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Navigations: The Portuguese Discoveries and the Renaissance

20 Oct 23


(Reaktion – £25.00)

ISBN 9781789147025

368 pages

David Childs

Malyn Newitt writes with the breadth of knowledge that one would expect from a man who was the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College. Over 50 years ago Boxer’s own book, The Portuguese Seaborn Empire, was a text for my Economic History course so I was most interested to see how the emphases may have changed in the intervening years. It was not to be, for although the title of Boxer’s book gives a clear indication as to the content, Navigations, does not. For example, the chapter on Portuguese Royal Women in the Age of Discovery is longer than the one on Vasco de Gama and, although many of those ladies might have been worth ‘baron-strangling’ at a cocktail party in Lisbon their involvement in voyages of discovery was minimal. Another key to the focus of this book lies in the sentence, “What makes Pacheco one of the great figures of the Renaissance is less his exploits as soldier and navigator but rather his remarkable book”. Contrariwise, this reviewer presumes it would be the former rather than the latter that would interest his readers who are, of course, not the main group whom the author wishes to attract. A hint as to whom these might be is indicated in that the publisher, Reaktion, has issued a series of books (at least 30 so far) on Renaissance lives for which Navigations will make a welcome companion. Indeed, a blurb on the back cover states that this book, “transforms the Portuguese age of discovery from the exploits of a few dozen heroic men into a scholarly discovery of contested interactions among technology, economics, cultural encounters, human frailties and social ambitions”. That is a lot of topics and although few living scholars know as much about the Portuguese empire as Professor Newitt, packing so much of that knowledge into one book makes progress through its pages a bit like trying to navigate through porridge causing the reviewer to reflect on an amendment to Pope’s dictum that “a lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

The above criticisms are written from a seaman’s point of view and are probably unfair if considered from that of a scholar of the Renaissance. Although, Newitt does nothing to glorify Da Gama, who had “the brutal faults of an age which countenanced torture and slavery” and admits that “the voyages of discovery were the opportunity for some of the worst sentiments imaginable”, with “entire peoples written off as unworthy of inclusion in the human race”, yet many would agree that the opening of the sea route to India and the ‘discovery’ of America were two of the most important events in the recorded history of mankind and as such the impact of the voyages undertaken in the hundred years covered by this book fully deserve a detailed, wide-ranging forensic study such as Newitt provides. So, in the end can it come down to something as simple as a choice of title? Were that to be, The Portuguese Renaissance, there could be no hesitation in recommending it to students of that subject, but I hesitate to do so for those interested in Navigations. One can pay as much as £230 for a hardback copy of Boxer’s book (£33 in the Penguin edition); I doubt that in 55 years the same price will be placed on Navigations.