A small, backward country, Portugal was the most surprising success in Europe’s imperialist impulse. It owed to fortuitous timing, as well to the skill and courage of Portuguese shipbuilders and explorers.
Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), the 3rd child of the king of Portugal, was devoted to reaching the India by sea. He set up an institute to study navigation and cartography, and, from 1418, sent expeditions down the African coast almost every year until he died.
Henry did not live to realize his ambition. During his life Portuguese sailors had barely passed Cape Verde, the westernmost point of Africa. But the work carried out under his patronage laid the foundation for subsequent exploration.
After Henry’s death, exploration slackened for lack of royal patronage. But when a new king, John II, came to the throne in 1481, sailing to the India got fresh wind in its sails.
Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama succeeded in his 1497–1499 voyage, at a cost of 2 of his 4 ships and 2/3rds of his crew: to disease, mutiny, storms, and unpleasant encounters with Arab merchants and his Hindu hosts. But the spices in his cargo hold paid for the expedition many times over.
Feeling flush, the Portuguese lost no time in sailing forth to further profits. Within a dozen years they had swept the Arabs off the Indian Ocean and had established trading forts from Mozambique and the Persian Gulf to the fabled Spice Islands.
The Portuguese reached South China in 1513. They arrived in Japan in 1543: the first Europeans to do so. Trade followed.
The Portuguese were masters of the Indian Ocean by 1515. Despite the mocking references to the Portuguese ruler as the “Pepper Potentate” and “Grocer King,” the Portuguese were unable to secure the spice trade monopoly they sought.
At the beginning of the 16th century Portugal had only a million inhabitants. Other than a few small cities, the economy was predominantly subsistence. On the coast, fishing and salt-panning were the primary occupations outside agriculture.
Portuguese economic prowess entirely owed to the small number of able-bodied seamen who sought their fortunes overseas: a number which averaged at any time only about 2,400.
Rather than conquer or colonize territory, the Portuguese focused on controlling the sea lanes from strategic seaside locations, thus facilitating hugely lucrative trade. Their initial success in the Indian Ocean disrupted the traditional trade routes, but these were gradually reestablished. By the end of the 16th century those routes handled more trade than the Portuguese fleet.
Owing to a paucity of people the Portuguese were spread thin. Even at their peak maritime strength in the 1530s, they possessed only about 300 ocean-going ships, with some of those on the Atlantic Ocean – African and Brazilian – routes.
It proved impossible to police routes over 2 oceans with so few ships. The crown was obliged to rely upon on contractors as well as royal officials. Both were inefficient and corrupt. Royal officials, while endowed with extensive powers, were poorly paid, so they supplemented their scant salaries by bribes from smugglers or their own illicit trading. Crown contractors simply took what they could when they could.
While the spice trade is most famous, it was only one of several that Portuguese kings attempted to monopolize for fiscal solvency. Among them were gold, ivory, and slaves. Attempts were even made to monopolize maritime trade with domestically produced staples, such as salt and soap.
What the crown could not monopolize it tried to heavily tax. This of course encouraged evasion, which was widespread. The higher the tax, the greater the incentive to smuggle.
The upshot was that Portuguese kings, like their Spanish counterparts, had to borrow to support their lavishness. This was mostly for short terms at high interest rates, against future deliveries of highly salable commodities such as pepper. The lenders were most often foreigners – Italians and Flemish – or those that had effectively been forced to specialize in portable wealth: Jews.
In the 1530s the Portuguese crown became alarmed at French freebooters along the Brazilian coast. As the English did in the 17 century, the king made land grants to private individuals in hopes of securing settlers at little expense.
The early Portuguese colonies did not flourish. The natives were often hostile and provided neither a market for Portuguese products nor reliable labor for the Brazilian economy. Not until the 1570s, with sugarcane and African slave labor, did Brazil amount to much to the Portuguese imperial economy.
In 1580 Portugal fell to the Spanish crown. From there its colonial legacy was picked apart by depredations from the Dutch and others.