Macao: The Portuguese Colonial Empire Comes to An End

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
Portugal: End of an Empire
The Portuguese colonial empire comes to a close
by Borgna Brunner

On December 20, 1999, Portugal gave up the last colony in its once vast overseas empire. Macao, the longest permanent European settlement in Asia, reverted to China after 442 years of Portuguese rule. What follows is a catalog of the major Portuguese territories since the 15th century, in order of colonization.

This seaport off Morocco on the Strait of Gibraltar became the first permanent European settlement in Africa and marked Portugal's first attempt at colonization. Ceuta reverted to Spain in 1580, and has remained a Spanish enclave ever since.

The Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, took part in the battle for Ceuta, and its exoticism whetted his appetite for exploration and territorial expansion. Henry went on to become a patron of cartography, navigation, and exploration during the 15th century, and launched his country on its way to amassing an extensive empire spanning several continents.

Ceuta (1415)


The Madeira islands, 350 miles off the Atlantic coast of Portugal, were originally explored by the Romans. The Portuguese rediscovered the uninhabited islands in 1418—1420 and Prince Henry the Navigator had them colonized. Today the islands are an autonomous region of Portugal.



Located about 900 miles off the Portuguese coast in the Atlantic, the uninhabited islands of the Azores were encountered by Portuguese sailors in 1427 or 1431. They were first colonized in 1445, and like Madeira, are today an autonomous region of Portugal. The Azores were once used as a place of exile for criminal and political prisoners. In the 20th century, however, the perception of their worth changed significantly–they are now a popular vacation spot. Azore means hawk in Portuguese.

Azores (1445)


Henry the Navigator encouraged the exploration of the west coast of Africa, and from 1444—1446 between 30 and 40 ships headed south in search of slaves and gold. In 1446—1447 Portuguese Guinea, on the west coast of Africa just north of what is now Senegal, was colonized by Portugal and exploited as a source for slaves. It was administered as part of the Cape Verde islands, another Portuguese colony, until 1879, when it became a separate colony. After the Portuguese coup in 1974 installed a government that strongly favored decolonization, Portuguese Guinea became independent in 1975 and was renamed Guinea Bissau.

Portuguese Guinea (1446—1447)

The uninhabited islands of Cape Verde, about 300 miles off the African coast to the west of Senegal, were discovered by the Portuguese in 1456 and colonized in 1462. Slaves were brought to the islands from West Africa, and for a while Cape Verde served as a Portuguese penal colony. Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea Bissau) and the Cape Verde Islands were administered together until 1879. Cape Verde became independent in 1975, a year after the coup in Portugal.

Cape Verde (1462)



Captured by the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, this seaport off the west coast of India became Portugal's most important outpost in the East. Goa was seized by India in 1961 and incorporated into the country the following year. Beginning in the 1960s, Goa became a famous hippie and backpacker haven.

Goa (1510)

In 1498, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama explored Mozambique. Thereafter numerous Portuguese traders and explorers exploited the region for its material wealth–there are few who would dispute that the Portuguese presence in Mozambique was anything but destructive. As the journalist David Lamb put it in his book The Africans, "Portugal stood for all the evils of colonialism and none of the good. It took but did not give."

By 1510, the Portuguese had control of all the former Arab sultanates on the East African coast. Mozambique was administered as part of Goa, in India, until 1752, when it received its own captain-general. Guerrilla activity began in 1963 and became so effective by 1973 that Portugal was forced to dispatch 40,000 troops to fight the rebels. In 1975, the Portuguese gave Mozambique its independence, leaving the colony impoverished and with little resources to tackle the challenges of nationhood. For a history of Mozambique since independence, click here.

Mozambique (1510)


A powerful center of trade on the Malay coast, Malacca (today spelled Melaka) was captured by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511. It remained under Portuguese control until the Dutch eventually conquered it in 1641. Today it is part of Malaysia.

Malacca (1511)


Then called the Spice Islands, the Moluccas are a part of the East Indies, which had been Columbus's intended destination when he discovered the New World. Familiar to Asian traders, these obscure islands remained a mystery to Europeans until the explorer Magellan's expedition encountered them in 1511—1512; Magellan himself died before reaching the islands. The Spice Islands were quickly colonized by the Portuguese: as the only place on Earth where the invaluable spices nutmeg and cloves grew, Portugal's control of the islands gave them a monopoly on this portion of the lucrative spice trade.

In the 17th century the Dutch took control of the islands, and with it the world's clove market. The Moluccas became part of Indonesia when the Dutch gave up its colonies in the region. In the past year the Moluccas have experienced serious unrest, and divisions between its Muslim and Christian populations have repeatedly erupted in violence. See Indonesia After Suharto.

Moluccas (1512)

Afonso de Albuquerque captured this strategic island in the Persian Gulf in 1514. The Portuguese built a fort on Hormuz used the island as a waystation on the Eastern trade route. After more than a century of control, the Portuguese lost the island to a Persian and English force that resented Portuguese incursions in the area. Today this sparsely inhabited island is part of Iran.

Hormuz (1514)


Timor was first settled by the Portuguese in 1520, but the Dutch took control of the western half of the island in 1613. After the 1974 coup in Portugal, rapid decolonization occurred. East Timor was abruptly severed from the Portuguese empire and almost as quickly annexed by Indonesia. For East Timor's bloody history as part of Indonesia, see Nightmare in East Timor.

East Timor (1520)

The islands, off the coast Africa and west of what is now Gabon, were first explored by the Portuguese in 1471. In 1483 the settlement of São Tomé was founded, and the island became a Portuguese colony in 1522. The islands were mainly used as ways tations on the shipping routes to Brazil and Asia. In 1975, along with all of Portugal's African colonies, São Tomé gained independence.

São Tomé and Principé (1522)



The Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral claimed the territory of Brazil for his country in 1500, but no colonization took place until 1532. Portuguese sovereignty was challenged in the 1620s and 1630s by the Dutch, who at one point occupied the entire northeast region. Portugal, which was absorbed into Spain from 1580 to 1640–the "Spanish captivity"–could not come to the aid of its colony. But Portuguese colonists managed to defeat the Dutch on their own.

The future king, John of Portugal, fled to Brazil in 1807 after Napoleon's invasion and remained there until 1821. After he assumed the throne, John VI granted Brazil equal status with Portugal and renamed the two countries the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil. Once John returned to Portugal in 1821, his son, Pedro I, became king, and declared Brazil's independence in 1822. Brazil's large black minority are the descendants of former slaves brought to Brazil from Portugal's African colonies to work on plantations.

Brazil (1532)


Macao was established as a trading post by the Portuguese in 1557. An important seaport, it was eventually superseded by nearby Hong Kong. The oldest permanent European settlement in Asia, Macao returned to Chinese administration on December 20, 1999. Macao has in recent years become a gambling hot spot, which has caused its crime rate to soar. The general consensus among the residents of Macao is that the Chinese will prove to be better caretakers than their abstentee Portuguese landlords.

Macao (1557)


The Portuguese first explored the coast of Angola in East Africa in the late 15th century with the support of Henry the Navigator. But they did not begin colonization until 1576, establishing a settlement at Luanda, which today is the capital of Angola. Angola became the center of the Portuguese slave trade, and Portuguese slavers shipped their human cargo to the colony of Brazil to work on plantations.

Independent movements and guerrilla warfare in Angola beleaguered Portugal in the 20th century, and the 1974 military coup in Portugal was in part sparked by the desire to withdraw from the African colonies. In 1975 Portugal abruptly exited its African colonies. Unprepared for nationhood and beset by violent factions and extreme poverty, Angola has rarely experienced a moment of peace since the Portuguese withdrawal. For the history of Angola since independence, click here.

Angola (1576) Map

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