THE first formal treaty of alliance between Great Britain and Portugal was signed in 1386. But coöperation between the two countries had begun at an even earlier period. Many of the Crusaders who helped Portugal gain her independence were English, and afterwards the Portuguese maintained their rule only as far inland as they could secure ready assistance from the sea. The treaty of 1386 was directed especially against the danger of Spanish aggression. In later years, defense of the Portuguese colonies became the central and permanent object; and today Portugal regards the ancient alliance as primarily useful in case aggression should threaten her relatively large and vulnerable empire.

From the legal point of view, and to a large extent from the practical point of view as well, the central feature of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance was defined most clearly in the so-called Secret Article of the Treaty of 1661: "The King of Great Britain . . . doth promise and oblige himself to defend and protect all conquests or Colonies belonging to the Crown of Portugal against all his enemies as well future as present."

More than two centuries later this statement still seemed to summarize the British obligation so perfectly that in 1899, when Great Britain wanted to make sure of Portugal's benevolent neutrality in the Boer War, the British negotiators limited themselves to a restatement of the original and historical promise.[i] This was the last occasion, so far as is generally known, when the Anglo-Portuguese alliance was renewed definitely in a diplomatic document.

On the British side, then, the promise to protect and defend the Portuguese colonies remains the constant and vital factor, to which nothing of any importance has been added. In return, whenever the alliance is renewed, as it always has been in every serious international crisis, Portugal enters into special and temporary agreements related to the particular emergency. But in spite of the fact that such engagements are temporary in origin, many of them have crystallized gradually into something fairly concrete and more or less binding. In contrast to those of Great Britain, they are for the most part practical and historical rather than legal.

Recent precedents indicate that the Portuguese requirements and obligations can be summarized tentatively as follows:

1. In a crisis, Portugal regularly gives diplomatic support to the British position. Failure to do so would endanger the whole basis of the alliance. Thus, at the time of the Ethiopian crisis in 1935, Dr. Augusto de Vasconcelos, the Portuguese representative on the Council of the League of Nations, accepted the chairmanship of the Committee of Sanctions which had previously been declined by the representative of the Netherlands. This action was clearly helpful to the course of British diplomacy.

2. In case Britain becomes involved in a war, Portugal is expected to adopt a policy of benevolent neutrality. Thus on numerous occasions British war vessels and their prizes have been received in the port of Lisbon. In 1899, arms and munitions were allowed to go to the British armies in the Transvaal through the port of Lourenço Marques, in Portuguese East Africa.

3. An actual declaration of war on the part of Portugal seems rarely to be desired by Britain. Certainly no Portuguese obligation to go to war is established in the alliance. But on a number of occasions -- as during the First World War -- Portugal's position as a benevolent neutral has become virtually impossible and she in consequence has entered the same conflict in which Great Britain was engaged.

4. It is a recognized principle of Portuguese policy, resting, apparently, on practical necessities rather than on any secret agreement, that no important concessions involving large amounts of capital or the establishment of permanent improvements shall be granted to any foreign company or group in the Portuguese colonies without the specific approval of the British Government. In the summer of 1935, for example, when Pan American Airways petitioned to be allowed to establish radio and other ground facilities in Macao, the Lisbon representative of the company was told that the request must be submitted to the appropriate authorities in London before it could be granted. In recent years a similar procedure has been followed in the case of other foreign countries which have sought grants in the African and Asiatic colonies of Portugal.

5. The Portuguese obligation to obtain British approval for foreign enterprises is less specific in continental Portugal and the adjacent islands (the Azores and Madeira) than in the colonies. Formerly it was quite rigorous -- especially under the provisions of Lord Methuen's treaty of 1703. Gradually, however, it has been reduced to a series of informal understandings. Nevertheless, even in Portugal proper these economic understandings are of substantial importance. A few years ago, for instance, in speaking of an important contract which involved the possible expenditure of several million pounds, a prominent British diplomat remarked to the writer, quite as a matter of course, that no contract would be signed until it had been carefully examined by British interests. It is well known that practically all contracts for the building of units for the Portuguese Navy are awarded to a British firm and that the specifications make these vessels suitable for inclusion in the British Navy in case of need. The practice is less rigid in the case of airplanes and aeronautical equipment; but even in this field most contracts in recent years have been awarded to British firms whenever they were in a position to meet bids from firms in other countries.


In spite of the alliance's antiquity it does not pass without criticism and objection, and no one conversant with Portuguese opinion could truthfully say that at the present time it is really popular. On the other hand, though often it has imposed sacrifices on Portugal it also has brought her great benefits. Most thoughtful Portuguese see clearly that their country's continued possession of so large a remnant of its old colonial empire, and perhaps the very existence of Portugal as an independent nation, depend upon British diplomatic assistance and naval protection.

Even the critics, moreover, can suggest no satisfactory substitute. It is evident that if Portugal could not depend on Great Britain she would have to find some other ally with a fleet and the will to use it if she could hope to control the routes which lead to such far-distant places as Angola, Mozambique, Timor and Macao. Accordingly, though in recent years Portugal has had a variety of governments -- monarchist, parliamentary and now autocratic -- all these, no matter how much they may have differed in other respects, have almost without exception made close political and economic collaboration with Great Britain a central feature of their foreign policy.

The only serious book written by a Portuguese citizen on the subject of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance is "Portugal e Inglaterra,"[ii] written in exile by a former Premier, Francisco Pinto da Cunha-Leal. It is bitterly critical of what the author regards as Great Britain's ungenerous treatment of Portugal. In his search for examples of this he goes back to the Portuguese cession of Bombay and Tangier in the seventeenth century, sacrifices for which he does not believe that Portugal received adequate recompense. He also refers to the promise made by Portugal in 1703 to receive British textiles in return for lower tariffs on Portuguese wines -- an agreement which, in his opinion, destroyed Portugal's rising industries and led to undue specialization in the production of a single, though important, object of export. Coming closer to our own day, he mentions with some bitterness Portugal's loss of Rhodesia as a result of the so-called ultimatum of 1890. And he describes the secret negotiations between England and Germany in 1898 and 1912, when the partitionment of the Portuguese colonies was envisaged as an easy way to preserve the threatened peace of Europe.

These last instances, especially, indicate to Dr. Cunha-Leal what grave dangers lurk in the illusion of a security based exclusively on British good will and protection. After reaching this conclusion, however, even Dr. Cunha-Leal can suggest no alternative. He merely recommends, now that the danger of Spanish aggression has, to his mind, disappeared, that the Anglo-Portuguese alliance be balanced by increasingly close relations with Spain and, through Spain, with France. He believes that if Portugal has this second string to her bow she will be able to hold Great Britain strictly to her promises and so reap the full advantage of the ancient alliance.

Nothing could better illustrate the axiomatic character, for Portugal, of the alliance with Britain than this lame conclusion by a severe critic. Nor is there any reason to suppose that if a member of the present government were to state his own position with equal frankness it would differ in any substantial degree from that taken by this exiled leader of a fallen party.

When Dr. Oliveira Salazar became Premier with almost unlimited powers in 1932, he stated the guiding principles of his foreign policy to be "the greatest possible respect for all nations which respect us and the greatest possible fidelity to our ancient alliance, always more close, with Great Britain." And he added: "As a sincere, conscious and conscientious friend of England, I shall endeavor, to a larger degree even than previous governments in Portugal, to make certain that this alliance shall be more than a rhetorical phrase and that it shall be based on economic, financial and political interests, clearly thought out and justly satisfied. I base my politics and my administration substantially on British principles."[iii]


Anyone who knows Dr. Salazar may be excused for suspecting an element of satire in his promise to be guided by "British principles." It is also true that various events of the past few years have shaken Portuguese confidence in the value of the ancient alliance and increased the temptation to seek a possible substitute.

From the point of view of a government founded on the principles of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, and deriving strength from the religious devotion of its people, the admission of Russia to the League of Nations in 1934, with Britain's blessing, created a rift in the close diplomatic harmony which had prevailed between Great Britain and Portugal since the close of the First World War. But when Dr. Caeiro da Matta, Salazar's representative at Geneva, protested against this act he did so in terms which left no doubt as to Portugal's continued adherence to the principle of collective security in general and also to the special form of security which Portugal had found for so long behind the guns of the British fleet. In those years, too, even when the Portuguese newspapers were praising the autocracy of the Estado Novo as an original contribution to the art of government, they recognized what they called "the astonishing success of parliamentary institutions in Great Britain."

In 1935, when others hesitated, Portugal gave wholehearted support to the policy of sanctions against Italy. The failure of her ally, Great Britain, to apply sanctions to oil at a time when others were making grievous sacrifices, and the consequent failure of collective security, produced the first definite evidences of bitterness and disillusionment in the Portuguese press, which had been consistently pro-British for many years. As it is a controlled press, the change was the more significant.

The next year the Spanish Civil War began, and for a time the strain on the Anglo-Portuguese alliance seemed likely to be fatal. Italy and Germany intervened at once on the side of General Franco and a little later Russia came to the aid of the Republic. England, under Anthony Eden, based her hopes for preserving international peace on a policy of non-intervention. Though Portugal finally agreed to this policy, and even allowed British observers on Portuguese soil to make half-hearted efforts to prevent the shipment of munitions to Franco and to report on the movement of volunteers, she did so -- to say the least -- without enthusiasm. At one time early in 1937 badges which combined Portugal's colors with those of Germany and Italy were sold in the streets. The French Minister was snubbed; and the Ambassador of the Spanish Republic was first isolated and then expelled. The trivial grounds on which the representative of Czechoslovakia was dismissed later in the year was a clear and ominous indication of the extent of German influence. There were others. At one diplomatic reception Dr. Salazar gave the British Ambassador five minutes; after which he remained closeted with the German Minister, Baron von Hoyningen-Huene, while other diplomats cooled their heels in an anteroom. The newspapers which had criticized the German blood purge of 1934 and ridiculed the official story of the Reichstag fire no longer distinguished the Nazi philosophy from that of the Estado Novo, and began recognizing the Führer and the Duce as defenders of an endangered civilization of which Portugal was a part. Some observers saw in all this the beginning of the end.

With Franco's victory, however, the rift which had developed was soon healed. A British naval mission under Rear Admiral N. A. Wodehouse was received in Lisbon with marked attention in 1938 and the two governments openly considered plans for the building of a strategic air base at Faro, on Portugal's southern coast, only 20 miles from the Spanish border and within easy striking distance of the Strait of Gibraltar.[iv] Portugal thus was shown to be still faithful to the ancient alliance, and the fires which the astute Hoyningen-Huene had so carefully fanned were put out.

None of the small powers in Europe is more desirous of peace than Portugal. Consequently, when Munich seemed to have averted a great danger of war the rejoicing in Lisbon had none of the artificial character which had greeted the fall of the Spanish Republic. Chamberlain became the hero of the day. It was proposed to erect a statue of him in Lisbon, and a street was named in his honor. Few recognized the hollowness of the "victory" for "peace in our time."

The consequent disillusionment when Hitler entered Prague in the spring of 1939 was nowhere more bitter than in Portugal. War was now almost sure. When it actually arrived, Portugal could only try once again, as she had done so often in the past, to preserve an uneasy and benevolent neutrality under the aegis of her ancient alliance with the only power which might keep open the highways of the sea. At the same time, as an obvious form of insurance, Cunha-Leal's suggestion was put into effect, and Portugal sought additional safety through a treaty of nonaggression with her Hispanic neighbor. In an able and important speech on May 22, 1939, Dr. Salazar hailed the victory of Franco, pointed to the amount of assistance Portugal had given to him, and reaffirmed the Anglo-Portuguese alliance as the cornerstone of Portuguese foreign policy.[v] Spain, Britain, and safety! Such was the program. It sounds somewhat artificial and over-optimistic. Only time can tell whether Salazar was wrong or whether he in truth had found the magic formula.


The actual outbreak of war in September 1939 had an effect on the Anglo-Portuguese alliance curiously similar to its effect on the Monroe Doctrine. Both policies were strengthened, both were modified and both also were put in danger. In the case of Catholic Portugal, as among the dominant groups in Latin America, the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 23, 1939, made easy a clear affirmation of sympathy for the allied cause. Within a few days of the outbreak of the war, leading papers in Lisbon took sharp issue with the philosophy which advocates the use of military power to secure "living space" and racial supremacy. Both Dr. Salazar and his chief friend and adviser, the able and charming primate of the Portuguese church, Cardinal Cerejeira, publicly underlined this point of view and put renewed emphasis on the necessity for international law and morality.

The fall of France in June 1940 and the terrible threat to England in the months which followed produced, perhaps for the first time in history, a serious doubt in Portugal as to whether England could still protect her as in the past. Rumors spread that the next step in the Nazi program would be an invasion of Spain. In that case there could be no doubt about Portugal's fate. References to the alliance with Britain disappeared from the press. Though Portugal remained neutral, her neutrality was now an uneasy balance between conflicting forces.

It was stated publicly at this time that in case the country were invaded the Portuguese Government would withdraw to Angola, just as long ago, under similar circumstances, Dona Maria and the regent João VI had reëstablished the throne of Portugal in distant Brazil. Meanwhile a special commissioner was sent hurriedly from Lisbon to Berlin. Many thought it was already too late, but though the results of the mission are not publicly known, it apparently brought some measure of reassurance. In any case, Portugal's neutrality was preserved and Lisbon became beleaguered Europe's last gateway, as well as an important listening post for all of the belligerents.

On May 27, 1941, President Roosevelt strengthened the position of Portugal by pointing out, in no uncertain terms, the strategic importance of the Azores and the Cape Verde islands. The United States could not tolerate the seizure of the islands by the Germans, he said, and added: "It would be suicide to wait until they are in our front yard."[vi] In reply to this warning Portugal protested that she would do what she could to defend her empire. The State Department, for its part, assured Portugal that the United States "harbors no aggressive intentions against the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Portugal."[vii]

Portugal obviously still felt herself in a dangerous position, however, and seems to have considered a possible substitute for the alliance with Britain. Brazil had taken a leading part in the celebration of the anniversary of Portuguese independence in 1940, and the next year Lisbon sent two special missions to Rio de Janeiro. A member of one of these missions, João do Amaral, gave out a statement in August 1941 asking joint protection of the Portuguese islands by the United States and Brazil. In case any foreign occupation became necessary, the great Portuguese-speaking country of Brazil would be the natural heir of Portugal's imperial responsibilities.[viii] The suggestion was unofficial, but it was received in Brazil with some marks of approval and it might yet become important if the sea power of Great Britain should prove inadequate for its far-flung tasks. In the meantime, by achieving a balance of power among strong rivals, Portugal still retains both her neutrality and her empire.

There are many indications that the fundamentals of Portuguese foreign policy remain substantially unchanged today. Despite the Portuguese fear of Communism, the press did not adopt an especially unfriendly tone when Russia was brought into the war by the German invasion in June 1941, and it gave the Russian communiqués equal prominence with those of other belligerents. When the United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, the Portuguese newspapers expressed the opinion that this event enormously increased the likelihood of an allied victory and that it gave renewed vitality to the Portuguese alliance with Britain. When Britain asked permission to occupy Timor in order to prevent a Japanese landing, Portugal could hardly do otherwise than give a qualified refusal. But when, after fruitless negotiations, news of the British occupation arrived on December 17, 1941, Dr. Salazar's report to Parliament was singularly mild and referred to Portugal as not only neutral but as Britain's "friend" and "ally."[ix] When the Japanese seized the island, the wisdom of a reply which left the ancient alliance intact became evident.

From all this it seems as certain as anything can be in the shifting kaleidoscope of international affairs that, at least until another and so far unforeseeable substitute is found, the Anglo-Portuguese alliance will continue to be supported by both countries in its present form -- definite for one party, somewhat vague but nevertheless binding for the other. As on many occasions in the past, so again today Britain's policy arouses some bitterness and discontent in Portugal, and prophecies are to be heard that the centuries of British influence in the affairs of her oldest ally are nearing their term. But the common interests of the two nations still continue in spite of deep and obvious differences of race, language, culture and ideals. In consequence, the Anglo-Portuguese alliance seems also likely to continue as the most persistent factor in the international relationships of modern times.

[i] "British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914." London, 1927, v. 1, p. 93.

[ii] F. P. Cunha-Leal, "Portugal e Inglaterra." Coruña, privately printed, 1932.

[iii] Antonio Ferro, "Salazar, Le Portugal et son Chef." Paris: Grasset, 1934, p. 311.

[iv] A. Randall Elliott: "Portugal: Bewildered Neutral." Foreign Policy Reports, December 15, 1941, p. 235.

[v] Secretariado da Propaganda Nacional, "The Present Position of Portugal: Documents Relating to Portugal's Imperial and Foreign Policy." Lisbon: Oficina Gráfica, 1940, p. 25-34.

[vi]New York Times, May 28, 1941.

[vii]Department of State Bulletin, June 14, 1941, p. 718.

[viii]Christian Science Monitor, September 5, 1941.

[ix] "The Case of Timor," in Portugal, December 1941.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ROBERT G. CALDWELL, American Minister to Portugal, 1933-1937; Dean of Humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; former Professor of American History at Rice Institute; author of several historical works
  • More By Robert G. Caldwell