Portugal and Her Empire

Article excerpt

There exists a ranking-list of the sovereigns of Europe, drawn up in 1504 by the Pope, which was to serve as a guide to the importance of the various states until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 put matters of diplomatic precedence on a more rational basis. As might be expected, the Pope in 1504 considered that the Holy Roman Emperor ranked first, and he placed the Duke of Ferrara last. The King of England (Henry VII at the time) came seventh, but one place ahead, at sixth, was King Manuel I of Portugal, 'the Fortunate'.

At this juncture, England and Portugal were linked by an alliance, which formally went back a little over a century, but in real terms had existed for more than three centuries. The two Atlantic nations had much in common. Both had a high degree of unity by contemporary standards, and were making strides in royal absolutism; both had small populations compared with other states, most of their land still lying waste; they were rather rough culturally, and cut off from the main European centres, although they were starting to have their humanists and learned court ladies; both had their particular, indeed unique, variant on the late Gothic style common to Europe (Perpendicular in England, Manueline in Portugal).

What set them apart most fundamentally at this date was that Portugal was already having a powerful impact on, or encounter with (it is now difficult to use the term 'discovery' without inverted commas), the continents of America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. It was surely for this reason that the Pope considered that the Portuguese monarch ranked above the English one. Had not his predecessor, ten years before, in the treaty of Tordesillas (Tordesillas in Portuguese), divided the new European 'discoveries' exclusively between the Portuguese and Spanish thrones, and were not successive Popes engaged in confirming and refining the arrangement in a series of papal bulls?

Portugal's part in this process, although probably more fundamental (certainly begun earlier) than that of Spain, does not quite have a focal date to match that of 1492 - when 'Columbus sailed the ocean blue'. It was a slow progress around the African coast for much of the fifteenth century, followed by a successful bid for domination of the Indian Ocean at the start of the sixteenth. Perhaps there is a focal figure - that of Prince Henry the Navigator (simply Dom Henrique in Portuguese), a figure at least as much of symbolic as actual importance. But if there is one date which marks the climacteric, then it is July 8th 1497, when the four rather small ships of the petty nobleman Vasco da Gama, carrying perhaps around one hundred and seventy men, set off from the Tagus Estuary near Lisbon on the journey that was to lead to India. Vasco da Gama's voyage lies at the heart of the national poem of Portugal - Os Lusiadas of Luis de Camnoes, who was himself related to the family of the admiral.

The second most famous of Portugal's navigators, known in English as Magellan, although his earlier military career was in the service of his native country, finally made his circumnavigation under the flag of Spain. Portugal's pioneering effort bore within itself, for reasons that will always perhaps be slightly mysterious, the fruits of almost immediate decline. Within two centuries, it was to become England's client and 'oldest ally', while still, however, maintaining a considerable presence in the world.

The British went on to develop a world empire which, in terms of scope, variety, impact and economic importance, has never been equalled; they pioneered the Industrial Revolution; their culture and language gained unique prestige. Portugal's eventual balance of achievement was of a lesser kind. But it is not by any means nothing in comparison, as the traditional, rather strange, neglect of things Lusophone would lead one to believe.

The achievement has four main aspects. The first one is that Portuguese exploration predates that of all other European nations. …