Empire, Portuguese

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Empire, Portuguese

The rise of the Portuguese empire during the sixteenth century still stands foremost in the national consciousness of today's Portuguese. The epic The Lusíads by Luis Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), a romanticized version of the first discoveries, is still very popular. This article discusses the political, military, and commercial driving forces behind the Portuguese expansion in the Atlantic, Africa, Asia, and Brazil, and the decline of the empire in Asia.


Portuguese expansion began in 1415 with the conquest of Ceuta (a city in Morocco) by King John I (1357–1433). His son, Prince Henry (1394–1460), sometimes erroneously called "the Navigator," inherited his father's rights to discover, privateer, and trade in the Atlantic Ocean and leased these privileges to his vassals. Some of them colonized the unpopulated islands of Madeira and the Azores in the North Atlantic. These islands became agricultural sources of sugar and wheat. Other Portuguese, driven by the desire to advance in the ranks of the nobility, as well as by their thirst for gold and the demand for slaves and pepper, accomplished the stepwise discovery of the West African coast.

Table 1 Demography of Brazil
YearPortugueseIndigenous slavesAfrican slaves
15502,0004,000  Few

After Henry's death, King Alphonso V (1432–1481) received papal confirmation of his rights of conquest and mission. He declared a royal monopoly on the trade in gold, pepper, precious stones, civet cats (for their musk), and ivory, but leased the slave trade to private contractors. Under King John II (1455–1495), Elmina (in Ghana) became a center for trade in gold and slaves. John also pushed Portuguese discoveries farther south along the African coast. In 1488 Bartolomeu Diaz (ca. 1450–1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached as far as present-day Mossel Bay, South Africa.


After the 1492 discovery by Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) of the West Indies, the two Iberian nations (Spain and Portugal) agreed in 1494 to divide the world in two halves. With the dividing line running through present-day Brazil (which at that time was still unknown to Europeans), the Portuguese crown would become suzerain over the waters and lands in the eastern hemisphere, the Spanish crown over the west.

King Manuel I of Portugal (1469–1521), in the belief that he was "chosen" to defeat Islam, undertook his imperialistic task with mystic zeal. In 1497 Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469–1524) was sent to discover the Indies and find spices and Christians. Setting out along a course that in the future would be followed by other European sailing traffic to India, and after various friendly and hostile encounters along the East African coast, da Gama arrived ten months later in Calicut on the southwest coast of India. His return voyage took almost a year.

The Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvarez Cabral (ca. 1467–1520), leaving Lisbon in 1500, intended to follow the same route, but when crossing the Atlantic, Cabral sailed too far west and landed in Brazil. One of his ships returned to bring the news of its discovery; the rest of the fleet continued to Calicut.

By the time the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean, it was a thriving trading area, with Arabs and Gujaratis (from Northwest India) as the main carriers of pepper from the south and textiles from the north of India. Arab and Gujarati traders exchanged these goods for East African products, as well as horses, silver, gold, and European merchandise coming through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, or spices from Southeast Asia. India's Malabar Coast was divided into small principalities, with such rulers as the kolathiri of Cannanore, the zamorin (king) of Calicut, and the raja of Cochin. The Malabar trade, mainly pepper, was in the hands of immigrants: Mohammedans in Calicut and Jews and Brahmins in Cochin.

Not surprisingly, the attempts of da Gama and Cabral to buy pepper and other spices in Calicut were thwarted by Muslim merchants. Cabral therefore turned to the raja of Cochin, who was the archenemy of the zamorin and was eager to supply the desired products. On his second voyage, da Gama established a trading post in Cochin, but in Calicut he pursued a policy of intimidation, terrifying the other rulers of the Malabar Coast into expelling the Arab colonists. Da Gama's ruthless behavior toward "enemies," alternating with diplomacy toward the "enemies of the enemies," would set the scene for further Portuguese expansion into Asia.

Upon da Gama's return, King Manuel I widened the scope of his policies, expanding his title—King of Portugal, the Algarve, and Lord of Guinea—to include "the Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India." The closure of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and the opening of trading and military posts throughout Asia became first priority.

Manuel's first viceroy of India, Francisco de Almeida (ca. 1450–1510), erected forts at Sofala, Kilwa, and Mombassa on the East African coast. His son Lourenço (d. 1508) established the first Portuguese treaty with one of the kings of Sri Lanka, promising protection against the king's enemies in return for tribute in the form of cinnamon and elephants.

Almeida's successor, Afonso de Albuquerque (ca. 1460–1515), a great believer in Manuel's imperialism, captured the island of Socotra (off the coast of present-day Yemen), hoping that it would be a suitable base from which to block the Red Sea trade to and from India. However, Socotra was too far away to effectively control traffic through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb. Another attempt in 1513 to close the Red Sea with an attack on Aden failed, and the flow of spices to Europe via this route did not stop until 1610, when the Dutch were able to undercut pepper prices in the Mediterranean.

In 1510 Afonso de Albuquerque captured Goa, a state on the west coast of India, which was to become the capital of the Portuguese State of India. In 1511 he took Malacca, the center of trade between South Asia, the Far East, and the Indonesian Archipelago. And in 1514 he managed to capture Hormuz, thereby gaining control over the traffic from the Persian Gulf. Thus, within fifteen years, a chain of military settlements was established that was expected to maintain control of sea traffic and to demand payment of license fees and excise duties.

However, after his death in 1515, Albuquerque was succeeded by Lopo Soares de Albergaria. Albergaria, who was in favor of free trade, set in motion the opening of the Asian seas to Portuguese private military and commercial initiatives, in total opposition to the centralism of Albuquerque.

The discovery in 1521 of the Philippines and the Moluccan spice islands by Ferdinand Magellan (ca 1470–1521), who sailed under the Spanish flag and made the awesome voyage through the straits that bear his name, caused the Portuguese to push further east and build a fort on Ternate, which was later relocated at Amboina (Ambon). In 1529 the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V (1500–1558), sold his rights in the Moluccas to the Portuguese crown, and the demarcation line with the Spanish hemisphere on that side of the globe was established east of these islands. As a result, the Portuguese believed they had the right of access to the Philippines, China, and the western part of the Japanese island of Honshu. However, the Spaniards refused to leave the Philippines, and after 1571 Manila became their gateway for imports from China and Japan and for the export of South American silver to Asia.

In 1534 Diu and Bassein (both in Gujarat, northwestern India) were added to the official Portuguese Empire, and in 1543 the Indian provinces of Salcete and Bardez were added. However, Portuguese private interests went far beyond the reach of state officials. Although sea captains sometimes played the roles of diplomats and ambassadors between Goa and the indigenous rulers of the ports, they also sometimes assembled their own private armies to support their demand for trade or booty. Many Portuguese who had originally come as soldiers escaped from the control of the Portuguese state to become embedded in the local economies and trading networks of the Coromandel Coast, the Bay of Bengal, the Indonesian Archipelago, and the Far East. Futhermore, although their mission was financially dependent on Goa, Portuguese religious orders acted independently and spread their nets widely all over Asia.

In 1543 the Portuguese made their first appearance in Japan, and their Jesuit mission became particularly successful. In 1549 the Ming imperial court of China prohibited the Chinese from trading overseas and the Japanese from entering China. This gave Portuguese merchants the chance, with the Jesuits in Japan as intermediaries, to establish a monopoly in the exchange of Chinese silk, gold, and porcelain for Japanese silver. After 1557 Macao (on the southern coast of China) became a center of Portuguese private trade and missionary activity.


The contrast between Brazil and the countries the Portuguese encountered in Asia could not have been sharper. The land had no proprietors, money did not exist, birds' feathers were the main form of wealth, and many of the tribes were cannibals. In the early 1530s the Portuguese crown began to dispense land in the form of hereditary captaincies to people it wanted to reward. As a result, Brazil became a settlers' colony, with plenty of room for private enterprise, including the hunting of Brazilian Indians to work as slaves on the plantations. In addition, the Catholic Church found a wide-open field for missionary activities.

In 1533 large-scale sugar cultivation was introduced in Brazil. The Indian slaves who performed the heavy work were in the course of time replaced by African slaves shipped from the coasts of Guinea, Congo, and Angola. In Congo, conversion of the local king and his sons to Christianity was a convenient inroad into the slave trade. Business in Angola was contracted out to private entrepreneurs. As a result, freight traffic on the Atlantic became triangular: from Lisbon to Congo or Angola with brassware and textiles that had been bought in Antwerp, from there to Brazil with slaves, and from Brazil back to Lisbon with sugar.

Until the discovery of gold in the 1690s the further development of Brazil remained closely connected to the production of sugar, which in turn was dependent on the availability of black labor. By the end of the sixteenth century, Brazil was replacing Madeira in the sugar market. In 1600 there were about thirty thousand Portuguese living in Brazil; by 1612 this number had grown to fifty thousand. In contrast, from Hormuz to Macao, there were not more than sixteen thousand people who considered themselves Portuguese at that time.


The king of Portugal controlled the building and equipage of ships for the Carreira da India (the Portuguese passage to India), as well as their navigation and trade, but others were allowed to share in this monopoly in exchange for a quinto (one-fifth) of the value of the merchandise brought back to Portugal.

Table 2 Growth of sugar industry in Brazil The Gale Group
YearNumber of millsProduction (metric tons)

Fleets of carracks and caravels would leave Lisbon annually by the end of March, arriving in Goa between September and November. Their cargoes consisted of people, arms, artillery, and other necessities to maintain the Portuguese presence in Asia, as well as silver and gold to buy merchandise for the return voyage. The return cargoes included pepper and other spices, cotton and silk, indigo, opium, camphor, furniture, ivory, gold jewelry, precious stones, Bahrain pearls, Persian silk and carpets, and porcelain and other Chinese products. Most of these goods were brought to Goa via established indigenous trading systems, which included the use of cáfilas, large fleets of small indigenous ships that had previously navigated along the west coast of India, but now sailed under the protection of the Portuguese maritime fleet after payment of a license fee (cartaz).

The crown organized "royal voyages" to areas where the Portuguese State of India had little or no control over local traffic. Most famous was the annual Great Voyage from Goa to Japan and back, with stops in Malacca (Melaka) and Macao. Other royal voyages traveled from Goa, Diu, and Cochin toward Coromandel, Bengal, Arakan, Pegu, the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, and the Indonesian Archipelago.

Because of the monsoon, the return vessels of the Carreira da India had to leave Goa before mid-January. The time available for carrying out repairs and loading cargoes was therefore relatively short, and late departures, bsad maintenance, and overloading caused many ships to wreck during the return voyage, making the Carreira a high-risk business.

The Crown's Withdrawal. The participation of the Portuguese crown in Asian trade diminished during the 1570s. Not only were Portugal's royal voyages to Asia now leased in the form of concessions, but beginning in 1575 the Carreira da India underwent significant changes as German and Italian merchants were awarded contracts for its financing, operation, and pepper sales.

During the mid-1590s Portuguese New Christian merchants (descendants of Jews who by the end of the fifteenth century had been converted to Christianity) replaced the German and Italian merchants. Private merchandise, in particular cotton and silk, represented the major share of the value of their cargoes. In 1629 these financiers of the Carreira were allowed to leave Portugal to become moneylenders to the Spanish crown.

An attempt was made to establish a Portuguese East India company, but the project was abandoned in 1633. By that time the shipping volume leaving Lisbon was less than half of what it had been earlier.

Portuguese Decline in Asia. The decline of the Portuguese Empire in Asia is often attributed to corruption by Portuguese officials, the preference for South America within the Spanish House of Habsburg that ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640, or simply Dutch and English aggression. However, from the early 1620s the Portuguese State of India lost control of events mainly because of major indigenous political changes in Asia, such as the expansionist wars of Shah Abbas (1571–1629) of Persia (Iran) and of the Mughals in India, as well as the formation of a centralized state in Japan, which the English and the Dutch took advantage of.

Low supplies of pepper and spices to Europe during the 1590s incited both the English and the Dutch to go and buy it for themselves. Besides trade, the Dutch United East India Company, established in 1602, aimed to thwart the Portuguese and Spanish, both of whom were under the reign of Philip II (1527–1598), the archenemy of the Dutch. As a result, Dutch shareholders had to wait until the early 1630s before their investments were fully honored.

In 1605 the Dutch United East India Company occupied the Portuguese fort at Amboina, and the Spanish took over the remaining Portuguese positions in the Moluccas. Portuguese merchants fled to Makassar (a port on Sulawesi in present-day Indonesia), where they continued their spice trade. Several Dutch attempts to conquer Malacca failed, and Dutch privateering in the South China Sea and blockades of Goa met with scant success.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century, political changes in India brought new rulers who abolished existing contracts with the Portuguese and were looking for trade with European newcomers. For example, in Kanara on the southwest coast of India, where political and territorial divisions had enabled the Portuguese to obtain the lowest prices for rice, wood, and pepper, the Nayaks of Ikkeri gradually expanded their territory and absorbed the smaller principalities. Their next step was to contact the English for the sale of pepper, and to play them off against the Portuguese.

The textile and indigo trade of Gujarat was the backbone of the Portuguese monopolistic cartaz system. In 1612, however, the Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569–1627), the successor of the conqueror Akbar (1542–1605), allowed the English to establish a trading post in Surat, and in 1620 a similar concession was made to the Dutch. Further Mughal expansion led in 1632 to the conquest of Ahmadnagar, which brought the Portuguese forts at Chaul, Bassein, and Daman under Mughal protection. In 1637 the English and the Dutch set up factories in the neighboring state of Bijapur. However, the most serious blow to the Portuguese State of India, both in terms of finances and prestige, was the conquest in 1622 of Hormuz by Shah Abbas of Persia, who thereafter allowed English and Dutch companies to establish trading posts in Bandar 'Abbas, the port of Isfahan (in present-day Iran).

During the second decade of the 1600s, the increasing number of Christians in Japan (some 222,000 in 1609) came to be seen as a political threat for the ruling class. Harsh persecution of Christians and the expulsion of Portuguese missionaries were followed by a ban on both Christianity and Portuguese ships in Japan. The Japanese authorities allowed the Dutch to stay, however. The Dutch factory on the Japanese island of Deshima remained Japan's only window to the Western world until well into the nineteenth century.

In 1636 the Dutch initiated a strategic siege of Malacca, along with seasonal blockades of Goa. Simultaneously supporting the Sri Lankan king of Kandy against the Portuguese, in 1640 the Dutch traders obtained access to the cinnamon trade in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese surrendered Malacca in 1641.

In China, the Manchu emperor's entry into the palace of Beijing in 1644 marked the beginning of the Ching dynasty. Under the Ching, Canton (now known as Guangzhou) became a free harbor for foreign trading companies, although Macao remained an important point of departure for Portuguese merchant fleets.

Another remainder of the Portuguese State of India was East Timor, which, after being ruled by a Dutch renegade and his descendants, was left in Portuguese hands in 1694.

The restoration of the Portuguese crown under the Bragança (Braganza) family in 1640 brought peace in Europe. However, the Anglo-Dutch conflicts of the 1650s and the rumor that the Portuguese might allow the English India Company free access to Portuguese possessions in Asia provoked the Dutch to capture the Portuguese settlements in southern India and Sri Lanka. Portuguese civilian communities in such places as Goa, Macao, and East Timor survived, under the Portuguese State of India, for another three hundred years.


In 1621 the Dutch established the Dutch West India Company, which aimed to break the Iberian monopoly of colonization and trade in the New World and along the West African coast. In 1633 the Dutch conquered Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, but an attempt to occupy Bahia failed. In 1637 Governor Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604–1679) took control of the Portuguese city of Elmina in Ghana, a conquest followed in 1642 by the seizure of Luanda in Angola and the island of São Tomé.

After the Portuguese restoration of 1640, however, the Dutch became more interested in trading with Portugal than in expanding their Brazilian colony. The number of Dutch troops in Brazil was reduced, and following a revolt of the Brazilian population the Dutch were only able to maintain control over Recife and a few other sites in Brazil. In 1648 the Portuguese recaptured São Tomé and Luanda, and in 1654 all Dutch troops in Brazil were withdrawn. In the treaty of 1661 the Dutch were indemnified for their loss of Brazil and received the same trading privileges as the English.

see also Empire in the Americas, Portuguese; Portugal's African Colonies.


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