The World Economy by the OECD Development Centre
Home | How to order | Did you know..? | Economic Statistics | Reviews |


Portugal emerged from Arab rule between 1147 when Lisbon was captured and 1249 when full sovereignty was established in an area corresponding roughly to its present boundaries. Its political regime was very different from that of Venice. Its reconquista was due mainly to militant crusading orders of knighthood. The military aristocracy and the church became the major landowners. In Portugal, as in Spain, the interests of church and state were closely linked. The crown was able to nominate bishops and collect ecclesiastical taxes, under a patronage system known as the “padroado real”. Although there were some clashes between Portugal and Spain, and for a time (1580–1640) Portugal had a Spanish king, there was a remarkably effective long–term territorial division of interests between the two countries. Under various treaties sanctioned by the Papacy, Portugal was able to develop its commercial and imperial interests in Africa, in the whole of Asia except the Philippines, and in Brazil without significant Spanish interference.

Portugal had three major advantages in developing its overseas commerce and empire. There was a clear strategic benefit in being located on the South Atlantic coast of Europe near to the exit of the Mediterranean. Deep–sea fishermen provided an important part of the Portuguese food supply and developed an unrivalled knowledge of Atlantic winds, weather and tides. The value of these skills was greatly enhanced by crown sponsorship of Atlantic exploration, research on navigation technology, training of pilots, and documentation of maritime experience in the form of route maps with compass bearings (rutters) and cartography. Portuguese shipbuilding in Lisbon and Oporto adapted the design of its ships (caravels) and rigging in the light of increasing knowledge of Atlantic sailing conditions. The biggest changes were in rigging. At first they concentrated on lateen sails, then added a mix of square sails and lateen for deeper penetration into the South Atlantic, with further changes for the much longer route round the Cape. Knowledge of these techniques was protected by forbidding sales of ships to other countries. A third commercial advantage was Portugal’s ability to absorb “new Christians” — Jewish merchants and scholars had played a significant role during Muslim rule. They were driven out of Spain, but many took refuge and increased the size of the community in Portugal. They were required to undergo proforma conversion and were subject to a degree of persecution, but they provided important skills in developing Portuguese business interests in Africa, Brazil and Asia, in scientific development, as intermediaries in trade with the Muslim world and in attracting Genoese and Catalan capital to Portuguese business ventures.

A fourth important influence on the pattern of Portuguese business interests was the heritage of slavery. In most parts of Western Europe, slavery had more or less disappeared in the middle ages, though it was a peripheral part of Venetian trade with Byzantium and the Muslim world. Portugal had lived in closer contact with the Muslim world than any other part of Western Europe. Portuguese themselves had had experience of being slaves and about ten per cent of the population in Lisbon were berber or black slaves. They were also used as a labour force in the sugar plantations and sugar mills which Portugal developed in Madeira and São Tomé.

Significant Portuguese activity in slave trading in Africa began around 1445 shortly after Portuguese navigators discovered and settled the Cape Verde islands (opposite Senegal). They were able to buy slaves from African merchants in this region in return for cloth, horses, trinkets and salt. Between 1450 and 1600 about 175 000 slaves were shipped to Portugal and its Atlantic islands. Later, as the trade developed, Portugal became more directly involved in capturing slaves further south in Angola. The crown organised the Casa de Escravos in Lisbon in the 1480s. The trade was highly profitable and expanded enormously at the end of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth century when Portugal shipped slaves to Brazil and handled most of the slave shipments to Spanish America (under slave trading permits (asiento) sold by the Spanish government). The slave trade received Papal legitimacy in 1455 with the bull Romanus Pontifex, which construed it as a form of missionary activity. Between 1500 and 1870, 9.4 million slaves were shipped to the Americas. About 4.5 million of these were supplied by Portugal.

The Portuguese crown took the initiative in exploring and developing the Atlantic islands and their sugar industry, and in creating a maritime bypass of the old caravan route which carried gold from Timbuktu in Mali to the Moroccan coast. This route had supplied two thirds of the gold entering Europe.

The leading role in these two developments was played by Prince Henrique (third son of the Portuguese king, John I, and nephew of the English king, Henry IV). For four decades (1420–1460) he applied his considerable financial resources to these ventures and prepared the ground for the later Portuguese breakthrough into Asian trade by developing navigational expertise.

In 1420, the crown took over the administration of the wealthy military orders. Henrique became administrator of the Order of Christ (successor to the Templars in Portugal), and his brother acquired a similar position in the Order of Santiago. Henrique used the assets of his Order to finance ventures in the Atlantic and Africa, and persuaded successive rulers (his brothers) to invest him personally with significant property rights in both areas.

Madeira (about 560 km into the Atlantic from the Moroccan coast) was discovered in 1420. It was uninhabited and extremely fertile. A sugar industry was developed with use of slave labour on similar lines to Venetian practice in Cyprus and Crete. The two sectors of the industry were cane plantations and sugar mills, with the bigger enterprises covering both activities. The industry was developed by leases to Genoese and “new Christian” entrepreneurs. Capital requirements were fairly substantial and the newest techniques were adopted in the mills. Instead of the large circular stone that was rolled over cut cane in the Venetian controlled mills, a new type of press with two cylindrical rollers was able to get more juice from the cane which no longer needed to be cut. The presses were operated with animal or water power rather than manually. Production expanded faster after Henrique’s death, when the industry was less tightly controlled. By 1500 Madeiran production was more than six times as big as that of Cyprus where output had plummeted. Portuguese sugar replaced it on the markets of Antwerp and Bristol. In addition to sugar, Madeira was a major source of timber. Wheat and wine production was also significant. The wine was of the malmsey type which the Venetians had brought to Crete from Syria.

The uninhabited Azores were discovered in mid–Atlantic (about 1 300–1 500 km from Portugal) in 1427 and settlement started in 1439. They were not very suitable for sugar production, but were a useful staging post for subsequent Atlantic trade, and augmented Portuguese knowledge of navigation in the Atlantic.

In developing navigation on the African coast, Portugal established settlements in two other significant island outposts. The Cape Verde islands were settled in 1460 and acted as a staging post for the slave trade. In this area, the Portuguese found malaguette (a coarse pepper substitute) and later a better quality pepper in Benin. Further east, São Tomé and Principe (in the Bight of Guinea) were settled after 1480. Sugar production was introduced and by the 1550s had supplemented Madeira as the major centre of Atlantic production.

In 1482, Elmina fort was built on the coast of what is now Ghana. This was centre of the gold trade. Gold became the biggest source of income for the Portuguese crown. At Elmina the main source was Ashanti gold, at trading points on the Guinea coast it was gold diverted to Portuguese traders from the caravan route from Timbuktu to Morocco. Total gold exports of West Africa between 1471 and 1500 amounted to 17 tons. This helped the Portuguese crown to finance its most expensive venture — the opening of a Cape route to Asian trade.

Circumnavigation of Africa in order to get direct access to the spices of Asia was not a new idea. The Vivaldi brothers had set out from Genoa in 1291 and disappeared in the attempt. By the end of the fifteenth century, it was clear that such a venture would be very expensive and highly risky, but political developments in the Eastern Mediterranean suggested that the old Venetian route through Egyptian and Syrian middlemen was under threat, and that the potential profits from a new route would be very rewarding.

The Portuguese had an unrivalled knowledge of sailing conditions in the Atlantic and halfway down the African coast. There had been developments in ship design, rigging and seamanship which made it possible to contemplate long–distance trips in stormier seas than the Venetians encountered in the Mediterranean.

The preparations for this venture were carefully planned and spread over a couple of decades. They involved research on techniques of navigation, astronomy and cartography and collection of information on trading conditions in Asia and East Africa. The second component was a series of trial voyages to explore possible routes and wind patterns down the whole length of the African coast.

The third component was a voyage to India to explore trading conditions and possibilities for establishing the sort of bases already established on the African coast. In the Mediterranean, navigators from the thirteenth century had relied on the compass to determine direction, a sandglass to measure time and a traverse board to measure deviations from course. As the main routes had been known since antiquity, they had reasonable charts, a fair idea of the distances they had to travel and rough methods for judging speed.

The Portuguese were now exploring unknown waters, and had to rely much more on celestial navigation. In the Northern hemisphere Portuguese navigators knew that the pole star provided a roughly constant bearing and altitude, maintaining roughly the same height on a particular parallel of latitude. On a north–south passage a navigator could observe the pole star each day at dawn and dusk (when he could see both the star and the horizon). By noting changes in altitude he could get some idea of changes in his position. In sailing east–west, he could keep a steady course by maintaining a constant polar altitude. All this had to be done very crudely using finger spreads or other rough means to estimate changes in altitude. Measurement was greatly refined by the invention of the quadrant, first recorded in 1460 by Gomes, a professional navigator in the employ of Prince Henry. Parry (1974, p. 174) describes the quadrant as follows: “The seaman’s quadrant was a very simple device; a quarter of a circle, with a scale marked on the curved edge, and with two pinhole sights along one of the straight edges. A plumb line hung from the apex. The sights were aligned on the star and the reading taken from the point where the plumb line cut the scale. Polar altitude in degrees gave the observer’s latitude.” This way a navigator could measure his distance from Lisbon, or some other place whose polar altitude he already knew.

In the Southern hemisphere, the pole star was not visible, and there was no other star with the same properties. Instead the altitude of the sun had to be used but one could not study its position with the naked eye. In 1484, John II created a commission of mathematical experts and astronomers to observe and measure solar altitude. The instrument for measuring distance from the equator was the mariner’s astrolabe, derived from astrolabes used by medieval astronomers. It was a graduated brass disc, with a bar which was rotated until the point of light shining through the upper sight fell on to the lower one. It was used at midday when the sun was at its zenith. As there were no accurate clocks a series of readings had to be taken around what appeared to be midday, to derive the maximum altitude. As the distance between the equator and the sun changes from day to day and year to year, mariners needed accurate tables of the sun’s declination. John II’s commission produced a simplified version of the Almanach of the Jewish astronomer Zacuto, and successfully tested the possibilities of finding latitude on a trip to the African coast in 1485. Estimates of the sun’s declination were incorporated in a navigational manual Regimento do Astrolabio e do Quadrante which was available to da Gama when he sailed to India in 1497. Da Gama had direct contact with Zacuto who had come to Lisbon as a refugee from Spain. The Regimento also contained a translation of a work by a thirteenth century English mathematician, Holywood (known as Sacrobosco), who was a pioneer of spherical astronomy, pointed out the errors in the Julian calendar and suggested a correction more or less the same as that incorporated in the Gregorian calendar 350 years later. All this Portuguese research and development was done 50 years before Copernicus published his work on celestial orbits in 1543, but the committee would surely have had an immediate understanding of its significance.

There were preparatory voyages to gauge the feasibility of a passage to India by Diogo Câo in 1482–4 and another by Bartolomeu Dias in 1487–8. Câo found the mouth of the Congo river and went past the future sites of Luanda and Benguela in Angola. The voyage of Dias was more rewarding. He had two caravels and a store ship, found a better route to Angola, and at Lüderitz Bay on the coast of Namibia, in the face of adverse winds, discovered it was useful to veer well out west into the Atlantic to catch winds which took him round the Cape. He sailed 1 000 kilometres east of the Cape before turning back. The trip took 18 months. He had sailed nearly 13 000 kilometres from Lisbon. The return passage was somewhat shorter because he found favourable winds from the Cape to the Azores. He had demonstrated that the Atlantic and Indian oceans were connected.

There was also an exploratory trip by land. Pero da Covilhã had been a spy in Spain and Morocco, spoke fluent Arabic and could pass for a Muslim. Armed with letters of credit he went to Cairo via Barcelona, Naples, Rhodes and Alexandria, down the Red Sea coast by caravan, took a ship at Aden for Calicut (in Kerala) which was known to be the major Indian emporium for the spice trade with a hinterland in a rich spice–growing region. He made an extensive reconnaissance of the west coast of India as far north as Goa and the East African coast down to the port of Sofala. He sent a report on his findings in 1490 via a Portuguese emissary in Cairo, and acting on a second set of instructions he visited Hormuz, the centre of the spice trade in the Persian Gulf.

Thus the Portuguese committee was well briefed on trading conditions in India and East Africa and possibilities of navigation in the Atlantic before entrusting Vasco da Gama with a passage to India in 1497–9.

In 1484, John II received a proposition for a westward passage from Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator who had spent eight years in Portuguese ships sailing to the Atlantic islands and the Guinea coast. He asked the king “to give him some vessels to go and discover the Ile Cypango by this Western Ocean” (Morison, 1974, p. 31). The committee rejected the proposal because they thought Cypango (Japan) was a fiction of Marco Polo and that Columbus greatly underestimated the distance to Asia. Eventually the Columbus venture was financed by Queen Isabella of Spain. In 1492, he sailed to the Canary Islands, and from there reached the Bahamas in 33 days. He spent more than three months in the Caribbean where he found Cuba and Haiti without realising that the islands were in the middle of a huge unknown continent. Because of stormy weather on his return voyage, he was forced to land in Lisbon in 1493 for refitting, and had to brief John II. The Portuguese did not believe that Columbus had reached Asia, and knew he had not found spices. However, in anticipation of a flurry of Spanish maritime exploration, and to protect Portuguese interests, the Treaty of Tordesillas was negotiated with Spain in 1494. This stipulated that Portugal would not compete in the West Atlantic. On Portuguese insistence, the dividing line was fixed 370 leagues west of the Azores (about 48 degrees west of the Greenwich meridian). Portugal not only got a free hand for its Asian project and African interests, but established a legal claim to Brazil (which was found six years later).

The last step in the preparation for da Gama’s voyage was to provide two specially built ships, constructed with advice from Dias. Jones (1978), p. 30, compares them with the caravels used by earlier navigators as follows: “a stouter, roomier craft, standing higher in the water and able successfully to navigate in coastal waters, better able to stand long periods in the ocean, safer in the tempests of the tropics, and with better quarters for the crew. He designed the vessels to have a foremast, and mainmast, square rigged with mainsail and topsail, a square spritsail at the bow and a small lateen–rigged mizzen stepped right aft on the castle. These probably provided a sail area, without bonnets, of about 4 000 sq. feet. Main and fore each had a crow’s nest — Length of hull was probably slightly under seventy–five feet, with a beam a third of that.” The ships “were about 200 tons register in present day terms”, they each had 20 guns firing stone balls weighing a few ounces. In addition, da Gama had a 50 ton caravel and a small supply ship. His crew of about 160 included gunners, musicians and three Arabic interpreters. He carried trade goods of a type used in West Africa (coarse cloth, bells and beads) which were virtually useless in Asia.

Da Gama sailed from Lisbon in July 1497 to Cape Verde. Shortly thereafter (about 150 kilometres off Sierra Leone) instead of heading southeast which was the normal route down the African coast, he veered southwest far into the Atlantic and eventually caught winds which blew him southeast around the Cape. By Christmas he had rounded Africa, and moved up the East coast, visiting Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi. Economic life there was much more sophisticated than in West Africa. The coastal towns had merchants — Arabs, Indians from Gujarat and Malabar and Persians — who imported silk and cotton textiles, spices and Chinese porcelain and exported cotton, timber and gold. They had professional pilots familiar with monsoon conditions in the Indian ocean. Their ships were sturdy, but the Portuguese noted that they were constructed without nails. Instead the timbers were stitched and bound together with ropes made of coconut fibre (coir) which was widely available in Southern India and Ceylon. The local population were an Afro–Arab mix, speaking Arabic and Swahili, wearing cotton clothing and using coined money. He was able to get a competent Gujarati pilot from the ruler of Malindi (in Kenya), who got him to Calicut (in Kerala) in less than a month.

The Portuguese remained in Calicut for three months, discovered a good deal about prices and conditions in the spice market, but failed to establish amicable relations with the local ruler or to sell their trade goods. The return trip to Malindi took three months. They found it difficult to man the ships as many of the crew had died of scurvy, so they burned the São Gabriel (one of the specially built ships). They had already dismantled the supply ship on the outward journey.

The caravel returned to Lisbon in July 1499, and da Gama got back in August (having stopped to bury his brother in the Azores). In the two year voyage, he had lost half the crew and two of the ships, and had very little in the way of cargo. However, he had proved the feasibility of the route, found a new source of gold in East Africa, had established that there were no maritime fleets in the Indian Ocean which could impede Portuguese access to the spice trade. He also let it be known that there were Christians in Kerala.

This news was received enthusiastically in Lisbon, and there was a quick follow–up. In March 1500, Pedro Cabral was given command of 12 ships and more than 1 000 men to improve on the route, bring back a significant cargo and establish a base on the Kerala coast. There was fairly extensive private participation in the cost and benefits of the trip.

Cabral went farther west in the Atlantic than da Gama and had the good luck, after a month at sea, to be the first navigator to encounter Brazil. He stayed a few days at a point he called Porto Seguro (about 350 km south of Bahia), and immediately sent a ship back to Lisbon to announce his finding territory which lay well within the area allotted to Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

On the East African coast he stopped off at Sofala and Kilwa which da Gama had missed, got a pilot in Malindi and was in Calicut within six months of leaving Lisbon. He stayed in Calicut for two months and was given a large house as a trading base (known as a factory). However, he had to leave in a hurry. The Portuguese seized a local vessel on its way to Gujarat and another leaving for Jedda on the Red Sea. In retaliation, local muslim traders attacked the Portuguese factory, killed over 50 Portuguese and took the trade goods. In return Cabral captured ten more local vessels and bombarded the unfortified town (see Subramanyam, 1997, pp. 180–1). He sailed 150 kilometres further down the coast to Cochin, where he was able to load additional cargo and create the basis for a permanent factory. He left some of his people behind for this purpose and took three Cochin representatives back to Portugal. Before leaving for Malindi, he stopped in Cannanur (about 70 kilometres north of Calicut) to pick up a cargo of cinnamon.

Cabral arrived back in Lisbon around the beginning of July 1501 with five vessels. The cargo, mostly pepper, appears to have been around 700 tons, but the loss of seven ships (six on the way out, one on the way back) and the violence in Calicut were not encouraging.

Da Gama was sent on a second mission to India with a fleet of 20 ships, leaving Lisbon in February 1502. Fifteen of the ships were for the return journey, and another five (under the command of da Gama’s uncle) were destined to stay behind to protect Portuguese bases in India and to blockade shipping leaving India for the Red Sea. By June, da Gama had traversed the Cape and stopped at Sofala to buy gold. At Kilwa, he forced the local ruler to agree to pay an annual tribute of pearls and gold, and left there for India. He waited offshore at Cannanur, for ships returning from the Red Sea. He captured one returning from Mecca with pilgrims and a valuable cargo. Part of the cargo was seized and the ship was burned with most of the passengers and crew (see Subrahmanyan, 1997, pp. 205–9). Then he put into Cannanur, and exchanged presents (he offered silver and got precious stones) with the local ruler, but did no business as he found the price of spices too high. He headed in the direction of Cochin, stopped his ships opposite Calicut and demanded that the ruler expel the whole Muslim merchant community (4 000 households) which used the port as a basis for trading with the Red Sea. The Samudri, the local Hindu ruler, refused, so da Gama bombarded the city as Cabral had done. He got to Cochin at the beginning of November, where he was able to buy spices against silver, copper and the textiles he had taken from the ship he sank. A permanent factory was set up in Cochin, and five ships were left to protect Portuguese interests.

Before leaving for home, da Gama’s fleet was attacked by more than 30 ships financed by the Muslim traders of Calicut. They were routed after Portuguese bombardment, and part of the Muslim merchant community in Calicut decided to move their operations elsewhere. These naval engagements showed clearly the superiority of armed Portuguese ships over those of Asian countries.

Da Gama returned to Lisbon in October 1503, with 13 of his ships and nearly 1 700 tons of spices, i.e. about the same as annual Venetian imports from the Middle East at the end of the fifteenth century. However, the Portuguese margins on this trade were much bigger than the Venetian. Most of these spices were marketed in Europe via Antwerp, which was the chief port of the Spanish Netherlands.

The voyages of Dias, Cabral and da Gama had laid the foundations of the Portuguese trading empire in East Africa and Asia. Portugal held a monopoly of the traffic round the Cape until the last decade of the sixteenth century.

The Mameluke regime in Egypt sent a fleet in 1509 to try to stop interference with shipping to the Red Sea but they were defeated by the Portuguese at Diu off the coast of Gujarat. However, Portugal did not succeed in establishing a base in the Red Sea, Aden was taken by Turkey in 1538, and the old Asian trade to Egypt was reopened from about the middle of the sixteenth century. Portugal did acquire a fortified position at Hormuz which dominated the entry to the Persian Gulf for about a century. There was no blockade of trade with the newly established regime in Safavid Persia, but traders entering the Gulf and those using other Portuguese bases had to pay for safe–conduct passes (cartazes). In addition Portugal levied customs duties on goods travelling through its Asian bases.

Wake (1979, p. 377) provided a rough estimate of annual Portuguese spice imports. In the first half of the sixteenth century they averaged 1 475 metric tons a year, 1 160 in the second half. In 1600, total West European consumption was probably about twice the 1500 level, and per capita consumption had risen by half.