The Portuguese-Speaking World

The Portuguese-speaking world is wide indeed –- European, African, Asian, and American. It all started in the 1400s with the ambitions of a very small nation, Portugal, to find a new trade route to bring to Europe the much-desired spices from Asia. At that time, the trade route went through the Middle East and into the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. In search of a better route, Portuguese explorers decided to go south around Africa, then east to Asia. Almost accidentally, they went westward to the Americas too. They established colonies where Portuguese became the native language.

While several small places were taken over by other countries, most of the colonies remained Portuguese possessions. Brazil, however, was granted independence in 1822.

In the mid-1900s, the African colonies were restive, wanting freedom from their European owners (England, France, Belgium, etc.). The Portuguese colonies were no exception and were particularly unhappy under a right-wing Portuguese government.

The dictatorship of Francisco Salazar (1932-1968) and then Marcelo Caetano (1968-1974) ended with the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974. The Portuguese political order was radically changed, and there was little desire to maintain the colonies which no longer brought wealth to the mother country. And so, in 1975, independence was granted to the African colonies (Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe) and to East Timor in Asia. All were under-developed and under-educated and not prepared for nationhood and self-governance.

Macau, much more developed than the other colonies, was Portugal’s last possession; it was returned to China in 1999.

While the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores might have been included in the category of colonies, they were much more closely connected to continental Portugal. They remain part of Portugal as autonomous regions -- as are all provinces or “states” of Portugal.

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The name derives from the Roman designation "Portus Cale" meaning "Port of Cale"; Cale was an ancient Celtic town and port in present-day northern Portugal.

The Azores

The word "açor" is Portuguese for a species of raptor, erroneously identified as goshawk. It is also derived from the word for blue.


The name means “wood” in the Portuguese language, and the archipelago was named for its large forests and dense vegetation.


Name derived by the Portuguese from the title "ngola" held by kings of the Ndongo kingdom in what is now northern Angola.


Its name derives from the brazilwood tree from which a deep red dye was produced; these trees were once plentiful along the coast.

Cape Verde

Name derived from "Cap-Vert" (Green Cape) on the Senegalese coast, which is the westernmost point of Africa and the nearest point on the mainland to the islands.


The country is named after the Guinea region of West Africa that lies along the Gulf of Guinea and stretches north to the Sahel. Bissau (name of its principal city) distinguishes the country from neighboring Guinea.


Named for the offshore island of Mozambique. The island was apparently named after Mussa al-BIK, an influential Arab slave trader who set himself up as sultan on the island in the 15th century.

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé was named after Saint Thomas the Apostle by the Portuguese who discovered the island on December 21, 1470 -- the saint's feast day. Príncipe is a shortening of the original Portuguese name meaning "Isle of the Prince", referring to the Prince of Portugal.

East Timor

"Timor" derives from the Indonesian and Malay word meaning "east". East Timor literaly means "East East". The local name "Timor Lorosa'e" translates as "East Rising Sun".


It was known in ancient literature by many names, such as Gomanchala, Gopakapattam, Gopakapuri, and Gomantak. In the 3rd century BC, Goa was known as Aparantha. In the 13th century, the Greeks referred to Goa as Nelkinda. Other historical names are Sindapur, Sandabur, and Mahassapatam.


The name is thought to derive from the A-Ma Temple, built in 1488 and dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of seafarers and fishermen, referred to locally as "Maa Gok" and which in Portuguese became "Macau."