Portugal is a small Western European nation with a large, distinctive past replete with both triumph and tragedy. One of the continent’s oldest nation-states, Portugal has frontiers that are essentially unchanged since the late 14th century.
The country’s unique character and 850-year history as an independent state present several curious paradoxes. As of 1974, when much of the remainder of the Portuguese overseas empire was decolonized, Portuguese society appeared to be the most ethnically homogeneous of the two Iberian states and of much of Europe.
Yet, Portuguese society had received, over the course of 2,000 years, infusions of other ethnic groups in invasions and immigration: Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Suevi, Visigoths, Muslims (Arab and Berber), Jews, Italians, Flemings, Burgundian French, black Africans, and Asians. Indeed, Portugal has been a crossroads, despite its relative isolation in the western corner of the Iberian Peninsula, between the West and North Africa, Tropical Africa, and Asia and America.
Since 1974, Portugal’s society has become less homogeneous, as there has been significant immigration of former subjects from its erstwhile overseas empire. Other paradoxes should be noted as well. Although Portugal is sometimes confused with Spain or things Spanish, its very national independence and national culture depend on being different from Spain and Spaniards. Today, Portugal’s independence may be taken for granted.
Since 1140, except for 1580–1640 when it was ruled by Philippine Spain, Portugal has been a sovereign state. Nevertheless, a recurring theme of the nation’s history is cycles of anxiety and despair that its freedom as a nation is at risk. There is a paradox, too, about Portugal’s overseas empire(s), which lasted half a millennium (1415–1975): after 1822, when Brazil achieved independence from Portugal, most of the Portuguese who emigrated overseas never set foot in their over seas empire, but preferred to immigrate to Brazil or to other countries in North or South America or Europe, where established Portuguese overseas communities existed.
Portugal was a world power during the period 1415–1550, the era of the Discoveries, expansion, and early empire, and since then the Portuguese have experienced periods of decline, decadence, and rejuvenation. Despite the fact that Portugal slipped to the rank of a third- or fourth-rate power after 1580, it and its people can claim rightfully an unusual number of “firsts” or distinctions that assure their place both in world and Western history. These distinctions should be kept in mind while acknowledging that, for more than 400 years, Portugal has generally lagged behind the rest of Western Europe, although not Southern Europe, in social and economic developments and has remained behind even its only neighbor and sometime nemesis, Spain.
Portugal’s pioneering role in the Discoveries and exploration era of the 15th and 16th centuries is well known. Often noted, too, is the Portuguese role in the art and science of maritime navigation through the efforts of early navigators, mapmakers, seamen, and fishermen. What are often forgotten are the country’s slender base of resources, its small population largely of rural peasants, and, until recently, its occupation of only 16 percent of the Iberian Peninsula. As of 1139–40, when Portugal emerged first as an independent monarchy, and eventually a sovereign nation-state, England and France had not achieved this status.
The Portuguese were the first in the Iberian Peninsula to expel the Muslim invaders from their portion of the peninsula, achieving this by 1250, more than 200 years before Castile managed to do the same (1492). Other distinctions may be noted. Portugal conquered the first overseas empire beyond the Mediterranean in the early modern era and established the first plantation system based on slave labor. Portugal’s empire was the first to be colonized and the last to be decolonized in the 20th century. With so much of its scattered, seaborne empire dependent upon the safety and seaworthiness of shipping, Portugal was a pioneer in initiating marine insurance, a practice that is taken for granted today.
During the time of Pombaline Portugal (1750-77), Portugal was the first state to organize and hold an industrial trade fair. In distinctive political and governmental developments, Portugal’s record is more mixed, and this fact suggests that maintaining a government with a functioning rule of law and a pluralist, representative democracy hasn’t been an easy matter in a country that for so long has been one of the poorest and least educated in the West. Portugal’s First Republic (1910-26), only the third republic in a largely monarchist Europe (after France and Switzerland), was Western Europe’s most unstable parliamentary system in the 20th century. Finally, the authoritarian Estado Novo or “New State” (1926-74) was the longest surviving authoritarian system in modern Western Europe. When Portugal departed from its overseas empire in 1974-75, the descendants, in effect, of Prince Henry the Navigator were leaving the West’s oldest empire.
Portugal’s individuality is based mainly on its long history of distinctiveness, its intense determination to use any means-alliance, diplomacy, defense, trade, or empire-to be a sovereign state, independent of Spain, and on its national pride in the Portuguese language. Another master factor in Portuguese affairs deserves mention.
The country’s politics and government have been influenced not only by intellectual currents from the Atlantic but also through Spain from Europe, which brought new political ideas and institutions and novel technologies. Given the weight of empire in Portugal’s past, it is not surprising that public affairs have been hostage to a degree to what happened in her overseas empire. Most important have been domestic responses to imperial affairs during both imperial and internal crises since 1415, which have continued to the mid-1970s and beyond.
One of the most important themes of Portuguese history, and one oddly neglected by not a few histories, is that every major political crisis and fundamental changes in the system-in other words, revolution-since 1415 has been intimately connected with a related imperial crisis. The respective dates of these historical crises are: 1437, 1495, 1578-80, 1640, 1820-22, 1890, 1910, 1926-30, 1961, and 1974.