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History of Portugal

The Iberians and Celts were the original settlers in the region that is today known as Portugal, but these people eventually intermarried the emigrating people to the region to create a completely different ethnicity. This began after the Punic Wars, when the Carthaginian coastal cities were overtaken by the Romans in the late 200s BC. The Romans' infrastructure and communication slowly Latinized the people of both Spain and Portugal by introducing a new language and later a new religion in Christianity. However, as the Roman Empire weakened, Portugal fell into numerous small kingdoms until the 700s.

Modern-day Portugal and the most of the Iberian Peninsula was overtaken and unified by the Moors from North Africa in the early 700s. The Moors were Muslim and encouraged conversion by forcing a tax on the local Christians and Jews (although they were allowed to practice). This system did encourage a large number of conversions, but never converted a majority of the country to Islam. The Moors also introduced a number of new systems and foods in the country, forever altering the culture.

As Christian groups slowly began to take control over various lands in the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese founded their first state in 868, but didn't gain full independence until 1139. Despite independence the country was rather small in comparison to today and only in the mid-1200s did Portugal finally defeat the Muslim Moors in the south to establish something very similar to their modern-day borders.

In the mid-1300s the Black Death struck Portugal and war with Castille (in Spain) broke out, but quickly ended with Portuguese victory. This was followed by a relatively peaceful and prosperous time for Portugal. The 1400s gave rise to Portugal's power on the seas as they established trade along Africa's coasts and later that century, in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India as Portugal took control over the Indian-European spice trade.

Portugal spent much of the 1500s colonizing, most notably Brazil, Goa, and what is today Timor-Leste (East Timor); they were also the first Europeans to land in Australia and New Zealand. However, Portugal's independence weakened in 1580 when their king died without an heir and the Spanish ruler, Philip II took control of the country. Although they nominally maintained their independence, this led to Portuguese involvement in Spanish wars and eventually led to the loss of Portugal's monopoly on Indian Ocean trading routes. In the mid-1600s Portugal tired of Spanish rule so an uprising put a Portuguese king back on the thrown.

In the late 1700s a number of social and political reforms were undertaken and in the early 1800s the Spanish allowed Napoleon's French troops into their country to invade Portugal. With the support of the British, the Portuguese held off the French and maintained independence. This, however was only the beginning of many of Portugal's problems as, soon after, Brazil gained independence and Portugal's power went into a continuous decline.

Economic disasters in the early 1900s led to the assassination of the king and his son, which was followed by revolution, a second new government, a coup, and the beginning of a dictatorship in 1926. Shortly after the new government took power, World War II (WWII) broke out, but Portugal managed to maintain neutrality.

After WWII, Portugal joined NATO and became more involved in European affairs while, after focusing on their African territories, eventually moved out of Africa and Asia entirely. In the 1970s Portugal overthrew their government and again welcomed a democratically elected body. In the 1990s the European Union (EU) was founded with Portugal being an original member and the colony of Macau was handed over to China. In 2002 Timor-Leste was also granted independence.

This page was last updated: March, 2013