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.

There is almost no heavy industry. Deposits of coal and iron ore are relatively small: 490,000 tons of coal was produced in 1960, and 280,000 tons of iron ore. There is now one steel works in the country, at Seixal near Lisbon, with an initial planned capacity of 200,000 tons a year and target capacity of 500,000 tons; but with a slowly rising level of demand, this is expected merely to hold the volume of steel imports at its present level. Electrical production has increased in recent years, and in 1960 reached 3,250 million kilowatts. But this is still the lowest per capita output in Western Europe. Total energy consumption was some 355 kilos of coal (equivalent) per capita in 1959: OEEC estimates place this as about 15 to the OEEC average index of 100. Such underdeveloped countries as Panama (478 kilos), Lebanon (567 kilos) or the Malayan Federation (558 kilos) consumed more.

Textiles are the dominant light industry. They employ one third of the total manufacturing work-force and provide one fifth of all export earnings. The basis of much of this industry is artificial, as it is heavily dependent on forcibly depressed cotton prices in the colonies, and drastically protected markets in the same territories: in 1960 82.7% of Portugal’s raw cotton imports came from her colonies, and 35.8% of her cotton manufactures were exported back to the same areas. Without this administratively enforced supply and demand, the Portuguese textile industry, which is inefficient and uncompetitive, would dwindle rapidly. Cork, of which Portugal is the world’s largest producer, is the other major export industry (one sixth all foreign earnings in 1960). But about half these earnings come from raw cork which, as a primary product is subject to considerable fluctuations in world prices, and is at the minute suffering from excess supply. Next in size come fish products (mainly sardines) and wine. The 1960 figures were as follows: