Located at the Iberian Peninsula’s western tip, Portugal is a Western European country. Armed with superior techniques in shipping and navigation, the Portuguese started sailing around the world in the early 15th-century. In the subsequent years, they settled in many places, including Asia, Africa, and South America. Initially, Prince Henry the Navigator financed these exploration ventures. Some famous explorers like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias facilitated the exploration for the Portuguese Crown. In this way, the Portuguese established the first-ever European global empire. Now its remnants are spread over about 50 countries around the globe.
In the course of colonization, the Portuguese created numerous settlements for various purposes, such as spreading Catholicism, creating more markets for Portuguese goods, ‘civilizing’ the natives of distant places, trading gold, agricultural products, spices, and other resources. These colonies resulted in generating huge wealth for Portugal.
Following are the important former Portuguese colonies:
Brazil (South America)
Considering the population and area, Brazil was the biggest colony of Portugal. In the course of time, the Portuguese also explored Brazil’s vast interiors. They reached here in 1500. They brought African slaves and made them grow coffee, cotton, tobacco, sugar, and cash crops. From the rainforests, they extracted brazilwood and used it for dying European textiles. The royal court of Portugal governed both Brazil and Portugal from Rio de Janeiro. In 1822, Brazil got freedom from Portugal.
Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau (Africa)
Portugal also colonized the now southern African countries Mozambique and Angola, and West African country Guinea-Bissau. It extracted diamonds and gold from these countries. It also enslaved a large number of people from here, and later sent them to the New World. Beginning in the 20th-century, Portugal came under increasing international pressure for releasing its colonies. Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s then-dictator, however, refused. This led to the Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s and 1970s in the African countries. Tens of thousands were killed in these wars. Eventually, these three countries won their independence in 1975.
Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe (Near African Coast)
Two small archipelagos Sao Tome and Principe, and Cape Verde, were colonized by Portugal. They are located near Africa’s western coast in the North Atlantic Ocean and have a pleasant climate. These two locations were important for the trading of slaves and were mostly uninhabited prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. Both of these got their independence in the year 1975.
In the 1500s, Goa, located on the southwestern coast of India, was colonized by the Portuguese. Situated near the Arabian Sea, Goa served as a key port for India, which was known to be rich in spices and handicrafts. While most of the Indian territory was under British rule, Goa remained under Portuguese rule for 450 years. Subsequent to gaining its independence in 1947, India took over Goa in 1961. Currently, it is the smallest state of the country, and still has a city named after Vasco da Gama.
East Timor (Southeast Asia)
In the 16th-century, Timor island’s eastern half was colonized by the Portuguese. It was probably the lure of sandalwood, slave, and honey trade that attracted the Portuguese. Thereafter, the island faced a continuous fight for control between the Portuguese and the Dutch forces. East Timor remained a Portuguese colony till it got its independence in 1975. However, it was again invaded and annexed by Indonesia. It finally gained its freedom in 2002. With health and infrastructure challenges, it still ranks very low on the UN’s Human Development Index.
Located on the South China Sea, Macau was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th-century. Initially, it got the region on lease from the Ming dynasty to establish trading posts. The subsequent years were marked by skirmishes with the Chinese. Eventually, the Portuguese merchants managed to receive a perpetual lease on the island, against annual rent payment. The region became a key trading port in Southeast Asia. The empire of Portugal ended in 1999 when the control was handed over to the People’s Republic of China.
The Portuguese Empire Map showing a decline of the Portuguese Empire
The empire sustained for over six centuries, before gradually declining. The main reason was that Portugal did not possess enough resources, and people, to manage and maintain the territories lying overseas. Today, many of these former colonies are marked by Portuguese forts, architecture and cultural influence in food and music.