|Afonso I Henriques|
King John I was a very successful monarch, maintaining Portuguese independence from Castile, expanding Portuguese territory into north Africa and making an alliance with England that remains in effect to this day, making it the oldest alliance in the world. It was also under the reign of King John that Prince Henry the Navigator explored the African coast. The island groups of the Azores and Madeira were claimed by Portugal and the country became the preeminent power in the western world in the areas of exploration, sailing and cartography. All of this set a trend that was to continue and kept Portugal at the forefront of exploration and discovery of new lands and trade routes. It can be compared to American astronauts landing on the moon in the 1960’s as the Portuguese explorers were truly going “where no man had gone before” and discovered new lands and peoples, originally in Africa, who had never been contacted before. Under King Afonso V, Portuguese forces won further victories in North Africa and later, under King Manuel I, Portugal became a country with truly global influence.
Unfortunately, this was the peak period for Portugal and a decline was soon coming. One of the first causes involved the Jews who had previously been tolerated under King Manuel I but, when he married the Infanta Isabella of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile), part of the marriage contract stipulated that the Jews be removed from Portugal as they had been from Spain. After that time, Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country and as they had a very large presence in the banking and commercial sectors, the Portuguese economy took a heavy blow with this new policy. There was also a complacency that set in regarding the wealth Portugal was gaining from overseas, whether by the spice trade with Asia or the slave trade in Africa, and many took for granted that this prosperity would last forever while other countries were making serious inroads into all of these areas. There was also about to be a major problem with the Kingdom of Spain. However, mention should also be made of the great faith of Portugal. King Manuel I was a very devout Catholic and the first person to receive the honor of a Golden Rose from the Pope twice in his lifetime. The Portuguese took missionaries, often Jesuits, with them on all their overseas adventures and spread Christianity to vast new lands in Africa, Asia and South America. They were the first westerners to visit Japan and planted Christian seeds in that country that endured fierce persecution and centuries of isolation.
King John IV, the original Braganza monarch, was succeeded by the weak and chronically ill King Afonso VI under whom Portuguese fortunes continued to decline and he was ultimately deposed and exiled. The next monarch was King Peter II who allied with Britain and Austria in the War of Spanish Succession and whose forces even captured Madrid in the course of the conflict though the overall campaign was not a success. However, Peter was succeeded by King John V and under his leadership, the fortunes of the Kingdom of Portugal finally turned around. An ambitious man with a grandiose style, he expanded the Portuguese empire and brought wealth and prosperity back to the country through his victories and policies. An extremely pious man, he was also given the title of “Most Faithful Majesty” by the Pope, a title passed on to all subsequent Portuguese monarchs. He chose good ministers for the administration of the country, showed good judgment himself and presided over a flowering of art, architecture and other cultural achievements for Portugal.
The Anglo-Portuguese forces drove the French out of the country and along with the Spanish proved to be a major irritant to Napoleon. Eventually, the French were driven from the Iberian Peninsula but the region was far from free of conflict. In 1821 King John VI returned to Portugal and found a discontented country. From the beginning there had been those who sympathized with the French and their presence had only increased demands for constitutional government and an end to the absolute monarchy. A liberal constitution was produced in 1822 which greatly restricted royal powers, however, it did not include the colonies and Brazil, its status raised by the recent relocation of the seat of power there, rose up to demand independence. The son of King John VI, Peter, took the lead in this movement and became Emperor Peter (Pedro) I of Brazil. King John VI tried to dispense with the liberal constitution but the stage had already been set for a clash between those who favored constitutional monarchy and the supporters of absolutism.
Such hopes were well founded as the young King Peter V, who came to the throne in 1853, was a very intelligent and hard-working monarch. The infrastructure of the country was modernized and improved dramatically. However, there proved to be little time as the handsome young king died in 1861 during a cholera outbreak. Ironically, one of the areas that had most improved during his reign was the public health system. Still, his loss prompted further beneficial changes in that regard, most notably the passage of the Sanitary reforms. In 1878 slavery was abolished throughout the Portuguese colonial empire under King Luis I. He put Portugal at the forefront of oceanographic research but overall the country did not live up to the potential many saw in the time of Peter V. Political instability was a major problem as the liberal reforms had created a class of politicians, often corrupt, always eager to struggle for power and influence. Portugal fell behind other countries and was blocked from further colonial expansion in Africa as more countries became involved in the game.
Only a couple of years later a military coup sparked a revolution that saw the downfall of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1910. There was little popular support for the upheaval but the King was forced to go into exile in Great Britain. There was one major effort to restore the monarchy but this was ultimately unsuccessful and the fortunes of Portugal likewise continued to sink under republican rule. Chaos and power struggles ensued and the country declined ever farther. Order was only restored after the establishment of the Corporatist State in 1933 after which time the economy slowly began to improve. However, that progress was thwarted by the outbreak of communist-backed anti-colonial wars in Africa. Portugal was essentially forced to fight three wars simultaneously and the strain ultimately led to the so-called “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 after which the Portuguese colonies were abandoned.