Portugal in the War

[The Nation; March 16, 1916]

Four days after the announcement of a state of war between Great Britain and Germany, the Portuguese Chambers entrusted the Government with full powers to deal with the situation. The Premier, however, announced that for the time being it did not seem necessary in the interests of the understanding with England to abandon neutrality. Desultory skirmishing between Portuguese and German troops in Africa was reported during the early weeks of the war, but formal neutrality remained unimpaired until the Portuguese Government by the recent seizure of German shipping invited the declaration of war which came last week from Berlin. Anglo-Portuguese friendship is a matter of more than five hundred years. It was cemented by the Methuen commercial treaty in 1703, by which Portugal became economically dependent on Great Britain, not altogether to her own good. The record of friendship suffered a brief interruption in 1889, when colonial troops under Serpa Pinto made an attempt to bridge the gap between Portuguese East Africa and Angola on the west coast, and so interpose a barrier to British expansion into what is now Rhodesia. After a severe crisis the dispute was adjusted. During the Boer War relations were more than amicable.

It is upon England's invitation, as we know, that Portugal has joined in the fray at this late hour. But it is also probable that Portugal was a willing party. She may have welcomed such a step as one way out of the domestic troubles which have afflicted the country since the establishment of the Republic in 1910. Partisan differences may be expected to disappear before a common enemy. At the same time, the risk is not a heavy one. There is no way in which Germany can strike at Portugal except by an isolated submarine attack on Portuguese ships. Neither is there much chance of Portugal's coming into contact with the German forces on land. The Portuguese army would hardly be felt if by any chance it should be brought to the front, and of that there is very little chance. It is a safe war for the little republic.

What, then, does England stand to gain by her new ally? The confiscated German shipping may be of some help in the present heavy strain on the British commercial fleet. But that is hardly the main motive. For Britain's real aim we must look outside of Europe, to the South Atlantic and to Africa. With Portugal formally in the war, her island possessions are available as operating centres for British cruisers. Madeira lies some seven hundred miles southwest of Gibraltar. Eight hundred miles further south lie the Cape Verde Islands. These islands are on the-great trade routes between South Africa and Great Britain, and it is along these trade routes that German raiders did their heaviest work at the beginning of the war, and again during the recent exploits of the Moewe. The case of the Appam was a blow to British pride, and Winston Churchill might point to the Moewe and her bag of 60,000 tons of Allied shipping as an instance of lack of efficiency on the part of the British navy. Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands offer facilities for a closer safeguarding of the ocean routes to Africa.

For the situation within Africa the action of Portugal may have broad significance. Portuguese East Africa or Mozambique, and West Africa or Angola, comprise nearly 800,000 square miles, though with a thin population of less than ten millions. Rumors of the disposal of these colonies to Great Britain are not recent. It is not impossible that part of the understanding between Great Britain and Portugal has reference to the latter's African empire. Portuguese East Africa lies between Natal and the Transvaal and German East Africa. Its acquisition would leave the latter surrounded by British territory on the north and south and Belgian territory on the west. Angola lies north of German Southwest Africa. The latter is now in British possession, so that the acquisition of Angola would make the British dominions on the west coast stretch from the Cape to the mouth of the Congo. Against German East Africa an active campaign is now under way. Before the end of the war this last of Germany's colonies Is likely to go the way of the others. In that case, British territory on the east coast would run from the Cape to the Sudan, and so to the Mediterranean. The dream of Cecil Rhodes would be realized.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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