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History of Portugal

Updated on February 12, 2012

In 206 BC, after fierce fighting, the tribes of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) were absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Portugal was part of the province of Lusitania until the 5th century AD, when Visigoths, barbarians from the north, established a kingdom with its capital at Merida. When the Moors, Muslims from north Africa, overran Iberia three centuries later they made few settlements in the wetter north, and after only 50 years the land between the Minho and Douro, which was known as Portucallis, became part of the Christian Spanish kingdom of Leon and Asturias.

Portucallis gradually grew as Christians drove the Moors from Iberia in the reconquista (re-conquest). In 1064 the southern frontier was pushed to the Mondego river, and Coimbra became the capital. Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile gave Portucallis to Henry of Burgundy as a reward for his help in the reconquista. Alfonso Henriques, Henry's son, gained independence from Leon and Castile in 1143.

With the help of a crusading army on the way to the Holy Land, he extended his domain as far south as the Tagus.

Sancho I encouraged trade and settlement, and called the first cortes (parliament) at Coimbra in 1191. Sancho II penetrated into the Algarve, and his brother Alfonso III (1248-79) established the frontiers of modern Portugal.

Alfonso moved the capital to Lisboa, and in 1254 he admitted commoners to the cortes for the first time. He was followed by Dinis (1279-1325), the greatest of Portugal's medieval rulers, who built a navy and made a commercial treaty with England.

For the next 60 years Portugal was embroiled in wars with Castile but, with English aid, it finally asserted its independence at the battle of Aljubarrota (1385).

In 1386 Portugal and England formed an alliance. Soon afterwards the English baron John of Gaunt joined Joao I (the Great, who ruled from 1385 to 1433) in an invasion of Castile. The campaign failed, but Joao's marriage to Gaunt's daughter sealed the alliance between the countries.

Their fourth son, Enrique Navigador (1394-1460), initiated a great era of overseas expansion. Under his guidance the Portuguese empire was founded. In 1415 the Portuguese captured Ceuta in northwest Africa, and their sea captains went on to reach Madeira (1419), the Azores (1431), the Cape Verde Islands (1445) and Senegal (1446).

In 1488 Bartholomew Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa, and ten years later Vasco da Gama reached India. Meanwhile, Columbus's Spanish ships had reached the New World. In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the new lands by a north-south line west of the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores; lands to the west were granted to Spain, those to the east went to Portugal. By 1550, Portugal had claimed Brazil and numerous colonies in Africa, southern Asia and the Far East. These included Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese India (Goa), Macau and Timor.

The spice trade greatly enriched Portugal. However, increasing religious intolerance at home and the joining of the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms in 1580 delayed development. Portugal did not regain independence until 1640. The Duke of Braganza, a descendant of John I, was elected king, and his line ruled Portugal until 1910. Wars with Spain continued until 1668.

The discovery of gold and diamonds in Brazil in 1693 brought great wealth to the Braganza kings who used some of it constructively, but who also dispensed with the cortes for over a century. In 1755-7 Pombal, chief minister and Portugal's greatest administrator, reformed trade and industry.

Napoleon's forces invaded Portugal in 1807, and were driven out with British help in 1811.

The Portuguese court fled to Brazil and did not return home until 1821. A year later the Brazilians revolted and achieved independence. Radical ferment broke out at home and political instability continued into the 20th century. In 1910 Manuel II was forced to abdicate and Portugal declared itself a republic.

During the First World War it fought on the side of the Allies from 1916.

Dr Antonio Salazar became premier in 1932 and autocratically led the government until 1968. He balanced the budget and brought stability, but little progress.

Portugal was neutral during the Second World War, but joined NATO later.


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    • Historia profile image

      Historia 5 years ago

      Some fine wine port comes out of Madeira.

    • georgiecarlos profile image

      georgiecarlos 5 years ago from Philippines

      I love how you were able to put all the important details in a comprehensive hub. Great job!

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Great article about an often forgotten country in world history. Columbus himself hailed from the Portuguese Island of Madeira (also birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo). At one time, Portugal was considered a super power alongside England, Spain and France.