Portugal's adoption of the gold standard in 1854 is noteworthy for several reasons. Portugal was the first country in Europe, after the United Kingdom, to do so. It went against the then current trend which favored either demonetizing gold, as in the case of Holland, Spain or Naples, or a 'wait and see' posture while formally continuing with bimetallism, as in the case of France. 1 It was a decision taken two decades before the major continental powers began to switch to gold monometallism, during the 1870s, and some thirty years before the onset of what has come to be termed 'the classical gold standard era'.
Although we still do not have a satisfactory theory to account for the wave of countries which adhered to the gold standard in the 1870s, recent comparative studies have attempted to provide a general framework of explanation. 2 In this perspective, Portugal is interesting too, precisely because none of the factors advanced so far to account for the emergence of the gold standard as a multi-member international system satisfactorily fits the events which led to the 1854 decision.
In the first place, Portugal was hardly one of those richer and more industrialized nations for whom gold was preferable because of its greater convenience for large transactions. On the contrary, it was one of the poorest countries of Europe, with an economy that was predominantly agricultural and much less monetized than most. The argument that this was a choice aimed at favoring a rising and increasingly assertive 'urban-industrial class' to the detriment of a relatively less influential agricultural sector also fits the situation poorly. In Portugal, the fact that the scales of power were clearly tipped in the other direction makes this view implausible. On the other hand, if the aim of the reform was to benefit a debt-prone landed interest, it was gold, not silver, that was the 'weak' standard in the early 1850s and therefore likely to achieve this. For the socially and politically powerful agro-export interests, who might have stood to gain from the better terms of trade that a 'weak' standard made possible, the gold option made little difference since