History of Portugal

The history of Portugal is that of the rise of a nation to great world power, followed by a decline in fortune, then a resurgence. Following its heyday as a world power during the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal lost much of its wealth and status with the destruction of Lisbon in a 1755 earthquake, occupation during the Napoleonic Wars, and the independence in 1822 of Brazil as a colony. A 1910 revolution deposed the monarchy; for most of the next six decades, repressive governments ran the country. In 1974, a left-wing military coup installed broad democratic reforms. The following year, Portugal granted independence to all of its African colonies. Portugal is a founding member of NATO and entered the European Community (now the European Union) in 1986.


In the early first millennium BC, several waves of Celts invaded Portugal from Central Europe and intermarried with local peoples, the Iberians, forming the Celt-Iberians. Early Greek explorers named the region "Ophiussa" (Greek for "land of serpents") because the natives worshiped serpents. In 238 BC, the Carthaginians occupied the Iberian coasts. In this period several small tribes occupied the territory, the main were the Lusitanians, who lived between the Douro and Tagus rivers, and the Callaeci who lived north of the Douro river among some other tribes. The Conii, of possible Phoenician origin, was established in southern Portugal for a long time. The Celtics, a later wave of Celts, settled in Alentejo.

In 219 BC, the first Roman troops invaded the Iberian Peninsula, driving the Carthaginians out in the Punic Wars. The Roman conquest of Portugal started from the south, where they found friendly natives, the Conii. Over decades, the Romans increased their sphere of control. But in 194 BC a rebellion began in the north, the Lusitanians successfully held off the Romans, took back land and ransacked Conistorgis, the Conii capital, because of their alliance with Rome. Viriathus, the Lusitanian leader, drove the Roman forces out. Rome sent numerous legions, but success was only achieved by bribing Lusitanian officials to kill their own leader. During this period, a process of Romanization was carried out, leading Lusitania to gain Latin Right in 73 AD.

Birth of a Country

In the 5th century, Germanic barbarian tribes, most notably the Suevi and the Visigoths, invaded the Iberian peninsula, set up kingdoms, and became assimilated.

An Islamic invasion took place in 711. Many of the ousted nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. In 868, Count Vímara Peres reconquered and governed the region between the Minho and Douro rivers. The county became known as Portucale (i.e. Portugal).

While a dependency of the Kingdom of Leon, Portugal occasionally gained de facto independence during weak Leonese reigns. Then at the end of the 11th century, a knight from Burgundy named Henry became Count of Portugal as a payment for military services to Leon. Henry declared Portugal independent while a war raged between Leon and Castile. Henry died and his son, Afonso Henriques (Afonso I), took control of the county. The city of Braga, the Catholic center of the Iberian Peninsula, faced new competition from other regions. The lords of the cities of Coimbra and Porto, together with the clergy of Braga, demanded the independence of the county.

Portugal traces its emergence as a nation to June 24, 1128, with the Battle of São Mamede by Afonso I. On October 5, 1143, Portugal was formally recognized. Afonso, aided by the Templar Knights, continued to conquer southern lands from the Moors. In 1250, the Portuguese Reconquista ended when it reached the southern coast of Algarve.

In an era of several wars when Portugal and Castile tried to control one another, King Ferdinand was dying with no male heirs. His only child, a single daughter, married King John I of Castile who would therefore be the King of Portugal after Fernando's death. However, the impending loss of independence to Castile was not accepted by the majority of the Portuguese people, which led to the 1383-1385 Crisis. A loyalist faction led by John of Aviz (later John I), with the help of Nuno Álvares Pereira, finally defeated the Castilians in Portugal's most historic battle of Portugal, the Battle of Aljubarrota. The victorious John was then acclaimed as king by the people.

In the meantime, the Black Death reached Portugal.

Portuguese Discoveries

In the following decades, Portugal created the conditions that would make it the pioneer in the exploration of the world. On July 25, 1415, the Portuguese Empire began when a Portuguese fleet, with King John I and his sons Duarte, Pedro, Henry the Navigator, and Afonso, along with the Portuguese supreme constable Nuno Álvares Pereira departed to besiege and conquer Ceuta in North Africa, a rich Islamic trade center. On August 21, the city fell.

In 1418 two captains of Prince Henry the Navigator, were driven by a storm to an island which they called Porto Santo, or Holy Port, in gratitude for their rescue from the shipwreck. Also in early 15th century, Madeira Island and the Azorean islands were discovered. Henry the Navigator's interest in exploration, together with some technological developments in navigation, made Portugal's expansion possible and led to great advances in geographic knowledge. The discoveries were financed by the wealth of the Order of Christ, an order founded by King Denis for the Templar knights, who found refuge in Portugal after being pursued all over Europe. The Templars had their own objective, finding the lost Christian Kingdom of Prester John.

In 1434, Gil Eanes rounded Cape Bojador, south of Morocco. The trip marked the beginning of the Portuguese exploration of Africa. Before this voyage very little information was known in Europe about what lay beyond it. At the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries, those who tried to venture there became lost, giving birth to legends of sea monsters. Fourteen years later, on a small island known as Arguim off the coast of Mauritania a castle was built, working as a feitoria (a trading post) for commerce with inland Africa thus, circumventing the Arab caravans that crossed the Sahara. Some time later, the caravels explored the Gulf of Guinea, leading to the discovery of several uninhabited islands and reaching the Congo River.

A remarkable achievement was the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomeu Dias in 1487. By then the spices of India were nearby, hence the name of the cape. In the last decade of the 15th century, Pêro de Barcelos and João Fernandes Lavrador explored North America , Pêro da Covilhã reached Ethiopia, searching for the mythical kingdom of Prester John, and Vasco da Gama sailed to India. In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on the Brazilian coast. Ten years later, Alfonso d'Albuquerque conquered Goa, in India.

In 1578, a very young King Sebastian died in battle, leaving no heir. Because Philip II of Spain was the son of a Portuguese princess, the Spanish ruler became Philip I of Portugal in 1581. Some men claimed to be King Sebastian between 1584 and 1598, originating the Sebastian myth. Portugal formaly maintained its independent law, currency, colonies, and government, under a personal union between Portugal and Spain. New empires had emerged and started to assault the Portuguese Empire. The third Spanish king, Philip III tried to further enforce integration, openly attacking the Portuguese nobility that was not in his favour. In December 1, 1640, the Duke of Bragança, of the Portuguese Royal Family, John IV, was acclaimed after a revolutionary turmoil, and a Restoration War was fought for a few more years.

Decline of the Empire

From the 16th century, Portugal gradually saw its wealth decreasing. Even if Portugal was officially an autonomous state, the country was a Spanish puppet and Portuguese colonies were attacked by Spain's opponents, especially the Dutch and English.

At home, life was calm and serene with the first two Spanish kings; they maintained Portugal's status, gave excellent positions to Portuguese nobles in the Spanish courts and Portugal maintained an independent law, currency and government. It was even proposed to move the Spanish capital to Lisbon. But Philip III tried to make Portugal a Spanish province, and Portuguese nobles lost power. Because of this, on December 1, 1640, the native king, John IV, was acclaimed, and a Restoration war against Spain was made. Ceuta governors didn't accept the new king and maintained their allegiance to Spain.

In the 17th century the Portuguese emigrated in large numbers to Brazil. In 1709, John V prohibited emigration, since Portugal had lost a sizable fraction of its population. Brazil was elevated to a vice-kingdom and Amerindians gained total freedom.

Pombaline Era

In 1738, Sebastião de Melo, the talented son of a Lisbon squire, began a diplomatic career as the Portuguese Ambassador in London and later in Vienna. The Consort Queen of Portugal, Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria, was fond of de Melo; and after his first wife died, she arranged the widowed de Melo's second marriage to the daughter of the Austrian Field Marshal Leopold Josef, Count von Daun. King John V of Portugal, however, was not pleased and recalled de Melo to Portugal in 1749. John V died the following year and his son, Joseph I of Portugal was crowned. In contrast to his father, Joseph I was fond of de Melo, and with the Queen Mother's approval, he appointed de Melo as Minister of Foreign Affairs. As the King's confidence in de Melo increased, the King entrusted him with more control of the state.

By 1755, Sebastião de Melo was made Prime Minister. Impressed by British economic success he had witnessed while Ambassador, he successfully implemented similar economic policies in Portugal. He abolished slavery in the Portuguese colonies in India; reorganized the army and the navy; restructured the University of Coimbra, and ended discrimination against different Christian sects in Portugal.

However, Sebastião de Melo's greatest reforms were economic and financial, with the creation of several companies and guilds to regulate every commercial activity. He demarcated the region for production of Port to insure the wine's quality, and his was the first attempt to control wine quality and production in Europe. He ruled with a strong hand by imposing strict law upon all classes of Portuguese society from the high nobility to the poorest working class, along with a widespread review of the country's tax system. These reforms gained him enemies in the upper classes, especially among the high nobility, who despised him as a social upstart.

Disaster fell upon Portugal in the morning of November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was struck by a violent earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale (see 1755 Lisbon earthquake). The city was razed to the ground by the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and fires. Sebastião de Melo survived by a stroke of luck and then immediately embarked on rebuilding the city, with his famous quote: What now? we bury the dead and feed the living. Despite the calamity, Lisbon suffered no epidemics and within less than one year was already being rebuilt. The new downtown of Lisbon was designed to resist subsequent earthquakes. Architectural models were built for tests, and the effects of an earthquake was simulated by marching troops around the models. The buildings and big squares of the Pombaline Downtown of Lisbon still remain as one of Lisbon's tourist attractions: They represent the world's first quake-proof buildings. Sebastião de Melo also made an important contribution to the study of seismology by designing an inquiry that was sent to every parish in the country.

Following the earthquake, Joseph I gave his Prime Minister even more power, and Sebastião de Melo became a powerful, progressive dictator. As his power grew, his enemies increased in number, and bitter disputes with the high nobility became frequent. In 1758 Joseph I was wounded in an attempted assassination. The Tavora family and the Duke of Aveiro were implicated and executed after a quick trial. The Jesuits were expelled from the country and their assets confiscated by the crown. Sebastião de Melo showed no mercy and prosecuted every person involved, even women and children. This was the final stroke that broke the power of the aristocracy and ensured the victory of the Minister against his enemies. Based upon his swift resolve, Joseph I made his loyal minister Count of Oeiras in 1759.

Following the Tavora affair, the new Count of Oeiras knew no opposition. Made Marquis of Pombal in 1770, he effectively ruled Portugal until Joseph I's death in 1779. His successor, Queen Maria I of Portugal, disliked the Marquis, and forbade him from coming within 20 miles of her, thus curtailing his influence.


The 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than a third of the capital's population and devastated the Algarve as well, had a profound effect on domestic politics and on European philosophical thought. From 1801, the country was occupied during the Napoleonic Wars. The Portuguese Court fled to Brazil. Shortly after, Brazil proclaimed its independence, under the rule of the Portuguese King Pedro IV (Emperor Pedro I of Brazil), who abdicated from the Portuguese Crown and left his daughter D. Maria I as Queen in a liberal regime.

Portuguese 19th Century is marked by the Liberalism. The divisions between king Pedro IV - liberal - and his brother, King Miguel, a conservative who overthroned Queen Maria I, led to the civil war between 1832 and 1834 and the signing of the new constitutions in 1836. The political and social evolution in the late 19th century is marked by instability.


A 1910 revolution deposed the Portuguese monarchy starting the First Republic. Political chaos, several strikes, harsh relations with the Church, and considerable economic problems aggravated by a disastrous military intervention in the First World War led to a military coup d'état in 1926, installing the Second Republic that would later become the Estado Novo in 1933, led by António de Oliveira Salazar, which transformed Portugal into a Fascist leaning state. India invaded and annexed Portuguese India in 1961. Independence movements also became active in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea, and a series of colonial wars started.

The burden of so many overseas wars and the lack of political and civil freedoms led to the end of the regime after the Carnation Revolution in April 25 of 1974, an effectively bloodless left-wing military coup, that installed a new democratic regime. In 1975, Portugal had its first free elections and granted independence to its colonies in Africa, and Indonesia invaded and annexed the Portuguese province of Timor in Asia before legal recognition of its independence by Portugal. In 1986, Portugal entered the EEC, today's European Union. In 1999, the Asian dependency of Macau, was returned to Chinese sovereignty, today seen as a success by China and Portugal. After a referendum in 1999, East Timor voted for independence and Portugal recognized it in 2002.


868 Establishment of the 1st County of Portugal, by count Vímara Peres, after the reconquest from the Moors of the region North of the Douro River.
1065 Independence of the Kingdom of Galicia and Portugal under the rule of Garcia.
1072 Lost of independence.
1095 Establishment of the 2nd County of Portugal, by Count Henry.
1095–1279 A Portuguese kingdom was established independent from Leon and extended southwards until it reached its present continental limits.
1128 "Independence" of Portugal.
1143 Recognition of the "independence" of Portugal.
1279–1415 The monarchy was gradually consolidated in spite of resistance from the Church, the nobles and the rival kingdom of Castile.
1415–1499 A period of crusades and discoveries, culminating in the discovery of an ocean-route to India (1497—1499).
1499–1580 Portugal acquired an empire stretching from Brazil eastward to the Moluccas, reached the zenith of its prosperity and entered upon a period of swift decline.
1581–1640 Spanish kings ruled over Portugal.
1640–1755 The chief event of these years was the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy.
1755–1826 The reforms of the Marquis of Pombal and the Peninsular War prepared the country for a change from absolutism to constitutional monarchy.
1755–1826 The reforms of the Marquis of Pombal and the Peninsular War prepared the country for a change from absolutism to constitutional monarchy.
1826–1910 Portugal was a constitutional Monarchy, and Brazil becomes independent.
1910–1926 The Republic was established.
1916–1918 Portugal contributes to the Great War on the Allies' side.
1926–1974 Portugal was under a dictatorial regime.
1974 A democratic regime was established.
1986 Portugal joins the European Communities (EEC later EU).