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
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

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own