Bringers of War: The Portuguese in Africa during the Age of Gunpowder and Sail from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century

By Lopes, Tracy | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Bringers of War: The Portuguese in Africa during the Age of Gunpowder and Sail from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century


Lopes, Tracy, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Bringers of War: The Portuguese in Africa during the Age of Gunpowder and Sail from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. By John Laband. London: Frontline Books Press, 2013. Pp. vii, 262; maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 cloth.

John Laband's book is an in-depth account of the Portuguese military presence in Morocco, East Africa, Ethiopia, and west-central Africa. Laband focuses on a series of military campaigns that involved widely differing societies and military cultures. He argues that prior to the nineteenth century Africans fought against the Portuguese on relatively equal terms. He also emphasizes the importance of firepower, and the complex political, social, and economic factors that motivated Africans and the Portuguese to engage in warfare. As Laband illustrates, these conflicts were destructive, particularly in west-central Africa, where large numbers of people were enslaved. Although there are some unanswered questions, Laband's book is a valuable contribution to the historiography, and his attention to detail makes for an enjoyable read.

Portugal's struggle against Islam is a constant theme throughout the book. Laband first focuses on the "Battle of the Three Kings" in Morocco where D. Sebastiäo of Portugal joined forces with Sultan Muhammad al-Mutawakkil against Abd-al-Malik and the Ottomans. For Moroccans, this battle was the culmination of a hundred years of internal strife, whereas for the Portuguese it was an opportunity to seize control of the transSaharan trade routes and attack Islam. Although gunpowder weapons initially gave the Portuguese an advantage, by the sixteenth century Moroccan rulers were acquiring firearms and canons from Portugal's enemies (p. 10). The result was the greatest single military disaster for Portugal during the wars of expansion. Laband then shifts to the Portuguese presence on the Swahili coast, particularly the sacking of Kilwa, Mombasa, and the capture of Sofala. Despite these victories, Laband argues that the Portuguese presence remained weak, and that they lacked the manpower and resources necessary to exert authority over the people in the interior (p. 169). His next chapter on Ethiopia describes some of the conflicts between the Christian rulers of Ethiopia and their Muslim neighbors. Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (known as Gran) proclaimed a jihad and captured Ethiopia by 1540 (p. …

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