The Lusiads or How Portugal Won an Empire

I went to Portugal for a week with a book and came back with two; the new one is in Portuguese.

I felt this might be the closest I’d ever get to reading The Lusiads in the original…

This sounds grandiloquent but you needn’t turn yellow with envy: I did not manage to learn Portuguese merely in one week (I blame the Portuguese who insisted on speaking to me in English). Nevertheless, I acquired a book in Portuguese, and not just any book but the most famous piece of Portuguese literature: the epic poem The Lusiads by Portugal’s national poet, Luís Vaz de Camōes.

Although only in the form of a comics book.

Any Spanish speaker will testify to the fact that if you can read Spanish, you can read Portuguese to a very decent degree. Consequently I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures. Better still: I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures and when I already know the plot.

Because the story Luís de Camões tells in The Lusiads is from the heroic age of Portuguese navigation: the journey of Vasco da Gama in 1497-98, when he became the first European to reach India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. And the book I went to Portugal with, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley, treats the same journey – and a bit more.

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Lengua e imperio (Language and Empire)

La gloria “será nuestra, que fuemos los primeros inventores de obra tan necessaria”

En 1492, la primera gramática del castellano fue escrito por Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), un humanista renacentista español educado en las universidades de Salamanca y Bolonia (Italia). Y ni siquiera era la obra sólo la primera gramática del castellano; era la primera gramática de cualquier idioma moderno de Europa, y punto. La primera gramática del inglés no fue publicado hasta casi un siglo más tarde (en 1586), lo del francés en 1550.

The glory “will be ours, as we were the first inventors of a work so necessary”

In 1492, the first grammar of Castilian – the language better known as Spanish to English-speakers – was written by Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), a Spanish Renaissance humanist, educated in the universities of Salamanca and Bologne (Italy). And not only it was the first Spanish grammar; it was the first grammar of a modern European language, full stop. The first English grammar was only published nearly a century later (in 1586), the first French one in 1550.

La gramática de Nebrija /Nebrija’s Grammar. (Biblioteca Gonzalo de Berceo) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Hero Under the Death Sentence (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés II)

Continued from Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)

Sometimes people have the misfortune to live in ‘interesting’ times. Exciting, even. In the case of Spain, in fact, it’s difficult to find a period of history when the times were not ‘exciting’ – so it shouldn’t come as surprise that the excitement in Cayetano Valdés’s life not ended with Trafalgar, but rather, it began.

I mean you’d think there he was, sitting ashore in the naval ports of Cádiz and Cartagena, figuratively licking his wounds… having been promoted to senior officer, safely behind a desk in an office, pushing paper in the grand Spanish fashion, into quiet old age – since there wasn’t much of a navy left for him to command, right?

Wrong.

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Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)

Date: 14 February 1797 
Place: The Atlantic, off Cape St Vincent (Portugal)

If you’re English and into naval history, you will recognise the time and place as the Battle of Cape St Vincent – one of nine, that is. (Clearly it was a popular place for enemy fleet rendezvous.) This particular Battle of Cape St Vincent was the one which became famous for Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates1 so you’re now settling in for a nice read about Horatio Nelson and various associated heroics of the Royal Navy, right? Let’s go:

It was a cold and foggy day…

Er, no. It was a cold and foggy day but you should have taken a look at the title perhaps.

Rather than detailing Nelson’s heroics of which you can read on plenty of other websites, I’m going to write about a Spanish naval officer: Cayetano Valdés, who had been cast in the role of having to save the Santísima Trinidad, the pride of the Spanish navy, the largest warship of its time.

Twice.

A topic that you won’t find much discussed in English elsewhere (for entirely understandable reasons).

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A Sense of History

History (from Greek ἱστορία, historia, meaning inquiry) is the study of the past…

History is asking questions.

?

And answering them.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians – not go unsung as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.

Herodotus: The Histories, 1:1

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Rest in Peace? The Wandering Remains of Christopher Columbus

¿Que en paz descanse? Los restos errantes de Cristóbal Colón

The other day I was reading the Rough Guide to Andalucía, and I came across this:

The dispute about Christopher Columbus‘s birthplace – claimed by both Italy and Spain – is matched by the labyrinthine controversy surrounding the whereabouts of his remains.

I thought it sounded promising, so I read on.

El otro día estaba leyendo la Rough Guide de Andalucía, y me topé con esto:

La disputa sobre el lugar de nacimiento de Cristóbal Colón – reclamada tanto por Italia como por España – está acompañada por la controversia laberíntica que rodea el paradero de sus restos.

Pensé que sonaba prometedor, así que seguí leyendo.

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Salamis (According to Herodotus)

Salamis – an island in the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, opposite Mount Aigaleo, 16 kilometres west of Athens.

Salamis – a battle that defined history for centuries to come.

The Warriors of Salamis (Achilles Vasileiou), battle monument on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
The Warriors of Salamis by Achilles Vasileiou, on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is not, as some American readers might imagine, the title of an apocalyptic post in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States… In fact, it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with America or politics: it’s merely the title of an English work of art.

A rather striking work of art:

geograph-4236825-by-ian-capper
Tower Poppies

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The Secret of the Greek Galley

The Antikythera Shipwreck

In 1900, sponge divers discovered the wreck of an ancient Greek galley off the Aegean island of Antikythera more than fifty metres deep under the surface. As usual, the find threw up a load of questions: Where did the galley come from? Where was it going to? Why did it sink? Who were the passengers? And what is that mysterious, complex mechanism found in the wreck?

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A History of The Great Sea

In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?

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The Gruesome News from Famagusta

The two hundred galleys of the Holy League – Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, the Papacy, the Knights of St John and sundry smaller states on the Mediterranean seaboard – were sailing south on the Ionian Sea in battle order when a small brigantine passed them: a Venetian ship from Crete carrying the news that the town of Famagusta, the last stronghold of the Republic of Venice on Cyprus, fell to the Turks.

The date was 4 October 1571, three days before the Battle of Lepanto.

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The Pirates of the Adriatic

nehaj_senj_croatia
View of the Adriatic from Fortress Nehaj, Senj. Photo by: Joadl CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Countless films have been made about the pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the countless books written, both fictitious and factual. But how many of you knew that there used to be pirates on the Adriatic too? Or who they were or where was their lair? (Anybody who doesn’t know where the Adriatic is is probably reading the wrong blog by the way.)

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Francis Drake and the North-West Passage

Franklin’s Lost Expedition

A few years ago, in one of the galleries of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich there was exhibited a life-size model of a boat trapped in pack ice, with a suitably gruesome frozen hand protruding from under frozen canvas: a striking illustration of the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew for the younger visitors. Franklin’s expedition set out in 1845 with 129 men on board of two ships to search for the North-West Passage – a route from the Atlantic into the Pacific through the islands of Northern Canada – and was never heard of again. Despite repeated search missions in the following years and decades, the exact fate of the lost expedition remained unknown until 2014 when a Canadian research team finally located one of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus.

On Monday morning, when I started to write this post, of course I couldn’t have imagined the news that broke in the media that same afternoon: that Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, has now also been found – the last piece of the puzzle falling into place? But although Franklin’s expedition is without doubt the most famous among all the attempts to navigate the North-West Passage, I wanted to write about another sailor who searched for the passage nearly three hundred years earlier and from the opposite direction: Francis Drake on the Golden Hind in 1579.

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The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain

For me, a good non-fiction book is not one that simply gets its facts right; it also has to read well, like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) It helps of course if the author of the non-fiction book has a good subject to work with; and the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars certainly makes for a good subject.

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A Digression On Pepys (Throwback Thursday)

About a year ago I started to write a post comparing two books that I had happened to be reading simultaneously, one of which was boring me to tears. I was not going to waste my breath on it too much – I was going to point out how good the other book was in comparison. As luck would have it, both were on the subject of history, so I started the post with an introductory paragraph about having read some good history books in my time… Unfortunately, the introductory paragraph ended up running to several paragraphs, neatly hijacking the entire post. The chief hijacker was Pepys – whom I found myself quite unable to dismiss in one summary sentence.

I feel Pepys deserves a post to himself, so here I proudly present you with:

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The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

Mausolus British Museum
Larger than life statue of Mausolus from the Mausoleum (British Museum)

Halicarnassus, the birth place of Herodotus (nowadays Bodrum, Turkey) was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Mausoleum, a colossal tomb of Mausolus, a Persian satrap and a ruler of Caria (377-353 B.C.). The word mausoleum as used today originates precisely in the name of Mausolus and his tomb.

Halicarnassus, the royal residence of the dynasts of Caria,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo two thousand years ago. “Here is the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders, a monument erected by Artemisia in honour of her husband.” (Strabo: Geography, XIV.2)

Mausolus made Halicarnassus his capital and spent a huge amount of money on improving the harbour, fortifying the town and embellishing it with temples, palaces and statues.

 About halfway up the curving slope… a broad wide street was laid out, in the middle of which was built the Mausoleum, a work so remarkable that it is classed among the Seven Wonders of the World. (Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, II.8)

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On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

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The Horses of St Mark’s Basilica

Apologies for being a day late with the Mediterranean Miscellany but I was on holiday – in the Mediterranean (of course).

So today: Venice, a fantastic city with loads of history, since I just came back from there.

If you ever go to Venice, don’t begrudge the 5-euro entry fee to the loggia of San Marco (the church itself is free). From this loggia the Doge and Petrarch watched the tournaments held in celebration after Venice had successfully quelled a rebellion, the so-called Revolt of St Titus, in Crete in 1364. And the view over St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the seafront is indeed delightful but the most memorable thing up there is…

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The Burning Mountain of Huexotzinco

The Conquest of New Spain, an eye-witness account of how Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico, is one of the most memorable non-fiction books I’ve ever read. And I don’t just mean that I vividly recall various episodes in the book; no, there’s more to it than that. Because of this book, I ended up reading others on the subject, and some of them, like Tlaloc Weeps For Mexico, a novel by László Passuth, were excellent. And because of this book, I practically haunt the Aztec rooms of the British Museum. (And I wish that I remembered more of the exhibits of the Museo de América in Madrid!)
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The Forgotten Battle (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.

So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?  

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Faith, Hope & Charity

During World War II, the island of Malta, just off the coast of Sicily but held by the British, became a crucially important location to both sides. Pre-war British reasoning that the island was indefensible meant that when Mussolini declared war in June 1940, Malta’s meagre defences consisted of six obsolete Gloster Gladiator aircrafts. Within hours of the declaration of war bombs were falling on Malta; the Grand Harbour, Valletta and the so-called Three Cities on the other side of the harbour suffered particularly badly as the Italians and the Germans tried to starve and bomb Malta into surrender…

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three…” (1Cor 13:13)

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The Labyrinth of Knossos

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Knossos

The archeological site of Knossos, near Heraklion on the island of Crete, was discovered in 1878 and excavated by Sir Arthur Evans from 1900 to 1935. The palace of Knossos was the centre of the Minoan Civilisation and was abandoned towards the end of the Bronze Age. There’s a theory that the Minoan Civilisation collapsed as a consequence of the explosion of the volcano at Santorini, with the ensuing tidal wave destroying the low-lying coastal areas of Crete and volcanic ash falling over the island; there’s another theory that the Minoans’ downfall was brought about by large scale Mycenaean invasion (who destroyed Troy too). Or you can take the two in combination – how the Minoans, weakened by the consequences of the volcanic eruption, were unable to resist the invading Mycenaeans.

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33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

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Fever Pitch

If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?

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Paris Unloved (Miguel de Unamuno in Exile)

Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.
Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.

Paris, the city of light… Paris, home to the Louvre and the Notre-Dame. A great capital city whose fame and influence spread well beyond the city limits, well beyond the borders of France. In fact, at certain points in its history, Paris was quite simply the place to be for any intellectual. Famous writers and philosophers have been inspired by Paris: Dickens and Balzac, Montaigne and Nietzsche.

Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant. (Honoré de Balzac)

What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world! (Charles Dickens)

An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

I love Paris tenderly and am French only by this great city: the glory of France, and one of the noblest ornaments of the world. (Michel de Montaigne)

But not Miguel de Unamuno.

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When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific

Just before noon on 25 September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa ordered his men to halt, then went forward alone, to complete the last stretch of the journey to the summit of the mountain they were climbing. Soon he stood, alone with his god, his ambitions and his sins on this peak rising out of the jungle in Darién; the first European to set eyes on a new ocean. A new ocean which he named Mar del Sur (South Sea) because he reached it by travelling southwards. The ocean that Magellan seven years later was to rename Pacific – coming as he was round the Horn via the straits named after him, well Magellan might have thought the Pacific peaceful.

Núñez de Balboa was no hero, no geographer, no selfless servant of his king. He marched across the Isthmus of Panama in a desperate bid to be first to reach the unknown ocean only because he knew that no less feat could save him from the scaffold. Continue reading “When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific”