A Brief History of Portugal
Last week we covered the GeoHistory of Spain. But as you could tell, it’s completely intertwined with that of Portugal. You can’t cover one without the other. Their histories are the same up to the 1200s, so you can read about what happened before in A Brief History of Spain. But Portugal has its own interesting challenges after that:
Why was Portugal, a small nation of fewer than 2 million people and light navigation history, the first to discover the passage to the Indian Ocean below the tip of Africa?
Why did it say no to financing both Columbus and the Portuguese Magellan?
Why does all of Latin America speak Spanish except for Brazil?
Why is Portuguese so similar to one of the regional languages spoken in Spain?
Why was Portugal the wealthiest nation on Earth at some point, and why did it lose it all?
Why does it still own, to this day, the most valuable islands in the middle of the North Atlantic?
Let’s complete the picture today!
The Portuguese Exception
It’s 1210. Spain is in the middle of the Reconquista, recapturing the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims.
The Reconquista took 800 years, from about 711 to 1492. During that time, the northern kingdoms gradually expanded southwards. This is why you can see Leon and Castile on this map as elongated kingdoms.
On the west coast, Portugal was an offshoot of Galicia. It became independent from Galicia—as kingdoms frequently did at the time. You can detect that origin in the language spoken there today: Portuguese is very similar to Galician, the local language spoken in Galicia. It makes sense: Galicians brought it south.
But unlike Castile or Aragon, Portugal did not rejoin its northern homeland (Galicia) or merge with its neighbor (Castile). It remained independent throughout the Reconquista. I’ll explain why in this week’s premium article, Why Catalonia Is Part of Spain and Portugal Is Not. The fact is Portugal’s width is determined by its origin, the older region of Galicia; its length is determined by its successful role in the Reconquista against the Muslims. Once Portugal conquered the Algarve in the south, in 1249, its modern shape was settled.
These features made Portugal into a country focused on the sea: Coastal, elongated, and, with its mountains to the north and south, the most viable regions in Portugal were its seaside plains.
Portugal’s Age of Discovery
Exploring the Atlantic
Imagine you’re Portugal. It’s 1249. You’ve been fighting Muslims for 500 years (and a few Christian neighbors too), and this year you finally reach the southern coast after conquering the Algarve region. You’re done with your part of the Reconquista (what would turn out to be a full 250 years earlier than Spain). What would you do with all your conquering impetus and extra energy?
Portugal’s first instinct was to keep doing what it had done best: fighting on land, either against Castile, or against the Muslims. Muslims were out, so Portugal’s last neighbor was Castile. They did go to war, but eventually signed peace treaties, first in 1297 establishing the borders of Portugal to this day, and later in 1411, firmly establishing the peace.
With the continental side of the country settled, it focused on its next most obvious endeavor: crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and attack the Muslims in North Africa. They conquered the African city of Ceuta in 1415.
There were several reasons for Portugal to conquer Ceuta:
It was a key terminus of the trans-Saharan trade routes.
It was one of the closest points across the strait.
Facing the Gibraltar peninsula on the other side of the strait, it’s the other key point to controlling movement between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
Muslims were launching raids on the Iberian Peninsula from there, capturing people and selling them into slavery.
Their victory there reduced raids on Spain, but didn’t capture trade routes, which just moved elsewhere. And continuing down the path of African conquests was harder than Portugal thought: For the same reason that Muslims had a hard time in Spain, Europeans had a hard time in Africa. Extending your support lines across a sea is much harder than over land. So although Portugal kept pushing in North Africa, it had to turn its focus elsewhere. What would you do?
You are at peace with your only neighbor, the Crown of Castile. You’ve learned that attacking the Muslims across the sea is hard. What do you have left? You have nowhere to go but the sea.
Up till then, not a single civilization had seriously focused on the Atlantic. That meant that nobody in Europe knew how to cross the Atlantic. The Portuguese were the first to try it seriously—because they had no other option.
Their first choice when they took to the sea was south to Africa: It was controlled by the Muslims, it had trans-Saharan trade routes, and it was mostly unexplored beyond the region where the Sahara Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. So that’s what the Portuguese did.
The problem was that when boats went that way, they had a hard time coming back. Because of the winds and currents.
Because of the structure of the Earth, winds blow from the Sahara towards the Atlantic Ocean, slightly southwards. Ships that sailed from Europe down the Sahara coast had to go back upwind, all while pushing against the sea currents.
Ships at that time were optimized for the Mediterranean, which doesn’t have such strong and consistent winds and currents. Eventually, the Portuguese invented a new ship, the caravel, to do the job.
Once the Portuguese really understood the winds and currents, they also figured out how to use them. It turned out that the fastest way back home from Africa was not straight to Portugal, but by going first towards the ocean. They called this the “turn of the sea” or volta do mar.
As they got comfortable with the volta do mar, they discovered the islands of Madeira first (1419), and then Açores (1427). For the next few decades, the Portuguese kept sailing south, discovering more and more about Africa and the Atlantic.
Then, in 1453, the luckiest thing happened for Portugal on the other side of the Mediterranean: Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, who forbade Christians from trading in the Silk Road. The Silk Road through the Mediterranean suffered, and suddenly the value of an alternative road to the Indies became extremely high. At that point, the seafaring Portuguese were the best positioned in the world to find an alternative route. They got on with it.
Over the next few decades, Portugal found the tip of Africa—proving that an alternative trade route was viable in this direction—reached the Indies, built trade posts and fortresses along the way, and started milking all these discoveries. This was the beginning of the Portuguese Empire.
The Portuguese were so fast because by the end of the 1400s, they understood the currents and winds of the Atlantic so well that they realized they could do a volta do mar in the South Atlantic. They were right.
In fact, the first time the Portuguese sailed into the Indian Ocean, they didn’t realize they had, because they were traveling too far south of the tip of Africa.
It was during one of these volta do mar that the Portuguese discovered Brazil, independent of Spain’s discovery of America.
Portugal started trading slaves and spices between its colonies and Europe, pioneering the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and America.
Here’s the slavery component:
As you can see in this video, Portugal really pushed the boundaries of slave trading between Africa and America: it was the first to start in the 1600s, and the last to stop in the 1800s.
Over time, the Portuguese built a trade machine across continents that created one of the most fabulous concentrations of—morally compromised—wealth the world has ever witnessed.
Trade Posts vs Colonies
One thing that is obvious when looking at this map is Portugal’s two very different types of colonies: trade posts and full-blown colonies.
The trade posts were all Portugal needed for most of its trade endeavors: They were places where they could trade with locals, control trade routes, resupply their ships, and build some forts for protection. For example, those in the straits of Malacca and Ormuz allowed them to control trade routes, while those in Indonesia provided spices.
Brazil was different: It didn’t have a local economy, so trade with locals didn’t make sense. But exploiting local resources did. Initially, they targeted timber, but later that expanded into sugar, tobacco, and other raw material.
Finally, Angola and Mozambique, in Africa, were just trade posts for the longest time. But during the Scramble for Africa in the 1800s, Portugal jumped on the bandwagon and pushed inland from both.
In other words: For over 300 years, Portugal was a thalassocracy—a country based on a sea network rather than a concrete piece of land, like Greece, Carthage, Venice, Genoa, Aragon, or the Hanseatic League in Europe, or the Chola Empire, Majapahit, or Srivijaya in the Indian Ocean
Portugal and Spain were the biggest winners of the early age of discovery: They were both at the right time, finishing the Reconquista just when a new trade route was needed with the Indies, and the right place, facing the Atlantic.
There was a lot to connect them too: they were neighbors, shared their religion, shared the experience of the Reconquista, and had in front of them a bounty bigger than they could chew. So it made sense for them to split their areas of influence and to barely fight each other over the centuries. They did so in the Treaty of Tordesillas as early as 1494.
But neutralizing Spain as an enemy was not enough. Portugal’s destiny was the same as Spain’s: Its empire could not last.
Unlike Spain, Portugal was cautious to focus on trade and avoid wars of religion and pipe-dreams of pan-European unity. But like Spain, Portugal was completely overextended. The country was way too small to support its empire.
Portugal’s strategy was more focused on trade than Spain’s. Unfortunately, its focus was weaker when picking enemies than trades. Both Spain and Portugal had to face, starting in the late 1500s, the emerging nation-states of the UK, Netherlands, and France. All of them were up-and-coming and had access to the Atlantic.
But Spain’s enemies were limited to that. Natives in America were no threat due to Spaniards’ guns, germs, and steel.
That’s not true of Portugal. African kingdoms were more advanced than American ones—and people in Africa had better immunity against European diseases. But the biggest threat was in the Middle-East and Asia, where dozens of strong empires operated, from the Ottomans to the Chinese. To keep their empire, the Portuguese had to wage wars against the French, the Dutch, the British, the Spanish, the Ottomans, the Mamluks, the Mughal, the Maratha and Omani empires, the Safavids, several sultanates, Morocco, Kongo… All supported by a population back home of just a couple million people.
Portugal was able to stand its ground against most African and Asian enemies, but not against its European foes. As centuries passed and France, the Netherlands, and the UK rose, Portugal dwindled.
This decline mirrors nearly exactly that of Spain: Portugal suffered a continuous downward trend starting as early as the 1600s, suffering its biggest hit in the 1800s with the loss of its American colonies in Brazil. It culminated in the 20th century, when Portugal lost its remaining colonies one after the other.
Portugal’s Present and Future
As the example of Spain made clear, it’s hard to be one of the most powerful countries in the world and then fall. We can see a similar aftermath to this day in other countries: the UK signing up for Brexit to keep its independence while romantically riding alone towards the sun, or Putin holding on to the idea that Russia can still be an imperial power in the 21st century. Portugal, like Spain, has had to accept this new reality and work with it.
Like Spain, Portugal is a country so mountainous that it’s hard to produce and trade locally. Its main options are, like Spain:
To operate as a bridge with its former colonies: with Brazil (20 times bigger in terms of population) or Angola, Mozambique or its former trade posts.
To unite with countries that are similar to it: Spain, and to a greater extent, the European Union.
Like for Spain, hopefully, in 100 years, the children of Portugal will not be taught about the legendary Portuguese Empire that was lost. Instead, they should learn how Portugal is one region within their beloved European Union, a master of global trade. That’s something Portugal understands well.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll certainly enjoy the one about the history of Spain. Or France. And if you want to know more, subscribe to read the premium articles on the topic: Why Catalonia Is Part of Spain but Portugal Is Not? and Why Do 900 Million People Speak Spanish and Portuguese the Way They Do?
In them, we’ll also answer questions like:
What is the historical root of Catalonia’s independence movement?
How come Spain has so many languages, yet only one of them spread over the world to become the 4th most spoken language? Why that one and not another one?
Why is the accent of Spanish in Latin American the way it is?
Why did Spanish kingdoms conquer random places like Athens, Southern Italy, or Corsica?
Why does it have large cities over 2,000 years old, yet its capital, Madrid, was a backwater until 500 years ago?
How come Madrid is now the 2nd largest capital in Europe?
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