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The 2-Minute Guide to History's First Global Empire

If someone asked you to name a large empire — past or present — you would probably picture the Roman Empire. But there’s an often-forgotten empire that was also quite large during its heyday, and whose effects you still might recognize if you visit countries or territories like Brazil, Macau, Angola, and Cape Verde. We’re talking about the Portuguese Empire. While today we think of Portugal as a benign European destination with tasty wine and treats, there was a time when its influence was heavily felt throughout the world.

What was the Portuguese Empire?

Up close view of antique map showing Portuguese expansion and travel
Credit: Kagan Kaya / Shutterstock

While the Portuguese Empire doesn’t get quite as much love and attention in world history, it existed for more than 500 years, beginning in 1415 with the capture of the North African town Ceuta, and only recently ended in 1999 when Portugal relinquished Macau and returned it to Chinese rule (the city is officially an autonomous, "special administrative region" of China). According to historians, it was the first global empire the world had ever seen — sorry Britain. Essentially, the Portuguese Empire controlled territories throughout the known world, and much of their land grabbing was due to the nation’s superior navigators and seafaring citizens.

How did Portugal influence the world?

Replica of the famous Portuguese vessel Nau seen at the Maritime Museum in Malaysia
Credit: Paulo Afonso / Shutterstock

Toward the end of the 15th century, Portugal ramped up its exploration, and this risk paid off for them. To put it simply, having expert navigators and explorers like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias meant that Portugal was able to travel farther and build direct trade routes to “exotic” locales for hard-to-find goods that Europeans wanted. In particular, the Portuguese squeezed out the Italians — who had previously controlled the spice trade — by the 16th century and created a monopoly. However, it should be noted that spices weren’t the nation’s only trade expertise. They also built up a hefty slave trade thanks to their African trade route around the Cape of Good Hope.

But establishing trade routes wasn’t the only thing that the Portuguese did to secure their legacy. They also focused on land grabs. Essentially, everywhere they traveled for trade, they also took territory. And just like controlling trade routes increased Portugal’s might, so did their land possessions.

Was Portugal adversarial with other European nations?

Stone monument to discoveries and Portuguese explorers in Belem, Lisbon, Portugal
Credit: harald pizzinini / Shutterstock

Yes and no. Of course, there were plenty of conflicts throughout the nation’s empire. But there were also alliances. Most notably, between the 16th and 17th centuries, there was the Iberian Union, a pact between Spain and Portugal. The union was created in 1580 and was meant to end the chaos from challenges to the rule of succession in Portugal when King Sebastian died in 1578. Oddly enough, his grandfather was next in line for the throne, but there were competing claims from previous monarchs’ grandchildren and other relatives for another three years. Hence, the Iberian Union was created and would last for 60 years until 1640.

But, as is the case with alliances, the enemies of your friends are now your enemies. And this is exactly what happened to Portugal. On top of being dragged into domestic wars between Spain and its enemies, their trading outposts and territories also faced attacks. Compared to Spain, Portugal wasn’t prepared to effectively sustain and defend all of these distributed outposts and territories. They had to look to Spain for military support but at a cost. Constant complaints from nobility and commoners about high taxes to pay for costly defenses led to an eventual revolt and the end of the Iberian Union.

The decline of an empire

View of the modern Regaleira Estate castle and trees in Sintra, Portugal
Credit: Migel / Shutterstock

According to most historians, joining the Iberian Union ultimately proved to be the kiss of death for Portugal’s empire. As we mentioned, being spread too thin and finding themselves constantly in need of military defense by Spain, was unsustainable. But this wasn’t the only cause. In addition to their Spanish woes, Portugal faced stiff competition from the British, French, and Dutch for control of the spice and slave trades. The Dutch squeezed the Portuguese out of the Far East while the British swooped in for control of India.

By the 18th century, the Portuguese had lost much of their previous territories and now focused almost exclusively on Brazil. While the colony did provide trade goods such as cotton, sugar, and occasionally gold, there was never an established society such as in places like Mexico or the British colonies. As a result, only a very small percentage of whites lived a comfortable life. Everyone else, including poor whites, indigenous populations, free blacks, and mulattos struggled to survive. Coupled with the fact that Brazilian slavery had a higher mortality rate than anywhere else, even Portugal’s crown jewel colony also proved impossible to maintain.

When independence movements began to rip through South America in the19th century, it was inevitable that Brazil would join in. In 1822 Brazil gained its independence. At this point, the Portuguese Empire was on its last breaths. As the 19th century closed, Portugal lost many of its African lands. But it would be the mid-20th century when Portugal ceded all control over their African possessions and promised to return Macau to China, just before the new millennia began. With that final move, history turned the page on the Portuguese Empire.

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