The Portuguese Empire

The Portuguese soldiers captured Ceuta in 1415. Throughout the 15th century, Portuguese ships organized by Henry the Navigator explored the West coast of Africa, mapping the territory and pursuing trade, particularly in gold and slaves. By 1487, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India and established the first Portuguese outposts there. The discovery of the sea route around Africa to India and the rest of Asia opened enormous opportunities to trade for Portugal, and Portugal moved aggressively to establish both trade outposts and fortified bases to control this trade.

In East Africa, small Islamic states along the coast of Mozambique, Kilwa, Brava and Mombasa were destroyed or became subjects or allies of Portugal. Pedro de Covilha had reached Abyssinia as early as 1490. In the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, one of Pedro Álvares Cabral's ships discovered Madagascar, which was partly explored by Trista da Cunha (1507); Mauritius was discovered in 1507, Socotra occupied in 1506, and in the same year D. Lourenço d'Almeida visited Ceylon.

The Portuguese empire in the East was guaranteed by the Treaty of Tordesillas, and Portugal established trading ports at far-flung locations like Goa, Malacca, the Maluku Islands, Macau, and Nagasaki. Guarding its trade jealously from both European and Asian competitors, Portugal dominated not only the trade between Asia and Europe, but also much of the trade among different regions of Asia, such as India, Indonesia, China, and Japan. Jesuit missionaries followed the Portuguese to spread Roman Catholic Christianity to Asia with mixed success.

Brazil was discovered in 1500 by Pedro Álvares Cabral. Although initially less important, Brazil would become the most important colony of the empire, from which Portugal gathered resources such as gold, precious stones, sugar cane, coffee and other cash crops.

Competition and Decline

From 1580 to 1640, the throne of Portugal was held by the Habsburg kings of Spain. This period marked a phase of decline for the Portuguese Empire. Spain's enemies, such as the Netherlands and England, coveted their overseas wealth, and in many cases found it easier to attack poorly-defended Portuguese outposts than Spanish ones; Spain also pursued a policy of neglect of the Portuguese colonies it now controlled. Although Dutch colonies in Brazil were wiped out, over the 17th century the Dutch were able to occupy Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope, and the East Indies, and to take over the trade with Japan at Nagasaki. Portugal's Pacific territories were reduced to the bases at Macao and East Timor.

In 1661 the Portuguese gave Bombay to England as part of a dowry, and over the next hundred years the British became the dominant power in India, excluding other powers from trade. Portugal retained Goa and several minor bases throughout the colonial period.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake sharply checked Portuguese colonial ambitions in the late 18th century. The quake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 100,000 people in Lisbon (then a city of 275,000).

Brazil remained a territory of Portugal for many years, and became the main centre for Portugese colonial ambitions. Voluntary immigration from Europe and the slave trade from Africa increased the population of Brazil immensely (today Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world). By 1822, though, Brazil declared independence with a Portuguese prince, Pedro I, as Emperor.

By the height of European colonialism in the 19th century, Portugal had lost its territory in South America and all but a few bases in Asia. During this phase, Portuguese colonialism focused on expanding its outposts in Africa into nation-sized territories to compete with other European powers there. Portuguese territories eventually included the modern nations of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique.


In the wake of World War II, other European nations began abandoning their colonies either voluntarily or involuntarily. Portugal refused to enter this process voluntarily, and was the last nation to retain its major colonies. In 1961, Goa and the rest of Portuguese India were occupied and annexed by India, while a decade-long war raged in Portuguese Africa with various resistance groups. Eventually, the cost of the unsuccessful war led the Salazar regime to collapse in 1974 (the Carnation Revolution), and one of the first acts of the democratic government which replaced it was to end the war and negotiate the hand-over of the colonies to the indigenous rebels. In Mozambique and Angola the rebels promptly entered a civil war, with incoming Communist governments backed by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other Communist countries, and insurgent groups supported by nations like Zaire, South Africa, and the United States.

East Timor also became independent at this time, but was promptly invaded by neighbouring Indonesia, which occupied it until 1999.

The Portuguese Empire ended when Portugal handed Macau over to China in 1999 under the terms of a negotiated agreement similar to the one under which the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong.

The seven former colonies of Portugal that are now independent nations, together with Portugal, are members of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP).