History tends to be taught in neatly packaged themes — the Crusades, Tudors and Stuarts, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorians, the rise of fascism, etc. In modern educationspeak, these are called "modules". Barnaby Rogerson defies the modular. For although his sweeping narrative has a distinct form, it is sinuous and multi-faceted and offers myriad delights. And it is written with immense flair.
Last year, Roger Crowley published Empires of the Sea, a superb narrative history of the Mediterranean conflict between the Ottoman sultans and the Habsburg emperors that lasted from 1521 to 1580, a follow-up to his equally praiseworthy account of the siege of Constantinople in 1453. Rogerson ranges further in both time and place. He enfolds the events covered by Crowley's two books within the wider span of the 150-year Portuguese "crusade" against Morocco that started with the siege of Ceuta in 1415 and culminated in the Battle of Ksar-el-Kebir (otherwise known as the Battle of the Three Kings) in 1578. He argues with persuasive ingenuity that the aggressive policy of Portugal towards Morocco was the matrix not only of the Mediterranean conflict with the Ottomans but of the trade along the Western coast of Africa that would eventually reach as far as India and Brazil.
Although Portuguese forces never penetrated the Moroccan interior for long — no inland crusader kingdoms were established — their attacks "so damaged the
Moroccan Sultanate that it was most unlikely that it would be able to come to the aid of Granada", when Ferdinand of Aragon promoted the Reconquista and, later, when his successor Charles V harried the coasts of Algeria and Tunisia. In turn, "the combination of the expulsion order against Jews and the Inquisition's obsessive inspection of those who had converted would transfer hundreds of thousands of able, clever and well-informed Jews into the territory of Spain's Muslim enemies, especially that of the Ottoman Empire". Profits from the West African trade were invested in artillery that helped Portugal retain its forts along the Moroccan littoral, while in turn the cannonry that later helped it dominate the Indian Ocean was "the result of continuous technical evolution during Portugal's long crusading war against Morocco". Apart from Vasco de Gama, Portugal barely rates a mention in the history taught in schools, but here Rogerson restores it to a key role in the history of the 15th and 16th centuries.