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Portuguese Emigration

Portugal has long been a nation whose people have emigrated

Socially significant emigration first occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries during the great explorations. Portugal established trading posts in Africa and Asia, but Brazil was its main colony of settlement. Later, large numbers of Portuguese settled in the African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

Years:  1886 — 1981

Emigration on a massive scale began in the second half of the 19th century and continued into the 1980s. Between 1886 and 1966, Portugal lost an estimated 2.6 million citizens to emigration, more than any Western European country except Ireland. Emigration remained high until 1973 when the first oil shock slowed the economies of Western Europe and reduced employment opportunities for Portuguese workers. Since then, emigration moderated, ranging from 12,000 to 17,000 per year in the 1980s, a fraction of the emigration that occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s.

The primary motive for emigration, at least in modern times, was economic. Portugal was long among the poorest countries in Europe. With the countryside able to support only a portion of a farmer's offspring and with few opportunities in the manufacturing sector, many Portuguese had to go abroad to find work. In northern Portugal, many young men emigrated because the land was divided into "handkerchief-sized" plots. During some periods, Portuguese emigrated to avoid military service. Emigration increased during World War I and during the 1960s and early 1970s when Portugal waged  wars in an attempt to retain its African colonies.

For centuries, it was primarily men who emigrated. Around the turn of the century, about 80 percent of emigrants were male. Even in the 1980s, male emigrants outnumbered female emigrants two to one. Portuguese males traditionally emigrated for several years while women and children remained behind. For several decades after World War II, however, women made up about 40 percent of emigrants.

The social effects resulting from this extensive and generally male emigration included an aging population, a disproportionate number of women, and a slower rate of population growth. Childbearing was postponed, and many women were obliged to remain single or to spend many years separated from their husbands. In some areas where emigration was particularly intense, especially in the north, villages resembled ghost towns and visitors noted that it seemed that only women were working in the fields.

Although emigration brought with it untold human suffering, it had positive effects as well. The women who stayed behind became more independent as they managed the family farm and fended for themselves. Emigrants abroad absorbed the more open and pluralistic mores of more advanced countries. The money that emigrants sent back to Portugal from their earnings abroad was crucial for the Portuguese economy. Quite a number of the Portuguese who had done well abroad eventually returned and built houses that were considerably better than the ones they had left behind years earlier.

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