The Manpower for Empire: How Did Portugal do it?

Peter Kingdon Booker


A question arising out of my recent lecture on Afonso de Albuquerque and the conquest of Asia has led me to examine again the ideas that I was propounding on the subject of the paucity of Portuguese for their imperial efforts. My source for these remarks is CR Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, p52. Boxer shows that the manpower demands made on the relatively underpopulated Portugal were in the sixteenth century quite large. He estimates the population of Portugal in 1527 (from the census records) at between 1m and 1.4m. He goes on, “It can be estimated with reasonable accuracy that during the sixteenth century approximately 2,400 people left Portugal yearly for overseas, the great majority of them being able bodied and unmarried young men, bound for “Golden Goa” and further east, relatively few of whom ever returned [my italics]. The annual drain on Portuguese adult manpower was thus considerable; and it was certainly far greater than that in neighbouring Spain, where, out of a population variously estimated at some seven or eight million, only about 60,000 people had emigrated to America by 1570 – an average of just under 1,000 a year. Moreover, Portugal was at a disadvantage in another respect. Whereas most of the Spanish emigrants went to the healthy uplands of Mexico and Peru after the conquest of those regions, the vast majority of the Portuguese went to the malarial and fever stricken tropical coasts of Africa and Asia. Finally many more of the Portuguese who embarked at Lisbon for Goa died on the six, seven or eight month voyage to India than was the case with the Spaniards who embarked at Seville for the relatively short and speedy Atlantic crossing to Vera Cruz.”


It is my contention that the number of marriageable males in Portugal must have been considerably reduced by the task of holding together the empire that D Manuel I was seeking to build. In the sixteenth century population of 1m - 1.4m, let us suppose that the average life span was 60 years and that males active in the marriage stakes might be say 20 – 50 years old ( except perhaps in Trancoso ). I am taking Boxer´s figures as accurate, although at first sight they appear on the low side. By my calculation, about 1% of those available for procreation were sent off to India, and this figure in my view does not fully take into account the similar demands being made on the Portuguese male for fighting in Morocco and for settlement and trading in Africa and Brazil.


“During the sixteenth century circumstances conspired to make the Portuguese overextend themselves by maintaining a chain of forts and coastal settlements between Sofala and Nagasaki, which numbered more than forty…… This wide-ranging dispersion aggravated the perennial manpower problem to such an extent that the viceroys [of India] could seldom muster more than a thousand white men for any expedition however important.” “Very few women emigrated from Portugal to Asia and an outward bound Indiaman which carried 800 or more men would have only some ten or fifteen women aboard, and often none at all. Once they had reached Asia, many of the Portuguese men cohabited with slave-girls in droves, as the scandalized Jesuit missionaries constantly complained; but the death rate from battle, disease and misadventure was so high among the Portuguese males in the east that it is doubtful if there was ever as many as 10,000 able-bodied Europeans and Eurasians available for military and naval service between Moçambique and Macao.”


“It is true that despite the heavy annual emigration of able bodied men to the tropical world, and despite the ravages of plague, famine and other natural disasters which afflicted Portugal during the sixteenth century, the population as a whole does not seem to have declined very much though exact figures and hence reliable deductions are lacking. But it is certain that vast tracts of Portugal itself were still seriously underpopulated, and that much potentially viable agricultural land was left uncultivated for want of labour.”


In Portugal´s history of emigration, it was always the poor of the Minho and Douro as well as those from Madeira and the Azores who were too populous for their smallholdings and who left their native soil for the empire. On the other hand, it was not until the nineteenth century that the sparsely populated Alentejo and the Algarve began to support the numbers of which they are capable.


Although it is true that populations of humans (and other fauna) are able to recover from disaster in timespans which seem to me to be astonishingly short, it was the continual drain of young manpower over the century which must have a had a diminishing effect on a population which was already impoverished. Although Boxer is right to stress the widespread Asian nature of the Empire, his argument would be more powerful if he mentioned in particular and quantified the demands for manpower in both Morocco and Brazil, as well as the rest of Africa. Although most of Morocco had been abandoned by 1550, this was the point at which the demands for colonists for Brazil began to overshadow those even of Golden Goa and these demands increased from the 1570s onwards.


In treating with the African kingdom of the Congo, where the African king was baptized D Afonso I (1506 -1543) after his conversion to Christianity, we learn that D Manuel I, and later D João III, were being constantly pressed to provide more Portuguese people to this part of Africa. “What then prevented this Bantu kingdom from becoming westernized four and a half centuries ago when King Manuel I of Portugal and King Afonso of Congo both regarded this as a consummation devoutly to be wished?” asks Boxer.


“In the first place there were never enough missionaries, instructors and artisans to teach the Congolese effectively. Dom Afonso repeatedly pleaded for many more to be sent to him, but nothing like a sufficient number ever came. Many of those who did come soon died, as nothing was then known of the causes and cures of malarial fever and other tropical diseases. Secondly, many of the missionaries who came were of indifferent character with no true sense of vocation, for clerical morality in contemporary Portugal was at a very low ebb, as it was elsewhere in Europe [Trancoso again]. Thirdly, Portugal´s vast and increasing overseas commitments from the Spice Islands to São Vicente [ here Boxer means the southernmost captaincy in Brazil], together with the continual warfare in Morocco, inevitably distracted attention from the Congo.” (Boxer p99)


I am still of the opinion that Portugal was always challenged in respect of manpower, that there were never enough men for any of their enterprises, and that they might have achieved more with a larger stock. I iterate my opinion that the praças-fortes in Morocco proved a drain on available manpower although they also served the useful purpose of keeping alive the crusading spirit and of providing a training ground for warfare. And that the understandable desire of D João III to be rid of them was not activated nearly soon enough for the effective prosecution of Portuguese plans elsewhere in the world.


And I am more than ever astonished that the Carreira da Índia, that voyage of up to eight months, with its uncertainties of provision, weather and shipwreck, continued to supply as many able bodied males for the continuance of empire through the sixteenth century.

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