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Portuguese Empire


Dec 15, 2021

The Portuguese Empire (O Império Português) was, or is, one of the longest-lived colonial empires.

. . . Portuguese Empire . . .

As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca d’antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.

Arms and the Heroes, who from Lisbon‘s shore,
Through Seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the watery waste,
With prowess more than human forced their way
To the fair kingdoms of the rising day:
What wars they waged, what seas, what dangers past,
What glorious empire crowned their toils at last.

—opening stanza of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Luís de Camões, 1572

During the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, the Christian troops followed the Muslims further across the Mediterranean. In 1415, the Portuguese captured the Moorish port of Ceuta, marking the start of the Portuguese Empire. The Portuguese were pioneers in the Age of Exploration, discovering Volta do Mar (lit. “turn of the sea”), a system of ocean currents and prevailing winds in the Atlantic, and striving to improve their shipbuilding and seamanship skills in order to use it. The understanding of the trade winds, and the development of triangular sails capable of crosswind sailing, enabled Europeans to sail across oceans and establish global empires.

Portuguese discoveries and explorations: first arrival places and dates; main Portuguese spice trade routes (blue)

Inaugurated around 1433, the Sagres nautical school, sponsored by Prince Henry, the Navigator (Infante Dom Henrique, o Navegador, 1394-1460), promoted the maritime exploration of the Atlantic Ocean, which led to the discovery of the archipelagos of Madeira and Azores and the reaching of Greenland, Terra Nova, Lavrador and the west coast of Africa. The discovery of a passable route around Cape Bojador by Portuguese mariner Gil Eanes in 1434 was a major breakthrough for European seamanship, of almost mystical significance. After Prince Henry’s death, his pupils continued to voyage further and further, enabling Portugal to begin a major chapter in world history with the New World Discoveries (Descobrimentos) and monopoly over trade between the Orient and Western Europe.

Explorers Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama pioneered the Cape Route to India, as Portugal colonised the Madeira and Azores archipelagos. To consolidate imperial supremacy, Portugal established a chain of fortified military towns and trading outposts that eventually linked in Africa (Ceuta, Canary Islands, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé e Príncipe, Zaire, Angola, Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Mozambique, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Malindi and Mogadishu), South America (Brazil, Caribbean, parts of Argentina and Uruguay), Asia (Hormuz, Goa, Bombay, Macau, Ceylon, Malacca, Phuket), and Oceania (Sumatra, East Timor, Flores, Moluccas, Papua New Guinea, etc), creating an empire covering most of the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and parts of the South China Sea and Southwest Oceania.

A map from 1574 showing the 15 hereditary captaincy colonies of Brazil

The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, in which Portugal and Spain divided up the globe into half, awarded Portugal virtually all of the “Old World” as well as an eastern chunk of present-day Brazil (the line ran from Belém to Laguna in Santa Catarina). For this reason, the Spanish concentrated their efforts on the Western Hemisphere with explorers like Columbus and Magellan attempting to access India by sailing westwards, while Portugal initially largely got Africa and Asia for itself, and proceeded to colonize Brazil.

Additionally, after reaching Japan in the mid 16th century, Portuguese sailors explored vast areas of the Pacific Ocean resulting in 1571, the Japanese port city of Nagasaki being established by the Portuguese and local lords, to handle the new trade demand. The Portuguese also reached the northern part of what is today Taiwan in 1544, and named the island Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island), the name by which it was first known to Westerners. The Portuguese managed to colonise much of northern Taiwan, but this would be short lived due to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1580.

At the 1578 Alcácer-Quibir battle in present-day Morocco, Portugal suffered a tremendous defeat, and young king D. Sebastião was killed. For dynastic reasons, the empire was absorbed in the Spanish Empire, only regaining its independence on 1640.

A colonial war with the Dutch Republic from 1606 to 1663 ended with loss of influence in South America for the Dutch, in southeastern Asia for the Portuguese, and somewhat of a draw in Africa.

The Spanish and Portuguese empires in 1790

During the Napoleonic wars, the Portuguese royal family escaped on British warships to Brazil, setting up the Imperial capital in Rio de Janeiro. King D. João VI stayed until 1821.

The biggest colony, Brazil, became independent in 1822. Uniquely for South America, it became a monarchy, the Brazilian Empire, ruled by D. João VI’s son D. Pedro I, who married archduchess Maria Leopoldina Habsburg, daughter of Austrian emperor Francis II, younger sister of future emperor Ferdinand I and Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, former wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. D. Pedro I returned to Portugal in 1831, to reign as D. Pedro IV, leaving behind his 5-year-old son D. Pedro II to rule Brazil.

The Portuguese empire endured a few decades longer than many other European empires. Goa, Diu, Damão, Dadra and Nagar Haveli were annexed by India in 1961. The Portuguese Colonial War, comprising wars in African countries, came to an end with the Carnation Revolution in 1974, and by then Portugal had lost almost all of its colonies.

Macau was returned to China in 1999, two years after British Hong Kong. This was the first and last European colony in East Asia. Today, the Azores and Madeira islands, at a notable distance from the European mainland, are part of Portugal as autonomous regions, so in a sense the empire still exists. As legacies of this empire, Portuguese culture, language, customs and cuisine, as well as Christianity, were spread globally, and Portugal itself continues to be home to large communities of Brazilians and Sub-Saharan Africans.

. . . Portuguese Empire . . .

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. . . Portuguese Empire . . .