Manuel I

Manuel I (1469-1521) was king of Portugal from 1495 to 1521. Known as "the Fortunate," he oversaw the formation of the Portuguese Empire and strengthened the position of the monarchy.

The son of the Duke of Viseu, Manuel was born on May 31, 1469, at Alcochete. He was the cousin and brother-in-law of King John II of Portugal. The heir to the throne, Prince Afonso, was killed in an accident in 1491, and thereafter the royal succession devolved upon Manuel.

Manuel married in turn two daughters of the joint rulers of Castile and Aragon, Ferdinand and Isabella; his third marriage was to their granddaughter Leonor, sister of the emperor Charles V. Manuel's Spanish marriages extracted from him a reluctant promise to Ferdinand and Isabella to expel all Portuguese Jews. Himself unmoved by anti-Semitic passions, he accepted the "technical conversion" of the Jews, granting them a 20-year period of grace before allowing inquiries to be made into the character of their actual beliefs.

In other ways Manuel's policies more closely paralleled the centralizing measures of his Spanish in-laws. He restored the powerful Braganza faction, exiled under his predecessor. But he also turned the nobility into a pensioned clientele of the monarchy, and he ordered a revision of the legal code to bolster the royal supremacy. The government now passed under the control of administrative professionals, and the Cortes (Parliament) gave up its legislative initiative. He further reduced municipal liberties and suppressed the autonomous governing functions of the Lisbon guilds.

Abroad, although there was a decisive setback in the Portuguese effort to conquer North Africa, Manuel bolstered the Portuguese presence in Morocco. Under royal control, small-scale sugar production in Madeira was expanded to reach markets all over Europe. In West Africa the slave and gold trades increased their profitability, and the Portuguese expanded their influence in the Congo.

But the greatest achievements of Manuel's reign were the completion of the oceanic link with East Africa and India begun by Prince Henry the Navigator's captains; the discovery of Brazil; and the laying of the foundations of the Portuguese commercial empire in the East. The first of these tasks was entrusted to Vasco da Gama, whose epochal voyage (1497-1499) established direct contact with an Indian center of the spice trade, Calicut. On a second voyage to India, Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed far to the southwest and landed on a strip of Brazilian coast (April 1500) before heading eastward for the Cape of Good Hope.

Under two viceregal agents, Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese made a dramatic, if not wholly successful, attempt to drive the Moslems from the Indian Ocean and to replace them and their Venetian commercial allies as spice merchants to Europe. Albuquerque acquired a permanent base of Portuguese power in Goa; and he pursued the retreating Moslems even farther east, to the Malay spice port of Malacca.

Yet, although these accomplishments brought in an immediate flow of treasure to the royal coffers, the Portuguese found their resources insufficient to complete their strategy of gaining total military-commercial control of Eastern waters. The Venetians were later to regain an important share of the Oriental spice trade, and the costs of covering the long Portuguese voyages, combined with falling prices based on the increased influx of spices, were to greatly reduce the profitability of the Eastern commercial empire to the Crown. Manuel died on Dec. 13, 1521.


Further Reading on Manuel I

An account of Manuel's reign is in H. V. Livermore, A New History of Portugal (1966). There is a vast literature in Portuguese and a growing number of studies in English concerned with Portuguese power in the East. A brief account of the concluding voyages of exploration and the first engagements in Eastern waters is Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620 (1952). For the Portuguese Eastern Empire see any of the following works by Charles R. Boxer: "The Portuguese in the East, 1500-1800" in H. V. Livermore, ed., Portugal and Brazil: An Introduction (1953); Four Centuries of Portuguese Expansion, 1415-1825: A Succinct Survey (1961); and The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (1969). A history of the region into which the Portuguese incursion was made is Auguste Toussaint, History of the Indian Ocean (1966). Extracts from firsthand accounts of the Portuguese ventures are in J. H. Parry, ed., The European Reconnaissance: Selected Documents (1968).