This video is part of a series of 12 animated maps.

View series: The Portuguese and Spanish Empires

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The Portuguese Empire (16th – 17th centuries)

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Portuguese and Spanish Empires.


At the beginning of the 16th century, thanks to its superior navigational skills, Portugal was able to create the largest commercial and maritime empire the world had ever seen. It extended from South America to the Far East, and along the coastlines of Africa and India. 

Apart from Brazil, most of its empire was a network of islands and trading posts known as ‘feitorias,’ acquired either by force, especially in the Indian Ocean, or by negotiating with local powers. For example, Macao was ceded to the Portuguese by China in 1557.

The government in Lisbon controlled the trading posts located on the West Coast of Africa. Those on the other side of the Cape, known as the ‘Estado da India’, were placed under the authority of a Viceroy in Goa.

Often fortified, they were used as ports of call for Portuguese ships and as warehouses and markets for their cargo.

With its trading network, the Portuguese were able to take control of most of Europe’s spice trade, previously dominated by Venice via its trading routes through Alexandria and Damascus.

They also managed to replace Arab intermediaries by controlling trade with Africa, India and the Persian Gulf. 

In order to maintain this commercial monopoly, two Portuguese armadas were continually sailing back and forth across the Indian Ocean.

The highpoint of the Portuguese empire was between 1525 and 1550. After this period, Portugal, a small country with a population of 1 million, was unable to maintain its naval superiority and was forced to yield territory to the increasingly ambitious Dutch and British merchants.

In addition, during the period of the Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal between 1580 and 1640, Madrid was less interested in defending Lisbon’s overseas possessions. 

At the end of the 16th century, Brazil had become the cornerstone of the Portuguese Empire. Its principal export was red wood used for dying. However, this industry was quickly replaced by sugar cane plantations on the coast and later by cattle farms established by settlers moving further inland.

As Brazil’s economy grew, its large sugar plantations needed more laborers. As a result, there was greater demand for slave labor, thus encouraging more trade with Portugal’s African ports.