Report of General Monthly Meeting - Tuesday 9th July 2019

Christopher Massy-Beresford: From Caravels to Carnations: The Rise and Fall of the Portuguese Empire


For those of us who knew little, if anything, about the troubled nature of Portugal’s history, this was a magnificent introduction.

After Portugal became an independent nation in 1387, Henry the Navigator became the first of the many successful Portuguese explorers. Setting off in 1419 from Sagres (the southernmost tip of Portugal and then thought to be the end of the world) in Caravels (sailing boats), he visited Madeira in 1419 and the Azores in 1427. His path was followed by Vasco da Gama who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 and established the trade route to India in 1493. The trading that followed meant that Portugal had gold from Africa and spices from India and, having colonised Brazil together with five countries in Africa, became a very important nation.

Christopher outlined the turbulent years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which led to the monarchy losing power in 1910 when Manuel II was deposed; he was exiled to England where he died in 1932 aged only 43. Following a military coup in 1926, Salazar became dictator in 1932 and remained so until his death in 1968. His new constitution introduced in 1933 was authoritarian, espoused extreme Catholic views, provided no rights for workers, and elections were rigged. This Fascist government managed to avoid involvement in World War II, achieving neutrality in a skilled balancing act in which tungsten was supplied to both the UK and Germany (receiving 120 tons of gold from the latter in payment.

After Salazar’s death in 1968, Portugal had a slightly less authoritarian leader in Caetano who became prime minister. A major problem at the time was the defence of Portuguese colonies in Africa which took a substantial amount of the national budget and also by 1974 3 500 Portuguese soldiers had been killed. Unrest led to an attempted military coup in March 1974, and a successful one the following month. The popular support for the military led to the soldiers putting Carnations given to them by the people into their rifles, and the coup was largely achieved without violence.

In the years since then, Portugal has joined the EU and benefited from modernisation and developing tourism to become the successful country it is today.


Julia Whitburn