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Portuguese Maritime Empire

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Portuguese Maritime Empire

Today, some people might struggle to find Portugal on a map (it's that tiny little country to Spain's left on the Iberian Peninsula). Still, less than 500 years ago, the Portuguese had an expansive empire of upstarting colonies and trading posts across the world. The Portuguese maritime empire's explorers were traveling the globe (circumnavigating it, in some instances), heralding in imperial fleets and European trading posts that would come to take over trade in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Portugal became a real contender with the other European maritime empires through its early and bold imperial efforts.

Portuguese Maritime Empire History

Portugal, like Spain, was one of the first European empires. Even before the age of maritime empires (1450-1750), Portugal was expanding into foreign lands. In 1415, Portuguese King John I invaded and captured the North-African city of Ceuta. Among the Portuguese invaders was Prince Henry the Navigator, son of John I, who would later play an important role in Portuguese maritime expansion. Although Ceuta did not provide much value for the Portuguese, it symbolized a readiness for growth in the coming age.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Map Study SmarterMap depicting the territorial holdings of the Portuguese Empire across its history. Source: Edmundo Soares, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The Portuguese Maritime Empire's Search for India

But in 1453, the fall of Constantinople symbolized a new threat to Portugal and the European powers: the Ottoman Empire. Controlling much of the land trade between the west (Europe) and east (Asia), the Ottomans became a serious threat to European economies. Europe searched for new, more profitable paths to India and East Asia.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Caravel Study SmarterDrawing of a Portuguese Caravel. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus proposed traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new route to India, but the Portuguese denied him. Columbus discovered land on his voyage in 1492, but no European had yet found a maritime passage to the Indian Ocean. In 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama accomplished that very task by sailing down and around the southern tip of Africa.

Caravel:

15th-century Portuguese sailing ship that utilized highly effective lateen sails (set of triangular sails).

Almost immediately, the Portuguese began sending fleets of maneuverable caravels around Africa and into India, charting maps and establishing trading posts along the way. In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led a Spanish fleet in the first circumnavigation of the globe, bringing greater Portuguese interest to Indonesia. In a handful of years, Portuguese explorers had changed European navigation and trade forever.

The Portuguese Maritime Empire's Division of the New World

While the Portuguese maritime empire rejected Columbus's plan to travel across the Atlantic, the empire fully intended to capitalize on the Italian explorer's discovery. In negotiating with Spain under the supervision of the Catholic Church, Portugal and Spain signed the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing territories of the new world between them. Portugal claimed modern-day Brazil as though it were free for the taking.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Culture:

The Portuguese maritime empire experienced great wealth in its early days. Portugal's historical and current capital, a city named Lisbon, became an illustrious beacon of western European success through its blooming art and architecture. The Iberian homeland of the Portuguese maritime empire was largely ethnically and linguistically homogenous, its citizens sharing a rich Portuguese culture. Portugal's trading ports in Africa and Asia saw little interaction with the native cultures except in Brazil, where Portuguese culture and language became ingrained in the South American country.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Social Structure

The Portuguese maritime empire was well prepared for the age of maritime empires. The aforementioned Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) gathered engineers, navigators, and traders in anticipation of funding exploratory voyages along the African coastline. Henry the Navigator wished to create a Christian maritime empire that could challenge the Islamic Ottoman Empire and its influence in Africa. Against common belief, Henry the Navigator did not establish a navigation school in Portugal. Instead, he gathered assets, invested in expeditions, and created a culture of maritime exploration in Portugal.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Henry the Navigator Study SmarterPortrait of Henry the Navigator. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It was through Henry the Navigator that explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco Da Gama came to prominence within Portugal, spreading the small European empire's influence throughout the world. Large social castes of sailors and maritime craftsmen formed in the Portuguese maritime empire, as well as a new level of wealthy merchant nobles (like Henry the Navigator) who profited from the riches of Portugal's Trading Post Empire.

Trading Post Empire:

Mainly in reference to Portugal, an empire characterized not by its dominance over large and contiguous swathes of land, but by its many trading posts that dominate trade and exhibit power in foreign regions.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Political Structure

The Portuguese maritime empire operated under a monarchal system, but the merchant noble class acquired new levels of power through funding foreign explorations. Unlike the four other European maritime empires, Portugal was unique in that it was structured as a trading post empire. In the 1500s, Portugal built over fifty trading posts along the African coast and in Asian waters. Feitorias in Goa, Malacca, and Macau were especially important in establishing Portuguese supremacy.

Feitoria:

A typically fortified Portuguese trading post built on an island or coastline.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Flag Study SmarterPortuguese maritime empire's coat of arms. Source: Eu El-Rei, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Political Control of Foreign Lands

The Portuguese maritime empire was cunning and brutal in its implementation of foreign policy. As a maritime empire does so well, Portugal used military force from mighty Carrack ships to batter their enemies when a trade agreement went awry. Additionally, the Portuguese enacted the Cartaz System in 1502 in the Indian Ocean.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Battle Ottoman Empire Study SmarterPortuguese ships battling Ottoman soldiers on land. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Cartaz System offered low-cost protection to sanctioned trading vessels within the Indian Ocean. Portuguese ships policed the ocean, enforcing the payment of taxes to Portuguese feitorias. Those who did not accede to taxation and Portuguese shipping laws, as well as those vessels who were not sanctioned under the Cartaz System (often Islamic competitors in the Indian Ocean), were attacked by Portuguese vessels. By the early 16th century, Portugal had formally established a monopoly over Indian Ocean trade.

Portuguese Maritime Empire Political Ties to Spain

Portuguese King Sebastian suddenly died in battle in 1578, leaving the Portuguese maritime empire in the hands of his great-uncle. But when his great-uncle died, Portugal was left without an heir. Wars for succession began, leading to the Spanish King Phillip II taking power. Spain and Portugal united in the Iberian Union, a devastating alliance for the Portuguese maritime empire.

Spain dragged Portugal into many European conflicts, draining Portugal of its acquired wealth and resources. The Portuguese maritime empire's power diminished greatly during this time. In 1640, the Portuguese Restoration War finally broke Portugal from its unwanted alliance with Spain.

The Beginning and End of the Portuguese Maritime Empire:

The Portuguese maritime empire was one of the first European empires to dominate the Indian Ocean. The empire acquired great wealth through its many trading posts, but Portugal's inability to ingrain its influence in foreign lands (instead, they policed foreign trade from their feitorias) led in part to the end of the empire. Without lasting influence in places such as the Indian Ocean, Portugal was easily replaced by other, more enterprising European powers.

Portugal managed to bounce back into power during the early 18th century through its newly discovered and flourishing gold mines in Brazil. But Portugal would continue to face adversity. In 1755, Portugal's capital of Lisbon was struck by a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami. Gradually, Portugal's territorial holdings in the Indian Ocean and East Asia fell into obscurity as the British Empire rose to the top of the European maritime empire hierarchy.

Portuguese Maritime Empire - Key Takeaways

  • The Portuguese Maritime Empire established many trading posts (often referred to as feitorias) along the African coast, in the Indian Ocean, and in East Asia. Historians often refer to Portugal as a trading post empire.
  • Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator sponsored the development of maritime navigation, tools, and ships in the 15th century. As a result, Portugal was well prepared for the era of European maritime empires (1450-1750).
  • Portuguese explorers Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan made great accomplishments in exploratory voyages. Gama discovered a route to the Indian Ocean by sea and Ferdinand Magellan's party circumnavigated the globe.
  • The implementation of the Cartaz System monopolized Portuguese trade in the Indian Ocean region.
  • Portugal's temporary alliance with Spain drained the empire of much of its newly acquired wealth and resources, but gold mines in Brazil somewhat made up for the losses.

Frequently Asked Questions about Portuguese Maritime Empire

The Portuguese maritime empire was a powerful trading post empire that dominated Brazil, the Indian Ocean, and East Asia. The Portuguese maritime empire signifies the power that a small European country could exhibit over many distant foreign lands through maritime might. 

The Portuguese maritime empire established trading posts, also known as feitorias, on distant islands and coastlines. Portuguese ships patrolled and policed the sea between feitorias, controlling trade in oceans thousands of miles away. 

Portugal's inability to establish many lasting colonies, its unwanted and detrimental political union with Spain and the natural disasters affecting Lisbon all contributed to the decline of Portugal's maritime empire. 

The Portuguese maritime empire used maritime military dominance to gain control of foreign seas thousands of miles away. Portuguese trading posts acted as economic bases of operation for Portuguese endeavors in foreign affairs. 

Portugal's inability to establish many lasting colonies, its unwanted and detrimental political union with Spain and the natural disasters affecting Lisbon all contributed to the decline of Portugal's maritime empire. 

Final Portuguese Maritime Empire Quiz

Question

Who led the expedition which discovered Brazil?

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Answer

Pedro Alvares Cabral

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Question

How was Brazil discovered?

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Answer

Cabral went drastically off course while attempting to reach India.

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Question

Why was Pedro Alavres Cabral chosen to head the expedition?

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Answer

The assignment was a political move, Cabral had ;little to no naval experience. 

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Question

What does brazilwood provide?

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Answer

Brazilwood produces a bright red dye.

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Question

What European disease caused the most damage to the native Brazilian population?

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Answer

Smallpox

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Question

Did the Portuguese bring any religious practices with them?

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Answer

Yes, Brazil is now a largely Catholic nation even in modern-day.

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Who led the voyage that Cabral was intending to copy?

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Answer

Vasco de Gama

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What year did Pedro Alvares Cabral arrive in Brazil?

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Answer

1500

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Question

Who incited the Age of Discovery?

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Answer

Prince Henry the Navigator

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Question

What was the ship design that enabled oceanic travel?

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Answer

the caravel

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What did the Portuguese add to nautical charts to denote the direction of seawinds?

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Answer

The Wind Rose


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What celestial body did the Portuguese introduce as a navigational tool?

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Answer

The Southern Cross

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Question

How did Manuel I limit access to Portuguese maps?

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Answer

He prohibited the sale of Portuguese maps outside of Portugal 

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Question

What famous explorer utilized the caravel design during his 1492 voyage?

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Answer

Christopher Columbus

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What was different about the caravel compared to previous ship designs?

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Answer

The caravel had triangular sails as well as a slim hull compared to the quadrangular rigging and round hulls of previous designs. 

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Question

Where did Portuguese sailors first explore?

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Answer

The shores of Africa

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Question

What did triangular sails allow sailors to do which was impossible previously?

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Answer

Sailors on a caravel could sail in multiple directions without relying on a wind from directly behind the ship. 

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What kind of boats was the design of the caravel based upon?

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Answer

Small fishing boats

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Question

What was the precursor to the compass rose?

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Answer

the wind rose

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Question

Which two women had claims to the Castilian throne?

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Answer

Isabella of Castile and Joanna la Beltraneja 

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Who did the Treaty of Alcacovas declare queen?

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Answer

Isabella of Castile

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Question

The treaty of Alcacovas confirmed that Portugal had a monopoly over land west of which continent? 

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Answer

Africa

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Question

Which islands did Spain receive through the treaty?

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Answer

Canary Islands

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Question

Why did the treaty include the marriage of Isabella of Aragon and Prince Afonso?

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Answer

To eventually combine Spain and Portugal

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Question

Which Papal Bull backed the treaty?

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Answer

Aeterni Regis 

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Why was Joanna's legitimacy questioned?

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Answer

Henry was infertile

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Which Portuguese king married Joanna?

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Answer

Afonso V

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Question

True/False

Isabella and Ferdinand's marriage began the unification process of Spain.

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Answer

True

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Question

True/False

The treaty was a land win for Portugal and a maritime win for Spain.

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Answer

True


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Question

When was the Treaty of Tordesillas signed?

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Answer

1494

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Question

What was used to divide the world between Portugal and Spain in 1493?

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Answer

The Line of Demarcation

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Question

Why did Portugal and Spain need the pope to draw the Line of Demarcation?

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Answer

Both Portugal and Spain wanted to claim the islands that Christopher Columbus located

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Question

True/False

The Line of Demarcation only applied to places without a Christian king.

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Answer

True

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Question

Why did Portugal need the Line of Demarcation moved?

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Answer

It was too close to Africa so the Portuguese ships needed more room to sail.

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Question

Which Treaty replaced the Treaty of Tordesillas?

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Answer

The Treaty of Madrid

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Question

Which treaty replaced the Line of Demarcation?

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Answer

Treaty of Tordesillas

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Question

Which pope issued the line of Demarcation?

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Answer

Pope Alexander VI

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Question

True/False

Isabel and Ferdinand threatened the pope for a more favorable Line of Demarcation.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following is untrue about the Treaty of Tordesillas

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Answer

It was signed in 1750

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Question

What change in Portugal led to the decline of their empire?

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Answer

Unification with Spain 

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Who was united with Portugal to create a united Iberian Penninsula?

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Answer

Spain

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Question

What part of the Portuguese Empire did the Dutch have the most lasting sucess taking from Portugal?

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Answer

Asia 

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Question

How besides warfare did England gain colonial land from Portugal?


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Answer

Marriage 

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Question

What organization was formed when Portuguese trading was cut off to enemies of Spain?


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Answer

Dutch East India Company 

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Question

Where did Portugal manage to regain much of the territory they lost in the Dutch-Portuguese War?

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Answer

Africa and Brazil 

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Question

What allowed Portugal to end many of their conflicts with other European powers?


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Answer

Independance from Spain 

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Question

What country militarily supported Portuguese independence? 

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Answer

England 

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Question

Where did the Dutch establish their strategic headquarters in India?


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Answer

Jakarta

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Question

Where were the Dutch unable to take trade from Portugal?

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Answer

China 

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Question

What Christian Military Order were many important Portuguese explorers members of?

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Answer

Military Order of Christ 

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