PORTUGUESE OUTPOSTS: The long goodbye

As Macau prepares for Chinese rule, its former colonial master can reflect on past glories.

THE WESTERN edge of the Iberian Peninsula would seem to have no obvious geographical claim to nationhood, yet Portugal has been independent for more than 800 years.

Cut off from the rest of Europe and shaped by centuries of bitter rivalry and warfare with Spain, Portugal has always had to look out to sea. This helps to explain why the inhabitants of such a small nation became such great seafaring people.

Portugal's first foreign adventure was a sortie across the Straits of Gibraltar in 1415, during a wave of anti-Moorish zeal, to capture Ceuta in Morocco. The venture was successful, but its true significance is that it marked the onset of a colonial era, which will only come to an end when the clock strikes midnight tomorrow, and Macau is finally handed back to China.

Prince Henrique of Aviz (later known as Henry the Navigator) established a School of Navigation at Sagres in the Algarve, sending Portuguese explorers out into the unknown. Madeira was discovered in 1419, the Azores in 1427, and Gil Eanes rounded cape Bojador on the West African coast in 1434. Henry died in 1460, but his work continued when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, Vasco da Gama finally discovered the sea route to India 10 years later, and Pedro Cabral landed in Brazil in 1500.

Throughout most of the 16th century, Portugal was the world's dominant trading power. The spirit of this era is recorded in Luis de Camoes's epic poem, Os Luciadas, which jubilantly describes Vasco da Gama's voyage to India.

National pride during this period also asserts itself in Portugal's unique Manueline architecture. Named after King Manuel I, whose reign spanned the heroics of da Gama and Cabral, the style embellishes late Gothic with flamboyant carvings and exotic maritime flourishes. The Belem Tower and Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon are the masterpieces of the style, paid for with African gold and spices from the east.

Ironically, the same hostility towards the Moors which had originally initiated Portugal's expansionism also marked the beginning of its decline. In 1578, young King Sebastian launched an ill-advised invasion of Morocco in which he and an army of 15,000 were slaughtered and the nation's coffers emptied.

However, despite no longer playing a leading role on the world colonial stage, Portugal kept many of its overseas possessions longer than its colonial contemporaries.

Brazil gained independence in 1822, and India seized Goa (along with the Gujarat enclaves of Damao and Diu) in 1961, to the rage of Portuguese dictator Salazar. But it wasn't until 1975, the year after Portugal's "Revolution of the Carnations" left-wing military coup, that Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome e Principe and the Cape Verde Islands - along with East Timor in Asia - were finally relinquished.

That left only Macau. In fact, Portugal had twice tried to return the territory to China; first in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards stormed over the border, and then again in 1975 along with its other colonies. Both times, Peking's answer was thanks, but no thanks. To take Macau back then would have been to lose a valuable funnel for foreign currency. They would wait until midnight, 19 December - the formal expiry of the lease, agreed in 1556.

Today, Portuguese is reckoned to be the sixth most commonly spoken language. Portuguese blue-tiled churches, stone balustrades and black-and-white mosaic cobbles are found across swathes of Africa and South America.

While some of Portugal's former possessions - in particular Angola, Mozambique and East Timor - have descended into appalling post-colonial wars, Portugal itself has seen a smooth transition to democracy and an increasingly confident western European demeanour.

All the same, get upgraded on a TAP Air Portugal flight to Lisbon and you will find yourself luxuriating in Navigator Class. And after a day of sightseeing, you might spend an evening in the city's Bairro Alto district listening to fado - the music of yearning and longing for what has been lost.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a keen...

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this multi-ac...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

    £21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

    Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat