Since the fall of Rome, there has been no empire based in Europe which extends outside the continent. This situation changes abruptly in the 16th century, when Spain and Portugal become the pioneers in a new era of colonization.
The Iberian peninsula is well poised at the time for this leap into the unknown.
In their great voyages of discovery, in the 15th century, the Portuguese have developed ocean-going skills which are eagerly copied by their Spanish neighbours. Spain’s internal conflicts of recent centuries have recently been resolved with the union of Castile and Aragon and then, in 1492, the conquest of Granada.
Two voyages in the 1490s lay the foundations for the future empires. Columbus, sailing west for Spain, stumbles upon America in 1492. Vasco da Gama, adventuring south and east for Portugal, reaches India in 1498.
Portugal’s eastern trade: AD 1508-1595
The profitable trade in eastern spices is cornered by the Portuguese in the 16th century to the detriment of Venice, which has previously had a virtual monopoly of these valuable commodities – until now brought overland through India and Arabia, and then across the Mediterranean by the Venetians for distribution in western Europe.
By establishing the sea route round the Cape, Portugal can undercut the Venetian trade with its profusion of middlemen. The new route is firmly secured for Portugal by the activities of Afonso de Albuquerque, who takes up his duties as the Portuguese viceroy of India in 1508.
The early explorers up the east Africa coast have left Portugal with bases in Mozambique and Zanzibar. Albuquerque extends this secure route eastwards by capturing and fortifying Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in 1514, Goa on the west coast of India in 1510 (where he massacres the entire Muslim population for the effrontery of resisting him) and Malacca, guarding the narrowest channel of the route east, in 1511.
The island of Bombay is ceded to the Portuguese in 1534. An early Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka is steadily increased during the century. And in 1557 Portuguese merchants establish a colony on the island of Macao. Goa functions from the start as the capital of Portuguese India.
The beginnings of Portugal’s empire: 15th – 16th c. AD
The Portuguese, in their bold exploration along the coasts of Africa, have an underlying purpose – to sail round the continent to the spice markets of the east. But in the process they develop a trading interest and a lasting presence in Africa itself.
On the west coast their interest is in the slave trade, resulting in Portuguese settlements in both Guinea and Angola. On the east coast they are drawn to Mozambique and the Zambezi river by news of a local ruler, the Munhumutapa, who has fabulous wealth in gold.
In their efforts to reach the Munhumutapa, the Portuguese establish in 1531 two settlements far up the Zambezi – one of them, at Tete, some 260 miles from the sea. The Munhumutapa and his gold mines remain beyond the grasp of the intruders. But in this region of east Africa – as in Guinea and Angola in the west – Portuguese involvement becomes sufficiently strong to survive into the 20th century.
Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese have no European rivals on the long sea route round Africa. The situation changes in the early 17th century, when both the Dutch and the British create East India companies. the Dutch, in particular, damage Portugal’s eastern trade.
Portugal and Brazil: 16th – 18th century AD
The Portuguese, with imperial ambitions focussed originally on the east Indies, are slower than the Spanish in setting up any form of administration in America. Brazil is deemed to be part of their share of the globe, through the accident of the Tordesillas Line. The coast is reached in 1500 by a Portuguese navigator, Pedro Cabral. Vespucci explores the rest of the Brazilian coastline for the king of Portugal in 1501-2.
But it is not until 1533 that steps are taken to colonize this rich territory. The Portuguese call it Brazil because of a valuable natural product – pau-brasil, a red wood much in demand for the dye which can be extracted from it.
The first attempt to establish a Portuguese presence in Brazil is made by John III in 1533. His solution is ingenious but idle. He divides the coastline into fifteen sections, each about 150 miles in length, and grants these strips of land on a hereditary basis to fifteen courtiers – who become known as donatários. Each courtier is told that he and his heirs can found cities, grant land and levy taxes over as much territory as they can colonize inland from their stretch of coast.
Only two of the donatários make any success of this venture. In the 1540s John III is forced to change his policy. He brings Brazil under direct royal control (as in Spanish America) and appoints a governor general.
The first governor general of Brazil arrives in 1549 and makes his headquarters at Bahia (today known as Salvador). It remains the capital of Portuguese Brazil for more than two centuries, until replaced by Rio de Janeiro in 1763.
Colonists gradually move into the interior. Accompanying the first governor general in 1549 are members of the newly founded order of Jesuits. In their mission to convert the Indians they are often the first European presence in new regions far from the coast. They frequently clash with adventurers also pressing inland (in great expeditions known as bandeiras) to find silver and gold or to capture Indians as slaves.
These two groups, with their very different motives, bring a Portuguese presence far beyond the Tordesillas Line. By the late 17th century the territory of Brazil encompasses the entire basin of the Amazon as far west as the Andes. At the same time Portuguese colonists are moving down the coast beyond Rio de Janeiro. A Portuguese town is even established on the river Plate in 1680, provoking a century of Spanish-Portuguese border conflicts in the region which is now Uruguay.
Meanwhile the use of the Portuguese language gradually gives the central region of south America an identity different from that of its Spanish neighbours.
Bahia and Rio de Janeiro: 16th-18th century AD
The economic strength of Portuguese Brazil derives at first from sugar plantations in the north (established as early as the 1530s by one of the only two successful donatários). But from the late 17th century Brazil benefits at last from the mineral wealth which underpins Spanish America. Gold is found in 1693 in the inland region of Minas Gerais, in the southern part of the colony.
The discovery sets off the first great gold rush of the American continent – opening up the interior as the prospectors swarm westwards, and underpinning Brazil’s economy for much of the 18th century. Diamonds are also discovered in large quantities in the same region in the 18th century.
American mission settlements: 16th – 18th century AD
In both Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Latin America the preaching orders of the Roman Catholic church – Franciscans, Dominicans and above all the Jesuits – play a prominent role.
The voyages of conquest have from the start proclaimed one of their main purposes to be the conversion of heathens to Christianity. Friars take part in almost every expedition.
In the early years conquest and conversion go hand in hand rather too easily for the spiritual side to be entirely convincing. Within ten years of Cortes landing in Mexico, one Franciscan friar claims to have personally baptized more than 200,000 Indians – including 14,000 in one day.
As the colonies settle down, the friars establish mission stations where Indians live as part of a Christian community. The friars also (as exemplified by the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas) become staunch defenders of the Indians against exploitation by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.
Most prominent in these activities are the Jesuits, the order founded as the spearhead of the spiritual crusade of the Catholic Reformation. In Brazil the efforts of the Jesuits contribute greatly to extending the province inland, as they press every further up the rivers to organize and educate the Indians in self-supporting frontier settlements.
In Paraguay the Jesuit settlements (known as reducciones) are so numerous and so successful that the order governs a virtually independent territory, protected by their own army and with a population of about 100,000 Indians.
The power and wealth of the Jesuits arouses much opposition, particularly in the anti-clerical mood of the later 18th century. They also make enemies by protecting the Indians against the predatory demands of colonists.
The move against the missions is led by Portugal. The Jesuits are expelled from Brazil in 1759. Spain follows suit in its American viceroyalties in 1767. The thirty-two reducciones of Paraguay are abandoned and fall into decay. It is all part of a broader reaction in Europe, leading to the suppression of the entire Jesuit order in 1773.
Portuguese Africa: 16th-19th century AD
Portugal, after initiating the European slave trade in Africa, plays a decreasing role in it over the next few centuries. Similarly the Portuguese, although the first Europeans to establish trading settlements in sub-Saharan Africa, fail later to consolidate their advantage. Nevertheless they retain a clear presence in those three regions which received their particular attention during the original age of exploration.
The closest of these, on the sea journey from Portugal, is Portuguese Guinea – known also, from its main economic activity, as the Slave Coast.
The local African rulers in Guinea, who prosper greatly from the slave trade, have no interest in allowing the Europeans any further inland than the fortified coastal settlements where the trading takes place. The Portuguese presence in Guinea is therefore largely limited to the port of Bissau.
For a brief period in the 1790s the British attempt to establish a rival foothold on an offshore island, at Bolama. But by the 19th century the Portuguese are sufficiently secure in Bissau to regard the neighbouring coastline as their own special territory.
Thousands of miles down the coast, in Angola, the Portuguese find it even harder to consolidate their early advantage against encroachments by Dutch, British and French rivals. Nevertheless the fortified towns of Luanda (established in 1587 with 400 Portuguese settlers) and Benguela (a fort from 1587, a town from 1617) remain almost continuously in Portuguese hands.
As in Guinea, the slave trade becomes the basis of the local economy – with raids carried ever further inland to procure captives. More than a million men, women and children are shipped from here across the Atlantic. In this region, unlike Guinea, the trade remains largely in Portuguese hands. Nearly all the slaves are destined for Brazil.
The deepest Portuguese penetration into the continent has been from the east coast, up the Zambezi, with an early settlement as far inland as Tete. But this is a region of strong and rich African kingdoms. The coastal area is also much visited by Arabs pressing south from Oman and Zanzibar. From the 16th to 19th century the Portuguese and their merchants are just one among many rival groups competing for the local trade in gold, ivory and slaves.
Nevertheless, even if the Portuguese hold on these three African regions is tenuous, they are unmistakably the main European presence. It is natural to assert their claim in all three when the scramble for Africa begins.
Prolonged military campaigns are required to impose Portuguese control over the Africans in these territories in the late 19th century. But the arrangements with rival European powers are more easily resolved.
The boundaries of Portuguese Guinea are agreed in two stages from 1886 with France, the colonial power in neighbouring Senegal and Guinea. No other nation makes a challenge for the vast and relatively unprofitable area of Angola. The most likely scene of conflict is Portuguese East Africa, where Portugal’s hope of linking up with Angola clashes with Britain’s plans for the Rhodesias. There is a diplomatic crisis in 1890. But the borders between British and Portuguese colonies are agreed by treaty in 1891.