Portuguese overseas expansion into Atlantic and Indian Oceans

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Since the fall of the Roman Empire, there had been no empire based in Europe that had extended outside the continent. But this changed when Portugal had itself among the pioneers in a new era of colonization. In their great voyages of discovery, in the 15th century, the Portuguese developed ocean-going skills which were eagerly copied by their Spanish neighbors. Two journeys in the 1490s laid the foundations for the future empires. Columbus, sailing west for Spain, stumbled upon America in 1492. Vasco da Gama, who adventured south and east of Portugal, reached India in 1498.

 The Portuguese cornered the profitable trade in eastern spices in the 16th century to the detriment of Venice, which previously had a virtual monopoly of those valuable commodities. Until then brought overland through India and Arabia, and then across the Mediterranean by the Venetians for distribution in western Europe. By establishing the sea route round the Cape, Portugal could now undercut the Venetian trade with its profusion of middlemen. The early explorers moved up the East Africa coast where they left Portugal with bases in Mozambique and Zanzibar. Albuquerque extended this secure route eastwards by capturing and fortifying Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in 1514, Goa on the west coast of India in 1510 and Malacca, guarding the narrowest channel of the east route, in 1511.

In 1534, Portuguese ceded the island of Bombay. An early Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka was steadily increased during the century. And in 1557 Portuguese merchants established a colony on the island of Macau. Goa functioned from the start as the capital of Portuguese India.

The Portuguese, in their bold exploration along the coasts of Africa, had an underlying purpose - to sail around the continent to the spice markets of the east. But in the process, they developed a trading interest and a lasting presence in Africa itself. On the west coast of Africa, their interest was in the slave trade, resulting in Portuguese settlements in both Guinea and Angola. On the east coast, they were drawn to Mozambique and the Zambezi river by news of a local ruler, the Munhumutapa, who had fabulous wealth in gold. In their efforts to reach the Munhumutapa, the Portuguese established two settlements far up the Zambezi in 1531(Céspedes del Castillo).

On April 22, 1500, during the reign of King Manuel I, a fleet led by navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in Brazil and took possession of the land in the name of the king. Álvares Cabral was driving a large fleet of 13 ships and more than 1000 men following Vasco da Gama's way to India, around Africa. Between 1500 and 1530, relatively few Portuguese expeditions came to the new land to chart the coast and to obtain brazilwood. In Europe, this wood was used to produce a valuable dye to give color to luxury textiles. To extract brazilwood from the tropical rainforest, the Portuguese and other Europeans relied on the work of the natives, who initially worked in exchange for European goods like mirrors, scissors, knives, and axes.

In this early stage of the colonization of Brazil, and also later, the Portuguese frequently relied on the help of Europeans who lived together with the indigenous people and knew their languages and culture. Over time, the Portuguese realized that some European countries, especially France, were also sending excursions to the land to extract brazilwood. Worried about foreign incursions and hoping to find mineral riches, the Portuguese crown decided to send large missions to take possession of the area and combat the French. In 1530, an expedition led by Martim Afonso de Sousa arrived in Brazil to patrol the entire coast, ban the French, and create the first colonial villages like São Vicente.

The first attempt to colonize Brazil followed the system of hereditary captaincies, which had previously been used successfully in the colonization of Madeira Island (Boxer). The costs were transferred to private hands, saving the Portuguese crown from the high expenses of colonization. Thus, between 1534 and 1536 King John III divided the land into 15 captaincy colonies, and gave to Portuguese noblemen who wanted and had the means to administer and explore them. The captains were granted ample powers to manage and profit from their possessions. The failure of most captaincies was related to the resistance of the indigenous people, shipwrecks and internal disputes between the colonizers. With the collapse of most captaincies and the menacing presence of French ships along the Brazilian coast, the government of King John III decided to turn the colonization of Brazil back into a royal enterprise. In 1549, a large fleet led by Tomé de Sousa set sail to Brazil to establish a central government in the colony (Crowley).

When French forces were finally defeated in Europe in 1815, King João decided to continue ruling from Brazil. In 1820, the constitutionalists rose up in a revolution, created a constitution, and forced the return of the Portuguese King, leaving behind his son and heir, Prince Dom Pedro, to rule Brazil as his regent. On September 7, 1822, Prince Dom Pedro declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal, founding the Empire of Brazil, which led to a two-year war of independence. Formal recognition came with a treaty signed by both Brazil and Portugal in late 1825 (Wood).

Works Cited

Boxer, Charles Ralph. The Golden Age Of Brazil, 1695-1750. 2nd ed., Published In Cooperation With The Sociedade De Estudos Historicos Dom Pedro Segundo, Rio De Janeiro, By The University of California Press, 1969, p. 16.

Céspedes del Castillo, Guillermo. Latin America: The Early Years. 4th ed., Knopf, 1974, p. 27.

Crowley, Roger. Conquerors. 1st ed., Faber & Faber, 2016, p. 25.

Wood, J.R Russell. The Portuguese Empire. 2nd ed., JHU Press, 1998, p. 75.

November 13, 2023

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Geography Americas

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