The History of Portugal (in less than 1000 words)

Torre de Belém

Early history

Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with the country of Spain and theses two countries share much of their early history. Iberia was known as Hispania (Rom. 15:24), and after being the birthplace of peoples like the Gallaeci, Lusitanians and Celtici, was conquered by the Roman Empire. The Romans had to fight for almost 200 years, however, to control the totality of what is known today as Portugal. This they did, under Emperor Augustus in 25 BC. In 409 AD Iberia was invaded by Suevi and Visigoths and later the whole territory was conquered by Moors.

The beginning of a new nation

The Muslim rule over Iberia lasted for more than 5 centuries, but by the 10th century there were already some Roman Catholic kingdoms established. One of these kingdoms, León (in what later became Spain), awarded to a man named Henry, a recently formed county with its capital in the former Roman capital for the whole region, Bracara Augusta, the modern Portuguese city of Braga. On June 24th 1128, Henry’s son Afonso went to battle against his own mother and established himself as sole leader. Afonso started to attack the moors and gaining territory to the South. 11 years and 300 miles later, we find Afonso at the city of Ourique. Here he won a spectacular victory and his soldiers proclaimed him as King of Portugal. The Battle of Ourique was on July 25th 1139. However, the date that is known official as the starting point of the Portuguese nation is 1143, when its independence was recognized by Alfonso VII, King of León.

The Age of Discovery

Henry the Navigator sponsored in the 15th century Portugal’s endeavor of spearheading the maritime exploration of the world. As a consequence, Portugal discovered and claimed several archipelagos in the Atlantic, explored the African coast and colonized large portions of Africa. Vasco da Gama discovered an eastern route to India, which lead to the exploration of the Indian Ocean and the establishment of trading routes throughout most of southern Asia. Pedro Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500, and Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world. In 1494, a treaty was signed between Portugal and Spain that basically divided the whole world between these two countries. All of these things combined made Portugal, and its population of 1.7 million, the world’s major economic, military and political power from the 15th century to the beginning of the 16th century.

The Powerful Marquis

No history of Portugal is complete without a reference to Sebastião Melo, Marquis of Pombal. This powerful man was made prime-minister by King Joseph I in 1755. This was a time when immense wealth was coming into Portugal from its colonies, especially Brazil. The Marquis used his power to implement great social, economic and financial reform in Portugal. Motivated, some say, by his own ambition, he even expelled the Roman Catholic order of the Jesuits and confiscated all their wealth for the crown. Nevertheless, the Marquis was instrumental when in 1775 the country was struck by one of the most violent earthquakes ever registered. Known as “the Lisbon earthquake”, it devastated much of central and southern Portugal and Northern Africa. An ambitious reconstruction program was started within the first year and the buildings and big squares of the Pombaline City Centre still remain as one of Lisbon’s main tourist attractions.

Napoleon Invades

In 1807, Napoleon invaded Portugal and, advised by his English allies, the Portuguese king moves to Brazil, then still under the Portuguese crown. English and Portuguese troops fought successfully against the French invader and by 1815, the situation was resolved. In 1822 Brazil became independent. This event underlined the Portuguese economic and political decline that would last until the 20th century. Until this day the Portuguese state of mind is one of nostalgia and a national sense of loss of the former greatness.

The King’s Assassination and the Rise of Fascism

In 1908, Carlos I, king of Portugal was assassinated along with his oldest son, Prince Luís Filipe. The murder was organized by one of the several secret societies operating in Portugal then. Manuel, the youngest son, became king, but in 1910 the Portuguese Republic was proclaimed and the king left to England from where he would never return. The political situation in the newly formed Republic was chaotic due to Portugal’s great economic weakness but also to the fact that the new people in power were staunch enemies of the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, in 1926, the military took control of the country and empowered António Salazar. His fascist dictatorial regime, with the help of the Roman Catholic establishment, lasted until 1974. Portugal then recognized the independence of its African colonies. The Portuguese Empire lost its last overseas territory in 1999 with the agreed upon return of Macau to the People’s Republic of China.

European Union

In 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community (later known as the European Union). This step allowed Portugal to receive a great amount of external economic aid that was used to modernize the country’s infrastructure and road system. As a result, Portugal’s economy progressed considerably. However, the ever growing government debt, together with the global economic crisis, led the country in 2011 to request, once again, an international bailout to help the country stabilize its finances. Recent (2013) indicators seem to indicate that the economy is once again on the rise, even though there seems to be little indication of a serious change in the government’s spending habits. The Portuguese seem to be less and less religious. On the 2011 census 6.8% of the population claimed to be non-religious. There is probably less than 1% evangelical Christian, which makes the Portuguese an unreached people group.