Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825

Book Cover

Book Title

The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825. London: Hutchinson and Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1969


Boxer, C.R.


The book aims to give an overview of the Portuguese maritime empire from the 15th to 19th century. It approaches discussion from the perspective of various groups, such as merchants, soldiers, and the Crown, and describes how they determined the characteristics of the Portuguese colonies. Fitted into such discussion is a close tracking of the strength of the Portuguese empire vis-à-vis European rivals—most notably the Dutch—on political, economic and demographic fronts, and how it strove to protect itself from such threats. Boxer also pays close attention to circumstances in Portugal itself, and regularly draws causal connections between the metropolis and how colonies are run.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Instead of using a strictly chronologically or geographically based presentation, Boxer takes two approaches. In the first part of the book, he identifies overarching themes that collectively facilitate a broad, all-encompassing understanding of the Portuguese empire. In the second part, he turns to more detail, categorizing agents of empire according to the nature of their contribution, and approaches his discussion from each of these angles in turn. The book examines Portuguese colonial practices in Africa, America and Asia while always keeping a watchful eye on developments at home in Europe.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Because of the emphasis placed on the importance of metropolitan priorities in the making of colonial decisions, Boxer presents colonies around the world as literal extensions of the Portuguese kingdom, and never examines them in isolation. Characteristics of Portugal itself have a clear influence on the determination of the strengths and weaknesses of its far-flung colonies: the chronic lack of labor and the general inadequacy and ill discipline of the military, for instance, or more positively, technological prowess in relation to other colonial rivals.

Boxer also pays considerable attention to Portuguese interaction with other parties, such as the Dutch, the indigenous peoples, and Negro slaves or servants. The Portuguese colonial armies, for example, made extensive use of Negro soldiers, and were in fact dependent on them to defend against Dutch encroachments. Despite significant disadvantages in the areas of manpower and military skill, the Portuguese managed to cling on to their empire, he argues, because they struck deeper roots as colonizers than the Dutch. By the time the Dutch were able to wrest colonies from Portuguese hands, the indigenous peoples had already grown accustomed to the latter, and actively preferred Portuguese rule for a host of social and political reasons.

Ultimately, Boxer presents the Portuguese empire as one which was profoundly commercial despite the traditional Portuguese prejudice against merchants, but which was also deeply ecclesiastical due to its exceptionally strong crusading spirit.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip