Wednesday, March 22, 2017
The Colonial Problems of Portugal
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.