Atlantic Dimensions of the American Revolution: Imperial Priorities and the Portuguese Reaction to the North American Bid for Independence (1775-83)

in Journal of Early American History
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This article explains and contextualizes the reaction of the Portuguese monarchy and government to the rebellion and independence of the British colonies in North America. This reaction was a mixed one, shaped by the simultaneous but conflicting motivations of an economic interest in North American trade, an abhorrence on the part of the Portuguese Crown for democratic rebellion against monarchical authority and a fundamental requirement to maintain a stable relationship with long-time ally Great Britain. Although the Lisbon regime initially reacted very strongly against the Americans’ insurrection, later, under a new queen, the Portuguese moderated their position so as not to damage their long-term imperial political and economic interests.

This article also examines the economic and political power context of the contemporary Atlantic World from the Portuguese perspective, and specifically outlines the multiple ties that existed between Portugal and the North American British colonies during the eighteenth century. The argument demonstrates that Portugal reacted according to demands created by its overseas empire: maximizing trading profits, manipulating the balance of power in Europe among nations with overseas colonies and discouraging the further spread of aspirations toward independence throughout the Americas, most notably to Portuguese-held Brazil.

The Portuguese role as a fundamental player in the early modern Atlantic World is chronically underappreciated and understudied in modern English-language historiography. Despite the significance of Portugal as a trading partner to the American colonies, and despite the importance of the Portuguese Atlantic colonial system to British commercial and military interests in the eighteenth century, no scholarly treatment of this specific subject has ever appeared in the primary journals that regularly consider Atlantic World imperial power dynamics or the place of the incipient United States within them. This contribution, then, helps to fill an obvious gap in the historical literature of the long eighteenth century and the revolutionary era in the Americas.

Atlantic Dimensions of the American Revolution: Imperial Priorities and the Portuguese Reaction to the North American Bid for Independence (1775-83)

in Journal of Early American History




Between 1756 and 1774approximately one-fifth of “English” goods entering Portugal originated in the North American colonies Serrão História de Portugal vol. 6 pp. 234-5; José Mattoso (director) História de Portugal vol. 4: O Antigo Regime (Lisbon: Editorial Estampa 1993) pp. 103-11; H.E.S. Fisher The Portugal Trade: A Study of Anglo-Portuguese Commerce 1700-1770 (London: Routledge 2005) pp. 41-52 64-76.


MattosoHistória de Portugal pp. 103-11.


T. Bentley DuncanAtlantic Islands: Madeira the Azores and the Cape Verdes in Seventeenth-Century Commerce and Navigation (Chicago, Ill,: University of Chicago Press1972) pp. 1-6 239-52.


George HerringFrom Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press2008) pp. 22-3.


J.H. ElliottEmpires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press2006) pp. 325-68; Eliga H. Gould “Entangled Histories Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery” in American Historical Review 112 no. 3 (June 2007) pp. 764-86; and Jaime Rodriguez Revolución independencia y la nuevas naciones de América (Madrid: Fundación Mapfre Tavera 2005).


Jeremy AdelmanSovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press2007) pp. 42-7 and 175-219; Jaime Rodriguez The Independence of Spanish America (Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press 1998) pp. 13-35.


ElliottEmpires of the Atlantic World pp. 361-5.


A. H. de Oliveira MarquesHistory of Portugal (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional/Casa da Moeda1991) pp. 85-7; see also Charles R. Boxer The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825 (Manchester U.K.: Carcanet Press 1991) pp. 158-60.


AbernethyThe Dynamics of Global Dominance pp. 213-14.


Douglas L. WheelerHistorical Dictionary of Portugal (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.1993) pp. 126-7; Serrão História de Portugal vol. 5 pp. 223-32.


Ibid. pp. 44-5. A pipe’s liquid volume varied but the standard English measurement was equal to approximately 126 imperial gallons.


Godinho“Portugal and her Empire 1680-1720” p. 521 and Hancock Oceans of Wine pp. xxv 201-23.


Duncan pp. 137-57.


HancockOceans of Wine pp. 107-12; see also Duncan pp. 37-53.


MattosoHistória de Portugal pp. 103-11; see also José Luís Sul Mendes “Introductory Notes to Balance Sheets for Trade between Portugal and the United States” in Henry Hunt Keith Studies in Honor of the Bicentennial of American Independence (Lisbon: The Luso-American Education Commission and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 1976) tables pp. 175-236.


FisherThe Portugal Trade p. 42.


FisherThe Portugal Trade p. 42; see also Mendes “Introductory Notes” trade tables pp. 175-236; and António Alves Caetano A Economia Portuguesa no tempo de Napoleão (Lisbon: Tribuna da História 2008) pp. 18-23.


TaylorAmerican Colonies pp. 323-5; Jeremy H. Black The British Seaborne Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press 2004) pp. 68-73.


As early as 1738the visionary Portuguese diplomat and royal advisor Luís da Cunha had suggested moving the seat of Portugal’s empire across the Atlantic from Lisbon to Brazil leaving a viceroy to run the metropolis as with the Estado da Índia; Kenneth Maxwell “Eighteenth-Century Portugal: Faith and Reason Tradition and Innovation During a Golden Age” in Jay A. Levenson (ed.) The Age of the Baroque in Portugal (New Haven: Yale University Press 1993) p. 112.


Kenneth MaxwellPombal Paradox of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1995) pp. 131-2.


Godinho“Portugal and her Empire 1680-1720” pp. 533-6; see also Disney A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire vol. 1 pp. 252-6.


G. V. Scammell“‘A Very Profitable and Advantageous Trade’: British Smuggling in the Iberian Americas circa 1500–1750” in Itinerario 24 no. 3-4 (2000) pp. 151-2; see also V.M. Shillington and A.B.W. Chapman The Commercial Relations of England and Portugal (London 1907) pp. 207-14.


Lester D. LanglyThe Americas in the Age of Revolution 1750-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press1996) pp. 156-8.


MaxwellPombal pp. 126-8.


Ibid. and Dauril Alden“The Marquis de Pombal and the American Revolution”The Americas 17 no. 4 (April 1961) pp. 369-71.


Piecuch“A War Averted” p. 24.


MaxwellPombal p. 127.


Nuno Gonçalo MonteiroD. José Na Sombra da Pombal (Lisbon: Círculo de Leitores2008) pp. 231-48.


David FrancisPortugal 1715-1808: Joanine Pombaline and Rococo Portugal as seen by British Diplomats and Traders (London: Tamesis Books1985) pp. 187-9.


Ibid. and Piecuch“A War Averted” pp. 24-5.


MaxwellPombal p. 128. The weakness of Portugal’s navy throughout the early modern period lends a new semantic dimension to the scurrilous provenance of “Portuguese Man-o’-War” as a name for the stinging sea creature.


BeirãoDona Maria I pp. 216-17.


Piecuch“A War Averted” pp. 26-7.


BeirãoDona Maria I p. 217; Piecuch “A War Averted” p. 28.


Wheeler pp. 36-8 and Visconde de Borges de Castro Collecção dos Tratados Convenções Contratos e Actos Publicos Celebrados entre a Coroa de Portugal e as Mais Potencias desde 1640 até ao Present 8 vols. (Lisbon 1856-8).


BeirãoDona Maria I p. 218.


Cited in Piecuch“A War Averted” p. 28.


BoxerPortuguese Seaborne Empire pp. 195-8; see also Serrão História de Portugal vol. 6 pp. 54-63 294-8.


Maxwell“Eighteenth-Century Portugal” p. 108; see also Maxwell Pombal pp. 10-20 87-109.


BoxerPortuguese Seaborne Empire pp. 200-203; Disney A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire vol. 2 pp. 282-98.


Piecuch“A War Averted” p. 30.


Piecuch“A War Averted” pp. 29-30.


Ibid. p. 28.


Piecuch“A War Averted” p. 29.


Wheeler p. 38; FrancisPortugal 1715-1808 pp. 187-9.


HancockOceans of Wine pp. 120-2 266-7; Piecuch “A War Averted” p. 28.


BeirãoDona Maria I p. 221.


BeirãoDona Maria I p. 222.


Piecuch“A War Averted” pp. 28-9.


BeirãoDona Maria I p. 220.


BeirãoDona Maria I p. 222.


BeirãoDona Maria I pp. 221-2.


Ibid. pp. 223-5.


Ibid. pp. 221-2.


Piecuch“A War Averted” p. 31.


Calvet de Magalhães“Portugal and American Independence” p. 23.


Calvet de Magalhães“Portugal and American Independence” pp. 10-11; and Canas da Cunha and Diogo Gaspar (eds.) Católogo de Exposição: Relações entre Portugal e os Estados Unidos da América na Época das Luzes (Lisbon: Arquivo Nacional do Torre do Tombo and the Fundação Luso-Americano para Desenvolvimento 1997) pp. 51-2.


Piecuch“A War Averted” p. 31.


Calvet de Magalhães“Portugal and American Independence” pp. 27 30.


Recounted in Piecuch“A War Averted” pp. 32-3.


Calvet de Magalhães“Portugal and American Independence” pp. 37-8.


Ibid. pp. 38-41.


Ibid. pp. 40-1.


Calvet de Magalhães“Portugal and American Independence” pp. 41-2.


HerringFrom Colony to Superpower pp. 160-1.


Luis Teixeira de SampaioO Arquivo Histórico do Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros (Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade1925) p. 98.


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