It is commonly heard in Portugal today that if the country converged during Estado Novo’s dictatorship it was because of exploitation of Africa. This claim has become louder recently, in the wake of a series of polemics in the media involving me. In this post I give some background and show that the claim is false. Exports to Africa in the last phase of Portugal’s empire were only about 3% of GDP and involved large administrative and warfare-related costs. These were not the causes of Portugal’s fast convergence to European living standards, from around a third of the GDP per head of the core of Europe’s richest countries in 1940 to 60% in 1973. This progress was the fastest and most prolonged in Portugal’s history, and it was of course accompanied by pronounced improvements in living standards, notable for example in a dramatic fall of infant mortality, from 131 per thousand in 1940 to about a third of that by 1974.
Before I dig into the details, here’s a quick summary of the events leading to this debate. A few months ago, I participated in a policy discussion about the future of Portugal, where I discussed the economic history of the country. I gave a description of Portugal’s economic history, mentioning facts that are well-accepted in academic circles. Nonetheless, lots of ignorant people including politicians, journalists and pundits got very angry about what I said. They did not want to accept that Portugal converged to European living standards during the Estado Novo dictatorship, arguing that it only happened because of democracy. The content of my talk was much discussed on TV, radio, and in an endless number of newspaper op-ed articles. The whole thing was turned into a sectarian, partisan debate, even though I do not belong to any political party. Accusation letters were sent to the University of Manchester, the BBC and the Guardian with lies, calling me a fascist and trying to get me fired, even though in my talk I had explicitly condemned the Estado Novo on political grounds (for being a dictatorship; the regime was not in fact fascist). Although my talk was on youtube, and it was easy to check what I actually said, several people lied a lot about the content of what I had supposedly said, and this included journalists, pundits, MPs and a loud MEP. Fortunately, they were exposed for it by many including independent fact-checkers.
Anyway, this saga lasted for many weeks, but once the dust settled, two things became clear to all reasonable observers: 1) that I am not and never was a sympathiser of the far-right at all, as some had claimed; imagine, by analogy, how absurd it would be if one was accused of being a supporter of absolute monarchy for saying that there had been growth in the eighteenth century! my statements about the Estado Novo were descriptive, not normative, and in fact I had previously criticized the far-right in public [plus Brexit, Trump, Órban, etc]; 2) that my description of Portugal’s economic history was factually correct, even though it clashed with what people are taught at school and tend to hear in uninformed debates. Once these facts became clear, far-left politicians who pretend to be historians – and for some sinister and mysterious reason are often treated as impartial historians by much of the media in Portugal – had to change their strategy. So they decided to start claiming that Portugal grew and converged, yes, but that was thanks to the exploitation of Africa. This was repeated a few times, most recently last Wednesday in a well-known national newspaper by the far-left politician Fernando Rosas, who happens to also be a professor emeritus of History with many students but no relevant publications at all [he is in fact known mainly for his political activities in a Maoist party, first, and then as a founder of the reasonably successful party “Left Block”, one of the most radical parties in Europe, according to the Chapel Hill expert survey often used by political scientists]. He and and others frequently use their access to the media to lobby for the creation of endless commissions and reparations comitees – i.e. for jobs for their followers. It’s a rather decadent spectacle, typical of a country where most full professors in the humanities and social sciences don’t have a single article or mongraph in a decent academic journal or book publisher. In the case of Rosas, he had been one of the pundits attacking me in public; I left many links to these polemics in my other blog, for those who may be interested in more details and who understand the Portuguese language. (As some people may know, I have two blogs dedicated to dissemination of research in economic history. This one, which I started in 2016, and one in the Portuguese language, which I founded in 2015.)
Moving on, in order to answer the now often-heard claim that if Portugal grew in the postwar it was thanks to exploiting Africa, I wrote a short post in the Portuguese blog explaining why this could not have been the case. Although the calculations are very simple, dishonest politicians have no problem repeating quantitative claims while providing no evidence, even though such claims are easy to disprove. Pseudoerasmus – the great exception to the general rule that most anonymous Twitter accounts are useless trolls – and Anton Howes, both encouraged me to write an English version:
The proximate growth factors for Portugal’s economic growth and convergence from around 1950 to 1973 had little to do with Africa. Exports to the colonies were around 15% of total exports in 1972-3. Since total exports were around 20% of GDP then, this implies that annual exports to Africa were only around 3% of GDP. In the 1950s, exports to the colonies were 20-25% of total exports, but total exports were much smaller as a percentage of GDP than in 1973; as a result, exports to Africa should have been again around 3% of GDP. Even though there were some additional transfers, all of this could not have been enough to pull economic growth significantly – also because it did not come for free: there were large administrative (and from the 1960s) warfare-related costs associated with Africa. There was war in three fronts: Angloa, Guiné, and Mozambique. Revenues were not profits.
In fact, we know the true proximate reasons why the economy industrialized and grew. Portugal benefited from the European Golden Age, but there were also internal factors. Human capital – in particular, basic literacy among children – improved markedly with Salazar’s dictatorship from the late 1920s. 75% of people had been iliterate in Portugal in 1900, but this problem was largely solved (among children) by the 1950s. Partly as the result of solving this secular bottleneck, there was structural and demographic change and the economy industrialized a lot already in the 1950s. In 1961 it entered EFTA, and market integration with European markets deepened considerably. Portugal’s small economy benefitted from this openness and the opportunities that came with it as a result. There were similar integration stories in other backward parts of Europe: Spain and Greece also coverged at the time while did not having any important colonies to exploit. The external sector of Portugal’s economy grew due to market integration with Europe, not Africa. The Portuguese (white) elite in Africa were only around 600 to 700 thousand people who returned to Portugal during 1974-5, plus a few who stayed or moved to South Africa, and this corresponds to the peak of this population at the end of the regime. The Marxist-Leninist idea that it was because of exploiting Africa that Portugal grew and converged in this period is simply incorrect.
I end by noting that the myth that the Empire mattered a lot for Portugal’s economy during all kinds of other historical periods is common, but also incorrect. Another period for which this is often repeated is the sixteenth century; Leonor Costa, Jaime Reis and I showed that this was incorrect in a 2015 article published in the European Review of Economic History. This does not mean that colonial trade never mattered for other periods and countries (I provided a summary of my views on the state of the debate in an earlier post). But as far as Portugal is concerned, note that in fact, the long-run effects of the eighteenth-century empire of Brazil were in fact negative due to a resource curse. Traditional historians need to get into the habit of actually quantifying things if they wish to make claims about what mattered, how, and when. As for politicians who are into making claims about history simply to advance their agendas, we must do our best to expose them for the fraud which they represent.