Portuguese Empire Research Paper

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The Portuguese Empire was the first and longest lasting of all the empires that western Europeans created. For centuries it provided a forum for an unprecedented variety of cross-cultural interaction, and it owes its longevity to its maritime, trade-based structure.

After Portuguese king Afonso III, who reigned from 1248 to 1279, expelled the Muslims from Portugal, the wars against Islam moved overseas when in 1415 an expedition of glory-hungry Portuguese knights captured—and held—Ceuta, now a Spanish enclave in modern Morocco. That expedition marked the beginning of the Portuguese Empire.

The Empire Expands

Long-standing royal support of maritime activities had culminated in Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator’s promotion of the exploration of the African coast in the new caravel sailing ships rigged with lateens (characterized by a triangular sail extended by a long spar slung to a low mast), which could sail closer to the wind than ever before. By 1435 West African gold was used to reintroduce a gold currency in Portugal, and bases were established on the Gold Coast at Mina (1482) and Axim (1503). In 1498 the explorer Vasco da Gama discovered an all-sea route to India, around the Cape of Good Hope. Two years later the navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral improved the route, avoiding the calm waters of the Gulf of Guinea by skirting the coast of Brazil, which the Portuguese also claimed from Spain under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494).

Commercial and missionary expansion, along with a desire for Guinea gold and an alliance with Prester John (a legendary Christian king and priest of the Middle Ages) against the Muslims, motivated these explorations. As a member of da Gama’s crew explained in Calicut (a city in southern India) to two astonished Spanish-speaking Tunisians, “We have come to seek Christians and spices.” Although King Manuel I’s (1469–1521) assumption of the title “Lord of the conquest, navigation, and commerce of Ethiopia, India, Arabia, and Persia” reflected ambitions more than realities, the monarchy would keep the title for centuries.

1505–1598: Constructing an Empire

A celebrated veteran of the wars against Islam, Francisco de Almeida (c. 1450–1510) left Lisbon, Portugal, in 1505 to serve as India’s first viceroy. He wrested an incomplete dominance of Indian Ocean trade from the Arabs and Muslim Indians by defeating their combined naval forces off Diu in western India in 1509. That year he gave up his office to a Crown-appointed governor, Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515). During his tenure Albuquerque conquered Muslim Goa on the western coast of India to serve as the Portuguese capital, and captured the entrepots (intermediary centers of trade and transshipment) of the strait of Melaka on the Malay Peninsula (1511) and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (1515). Having secured these key straits, the Portuguese expanded their maritime empire with a string of permanent forts along the coasts of eastern Africa, India, and Ceylon, which complemented the sizeable lands acquired along the Zambezi River in Africa and in western India. Portuguese victories came as much from their tenacity and superior firearms as from native rulers’ intramural conflicts and disinclination toward maritime battles that earned them no prestige.

Lacking a relative military advantage in eastern Asia, the Portuguese reached commercial agreements with the local authorities in Bengal and China. Although early relations were troubled, through informal agreements worked out in the 1540s the Portuguese began to lease the Macao Peninsula from the Chinese. Regular trade with Japan began in 1544 and was funneled through Nagasaki after 1569. Ships were required to pay tolls at Portuguese ports. This system gave the Portuguese dominance of the spice trade, the principal source of the empire’s wealth. At century’s end the Estado da India (State of India) stretched from Japan to the Cape of Good Hope. Importation of peppers and other spices, as well as silks and porcelains, affected a trade deficit that was balanced with gold bullion and the profit from the “country trade” between Asian lands. Although Brazilian sugar became the first profitable crop export from the Americas, commerce overshadowed agriculture. Amidst the daunting expenses of empire, colonies still had to import foodstuffs along with manufactured goods.

A typical Portuguese vessel sailing to Goa might carry one or two women for every hundred men, and a Goanese population of mixed heritage soon developed. Albuquerque, in fact, married his men to the local widows created by his invasion. The Portuguese suffered from a labor shortage throughout Asia, and on their merchant vessels a captain and a dozen soldiers (as young as six years old) might be the only Europeans among a crew of African and Asian slaves.

To discharge the universal responsibility that it claimed for non-Christians, the papacy delegated a variety of Church patronage rights to the Portuguese crown. Thus, the Inquisition (a Church tribunal) remained under royal authority, and all missionaries were required to obtain royal approval and to depart from Lisbon. Jealous of its prerogatives, the Crown blocked the development of an overland route to Asia under the protection of the Habsburg ruling house of Europe and icily suggested that unauthorized missionaries be rerouted to Greenland. The mass destruction of Hindu temples in Goa in the 1540s gave away to the policy of denouncing conversion by force even while introducing legal restrictions on non-Christian religions.

When Henry the Cardinal-King (1512–1580) died, his nephew Philip II of Spain pursued an inheritance claim to the Portuguese crown, which he solidified through bribery and an invasion. Philip’s successors did not honor his promises to respect traditional liberties, and Portugal would regain independence in 1640. Although the administration of each domain remained distinct, the territories of the joint crown of Portugal and Spain became the first empire upon which the sun never set.

1598–1663: Portuguese–Dutch World War

Battling for independence from Spain, the Dutch came into conflict with the Portuguese through the Spanish-Portuguese union. Although traditionally trading partners with Portugal, the Dutch challenged Portuguese dominance of the spice trade by seeking spices at their Asian sources. From the Dutch attack on Principe and Sao Tome on the western coast of Africa (1598) to their capture of Portuguese settlements on the Malabar coast of India (1663), the Protestant Dutch and the Catholic Portuguese fought a global war for global trade, not only over the European commerce, but also over the slave trade in Africa, the sugar trade in Brazil, and the spice trade in southeastern Asia. Superior resources and leadership positions awarded for experience rather than social status gave the advantage to the Dutch, although the Portuguese were acclimated to tropical warfare and generally enjoyed greater support from indigenous peoples—a result in part of Portuguese marriage patterns and the efforts of Catholic missionaries. Even in areas occupied by the Dutch, such as Brazilian Pernambuco from 1630 to 1654, use of creolized (hybrids of mixed Portuguese and indigenous languages) Portuguese languages endured. Hormuz was seized in 1622 by Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty of Persia in cooperation with the British East India Company. Melaka, the other vital port in the Portuguese system, fell to the Dutch in 1641 after a long blockade.

1663–1822: Divergences

Dutch victories in Asia shifted the focus of the Portuguese Empire to Brazil, originally little more than a way station for the fleet to Goa. The world’s richest known gold deposits were discovered in Brazil in 1695, causing a gold rush and a shift of population from the coastal areas. During the eighteenth century gold would displace sugar as the core of Brazil’s economy.

After 1755 equally important changes came from reforms introduced by the Portuguese king’s prime minister, the Marques de Pombal. Pombal formed two chartered companies with monopolies on Brazilian trade. He closed Brazilian ports to foreign ships in order to wean the ports from commercial dependency on Britain. A legal equality was announced for whites and indigenous peoples, and in 1763 the Brazilian capital was transferred to Rio de Janeiro. In his pursuit of centralized power Pombal butted heads with the Society of Jesus (whose opposition was perhaps more imagined than real), and in 1759 he had the Jesuits deported from Portuguese territories. For similar reasons universities and printing presses were severely restricted.

1822–1999: Independences and Power Shifts

In Brazil heavy taxes and increasingly rigid controls over the gold and diamond industries, designed to favor the interest of Portugal over Brazil, provokes a series of conspiracies among social elites who had acquired Enlightenment-influenced ideals based on rationalism while studying in Europe. These conspiracies rarely flared into rebellion because of fears that revolt would lead to a slave insurrection.

The French emperor Napoleon’s 1807 invasion of Portugal prompted the prince regent Dom John (from 1816, King John IV) to flee to Brazil under the protection of the British Navy. This transfer of the court marked the first time in world history that a colony housed the government of the mother country, and the Crown favored Brazil with decrees abolishing mercantilist prohibitions on manufacturing and opening its ports to all nations—a move welcomed by the market-hungry British. When an 1815 decree designated the empire the “United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves,” Brazil enjoyed a status equal with Portugal.

The colonists’ enthusiasm for a resident monarch cooled as cheap British machine-made goods flooded Brazil’s handicraft market and as the nobles and bureaucrats who accompanied the court brought new competition for jobs. The spark for independence, however, came from Lisbon, when in 1820 liberal revolutionists demanded the return of the king to Lisbon. He appointed his son Pedro regent and returned to Portugal. Seeking a return to a subordinate Brazil tied to Portugal by a commercial monopoly, the revolutionists demanded that Pedro also return. Pedro refused and, acting on his father’s parting advice, declared the independence of Brazil on 7 September 1822. Thus, a liberal revolution in Portugal triggered a Brazilian revolution more conservative and less bloody than other independence movements in the Spanish colonies at the time.

The Enduring Afro-Asian Empire

Brazilian independence shifted the heart of the Portuguese Empire to Africa, with smaller possessions remaining in western India, East Timor, and Macao. A new policy favored African colonial expansion, which would threaten an alliance with Britain that dated back to 1372. In 1886 Portugal obtained French and German recognition for its claims to a trans-African colony extending from Angola to Mozambique, but British rival claims led to an ultimatum issued by the British to the Portuguese in 1890. Caught between proimperial public opinion and the threats of the British Navy, the ultimatum crisis toppled the Lisbon government. Subsequent agreements with Britain (1891, 1899) recognized existing Portuguese colonies, which covered almost one-tenth of Africa. Throughout their African colonies the Portuguese suffered casualties in campaigns against the Germans during World War I. During the 1920s the League of Nations denounced the forced labor practices that had replaced slavery in Portuguese colonies by the turn of the century.

As minister of colonies, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970) in 1930 announced the Colonial Act, which reemphasized the colonial tradition by centralizing administration and unifying the imperial economy against foreign capital. In 1951 Salazar attempted to deflect anti-imperialist criticism by reorganizing the colonies into the “overseas provinces” of a “single and indivisible” state. The regime increasingly directed investment and white emigration from Portugal to the African colonies, thus worsening racial tensions.


After winning independence from the British in 1947, India began pressing claims against Portuguese enclaves on the subcontinent. Portuguese authorities violently responded to nonviolent resisters crossing into Goa from India in 1955, and diplomatic relations were severed. Indian troops seized Goa, Diu, and Daman in 1962.

Salazar’s enduring opposition to decolonization sparked renewed independence movements, troop reinforcements, and expensive wars in Africa beginning in 1961. General Antonio de Spinola, a veteran of these wars, promoted negotiated self-government as an alternative to continued violence in his 1974 book, Portugal and the Future. A 1975 military coup involving General de Spinola followed in Portugal, bringing independence to Portuguese Guinea. All other Portuguese colonies in Africa became independent the next year. The Portuguese withdrew from Angola without formally transferring power to any of the liberation movements that had been active in the country, and a long and increasingly internationalized civil war began. Nearly 1 million people fled to Portugal from the former African colonies, adding a refugee crisis to the already volatile domestic situation.

On 28 November 1975, East Timor declared its independence but was overrun by Indonesia nine days later.

The last of the Portuguese overseas provinces, Macao had lost its economic role to Hong Kong after 1842 and had declared its independence from China in 1849. Its neutrality during World War II made it attractive to European as well as Chinese refugees, who came in even greater numbers after the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Not until 1984, under pressure from the Portuguese governor, did the majority Chinese population obtain the right to vote. Only in 1987 did China agree to assume rule of Macao: following the pattern established by Hong Kong two years earlier, Macao returned to Chinese rule in 1999 under an agreement preserving local autonomy for fifty years.

As the first and longest lasting of the European empires, the Portuguese Empire is notable for its longevity and for its maritime, trade-based structure. Today Portuguese Creole languages continue to be spoken in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Founded in 1996, the Comunidade dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa (CPLP) unites eight Portuguese-speaking countries to promote the language and to facilitate the cross-border circulation of their citizens.


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