Barros A. (2005) Porto’s maritime space in the early modern period

Barros Amândio Jorge Morais (2005) “Oporto: The Building of a Maritime Space in the Early Modern Period”, e-Journal of Portuguese History, 3/1, 13 p.

The article is available online


This article distances itself from the usual macroeconomic approach of the Iberian trade focused on the colonial circuits, which concentrate its attention on the ports of Seville and Lisbon. Exogenous events are also usually favoured in the interpretation of the Iberian sea trade’s successes and failures. On the contrary, the author aims at providing a micro-analysis of the activity of the port of Oporto during the 16th century (1).

The Middle Ages

Originally, the city’s fortune was not dependent on international trade, it was the gateway of Northern Portugal and commanded the traffic to and from the inland region. The first mooring places had been constructed in the 14th century to respond to a rising demand. They were later modernised and the shipbuilding activity moved to Miragaia, outside the city walls (5). Improvements were made both in the design of the ships constructed (navios, caravels, naus) and to the harbour, which by the 1500s had become a true commercial district.

During the 15th century, ships had only one owner, but partnerships arose during the 16th century. By the end of the Middle Ages, most ships traded with Northern Europe (Flanders, France, British Isles), some went to the Mediterranean (Valencia, Italy). Internal strife between the old oligarchy and the new merchant elite, the rise of Lisbon as the centre of the kingdom’s maritime expansion, and a relative decline of navigation on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula triggered a severe drop of Oporto’s activity and wealth by the late 1400s (6).

The rise of the dragon

After the discovery of Brazil, Oporto’s last surviving important trade – its prime position in the Atlantic islands (Madeira, the Canaries, the Azores, Cape Verde) – gave the city a head start. The Oportan merchants already involved in tropical goods from the islands (wine, pastel, sugar, etc.) seized the opportunity and started importing colonial goods from Brazil and re-exported it to the rest of the peninsula, Northern Europe, and the Mediterranean. The city became a noticeable actor in the cereal trade as well as a dynamic financial centre.

Oporto was also engaged in the East Indian trade, even before the abolition of the royal monopoly over that route in 1570 (the ships of Vasco da Gama had been constructed in the city’s dockyards), a steady stream of Oportan migrants to the East Indies testifies of the intensity of the city’s trade with South Asia. Although second to Lisbon, the Oportan contribution to the Indian ventures was significant in term of skilled labour (seamen and carpenters), supplies (much of the fleets’ food), capital, knowledge and – to a lesser extend – materials (vessels). But the Indian trade, remained second to the port’s Atlantic vocation.

Amongst the masters of the Atlantic

Oportans were also prime actors in the Southern Atlantic trade, including traffic between non-Portuguese colonies: slaves from the Canaries to the Caribbeans or sugar from Brazil to Santo Domingo (7). The city’s ships and pilots were commonly incorporated into the Spanish merchant fleets, and during the Dynastic Union (1580-1640), they often went to Puerto Rico and Peru. Oportan merchants (specially converted Jews known as New Christians) were involved in partnerships with the mighty Sevillan businessmen. The city’s old relationship with the Netherlands made it an important point of entry for Dutch contrabands during the Spanish embargo. Due to its leading role in the Brazilian commerce, Porto also became one of the most important port for the triangular trade with the Nordeste.

From ca. 1550 to ca. 1650, the city’s merchants enjoyed a Golden Age; they had recovered from the decline of the late Middle Ages and they by then enjoyed a leading position in Brazil and cultivated regular partnerships with their Dutch colleagues. Form 1573 onward, Porto even benefited from an uncontested leadership amongst the northern Iberian ports after their Galician competitors had badly suffered from a crippling fiscal reform (8). The Oportan merchants left the regional redistribution of imported good to lesser traders such as those of Vila do Conde.

The Portuguese seagoing businessmen were more than the mere contracted transporters some historians said they were. They enjoyed a great deal of independence and entrepreneurship in their activities vis-à-vis their Northern trading partners and the crown (9). The good fortune of the Atlantic trade triggered the rise of a new merchant class – mostly New Christians – but they failed to overcome the older elite on the local political field. Faced with constant legal restraints as well as other problems, many New Christians emigrated to Holland over the period (10).

Some references mentioned in the bibliography:

Aguilar Herrando, José (1996) – La ingeniería en los puertos de la Edad Media, in Tecnología y sociedad: las grandes obras públicas en la Europa medieval. Pamplona: Governo de Navarra, pp.235-262.
Casado Alonso, Hilario (2003) – El triunfo de Mercurio. La presencia castellana en Europa (siglos XV y XVI). Burgos: Caja Círculo.
Costa, Leonor Freire (1997) – Naus e galeões na ribeira de Lisboa. A construção naval no século XVI para a Rota do Cabo. Cascais: Patrimonia Historica.
Domingues, Francisco Contente (2000) – Os navios da expansão. O Livro da fábrica das naos de Fernando Oliveira e a arquitectura naval portuguesa dos séculos XVI e XVII. Lisboa: Fac. de Letras.
Goris, Jan Albert (1925) – Étude sur les colonies marchandes meridionales (Portugais, Espagnols, Italiens) à Anvers de 1448 a 1567. Louvain.
Guimerá Ravina, Agustín (2002) – Puertos y ciudades portuarias (Ss. XVI-XVIII): una aproximación metodológica, in O litoral em perspectiva histórica, séculos XVI-XVIII. Porto: Fac. de Letras da Universidade do Porto, pp. 287-305.
Hinojosa Montalvo, José (1982) – De Valencia a Portugal y Flandres. Relaciones durante la Baja Edad Media, in “Anales de la Universidad de Alicante, vol. I, pp. 149-168.
Hoyle, B. S. and PINDER, D. A. (eds.) (1992) – European port cities in transition. London
Lobo Cabrera, Manuel (1994) – Comercio y burguesía mercantil en Canarias en la Edad Moderna, in El comercio en el Antiguo Régimen, vol. II. Las Palmas: Universidade de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, pp. 139-150.
Lorenzo sanz, Eufemio (1986) – Comercio de España con America en la época de Felipe II. Valladolid: Institución Cultural Simancas.
Odriozola Oyarbide, Lourdes (2002) – Construcción naval en el País Vasco, siglos XVI-XIX. Evolución y análisis comparativo. Donostia-San Sebastián: Departamento de Economía y Turismo.
Polónia, Amélia (1999) – Vila do Conde um porto nortenho na expansão ultramarina quinhentista. Porto: Faculdade de Letras.
Polónia, Amélia (2000) – O Porto nas navegações marítimas quinhentistas. Embarcações e náuticos, in “Revista da Faculdade de Letras – História”, III série, vol. I. Porto, pp. 29-52.

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