Wednesday, October 16, 2013
The Portuguese Empire, First and Last
In clashes with the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Portugal established bases around the Arabian peninsula and for a time totally dominated the sea trade of the Indian Ocean. Other Portuguese explorers sailed farther, reaching the Indochinese peninsula, the Spice Island of what is now Indonesia, China and finally Japan. In fact, it was the Portuguese who first brought two great gifts to the shores of Japan; Christianity and firearms. The firearms were accepted more readily than Christianity was. In time, the only Portuguese colonial possessions remaining in East Asia would be Macau on the coast of China and half of the island of Timor. However, for some time Portugal held a near total monopoly on trade with the spice islands and this produced immense profit for Portuguese merchants and in large part because of this the Kingdom of Portugal became one of if not the most fabulously wealthy country in Europe. And, although Portuguese colonial focus was mostly on Africa and Asia, the newly discovered continents of America did not escape attention either.
Relations with the natives in Brazil were also not always friendly but the Jesuit missionaries who arrived made a great effort and endured immense hardship to learn the native languages, understand and appreciate their culture and convert them to Catholicism. As was also the case elsewhere, these missionaries proved to be great champions of the natives when colonial officials wished to enslave them. They were not always successful, but they stood on moral high ground and made eloquent arguments in defense of the natives. Similar clashes occurred between missionaries and colonial officials in the Spanish empire and, for a time, the colonial holdings of Spain and Portugal were brought together when the King of Spain became the King of Portugal as well. The Portuguese empire covered a wider area than that of Spain but the Spanish held much more territory and colonial populations which resulted in the opening of extensive new markets for Portuguese merchants and traders because of the union. It also, at least for a time, helped ward off the attacks on the Portuguese colonial holdings by other powers such as The Netherlands and Great Britain. Eventually the Dutch gained control of the Spice Islands away from Portugal, took control of the coast of Ceylon and became the only western country with a lasting trade agreement with Japan. By the time Spain and Portugal separated, the colonial holdings of Portugal had been greatly reduced.
Conditions in the colonies were not always ideal but things were not much better in Portugal itself as the kingdom faced a number of problems. Corrupt politicians and power-hungry rabble rousers ultimately succeeded in creating problems and profiting by them, bringing down the Portuguese monarchy in 1910. For the time being though, the Portuguese government assumed that the empire would continue to exist. Things were not perfect but the Portuguese colonies had long been quite different from some others in the neighborhood. Slavery was abolished, over time, throughout all Portuguese possessions. First the enslavement of Chinese persons was banned in 1624, then slavery in Portuguese India was banned in 1761. In 1774 King Jose I outlawed bringing slaves to Portugal and ordered that all African children born from that time on would be free. In 1777 slavery was abolished in Madeira, the slave trade was outlawed in 1836 and in 1869 slavery was finally abolished in all Portuguese African colonies. Britain and France had done the same but what set the Portuguese colonies apart was how little racial bigotry was reflected in law. Of course, wherever there are differences there will be problems but the Kingdom of Portugal had shown no prejudice against a mixed race population and there was very little segregation in Portuguese Africa. The Portuguese colonies were considered to be part of Portugal itself and everyone in them, whether Portuguese, African or a mixture of the two were considered equal or in the process of becoming equal.
In Angola the Portuguese forces were opposed by pretty much everyone except South Africa with both the United States and the Soviet Union (plus Red China, Cuba and the rest of the gang) supporting various rebel factions in their effort to ensure that the winners would bring Angola into their own sphere of influence. It probably did not help that Portugal was ruled by a corporatist regime that tended to look down on the extremes of both capitalism and socialism so it was almost equally disliked by both the United States and Soviet Union. In the end it was the MPLA that emerged victorious when Portugal gave up the fight. Again this was a Marxist movement that has held dictatorial power over Angola ever since which has been accused of numerous human rights violations. Portuguese Guinea was fought over in a war that lasted from at least 1956 to 1974 when it gained independence as Guinea-Bissau. It was the worst of all the fronts in the colonial war. The winner there was the Marxist-socialist African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde which of course became the only legal party afterwards and held power until the 1990’s. It has a GDP among the lowest in the world and is so chaotic that no elected president has ever served a full term in office. In other words, just because the country became independent does not mean life became better for the people. Likewise, as with all too many African countries sadly, honest colonialism has simply been replaced by dishonest colonialism as resources and political influence has been purchased by foreign powers, most often the People’s Republic of China so that, in fact if not in name, these places are just as much being ruled by a foreign power as they ever were.