The History of Portugal: The Dawn of a Seafaring Empire

From the Lecture Series: Foundations of Western Civilization II—A History of the Modern Western World

By Robert Bucholz, D. Phil., Loyola University Chicago

In the 15th century, Portuguese explorers disrupted economies, changed cultures, and defined political landscapes across Asia and Africa. Their exploits had important ramifications for the military power of many European nations as well. How did this once-struggling country develop into such a formidable seafaring force?

Painting of the carrack Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai and other Portuguese ships in the 16th century for the article on The History of Portugal
The Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai and other Portuguese ships in a painting by Joachim Patinir. (Image:By Circle of Joachim Patinir/Public domain)

The History of Portugal at the end of the Middle Ages

As the Middle Ages came to an end, the crowned heads of Europe sought to make themselves more powerful and less beholden to the good will of the Church, the aristocracy, or their subjects generally. They did so by employing armies of propagandists, writers, painters, and composers. Even mapmakers could be useful in projecting their power. When all else failed, they employed soldiers.

But art and war cost money, and therein lay the rub. What good was it to overawe your subjects with fancy palaces and powerful armies when you had to beg them for the money to pay for it all? Renaissance princes knew that excessive taxation might kill their economies, disgruntle their subjects, and raise the importance of legislative and tax-gathering bodies like Parliament and the Estates General.

In the 14th century, Portugal faced several challenges to the power and growth compared to it’s European counterparts. Portugal had been a relatively poor country and was ruled by the House of Aviz. Like its neighbor Spain, it was partly controlled by the Moors, until a series of campaigns of expulsion drove them out. Other bodies frequently threatened Portugal—absorption by Castile, and a powerful Cortes—the Portuguese equivalent of the English Parliament—also limited the king’s power.

Learn more: Renaissance Princes—1450–1600

Renaissance princes, if they were to be truly as powerful as Niccolo Machiavelli would have them, needed lots of money—no questions asked. One source of funds would have been the rich trade with the East. Europeans were crazy for fabrics, spices, and medicines from China, India, and the Middle East. Everyone knew that Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Milan had grown wealthy on this trade. That’s why France and the Holy Roman Emperor tried to conquer Italy. But in 1453, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, complicating an important trade route to the East. Anyone who wanted eastern goods had to go through Muslim merchants.

Traveling Around Trade Barriers

Was there no way around the Muslims and the Italians? The answer to that question was supplied from, of all places, Portugal.

This is a transcript from the video series Foundations of Western Civilization II: A History of the Modern Western World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Henry the Navigator, the son of King John I, who ruled from 1385 to 1433, began to explore alternative sources of wealth as a way to increase the power of the House of Aviz and reduce its dependence on the Cortes. Beginning in 1419, he founded a college to train seamen. He sent successive expeditions down the west coast of Africa. These expeditions perfected the caravelle, which became the prototypical ship for exploration during this time. They established trade routes and explored the coast. Always, they were on the lookout for a way to turn east. The great question for this college was, “Does Africa end?”

Learn more: The New World & the Old—1400–1650

The Dawn of Portugal’s Seafaring Empire

Vasco da Gama landing in Catupil. (Image:By Ernesto Casanova/Public domain)

This led to a century of exploration, the beginnings of European imperialism, and many fringe benefits for the Portuguese monarchy. Beginning in 1415, Portuguese mariners had already captured Ceuta in Morocco. Ceuta became a foothold in Africa, and later it was used to capture Tangiers. By 1419, the mariners had explored the Madeira Islands and in 1427, the Azores. Both became centers of sugar production, which grew into a very lucrative trade. It became a set of way stations on the way south and the way west.

Portuguese mariners made it to Cape Verde by 1444 and Sierra Leone in 1460. They founded a major fort at Elmina, Ghana in 1482, establishing relations with the king of the Kongo in the interior. That would lead to a brisk trade, first in gold, and later, in slaves.

Bartholomew Diaz reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. That was the moment when the Portuguese realized that ships could possibly circle Africa. Ten years later, Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape, reached India, and returned with ships laden with the wealth of the East.

The result was a Portuguese seafaring empire based on trade with Africa and the East.

Learn more: Portugal’s Great Leap Forward

The Treaty of Tordesillas 

After Columbus laid the foundations for Spanish power in the Americas, the pope worked out the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. As a result, Portugal was given free run of everything east of a line 370 miles east of the Cape Verde Islands.

Page from the Treaty of Tordesillas
Page from the Treaty of Tordesillas. (Image: By Original: Biblioteca Nacional de LisboaPhoto: User:Joserebelo – Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa/Public domain)

There are three points to remember about this treaty. First, this treaty and the explorations that led up to it would lay the foundations of Portuguese Brazil. Pedro Alvarez de Cabral, hoping to repeat de Gama’s success, actually strayed too far west and bumped into Brazil in 1500. The second point is that, in Brazil as in Africa, the Portuguese would establish trading posts, which would supply wood, red dye, and later, valuable sugar cane to Portugal. This expedition and series of expeditions were based on new knowledge acquired through science and exploration. But the third point was based on European arrogance. The native peoples of these lands were not consulted by the pope in drawing this line.

Learn more: The Enigmatic Christopher Columbus

Under Manuel I (known as Manuel the Fortunate), Portugal became a great naval power. The Portuguese conquered Goa in India in 1510, Malacca (now Melaka) in Malaysia in 1511, the Moluccas in present-day Indonesia by 1514, and the Hormuz Islands in the Persian Gulf in 1515. They opened up trade with China and established relations with Ethiopia. In fact, the Portuguese Empire wasn’t really a colonizing empire. Many Portuguese did not leave their homeland to establish a new Portugal. It was mainly and simply based on trade.

Portugal’s Decline, Spain’s Rise

By the mid-16th century, Portugal had begun to experience decline, in part because of the attempt to keep up with Spain. It became overextended. It had troops and a navy stationed around the globe. The Spanish kings pressured the Portuguese, in terms of religion, to expel their Jewish and Moorish populations. The Portuguese reluctantly did this, and it became a costly mistake that destroyed much of the old Portuguese middle class.

In 1536, the king of Portugal introduced the Inquisition, also following the Spanish example. In 1580, the House of Aviz came to an end with the death of Henry I. There were six claimants to the throne, but the most powerful was Phillip II of Spain. When he took over, Spain ruled Portugal for 60 years—known in Portuguese history as the “60 Years of Captivity.” The Portuguese revolted repeatedly against Spain in 1634, 1637, and finally won independence successfully in 1640.

Learn more: The Growth of Catholic Religious Passion

During this period of time, the Portuguese lost the Indian trade to the Dutch, who invaded Portuguese settlements and occupied Brazil. After 1640, a new dynasty, the Braganza, took over and managed to expel the Dutch from Brazil. A great and largely unknown story, its greatest significance is that other European powers began to emulate the actions of Portugal, most notably, Spain.

Portugal did not regain its maritime empire or dominance of eastern trade routes. Its efforts through the 15th and 16th centuries made a lasting impact on Asian, African, and South American economies, and ultimately worked to lay the groundwork for further European expansion and exploration.

Common Questions About the History of Portugal

Q: When did Portugal separate from Spain?

Portugal revolted against Spanish rule several times, but officially declared its independence from Spain in 1640.

Q: What was Portugal’s role in the new world?

Portugal played a pivotal role in Europe’s quest of discovery. Prince Henry the Navigator led expeditions around Africa in search of a viable route to Asia.

Q: What did the Portuguese discover?

Portugal’s discoveries included Brazil, Cape Verde, and a route to India that involved passing around South Africa.

Q: Was Portugal a world power?

Portugal was a major European power during the 1400s and 1500s, wielding great wealth and political might. The Portuguese Empire began in August 1415 with the conquering of Ceuta.

This article was updated on August 26, 2019

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