Holy War review

holywarHoly War: How Vasco da Gama’s Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations
by Nigel Cliff Harper (September 6, 2011)
560 pages/Kindle

I really expected this book  to be more about the religious conflicts than the battle for the gold and goodies.  There wasn’t all that much about the religious part of the conflict.   It was mainly about the greed of it.  There was enough that I could see where it was a dual edged sword –  “Give us your jewels in the name of Jesus our savior!”   – “No,  they are our jewels, praise Allah!”

I prefer the first title,  “Holy War: How Vasco da Gama’s Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations”   because it better describes all the “centuries old”  lead time Cliff gives in Chapter 2 and elsewhere.   Cliff’s book is more than just a description of da Gama’s “epic voyages,”   although they seem to take up the bulk of the book so that was a bit disappointing – a diversion from the theme,  imo.

The more recent title,  “The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama”  seems to focus on the adventure story of it all and I suspect that some readers will be disappointed because of the “centuries old” parts.  (heh)

“Both explorers were searching for the same prize— a sea route to Asia— yet Vasco da Gama’s achievement has long been overshadowed by Columbus’s magnificent mistake.”   (pg. 6)

The book describes what I was taught about Columbus and da Gama – Columbus is numero uno and da Gama was an also-ran.  There are some interesting bits about Columbus’ ego about which I’d heard but never read evidence.


“Now that we are returning to the world as it was in their time— a world where all roads lead east— we can finally reset the balance.   Vasco da Gama’s voyages were the breakthrough in a centuries-old Christian campaign to upend Islam’s dominance of the world.   They dramatically changed relations between East and West, and they drew a dividing line between the eras of Muslim and Christian ascendancy— what we in the West call the medieval and the modern ages. ”   (p. 6).

I think this sentence makes Cliff’s aim a bit revisionist.  He almost gets there but,  imo,  because he gets so diverted in the complexities of the voyages,  misses the boat (so to speak).   It’s not ship-wrecked,  but we have only a hull coming in to the shore of the readers’ minds.   (I’m sorry – the keyboard just made me do it.)  I also feel he was diverted by some kind of “blame-game” with most of the fingers pointing toward the greedy Christians and explorers.


When Vasco da Gama managed to steer his little fleet around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to India the world was shaken more than anyone realized. Cliff asserts that for centuries up to that time the Muslims had been taking over the world and its riches and when da Gama showed up to harvest the gold and spices that “balance” tipped into Europe’s favor.

Cliff starts with the dawn of Islam, 610 or thereabouts, in Mecca – he charges through the next 1000 years, spread and difficulties of Christianity, the Crusades and up to the reign of King John I of Portugal when the goal turned to finding riches wherever they were – the Indies. Imo, Cliff spends a bit too much time on the details of da Gama’s visits to India – I’m not all that concerned with what his whole crew wore or whose was wounded where. I was interested in the espionage and the danger. The details of sea travel in those days bored me but the interactions with the local royalty, the search for Prester John, the bewildering presence of Hindus was fascinating.

Overall it’s a much broader view of da Gama and his journeys than what we got in grade school where Columbus was king of the explorers – the others only also-sailed.

Some NOTES >>>> 

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