Saturday 10 August 2019

The View of Battle

I have written before about the Portuguese naval empire, which extended from Africa to Asia and Brazil. It is, I think, an interesting and under-exploited resource for historical wargaming, perhaps particularly in the seventeenth century when the Dutch and then the English started to muscle in on the Asian trade routes.

It is also probably reasonably widely known in wargaming circles that the crowns of Portugal and Spain were united from 1580 to 1640, or thereabouts. This was due to the unfortunate results for Portugal of the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578, when Sebastian the king and his army were crushingly defeated in North Africa and Sebastian himself was killed, leaving no heir aside from an elderly cardinal and King Phillip II of Spain. After a brief battle and the failure of the English and Dutch to intervene effectively, the crowns were united.

In actuality, the union of the crowns had fairly little effect immediately on the running of either Empire. In the longer term, however, it did, at least as far as this article suggests.

Dantas da Cruz, M., 'From Flanders to Pernambuco: Battleground Perceptions in the Portuguese Early Modern Atlantic World', War in History 26, no. 3 (2019), 316-341.

The argument is that the Portuguese view of warfare was mediated by the struggle against Islam. The Portuguese had been heavily involved in the Reconquista and this, as with the Spanish, affected their view of which battles were worthy of being fought. To start off with, North Africa was the place to be. It was from there that honour, glory and royal gifts derived. A later apologetic historian noted that King Sebastian was not doing anything different from his royal predecessors and their crusading zeal. The rest of the empire was, broadly speaking, founded on private enterprise and trade and was, thus, less worthy of royal largesse.

This view changed with the union of the crowns. It could hardly not, of course, and the union itself had a sizeable impact on European history. For example, Portuguese ships served in the Spanish Armada. In fact, it is a little doubtful whether Spanish resources, significant as they were, could have launched such an expedition on their own. But the point here is that the Portuguese were now embroiled in military activity outside their own usual sphere of activity. The needs of the Portuguese Empire was being subordinated to that of Spain.

This subordination became a problem when the Eighty Years War resumed in 1618. With increasing Dutch naval activity across the world, the Portuguese possessions soon found themselves under attack as being part of the Spanish Empire. The war was projected globally, a reasonable candidate for a ‘First World War’. The Portuguese Empire, under resourced in Asia, shrank there and became more focussed on the Atlantic, but was also under attack there.

In 1624 the Dutch seized Salvador de Bahia, the capital of Portuguese Brazil. This was of strategic importance not only for the Portuguese but also for Spain as Brazil was seen of an outpost to protect Spanish America. Thus the biggest military expedition to cross the Atlantic was organised: 56 ships, 12463 troops. Whereas before Brazil, having not been the site of a native empire which had to be overthrown, had not had much status as a theatre of military operations, it had now become a significant one.

Dantas da Cruz notes that the victory in Bahia in 1625, accomplished by Castilian, Portuguese and Neapolitan troops, became an iconic event in Hapsburg great victories, alongside such things as the capture of Breda. This was in a way which other Portuguese victories at Macao and Goa did not. A further consequence of this activity was that the Spanish government, led by Olivares, suggested a union of arms between all the composite bits of the empire, or at least the Iberian parts. This, however, at least in part, eventually provoked Portuguese independence and the revolt of Catalonia.

The Portuguese military world view changed, Dantas da Crus suggests, between 1580 and 1640. In 1580 Flanders was barely on the map, and the military revolution had scarcely had an impact. After 1580 the ideas of the revolution, at least in terms of martial books on the shelves of aristocrats, came to Portugal, as Portuguese troops were shipped off to Flanders to serve in tercios. The status of service in Flanders also changed; it became a badge of honour and military prowess to have been there, and experienced men with service in the north claimed high honour and position in expeditions to Brazil.

The war in Brazil was, of course, very different from that in Flanders. Some Brazilian veterans considered Flanders veterans to be of little use in their part of the world. European veterans were also reluctant to serve in Brazil. The warfare was ‘skulking’. Defence of Brazil had to be via ambush and canoe, rather than by army and fortress. The settlers knew how to defend it; the military from Europe did not.

To me, this resonates with the European experience in North America. I have on my shelf a book, which I read years ago:

Malone, P., The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics among the New England Indians (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1991).

The argument, as I recall, of this book is similar: the natives used ambush, raid and movement to defend their lands, rather than the European stand-up battle and sieges. The result was, of course, various massacres and atrocities rather than any satisfying, wargame-oriented battles. In this sense, it seems to me, the Spanish were fortunate in encountering an enemy is Central America which had the political centralisation to create large armies that could be defeated in battle. That, at least, gave the incentive to others to try in less well-developed areas.

Overall, I think that the adventures of the early modern Europeans abroad could make for good wargames, but the appropriate measures have to be taken to allow the natives to fight their own way, not impose European categories upon them. I demonstrated a while ago that skirmish based armies can win wargames, albeit if the massed army makes mistakes. But it takes some careful rules writing and scenario setting to achieve it, I think.

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