For almost two hundred years, the Avis dynasty ruled Portugal and helped drive its transition from a small agricultural kingdom on the periphery of Christendom to a pioneer in global exploration, colonization, and trade. The story of the dynasty began in 1383 when the last king of the Burgundian line, Fernando I, died, prompting a succession crisis.
On December 3, 1383, Fernando’s half-brother, João, rose up against the pro-Castilian regency government ruling Portugal after Fernando’s death. The coup was successful, and on April 6, 1385, João was proclaimed King João I. However, the struggle with Castile remained unfinished. The decisive moment came later that summer when João defeated a numerically superior army led by the King of Castile (Juan I). The Battle of Aljubarrota secured Portuguese independence for the next two centuries.
Support for the triumphant João became virtually universal in Portugal, and he moved quickly to secure his new kingdom. In 1386, he signed the Treaty of Windsor with King Richard II of England and further strengthened Anglo-Portuguese ties by marrying Philippa, Richard’s cousin. Commerce and cultural exchange flourished between the two maritime nations, and Philippa and João had five children who lived into adulthood. The most famous was Prince Henry, known later as the “Henry the Navigator.”
In 1415, Henry and his brothers pressured João into attacking the Moroccan port of Ceuta. The Portuguese captured the city, an act which has been traditionally seen as the beginning of the European “Age of Exploration.” Henry was appointed Grand Master of the Order of Christ in 1426 and used its funds to sponsor exploratory missions into the Atlantic and along the west coast of Africa in search of gold. The Portuguese were aware of the existence of extensive gold deposits in west Africa because Muslim caravans had been bringing gold across the Sahara to the ports of northwest Africa for centuries.
Henry patronized navigators, sailors, mapmakers, and shipbuilders and helped sustain interest in exploration in the early years when there was more risk than reward. Only in the 1440s, when the Portuguese reached the coast of Ghana, did the expeditions begin to make money by importing gold, ivory, and, tragically, enslaved Africans. By the 1450s, the sugar plantations of Madeira, were beginning to prosper, and demand for laborers for those plantations spurred the expansion of the African slave trade.
The typical settlement in the early phase of Portuguese colonialism was the feitoria, or fortified trading post. Generally, these did not entice many settlers and colonists in the traditional sense, but rather a relatively small number of Portuguese officials, soldiers, merchants, and priests. In 1482, São Jorge da Mina, the most significant of the feitorias, was founded in Ghana to secure access to West African gold and slaves. With royal backing, Portuguese explorers continued to push further down the African coast and made history in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa and briefly entered the Indian Ocean. As a result, the Portuguese then knew that a sea route to India and its spice wealth was possible. Christopher Columbus’ erroneous claim in 1493 that he had reached Asia by sailing west further incentivized Portuguese efforts to reach India by the eastern route they had been mapping for decades.
Manuel I and Portuguese Power
Portuguese expansion reached its peak during the reign of Manuel I, who was known even in his own lifetime as “The Fortunate,” between 1495 and 1521. The crucial moment came in 1498 when Vasco da Gama’s expedition reached Calicut on the Indian coast and returned to Portugal the next year after a voyage of 24,000 miles. The surviving ships brought back modest amounts of the precious spices of the east—pepper, cinnamon, and cloves—but the merchants of Europe immediately saw the implications of a successful sea voyage to India. With direct access to India by sea, Portugal could import spices more cheaply than the traditional spice merchants of Italy, who had to obtain them after long overland routes through many Muslim intermediaries.
With royal support, Portuguese explorers and traders sponsored expedition after expedition and were quickly able to break the spice monopoly of Venice and other Italian powers, reaping vast profits for themselves and the crown in the early years of the sixteenth century. The conquest in quick succession of three key ports in the Indian Ocean trade network—Ormuz (1509), Goa (1510), and Malacca (1511)—ensured that Lisbon supplanted all of the Italian states as the hub of the spice trade in Europe. The arrival of Portuguese merchants further east in Macau (1513) and Nagasaki (1543) began the flow of Chinese and Japanese luxuries such as porcelain and silk into Lisbon and only enhanced its role as the most dynamic trading hub in Western Europe.
The accidental discovery of Brazil by an east-bound fleet in 1500 led to commercial interest and settlement there due to the abundance of brazilwood, a source of red dye used in the production of luxury textiles like velvet. Exports of brazilwood remained a staple well into the seventeenth century, though they suffered a relative decline in importance as the plantation sugar industry began to boom there from the mid-sixteenth century. Sadly, the growth of sugar there further drove the growth of the transatlantic slave trade.
A flood of wealth flowed into the royal coffers, which Manuel used to build monuments in a grand style. Architecture built under Manuel has proven notoriously hard to define since it was a flamboyant composite style that has been called “Manueline” style. The most notable buildings of early modern Portugal—the new Riverside Palace (O Paço de Ribeira) in Lisbon, destroyed by the Earthquake of 1755; the Jieronymite Monastery (O Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) and the Tower in the suburb of Belém; and elements of the Royal Cloister in the Battle Monastery in Batalha—were all commissioned by Manuel and paid for mostly by import duties on the spice trade. At the time, and for long after, many Portuguese viewed the reign of Manuel as Portugal’s Golden Age.
The flush of prosperity continued through the first decade of the reign of Manuel’s son and successor, João III. By the 1530s, increased competition and piracy from commercial rivals—such as the English, the French, and the Ottomans—and the increased costs of Manuel’s aggressive imperialism were starting to weigh heavily on the Portuguese treasury.
In 1532, João III shifted to a defensive position in Morocco and withdrew the Portuguese garrisons there to only three fortified towns on the coast. Though financially necessary, this was deeply unpopular for an elite culture steeped in the long tradition of the “Reconquista” against Muslims and inspired by the victories of the previous generation. Though Portuguese settlements in Brazil continued to grow, a lack of money and manpower stalled further expansion against the more organized states of Africa and Asia.
The stagnation of the Portuguese empire was matched by the king’s own growing pessimism and family tragedies. By the mid-1540s, only one of João’s eight children was still alive, leaving his sickly son, (also named João), as the lifeline of the dynasty. Unsurprisingly, the Avis dynasty turned to marriage diplomacy to maintain peace with their powerful neighbor, Spain, then ruled by Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. In 1552, the fifteen-year-old Prince João married Charles’ daughter, Juana Maria, with the provision that if Prince João and his father João III died without another direct male heir, Portugal would fall under the rule of Habsburgs. Prince João died on January 1, 1554, but had left Juana Maria pregnant. The fate of the unborn potential heir became a source of great anxiety throughout the kingdom, and the weeks leading up to the birth were a time of great weeping and lamentation, prayers and petitions. On January 20, 1554, a boy, Sebastian, was born. Since he had preserved Portuguese independence merely by the fact of his birth, he was seen almost immediately to have had a special, even providential destiny, and those expectations were to lead to the end of Avis dynasty and to tragic consequences for Portugal as a whole.
Sebastian became the King of Portugal as a three-year-old when João III died in 1557, and from the time he began to rule the kingdom directly in 1568, he was determined to crusade against Islam in Morocco and to revive the aggressive imperialist policies that his grandfather had abandoned. The naïve and idealistic Sebastian invaded Morocco and, on August 4, 1578, brought his outnumbered army to battle against the forces of the Saadi Sultan of Morocco, Abd-el-Malek, at Alcazarquivir, a battle which was an unmitigated disaster for Portugal. Not only was the army annihilated and the king lost, but a huge number of nobles were either killed or captured.
The most significant example of Sebastian’s folly, though, was that he had not secured the succession, and the only remaining member of the Avis dynasty was his elderly great uncle, the Cardinal Henry. With the end of the dynasty imminent, Sebastian’s uncle, Philip II, the powerful king of Spain pressed his claims to the throne of Portugal as a grandson of Manuel I, and King Henry reluctantly supported Philip as successor. As a result, the House of Avis became extinct when Philip was recognized as the king of Portugal in 1581. Portugal would be ruled from Madrid until 1640. This was a disastrous development for the Portuguese Empire, because being linked to Spain made Portuguese holdings overseas the target of powers that had not traditionally been enemies of the Portuguese (such as the English and the Dutch, who seized many of their colonies in Asia, Africa, and Brazil).
Still, the two centuries of Avis rule were decisive ones in Portuguese history. Beating the odds and winning their independence from the Castilian threat in 1385, the Avis turned to the only arena in which they could expand: the sea. Their pioneering explorations of the Atlantic in the fifteenth century laid the foundations for the globalized world of today and ushered in a brief moment of stupendous wealth and glory for the tiny kingdom. That wealth funded most of the great monuments of the early modern, Manueline style that endure to this day, though that wealth also came at a horrific cost to the Indigenous peoples of Brazil, the millions of forcibly enslaved Africans, and the tens of thousands of Asians who lived under Portuguese rule. Sebastian’s desire to recapture the fading glory of his dynasty led to disaster and a Spanish takeover of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the colonial ventures of the Avis in India and especially Brazil, and the loyalty they inspired for a native-born dynasty provided the foundations for the re-emergence of an independent Portugal in 1640 with the rise of the last Portuguese royal house: the Braganzas.
João José Alves Dias, ed. Nova História de Portugal, Vol. 5: Portugal, do renascimento à crise dinástica (Lisbon: Editorial Presença, 1999).
David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal. 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Borges Coelho, António. A revolução de 1383. 5th ed. (Lisbon: Editorial Camino, 1981).
Roger Crowley, Conquerors: How Portugal Formed the First Global Empire (New York: Random House, 2015).
A.R Disney, A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, vol. I. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).