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The Portuguese Community in the Port of London

Voyages of discovery
Sugar, wine and tobacco
The Jews and the Portuguese queen
Changing fortunes
From East End to West End
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Sugar, wine and tobacco

Oldest European alliance

Full hull model of a Portugese caravel (mid 15th century), a cargo and sailing vessel.
View full size imageFull hull model of a Portuguese caravel (mid-15th century), a cargo and sailing vessel. © NMM
England’s relationship with Portugal extends back to the Treaty of Windsor in 1386 - the oldest alliance in Europe.

Little is known about the earliest Portuguese people in London. But it is well known that Portuguese trading vessels visited Britain in the 15th century.

One such vessel was uncovered from the banks of the River Usk in South Wales in 2002. More than 300 objects, including Portuguese pottery, and leather shoes have been recovered from this site. The ship was dated to around 1465.

Early imports

Map of Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands
View full size imageMap of Portuguese-speaking islands, Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands. © NMM
Madeiran sugar and wine known as malmsey were exported to Britain in the late 15th century. It is through this trade that the word 'engine' entered the English language. An 'enginho' was the Portuguese word for a sugar mill.

Between 1574 and 1576 Portuguese exports to London included a mixture of re-exports such as:

  • Indian cottons and spices
  • Brazilwood
  • sugar
  • salt
  • oranges and marmalade.

The Portuguese learnt from the Arabs that oranges and marmalade were important in fighting off scurvy during long ocean voyages.

Effects of competition

Pepper Vine, Kerela, India.
View full size imagePepper Vine, Kerela, India. © NMM
Because of competition in Asia, led by the English East India Company, the list of Portuguese imports to London was to change. Sugar and tobacco came to dominate Portuguese exports to England and spices virtually disappeared.

However, the Anglo-French Wars increased the demand for Portuguese and Madeira wine. This became even more important after the restoration of Portuguese independence from Spain in 1640.

The importance of this trade by the mid-17th century is clear from the 1651 Navigation Act passed by Oliver Cromwell. This prohibited the import of all non-English wares from Britain to the colonies, except for Madeira wine.

Eventually, by the 1670s, Brazilian sugar would also decline because of competition from British sources in the West Indies.

The Methuen Treaty of 1705 opened the English markets to Portuguese wines. British merchants and shippers flocked to Oporto where they formed a Shippers' Association in 1727.

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