29 January 2020

The Portuguese Empire, First and Last

The Mad Monarchist looks at an oft forgotten Empire, that of Portugal.

From The Mad Monarchist (16 October 2013)

Portuguese Naval Ensign, Vertical bicolour blue-white. Proportion of the fields: 1:2.
 The Portuguese were the first to establish an overseas colonial empire and it was also the Portuguese empire that was the last to fall. It should come as no surprise that it was during the reign of the Kingdom of Portugal that the country experienced its greatest prosperity, prestige and the height of colonial expansion only to see it all come crashing down after Portugal became a republic. Like the history of any colonial empire, it was not always pretty, but the world at large and Europe in particular owes a great deal to Portugal for opening up so much of the world in ways that are ignored or taken for granted today. There were blemishes on the Portuguese record, as with any country, but a few things about the Portuguese colonial empire should stand out. It was driven by faith, commerce and the quest for knowledge rather than conquest and so Portuguese territories, early on, were almost exclusively restricted to coastal enclaves at port cities around the world. Although it is often denied today, many in the local populations Portugal encountered benefited from the establishment of this colonial empire and, finally, when it came to the struggle to maintain the empire at the time of its ultimate fall, Portugal was fighting the good fight against communist expansion with practically no help from the rest of the “Free World”.

After liberating itself from the Moors and making sure the Castilians kept their hands to themselves the new Kingdom of Portugal was soon striking out overseas. In 1415 the first step towards empire was taken when the Portuguese captured Cueta on the north African coast. It did not prove terribly successful and was eventually lost but it was an important first step (today Cueta is a Spanish exclave). Prince Henry, later famous as “Henry the Navigator” played a part in the conquest and he proved to be a driving force in Portugal taking to the seas to explore the African coast. Thanks to his leadership the Kingdom of Portugal became the most dynamic power in the world at that time in the fields of navigation, exploration and cartography. Intrepid Portuguese sailors brought back to Europe the first knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa and later other far flung corners of the world. The islands of Madeira and the Azores were discovered and claimed for Portugal (and they remain Portuguese to this day) and over time Portuguese footholds for trade were established all around the coasts of Africa. The great achievement in discovery came in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of South Africa, proving that the Indian Ocean could be reached by sea. In 1498 the intrepid Vasco da Gama succeeded in reaching India. In time, Portugal established a number of trading footholds around the Indian coast.

In clashes with the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Portugal established bases around the Arabian peninsula and for a time totally dominated the sea trade of the Indian Ocean. Other Portuguese explorers sailed farther, reaching the Indochinese peninsula, the Spice Island of what is now Indonesia, China and finally Japan. In fact, it was the Portuguese who first brought two great gifts to the shores of Japan; Christianity and firearms. The firearms were accepted more readily than Christianity was. In time, the only Portuguese colonial possessions remaining in East Asia would be Macau on the coast of China and half of the island of Timor. However, for some time Portugal held a near total monopoly on trade with the spice islands and this produced immense profit for Portuguese merchants and in large part because of this the Kingdom of Portugal became one of if not the most fabulously wealthy country in Europe. And, although Portuguese colonial focus was mostly on Africa and Asia, the newly discovered continents of America did not escape attention either.

It was in 1500 that the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral landed on the coast of Brazil and claimed it for King Manuel I. As the name suggests, brazilwood was initially the most attractive resource of the region but, in time, Brazil would become the largest and most prominent Portuguese colony in the world, covering an area not much smaller than the continental United States for comparison. Sugar cane plantations were later established and provided the economic backbone of the colony. Of course, mention must also be made of the fact that these were labor intensive industries and to provide that labor the Portuguese important large amounts of Africans from their ports on that continent to provide the slave labor that made the colony prosper. The slave trade itself was big business for Portugal and it was an extremely brutal affair. Yet, at the same time, while the treatment of slaves was often extremely cruel, the Portuguese did not hold themselves above the Africans as was often the case elsewhere. Although many Portuguese colonists came to Brazil, most were unmarried men and Portuguese women were reluctant to settle in the colonies. As a result, many Portuguese men married and had children with African women which resulted in the largely mixed-race population of Brazil today.

Relations with the natives in Brazil were also not always friendly but the Jesuit missionaries who arrived made a great effort and endured immense hardship to learn the native languages, understand and appreciate their culture and convert them to Catholicism. As was also the case elsewhere, these missionaries proved to be great champions of the natives when colonial officials wished to enslave them. They were not always successful, but they stood on moral high ground and made eloquent arguments in defense of the natives. Similar clashes occurred between missionaries and colonial officials in the Spanish empire and, for a time, the colonial holdings of Spain and Portugal were brought together when the King of Spain became the King of Portugal as well. The Portuguese empire covered a wider area than that of Spain but the Spanish held much more territory and colonial populations which resulted in the opening of extensive new markets for Portuguese merchants and traders because of the union. It also, at least for a time, helped ward off the attacks on the Portuguese colonial holdings by other powers such as The Netherlands and Great Britain. Eventually the Dutch gained control of the Spice Islands away from Portugal, took control of the coast of Ceylon and became the only western country with a lasting trade agreement with Japan. By the time Spain and Portugal separated, the colonial holdings of Portugal had been greatly reduced.

The biggest blow to the Portuguese empire was the loss of Brazil in 1822. This came about for a number of reasons; the example of the United States of America, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the increase in status when the Portuguese Royal Family relocated to Brazil during the period of French occupation and the desire of Brazil not to lose that status when the King returned to Lisbon. However, it was at least a peaceful separation and the ruling family of the new Empire of Brazil came from the Royal Family of Portugal. Still, it was a consequential loss for Portugal and in an effort to recoup some of that loss the Kingdom of Portugal began to consolidate and expand those Portuguese colonies that still existed. In Asia the Portuguese footholds were surrounded by lands controlled by the Dutch, British or Chinese so this expansion was mostly limited to Africa. The largest Portuguese holdings were what is now Angola and Mozambique. Originally, the Portuguese planned to link these two colonies which were on the west and east coasts of Africa and so launched expeditions into the interior of Africa. However, this put them at odds with their longtime allies in Great Britain and, in the end, it was the British that secured control of the territory between the two Portuguese colonies.

Conditions in the colonies were not always ideal but things were not much better in Portugal itself as the kingdom faced a number of problems. Corrupt politicians and power-hungry rabble rousers ultimately succeeded in creating problems and profiting by them, bringing down the Portuguese monarchy in 1910. For the time being though, the Portuguese government assumed that the empire would continue to exist. Things were not perfect but the Portuguese colonies had long been quite different from some others in the neighborhood. Slavery was abolished, over time, throughout all Portuguese possessions. First the enslavement of Chinese persons was banned in 1624, then slavery in Portuguese India was banned in 1761. In 1774 King Jose I outlawed bringing slaves to Portugal and ordered that all African children born from that time on would be free. In 1777 slavery was abolished in Madeira, the slave trade was outlawed in 1836 and in 1869 slavery was finally abolished in all Portuguese African colonies. Britain and France had done the same but what set the Portuguese colonies apart was how little racial bigotry was reflected in law. Of course, wherever there are differences there will be problems but the Kingdom of Portugal had shown no prejudice against a mixed race population and there was very little segregation in Portuguese Africa. The Portuguese colonies were considered to be part of Portugal itself and everyone in them, whether Portuguese, African or a mixture of the two were considered equal or in the process of becoming equal.

The Portuguese empire eventually fell due to communist subversion. This was certainly true in Africa where it prompted a long and costly colonial war against the communist rebels who were backed by the Soviet Union but even in India when the newly independent India launched a massive attack on the Portuguese cities it was with the support of the Soviet Union. The Soviet dictator was even in India at the time, cheering them on. Antonio Salazar, then ruling Portugal, ordered the Portuguese troops in India to fight to the last man (though they were outnumbered better than 10 to 1) but after some initial clashes they nonetheless surrendered fairly quickly. Africa was a different story as the colonial war there went on for about a decade until the economic strain brought down the corporate state in Portugal itself. Rebel forces were backed by the USSR, Communist China and even many do-gooder groups and useful idiots in the west who often had communist or at least socialist sympathies of their own. In Mozambique it was FRELIMO that led the fight and established a Marxist dictatorship over the country after Portugal conceded independence to them. The party has remained in power ever since.

In Angola the Portuguese forces were opposed by pretty much everyone except South Africa with both the United States and the Soviet Union (plus Red China, Cuba and the rest of the gang) supporting various rebel factions in their effort to ensure that the winners would bring Angola into their own sphere of influence. It probably did not help that Portugal was ruled by a corporatist regime that tended to look down on the extremes of both capitalism and socialism so it was almost equally disliked by both the United States and Soviet Union. In the end it was the MPLA that emerged victorious when Portugal gave up the fight. Again this was a Marxist movement that has held dictatorial power over Angola ever since which has been accused of numerous human rights violations. Portuguese Guinea was fought over in a war that lasted from at least 1956 to 1974 when it gained independence as Guinea-Bissau. It was the worst of all the fronts in the colonial war. The winner there was the Marxist-socialist African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde which of course became the only legal party afterwards and held power until the 1990’s. It has a GDP among the lowest in the world and is so chaotic that no elected president has ever served a full term in office. In other words, just because the country became independent does not mean life became better for the people. Likewise, as with all too many African countries sadly, honest colonialism has simply been replaced by dishonest colonialism as resources and political influence has been purchased by foreign powers, most often the People’s Republic of China so that, in fact if not in name, these places are just as much being ruled by a foreign power as they ever were.

The last remnant of the Portuguese empire was officially given up in 1999 when the colony of Macau was handed over to the People’s Republic of China. The Portuguese had been the first European power to establish an overseas empire and theirs was the last to fall. As with all colonial empires, there will always be the critics who want to do nothing but cry and condemn, ignoring the good and exaggerating the bad. Such hysterics do not impress. The Portuguese empire was extremely important and has left a lasting legacy in the widespread use of the Portuguese language and vibrant Catholic communities from Brazil to India to East Timor (which as most know was immediately invaded by Indonesia after declaring independence). Even the unique (though very small) version of Christianity exclusive to Japan, though not what the Portuguese left behind, would not exist were it not for the Kingdom of Portugal. The legacy of slavery will always be a painful one but the vibrant, mixed-race country (and former Empire) of Brazil would not exist were it not for the Portuguese empire it sprang from. The whole world owes a great deal to the Portuguese empire for many things taken for granted today. So many built on the advances in sailing, navigation and cartography made by the Portuguese who were the trailblazers in exploration. Many people, not just in Portugal but throughout Europe and around the world, benefited from the global trade network Portugal established and to a large extent it was the Portuguese empire that introduced Europe to much of the wider world and likewise so much of the wider world to the continent of Europe.

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