It is now clear that the Portuguese Empire is coming to an end. In its final days, it may be timely to examine the history and structure of this empire, both for their own interest and for the importance they have for any general account of imperialism. Good factual accounts of the Portuguese Empire, past and present, already exist and will no doubt continue to appear. The study below is intended rather to suggest a theoretical model which can integrate the available material into a coherent and significant whole. It begins, necessarily, with the briefest of accounts of contemporary Portugal itself, as centre of determination of its colonies. There follows a résumé history of the Empire, and then a structural analysis of Portuguese imperialism as it exists today. A final section deals with the insurrection in Angola.


Lying on the Western sea-board on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal is some 350 miles long and 100 miles wide. The north is mountainous: most of the centre and the south consists of high plateaux which prolong the Central Spanish Meseta down to the Atlantic. The climate is Mediterranean, with a rainfall of 29 inches and an average temperature that varies between 70° and 50° F. The population (1960) is 9,100,000. A break-down of the economically active proportion of this shows:

The primary sector (agriculture, fishing, forestry) thus absorbs about 50% of Portugal’s manpower. Industry accounts for only 24%. The tertiary (white-collar) sector employs the remaining 26%. As a pattern, this is unique in Western Europe. The only other country with a work-force distributed in anything like this way is Spain, which, however, has a much more considerable industrial sector. A comparison with the two other physically smallest colonial powers, Belgium and Holland, is instructive. In 1957, Belgium, with a population almost exactly the same as Portugal’s (9,000,000), had an agricultural sector of 11%, an industrial sector of no less than 49%, and a tertiary sector of 37%. In Holland in 1957 the figures showed an even more sophisticated pattern: 19%-30%-41%. The contrast reveals the Portuguese economy as backward in the extreme.

The picture becomes sharper as it takes on more detail. Agriculture occupies the vast bulk of the work-force, yet it is subsistence farming at such low levels of technique, that it accounts for only one fourth of the national product. The soil is particularly poor, lacking phosphates and potash. Fertiliser techniques are rudimentary—it is officially estimated that production could be raised by at least 50% given adequate fertilisation. Mechanisation is minimal (there were 6,000 tractors in all Portugal in 1958). Erosion, due to unreliable rainfall and lack of preventive measures, is widespread. As a result, despite the overwhelming place of agriculture in national life, Portugal has a permanent cereal deficit: 150,000 metric tons of corn were imported annually in the period 1953–55. In 1960, wheat imports alone cost 227 million escudos.