Taking Stock: Portuguese Imperial Historiography
Twelve years after the e-JPH Debate

Roquinaldo Ferreira1

How has the intellectual output on the history of Portugal and its colonies changed over the past twelve years as a result of institutional collaboration between academic communities in different countries? How might shifts in predominantly English-speaking academic institutions lead to more attention to Portuguese imperial history? How does the historiography of the Portuguese empire compare to recent trends in the broader historiography of European empires? These are some of the questions that have anchored the bibliographical essay below, which draws extensively on a debate in the e-journal of Portuguese History (e-JPH) in 2003 to reappraise the evolution in Portuguese imperial history over the past decade. While suggesting that the demise of area studies might rekindle Portuguese imperial history, the essay draws parallels between the so-called new imperial history and the recent scholarship on Portuguese imperial possessions.

In the 2003 debate, a group of prominent scholars of Portugal and its empire engaged in a lively debate to assess the state of affairs regarding the historiography of Portugal and its empire. Amid a fair amount of soul-searching (and some finger-pointing as well), scholars drew a direct connection between the status of international scholarly production on Portugal and its empire, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, and the perceived geopolitical relevance (or lack thereof) of Portugal in the international arena. A prominent scholar remarked: “What is specific to our discipline is that Portugal and Portuguese history also became peripheral as objects for research” (Pedreira 2003).

Scholars participating in the e-JPH debate were obviously drawn to the sharp contrast between the pioneering and central role that the Portuguese played in the construction of the Western world and the relative paucity of studies on the history of Portugal and its empire. The Portuguese empire, to paraphrase Giuseppe Marcocci, was a “forgotten empire” (Marcocci 2012a: 33). Who was to blame for such dispiriting situation? In the 2003 e-JPH debate, much of the blame was attributed to lack of financial resources for historical research, the alleged parochial nature of academic circles in Portugal, and the impact of a nationalistic political agenda during the dictatorship on academic debates. Notably, this harsh assessment mirrored another equally pointed appraisal predating the e-JPH debate. “The Spanish, and to a lesser extent, the Portuguese are not international in outlook and seldom partake in foreign historical congresses” (Winius 1979:102).

In the e-JPH debate, scholars identified internalization as a key strategy to raise the profile of Portuguese historiography in the Anglo-Saxon world, while pointing out that earlier efforts to globalize Portuguese academia had been “largely rhetorical” (Curto 2003; Pedreira 2003). Some suggested moving beyond the traditional focus on Portugal and its empire: “It is pointless to think of historiographical expansion as a dilemma of choosing between Europe and the high seas” (Schaub 2003). Others highlighted that the goal of internationalization relates less to themes than to the analytical lenses used to develop historical studies (Curto 2003). What might have been left out in the debate is how the writing of bottom-up social and transnational histories could generate interest in the Portuguese empire and help integrate it into the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon scholarship of European empires.

It is important to provide background on the context in which this debate occurred. According to Matos, a 1999 survey of Portuguese scholarship “revealed an overwhelming preference for national topics (85.3%), compared to a limited interest in the history of other countries, including Brazil and Lusophone African nations” (Matos 2012: 765–777). Much of this narrow scope of analysis might be attributed to the decolonization in Africa, a process by no means exclusive to Portugal, and a salient example of how societal forces shape academic trends. “Perhaps the most immediate effect of decolonization—in Britain and France alike—was the virtual banishment of imperial history to the margins of national historiography” (Aldrich; Ward 2010: 261).2 In Portugal, the situation was further complicated by the active role of colonial and dictatorial establishment as a promoter of studies of empire. “The Salazar government was only too happy to inspire, sponsor or promote anything which called attention to Portugal’s long presence in Asia or Africa, as if this would soften hearts already hardened against colonialism” (Winius 1979: 111).

It is also worthy to emphasize that the e-JPH debate/discussion was obviously not the first time that scholars had assessed Portuguese imperial historiography and that others had already suggested innovative ways to reinvigorate this historiography. Previous generations had called for analytical treatment placing Portuguese imperial history in the broader context of global exchanges (Godinho 1948; Boxer 1954). At least one of the participants of the e-JPH debate had already proposed innovative methodological frameworks to unpack Portugal’s imperial past. In Curto’s view, “perhaps the best way of examining how institutional structures really worked is through case studies of individual agents and small groups” (Curto 2000: 87). This agenda was echoed by Xavier, who wrote that “through the trajectory of a single individual it is possible to tap into worlds that otherwise would be invisible” (Xavier 2000: 155). More recently, Flores has written that despite many changes in the landscape of Portuguese imperial history, scholars have not yet adequately accounted for “non-European dimensions of European empires” (Flores 2006: 31).

Interestingly, the e-JPH debate might have overlooked factors that contributed to the perceived marginalization of Portuguese imperial historiography, particularly its balkanized nature, which privileges specific regions of the empire to the detriment of studies of the empire as whole. This status quo clearly makes it more difficult to bring the Portuguese empire into the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon academia by drawing analogies with other imperial formations. “Portuguese overseas history rarely views the entire empire at once. Far more typical are regional studies that examine one relatively small part of the former Portuguese world” (Coates 2006: 84).3 Santos traces this fragmentation to what she calls the lack a “unified model of management of overseas spaces” by the Portuguese crown, suggesting the use of thematic axes as a way to overcome historiographical balkanization (Santos 1998: 114).

Furthermore, the e-JPH debate might have failed to pay sufficient attention to the specific contexts of production of knowledge in Anglo-Saxon academia, particularly the dominating nature of area studies and its attendant impact on imperial studies. In England, as John MacKenzie recently argued, area studies have bifurcated studies of the British empires into two sub-fields, with “the writing of the so-called imperial history [becoming] separated in some respects from its components parts” (MacKenzie 2015: 100). In the United States, area studies have privileged groups of nation-states as the unit of analysis, promoting intensely vertical studies of particular regions of the globe as a response to the imperatives of the Cold War. In doing so, they have largely ignored transnationality and global exchange (Szanton 2004; Middell; Naumann 2005: 149-170).

Equally important, twelve years past the stimulating e-JPH debate, how has the status quo changed? An answer to this question points to a dynamic intellectual milieu where scholarship on Portuguese imperial possessions has been transformed by factors ranging from increased availability of funding, better institutional frameworks to conduct research, and international collaboration with scholars in France, Spain and Brazil (Cunha; Cardim 2012:160). Granted, this dynamism might suffer under financial constraints generated by current economic crises in Portugal and Brazil. However, reflective of this environment has been the creation of an inter-university PhD program in global history (Programa Interuniversitário de Doutoramento em História, PIUDHist). Promising to increase levels of internationalization of Portuguese academia, the PIUDHist aims to “broaden the geographical scope of both the teaching and the supervision provided.”4

The trend toward internationalization—some have argued—has shifted Portuguese historical writing style “away from French models towards Anglo-Saxon ones … and a concomitant realignment with the empiricist paradigm dominant in the Anglo-Saxon world” (Bennett 2014: 14). Further research will need to be carried out to examine this claim and the consequences it posits. What is undeniable, on the other hand, is the impact of academic collaboration between Portugal and Brazil, which has produced a plethora of edited volumes and academic meetings that have creatively reshaped imperial studies in Portugal and Brazil. On one hand, according to Schwartz, “the rebirth of early modern history in post-Salazar Portugal” has “greatly enriched and deepened analysis of Portugal and its empire, including Brazil” by Brazilian and foreign scholars (Schwartz 2011: 102). On the other hand, some Portugal-based scholars have come to believe, perhaps exaggeratedly, that the future of Portuguese historiography writ large “lies over there, on that huge landmass on the other side of the Atlantic [Brazil], rather than with a little country on the periphery of Europe [Portugal]” (Bennett 2014: 14). To appreciate this shifting dynamic, one only needs to be reminded of Luso-Brazilian academic interaction in the 1970s: “to judge from the two [academic meetings] I have attended, the Portuguese merely group together and complain that the Brazilians have monopolized the whole conference” (Winius 1979: 102).

The New Imperial History

The premise of this section is that the goal of raising the profile of studies of Portuguese empire necessitates a broad understanding of the historiographical landscape of British imperial historiography. British imperial historiography is particularly relevant because of the e-JPH’s stated goal of raising the profile of Portuguese imperial history in the Anglo-Saxon academic world. Prior to this debate, there had been cross-fertilization between Portuguese and British imperial historiographies, particularly vis-à-vis the nature of the political and commercial ties between center and peripheries in the early modern empire (Russell-Wood, 2002: 105-143). As stated by Greene, the ultimate goal is to “escape—and transcend—the national frameworks that have long channeled their work and inhibited broad comparative analyses” (Greene, 2013: chap.1). However, it is also important to identify and compare commonalities and possible areas of interaction in themes and methods by scholars dealing with different imperial formations.

Such comparison might be fruitful if framed in the context of recent historiographical trends in studies of the British Empire, which have led to the rise of a new imperial history paradigm focused on the organic and transnational nature of British empire-building in the early modern world. Particularly insightful and generative has been Kathleen Wilson’s call for an alternative conceptualization of imperial studies. While reminding us that the very notion of an “imperial history,” whether new or old, may be an artifact of European dominance and metropolitan perspective,” Wilson argues that scholars ought to rethink “what empire meant from the point of view of their different partisans and opponents, the variegated logics of their divergent strategies and cultural technologies of rule, and the possibilities they offer for transnational and comparative scholarship” (Wilson 2004: 2; Wilson 2006: 212).5

Wilson’s call bears at least partial resemblance to methodological tools that other scholars have suggested as key to unlocking the complex past of imperial formations. Cooper and Stoler, for example, argue that scholars ought to “treat metropole and colony in a single analytic field” (Cooper; Stoler, 1997: 4). Others have suggested “decentering” interpretations of empires to fully account for subaltern groups. Natalie Zemon Davies states that “the decentering historian does not tell the story of the past only from the vantage point of a single part of the world or of powerful elites, but rather widens his or her scope, socially and geographically, and introduces plural voices into the account” (Davies 2011: 190).

The rise of the new imperial history should be understood as part of growing interest for imperial history writ large. As pointed out by historical sociologist Runciman, “it is indeed notorious that the last two decades have seen both a revival of interest in imperialism and a more positive reappraisal of many of its past practitioners” (Runciman 2011: 99).6 Reflecting the end of the Cold War and multipolar international geopolitics, this focus is hardly confined to academic circles (Pomper 2005: 1-27; Rosenau 2005: 73-87). As de Groot points out, empire “draws attention to how rulers and ruling elites involved in conquest or settlement adapted, maintained or reinvented their exercise of power in order to control and exploit the peoples and territories they subjugated or colonized”(De Groot 2013: 24).7

Much of this shift clearly also relates to trends in scholarly work in the Anglo-Saxon world. First, it is worth pointing out the thrust to transcend the nation-state as a unit of analysis. According to Hausser & Pietschmann, “empire as an investigative concept has helped the investigation … to broaden the Historiographic scope of research beyond national borders” (Hausser & Pietschmann, 2014: 7).8 Second, scholars’ recognition of the symbiotic relationship between the nation-state and imperial formations has also contributed to the turn towards imperial history. “A number of historians have emphasized that European and colonial roles over the last three centuries have shaped social, political and cultural development within Europe rather than being external or additional to it.”9 Thirdly, the new imperial history has also benefited from the rise of post-colonial and feminist studies.10

The rise of empire as a preferred unit of analysis has not gone unchallenged. Some have drawn parallels between current presumed fixation with empires and their histories and similarly excessive centrality/attention previously devoted to the nation-state.11 Others have pointed out that though scholars have achieved key insight into European history by studying empires, this approach risks inadvertently depicting non-European history as “less real” than European history.12 Scholars have also taken issue with presumed insufficient attention to the connection between empire and colonialism: “work on ’connected histories’ does not always pay attention to the fact that this single global modernity was forged, or at least drastically reshaped, alongside colonialism”(Loomba 2014: 145).13 Some have argued that “imperial historians should not abandon their long­standing attempts to understand the peculiar nature of modern empires as political, economic, cultural and social structures, with all the opportunities, obstacles, inequalities and violence that they presented people with in the past” (Potter; Saha 2015). Despite these reservations, “by the 1980s, empire [had] once again galvanized academia”(Aldrich; Ward, 2010: 267).14

Significantly, much of the most recent research seeking to de-center empires has benefited from scholarship focusing on regions affected by or under the influence or control of the Portuguese empire. To that end, scholars have deployed concepts such as “connected history,” offering an alternative conceptualization of the early modern period beyond binary categories and characterized by shared histories. As Potter and Saha point out, “connected histories of empire might offer accounts that accord more agency to individuals, and recognize the crucial importance of choice, contingency and chance” (Potter; Saha 2015: 1).15 Also illustrating the contribution of scholars of the Portuguese empire to broader imperial historiographies are studies of how imperial policies circulated in Europe. As Subrahmanyam argues, the formulation of such policies brought the Portuguese into close dialogue with other European powers, sometimes as the source of Iberian and non-Iberian imperial policies.16 As Adelman points out, “empires also borrowed, stereotyped, and gained self-understanding between and across each other”(Adelman 2015: 78). Elliott adds: “this realization has led to attempts to integrate the history of individual empires into a wider historical context, in the form of Atlantic history or of global history” (Elliott, 2015: 202).

In contrast to the old imperial history, the new imperial history is a rebuttal of traditional interpretation of empires that “neglects reciprocal flows of influence from non-Europe to Europe and [that] presumes only one planetary order—Europe’s” (Adelman 2015: 77). While moving away from narrow definitions of empire that locate power exclusively in Europe, this new historiography asserts the pluralistic nature of mechanisms of social control and of forms of cultural and economic domination that Europeans established in their imperial possessions. Empire is seen as “a complex patchwork of interacting and dynamic agencies, rather than as one homogenous monolith directed from London with a single overarching objective” (Potter; Saha 2015: 3). The New imperial history emphasizes “forms of rule and strategies to manage social heterogeneity, revealing shifting and mixed methods of governing territories” (Adelman 2015: 77).

Of course, this historiographical shift has not eliminated intellectual histories of empires. Nor does the focus on more organic forms of empire-building eliminate the need to further examine the high politics dynamic that shaped empires.17 However, a trend towards a more integrated social and cultural history approach to imperial history is undeniable, with scholars increasingly studying “inter-cultural relations, hybridities and the theoretical ways in which these may be constructed” (MacKenzie, 2015: 114). Themes frequently addressed by historians also include the accommodative forces that characterized imperial statecraft and networks, the ambiguous and limited nature of power in the formation of global European empires, and the role of indigenous people in the management of colonial societies. In this view, empire is marked by improvisation, sometimes nudged in a direction by metropolitan officials but more often shaped by officials appointed on the ground who catered to their own agendas.

Portuguese Imperial History meets New Imperial History

As Flores points out, Portuguese imperial history has much to gain from integration into the broader historiography of empires if anchored in fine-grained archival research18. But how exactly does Portuguese imperial historiography writ large measure up against the new imperial history paradigm? To begin with, it would be inaccurate to state that the scholarship in Portuguese imperial studies necessarily lags behind what has been done by scholars working on the history of other empires. In fact, scholars of the Portuguese empire have contributed critical knowledge to the several themes from recent historiographical trends. The work of Vitorino Magalhães Godinho is a case in point. In a seminal 1950 article, the eminent Portuguese scholar argues for an integrated Atlantic world fueled by networks of the sugar trade and other commodities, offering an early example of the productive use of the Atlantic history paradigm well before the term gained currency.19

As Roura points out, “empire formation – and consequently the colonizing process—is inseparable from the process of state formation” in Portugal and Spain.20 Indeed, the Portuguese narrative of imperial formation crystallized in the first half of the nineteenth century, as geopolitical competition pitting the Portuguese against the British escalated in the south Atlantic during the campaign to end the slave trade. In this context, Portuguese intellectuals, seeking to fend off perceived British threats against Portuguese territories in Central Africa, developed a narrative that justified Portuguese claims of territorial sovereignty against the British by highlighting Portugal’s pioneering role in empire-building in Africa.21 However, according to Hausser and Pietschmann, while the term empire became widely used in the Anglo-Saxon literature on Spain and its colonies, it never gained currency in Portugal due to the influence of the French Annales School.

Nevertheless, scholars have widely applied the category empire to analyze the history of Portuguese engagement with the non-European world, particularly after the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship. Thomas, for example, has studied the imperial thrust of reign of Dom Manuel in the early sixteenth century.22 According to Pedreira, the Portuguese were quintessential empire-builders endowed with the ability to assemble “new imperial structures without completely destroying the older ones.”23 More recently, Marcocci has stated that “it is necessary to correct the notion that early modern Portuguese culture did not establish theoretical foundations to frame overseas possessions and different forms of authority developed in Africa, Asia, and South America”. In Marcocci’s view, “the perception of the empire as a single political body was evident”(Marcocci 2012a: 23).24

As MacKenzie reminds us, “the challenge of imperial history is to combine the view from above with that from below” (MacKenzie, 2015: 104). In this light, how exactly have Portuguese empire scholars aligned with the themes and methodologies of the new imperial history? An answer to this question points to a mixed situation in which thematic overlapping, particularly the emergence of bottom-up scholarship on popular groups, coexists with persistent balkanization that prevents comparative and global studies of the Portuguese empire. Indeed, scholars of the Portuguese empire’s social history concerns largely overlap with themes and methodologies favored by new imperial history scholars. Much like the latter, the former write fine-grained histories that unpack the social, cultural and religious worlds of popular groups, and are particularly successful in probing into the nature of racial mixing and intercultural interaction in Portuguese imperial possessions.25 However, with the exception of histories of inquisition and imperial administration, they have mostly shied away from teasing out the global ramifications of the Portuguese empire.26

Interestingly, the tendency towards balkanization has been reinforced by studies of imperial administration, which constitute another important sub-field of the broader historiography of the Portuguese empire and have thrived in the past decade as a result of academic collaboration between Portuguese and Brazil scholars. This sub-field has provided key insight into the administrative apparatus that Portugal developed to manage an empire that stretched across four continents. By developing concepts such as polycentric monarchies and ancient regime in the tropics, scholars have undermined the conventional wisdom about colonial Brazil, distancing themselves from binary categories such as colony and metropole, and effectively moving studies of colonial Brazil beyond the mold of dependency theory.27 However, this scholarship has not ventured much outside the confines of the Portugal-Brazil axis, nor has it sought to account for non-elite agency in Portuguese imperial possessions.

Another glaring absence has been scholarship centered on the place of Africa in the broader Portuguese empire. As Frederick Cooper points out, “imperial history, if it is to reflect the actual workings of empires, slides into African history” (Cooper 2014: 9). In a classic chronology of Portuguese imperial history, Clarence-Smith breaks down this history into three eras: the first Portuguese empire (focused on the Estado da India, stretching from East Africa to Japan), the second Portuguese empire (centered on a south Atlantic comprised of Brazil and Africa), and the third Portuguese empire (focused mostly on Africa).28 However, despite Portugal’s continued engagement with the African continent, scholars of the Portuguese empire have mostly failed to write on or even draw upon scholarship on Africa.29 A case in point is scholarship on the early phase of Portuguese empire building in the fifteenth century, which took place mostly in Africa and has gone largely unnoticed by scholars of the Portuguese empire.30 Nor have the latter paid much attention to art historians’ generative arguments on cultural fluidity and identity formation at the early phase of Portugal’s long journey out of Europe.31


This essay’s starting point is that the historiographical horizon of Portuguese imperial studies has changed significantly since the 2003 e-JPH debate due to a variety of shifts in the wider milieu in which production of knowledge about Portuguese imperial history takes place. In addition to the structural obstacles mentioned by scholars in the e-JPH debate, thematic choices and analytical lenses are also critical to the e-JPH debate goal of integrating Portuguese imperial history in the Anglo-Saxon academia. Portuguese imperial studies are deeply divided along geographic and thematic sub-fields, with lack of communication between these historiographical streams preventing cross-fertilization and hindering the emergence of general thematic axes to break away from balkanization in the studies of the Portuguese empire.

While social history has fueled the rise of a vibrant sub-field of scholars working on inquisition studies and missionary work, particularly regarding colonial Brazil, a strong focus on imperial administrative history still remains, putting Portuguese imperial history somewhat at odds with trends towards social and cultural history in other historiographies of European empires. This essay suggests that ongoing trends towards social and cultural history in studies of Portuguese imperial possessions offer the potential to bring this historiography into the mainstream of imperial studies writ large. To achieve higher visibility in the Anglo-Saxon academic world, scholars of Portuguese imperial history will need to further engage with themes that have dominated recent historiographical debates about empires such as the global ramifications of imperial power, cross-cultural exchange, and non-elite agency.




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1 Vasco da Gama Associate Professor. History Department and the Portuguese and Brazilian Studies Department, Brown University, USA. E-mail: Roquinaldo_Ferreira@brown.edu
2 See also Rothermund 2015. Introduction, 5. For the Portuguese context, see: Santos, 1998, 111-128; Flores 2006, 26; Pinto and Jerónimo 2015, 97-120. For the British context, see Darwin 2015,18-38.
3 See also Xavier 2000, p. 150. For a few exceptions to this rule, see Alden 1996 and Myrup 2015. The problem is by no means restricted to Portuguese imperial historiography. See Stern, 2006: 693-712. For a recent attempt to bridge this gap in British historiography, see Bowen, Mancke, and Reid (eds.) 2012.
4 http://piudhist.ics.ul.pt/pt/
5 See also Burton 2011: 277.
6 See also Alcock,  N. D'Altroy, Morrison,  Sinopoli (eds.), 2011; Reinhard (ed.), 2015 and  Leonhard & von Hirschhausen, 2010.
7 For genealogies of empire, see Proudman 2008:400; Padgen 2000:7; Padgen 2005:32 and Sacks 2012:531.
8 For the ways imperial history might help scholars overcome the legacy of area studies, see Eckert 2013:155.
9 For a brief assessment of this scholarship, see Greene 2013: preface. As de Groot points out, this connection originated in seventeenth-century debates among policymakers and intellectuals. See De Groot 2013: 5-10 and Curto 2000: 91.
10 Burton 2011:1-27. See also Ballantyne & Burton 2014.
11 Lima, 2008:245.
12 Zimmerman 2013: 314.
13 For similar critique, see Sweet 2011:209-214.
14 See also Friedrichs; Mesenholler 2013:164-201.
15 See also Subrahmanyam 1997: 735-762; Subrahmanyam, 2005: 26-57; Subrahmanyam, 2010:118-145. For variations and similarities between connected, comparative, and entangled histories, see Werner; Zimmermann, 2006: 30-50 and Levine 2014: 331-347.
16 Subrahmanyam 2007: 339-359; Padgen;Subrahmanyam, 2012: 279-303.
17 Paquette 2013.
18 Flores, 2006:33.
19 Godinho 2005: 313-337. For recent studies of trading networks, see Curto; Molho (eds.) 2002; Studnicki-Gizbert, 2007; Alencastro, 2006: 109-138; Ebert, 2008:54-77; Ebert, 2011: 88-114 and Bethencourt, 2013: 15-35.
20 Roura 2013: 202-228. For further information on the Portuguese context, see also Loureiro, 2002: 75-76 and Gomes, 2005:56-89.
21 Curto, 2007: 37-43; Curto, 2012:111-123.
22 Thomaz, 1990: 35-103.
23 Pedreira, 1998 :99.
24 For the British context, see MacKenzie 2015:108. See also Pettigrew, who argues that British notion of empire stemmed from British participation in the transatlantic slave trade. See Pettigrew, 2013.
25 Souza, 2003; Vainfas, 1995 and Metcalf, 2006.
26 For the former, see Bethencourt, 2009; Paiva; Marcocci 2013. For the latter, see Newitt 2005; Newitt 2009 and Myrup 2015.
27 For a limited sample of this thriving field, see Hespanha 2007; Cardim; Miranda 2012; Cardim; Herzog; Ruiz lbáñez; Sabatini (eds.) 2012; Fragoso; Guedes; Krause (eds.) 2013. See also Cunha; Monteiro; Cardim (eds.) 2005.
28 Clarence-Smith 1985.
29 For an exception, see Blackmore 2009.
30 Elbl 1992; Elbl 1997-1998; Elbl 2003; Elbl 2007a; Elbl 2007b; Humble 2000. For a newly minted exception, see Flores 2015.
31 Blier 1993; Pereira 2010; Blier 2009; Gomes 2012. For an exception, see Marcocci 2012b. See also Lawrance 1992.

Copyright 2016, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol. 14, number 1, June 2016




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