In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Portuguese Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Atlantic Studies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Navigation and Exploration
  • Imperial Portugal
  • Atlantic Islands
  • West Africa
  • Central and Southern Africa
  • America
  • Slave Trade and Slavery
  • Atlantic Diasporas and Transoceanic Identities

Atlantic History Portuguese Atlantic World
John M. Monteiro, Susanne Lachenicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0044


The development of Portuguese navigation, trade, colonization, and intercultural exchange played a key role in the shaping of an Atlantic world. Beginning in the first half of the 15th century, small streams of merchants, migrants, and missionaries issued from the small kingdom at the extreme southwestern edge of Christendom, establishing footholds among native peoples along the Atlantic coast of Africa and settling several previously uninhabited islands. By the mid-17th century, the rapid expansion of sugar production along the Atlantic coast of Brazil and the corresponding growth of the transoceanic slave trade laid the foundations of a South Atlantic system, binding together South America and parts of Central and Southern Africa in an ongoing circulation of peoples, objects, plants, styles, religious practices, and forms of knowledge. At the close of the 17th century, the discovery of gold in Brazil sent new waves of migrants across the Atlantic, both voluntary (from Portugal) and forced (from Africa). In 1808 Napoleon invaded Portugal and the Portuguese monarchy set sail for Rio de Janeiro, shifting the center of the Lusophone Atlantic to South America. Following Brazilian independence in 1822, in spite of the force of Abolitionism throughout the Atlantic, the slave trade between Portuguese Africa (especially Angola and Mozambique) and Brazil reached alarming levels before finally coming to an end, shortly after the Eusébio de Queiroz Law of 1850. In this sense, while much of the current bibliography emphasizes transatlantic connections, interaction, and exchange, it should be remembered that a large part of Portuguese Atlantic history involves brutal processes of separation, exploitation, and destruction. After all, Portuguese overseas activities and policies contributed directly to two of the greatest demographic catastrophes in human history: the vertiginous decline of Amerindian populations and the mass deportation of millions of slaves from Africa to a new world. Nonetheless, as scholars of Portuguese expansion to Africa, Asia, and America have shown, the history of the Lusophone world is also that of diverse peoples and polities who engaged the Portuguese as allies, enemies, and colonial masters. They, too, contributed in significant ways to shaping the Portuguese Atlantic world, which rarely resulted in the form prescribed or even imagined by the Portuguese themselves.

General Overviews

The Portuguese Atlantic world often is treated as part of a broader construct: the Portuguese overseas empire, extending in spatial terms from the Maghreb to the Moluccas (in Charles Boxer’s memorable phrase), and in chronology from the capture of Ceuta in 1415 to the cession of Macau to China in 1999. A long colonialist tradition (which reached its heights under Salazar in the mid-20th century) emphasized the spread of a Portuguese cultural and institutional matrix to Africa, Asia, and America, but this approach lost a great deal of its appeal with the tragic debacle of Portuguese colonialism in Africa and Asia in the 1970s. More recent scholarship has underscored the discontinuous and informal character of Portuguese overseas activities. In this literature, the objectified “other” has become a conscious agent of social action; commercial monopolies have been displaced by networks of diaspora traders; the triumphant view of spiritual conquests has been replaced by manifestations of native Christianity; centralized royal policy has given way to a decentered focus on local and regional elites. In effect, scholars of Portuguese expansion increasingly have adopted a view from the shore rather than from the ship. The cumulative effect of these critical studies appears especially in Newitt 2005 and Disney 2009, both of which offer important suggestions for the Atlantic world from their respective authors’ experiences as researchers in the Lusophone Indian Ocean. Boxer 1969 remains useful as a sweeping introductory overview, while Russell-Wood 1998 also provides a readable single-volume study, with an original thesis on spatial and social mobility. Bethencourt and Curto 2007 includes a solid sampling of recent Portuguese and Brazilian scholarship in translation. Finally, the encyclopedic contributions (in Portuguese) Serrão and Marques 1986–2006 and Bethencourt and Chaudhuri 1998–2000 interweave more traditional institutional approaches with recent scholarship on informal aspects of Portuguese expansion.

  • Bethencourt, Francisco, and Kirti Chaudhuri, eds. História da Expansão Portuguesa. 5 vols. Lisbon: Círculo dos Leitores, 1998–2000.

    Launched between the quincentennial celebration of Vasco da Gama’s journey and the cession of Portugal’s last colonial holding to China, this collection draws together top colonial scholars from Portugal, Brazil, and the United States in a comprehensive coverage of Portuguese imperial expansion. Atlantic history receives greater attention in Volumes 1, 2, and 3, from the early settlement of uninhabited islands to the full development of a South Atlantic system.

  • Bethencourt, Francisco, and Diogo Ramada Curto, eds. Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Excellent set of essays by leading specialists in Portuguese expansion studies, covering a broad gamut of themes in a comparative scope, placing the Atlantic in a broader context.

  • Boxer, Charles Ralph. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1815. The History of Human Society Series. New York: Knopf, 1969.

    Classic overview of Portuguese overseas expansion to Africa, Asia, and America, written with an eye for biographical detail, picturesque anecdotes, and sweeping conclusions. Although superseded in many respects by subsequent research and theoretical approaches to colonialism, Boxer includes useful insights to race relations, colonial administration, religion, and several other themes fleshed out in other works. This book was reissued by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1991.

  • Disney, A. R. A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Written by a leading specialist in Portuguese India, an informative, well-organized, and readable synthesis of the literature covering Portugal from the early hunter-gatherers to 1807, and its empire from the taking of Ceuta (1415) to the early 19th century, with several chapters on the Atlantic.

  • Newitt, M. D. D. A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400–1668. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Sweeping overview by a specialist in the history of Mozambique, with an excellent focus on informal aspects of Portuguese expansion, which include mestiço communities, trade diasporas, and other phenomena beyond the reach of formal empire.

  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R. The Portuguese Empire, 1414–1808: A World on the Move. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    Paperback edition with a new preface. In this ambitious overview, Brazil and the Atlantic are projected into the wider context of Portuguese overseas expansion. Includes insightful chapters on the circulation of people, commodities, plants, styles, and ideas.

  • Serrão, Joel, and A. H., de Oliveira Marques, eds. Nova História da Expansão Portuguesa. 12 vols. Lisbon: Editorial Estampa, 1986–2006.

    Organized chronologically, geographically, and thematically, this collection includes broad syntheses by leading (mostly Portuguese) scholars. Volume 3 (recently published) covers the Atlantic Islands from the 15th to the 20th century, Volumes 6, 7, and 8 treat the “Luso-Brazilian Empire” from 1500 to 1822, and Volume 10 covers the Portuguese in Africa during the 19th century. Curiously, Volume 1 (presumably an overview) and Volume 9 (Africa before the 1825) have not appeared yet.

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