Monday, 9 April 2012

The Portuguese Connection

The Portuguese connection

It was the Portuguese who spanned the Atlantic, once again. This time there were no deliberate and concerted voyages of discovery, no government sponsored expeditions, no search for a sea route to the spices and wealth of the East, avoiding the land routes blocked by Islam. There was no search for vague and legendary Christian allies such as Prester John, supposedly of great power and fighting on the far side of Moslem territory. There was no thirst for the knowledge and glory to be found in exploring the unknown. There was no expectation of discovering vast wealth or of obtaining honour and prestige from exploring unknown regions. The shape of the world and the peoples likely to be found on each continent was known, at least approximately, and at least by the few intellectuals whose business it was, and who would have been consulted by any ruler or merchant-prince contemplating such a voyage, even though it was centuries since there had been any contact with them. Governments, not just in Europe but around the world wherever civilised societies survived, felt no loss at this absence of contact with distant peoples who had no relevance to their immediate concerns of power, profit and prestige, and no need to renew contact with them. People who owned ships wanted to use them as they were intended, for the practical business of making a living from trade and fishing. They would not waste money on long, possibly dangerous, and almost certainly futile voyages when there was no reasonable hope of making a large profit, even though the possible destinations were at least roughly known. Their men felt the same. Sailors and fishermen lived a hard life, and always had. They could be motivated , just as others had been, by greed for God Gold and Glory - not necessarily in that order, but otherwise would not have been willing to risk their lives and livelihoods on pointless voyages.

Thus when contact was renewed it was as wispy and uncertain as tendrils of sea mist, there, gone, renewed unpredictably elsewhere, silent and un-noticed by the great ones of the world. There were no celebrations, no public praise fame or reward for the achievement, which was solely the business of those involved, ancillary to their main business, and only mentioned in passing to their friends. It was decades before rumours reached the ears of the rich and powerful, to whom it was of little interest. A few academics, youthful wandering scholars and antiquarian romantics were more interested and would like to have gone there, but there were no regular voyages, no trading routes and no one to apply to for passage any more than there were to Atlantis, Hy-Breasil, Tir-n'an-Og, Fairyland, the Garden of Eden or other legendary regions with which such tales and destinations were likely to be confused.

What happened was that crossings of the South Atlantic were at first accidents of weather, and then occasional supplements to the small-scale business of trading along the west coast of Africa. There were a few small ships which gradually extended their range along the coast , seeking to eke out a living by trading cheap and colourful cloth, domestic utensils of wood clay and iron, small mirrors and trumpery decorations, pins, needles, thread and ribbons, beads and jewellery and other such trifles as appealed to local tastes and pockets, in exchange for local produce, chiefly bananas, coconuts, and fish dried and salted to the traditional Portuguese taste and as rations capable of keeping for some time. There was no great profit or interest in this humble trading by a few sea-peddlers, who also engaged in a little local trading between towns or villages along the coast. This was a life exposed to more than the usual dangers. In addition to the perils of the sea there was exposure to an enervating climate, where tropical diseases were once again rife. Europe was somewhat protected from epidemics brought back by these traders by the fact that the slow voyages exceeded the incubation time of the diseases, so ships that were infected were unlikely to return as the crew died before reaching home, and quarantine procedures at ports kept any that reached home from spreading their diseases before they died. Theft and murder by the volatile natives also contributed to the death toll, so this remained a small and unattractive trading route.

In the course of time these traders reached what long before had been Angola, and encountered natives who spoke a version of Portuguese. This enabled some of the traders to move inland and make further contacts. Gradually some of them inter-married with the natives and became local traders in and between settlements, with the advantage of access to somewhat exotic foreign products, so they became a successful local merchant class. This was a somewhat precarious position, suspected of exploitation, targets of jealousy and fear that they might be dangerous witches, dependent on the protection of local rulers who had to be kept well bribed. It did however give them access to diamonds. Ages earlier Angola and the adjacent region of Kasai in what had been Zaire or the Belgian Congo had produced a lot of diamonds, and there were still some to be found. There was no longer an organised diamond mining industry, no exports of stones via a regulated monopoly, no cottage industry of digging them out by hand and smuggling them abroad, no knowledge of diamond cutting and polishing, only a cursory and less sophisticated appreciation of them as shiny baubles than was still possible elsewhere. A trickle of these curiosities was slowly obtained from people who found or traded them for local value, until they reached those who suspected that if they were really diamonds they would be of much more value in Europe, and who had the connections to test the notion. Still further south, along the dangerous desert coast of what had been Namibia or South West Africa, diamonds were still washed up by the sea. Some of these also came into the hands of partly Portuguese traders, by direct forays along the coast as well as by trade.

Gradually these stones went to Europe where it was still possible to have them assessed, cut and polished, the better ones thereby increasing enormously in value. There was no great boom in diamond mining, no sudden hysteria or diamond mania, only a slow but steady rise in the wealth and social status of those families connected to the previously humble itinerant Portuguese traders. Europe was increasingly prosperous, freed of the Islamic yoke and protected by the German empire, or just 'the Empire', as the Second Holy Roman Empire of the German People was more colloquially known. There was scope for expenditure on luxuries and for investment in highly portable assets. If there was curiosity felt by outsiders about the source of these diamonds and the basis of the prosperity of Portugal's sea-peddlers, it went unsatisfied and the connection unnoticed.

This increased availability of diamonds was important to the tale because there was no other small and portable store of wealth, acceptable in other distant but reasonably civilised countries as a means of exchange. Gold and silver were no longer mined in significant quantities in Europe, previous stores having drained to the East, or in less polite terms, been looted by the Moslems. Fiat paper currencies, especially the mighty German Reichmark, were adequate for local use, but would not prove acceptable to distant people who had no prospect of spending them in Europe or on European produce, and no desire to exchange their goods for pretty pieces of foreign paper. Diamonds were still mined, cut and valued in Brazil, so the availability of raw or cut diamonds gave the possibility of commercial exchange for the coffee, sugar and other tropical produce of Brazil's plantations when the possibility arose.

The traders heard stories that other Portuguese speaking seamen had in previous centuries visited and raided the African coast. It was not even clear whether these were relatively recent visitors or stories of the very much older slave trade to America. In any case, a few of the traders decided to try their luck in crossing the Atlantic to Brazil in hopes of extending their trading route and in curiosity as to whether they would still find fellow Portuguese speakers with whom to talk and trade. Little came of these early contacts because diamonds were not yet available, and would have been beyond the means of these poor men even if they had been available. They found their wares for the African trade were not much in demand because equivalent locally produced items were already available. They brought back a little coffee and sugar and an understanding that the Brazilians were stronger, richer, more numerous and ruled a vastly greater area than the Portuguese.It would not be prudent to attempt to rob them, and for lack of anything of value to exchange, trade would be difficult or impossible. A little coasting trade might be possible, serving the more remote and thinly settled portions of the immense South American coastline, and it would be a bit safer and more comfortable, but even less profitable than the African coastal trade.

Some Brazilian slave traders had in earlier centuries raided and traded with the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Africa when there was still a demand for slaves on the growing plantations. This was no longer profitable because of the contraction of the population and of economic demand, and the fact that the existing black population of Brazil was more than adequate to supply any demand for labour.When the intermittent visits of the first Portuguese traders came to the notice of the rich and powerful in Brazil, they were not very interested. They quickly saw that the Portuguese were poor and weak. They had little with which to trade. There would be no point in trying to raid or even establish diplomatic relations with Portugal, particularly if behind them stood a protector as powerful as the Germans were said to be. They were mildly interested to hear of the spectacular German military successes in driving Islam out of Europe and conquering the Middle East and North Africa and were willing to applaud them from a distance. There were of course a few who would have liked to visit Europe, but that was not yet practical.

Slowly, as diamonds enriched the more fortunate of the Portuguese traders, they began to visit Brazil from curiosity and in hope of establishing profitable contacts.A trickle of cargoes of coffee, sugar, rum and other tropical produce began to reach Europe and further enrich the traders. In due course, as contacts and trust developed, voyages between Portugal and Brazil became fairly regular and it became possible for passengers to travel with reasonable expectations of a safe voyage and return, instead of having to fear that they would be robbed and murdered as soon as the ship was out of sight of land. A few affluent travellers were inquisitive enough to want to journey and then to write about their travels amongst people on the other side of the ocean. It was quickly realised that Brazil was the centre of the Portuguese speaking world, being far richer and stronger and more culturally developed and artistically active than Portugal itself, let alone the savages of Africa.

Governments and their spies began to take an interest. Brazilian ships began to visit Portugal and other European countries, somewhat to the chagrin of the Portuguese traders who felt a monopoly slipping away from them. Brazilian agents were eager to obtain German machinery and engineering products. The German government refused to sell them munitions more advanced than muskets, and made it clear to the other European governments that they were expected to follow the same policy. German and Brazilian businessmen began to consider projects such as investing in Brazilian plantations and mines, reviving railways and building steam ships. Trade across the Atlantic grew and became of interest to those on both sides of the ocean. The English, French, Spanish and Dutch remembered their historical connections with the Caribbean and began to consider seizing some of those islands again to put the blacks there back to work in growing sugar and other tropical produce. It was recalled that France had once been willing to let the English keep Canada in exchange for the return of the small sugar producing island of Guadeloupe, and people quipped that considering the current state of Canada, (which had long since been crushed out of existence by the weight of snow and the tyranny of distance in this post-oil world,) they had got the better end of the bargain. They also began to visit Brazil and attempt coastal trade in their manufactures which were somewhat better than those of Portugal and Brazil.

It was the Portuguese who brought rumours to Europe of the cannibal Mexicans and their attacks on the Caribbean and the South American coastland. They also brought news of the first great disaster in this war, the capture, sack and carrying away for sacrifice and consumption of the inhabitants of the old city of Cartagena. The news, which was of mild concern in Europe because of the developing economic links, caused scandal and uproar throughout Brazil. No one knew how it had happened, but rumours soon spread that the city had been betrayed, or that the Mexicans had infiltrated it and bribed some of the garrison, or that they had found a weak spot or gate left unguarded by laziness or inefficiency or corruption. The war was not going well for the Brazilians. They were on the defensive, dispersed across a vast region, unable to concentrate against a much more mobile enemy who could attack anywhere, and incapable of mounting a strong invasion of Mexico to destroy the source of their problem. Although they tried to create and deploy a navy of small craft, drawn from their fishermen and coastal traders, these ships were seldom in the right place at the right time and in sufficient strength to defeat the raiders. This did create opportunities for European traders to winkle their way into the coastal trade and sell their goods to people who could no longer obtain local products, even though some of these ships and sailors were seized and press-ganged into the Brazilian navy. The Mexican raiders had established temporary and permanent bases and hideouts on the Caribbean islands, and started to do the same on the coastlands of South America, so clearing them out was a task which would have taxed Pompey.

That was just the start of the problem for the Brazilians. It was made much worse by their military, political and social weaknesses. Their state, although large was not very strong. Loyalty to the state was undercut by virtually feudal loyalty to noble families and by the jealousies between them. Army units were more likely to obey the family interests of their officers (who would all be drawn from families supporting that of the commander of each unit) than the orders of ministers or of the President, who were regarded as successful players of the political game on behalf of their own families and interests. They were not well trained for war or accustomed to service in the field, since they had lacked a local enemy and were used mainly for riot suppression, brief coups and as counters in assessment of the relative power of influential families. Consequently there was much bitter bickering after each failure or defeat, buck-passing, name-calling and refusal to co-operate and even suspicion of treachery. This suspicion was not always unjustified. Some families found that the best way for them to preserve their estates and their lives was to co-operate with the raiders. Others formed gangs to pillage their neighbors, make them prisoners and sell them to the Mexicans. Some officers and officials accepted bribes to turn a blind eye to the activities of the Mexicans. Peace, prosperity and the possibility of civilised living fled the region. The disorder spread down the social scale. Many of the poor decided that they had no objection to eating those that were richer than themselves, or even each other, or to helping the Mexicans to do so, particularly if they personally stood to benefit thereby. Some imitated the Mexicans when they could and professed to be converts to their religion of blood. As chaos and disorder spread across the north of the country some people just formed gangs to fight off everyone else in the desire to be left alone.

Some of the more nervous or far sighted investors began to sell their interests in Brazil and to re-invest their wealth in Portugal. German investors began to re-consider the prospects of Brazil and made their unease known to the German government. This latter refused Brazilian requests for military support. They had no desire to mount a major expedition across the Atlantic and Caribbean, and thought it would probably have been futile in any case. The most they would offer was a small training and advisory mission, although they had no expectation of converting the local soldiery to German attitudes and standards. It might help to prop up the defence of the main towns, and it would ease the political pressure from German investors. They were sure that the Brazilians and the Mexicans needed no training and not much encouragement to inspire them to cut each other's throats, and were quite welcome to do so. They would, however, offer the assistance of some warships, no longer so urgently needed in the Mediterranean, and encouraged their allies and associates to do likewise.

This contributed to the interest felt in other European countries in safeguarding their access to tropical produce and obtaining their own sources of supply. This was a trade in luxuries, paid for largely with wine, whiskey, brandy or whatever mainly alcoholic luxuries they themselves made. It had been simpler to buy from the Brazilians, but as their future became more uncertain, and their present production less reliable, thoughts turned to the alternative of growing Europe's own supplies on small islands which it was hoped would be easier to defend from raids by the Mexican cannibals. The Portuguese resumed their much earlier control of the Atlantic islands, and their experience, together with some Brazilian assistance would help to get plantations going again in the Windward and Leeward Islands. Geography was helpful. These islands were furthest from Mexico, against the prevailing winds for much of the year, which correspondingly assisted communication with Europe and created a back-stop which was a natural limit to the Mexican raids.

Over several decades Brazil slowly stabilised. Most of the north had been abandoned to cannibals, outlaws, forest and disease. The plantation economy of the north east had been severely disrupted by uprisings and attacks, flight to the forest and cannibal raids. New religious sects had arisen amongst the poor and these added to the craziness. Some of them believed that their children were witches, casting evil spells and causing all their problems. This led to child abuse and population decline. Yet the country had not been overwhelmed. The German military advisers had improved the quality and the discipline of the infantry garrisons of the main towns, so they were able to suppress unrest and fend off assaults.The ruling class was more united and determined to resist further incursions, and the bulk of the population was behind them, fearing victory by the cannibals.The Brazilian cavalry was effective in chasing down raiders, especially when they were burdened by captives and loot. European countries had successfully re-colonised many of the smaller Caribbean islands, where their plantations were thriving, supplying most of their countries needs for tropical produce.Their small naval forces and militia were alert and effective in limiting cannibal raids. They co-operated with the Brazilians on counter-raiding the coastlands and islands and made it difficult for the Mexicans to maintain themselves there after they had eaten the local inhabitants. Some of the less scrupulous Portuguese and Brazilian merchants and seamen had the bright idea of buying blacks on the African coast and selling them to the cannibals, or 'blackbirding' them directly from Brazil, but this did not prove a very profitable trade because they had to pass through areas patrolled by the European naval forces, which were more resistant to bribery than the Brazilians, reluctant to see the Mexicans strengthened, and keen to obtain the prize money awarded for capturing these ships.

Pressure from the Mexicans eased as their raids became less profitable and encountered stronger resistance. Indeed, whilst still ferocious and aggressive, the Mexicans were becoming weaker and subject to internal divisions. The Americans had pushed them far away from their settlements behind a broad cordon sanitaire of worthless deserts and mountains. Many Mexicans had gone south to repopulate Central America and even to establish towns in towns in what had been the north of Brazil, Bermuda, Cuba, Haiti and San Domingo. This gave their enemies targets to attack once they had discovered them. Their raids were just as bloody as the Mexicans's, but better organised. No prisoners were eaten. No prisoners were taken. The Brazilians and the Europeans gradually established naval dominance. They raided the coast of Mexico and drove the Mexicans inland. It was agreed between them that the mainland of South America belonged to Brazil, the islands would belong to the European countries and the Brazilians would help to conquer them. Central America and Mexico itself were tacitly accepted as being up for grabs.It was such a coastal raid that encountered the Americans who had gradually expanded around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

No one in Europe (or Brazil) had wanted to re-discover the Americans. The old Americans had left the most appalling historical reputation. They were thought to have been the most evil and degenerate people ever to have existed and to have spread their evil around the world by force and fraud (that Machiavellian pair). It was rumoured that one of their last Presidents had been an imported monkey, wafted illegally and umconstitutionally into the Presidency by skullduggery and chicanery (that well known firm of Washington lawyers and lobbyists), secretly a convert to Islam who had promoted Islam within America, allowing them to kill Americans and destroy buildings in American cities, whilst sending his troops to harass and torture Moslems abroad. Any craziness was believable of the Americans. Most assumed that the Americans had further degenerated into the Mexicans, and no one wanted to encourage them.

Of course the actual Americans were nothing like so bad as they had been painted. In fact they were surprizingly puritanical. They also maintained a level of Classical education and culture which was now rare in Europe, and completely alien to the current state of the lands where it had originated. They had established or re-established a traditional conservative European society which they fiercely defended from internal and external infiltration, subversion or assault. They were almost Germanically diligent and well organised, and had retained or re-developed a level of technology comparable to the Germans'. They were suspicious of foreigners, haughty, unwelcoming to Europeans interfering in what they still thought of as their hemisphere of the globe. Their fanatical Republicanism made them hostile to the Imperial pretensions of German dominated Europe, although both derived from Roman models.

The finer points of cultural comparison were not explored by those who first came into contact. These were, for both parties, far from the most cultivated or diplomatic members of their respective societies, although they were amongst the most effective in practical dealings with foreigners. The fact that these strangers were well armed and delivered oaths and imprecations in strangely accented English was all the anthropological study that was needed to determine their character and identity.

The second Portuguese age of discovery was neither so extensive nor so intensive as the first had been. The little wooden sailing ships, so like their predecessors, did not go around the globe. They did not go to India, to China, to Japan, to the spice islands. They did not establish fortresses at key points and forcibly take over the commerce of the Indies. There was no need. Arab and Indian traders happily delivered spices and other goods to Basra, where they were trans-shipped to the German railway and steam boat system which efficiently delivered them throughout Europe and the Middle East. Local traders likewise delivered silk, spices and less exotic oriental products to the ports of China, and thence across the railways through China, Russia and Germany.Some Portuguese or Brazilian ships may have rounded the Cape of Good Hope to explore up the eastern coast of Africa, but this was a virtually futile project. Yes, they could re-discover the Portuguese speaking blacks of what had been Mozambique,but those that survived were in squalid circumstances and had nothing to trade, and it was not even worthwhile to enslave them. They could sail to Zanzibar and Pemba in search of cargoes of cloves, but it was no cheaper to do so than to buy them in Lisbon after they had been transported via Basra.

Tenuous as it was, however, the Portuguese connection had been important. In diamonds it had generated the wealth and the means of financing overseas trade in other than fiat currencies, unacceptable beyond their spheres of influence.This enabled a renewed connection between Europe and South America, and the revival of European trade in and production of tropical produce.This interest and correlative military and naval involvement, may just have been enough to have tipped the scales in favour of the survival of Brazil when under attack by the Mexican cannibals. Those were worthwhile, even if unintended, achievements.

By the early years of the fourth millenium, things looked rather different than they had a millenium earlier, and had recovered from the catastrophes that had been inflicted in the early centuries of the third millenium.The Americans no longer dominated the world. Those Americans that survived had renewed the sources of their culture and their social identity and cohesion. They were reluctant to have anything to do with the rest of the world. They were determined, and well able, to protect themselves, and to make use of the resources and opportunities of their continent, or even 'their' hemisphere, but they no longer felt compelled or even inclined to mind other peoples business for them.They could grow or mine all they wanted within their own domains, and had no desire to impose 'democracy' on the world. The Chinese had failed to take over from the Americans as the world straddling Colossus, and they likewise were content to mind their own neo-Confucian business, although less isolated than the Americans from the rest of the world.Russia was still extensive, but less populous and influential than it had been as its oil and natural gas had been depleted.It had saved civilisation by defending Germany and itself from the Israeli missiles, and had then pushed Islam out of it's territory and exhausted itself in helping the Germans to defeat the Turks. It deserved a rest.India was still there, behind the Himalayas, but not the global power that it had expected to become. Brazil we have heard of, and South Africa had long since dissolved into savagery. The BRICS had not been the stuff of long-lasting global architecture. Germany was now the world's strongest power, thrust into prominence by the Israeli destruction of the main cities of Western Europe and the eastern United States, and the subsequent Islamic onslaught.It's revived Empire did not bother to impose itself on the rest of the world. It was the unquenchable valour and superb organisation of its military forces, along with economic and technical superiority and diplomatic adroitness which enabled the renewed Holy Roman Empire of the German People to protect the rest of Europe, and in concert with a revived Russian empire, to halt and reverse the Islamic flood. It had liberated Europe, North Africa and the Middle East from the curse of Islam, and enabled a revival of civilisation in those long oppressed regions. Best of all, Leftism, the great source of disaster for civilised people, had been completely eliminated, burnt out by the great fires of reality. The peoples that it had preyed upon were now cured of this insidious mental disease, all it's carriers were dead, and each culture had safeguards in place against any recrudescence. No doubt evil would again be influential, but it could be expected to take a different form.