Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Colonial Problems of Portugal

It has often been said that the Portuguese were the first to have an empire and the last to lose it, for which there is basis. However, while other factors were certainly involved, the empire also played a central part in the ultimate downfall of the Kingdom of Portugal. Likewise, more than royalist plots, the First Republic came very near to being brought down by issues relating to the empire and it was the struggle to maintain the empire, against a world opinion that had turned against colonialism, which brought down the regime which had been the most conciliatory toward the former Portuguese monarchy since the establishment of the republic. The Portuguese empire was forged from such small beginning, so many centuries in the past, that it had become somewhat taken for granted and when the threat of losing it finally appeared, monarchical and republican governments struggled to defend it, sometimes at the cost of their own existence.

The first crisis of this sort to arise came over the issue of the vast interior of Africa which lay between the Portuguese colonies which are today Angola and Mozambique. The Portuguese had for centuries ventured little into the interior of Africa. Their primary aim had been commerce rather than conquest and so Portuguese control was focused on the coasts. However, as the “Scramble for Africa” by the major European powers began, the Portuguese were forced to take action before territory they always regarded as their own was seized by a rival power. So, the Portuguese Foreign Minister, Barros Gomes, drew up the “Rose Colored Map” in 1885 showing the area between Portuguese West and East Africa that Portugal claimed. This was to be used in dealing with the other colonial powers as most Portuguese had long assumed, and not surprisingly so, that since they held the land on the east and the land on the west, the land in the middle naturally belonged to them as well. Other powers did not see it that way, particularly Portugal’s long-standing ally the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

This territory, which would ultimately become, for the most part, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, was already within the sights of the British South Africa Company and the British government, led by the great Lord Salisbury, was adamant that this territory was not Portuguese. From the British point of view, a claim was meaningless unless such territory was actually occupied and under the control of a given power. Since the Portuguese did not occupy the area and thus did not control it, the British regarded it as being up for grabs. The Portuguese, of course, set to work moving colonial forces into the interior as quickly as possible but knew that it would be almost impossible to truly occupy the whole region covered by the “Rose Colored Map” before the British arrived. The Kingdom of Portugal had no desire to fight Britain for control of the region as it would be a hopeless effort even if for no other reason than the dominance of the British navy. Britain was also Portugal’s most important trading partner and an open clash would be ruinous to the already less than robust Portuguese economy.

Instead, the Portuguese tried to gain recognition for the “Rose Colored Map” by diplomatic means but it did not go well. The French and the Germans were agreeable enough but while Portugal conceded claims to other disputed territories neighboring French and German colonies, neither France or Germany actually recognized the lands claimed by Portugal in the “Rose Colored Map”. In effect, they recognized that Portugal claimed them, but not that Portugal actually had the rights to them. In the end, Portugal had given concessions but ultimately gained nothing real in return. The British, as stated, were having none of it and refused to recognize any territory claimed by Portugal that was not firmly and directly under Portuguese control, even if Portugal had claimed the land for centuries, in fact, centuries before the British even arrived in southern Africa.

The agents of the King of Portugal and those of the British South Africa company began to clash in what later became Rhodesia and in 1890 the British government issued an ultimatum to Portugal demanding that they removal all personnel from the disputed territory of what would become Rhodesia and effectively recognize British sovereignty over the region which the Portuguese had considered their own for centuries but had largely neglected. This probably came closer than anything ever would to breaking what is known as the oldest alliance in the world. The Portuguese were outraged and considered it an absolute betrayal. However, the Kingdom of Portugal had little choice but to back down and comply. They could hardly have fought Britain for it and international arbitration might have opened the door for other colonial powers to get involved and snatch away Portuguese territory for themselves. There was also the Germans to worry about who were already casting a hungry eye at the Portuguese colonies and Portugal would need Britain for back up if the Germans ever tried to get aggressive on that front.

So, the Kingdom of Portugal backed down and conceded to the ultimatum which was seen as totally humiliating. The public was in an uproar that their government had failed to protect what was widely seen as Portuguese territory and King Carlos I did not escape blame even though there was, realistically, little to nothing he could have done differently. King Carlos I was also criticized for being seen as too friendly with the British Royal Family who were then regarded as enemies. It all came about a bad time as the monarchy in Brazil had recently been overthrown, the economy was in a downward spiral and people were looking for someone to blame. At the head of the country, King Carlos I was an easy target. The humiliation also prompted the suicide, in dramatic fashion, of a well known Portuguese explorer which increased the public clamor against the monarchy. On January 31 the following year, 1891, in Porto there was a republican uprising. A nationalist song, which later became the republican national anthem of Portugal, was written and widely sung.

This attempt to establish a republic was quickly suppressed by loyal security forces, however dozens were killed or injured and 250 were convicted and punished with either prison time or exile. Thus the republican movement gained a core of “martyrs”, an anthem (which it was illegal to sing but would return in due time) and the red and green flag. The whole affair was a terrible blow to the prestige and popularity of the monarchy. The republican movement only increased in audacity and in 1908 King Carlos I and his son and heir Prince Luis were assassinated. In 1910 things spiraled out of control and the monarchy was overthrown, the Kingdom of Portugal brought down and replaced by the First Portuguese Republic. The usual events followed. The Jesuits and other religious orders were suppressed, convents were closed, schools were secularized, marriage became a civil rather than religious matter, separation of Church and state was established, divorce was legalized and the aristocracy was suppressed.

However, the First Portuguese Republic was a disaster by any measure, its whole existence dominated by chaos, corruption and disorder. There were counter-revolutionary efforts by Portuguese royalists but the thing that really came the closest to collapsing the First Republic was again to be found in the African colonies. The context was World War One in which Portugal originally tried to remain neutral, despite there being a clash between German and Portuguese colonial troops in Africa fairly early on. Neutrality came to an end in 1916 when Germany tightened its submarine blockade of Britain which had a major impact on Portugal as the British were their largest trading partner. In February, at the request of the British, the Portuguese interned a number of German and Austrian ships and so, the following month, the German Empire declared war on Portugal, followed almost a week later by Austria-Hungary. The republican government tried to take an optimistic view of the situation, seeing a number of possible benefits from their participation in the war. Large numbers of Portuguese troops were dispatched to defend the colonies and participate in the war in Africa and a Portuguese expeditionary force was assembled to fight alongside the British on the western front.

The result of all of this was an utter disaster. Despite some occasions of great heroism and endurance by the Portuguese soldiers, Portugal was largely humiliated on the world stage thanks to its inept government. In Africa, where the Germans had probably the greatest irregular warfare genius of all time leading their forces, the Portuguese were almost without exception defeated time and again. Part of the problem was that some of the Africans took the opportunity to rebel, forcing the Portuguese to divert resources to deal with that. At sea, German submarines sank almost a hundred Portuguese ships with the legendary “ace” Captain Max Valentiner of U-157 sinking a great many of them as well as bombarding shore positions on the island of Madeira. On the western front, again despite some heroic episodes by individual soldiers, the Portuguese expeditionary force was a commitment that proved too much for the government that sent it to maintain. The republican authorities were unable to keep them supplied, rotated at proper intervals and in a major German offensive they were almost wiped out completely, ultimately being forced to basically be absorbed into the British Expeditionary Force. All in all, the whole ordeal had been a fiasco.

Portugal had lost 8,145 men dead, 13,751 wounded and 12, 318 captured of their original peak strength of 55,000. Over a hundred thousand tons of shipping was destroyed, just over 7,000 tons badly damaged, the economy was in shambles and all Portugal had to show for it was the African port of Kionga, ceded from the Germans. A civil war broke out in 1918 and in January of 1919 the restoration of the Kingdom of Portugal was declared in Porto followed, a few days later, by a royalist uprising in Lisbon. The First Republic did manage to survive but only just and this was certainly the closest it ever came to being overthrown. Still, though it survived, a few decades later it finally gave up the ghost and was replaced by the Catholic, corporatist regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar known as the Second Republic or, more usually, the “New State”. From 1932 to 1968 Salazar worked to lift Portugal out of the chaos and bankruptcy the First Republic had created. For a time, it seemed to work but a crisis in the colonies would ultimately doom the New State as well.

Unlike most other countries, Portugal had the good sense to say “no” to World War II but the post-war collapse of the other colonial empires and the spread of communism quickly imperiled the Portuguese empire, officially ‘provinces overseas’. In 1961 the African country of Benin annexed the Portuguese Fort St John the Baptist of Ouidah and at the end of the year, newly independent India invaded and annexed the many centuries-old Portuguese holdings of Goa, Daman and Diu. For the next fifteen years the Portuguese were forced into a valiant fight against communist insurgent movements in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea. It was really a heroic stand to take as Portugal was opposed by all the Communist countries in the world while also being criticized and little supported by the liberal democracies of the west for not accepting decolonization. Portugal, which had yet to recover fully from the depths the First Republic had taken the country to, was basically fighting three separate wars in Africa at the same time.

Salazar died and though his successors tried to carry on the fight to maintain the territorial sovereignty of Portugal as a multi-continental power, in 1974 leftist army officers launched a coup, since called the “Carnation Revolution” that ended the corporatist regime and ushered in the current republican government which has largely been dominated by the socialists with the occasional liberal interlude. All Portuguese overseas possessions were immediately abandoned, the last to be given up being Macau in China in 1999. Since that time, without its former overseas trade network and source of raw materials, Portugal has been forced into greater dependency on the European Union. When can see very easily where that has led; the rush of exuberance that a drug addict feels, following by a resounding crash as the republican government has spent far beyond its means, borrowing more and more and making its chains of dependency stronger and heavier with every passing year.

There is, of course, a lesson to be drawn from that final chapter that Portugal, as with any small country, must either go out on its own and gain the strength it needs to become a major power or be content to be a cog in a wheel of a larger machine. However, for the Portuguese monarchy, the lesson was one which others could profit from, though I wonder if the House of Braganza itself has, which is that a monarch should always be the champion of the country and committed to its glorification. In the situation of Portugal, the circumstances were very unfair as there was, realistically, nothing King Carlos could do in the face of the British ultimatum. However, while the republican leftists were never going to be satisfied, the loss of the interior of Africa and the perception that the Portuguese monarchy had not stood up to the British, angered those who were most likely to be the supporters of the Kingdom of Portugal as it had always been. Regardless of the situation, and whether it is right or wrong, it is simply a fact of life that monarchies will always be in great danger when the monarch is seen to be more sympathetic to others than to the greatness of their own country.


  1. What German commander are you referring to in the part on Africa in WW1? Im not familiar with that campaign much.

    1. General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, more about him here:
      And more about the overall war in the German African colonies here:


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