. The losers of such battles, however, have long memories, so striking against the West, be it 9/11 in America or other recent dates in England and Spain, is to Islam just a continuation of the age-old battle for the supremacy of their religion.
I regret, however, that the lazy publisher didn't go to the work of embedding links to the footnotes in the text. At the beginning of the notes, which comprise more than 35% of the entire file's length, one is told one should use Kindle's text search capability to find the spot in the text the note is referring to. For a serious yet terrifically readable book like this one to be issued without linked footnotes is a crime of the first water. HarperCollins should be ashamed.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2012
Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations, unsurprisingly, charts the story of the Portuguese explorer and his successful charting of a route to India around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. In some ways it's surprising how Columbus' `discovery' of America so overshadowed this story, especially since both explorers set out in the same decade with the same end in mind, and only Vasco da Gama actually achieved the goal of reaching India and opening up trade routes for spices back to Europe. In another way, it makes sense why Gama's story is lesser known considering how Portugal's overseas empire lasted relatively shortly and how the British and Dutch so thoroughly replaced the Iberians in most of Asia.
Nigel Cliff's premise of the book is less about Vasco da Gama than the rationale for the Age of Discovery. Cliff deftly explains how the Crusades, the Reconquista (a crusade itself), Middle Eastern geopolitics and religious fervor seamlessly nurtured the Portuguese exploration of Africa and Asia. This message gets lost in the story of Columbus' voyage to the Caribbean. It's common knowledge that Columbus was sailing in search of trade routes for spices from Asia. What's lost is the religious, as opposed to purely economic, reasons for this journey and why Portugal and Spain took such a lead in trying to undercut Muslim merchants in Istanbul and Alexandria. Cliff begins his book with a short examination of Muslim history as a prelude to the century-long conflict over the Iberian Peninsula. The book begins to slow its pace in the middle of the fifteenth century as the Christian kingdoms begin to fully wrest power and tenuously cross over the Straight of Gibraltar and into modern-day Morocco. Cliff also delves into curious matters like the Medieval European preoccupation with a fabled eastern Christian king, Prester John, whom they believed would be waiting in Asia to unite and destroy the Muslim menace.
The book covers, to me, an incredibly interesting story about a minor power whose influence waxed and then waned in the matter of several decades to be replaced by the more lasting empires of northern Europe. I love these types of histories, and Cliff writes a compelling and informative example.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2012
I recently finished reading Roger Crowley's excellent "City of Fortune": . On a whim I decided to download this book as my next read, and it turned out to be a perfect dovetail in terms of historical time frame. Crowley's book briefly mentions the decline of Venice towards the end of the 15th century, but does not really detail the reasons. This book fleshes out one of the big reasons for this: the Portuguese circumvent the traditional spice trade so critical to the Venetian's lock on the markets of the Mediterranean.
I must admit, Portugal has always been an anomaly to me. Nigel Cliff does a decent job of giving some history of the region, including the last remnants of the Moors being pushed from the continent. What really interested me was how isolated Portugal and Spain were from the realities of the 'East'. Where a city like Venice had a fair amount of knowledge through contact with the Muslim world, the Portuguese and Spanish had only speculation and folk lore to work with. And it is obvious that a city like Venice would want to keep it that way for economic and political reasons.
The back story of the ever present Catholic church is spun into the story very well. It is absolutely amazing how the fire of the Crusades was still lit many years after the last knight had left the shores of Outremer. Further, it is amazing how the Papacy after all this time still more than happy to endorse holy war verse the infidel. When I originally read the description for this book I thought Mr. Cliff would be making a stretch to imply that this initial voyage was some sort of crusade. I think the author did an admirable job explaining his case.
Mr. Cliff's description of the sea faring life makes the reader appreciate what these travelers and sailors went through. His description of sea technology at the time is adequate; including the bottoms of the hulls filling with worm holes, etc. With the ever present scurvy, bad weather, ships filling with water, being ship wrecked, etc. The tenacity of these early travelers cannot be questioned. It is also very interesting how the use of cannon gunnery at sea allowed the Portuguese to dominate in many sea battles of numerical inferiority.
I couldn't help but respect Vasco Da Gama. In many ways he reminds me of the Byzantine general Belisarius; a man who is unflinchingly committed to his country and the crown. I think the portrait of Vasco Da Gama is not always flattering in this book; for instance he is always ready to use martial force to get what he wants. But when compared to many of the other characters in this book he comes off as a deeply committed renaissance man who overcame the odds and lead by force of personality. In many ways uncorrupt able, and perhaps due more than he ultimately received.
My only knock on this book is that it can be confusing to keep track of the prominent cities that figure into the story. My Kindle edition did not seem to have illustrations anywhere. I did a lot of Wiki searches and enjoyed seeing that they had made a re-creation of the "Flor De La Mar". For a book like this illustrations are essential to demonstrate the technology of the time and the places being explored.
Also at the end of the book Mr. Cliff makes ties to modern day "Holy Wars" post-9/11. The more history I read, the harder it becomes to refute the basic premise of what the author is putting forth in this epilogue. For me though, it seems that it is a subtle invalidation the rest of the book. As if the author has to over-sell certain things to make a modern day claim to "tie it all together". Almost any book on the crusades, Catholic church, the Papacy, etc. could have this epilogue shoe horned into it.
Definitely a book I enjoyed and read quite quickly.
30 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2011
Readable, even exciting recounting of Portugal's attempts to reach the Indies by sea in general and the historic voyages of Vasco da Gama in particular with emphasis on the struggle between Christians and Muslims for world domination. That said, the PC game is given away somewhat early in the book when the author decides to use the term "CE" instead of AD in his dates and his refusal to capitalize the word Mass throughout the book. Another is a line early in the book that states holy war between Christians and Muslims was triggered with the Pope's call for a Crusade centuries after Muslims had already been waging the same kind of war against the Christian populations of the Middle East. In that light, the Crusades can be considered as more a reactive, defensive response to a very real threat of European conquest. Later, the author wonders why ancient animosities between Muslims and the West arose again in our own times forgetting perhaps that such hate and resentment has been a constant element in Middle Eastern elementary education all along even as it has long since been forgotten in the West. No mystery there! The author's cluelessness is perhaps more obviously on display in a line buried in the appendix where he states: "Western tradition has accorded the Battle of Poitiers a significance that was lost on Arab writers and is lost, too on revisionist historians." What is so difficult to understand about the importance of that battle to the history of Western civilization? Perhaps revisionist historians such as the author himself, find its obvious meaning difficult to reconcile with their new vision of history in which the West has been the major negative influence in the world? A point of view the author seems to take in the book where he goes out of his way to describe the horrors perpetrated by the West (putting westerners down as savage, buffoons, and hypocrites while portraying other civilizations as being peaceful, smarter, and more reasonable with their quiet, peaceful worlds torn apart with the arrival of religious maniacs from Europe). That said, I still rather enjoyed this book which I regard as pretty factual otherwise...the reader just has to be aware of the author's poisonous POV as they go along.
71 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2011
People who may be interested in this book would be well served to read the review of it in the September 17 edition of the Wall Street Journal by Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The review excoriates the book and its author, "former theater and film critic" Nigel Cliff. Professor Fernandez-Armesto's review is spot on: The book is dreadful.
Cliff offers his readers nothing more substantial than a subtitle to show "How Vasco Da Gama's Epic Voyage Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations." Instead he regurgitates a trite tale of a loathsome and guilty "West" (and Catholic "West" in particular) exploiting a blissful and blameless "East" (and Islamic "East" in particular). It is no more than a childish outburst of a European with a deep sense of civilizational self-loathing.
I will just cite a few examples that represent the quality of thought of the author.
On page 26, Cliff states that "the struggle [by native Iberian rulers to reclaim territories conquered by the Arabs and Berbers] soon developed a name - the Reconquest - that swept aside the inconvenient fact that most of the peninsula had been Muslim territory for longer than it had been Christian." Here Cliff envelops a purely juvenile idea in the snide tone that he affects toward the West throughout the book. His so-called inconvenient fact is also wrong (as is usually the case with facts called "inconvenient").
Even if we accept Cliff's date of 1064 as the start of the "Reconquest" (which is certainly wrong as, for example, a Christian Kingdom of Leon had been re-established on territories re-conquered from the Muslims about a century and a half earlier), that would mean that "most of the peninsula had been Muslim territory" for about 350 years following the Muslim conquest of 711 to 716.
The date on which the peninsula first "became Christian" is more difficult to pinpoint because, unlike Islam, it was not imposed there at the tip of a sword. It seems probable that it could have been as early as, or earlier than, the Council of Elvira held in Granada sometime between 305 and 310 (attended by nineteen Spanish bishops) and it was certainly no later than the end of the reign of Constantine the Great in 337, by which time all of the Roman Empire was Christian. The successors to the Romans - the Vandals, Sueves, and Visigoths - were also Christian. In other words, the peninsula "had been Christian" at the time of the Muslim conquest for at least 375 to 400 years.
More importantly, by 1064, most of the population of the peninsula "had been Muslim" -- if indeed this ever was the case -- for not more than a century. The work of the historian R.W. Bulliet concludes that Muslims may have first exceeded 50% of the population of just Al-Andalus by about 950. By way of comparison, the Muslim proportion circa 850 is estimated at around 12.5%. These figures do not include the Christian populations of the "re-conquested" Iberian territories of the Kingdoms of Leon, Galicia, or Navarre. This, of course, does not mean that most of the territory had not been ruled over by Muslims for 350 years, but that is the "tip of the sword" part of the story.
Snide, simple-minded, and inaccurate statements do not produce history worth reading.
The entire book and Cliff's perspective on things can be readily summarized by the last few pages. On the book's penultimate page, Cliff offers praise to those who have pursued a spirit of cooperation between Muslims and Christians: "There is another way - a way shown by the many men and women who instinctively rejected the division of the globe into rival religious blocs." Fair enough.
Cliff then offers us a short list of such people and among that short list is - and this does not appear to be any more of a joke than is his entire book -- "Mehmet the Conquerer, the cultivated tyrant who turned Istanbul into an international melting pot."
22 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2011
Nigel Cliff's book gets off to a slow start and after reading the first 100 pages, although there were many interesting details, I was still wondering where it was going and if he was ever going to get to his topic. I almost quit reading. The last two thirds of the book which focus on Vasco da Gama, though, are quite interesting history and well written. However this is written only from the perspective of exposing the cruelty of the west. Somehow the Muslims in the first 100 years conquered the whole middle east, northern Africa and large parts of Spain and into southern France, but apparently without any cruelty, violence or even documented bloodshed. Westerners are consistently portrayed as uncultured, uncouth and cruel while Muslims and everyone else were enlightened, cultured, and non-violent (apparently). Every cruel thing done by the west (and there were many) are documented in great detail.
17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2011
I was surprised that this book had only on review before this one so I was somewhat reluctant but this is really a very good book. It is not only very well written, but also balanced and has an interesting perspective. If you liked "Lost to the West" you'll love this one, too.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2012
Most of us probably emerged from grade school able to recite three or four true sentences about such Portuguese heroes as Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco Da Gama and Fernando Magellan. Their stories are fleshed out in minute detail in Nigel Cliff's 2011 history HOLY WAR: HOW VASCO DA GAMA'S EPIC VOYAGES TURNED THE TIDE IN A CENTURIES-OLD CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS.
Not ony that but Portuguese 15th and 16th exploration around Africa to India and beyond is framed as decisive moments in a clash of civilizations dating back to the 7th and 8th Century Muslim Arab conquests in North Africa and into European Christendom. Yes, the Portuguese wanted to procure spices at their Asian sources. Yes peacefully or violently Portuguese had to take into account Muslim trading monopolies. But, according to author Cliff, we might easily forget that Portuguese royalty with Papal support moved around Africa and into the Indies to outflank religious Islam, conquer the Red Sea, recapture Egypt and Jerusalem and to drive Muslims out of their ancient conquests of Christian lands. That goal was far from achieved. But when the Spanish, Dutch, English and others joined the Portuguese in exploring and subjugating large chunks of East Asia, Islam went on the defensive and was ultimately dominated by European imperialists. No small feat for tiny Portugal and its million people.
There is so much detail in HOLY WAR, that it is arbitrary to single out one piece from another for attention. But new information to me personally included the role of Knights Templar in making Portuguese explorations possible.
Briefly: from around 1129 to their dissolution by Papal action in 1312,"The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon" -- roughly 20,000 of them, including 2,000 actual knights -- the Knights Templar or Templars, fought Muslims in the Holy Land and developed a vast, wealthy European support infrastructure.
In Portugal the Templars were crucial in the defeat of Muslim forces at Santarem in 1147. Over time Templars came to own outright a third of more of the southern third of the Kingdom. In 1314 the pro-Templars Portuguese Crown got around the Papal suppression of the Templars by creating a new militant Order of Christ. The Pope approved transfer of Templar holdings in the Kingdom to the new order. In 1420 the Pope recognized the King's 26-year old brother Prince Henry (the Navigator) as Administrator of the Order of Christ.
By the time of the Prince's death in 1460 the Order of Christ had long been empowered by Rome to exercise spiritual rule in the newly discovered territories of coastal West Africa. In any event, the Knights of Christ and Avis funded much of Portugal's explorations. When Vasco Da Gama reached the southwestern coast of India in 1498, startled East Indians saw the uniquely designed red cross of the onetime Knights Templar adorning the sails of the Portuguese vessels.
A reasonably well documented, popularly written history, HOLY WAR reminds of a Jame Michener novel in its epic sweep, its heavy, colorful dilineations of characters, heroes and villains. It is a good read, but not without limitations.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2014
I really enjoyed reading this book. I've never heard or considered the idea that the Age of Exploration was an extentsion of the crusades and a way for christians to thwart muslims. I agree with the reviewers that in text footnotes would have been a big help- sometimes the author would quote certain things and I would wonder where the information came from. In addition, I think the book suffered a tad by focusing on De Gama rather than broadening the scope. It seems like the author was limited because there was not a lot of research material. But other than those few complaints, and the books relatively short length, I found it fascinating.