Ensino da História

History of Portugal

Author: Miguel Monteiro de Barros

The Making of Portugal

The Kingdom of Portugal emerged in the 12th century, during the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula (the conquest of the southern territories, occupied by the Moors).


Baptism of D. Afonso Henriques by Saint Gerard, Archbishop of Braga,
17th century, attributed to Simão Álvares (active 1638-1657),
Museum of Alberto Sampaio, Guimarães.


Domus Municipalis of Braganza, 12th century.
It was used as the headquarters
of the municipal administration of this city
of north-eastern Portugal..

Its roots go back to the county of Portucale, integrated, in accordance with the feudal tradition, in one of the most ancient Christian kingdoms of Iberian Peninsula – Leão. This feudal unity demanded its independence from Leão in 1143. After some fights and negotiations, D. Afonso I, supported by the local nobility, was recognized as the first king of Portugal. The recognition by the papacy came later, in 1179, thus adding legitimacy to the new kingdom. In the eyes of the Christian world this meant a victory of Christianity over Islam, a reinforcement in the struggle against the “infidels”.

Royal seal of D. Afonso Henriques.


The concept of crusade and the belief that all peninsular kings descended from an ancient Visigoth monarchy, constituted part of the ideological support in the process of conquest towards the south, at the expenses of the territories of the al-Andalus. The help from the church was vital – the religious and military orders contributed largely to the construction of the new kingdom, through their efforts of conquest and settlement


Arms of Lisbon, showing two crows, which, according to legend,
accompanied the boat that transported the body of St. Vincent during its entire journey
from the Algarve to Lisbon (during D. Afonso Henriques reign).
That is the reason why they are represented in the arms of the city
In http://lisboalisboa.blogspot.com/2007/07/os-17-membros-da-nova-cmara-municipal.html, 29/01/2010


The peculiarity of the kingdom’s formation lies in the various ways by which the territory was occupied. To the usual feudal forms of appropriation and use of the land – by the nobility, by the clergy and through allotment, a distinct mode made its appearance in Iberia – through the municipalities. They were granted considerable autonomy (that varied from municipality to municipality) by the king (or by a feudal lord). In exchange, these communities of free men would help populate and develop the territory

The Muslim Influence

The Muslim influence can still today be observed in the Portuguese culture, namely in the number of words that made their way through the Latin matrix of the language.

Other aspects of the Portuguese culture were obviously influenced by the Muslims, especially in the south of Portugal, where their presence was felt for longer. One shouldn’t, though, exaggerate that influence, considering that the Muslim invaders were scarce in their numbers and came as lords of the land. Most of the peasant stratus remained the same, kept their own language, and remained Christian under muslim rule (they were called moçarabes).

Cathedral of Beja, city of southern Portugal.
The Muslim influence is evident in this exemple of the gothic style.

The Age of Discoveries: Exploration of the African Coast

Portugal became, in the 15th century, due in substantial part to its Muslim and Jewish heritages, expert in cartography and navigation and that, along with other factors, enabled the country to launch itself in the Age of Discoveries.

The motivations for the expansion overseas were varied. To the social and economic reasons one must add the fight against the “infidels” as well as the desire to spread the Christian faith among the pagans. The expansion was seen as a way of increasing the national patrimony and the treasury, but also as means to improve individual fortunes. In the beginning of the 15th century, as a result of the crisis felt through all of Europe during the 14th century, Portugal was dealing with serious economical problems. It was urgent to find new resources.

Ceiling from the monastery of Batalha, one of the masterpieces of the Portuguese gothic,
commemorating the battle of Aljubarrota (1385), in which the Portuguese reaffirmed their independence.
A new phase began – Portugal was free to explore new worlds.(APH photo).


The Infante D. Henrique, one of D. João I sons, with the vast resources at his disposal (the income from the Order of Christ), promoted several voyages of exploration and discovery:

  • The Atlantic islands were discovered: Madeira (1418); Azores (1427);
  • The Bojador Cape was overcome in 1434;
  • The western African coast was explored up to Sierra Lione until 1460 (the Infante died in the same year);

The Age of Discoveries: The Doorway to India

The main purpose of the exploration of the West African coast was to attain as soon as possible the Indian Ocean and its profitable trade. The known maps showed that was impossible to accomplish, for in those maps there was no access to the Indian Ocean. However, the Portuguese rulers, merchants and navigators concentrated their efforts in finding a passage.

D. João II, the king in power at the end of the 15th century, organised several voyages of exploration, but died (1495) before seeing the route to the Indies opened:

  • Diogo Cão reached the Zaire (Congo) river mouth in 1483;
  • Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope (until than known as Cape of Torments), in 1487.

Lopo Homem, map of India. (APH image)


The doorway to the Indies, the land of spices, was opened. Meanwhile, Spain had also joined the expansion race and, to solve several conflicts, the two countries signed a treaty in 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas, in which they agreed to share among themselves all the already discovered or yet to be discovered lands. Vasco da Gama reached the Indies in 1498, in the reign of D. Manuel I. A second expedition sent to the Indies, in 1500, commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, officially discovered Brazil.

Detail of the monastery of Jerónimos, Lisbon, whose construction was commissioned by D. Manuel I
to commemorate the arrival of Vasco da Gama to India, and the opening of the spice trade.
The so-called manueline style to which this building belongs is, in fact,
a variation of the high gothic. (APH photo).


Baby Jesus adored by the Three Kings, by Vasco Fernandes,
better known as Grão Vasco, Museu Grão Vasco, Viseu. This is the one of the first appearances (if not the first) of an American Indian in European painting, as a result of the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil. The Portuguese paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries reflect a strong influence from Flemish, artits due to the strong commercial contacts between Portugal and Flanders. Portugal established a trading-station in Antwerp as a base to sell its colonial products, mainly spices, to northern Europe. (APH photo).


Lisbon in the 16th century became the capital and trade centre of an extended maritime empire, based in key points along the coasts, and on the control of the main trade routes of the south Atlantic and of the Indian Ocean. Portugal became, thus, the first global power.

The Decline of the Eastern Empire and the Spanish Domination

Sea trade was, in the beginning, largely profitable, but the expenses of the upkeep of such a large and dispersed empire eventually became larger than the profits.

Sea trade was, in the beginning, largely profitable, but the expenses of the upkeep of such a large and dispersed empire eventually became larger than the profits. By the end of the 16th century a succession problem was added to the economical problems: King D. Sebastião disappeared in the Ksar el-Kebir battle against the moors in 1478, without an heir to succeed him on the throne. Several candidates appeared, but the Spanish king won over them all, becoming the new ruler of Portugal. Although at the beginning Portugal benefited from the union, by the second decade of the 17th century the situation was reversed, due to higher taxes and participation in ruinous wars (particularly against Holland and England).

King D. Sebastião, by Cristovão de Figueiredo. He was the last king of the second dynasty. His death in Morocco in 1578, without leaving an heir to the throne, set in motion the events that culminated on the 1580 annexation of Portugal by Spain. In fact, this annexation respected the Portuguese customs and the Portuguese language in official acts, and Philippe II of Spain became Philippe I of Portugal, which meant that he was a king with two crowns.

The Restoration of Independence and the Brazilian Cycle

The process of independence began on the 1st of December of 1640 and ended in 1668 when a peace treaty was signed. With this treaty Spain recognized the fact that Portugal had regained its independence.

Portugal began concentrating its efforts in the development of the Brazilian economy, as a substitute to the lost eastern empire. The production of sugar was encouraged. By the end of the 17th century gold mines were found in Brazil, causing a gold rush. Portugal’s finances improved enormously. The Portuguese state had again large sums of money to spend. This put an end to the efforts that were being made since the end of the 17th century to develop a modern manufacturing industry in Portugal, with the purpose to end the chronic lack of manufactured goods.

Statue of St. Sebastian (left) inserted in the façade of the Convent of Mafra (right), near Lisbon. João V (1689-1750),
had it built to fulfil a vow asking for an heir to the throne. It is the most important work from the Portuguese Baroque,
and its construction was possible thanks to the revenues from Brazilian gold.
The cultural importance of the convent was quite significant – it created its own school of sculpture.

Baroque Church, convent of Salzedas, northern Portugal. The history of this convent goes back to the 12th century,
but in the 18th century, like many other religious buildings, it went through renovation works that gave it the baroque appearance that it presents today.

The Pombaline Wave of Development

A new wave of industrial development, seen as necessary because of the announced exhaustion of the Brazilian gold mines, took place after the second half of the 18th century.

The then prime minister of the king D. José I, Marquês de Pombal (the man behind the reconstruction of Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755), encouraged a series of investments in this area, thus lowering the dependence of the country in foreign manufactured goods. He also finished, in fact, with the Inquisition, ended the legal differences between old and new Christians (descendents of Jews), and reformed the educational system. On a less bright side, he persecuted the high nobility and the order of Jesus (who were expelled from Portugal and from its overseas territories), in pursuit of his policy for the reinforcement of the royal power. The relative prosperity of this period was brutally put to a halt with the French invasions, in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Bird’s eye view of downtown Lisbon in the beginning of the 20th century, showing the urban
rational plan in which Lisbon was constructed after the big earthquake of 1755 that destroyed
most of the city and affected a big part of the country.
Following the ideology of the Enlightenment, the streets follow a grid pattern.
The buildings obeyed to strict norms of height, decoration and anti-earthquake construction techniques.
In http://degradacaodabaixalisboeta.blogs.sapo.pt/5315.html, 01/02/2010 .

Chemistry Laboratory, University of Coimbra, currently a Museum of Science.
It was built between 1773 and 1777, during the reformation of the university undertaken by the Marquês de Pombal. It is the most relevant neoclassical building in Portugal. It embodies the ideology of the Enlightenment of a more practical way of teaching science. This laboratory became central in the formation of doctors and pharmaceuticals

Soup tureen from Fábrica Real do Rato (founded in 1767),
one of the industries created during the Marquês de Pombal administration,
in accordance with his politics of diminishing the country’s dependence on manufactured goods.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA),
in http://abrancoalmeida.com/category/museus/, 01/02/2010 .

The Peninsular Wars and the Liberal Revolution

The invasions took place because Portugal didn’t agree to close its ports to the English trade (vital to the Portuguese economy), a demand made by Napoleon to the country. As a result, the royal family fled to Brazil with English support, in order to avoid what happened in Spain, where the monarchy had become a puppet of the French emperor. Meanwhile the British, taking advantage of several popular uprisings all over the Peninsula against the French dominion, sent troops to fight the invaders.

By the end of the invasions, the country was ravaged, many of the manufactures created by Pombal in ruins and, to complete this bleak scenario, Portugal had become a sort of British protectorate, ruled by General Beresford, with the merchants of that country controlling a substantial part of the trade with Brazil. This set up displeased the Portuguese merchants, especially the ones from Oporto, and this explains partially the uprising of the Liberal Revolution of 1820. The Cortes (Parliament) demanded the return of the king from Brazil and composed a Liberal Constitution for the country (1822), inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution.

Contemporary caricature of D. Pedro (liberals) and D. Miguel (absolutists),
the two brothers on opposing sides in the civil war (1831-1834).
In http://pre-vestibular.arteblog.com.br/76/, 01/02/2010

This is how a constitutional monarchy appeared. The independence of Brazil in 1822 sets off a period of troubled times for the liberals. The supporters of the old absolutist system, dissatisfied with the course of the events, went to war against the liberals. This civil war lasted until 1834, when the liberals won it, led by D. Pedro, former emperor of Brazil and brother of D.Miguel, leader of the absolutist wing.


Allegory to the 1822 Constitution.

The Parliamentary Regime – the First Wave of Modern Industrialization

Liberal governments promoted many agrarian, industrial and administrative reforms, and developed the transport system (namely installing a railway network, improving ports and building new roads). These measures allowed for a new wave of development, limited however, by the lack of capital, technology and know-how.

Bourse (1842), Oporto.
This building represents the economical power of the merchants of Oporto,
one of the social forces behind the liberal revolution in Portugal. (APH photo).


Ponte de D. Luís (1881-86), Oporto,
built during the wave of industrialisation
of the second half of the 19th century. (APH photo).

The Crisis at the End of the 19th century and the Spread of Republicanismn

At the Berlin Conference (1884-85) for the partition of Africa, Portugal, against all odds, was able to maintain its African settlements and even enlarge them, partly on the grounds of historical rights, and partly due to the interests of the larger powers (namely Britain), which preferred to have a minor player on the game, easier to handle.

The last decades of the 19th century, in a context of a financial crisis, saw a growing dissatisfaction with the parliamentary monarchy, considered wasteful and at the service of foreign powers. The Ultimatum made by Britain to Portugal, demanding the partition of southern Africa, was one of the low points of the constitutional monarchy – the king’s quick capitulation to the British requests was seen by the public opinion as being a proof of its treachery. In this climate, it is easy to understand the rapid growing of support for the Republican Party, seen as a saviour of the nation. The political and social climate was, thus, explosive. In 1908 the king and the heir to the throne were murdered. In the 5th of October of 1910 the Republic was proclaimed. The regnant king (the younger son of the deceased king) went into exile in England, never coming back. .

Contemporary caricature of the British Ultimatum to Portugal, in 1890.
On the left side of the picture is John Bull, shouting Ultimatum to an old an weak Portugal and its king.

The First Republic

The Republic, wanting to give a sign that this was a new period in the history of Portugal, created new symbols – a new anthem, a new flag and a new currency. In reality, the parliamentary system maintained its main characteristics – it was still a regime ruled by few, where only a minority of the “people” voted to choose the rulers (censitary suffrage). Even so, important steps were taken to assure a more secular modern society – the civil registration was created, ending the monopoly of the church regarding this issue; state religion was abolished; religious oaths at trials were terminated; divorce was made possible; the workers were granted labour rights (striking, weekly rest, social bonuses); education was given a new impetus; the press was given wider liberty of speech, etc.

However, the economic weakness and the political immaturity of the system led to a huge social and political instability – between 1910 and 1926 Portugal had eight presidents and 45 parliaments.

Number of primary schools in Portugal, from the advent of the republic to 1925,
the year before the right wing military coup. (A.H. de Oliveira Marques, Histótia de Porttugal, vol. III).

Last monarchic flag(left).
The republican flag(right).

The Advent of the Authoritarian Regime

The situation of political instability of the first Republic, aggravated by the participation in the I World War, and the following financial and economic crisis, led to a right wing military coup in 1926, which established a military dictatorship. The press began being censured and all liberties were diminished. This military dictatorship eventually evolved to become a regime with fascist tendencies. With the consolidation of Salazar in power in the beginning of the 1930´s, a new period was inaugurated. In 1933 a new constitution was drawn, erasing most of the social and political advances introduced by the Republic – the Estado Novo (New State), had began.


Portugal remained neutral in the II World War, but this neutrality tended, in fact, to the allied side (Britain first, and than the USA, were given facilities in the Azores). When the war ended, Portugal was a founding member of the NATO, and the regime was put under pressure by the allies to democratize itself. At first this seemed to work, but with the increasing of the Cold War and with the fear of communism infiltrating the western countries, the non-democratic but fiercely anti-communist Portuguese regime looked like a lesser evil and therefore western pressure on the regime was reduced.

Propaganda poster for the new constitution.
It reads: “Authority, Order and Social Justice, Vote for the New Constitution”.

“In 1946, TIME magazine published an article about Portugal. In it, the country was described as “a melancholy land of impoverished, confused and frightened people”. And Salazar was depicted as a living example of Lord Acton’s law of politics: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In the magazine’s cover, a rotten apple, next to Salazar, symbolically translated the message”.

The Colonial War

The colonial aspect of the regime became, for the allies of Portugal, but especially for the United States, an increasingly embarrassing issue. The official American position was anti-colonial, and the Portuguese regime would not discuss the independence of its colonies. When the colonial war broke out, in 1961 (lasting until 1974), Portugal had few official allies in that matter, and became more and more isolated inside the UN.

Arrival of the first Portuguese troops in Luanda, capital of Angola.
The image shows these troops being greeted by the local white Portuguese population.


The departure of soldiers on boat, from Lisbon to the war fronts. The war took place on three fronts (Portuguese Guinea, Angola and Mozambique), lasted for 13 years and thousands of Portuguese youngsters participated in it. The pressure on the national budget was also enormous – a big chunk of it went for defence.


The Economic Growth and the Decadence of the Regime

The country’s economy grew steadily during the 50´s and 60´s, in great part due to the internationalization of the Portuguese economy – Portugal became a founding member of EFTA, the alternative European common market to the EEC. The more the country’s economy exported to the international markets, the more the colonies looked less interesting to the Portuguese investors. .

As the Portuguese society as a whole became richer and more aware of the global changes that were taking place, less and less people supported the colonial war and the politics of the regime. The emigration of Portuguese workers abroad (to escape the colonial war, the lack of liberties and in search of better standards of living), also contributed to the changes. The emigrants coming back to visit their families carried with them winds of change. The same can be said of the mass tourism from northern Europe – new ways of behaving and thinking permeated the, until then, quite conservative Portuguese society.

The official propaganda of the regime continued to insist in what it called the “traditional values”: God, Motherland and Family.
In http://guinevereuniversidade.blogspot.com/2009/09/antonio-de-oliveira-salazar-orcamento.html

The society, meanwhile, influenced by the new trends was changing fast. The appearance of national television (first broadcasts in 1956), helped to mould this new mentality.
http://guedelhudos.blogspot.com/2009/01/florbela-queirs.html, 01/02/2010

The Democratic Process

The desire for freedom and the dissatisfaction with the politics of the government (including the colonial war), were some of the causes of the fall of the authoritarian regime in a peaceful coup, led by the army, on the 25th of April of 1974.

The country turned then dangerously to the left, approaching itself of the soviet regime, a situation that worried enormously Portugal’s allies. This lasted 1 and half years, when another military coup (25th of November of 1975), brought the country back to the path of true democratization.


Group photo of the first government and President elected after the revolution (1976).


In 1976 a new Constitution was drawn up, substituting the one that had been in use since 1933. In 1985 the country joined the then EEC. These two events – the democratization of the country and its inclusion in the European Union mark the beginning of a new era for Portugal – its normalization as a stable and mature democracy.


Signature in Lisbon (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos), of the Treaty of Adhesion to the EEC (1986).


Some military that participated in the Carnation Revolution of the 25th of April 1974. It is known by this name because of the carnations that the military and other intervenient began wearing on that day. It was a peaceful revolution, with almost no bloodshed, apart from some victims killed by the political police of the overthrown regime. The destitute government (lead by Marcelo Caetano, that had succeeded to Salazar in 1968) went into exile, first to Madeira and then to Brazil.

Time magazine cover, August 1975. It represents the international fear of a communist political turn in Portugal, transforming it in the first Marxist country of Western Europe.

A APH - Associação de Professores de História é uma associação científico‑pedagógica de professores de História de todos os ciclos e graus de ensino.

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