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Portuguese Empire Essay

History Notes > Empires and World History (c. 1400-1900) Notes

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In what sense if any did the Portuguese found and maintain an "empire" in Asia, Africa and the Americas up to 1650?
The view that the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean and the Americas before 1650 fell short of constituting an 'empire' has relied on its characterisation as an essentially commercial enterprise: driven more by private entrepreneurialism than initiative from the state, interested in economic rather than territorial or political control and lacking cohesion. At first glance, and particularly when compared with the contemporary land-based empire of the Spanish in the New World or with the more intensively organised presence of the Dutch and English East India Companies which were to be the successors to Portuguese power in Asia, this is a fitting summation. It is, of course, also an over-simplification. The authority of the Portuguese state was not uniform, but fluctuated considerably across the period and across different regions; the struggle for power between the Crown and powerful nobles of an enterprising bent was a constant theme. Generally speaking, from the late sixteenth century, Portuguese influence in Asia was dwindling in the face of competition from other European powers, but even this was not a wholesale decline and there was a commensurate intensification of activity in Latin America. In both the Indian Ocean and Brazil, however, Portuguese presence had a significant impact, and this was due largely to the will of the Crown: patterns of economic activity in Asia were re-aligned to suit the requirements of the Portuguese enterprise, in line with economic policy that was emanating from the centre. While the Asian polities that the Portuguese found in Asia largely survived and retained independence, they were increasingly subject to Portuguese influence and involved in imperial trade networks. In Latin America, meanwhile, political and territorial dominance was more explicit. There was also a role for evangelization in the colonies, and the projection into the Indian Ocean of the Iberian animosity toward Islam honed during the Reconquista in Europe formed part of the imperial design of Portugal's monarchs and helped to create a worldwide Portuguese cultural community. In short, the view of Portuguese activity in the colonies as commercial, maritime or "unofficial" is not necessarily at odds with the idea of a Portuguese "empire"; the means by which imperial authority were imposed was merely the result of a uniquely Portuguese conception of the nature of that authority. There was, firstly, a significant official element in the organisation of commerce, particularly in the early stages of expansion. In the Indies, where the explicit objective of the Portuguese presence was to gain control of the pepper and spice trade to Europe, this was achieved through the imposition of a royal monopoly. Through the Estado da India and a succession of royally-appointed viceroys and governors, the apparatus of royal authority in the region created a militarised chain of ports in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. These included Goa, Hormuz, Sofala, Cochin, and Socatora in the western Indian Ocean and, in the Southeast Asia, Melaka. These fortified settlements were not only the bases for the Portuguese factors who collected the goods and organised their freight back to Lisbon, but also succeeded in closing off the overland caravan route for Asian commodities travelling to Europe, through the Levant. Thus between 1496 and 1506, Venetian imports from Alexandria fell by more than twothirds from, and those from Beirut by more than five-sixths. That the organisation of this monopoly was an explicitly royal venture should be clear from the opposition the Estado faced from the fidalguia in these early years: the centralisation of the royalist governor Afonso du Albuquerque in the second decade of the sixteenth century was

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