Le Portugal de la fin du XVIe siècle n’est plus aussi rayonnant qu’au début de la Renaissance qui est l’époque des grandes découvertes : sous le règne de Manuel 1er (1495-1521), Pedro Alvares Cabral accoste au Brésil, Vasco da Gama part en expédition aux Indes, suivi par Fernão de Magalhaes (plus connu en France sous le nom de Magellan), qui accomplit le premier tour du monde entre 1519 et 1522… / Portugal at the end of the sixteenth century was not as influential as it had been at the beginning of the Renaissance, which had been the time of the great discoveries: under Manuel I (1495-1521) Pedro Álvares Cabral reached Brazil (1500), Vasco da Gama led an expedition to India (1502-1503), the ships of Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) accomplished the first circumnavigation of the world (1519-1521).
C’est ainsi que le Portugal est à cette période à la tête du plus grand empire d’Occident, recouvrant les cinq continents. On parle portugais au Brésil, aux Açores, à Goa, au Mozambique, à Macao… Les caisses du royaume regorgent des richesses venues des différents pays sous domination portugaise ou des comptoirs installés jusqu’en Chine, la culture et la connaissance d’une manière générale connaissent un essor sans précédent, le pays est craint et respecté, même si les conflits avec la Castille voisine ont toujours lieu. Cependant, le Portugal va s’affaiblir : la population a diminué de moitié du fait que les habitants partent s’installer dans les nouvelles colonies, les terres ne sont plus cultivées et l’on en vient à échanger les métaux précieux contre du blé et du seigle importés de France et de Hollande. La richesse Portugaise n’est bientôt plus qu’une illusion et les coffres du royaume se vident progressivement de leurs trésors.
At that time Portugal had the greatest empire in the West, with possessions on five continents. Portuguese was spoken in Brazil, the Azores, Goa, Mozambique, Macao and elsewhere. The kingdom’s coffers overflowed with riches from the various countries under its rule and from trading posts as far away as China. Culture, and knowledge in general, experienced an unprecedented expansion. Despite some friction with neighbouring Castile, Portugal was feared and respected. But then it weakened. So many of its inhabitants had left to live in the new colonies that the population fell by half. Its lands were no longer cultivated. Precious metals were exchanged for wheat and rye from France and Holland. Its wealth was soon little more than illusory; its former treasures were gone. It was in that context that the young king Sebastian I (1554-1578), a fanatically religious ruler, launched a crusade against the Muslims in Morocco. In 1578 he left with an army of less than 20,000 commanded by the pride of the Portuguese nobility. But in North Africa his men, weighed down by their heavy armour and by much artillery, were overwhelmed by the scorching heat. They were utterly defeated by the Moors (numbering 50,000) in the Battle of the Three Kings* near Alcazarquivir (or Ksar-el-Kebir): half of them are said to have died, and the other half surrendered. Sebastian was killed; his body was never found.
This catastrophe weakened Portugal further. Sebastian died without heir and the country soon came under Spanish control, when Philip II of Spain became Philip I of Portugal. A messianic faith known as Sebastianism grew up after the last Portuguese king’s death, many believing that Sebastian would return to deliver them.
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