Lecture delivered to the

Academia de Marinha, Lisbon,

October 15, 1996




It gives me great pleasure to be addressing this Academy as an associate member. I am a political scientist specializing in International Relations, and the history of international relations, and also with a life long interest in all matters pertaining to seapower. It is in relation to seapower that I first came to appreciate, maybe two-three decades ago the role of Portugal in the evolution of global politics, and to take a special interest in that subject, one that is not too keenly followed in the United States or Britain.

In recent years, I have done my best to raise that understanding, be it through my writings, or in a small way, in the classes I taught, and in overseeing numerous student papers exploring and documenting the Portuguese role. On this occasion I do not expect to be able to tell you much about Portuguese seapower that you do not already know, but I might perhaps be able to put familiar facts in a novel perspective, in such a way that the record of these maritime endeavors could also help to illuminate the broader context of global political evolution.

The question I propose to discuss with you to-day is the following: how important was seapower in placing Portugal, in the 15th and 16th centuries, in a position of global leadership, and by that fact also, in shaping the evolution of world politics toward globalization. To save you the suspense, my answer will be, yes it was a critical, and a necessary factor, but not sufficient by itself in accounting for the whole of this process. The answer is important because the conditio ns of global leadership, and of evolutionary process, remain central to understanding long-term change in world politics, and remain of interest to all students of International Relations.

Portugalís global leadership


In proposing this question, I do, of course, take it as given - and hope that you do in fact join me in this assumption - that at the onset of the modern world, Portugal did in fact, and for a substantial period - for almost a century, exercise a position of leadership in relation to crucial political and economic matters at the global level. By global leadership I do not mean world empire - and obviously not empire in a Mongol manner- or hegemony - either in the classical meaning of political domination or in the revisionist version of economic preponderance. By leadership I mean being first in (that is, innovating), and contributing substantially to, resolving critical global problems, and to building global political structures in response to such problems. In the XV century, that would mean leading in discovery and exploration, that which goes in Portuguese history by the name of "discobrimentos", and that to-day we can recognize as the onset of globalization. The product of "discobrimentos" was the first inkling of the possibility of a global system in a network mode, a system for facilitating and regulating oceanic and inter-continental exchanges without world empire. Such a network, in its Venetian prototype, would include a productive home base, a number of bases linked by fleets and trade routes, as well as allies and other "consumers" of its products.

The recognition of such a leadership role at the birth of the modern world places Portugal right there in front of what might be considered to be the most important line of succession of modern world politics, what might be called the oceanic-democratic lineage, consisting of Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States. Such recognition is not, of course, universal. Those brought up on modern European history tend to see Portugalís position, and its contribution as entirely marginal. Students of International Relations regard as unimportant anything that happened before the Peace of Westphalia, reputedly and erroneously the fountainhead of national sovereignty. Even those who specialize in maritime history and who ought to know better tend to ignore or neglect Portugal. The founder of the modern concept of seapower, Alfred Mahan, did so a century ago, and so did, more recently, Paul Kennedy , a military historian, in his account of the rise and decline of great powers since 1500.

To those who ask: how can we possibly compare Portugal with the United States, we answer: they both occupied similar positions and they filled similar functions , even though they operated at different stages in the evolution of world politics. The world and its problems have obviously changed a great deal over the past 500 years, in large part cumulatively as the result of global processes, but the role of leadership (despite premature reports of its demise) is still with us. A map showing the global distribution of Portuguese fortresses ca. 1550 is not at all unlike one showing the network of United States overseas bases ca. 1996. So would be a table showing the comparative advantage in oceanic seapower for Portugal and the United States, both accounting in their time for the lionís share of the worldís major warships.

Let us therefore take it as a given for the purposes of this discussion that Portugal did, for a time, exercise global leadership, with an important component of seapower. In order to assess the importance of that seapower we need to place it alongside other causes of Portugalís achievement.

If we ask: what were, overall, the sources of that achievement, we can reconstruct Portuguese strategies between 1430 and 1540 as if they were pursuing a course of "evolutionary learning, learning to solve the problem of discoveries. It is as if the Portuguese leadership understood, and deployed, the correct recipe for dealing with this problem: they took and mixted the necessary ingredients, and followed the correct instructions. They did that much the same way th at their successors in the oceanic-democratic lineage acted in the Dutch, British, and American cases. We shall therefore conduct the arguemnt in two parts, first detailing the sequence of strategic choices, and then briefly discussing the set of necessary conditions.

Evolutionary learning


Let us postulate that a social learning (or problem-solving) process consists of four basic parts or phases, those of definition of the problem, organization of support, choice or selection, and implementation. That is, at any rate, what sociologists and group psychologists tell us. In the light of it let us propose that in relation to the problem of "discobrimentos" Portugal (but not its competitors) pursued, over the length of over a century, just such a learning sequence: in respect of global politics. The four phases of such a learning strategy may be called Agenda-setting, Coalition-building, Macrodecision, and Execution.

(1) Agenda-setting. (1430-1460).

At this time, the structure of the world system , broadly speaking, was determined by the Silk Roads. Those two (overland, and seaborn) arteries of world trade and communications that linked China and Europe via India and West Asia had served as the backbone of the world system for the previous millennium and more but their inefficiencies had become increasingly apparent and burdensome. The inefficiencies were both economic and political: high transport costs, and uncertainty of performance due to political disruptions and exactions of monopoly rent at each one of several critical points along the route. About 1400, due to the dislocations caused by Timurís conquests and policies in Central Asia, the most profitable trades, in spices, had shifted to the southern route, via the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and the profits derived from this traffic by Cairo and Venice had become notorious. Portugal was familiar with the western-most extension of that system, via the Galley of Flanders that passed through Lisbon. Around 1430 (about when Prince Pedro visited the city) the price of pepper peaked at Venice, and reflected, it is said, a 100-fold gain over the price paid to producers in South India.

Monopoly profits arouse envy and provoke competition, but who were the competitors? The Genoese had just been pushed out of the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, and some were operating from Portugal. France and Britain were fighting the Hundred Year War. Morocco was disintegrating and locked into caravan trade across the Sahara. China had sent seven large naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433 without changing the system, and then abandoned the field. The only serious alternative to the Venetian-Egyptian monopoly appeared to come from Portugal.

We know, and I hardly need remind you, that the early agents of the strategy of "discobrimentos" were the two sons of John I, Pedro, and Henry the Navigator. I cannot enter here the debate about their motives, but I would argue that the oceanic and exploratory strategies they adopted, of settling the Atlantic islands, and exploring the coast of Africa, amounted to an attempt to offer an alternative to the Venetian-dominated world system, and as such were effective mechanisms of structural change. By the time of the death of Henry in 1460, the islands had been settled, West Africa reached, the basis laid of new sugar and gold trades; and the agenda of "discobrimentos" was well-entrenched, though not yet dominant in Portuguese prractices.

(2) Coalition-building 1460-1494

It is one thing to propose an agenda, and to make plans, it is another thing to carry it out in the face of the opposition of vested interests defending the existing structures. It needed to be demonstrated that Portugalís agenda had strong support both at home and abroad, and that those who proposed it could stand up to the counter-pressures that Venice and Cairo might be expected to mount.

At home the party of oceanic exploration, led by John II, prevailed over the party of Moroccan conquest, and by 1480 powerful land-owning interests were crushed, to the advantage of the urban-commercial-maritime complex. The Cortes was at its most active, and we might suppose that public opinion, such as it was, supported the new agenda. The newly developed sugar and gold trades provided an economic base for additional ventures.

Abroad, Portugal had already benefited, under John I, from English support in confirming its independence from Castille. Traditional links with the Low Countries were strengthened by a series of political marriages, with Burgundy ( Isabel and Philip the Good 1430), and with the Hapsburgs (Frederick 1450). It was Flanders that would be a principal beneficiary of Veniceís loss of the spice monopoly, and Maximilian (who closed an alliance with John II at a crucial moment in 1494) became a key supporter of Portugalís global designs. Finally, a settlement was reached with newly forming Spain (now entering upon links with the Hapsburgs too) both in respect of interests in West Africa, and in respect of the American discoveries of Columbus. Under the pressures of Portuguese seapower, and the impending French action in Italy, a first global regime was established at Tordesillas (1494) that would not only work and last but that originated a community of interests between the two countries in maintaining it for more than a century against the opposition of others, both in Europe and elsewhere.

(3) Macrodecision (1494-1516)

With the support structure in place, the time was for decisive action. The opportunity was provided by the outbreak of what we now describe as the wars of Italy, waged mainly between France and Spain that came to occupy much of Europeís military manpower until well into the middle of the 16th century. A principal effect of these wars, one that became blindingly obvious when the League of Cambrai moved into action in 1509, was to break the power of Venice in the Eastern Mediterranean and end its hold over established trade routes. While Portugal did not participate in the wars of Italy, its allies, and Ferdinand and Maximilian in particular did, and Portugal, and Antwerp, and Flanders were the principal beneficiaries of these important campaigns of what might be described as the first global war.

While Europe was busy fighting over Italy, and containing Venice, the King of Portugal took decisive steps to establish a strong presence in the Indian Ocean with the express design of capturing the control of the "spice route& quot; and diverting it away from "the Moors" After Vasco da Gamaís exploratory voyage, he sent annually important fleets to the Indian Ocean via the newly discovered Cape route, with precise instructions about points to be seized, alliances to be forged, and commercial arrangements to be made. Between 1500 and 1515, a total of some 200 major ships was dispatched, mostly Naus especially designed for the long and difficult cape route, and a few caravels, and ship construction also soon began in Indian ports. A number of naval engagements were fought with local forces, including a decisive battle (in Mahanís sense, in which the battleships of the two sides face off to gain command of the sea) with the two major powers, an Egyptian-Gujerati fleet (benefitting from some Venetian assistance), at Diu in 1509 (within weeks of the League of Cambraiís attack on Venice). That naval victory gave Portugal the control of Eastern Seas for the entire century. In short order, a number of key bases were seized, including Goa, Malacca, and Ormuz (though not Aden), but no territorial conquests were undertaken or attempted. While King Manuel assumed the title of the "Lord of Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce in Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, an India" navigation and commerce were the operative terms, and conquest referred chiefly to island bases.

(4) Execution (1516-1540)

By 1515, then the infrastructure of a rudimentary global political system was in place, consisting of fleets, bases, alliances, and a regulatory framework, all centered on Portugal. It was a world-wide system patrolled by Portuguese galleons, and it stretched from the North Atlantic and from Brazil, to the Indian Ocean and the South China Seas, controlling the major worldís major East-West trade route. By about 1540, the system had reached its peak, with its construction complete, the design successfully implemented, and the learning process essentially completed.

At that point, Portugal was in fact exercising global leadership. It attained that leadership by solving a problem of structural reconstruction, and creating the outlines of a global system, and exercised it for a time by ordering and regulating it, with a global distribution of naval forces, unequaled by any other power until after about 1560. In relation to the Portuguese system, the Castillian enterprise in the Caribbean, within the Tordesillas regime, served at that time no more than a regional role, and only a generation later would it rise to great prominence, assuming the character of the second great intercontinental trade artery, this time based on silver.

Necessary conditions

We have now shown, in very broad strokes, how Portugal earned global leadership by following implicitly the logic of an evolutionary learning process. But we can also show that such a performance was facilitated by it being able to draw on a range of critical resources, in the absence of which the learning process could not have worked. We might describe these as the necessary conditions of gaining global leadership, and we can specify four of these: responsiveness to global problems, a lead economy, a cooperative society, and last but hardly least, forces of global reach, and in this case, seapower. Each of these is crucial throughout the learning process, but each one is also maximized in one of the phases of that process. For example, seapower was, obviously, especially critical in the phase of Macrodecision (or global war).

Responsiveness to global problems:

Let us first remark upon the openness to the world that characterized Portugal of the time. This was, in the first place, a function of location, that might have appeared peripheral from a Euro-centric perspective, but was in fact right in the middle of Europeís "main street" commercial traffic of the time, the traffic artery linking the Mediterranean (Venice and Genoa in particular) the English Channel and the Low countries, that in turn was the European section of the world trade route of the silk roads. Portugal was also close to developments in the Moslem world, and Morocco in particular, and learning from them.

Knowledge of the ancient routes (for instance in the form of map and globe-making) was combined with the rising demand in Northern Europe for a rearrangement of these practices and by responding to them the Portuguese were able to a dvance not only their own agenda but also make a reasonable claim of pursuing in that way wider, more general, interests. By undertaking "discoveries" they were working for the global public interest (even while monopolizing for themselves the access to the new world they uncovered).

Lead economy:


Preconceptions exist that global leadership directly derives form, and must be linked in a simple fashion to, a large economy as measured by its GNP, but that is not really so. A lead economy is one that is distinguished by the innovative character of its products or services, such that they significantly alter the patterns of the global economy of world trade. The Portuguese economy ca. 1500 was not at all large, and its GNP was probably smaller than Venice's, or, of course, Chinaís. But it was innovative, opening new sources of supply for world trade in two waves. First, at the onset of "discoveries", and settling the islands, by developing sugar production and trade, and then organizing the gold trade from Guinea. In the next wave, the leading sector became the spice trade between the East and European markets. All the while, shipbuilding was Portugalís largest, and equally innovative industry.

Relatively small though it was, the Portuguese economy was switched into wide-ranging trading networks, and could draw in traders, financiers, and entrepreneurs i.a. from Italy, and the Low Countries, and being relatively sophisticated, benefited from the advantages of a division of labor that i.a. allowed much of the distribution of spices to be performed by North European and Italian interests. But economic innovation was a necessary condition of global leadership in two ways: in helping to advance global problems, as the products of innovation were directly related to the discoveries, such as gold, and secondly, in helping to fund political enterprise, as when Guinea gold became a basis for funding the expeditions to the East. In turn, the political position once attained, helped to keep the Portuguese economic performance, as in the spice trade, in the top rank in the phase of Execution, until well into the middle of the century.

Cooperative society:

The advancement of global problems requires great cooperative undertakings, and those can be entered upon only by those anchored securely in a society with the necessary competence in cooperation. An isolated, or isolationist, society would have problems with entering upon global enterprises.

In the Portuguese case we have three sets of conditions that favored cooperation: a stabilized national society,, the first such in Europe, and therefore, at the time, at an advantage as compared with e.g. England, France, or Castille-Aragon. Japan might have attained comparative national unity but closed itself off from the world. Secondly, Portugal might be said to have developed democratic potential, which, most generally, is the potential for cooperation. It showed itself in the salience and activity of representative institutions, and the Cortes, and urban institutions, and was witness to a productive urban-mercantile-monarchical partnership (stemming from the events of 1383-85). Thirdly, Portugal, was alliance-capable, and as shown the phase of Coalition-building, was skilled in mobilizing an international support network for its enterprises. None of its competitors qualify on these criteria.

Forces of global reach:

It is entirely obvious that the construction and operation of a global political system calls for forces of global reach. In Portuguese experience this refers to seapower (at the end of the 20th century we must think, more broadly, of naval-space power), not just in the sense of coastal or narrow-seas seapower (as that characteristic of the Mediterranean), but of naval units capable of sustained oceanic and intercontinental operations. Once again, location was significant because the quasi-peninsular geography of the country created a home base abutting an ocean but safe on the land side, and thus affording surplus security that could be invested in seapower.

In the period we are reviewing, the King of Portugal commanded forces of global reach that were superior to those of any of actual or potential competitors. As William Thompson, and myself have documented in our SEAPOWER IN GLOBAL POLITICS (1988) in numbers of major oceanic warships the Portuguese navy held a monopoly position (defined as one of 50 per cent or more, thus capable of taking on any other force) for over four decades, for the entire period 1502-1544, a time representing the zenith of its power. That means that this naval force, taking the form of 200 major ships sent to the Indian Ocean, (previously mentioned) was decisive in the phase of Macrodecision. The Naus (the Great Ships of Portugal, as English reports called them), were used for establishing a presence in the East, and then galleons were developed in the phase of Execution for protecting the system thus established, both in the Atlantic and in the Indian Oceans. Earlier, the caravel was developed to explore the coasts of Africa. All of which demonstrates just some of the innovative initiatives deployed.

In taking note of these estimates of Portuguese seapower we should not place undue emphasis on the quantitative aspect. In respect of the sheer number of warship at about 1500, both the Venetian and the Ottoman navies, then fighting a bitter war, were about equal or maybe even superior to the Portuguese, at about 100 ships each. Nor must we forget that as recently only thirty years earlier, the Ming Imperial Navy was reported to operate as many as 140 major warships. What distinguished Portuguese seapower from these other navies was its global reach, not only potentially, as in the Chinese (though not the Venetian and Ottoman) case, but as actualized in operations of defined purpose at long distances.

Nor were the forces deployed in operations overly large. The armada of Francisco de Almeida that sailed from Lisbon for the East in March 1505 consisted of l4 Naus and six caravels, with 1500 fighting men on board; two months later it was followed by another of six naus. We might contrast it with the already mentioned Chinese expeditions to the same area, the last some 70 years earlier, that deployed, as is reported, fleets of some 60 ocean-going junks of large dimensions (of 400 feet in length, that is much larger thana the naus), 200 other ships, and embarking 27,000 soldiers.

In other words, Portuguese seapower prevailed not so much due to superiority of sheer numbers but rather because of better organization for purposes of global reach, and with the advantage of well-focussed strategic goals that reflected responsiveness to global problems.

We might ask in conclusion: if the conditions were so favourable and strategies so successful earlier on, why did they not last into another learning cycle? The short answer is: after about 1540, conditions changed, and policies failed to adapt. The naval position in particular deteriorated sharply with the rise of English, Spanish, and then the Dutch ocean-going navies, and the earlier inventiveness in ship construction was not repeated. After a disastrous foray into Morocco, that contradicted her oceanic commitments, Portugal lost independence and did not participate in the iinternational competition that followed.

A more interesting question concerns the fate of the Spanish challenge in which Portugal in a sense joined as a junior partner. Why did Spain fail, and the Dutch prevail? Most of all, because the world had changed, and the Spanish answer to the new problems proved less persuasive than the Dutch-English one. The new problems no longer concerned the discoveries but how and by whom the newly discovered global system was to be organized. Spainís agenda was that of a closed system, under a Hapsburg world monarchy, leading the Counter-Reformation in Europe, and maintaining extant and exclusive privileges in global trade. The Dutch-English agenda offered a looser cooperation of independent states, founded on links between the Reformed Churches in opposition to the Counter-Reformation, and working for a open maritime system at the global level. The Dutch agenda attracted stronger support, and gained the upper hand in the course of a prolonged global war. Spanish seapower was all but destroyed, and the economy left in tatters. The world ocean was opened in 1609.


I have attempted to show on this occasion that seapower was an essential, a necessary, ingredient of Portugalís spectacular performance on the world scene in the 15th and 16th centuries. This deliberate and well-orchestrated utilization of available maritime resources, toward clearly articulated goals of strategic action, in a spirit of innovation and applied at all stages of a century-long process is an all-too frequently ignored classic of the use of navies in global affairs.

But at the same time I have also been keen to demonstrate that seapower, in and of itself, was not a sufficient condition of that performance; The other necessary ingredients of effective political action in the context of strong competitive pressures were shown to be a lead economy switched into the circuits of world trade; a cooperative society, and a capacity to respond promptly to critical global problems: in other words, to the demands of world public interest.

Responsiveness to global problems means being in sync with what wide sections of the world public think needs to be done. Responding to such needs means tapping a wide market for public policies, and the possibility of great gains. Otherwise put, it also means responding to demands for evolutionary change, to evolutionary trends. In its time Portugal drove a major change in the evolution of the world system by giving it the first strong push toward building a a modern political order. That process is continuing and is far from being exhausted and the lessons learnt remain relevant to this day. That is why this is an experience that must be remembered as a source of pride and as an outstanding contribution to the ongoing story of globalization.


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