Portuguese Empire

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Portuguese Empire

Type of Government

One of the most powerful of the European colonial empires, the Portuguese Empire was ruled by an absolute monarch. The empire included colonies in coastal Africa, India, Indonesia, China, the Middle East, and South America. Portuguese military garrisons, together with royal governors and viceroys, represented the authority of the Portuguese crown in the colonies. Traditional town councils and charitable societies, modeled on similar bodies long established in Portugal, governed locally and oversaw the details of everyday colonial life.


Portugal’s colonial empire was the first established by a European power. It began in the fifteenth century when Portuguese kings sought trade routes to and from the East Indies. Settlements stretching from the islands off Portugal’s Atlantic coast, across the Atlantic to Brazil, to the trading centers of North Africa, down Africa’s west coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, to Mozambique, India, Malacca, and China would bring wealth and centuries of influence to a small European country.

Portugal was one of Europe’s first centralized states, with established borders in place since the thirteenth century. Its location on the Iberian Peninsula at the far end of southwestern Europe made it a gathering place for wandering tribes and invaders working their way across the continent. Romans, Visigoths, and Celts all found their way to Portugal and joined the indigenous population. Romans established the province of Lusitania there in 140 BC. Roman authority waned by the fifth century AD, and successive invasions by Germanic tribes culminated in two hundred years of rule by the Visigoths.

In 711 the Moors—Muslims from North Africa—conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula (the territory now occupied by Portugal and Spain). In Portugal they concentrated their rule in the south and east of the country, where they married into prominent families and readily took to life in the ancient cities and on the region’s large estates. The so-called Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by Spanish and Portuguese Christians began in the ninth century. Successive battles pushed the Muslims farther south until they were expelled or otherwise suppressed. Moorish influence remained, however, in Portuguese architecture, textiles, and local customs, and many Arabic words were introduced into the Portuguese language.

The initial Portuguese infiltration of North Africa in the early fifteenth century was a natural outgrowth of the earlier Reconquest. Portuguese rulers wished to conquer the Moors militarily on their own soil and thereby spread the Christian faith. Portuguese explorers and monarchs also held the science of exploration in high esteem. Their commercial ambitions required a sea route to the spice trade of the East Indies, something they became especially determined to address in the wake of the initial journey to America by Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in 1492.

Just as they had attracted settlement, Portugal’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts encouraged exploration. The Portuguese Empire began to take shape in the fifteenth century with the 1415 conquest of Ceuta, a Muslim-held commercial center on the North African coast opposite Gibraltar. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), fascinated by Africa by the lure of new trade routes, set in motion a long series of Portuguese voyages and explorations that eventually extended to settlements stretching around the globe.

Government Structure

Despite their wide variety of environments and locales, Portuguese colonies shared many characteristics among their local governments. Depending upon their size and other characteristics, colonies were led by viceroys, governors, chief magistrates, or military garrisons who represented the power of the crown in Lisbon. Local colonial governance borrowed two important institutions from the European homeland. The first, a enado da camara (town council), was eventually established in nearly all of Portugal’s colonial settlements. Its existence offered a continuity that the colony’s transient governors, bishops, and magistrates could not supply. Town councils were generally composed of two to six aldermen, two justices of the peace, and a municipal attorney. Each member retained voting rights. Non-voting members of the council included a secretary, treasurer, market inspectors, ensigns or standard bearers, doorkeepers, a jailer, and an advocate who looked after the interests of orphans and widows. Larger towns maintained a public works official. Many colonial town councils modeled themselves after a counterpart in a particular Portuguese city. For example, the center of Portuguese colonial life in Asia, Goa on the west coast of India, modeled itself on the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Town councils were not mere “rubber stamps” for the desires of senior colonial government officials. Among other duties, they were responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of any local military garrison, for public works such as bridges, roads, fountains, and jails, as well as for policing, public health, and sanitation. The power, prestige, and influence of colonial town councils varied according to time and place, but remained considerable throughout Portugal’s colonial period.

The second institution borrowed by Portuguese colonial settlements from their homeland was misericórdia (charitable brotherhood), whose membership consisted of leading local citizens. Depending on the size of the colony, membership in the brotherhood could vary from less than one hundred to several hundred. The charitable brotherhood was charged to feed, clothe, and shelter those in need, visit the ill and incarcerated, ransom captives, and bury the dead. Both town councils and charitable brotherhoods were established Portuguese institutions that adopted themselves to widely differing locales around the world.

Political Parties and Factions

One of Portugal’s two most important ruling dynasties, the Aviz, took power in 1385 with the reign of King John I (1357–1433) and his English wife Queen Philipa (1359–1415). Their son, Prince Henry the Navigator, inaugurated Portuguese exploration and the Age of Discovery.

The other powerful Portuguese dynasty, the Bragança, gained the throne after a 1640 rebellion against Spanish rule. They and their successors ruled Portugal until the establishment of a republic in 1910.

Major Events

Between 1418 and 1431, Portuguese expeditions explored and colonized the Atlantic islands southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, beginning with the island of Porto Santo, followed by Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Azores. Following colonization, a lucrative sugar trade was established with Europe.

By the death of Prince Henry the Navigator in 1460, Portuguese expeditions had explored the West African coast south to Sierra Leone. In 1481 and 1482, expeditions sent by King John II (1455–1495) established a fortress and trading post at Elmina on the Gulf of Guinea along the central coast of west Africa.

Explorer Diogo Cão (fl. 1480–1486) discovered the mouth of the Congo River on the northern border of present-day Angola in 1482. The African kingdoms of Congo and Angola later sought and formed trading and other alliances with the Portuguese.

In 1488 explorer Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) rounded Africa’s southernmost Cape of Good Hope and reached the east African coast, revealing the long-sought seaway to India. After witnessing Christopher Columbus’s journey to America on behalf of Spain, King John II ordered an expedition to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. It sailed after his death in 1495.

King John II contested the claims of the Spanish crown to all lands west of the Atlantic Ocean. The Treaty of Tordesillas, adopted in 1494, limited Spain’s rights to what lay more than 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The terms of the treaty would allow Portugal’s future claim to Brazil. The Treaty of Tordesillas also confirmed Portugal’s right to exploration of Africa and the seaway to India.

In July 1497 explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524) left Portugal with a fleet of four ships bound for India. He reached Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast the following spring. He returned to Lisbon in 1499 carrying Asian spices and merchandise. The expedition marked the beginning of Portuguese sea trade with the Orient.

In 1510 Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) conquered the territory of Goa, on the western coast of India, and made it the seat of Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean. His conquest of the shoreline along the Straits of Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) in 1511 allowed the Portuguese to become the first Europeans to control the ocean-going trade routes linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. Portugal would lose Malacca to the Dutch in 1641.

By 1542 Portuguese merchants settled at Liampo (Ning-po) in China, and in 1557 Portugal founded what would become its last remaining twentieth-century colonial possession, the colony of Macau (Macao) in the South China Sea.

Fortified trading posts along the coast of East Africa and the gulf shores of India and Ceylon, as well as less fortified settlements from Bengal to China, placed control of the trade with principal spice islands in Portuguese hands. The system was entrusted to a governor or viceroy at Goa on the Indian Coast.

An exploratory fleet, led by Pedro Álvars Cabral (1467–1520), sailed to the coast of Brazil in 1500 and claimed the territory for Portugal. Significant coastal colonization began in 1550. In the seventeenth century, Dutch incursions into northern Brazil proved ultimately unsuccessful and the Dutch were finally expelled in 1654. Portuguese settlement of the Brazilian interior began in the eighteenth century. In 1693 gold and precious stones were discovered in Brazil, and diamonds were discovered in 1728. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were among the most prosperous for Portugal as the country benefited from these resources. Coffee, sugar, woods, cotton, and tobacco also provided significant profits for the Portuguese Crown. In 1815 Brazil was elevated to kingdom status and politically united with Portugal. At the time of its independence in 1822, Brazil was Portugal’s largest, richest, and most populous colonial possession. Afterward, the Portuguese Empire was concentrated largely in Africa, with scattered holdings remaining in India at Goa, Daman, and Diu and in Southeast Asia at Macau and East Timor.


A significant portion of the Portuguese Empire outlasted the country’s monarchy, which was abolished in 1910 in favor of a republic. Substantial factionalism, as well as significant geographical and cultural differences between the north and the south of Portugal plagued the new republic, which was toppled in 1926 by a dictatorship that lasted nearly forty years.

In the 1960s, armed conflicts began erupting in Portuguese colonies, particularly in Africa. The price of responding militarily to each one drained the national treasury and encouraged young men to flee the country rather than be drafted into the army. These overseas conflicts helped precipitate a peaceful coup in 1974 by a group of beleaguered military officers determined to overthrow the dictatorship. In the years immediately following the coup, Portuguese colonies were given their independence, beginning with Guinea, the Cape Verde Islands, and Mozambique. Hoping to prevent bloodshed in the former colonies, some Portuguese politicians launched an unsuccessful campaign for mandatory free elections prior to independence in order to establish a stable democratic government-in-waiting for each former colony. The politicians were unsuccessful. Civil war followed independence in Angola in 1975, and Indonesia forcibly annexed the briefly independent East Timor. After 1976 some 650,000 ethnic Portuguese returned to Portugal from former colonies abroad, mostly from Angola. Their sudden arrival in a country of only nine million strained the already fragile urban infrastructure and economic resources. The Atlantic island groups of the Azores and Madeira, among the first lands colonized by Portugal, are administered as autonomous regions by the national government in Lisbon. The economic, cultural, geographical, and social uniqueness of these first Portuguese colonies is recognized by the national government, which reviews legislation passed by their regional assemblies. In 1999 Portugal relinquished its last remaining colony, the island of Macao, located off the south China coast, to Chinese rule.

Boxer, C. R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415–1825. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Diffie, Bailey W., and George D. Winius. Foundations of the Portuguese Empire 1415–1580. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978.

Russell-Wood, A. J. R. The Portuguese Empire, 1415–1808: A World on the Move. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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