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The Portuguese Colonial Empire

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The Portuguese Empire is a collection of overseas territories that were colonized by the Portuguese from  the 15th to the 20th century. The precondition for the formation of the Empire was the enclosed nature of Portugal, surrounded on all sides by the Spanish kingdom. The great geographical discoveries of the late fifteenth century, the activities of the Portuguese nobility and trade elites led to the creation of the largest sea empire forthe next several centuries.


Great interest for geographical research, combined with the development of technology in navigation, and the desire of Portuguese merchants for the goods of the East gave birth to Portuguese expansion and discovery.

After the capture of Ceuta in 1415, Infante Henry the Navigator (the key player in the formation of the Empire) began to send sea expeditions to the south along the west coast of Africa. The first voyages did not bring the revenue for the treasury, but soon the ships, returning to Portugal, began to bring gold and slaves from the African coast, and thus, interest in further voyages increased more and more.

However, upon Henry the Navigator’s death in 1460, the Portuguese did not even cross the equator, reaching by that time only the coasts of Sierra Leone and opening a number of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, including the islands of Cape Verde. After that, the expeditions ceased for a while, but were soon resumed again (the king perfectly understood how important it was for Portugal to open new lands). Soon the islands of Sao Tome and Principe were reached, the equator was traversed, and in 1482-1486 Diogu Kan discovered a large section of the African coast south of the equator. At the same time, expansion continued in Morocco; and on the Guinean coast, the Portuguese actively installed fortresses and trade posts.

In 1487, King João II sent two officers in search of the “country of spices”. One of them managed to reach India; but on the way back, learning that his companion had been killed in Ethiopia, he went there and was detained. However, he managed to convey to his homeland an account of his journey, in which he confirmed that it was quite feasible to reach India by sea, bypassing Africa.

Almost at the same time, Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope, skirted Africa and sailed to the Indian Ocean; finally proving that Africa does not extend to the South Pole, as ancient scholars believed. However, the sailors of Dias’ flotilla refused to sail further, because of which the navigator failed to reach India and was forced to return to Portugal.

Finally, in 1497-1499, a flotilla of four ships under the command of Vasco de Gama, circling Africa, reached the shores of India and returned home with a load of spices. The task set more than eighty years ago, was accomplished.

Creating an Empire

In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral, on the way to India, deviated to the west and found Brazil, claiming it to the Portuguese Empire. João da Nova opened the islands of the Ascension and Saint Helena, and Tristan da Cunha discovered the archipelago, named after him. In East Africa, small coastal Muslim principalities were liquidated or became vassal allies of Portugal.

The development of the Indian Ocean for Portugal was swiftly progressing: one of the ships of Cabral discovered Madagascar (1501), Mauritius was discovered in 1507, then the Portuguese coasted to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, Socotra was occupied in 1506, then Laurence di Almeida visited Ceylon. The King of Portugal, Manuel I, in 1505, established the title of vice-king of India for the administration of colonies in Asia and East Africa. The first vice-king of Portuguese India was Francisco Di Almeida.

In continental Asia, the first trade posts were founded by Cabral in Cochin and Calicut (1501), Goa (1510) and Malacca (1511), and Diou (1535). Fernand Pires de Andrade visited Canton (1517) and opened trade relations with China, where in 1557, the Portuguese were allowed to occupy Macao. In 1542, three Portuguese merchants accidentally opened a sea route to Japan. In 1575, Paulo Dias de Novaish began the colonization of Angola. In the prime of its power, the Portuguese Empire had outposts in West Africa, India, Southeast Asia.

Iberian Union

In 1580, thanks to the Iberian Union, Portugal joined with neighboring Spain under the rule of a single monarchy. In 1640, the country regained its independence. For 60 years, the Portuguese-Spanish Union had the most intense struggle with a new dynamic maritime power, the Netherlands, for colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In this struggle, the Portuguese had no previous state support. The Spanish monarchs were focused on protecting and expanding, in the first place, the Spanish colonies.

At the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese continued to penetrate deeper and deeper into Asia. Prince Moritz, acting in the interests of the Dutch West India Company, dealt a number of humiliating defeats to the Portuguese. As a result, Brazil was formed into a vast strip of Dutch possessions.

After the dissolution of the union and the restoration of national statehood, Portugal regained control of Brazil and Luanda by 1654; but progressive expansion in Southeast Asia was thwarted by the Dutch. So, from all of Indonesia in the hands of the Portuguese, there was left only East Timor.

The Collapse of the Empire

In the nineteenth century, because of Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal, the empire lost its fleet, and with it much of its wealth and power. Elimination of the Portuguese monarchy by Napoleon and the subsequent loss of Brazil and economic decline led to an end to expansionism and the gradual loss of the remaining colonies.

The Portuguese colonial empire ceased to exist only in 1975, due to the establishment of a democratic regime. In 1999, the official ceremony transferring the Portuguese ownership of Macau to the People’s Republic of China was held. In the same year, the UN formally recognized the loss of the last Portuguese colony, East Timor, whose independence was granted.


  • Scott B. MacDonald. European Destiny, Atlantic Transformations
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