Portuguese Empire

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The Portuguese Empire (Portuguese: Império Português) was the first global empire in history. It was also the longest-lived of the modern European colonial empires, spanning almost six centuries, from the capture of Ceuta in 1415 to the handover of Macau in 1999.

Portuguese sailors began exploring the coast of Africa in 1419, leveraging the latest developments in navigation, cartography and maritime technology such as the caravel, in order that they might find a sea route to the source of the lucrative spice trade. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India. In 1500, by an accidental landfall on the South American coast for some, by the crown's secret design for others, Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil. Over the following decades, Portuguese sailors continued to explore the coasts and islands of East Asia, establishing forts and factories as they went. By 1571, a string of outposts connected Lisbon to Nagasaki along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This commercial network brought great wealth to Portugal.

Between 1580 and 1640 Portugal became the junior partner to Spain in the union of the two countries' crowns. Though the empires continued to be administered separately, Portuguese colonies became the subject of attacks by three rival European powers hostile to Spain and envious of Iberian successes overseas: the Netherlands, England and France. With its smaller population, Portugal was unable to effectively defend its overstretched network of trading posts, and the empire began a long and gradual decline.

Significant losses to the Dutch in Portuguese India and Southeast Asia during the 17th century brought an end to the Portuguese trade monopoly in the Indian Ocean. Brazil became Portugal's most valuable colony until, as part of the wave of independence movements that swept the Americas during the early 19th century, it broke away in 1822. Portugal's Empire was reduced to its colonies on the African coastline, which were expanded inland during the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, East Timor, and enclaves in India and Macau.

After World War II, Portugal's leader, António Salazar, attempted to keep what remained of the pluricontinental Empire intact at a time when other European countries were beginning to withdraw from their colonies. In 1961 the handful of Portuguese troops garrisoned in Goa were unable to prevent Indian troops marching into the colony. Salazar began a long and bloody war to quell anti-colonialist forces in the African colonies. The unpopular war lasted until the overthrow of the regime in 1974. The new government immediately changed policy and recognised the independence of all its colonies, except for Macau, which by agreeement with the Chinese government was returned to China in 1999.

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