Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Mid Victorian Portuguese Navy

The Ships

In 1859 Husk's "The Navies of the World: their present state and future capabilities" lists the Portuguese Navy as follows...

1x Ship of the line 80 guns
The Vasco de Gama, built about 1841 in Lisbon. Although modern she was neither armoured or with steam propulsion, and so was rapidly becoming obsolete.
1x Frigate 50 guns
The Don Fernando II, built 1845, and actually still afloat and available to visit at Cacilhas near Lisbon*
3x Corvettes of 18 guns
2x Brigs of 18 guns
3x Brigs of 16 guns
1x Brig 14 guns
11x Schooners of 4-5 guns each
9x Transports
6x Steamers
including the Bartolomeu Dias, built in England in 1858, with 3 masts, but also steam propulsion

The frigate Don Fernando

"The Portuguese Navy contains 37 vessels large and mounting 362 guns and employing 2118 men. Of above 27 sailing vessels and 5 steamers are in commission the other 5 in ordinary "

It has to be said that for an imperial power with stations from Madeira to southern Africa to Goa and the East Indies, this was not terribly impressive. Even Sardinia, for example, had more steamers.

By 1863 the New York Social Science Review reports a fleet of;

1x ship of the line 76
1x frigate 44
3x corvettes
1x brig
6x schooners and cutters
11x transports
6x steam corvettes and 7x steamers

The steamer Bartolomeu Dias in 1859

At least there were now 12 steamers, but it was still a small fleet. The principle naval bases were at Lisbon and Oporto, but naval officers were often also colonial governors, for instance the Governor of Macao in 1859 was a captain in the Portuguese navy, as was the Governor General in Luanda (Angola) in 1866

Of course, as Britain's oldest ally, Portugal to a large extent was sheltering under the Pax Brittanica, any move against Goa, for example, would be inconceivable without the consent of British India. whilst Madeira would not be allowed to fall into the hands of any "major" power. But this is not to say that there were not issues.


Time and time again the Portuguese authorities in Angola and Mozambique were criticised in the House of Commons for "allowing" slave ships to take their cargo to Brazil. Royal Naval ships in Sierra Leone and later Simonstown intercepted many slave ships under the Portuguese flag, and although slave trading had been offically abolished in the Portuguese empire in 1836, over 20,000 slaves per year were exported from Angola alone during the later 1830s, mainly to Brazil. A clear distinction was also made, in Portuguese eyes at least, between slave trading and and slave ownership, which contiuned to be legal. A census in 1854 fround 60,000 slaves in Angola and 40,000 in Mozambique.

A report to the Earl of Aberdeen by the British consul in Luanda in 1845 compared 43 ships captured by the Royal Navy with 9 captured by the Portuguese and recommended strongly against leaving stretches of the coast solely to Portuguese patrols.
" in the first place because the number and efficiency of the Portuguese squadron are utterly inadequate to guard this extensive line of coast effectively many of their cruizers being employed on distant colonial service to the southward and also because the subordinate officers of the Portuguese navy to whose care this duty would necessarily be confided having with the feelings of most of their countrymen long been accustomed to regard the Slave Trade merely as a contraband traffic"
"The officers of the Portuguese naval service derive no pecuniary benefit whatever from the capture of slave vessels and consequently in this respect there is no inducement to zeal"

However, the Governor of Luanda at the time, Captain Pedro Alexandrine da Cunha, is praised for his " just and honourable principles far superior to those of the generality of his predecessors who have notoriously amassed fortunes by receiving douceurs from slave dealers".

By 1850 things seem to have improved, with, for instance, reports of the brig Corimba capturing 7 slave boats on the west African coast. The Goverenor of Angola, Jose de Coehlo de Amaral, also moved to close a loophole in the system. For years the ban on trading had been bypassed by using the independent native city of Ambriz, just up the coast from Luanda. In 1855, de Amaral sent a naval expedition to occupy the town and the traffic was stopped, and a trading city added to Portuguese territory of course. The late 1850s and 1860s saw new more dynamic governments in Lisbon developing plans to develop their African colonies, to form a "new Brazil in Africa" and the navy was reorganised around this, with more units based in Mozambique and Angola. The flagship Vasco da Gama was used to ferry extra troops down to Angola in 1859.

The flagship Vasco da Gama on a Mozambiquan stamp

The Americas

In 1849 the Vasco da Gama sailed for Brazil to show the flag, but rather embarrassingly lost all her masts in a storm and had to be towed to Rio de Janeiro.

In 1864 a Portuguese squadron including the Bartolomeu Dias was sent to Brazil to monitor Portuguese interests during the Paraguay war.

In 1865 Portugal entered briefly into the American civil war. The Confederate ironclad ram Stonewall entered Lisbon, as a neutral port, closely followed by the USS Niagara and Sacramento. The Stonewall was ordered to leave, but under international law, the US ships had to wait 24 hours before pursuing. Believing that they were about to break this law, and thus Portuguese neutrality, the guns of the ancient Tower of Belem opening fire, though causing no damage. The US ships retired, and covered also by the corvettes Sagres and Mindello, they waited with steam up until the deadline had passed. Portugal later offically apologised for the incident.

The Belem tower firing on the Niagara & Sacramento (on left)


The Portuguese had had a settlement at Macao on the Chinese coast since 1557, expanding the territory by taking over Taipa and Colerane in 1851 and 1864 respectively. One consequence of this was development of the "lorcha", a hybrid class of boat combining "junk" type sails with a "European" style hull. This type was both faster than traditional junks and simpler to build and sail than European types, and became very popular in the area.

Macau in 1859

In 1854, 4 Portuguese lorchas were part of a task force headed by USS Porpoise which attacked a pirate base near Macao, the US commander Lt Henry Rolando reporting that
"Captain Cavalho of the Portuguese navy reported that two of the junks were driven on shore and that he succeeded in making two prizes which were afterwards lost by the bad weather coming on rendering it necessary to cut them adrift from the vessel to which they were in tow".

Elsewhere in 1854 there was a showdown between a Portuguese corvette, the Don Joao, and a Chinese naval force at the city of Ningpo. Following tension between the Portuguese and Chinese in the city, which had resulted in deaths on both sides, the Portuguese sent the corvette to the city and a series of demands to the authorities there, basically requiring that the Chinese perpetrators be punished and steps be taken to ensure that local pirates did not interfere with Portuguese vessels in the future. Talks stalled and the Don Joao " took up a position opposite the east gate of the city. The Cantonese have become greatly excited. They have beached their junks in a line opposite the corvette and have taken possession of the city gate just mentioned and having mounted several guns upon the walls seem determined to make a bold resistance" (report of the US Consul in Ningpo, DB McCarter, who was firmly on the side of the Chinese in the matter).

Ning-Po in 1850

On July 10 the Don Joao, and a small fleet of 15 lorchas opened fire, sinking or capturing the junks and seizing all guns. The stand off continued until September, when a deal was reached, no Chinese were handed over but money was paid in lieu. It certainly did not end piracy in the area, McCarter reporting that
"there are fourteen Cantonese junks now lying at anchor off the city several of which are expected to leave in a few days for Chin kiangfu. A large fleet of pirates is outside mostly in the port and vicinity of Shih pu but some of them have visited the harbor of Chusan within three weeks compelling some sugar junks at anchor in the harbor to pay a heavy ransom and demanding supplies of rice &c from the city of Tinghai They are said to be about to start for the neighborhood of Shantung to intercept the trading junks engaged in the northern trade"

In 1859 there were again clashes between Portuguese and Chinese troops at Macao, and tensions continued for much of this period.

Further reading

The Navies of the World 1859

British and Foreign state papers

US Congressional papers


The frigate Don Fernando at Cacilhas near Lisbon

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