Society and Government Middle Ages

The Early Portuguese Empire: Necessity Lays the Groundwork for a New Age

If you travel around the world today, you’ll notice that while many different languages are spoken, a few are more popular than others. 

For example, if you go to South America, you’ll find most people speak either Spanish or Portuguese. In Africa, English, French, and also Portuguese are common. But that’s not the only place you’ll find English spoken. It’s also popular in India, Australia, and throughout Asia. 

Technically, these languages originated from tiny countries in Europe. So, why are they spoken all around the world? 

The reason is because these countries, from the 16th to 20th centuries, had massive overseas empires that put them in control of lands very far from those which their people called home. 

This period of 400 years has had major implications on our modern world, but where did it all begin?

As it turns out, it was the result of necessity. The small Kingdom of Portugal, which roughly coincides with the modern nation of Portugal, found itself cut off from the rest of the world and had no choice but to expand outwards. 

Their decision to do so changed the world forever.

The Christians Conquer Lisbon and the Kingdom of Portugal is Formed

The modern nation of Portugal can be found on the Iberian Peninsula alongside the modern nation of Spain. Today, if you travel around the Iberian, you’ll find Catholic churches galore. This might make you think that the history of this territory is primarily Catholic. 

That’s where you’re wrong!

From 714 AD until 1492 AD, a significant portion of the Peninsula was under the control of the Ummayyad Caliphate, the name given to an Islamic-led kingdom. Although there were many different groups belonging to the Caliphate, they were collectively referred to as the Moors.  Seeing the arrival of the Moors as an existential threat to Christianity, the people of Europe rallied behind the Christian kings of Spain to try and “take back” these lands from who they perceived to be as invaders. 

They figured if they could stop them from advancing past Spain, they could stop the spread of Islam and save Christianity. 

The way in which this land was taken back from the Moors helped give rise to the numerous monarchies that later formed to create the Kingdom of Spain.

However, the Portuguese were the early winners in the Reconquista, or reconquest as it is now known. 

Using support from Crusaders coming from all over Europe, the Count of Portugal, who was originally part of the Spanish Kingdom of Asturias, managed to beat the Moors and drive them from the western coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. Finally, in 1147 AD, he laid siege to the city of Lisbon and drove the Moors far away.

The Country of Portugal was then upgraded to a kingdom and made independent from the Kingdom of Asturias. This was a momentous event in the history of Portugal, but it also set the stage for a whole new era of history. 

The Portuguese Explore the Canary Islands and Invade Morocco

Take a look at a map of Europe and what do you notice about the Kingdom of Portugal. It’s all the way over there in the corner, no? Tucked away behind Spain, far away from the rest of Europe. 

But it’s also quite close to Africa, is it not?

It sure is, and this is important because it helps explain the steps Portugal took in the next few centuries. 

But in addition to geography, Portugal’s hand was also forced by the political situation of the time. In the 12th century, the Iberian Peninsula was still largely under Moorish control. Trade existed between Christian and Muslim territories, but tensions were always higher. It would have been easier to trade with the rest of Christian Europe. 

But they were just…so….far….away.

So, what did the Portuguese do? They looked elsewhere. Instead of trying to get around the Moors and connect with Europe, they went on in their own direction. 

The first stop was the Canary Islands, which are a grouping of islands off the coast of modern Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean. They explored and conquered these in the 1370s AD. They would later lose them to Spain, but it was an important first step. 

From there, they moved to the Moroccon mainland and conquered the heavily fortified city of Ceuta in 1412 AD.

This was a truly remarkable achievement. Not only were the Portuguese underdogs in this fight, but by taking this city, they now had a stronghold on the African coast which they could use to explore the rest of the continent. 

And explore they did. 

Portuguese Navigation

Portuguese Navigation and the Birth of European Expansionism 

The Portuguese arrival on the African continent also signaled their arrival on the world stage. They were a force to be reckoned with. In addition, due to their strong maritime history, they became excellent navigators and shipbuilders. These two skills combined to create an extraordinary opportunity. 

Over the course of the next 100 years, Portuguese sailors visited the entire western African coast, establishing trade colonies that would go on to make them rich. Let’s not forget that many of these colonies were trading slaves, as in people. But this was acceptable at the time and is an important aspect of history nonetheless. 

The Portuguese eventually made it around the southern tip of Africa and beyond. 

Due to their reputation as explorers and sailors, Christopher Colombus first approached the Portuguese king to fund his trip across the Atlantics that connected Europe with the Americas. But he refused. 

Nevertheless, once Columbus had discovered this “New World,” (it was new only to Europeans, not the millions of people already living there), the Portuguese were amongst the first to go there, establishing massive colonies that made this tiny kingdom a powerful player on the European political stage. 

Portugal First, then the Rest of the World

Starting in the 15th century, overseas expansion became the name of the game for European monarchs. It was a way for them to increase their power without having to go to war with their neighbors, and it gave them access to remarkable riches. 

But Portugal was first. 

Driven by its need for resources and its desire for wealth, and by the fact that it was cut off from the rest of Europe by the hostile Moorish caliphate on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal set to the seas. 

In doing so, this tiny kingdom in western Europe changed the world forever.

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao