The Portuguese Colonial Empire was one of the longest-lived empires in European history that lasted almost six centuries and stretched across the world, reaching the Americas, Africa, Asia and even Oceania.
Fast forward to the end of World War II, and decolonisation movements start increasing around the world. European colonies start gaining their independence and the United States and the Soviet Union fight to increase their influence on either side of the globe.
In 1947, Britain granted independence to India, and France followed suit shortly after. This placed a lot of pressure on Portugal to do the same, but Salazar resisted the movement leading to uprisings in the Portuguese colonies and the Indian Army ultimately captured and annexed the territories. However, Salazar refused to recognise the transfer of sovereignty and, for over a decade, considered the territories as merely occupied.
An outbreak of violence in 1961 in Angola also marked the beginning of the end of Portugal’s empire in Africa. Then, East Timor in Asia declared independence in 1975 and ultimately the handover of Macau to China in 1999 officially marked the end of the Portuguese Empire.
Today, Portugal is seen somewhat as a small country compared to other giants around the world. The total area of the country, including the archipelagos Azores and Madeira, is 92,345 square kilometres which means there are 110 other countries that are larger than Portugal. However, if you also consider Portugal’s maritime territory, it quickly becomes instead one of the largest territories in the world.
In the past, a country’s maritime territory was defined by the reach of its cannons spread along the shoreline. However, as time passed, and cannon technology vastly improved, this method was abandoned and, today, a country’s maritime territory is divided into several zones, including the Exclusive Economic Zone and potentially the extended continental shelf which I will explain in just a minute.
The Exclusive Economic Zone extends 370.4km outwards from the coast and gives countries economic control and exclusive rights to all the resources available in that area, including fishing, mining, and energy sources. These zones were created to help minimise confrontations between countries and resolve feuds like the Cod Wars, a real dispute that lasted decades between Iceland and the United Kingdom over fishing rights.
The archipelago of Azores is almost halfway across the Atlantic and the archipelago of Madeira is closer to Africa than to Europe. This creates three gigantic Exclusive Economic Zones which add up to 1,727,408 square kilometres of maritime territory, an area larger than the land of France, Spain, Germany and Italy combined.
This explains why there are so many territorial disputes and contested islands around the world. The dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands is just one of several existing conflicts as a few strategically placed islands can provide a huge Exclusive Economic Zone and consequently a lucrative profit.
In 2009, Portugal submitted a claim to extend its jurisdiction to the extended continental shelf which, if accepted, will result in a marine territory of more than 3,877,408 square kilometres, a territory larger than the land of India. This would increase Portugal’s territory to 97% water.
This claim is reminiscent of a time when the Portuguese ruled the sea, pioneering the Age of Discovery. The word saudade comes to mind, which is said to be one of the most beautiful words in the world. The term refers to a melancholic longing or yearning and goes hand in hand with a sense of loneliness and incompleteness.
The word was used to give meaning to the sadness of those who departed on arduous journeys to unknown seas during the Age of Discovery and also the feeling of those who stayed behind and saw their loved ones depart.
Now, it is associated with the decline of Portugal’s status as a great power on a global scale, which has diminished since the so called “Golden Age” during the Age of Discovery.
The cult of Sebastianismo also comes to mind when talking about the word saudade and the decline of Portugal’s status. In 1578, D. Sebastião’s death at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir led to the loss of the Portuguese throne to the king of Spain. This gave birth to the mystical and patriotic cult of Sebastianismo – the belief that D. Sebastão was in hiding rather than dead and would one day return to reclaim the Portuguese throne.
Sebastianismo is still prominent in Portuguese culture and legend states that he will one day return, in a foggy dawn, in Portugal’s greatest hour of need. In Fernando Pessoa’s book, A Mensagem, the poet wrote that D. Sebastião will return to create the Fifth empire, which would be the pinnacle of all the work undertaken by previous empires. This empire would unite the entire world spiritually and culturally, led by the Portuguese Nation.
Nowadays, we know that D. Sebastião most likely did die in battle all those years ago, but the mystical legend still carries weight in today’s society as it is synonymous with our hope for a better, more just and abundant future … “While there’s life, there’s hope”.
Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures