The India Road

Written by Peter Wibaux
Review by Laura Staley

As a small country with a population of less than one million in the 1490s, Portugal seems to be an unlikely candidate to alter the balance of world trade. Yet John II of Portugal forged alliances, sent explorers and spies out into the unknown, and adapted the best technology of his time to map a sea road to India—a trade route bringing spices and precious gems from Calicut to Europe that propelled Portugal to fabulous wealth in the 16th century.

Author Peter Wibaux weaves multiple strands into his story of the mapping of this sea route. Historical characters include John II of Portugal, ruthless and visionary, orchestrating this great venture while scheming to make his illegitimate son the heir to the throne, and his spy, Pero de Covilhã, traveling to Egypt and India, and then to Ethiopia seeking an alliance with the fabled Christian Emperor Prester John. Explorers and mariners Bartolomeu Dias, Pero de Alenquer, and Vasco da Gama also play major parts. Other characters show us the lives of carpenters and sailors, maids and menservants of the day.

This is not a romantic story, the times were not gentle, and Prince John’s trade route cost many lives. But the author manages to capture the leap into the unknown requiring bravery and resourcefulness to survive, the exhilarating launch of a dangerous adventure that could lead to either death or amazing riches. It is an exciting story, and Wibaux does it justice. The descriptions of life on board the ships of the discovery fleet have a particularly realistic feel. A useful addition to the book would have been a map and a character list.