Polónia A. (2006) Northwestern Portuguese seaports (1500-1800)

Polónia Amélia (2006) “Northwest Portuguese seaport system in the early modern age. Results of a research project”, paper given at the XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Session 58, 27p.

The images presented in the following post have been shamelessly stolen from a paper available on line. For more information please visit the Hisportos website.

This paper adopts a micro-analysis approach of the question, while most other recent researches on seaport were seeing the issue at a global scale (1). The author stresses the importance of integrating the port towns in their regional background; the ports’ hinterlands take in this approach a crucial importance. The concept of ‘seaport system’ is meant to reflect the extreme complexity of the ports’ social, cultural, political, and economic spheres. Away from the issues of hierarchy, the author is interested by small ports (2) and how they complement each other when integrated in a network. Major port themselves often rely on these networks to reach and retain their standing.

Port are dynamics units that evolve fast (3). Three elements appear to be crucial for the understanding of the dynamics of the Northern Portuguese seaport system during the early modern period: (1) geomorphic factors, (2) international competition, and (3) state interventionism (5). The ports of the region were small or medium but were involved in trading relations with the rest of the peninsula, northern Europe, Africa, the Atlantic islands and South America (6).

Evolution (16th-18th century)

Since the 15th century, Lisbon was both the capital of the kingdom and of the overseas empire. As such its leadership is unquestionable. Porto, the second city of the country and central nucleus of the NW region, had, in 1620, a population of 20,000 (6 times less than Lisbon) (10). Along with Viana do Castelo, it recovered its medieval importance, after a decline during the 15th and 16th century, thanks to the trade with Brazil. Porto became the distribution hub of the American goods toward Northern and Mediterranean Europe (11).

During the 1500-1800 period about 60% of the crown’s custom revenue came from Lisbon (with a peak at 84% in 1602-7). Porto represented between 10 an 15% (but only 5% in 1557). The whole NW region’s contribution amounted to 30% in 1526, 12% in 1557 and 14% in 1602-7 (12). The most notable event in the NW was the rise of Viana do Castelo due to the Brazilian sugar trade (14% of the NW contribution in 1526, but 41% in 1557). The final significant movement was the collapse of the importance of the secondary ports in the 17th century with Lisbon and Porto amounting together to 94% of the custom revenue (15).

The growing economic importance of the NW is also revealed by the share the region had to bear of the special taxes levied by the Spanish monarchy in the early 17th century (15,4% in 1612 but 20.5% in 1631). But coming up with an actual hierarchy of the seaports in NW Portugal is quite difficult considering for instance that the rise of Vina do Castelo was fuelled by the capital of merchants from Lisbon (16).

Lesser ports’ dynamics

The little and medium ports were service providers for the bigger ones. Men, ships, materials and foodstuff were drawn from these lesser ports to allow the major ones to function. The fate of the small ones was intimately liked with the fortune of the big ones. Yet the main ports remained the centres of import and re-export of colonial goods and of the finance operations. For instance, Leça, Azurara and Vila do Conde constituted an essential complementary operative network for Porto’s logistic.

The numerous wars Portugal was involved in drain out the merchant navy’s strengths. After the mid 17th century, most of the ships linking Portugal with the rest of Europe were owned by foreigners. This coupled with the rise of mercantilist legislations in Northern Europe (Navigation Act) struck a hard blow to the prosperity of the little port of NW Portugal (20). This precariousness was increased by the return of the Lisbon’s monopoles in the 18th century and Porto’s specialisation in port wines. At the same period, the chartered companies set up by the marquis of Pombal diverted the private capital lesser independent merchants used to depend on.

These factors wrecked the smaller ports which had specialised shipyards (Caminha, Vila do Conde, Azurara and Viana do Castelo) (21). The complementariness of the network was destroyed. During the first half of the 18th century 76% of the ships reaching Porto were English and only 8.3% Portuguese (22).

Harbour construction

Polonia remarks that the number and complexity of the works undertaken in the harbours of the region was on the rise during the 17th and 18th century. Investments for these works came increasingly from the crown (24). The type of works varied through time: during the 16th century most of the efforts were towards trade (construction of quays, docks and viable harbour entrances), but during the 17th century the attention shifted in the direction of fortification and other defences.

Here too the disaffection of the central power for the lesser ports of the region is obvious. During the 18th century, most investments were directed to Porto as the Marquis de Pombal intended to favour the merchant elite of the city. Once more the interregional port system complementarities were severely weakened by this policy. Lesser ports also lost coastal trade to the major ones and were left with nothing, they became pretty much disconnected with both national and international traffic. They proved unable to provide the facilities needed for modern seafaring: large shipyards, extensive warehouses, large market, linkage with foreign merchants networks and domestic capital (25). While Porto thrived thanks to the wine trade, Aveiro, after 1750, was declining due to decay of the salt trade and the resulting bad condition of the seaport which needed urgent re-building that came only in 1802 (26).


The Northwestern Portuguese seaport system in the 16th to 18th century was based on three types of ports:

  • The small ones which supported the 16th century expansion with their resources and their hinterland providing ships, men and commodities to the more important ones (Caminha).
  • The medium ones which were actively involved in intercontinental trade and received investments from Porto’s and Lisbon’s merchant community (Vila do Conde, Viana do Castelo).
  • The pivotal seaport of Porto that grew thanks to the Brazilian trade and later the wine business. Its predominance came from its central position and its control of the rich hinterland accessible through the Douro River (25).


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3 Responses to Polónia A. (2006) Northwestern Portuguese seaports (1500-1800)

  1. seo blog says:

    This is an interesting article, your a very good writer,keep it up.

  2. ronanlyons says:

    Great blog, looking forward to reading a lot more!

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