I was very doubtful if that was true, but a little research showed that in fact, at the time, Portugal was a major player. Portugal was not alone, the UK, among others has a lot to be ashamed of. Nevertheless, the history of Portugal’s involvement made very interesting reading. We should keep in mind that this was over 500 years ago. Thankfully this appalling trade has been committed to history.

The first 130 years the Portuguese dominated the transatlantic slave trade. After 1651 they fell into second position behind the British who became the primary carriers of Africans to the New World, a position they continued to maintain until the end of the trade in the early 19th century.

What gave Portugal an advantage in the slave trade?

Portugal's advantage mainly came from timing. Because the Portuguese had been active in exploring the coast of West Africa during the fifteenth century, they were among the first to realize that trading for slaves in quantity was a possibility.

Wherever you research, the same answer comes up, the most active European nation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was Portugal, which used the forced labour of Africans in their Latin American colonies in present-day Brazil. Almost 3.9 million enslaved Africans were forced to embark on Portuguese ships. Present-day Brazil received around 3.2 of them, making it the country in the Americas where most enslaved people arrived during the period. British ships also carried upwards of 3 million Africans forcefully removed from the continent. French ships carried 1.3 million enslaved Africans.

Author: STATISTA.com; The countries most active in the transaltlantic slave trade. 1514 - 1866

Not a comfortable history

The Portuguese slave trade is one of the most significant and controversial events in the country's history. For over four centuries, Portugal was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade, which involved the forced transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas.

The Portuguese slave trade began in the fifteenth century, following the country's exploration of the African continent. Portugal's involvement in the trans-Saharan trade, which involved the exchange of gold, salt, and other goods, brought Portuguese traders into contact with African societies. The arrival of the first African slaves in Portugal can be traced back to the early fifteenth century when a group of enslaved Africans was brought to Portugal from the Canary Islands. This event marked the beginning of the Portuguese slave trade, which would continue for centuries. The establishment of the Portuguese slave trade was driven by the demand for labour in the Portuguese colonies, particularly in Brazil. Portuguese traders began to capture and transport Africans from the West Coast of Africa to the colonies, where they were forced to work on sugar plantations and in other industries. The Portuguese slave trade quickly became one of the most profitable industries in Portugal, and the country's economy became heavily dependent on the trade.

Rapid expansion

The Portuguese slave trade expanded rapidly in the sixteenth century, as Portuguese explorers and traders established trading posts and forts along the West Coast of Africa. These posts served as bases for the capture and transportation of slaves and allowed Portuguese traders to establish relationships with local African rulers. The development of a system of slave capture and transportation was key to the expansion of the Portuguese slave trade. Portuguese traders developed a system of raiding African villages, capturing slaves, and transporting them to the coast, where they were sold to European buyers. The Portuguese slave trade was organized through a complex network of traders, brokers, and middlemen, who facilitated the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas. Portuguese traders were among the first to engage in the transatlantic slave trade, and the country played a key role in the global slave trade for centuries.

Modern Portugal is a changed society

As stated at the beginning of this article, this all happened over 500 years ago. Initially under the rule of Manuel I (1495–1521) who proved a ‘worthy’ successor to his cousin John II, supporting Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic Ocean and the development of Portuguese commerce.

The 5 October 1910 revolution was the overthrow of the centuries-old Portuguese monarchy and its replacement by the First Portuguese Republic. The end of centuries of monarchy but replaced by a dictatorship until April 1974.

Under democracy, Portugal has become one of the world’s most racially tolerant societies. That’s not just the behaviour of a kind and tolerant modern Portuguese society, but it's also the law.

The CICDR (Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination) which was established in 2002, prohibited discrimination in the exercise of rights for reasons of skin colour, nationality or ethnic origin.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman