Part of a portrait of Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, painted in 1581 in Goa

I’m at the transition point between completing the big essay on the birth of the Portuguese empire, which I published August 30, and sitting down to plan the next essay in the “Big Western Imperialisms” series, the one on Spain. Astute readers of the Portugal essay will have found some references there to the Portuguese royals’ continuing competition with (and frequent antagonism to) the monarchs of Castile, which was the originating home polity of what would become the Spanish Empire-along with mentions of two moments in the founding of the Spanish Empire, and also of Castile/Spain’s abrupt takeover of Portugal…


A 20th-century mural of Afonso de Albuquerque by Jaime Martins Barata, located at a “Palace of Justice” in Lisbon

In the longform essay on the birth and early decades of the Portuguese empire that I published last week, I referred to the uses the Portuguese conquistadors made of “exemplary terror” as they built their trading-forts-based global empire in the 15th and early 16th centuries CE. Any history of this empire contains numerous examples of such uses of brutality that are extremely shocking. Roger Crowley’s book, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire focuses mainly on the efforts the Portuguese monarchs and the military/naval commanders they employed to establish strongly armed trading posts around the coats of Africa and…


Painting of King Manuel sending Da Gama’s 1497 expedition off from the shore near Lisbon

1492? How about 1415 CE?

If we’re trying to identify the start-date of the era of Western domination of world affairs that is now lurching toward a close, then the very serious moves that Portugal made, long before 1492, to build a colonial empire in West Africa and the mid-Atlantic should surely trump the voyage that Spain’s contract explorer Mr. Columbus made in 1492, in which he landed on islands in the Caribbean that he mistakenly thought were “the Indies”.

In most of the popular historiography in the West, Columbus’s “discoveries” of 1492 occupy pride of place, supplemented more recently…


Projected food insecurity in Afghanistan

If you followed most US corporate media coverage you might believe that (1) the only important news in Afghanistan today is what’s happening in and near Kabul airport; (2) all “sane” Afghans want to leave their country; and (3) the best way Westerners can help is by bringing these people to our shores and integrating them here.

Take a deep breath. None of these things is true.

Afghanistan’s population is 39 million people. Maybe 100,000 of them are currently seeking to leave the country. Since dozens of well-funded aid agencies (and the US military!) are currently helping these people to…


(A Twitter thread by @helenacobban)

Can we say that what is happening in #Afghanistan is the #EndOfAnEra? Yes, in many different ways… (thread) >

First, it’s the end of this 20-year era in US/world politics bracketed by 2 searing, much-photographed incidents that each involved (a) airplanes & (b) desperate people falling out of the sky. >

So we can say it’s the end of this era of the US’s attempt to invade & then completely control/remake #Afghanistan. Many Americans (solipsistic, as usual) compare this solely to #Vietnam1975. However, >

The chaotic nature of the US departure from #Afghanistan has a *lot* in common with numerous…


The Portuguse carrack (gunship) Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai

What we are seeing in Afghanistan today, in almost real time, is the implosion and final collapse of the imperial project the US launched there in 2001. As with the final US collapse in Vietnam in 1975 or indeed the generally slightly more orderly withdrawal of British troops from India or so many former outposts in Africa during the period 1947–65, what we are seeing is one distinctive aspect of the kinds of long-distance empires that West European and West-Europe-origined empires have been building in continents not their own ever since 1415. That is, their unique “hit-and-run” quality.

1415 was…


I’ve been writing my longform article about the role Portugal played in pioneering the concept, practice, and justifying ideologies of Western empire-building in the past six centuries. (Stay tuned for news on that.) But I’ve been doing a bit of supplementary reading and I came across this quote, from the Preface of A.R. Disney’s A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, Vol.1 (Cambridge U.P.: 2009):


It’s just over a month since a family emergency called me away from the work I had been doing, posting a daily-per-year bulletin here to track the world-historical developments of each of the 500 years since 1520 CE. Such family-crisis interruptions can be very disorienting. But I’ve reached an age/stage in my life where I’ve weathered enough of them to understand that I have the resilience to be able to return to my work afterwards. …


Hi everyone. Last Thursday, June 24, I published the 176th daily bulletin in this project, which covered the year 1695 CE. I had anyway been planning a pause when I reached 1700 CE, but a family emergency called me away from my work so I put the project’s daily bulletins on hold as of last Friday. The next few weeks will, quite predictably, be busy ones for me family-wise, so I shan’t be planning to resume the project any time before mid-August; and even then, I am not yet sure what form my work on it will take. I may…


Depiction of “Jack Avery” plundering the “Great Mogul” on an early 20th-century British, or American, cigarette card

The biggest news of 1695 CE was the capture by a small English pirate flotilla in the Bab al-Mandeb strait of a heavily laden Mughal treasure ship returning to Surat from the Hajj. This event, which seems to have been very well documented from several points of view, including a fairly authoritative Indian one, illustrates numerous facets of the role that piratic looting played in the building of England’s global raiding/trading empire. …

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.

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