A History of Water, Being an Account of a Murder, an Epic and Two Visions of Global History by Edward Wilson-Lee - review by David Abulafia

David Abulafia

Apostate in the Archive

A History of Water, Being an Account of a Murder, an Epic and Two Visions of Global History


William Collins 336pp £25

Edward Wilson-Lee looks for books in unexpected places. His previous one examined the library of Christopher Columbus’s son Ferdinand, partly preserved in Seville and accompanied by a list mysteriously entitled ‘Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books’. Shipwrecks play a part in this book too. One involves the national poet of Portugal, Luís de Camões, born around 1524, who, if he is to be believed, held on to the sodden pages of his great epic, The Lusiads, when his ship went down close to the Mekong delta in Vietnam. The Lusiads, celebrating the world-changing Portuguese conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries, drew heavily on Virgil’s Aeneid, even including a panoply of Roman gods and goddesses, but it described a world far vaster than the Mediterranean familiar to the Romans, embracing the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, and extending beyond Malacca in Malaysia (conquered in 1511) as far as Macau in China (founded in 1557). It did more than any other book to create a sense of Portugal’s divinely directed transformation from a small, marginal kingdom in western Europe to a global empire, ruled by a king who styled himself ‘Lord of the navigation, conquest and commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India’, which, as Wilson-Lee elegantly observes, ‘was less a reality than an aspiration, and a faintly preposterous one at that’.

Into the story of the life of Camões, Wilson-Lee has deftly woven that of the Portuguese polymath Damião de Góis, born in 1502. Damião’s Description of the City of Lisbon and his account of the reign of King Manuel I are still standard sources of reference. The latter was

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