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The Portuguese Empire: A Brief History of Portugal Part 1

The Portuguese Empire: A Brief History of Portugal Part 1

by Emily Mudge

Over the course of its years, the Portuguese Empire created countless colonies across the globe. These colonies allowed the Portuguese to trade goods, spread Catholicism, and control native populations. Though the Portuguese Empire has since disappeared, its effects remain. 

Creating an Empire

The widespread, international Portuguese Empire began in the 15th century, but the country was founded long before that. In 1139, the reconquista movement allowed Portugal to “reconquer” the Moorish territory in the Iberian Peninsula. That year marked the foundation of the Kingdom of Portugal.

Although the whole Iberian Peninsula was often referred to as “Hispania,” there was no “Spain” until the other territories occupying the peninsula began unifying in 1479, and no unified king until 1516. Because of Portugal’s 340 year head start, the country was able to begin naval exploration and colonization long before other countries in continental Europe.

Henry the Navigator on the Monument of Discoveries, Lisbon.

Portugal may have been the first truly global empire in history. Prince Henry the Navigator funded and encouraged naval exploration until his death in 1460. He was responsible for the colonization and settling of both the Azores and Madeira, which were almost entirely uninhabited before the Portuguese arrived. Prince Henry also funded numerous expeditions down the African coast. Many recognize his sponsorships as the catalyst that began the Age of Discovery.

By the time of Henry the Navigator’s death, Portugal had made a name for itself as a major explorative power. The country continued expanding its territories in Africa, with the goal of creating a sea trade route across the Indian Ocean.

South America, Africa, and Asia

Explorers for the Portuguese Empire focused heavily on the African coastline. The Portuguese traded for gold and ivory in their African territories, and brought the luxury goods back to Europe. Their successes in Africa helped fund further explorations, and eventually led them to their goal: the Indian Ocean.

After the discovery of the New World in 1492, Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the New World between the two countries. This treaty gave Brazil to Portugal.

Brazil was Portugal’s largest colony in terms of both land size and population. Like other European countries at the time, Portuguese colonies relied on the labor of both natives and slaves brought over from their African colonies. The Portuguese were interested in brazilwood harvested from the rainforest, which they used to create textile dyes. Later, they also harvested sugarcane and mined gold in Brazil.

Statue of Vasco da Gama

In 1497, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama set sail on a groundbreaking voyage. He discovered a sea route all the way to Asia. The early Portuguese discovery of this route allowed the country to monopolize trade routes across the Indian Ocean over the years to come. 

Trade was more important to the Portugese Empire than controlling foreign colonies or spreading religion. The spices they traded for in China and the goods they gained from their African and South American colonies helped Portugal fund its development and further explorations. However, they often used the spread of Catholicism to justify their reasoning for colonizing certain areas, including Brazil.

Brazilian Independence

After Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal in 1808, the Prince Regent of Portugal moved the Portuguese royal court to Brazil. When the former state of Brazil became a Kingdom in 1815, the capital of Portugal was moved to Rio de Janeiro. This was the only time in world history that a territory was the home of its country’s capital.

Dom Pedro IV - Porto - Portugal

Prince Dom Pedro IV in Porto

In 1820, Brazilian constitutionalists forced the Portuguese to move their capital, and their royal family, back to Portugal. However, Prince Dom Pedro returned to Brazil in 1821 to look over the colony. Under pressure from Brazilian leaders, Pedro declared independence from Portugal in 1822, igniting a two year war for independence. In 1824, Portugal surrendered, and in 1825 Portugal officially recognized the Empire of Brazil.

End of the Portuguese Empire

By the time the rest of Europe reached the height of their colonialism, Portugal had lost most of its colonies in Asia and the Americas. The country focused instead on expanding its colonies in Africa. In the late 1800s, the Portuguese Empire had possession of both Mozambique and Angola, and worked to connect the two colonies horizontally across the continent. However, the British Empire had a contrary goal: to connect Cairo to Cape Town with contiguous vertical British colonies. The British then forced the Portuguese out of modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Shortly after, Republican activists in Portugal overthrew the monarchy. In 1910, Portugal became a republic.

Today, the only remaining Portuguese territories are the Azores, Madeira, and the Savage Islands. However, Portuguese is the official language of ten countries: Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Macau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe.