The Portuguese Empire
Episode #6 of the course “The Most Powerful Empires in History”
In the 16th century, Portugal became a leader in an era of colonization. The Portuguese colonized several islands, parts of Africa, and established the territory of Brazil. At its strongest point, the Portuguese controlled 4 million square miles (about 7% of the world’s land mass). They concentrated more on trade, colonization, and finding resources than on just accumulating land. They were masters of using ships to make trade more efficient and profitable.
Portugal began focusing on eastern commerce in 1508, and they had a monopoly over the Eastern spice trade for most of the 16th century. Their sea route around the cape made trade much more efficient, and this emphasis on travel is what ultimately caused the empire to acquire so much territory and be so successful. Portugal allowed their merchants to settle and claim land on the government’s behalf basically wherever they wished.
The slave trade brought the Portuguese to the west coast of Africa, where they established colonies in Guinea and Angola. They also established settlements on the east coast near the Zambezi river (in modern day Mozambique), hoping to gather gold from the area. The Portuguese extensively harvested pau-brasil—red wood used for its dye—from Brazil, and their demand for resources eventually resulted in their complete takeover of the area. The people gradually moved away from the coast, acquiring more land toward the middle of the country.
While the trade practice made the Portuguese Empire very rich, it was difficult to control and maintain so many colonies. The Portuguese Empire significantly declined when the government could no longer fund all of the overseas territories that it controlled. Eventually, most of the colonies broke off into their own countries or were acquired by larger countries in the area. Brazil broke off completely in 1822, but the last colony did not completely disappear until 2002, when East Timor was granted sovereignty.
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