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Not With A Bang But A Whimper

May 2024
4min read

When an empire falls apart the cracks usually can be seen ahead of time. There may never be an actual crash—a moment of final disaster of which, long afterward, men can say definitely: Here is where it all ended. Instead there is likely to be a long period in which things just don’t seem to go right. We may not see the fabric coming unstitched, but we do begin to notice that a good many big jobs are held by rather small men. There is a failure here, a piece of bad luck there, a cumulative deterioration in the way society works. It may not seem like much at the time, but afterward it is clear that what we thought was just a shutter banging in the wind was the noise of the house coming down.

Not without reason, this sort of thing tends to have a morbid fascination nowadays; and an excellent case history on the clinical symptoms which a dying empire can display is provided in James Duffy’s compact little book, Shipwreck and Empire .

Mr. Duffy threads together a string of unfortunate accidents which befell the Portuguese sea-carrying trade in the century beginning around 1550, shows how and why these marine disasters took place, and presently demonstrates that they were not simply an unrelated set of tragedies. They were the fatal symptoms of the slow death of Portugal’s great maritime empire, they took place because the spirit was leaving that empire, and what everybody took for no more than a run of bad luck was actually the process of decay and dissolution.

Portugal had been a great seafaring nation. Her navigators explored the eastern Atlantic, prowled far down the African coast, and at last doubled the Cape of Good Hope; they went on, over seas of wonder and peril, to open the fabled islands of the Far East, and they won for Portugal a maritime empire of remarkable wealth and solidity. The empire was based on places whose very names have magic: Goa, and Macao, the coast of Malabar, Calicut and Mozambique and—a name for the book, if ever there was one—Ormuz. By the middle of the Sixteenth Century this was one of the great empires of the world.

This empire had a glitter and a ring to it, and it had been built by hardy soldiers and by sailors of almost fantastic daring and endurance; but at bottom it was a commercial empire, the merchant followed the explorer—in the very next ship, usually—and the tiny kingdom of Portugal suddenly found itself right in the middle of a rich new trade that was expanding beyond anything men had ever dreamed of. There was gold from Africa, cotton from India, pepper and ginger and cinnamon and the other spices from the coasts beyond the sunrise, the rich fabricated goods of China and all the Orient, pouring wealth into a small country that was almost totally unprepared to handle it. Commerce was not in style, in Portugal. Nobility and bourgeois alike felt above mere trade. The administrative ability required to conduct such a far-ranging empire was lacking; a chronicler of those days, remarking on the enormous distances that separated Portugal from its farthest outposts, remarked that the cities and possessions of empire “are such scattered pieces of the world that the face of the sun would not shine upon them all if it did not travel so many thousands of leagues in its circular journey.”

So while it still seemed most imposing and wealthy, this sea empire began to come apart. The first ominous sign, as Mr. Duffy points out, was in the series of disasters that came upon its carrying trade.

More and more, there were shipwrecks. A tall, fullbreasted ship would clear from some Oriental port, so deeply laden with goods that crates and bales would lie on the open deck, listing crazily as likely as not because the urge to stuff all possible merchandise into the hold had prevented proper stowage. It would drop down across the Indian Ocean, come up to the stormzone around the southern tip of Africa, and then would run into trouble, with a crash landing on the east African coast as a probable climax. Ship and cargo would be lost, and after weeks or months a few survivors would come straggling back to some lonely African seaport to await passage home, telling a tale not merely of tragedy but of the collapse of seamanship, of morale and of society itself.

For in these shipwrecks the naked law of survival for the strongest prevailed. The captain was rarely the last man to leave the sinking ship; as likely as not he was the very first, accompanied by his officers and the most important passengers. Sailors and slaves and ordinary seafarers might drown by the score and the hundred, but the powerful and well-armed would somehow get ashore. A ship carrying hundreds of people might have just one lifeboat; when wreck occurred the officers and the most favored passengers would get in it and go away, tossing overboard any lesser mortals who encumbered the craft, fighting for self-preservation with a ruthlessness that defied all of the great traditions of the sea. Once ashore, with a jungle march of hundreds of miles lying ahead, the weak would simply be discarded. Men who could buy or fight their way through might survive; the others would die, and no one gave them a second thought.

Mostly, these shipwrecks were avoidable. The Portuguese knew how to build fine ships for overseas voyages, and they had good men to sail them; the trouble was that unseaworthy oversized vessels (hastily built, and hence poorly built, because time meant a great deal of money) were preferred because more cargo could be crammed into them. The homeland kingdom was so over-extended that its stock of good seamen was running thin. The skipper had little to say about how his ship was loaded or when it should sail. Laws intended to make navigation safer were gaily disregarded. The individual merchant was all-powerful; nothing mattered but his desire to have a ship carry the last ounce of cargo that could be got aboard, even if part of it (as very often happened) had to be tossed overboard in the first mild gale of wind.

So there developed a sad history of shipwrecks, and a whole Portuguese literature dealing with them, and it is with these stories that Mr. Duffy is concerned. He tells some fine tales of marine disaster here, but he is not primarily out to spin a set of hair-raising tales. He is actually tracing the decline of an empire. This sea trade fell into tragedy, he remarks, because of the extent to which “the moral stamina of the Portuguese had diminished. Shipwreck was one dramatic manifestation of a general decline.” The great sea empire was coming apart, even while it seemed to be at its zenith. There was no sudden crash; just a chain of accidents, with greed and recklessness replacing the great skill and daring of the old days. All anyone could see was a series of shipwrecks, but a society was in decay. The world does sometimes end, not with a bang but a whimper.

Shipwreck and Empire , by James Duffy. Harvard University Press. 198 pp. $4.

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