The unraveling of Portuguese empire: A historical imperative




By Osmund Agbo
 
Portugal, the small European nation located on the western tip of the Iberian Peninsula, known to have colonized over 50 countries of the world spread across Asia, South America and Africa is in the news again. Except that this time, it’s not for her infamous colonial conquests. 


 
The good old Portugal is expanding her maritime frontiers in a last-ditch effort to return to global reckoning. If her claim to an additional 2.15 million square kilometers of continental shelf materializes, she will have an oceanic territory of more than 3,877,408 km2. This combined with the land territories will make her the 16th largest country in the world. But it remains to be seen whether that becomes the case or if such claim will just trigger the kind of military stand-off seen in the South China Sea, between China and other nations of the world including the United States of America.
 


In medieval Europe, the east-west trade routes known as Silk Road began to open up during the first and second centuries between Greece and China. Moslem traders from Asia also sold spices to traders in Genoa and Venice in the Roman Empire, the two of which became rich city states. Other Europeans wanted to partake in this but the Moslem traders refused to let them in especially after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. This difficulty inspired European explorers to seek new routes to Asia, ushering in the age of discovery and exploration.
 
Portugal and Spain in the 1400’s were the first to start thinking about ways to get around the Moslem merchants by looking for a direct sea route to Asia, sailing East. Dom Henrique of Portugal, later known as Henry the Navigator founded a navigation school specifically to train sailors and used his own money to pay for expeditions of discovery in the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast of Africa.
 


Christopher Columbus started out on a voyage to discover a sea route to India but instead landed with his crew in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian merchant first sponsored by Spain but later Portugal, discovered another place along that way, later named America, after him. Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortez sailed with a fleet of 11 ships and 600 men to conquer and overthrow Montezuma II, the ninth Aztec emperor of Mexico and took over the land.
 
The Portuguese explorer, Prince Henry the Navigator was the first European to explore Africa. Even though Portugal established the first European coastal colony of Ceuta, in North Africa by 1415, European exploration of Africa remained limited, since this was not the focus of the voyage. The Angola region in 1571, became the first European territorial colony in Africa. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the exploration of Africa was completed and the general geography of the continent became known. 


 
Everywhere these European explorers went, they left trails of devastation on the indigenous population whom they killed, maimed and dispossessed of their lands. Today, the Taino people of South America are endangered species while many of the Red Indians in North America are confined to life in the reservations. Of course, the voyage and subsequent conquests upended the life of pre-colonial Africa who before then already had many thriving empires and ancient kingdoms. The Portuguese goal of finding a sea route to Asia in order to get a foothold on the lucrative Asian spice trade was finally achieved in a voyage commanded by Vasco da Gama, who reached Calicut in western India in 1498.
 
With a population of just a little over 10 million people, making it the 89th most populous country in the world, Portugal wielded an outsized influence in the world as a colonial power. She initiated the Berlin conference of 1884 that led to the partitioning of Africa between thirteen European powers. Portuguese colonies in Africa included Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and the Islands of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe.


 
The Portuguese empire has often been criticized for being too exploitative, racist and neglectful. At the end of the second World war when most of the British colonies were granted independence, the Portuguese regime continued to maintain iron grip on her colonies at all cost. Around that time, violent protest erupted in Angola and soon spread to other African countries. Even after India got her independence in 1947, Portugal still refused to let go of Goa maintaining that it was an integral part of the nation. India invaded the city in 1961 and annexed it. 
 
By 1970’s Portugal was spending about 40% of its annual budget trying to hold on to its empires. Her young men were conscripted into the military, waging endless wars and dying in foreign soils. With the population becoming war wary, the 43 years-old dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar was toppled by army officers who rushed to end the war and made a commitment to end her colonial occupations. Many factors beyond her control contributed to the demise of the Portuguese empire. 
 


A massive earthquake in 1755 destroyed the capital, Lisbon and disrupted her colonial operations. Napoleon’s French Empire in 1807 invaded the country and forced the Portuguese royal family to flee Lisbon for Rio de Janeiro which became at the time, the capital of the Portuguese empire. The king went back just 6 years later but his son seized the opportunity offered by his exit to declare himself the new emperor of Brazil and went on to liberate the country from Portuguese rule on September 7, 1822. The loss of Brazil was a devastating blow, both economically and politically and the Portuguese empire never recovered from it.
 
Of course, she didn’t let up without a fight. After Portugal lost Brazil, her crown jewel, she then went back to refocus on Africa and attempted to expand her territories but that resulted in a serious clash with the British who also had similar territorial interest. She had no choice than to back off, in order to avoid confrontation with a superior power.
 
By 1975, all of her African colonies and East Timor in Asia had gotten their independence. In 1999, 2 years after the British gave up Hong Kong, Portugal returned Macau to China ending 600 years of Portuguese empire spanning America, Asia and Africa.
 
 
Do you remember the very last time that Portugal came to mind as one of the world’s super powers, a home to certain disruptive technology or a nation famous for pushing the frontiers of knowledge? Oh well, me neither. To so many, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Portugal exists only in the dusty pages of some ugly history books. For a great colonial power of over 6 centuries, who at some point held land territories across four continents, the sum of which was greater than the famed Roman Empire at its peak, the nation’s descent into oblivion is quite perplexing. 


 
Today, Project Portugal is focusing on expanding her maritime boundaries. Though her current territory on high sea is large and spans from Lisbon halfway to North America across the Atlantic Ocean, she is trying hard to expand even further. That is the new Portuguese Empire of the 21st century which is really a long shot but maybe that’s what she ought to have done more than six centuries ago.
 
The fate of Portugal will serve as a sobering lesson for any country, group of people or even individuals whose idea of wealth building is by conquering, exploiting and impoverishing others instead of looking inwards to build themselves. In Nigeria, some political leaders want to perpetuate an economic structure that creates the semblance of colonial territories out of other regions. They refuse to listen to the voice of reason or entertain any discussion that bothers on restructuring the federation. Such practice is akin to building on quicksand, an unsustainable business model.


 
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]