Population of Portugal

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By the early 1990s, Portugal's population was just over 10 million, a little more than triple the 3.1 million estimated to live in the country in 1801. The main causes for this slow growth were a high infant mortality rate for much of these two centuries and an emigration rate so extreme that in one decade, the 1960s, the country's population actually fell. These trends have reversed in recent decades. The country's infant mortality rate at the beginning of the 1990s--10 per 1,000 in 1992--remained somewhat higher than the European average but was one-fifth of that registered two decades earlier. Emigration also slowed markedly as prosperity appeared in Portugal in the second half of the 1980s. Moreover, a massive influx of refugees from former Portuguese colonies in Africa in the second half of the 1970s caused a population surge.

Population Size and Structure

Although population estimates are available for earlier years, the first official Portuguese census was taken in 1864. It showed a population of approximately 4.3 million. Thereafter, the population increased slowly at rates often well under 1 percent per year. Only during the 1930s and 1940s did the population increase at over 1 percent per year. During the 1960s, the population actually fell by over 300,000 and in 1970 amounted to more than 8.5 million. During the early 1970s, population continued to fall or was stagnant. This demographic trend was the result of widespread emigration. Many Portuguese left their country in these years to find employment abroad or to avoid military service in the wars Portugal was fighting in its colonies in Africa.

In 1974 the country's population showed its first sizeable increase and by 1981 reached nearly 9.8 million, 1.2 million more than it had been ten years earlier. The settling in Portugal of an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 refugees from the country's African colonies accounted for most of this increase. During the first half of the 1980s, the population grew at a rate of about 0.8 percent a year, then declined. As of the early 1990s, population growth was estimated at 0.4 percent a year. By the beginning of 1992, the population of Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira, was estimated at nearly 10.5 million. Population specialists projected that if existing trends continued, the country's population would peak at 10.8 million in 2010 and fall to 10.5 in 2025.

This population was not evenly distributed. As of the late 1980s, continental Portugal had an average population density of 109.6 persons per square kilometer, but some districts were much more crowded than others. The eastern districts bordering Spain, with the exception of Faro, had the lowest population density, ranging between 17.0 per square kilometer in Beja and 35.6 per square kilometer in Guarda. Coastal districts from the northern border down to and including Setúbal registered the highest concentrations of people. The districts of Lisbon and Porto, with 770.2 and 697.5 persons per square kilometer, respectively, were as densely populated as many urban regions of Northern Europe.

Some of these differences in population density resulted from topography. Mountainous regions typically contain fewer people than flat coastal regions. But some differences resulted from migration from one area to another within Portugal or from migration abroad. During the period 1911-89, five districts, all of them bordering Spain in the east, lost population: Guarda lost about one-fourth of its population, Beja and Castelo Branco lost about one-tenth, and Bragança and Portalegre each lost about onetwentieth . The only eastern district posting a gain in this period was Évora, which grew by about one-sixth. Two inland districts, Vila Real and Viseu, showed almost no growth; another inland district, Santarém, with significant industrial employment, grew by one-half. All coastal districts gained in population during this period. Coimbra and Faro grew by onefourth , Aveiro and Braga doubled their populations, the districts of Lisbon and Porto increased by two-and-one-half times, and Setúbal increased more than three times. The Azores showed almost no gain in population, but that of Madeira grew by two-thirds.

The main areas of population growth were urban centers and the district capitals. The urban-industrial centers along the coast--Lisbon, Porto, Setúbal--took in the largest numbers of new immigrants. However, only the cities of Lisbon and Porto had significant populations, approximately 830,000 and 350,000, respectively, at the end of the 1980s. They were followed by Amadora with 96,000 (part of greater Lisbon), Setúbal with 78,000, and Coimbra with 75,000. At the beginning of the 1990s, therefore, some two-thirds of all Portuguese still lived in what were classified as rural areas despite the significant growth of some urban areas.

The Lisbon area was the region of greatest population growth in absolute terms, in part it was the seat of much of the country's governmental apparatus, as well as its manufacturing and service sector jobs. Until the 1960s, the area's population increases were mainly inside the city of Lisbon, but since then the suburbs have grown most rapidly. The central city's population remained largely stagnant or even declined in some years, while that of the suburbs surged. High city rents, crowding, the decline of old neighborhoods, pollution, and the squeezing out of housing by commercial enterprises were among the causes of this new suburbanization of Lisbon's outlying districts.

Government population estimates showed that in the late 1980s women outnumbered men by a wide margin and that the number of old persons in Portugal was unusually high. The 1864 census and every census since has shown that women outnumber men. In 1988 this was the case in all but two of the districts of continental Portugal, Beja and Bragança. The greatest disproportions were found in northern and central areas where male emigration was most intense. However, during the 1980s, men formed the majority in twenty-two of the country's 305 municipalities. Eighteen of these statistically unusual municipalities were in southern Portugal.

Portugal has long had an aging population. The percentage of the population under age thirty has been decreasing since 1900. Moreover, the rate at which the country's population has aged accelerated as ever more young Portuguese males in their physical prime left the country. Between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of those under fifteen fell from 29.0 to 20.9, while that of those sixty-five and older rose from 8.1 to 13.1. The north had a disproportionate number of old and very young people, mainly those still too young to migrate. In some areas of Portugal where employment has been available, this preponderance was not the case. Lisbon and the growth areas of Santarém and Setúbal had a disproportionate share of those of working age, between twenty and sixty-five.


Portugal has long been a nation whose people emigrated. Socially significant emigration first occurred in the fifteenth century and sixteenth century during the great explorations. Although the Portuguese established trading posts at many places in Africa and Asia, Brazil was the main colony of settlement. Later, numbers of Portuguese settled in the African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

Emigration on a massive scale began in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued into the 1980s. Between 1886 and 1966, Portugal lost an estimated 2.6 million people to emigration, more than any West European country except Ireland. Emigration remained high until 1973 and the first oil shock that slowed the economies of West European nations and reduced employment opportunities for Portuguese workers. Since then, emigration has been moderate, ranging between 12,000 and 17,000 a year in the 1980s, a fraction of the emigration that occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s.

The main motive for emigration, at least in modern times, was economic. Portugal was long among the poorest countries in Europe. With the countryside able to support only a portion of farmers' offspring and few opportunities in the manufacturing sector, many Portuguese had to go abroad to find work. In northern Portugal, for example, many young men emigrated because the land was divided into "handkerchief-sized" plots. In some periods, Portuguese emigrated to avoid military service. Thus, emigration increased during World War I and during the 1960s and early 1970s, when Portugal waged a series of wars in an attempt to retain its African colonies.

For centuries it was mainly men who emigrated. Around the turn of the century, about 80 percent of emigrants were male. Even in the 1980s, male emigrants outnumbered female emigrants two to one. Portuguese males traditionally emigrated for several years while women and children remained behind. For several decades after World War II, however, women made up about 40 percent of emigrants.

The social effects resulting from this extensive and generally male emigration included an aging population, a disproportionate number of women, and a slower rate of population growth. Childbearing was postponed, and many women were obliged to remain single or to spend many years separated from their husbands. In some areas where emigration was particularly intense, especially in the north, villages resembled ghost towns and visitors noted that it seemed that only women were working in the fields.

Although emigration brought with it untold human suffering, it had positive effects, as well. The women who stayed behind became more independent as they managed the family farm and fended for themselves. Emigrants abroad absorbed the more open and pluralistic mores of more advanced countries; they also learned about independent labor unions and extensive social welfare programs. The money that emigrants sent back to Portugal from their job earnings abroad became crucial for the functioning of the Portuguese economy. Quite a number of the Portuguese who had done well abroad eventually returned and built houses that were considerably better than the ones they had left behind years earlier.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century and during much of the twentieth century, the greatest number of emigrants went to the Western Hemisphere. The Americas were seen as a New World offering hope, jobs, land, and a chance to start fresh. Between 1864 and 1974, the Americas received approximately 50 percent of all Portuguese emigration.

Brazil was the destination of choice. In addition to the climate, ties of history, culture, and language attracted the Portuguese to Brazil and enabled them to assimilate easily. Despite occasional tensions between them and the Brazilians, the Portuguese saw Brazil as a land of the future with abundant land and jobs. Hence, about 30 percent of Portugal's emigrants settled there between 1864 and 1973. A final surge of Portuguese emigrants was caused by the Revolution of 1974, when an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Portuguese associated with the former regime fled or were exiled to Brazil. According to government estimates, more than 1 million Portuguese were living in Brazil in the 1980s.

Among the other Latin American countries, Venezuela has ranked second to Brazil in terms of Portuguese emigration, and Argentina third. Other Latin American countries have received only a few Portuguese immigrants, for the Portuguese, like other peoples, preferred to go to countries where their fellow countrypeople could help them get settled.

Emigration to North America was also intense. By the late 1980s, it was estimated that the number of Portuguese and persons of Portuguese descent living in this continent amounted to more than 1 million in the United States and 400,000 in Canada, most notably in Toronto and Montreal. Significant Portuguese migration to the United States began in the nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century, substantial Portuguese communities were established in California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Since the 1950s, the most intense migration has been to the northeast, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and to cities in southeastern Massachusetts.

Portuguese emigration to the United States often involved whole families, rather than just the men. For this reason, emigrants to the United States settled permanently, unlike Portuguese emigrants to Northern Europe, who were mostly men who set out alone with the intention of returning home after a few years. Another characteristic of the Portuguese migration to the United States was that many were fishermen from the Azores who came to work in areas offshore of New England. Others migrated from Madeira and São Tomé.

Portugal was never as successful at stimulating emigration to its African territories as it wanted to be. For centuries the number of Europeans in these territories was small. Faced with competition from other European imperialist powers in the nineteenth century, Portugal sought to fill up its vast African spaces with people. The state allowed prisoners to work off their sentences by settling in Africa, it offered land grants and stipends to prospective settlers, it tried to encourage its soldiers assigned there to stay, and it tried to lure other Europeans to settle there to augment the thin Portuguese population. These efforts were not notably successful, however, and Portuguese emigration to Africa never amounted to more than 4 percent of the total.

With mounting opposition to its efforts to retain its African territories in the 1960s, Portugal's settlement efforts again reflected political, as well as economic, motives. The government tried to persuade the unemployed, especially those in the north, to settle in Africa rather than emigrate illegally to Europe, but in the long run it was unsuccessful in these efforts. Even the construction of major dams and other infrastructure projects in the territories failed to lure significant numbers of settlers. By the mid-1970s, the African colonies were lost, and Portugal was flooded with refugees from these areas instead of providing emigrants to them.

Upwards of 1 million Portuguese or persons of Portuguese descent were living in the country's African colonies in 1974 when these colonies gained independence. Most of these settlers left these former colonies rather than live under the rule of the Marxist-Leninist groups that came to power. Sizeable numbers went to South Africa and to Brazil, but an estimated 800,000 returned to Portugal, where they increased the already high unemployment rate and added to the social and political tensions of the late 1970s. Eventually, however, most of these returnees were assimilated into Portuguese society, and some of them achieved notable political or financial success.

During the first half of the twentieth century, most Portuguese emigrating from their country went to its colonies or to the Western Hemisphere. This changed dramatically in the 1950s when Western Europe began to experience an economic boom that lasted at least up to the first oil crisis of 1973. The boom created millions of jobs, and Portuguese migrants traveled north to fill them. Alongside Italians, Spaniards, Turks, North Africans, and others, Portuguese worked in restaurants, in construction, in factories, and in many other areas. Although much of the work was menial and poorly paid, such employment provided significant economic advancement for many Portuguese. By the late 1960s, an estimated 80 percent of Portuguese emigrants went to Europe. Many of these emigrants did so illegally, without the required documents, because the lure of Europe's prosperity was too strong to be resisted.

France was the most popular destination. By the early 1970s, it was estimated that 8 percent of Portugal's population lived there. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had the next largest contingent. There were also sizeable Portuguese communities in Switzerland, Belgium, Britain, and the Netherlands. Chaotic economic and social conditions resulting from the Revolution of 1974 caused a slight surge of emigration in the later 1970s, but it never again reached the levels of the 1960s and early 1970s.

During the 1980s, the rate of emigration slowed as revolutionary turmoil subsided and the economy began to grow. Greater governmental efficiency and membership in the EC attracted much foreign investment and created jobs. Portuguese no longer had to go abroad to find economic opportunity.


The deep-reaching political, economic, and social changes that Portugal has experienced in the last few decades have left their mark on the family, women's place within society, and the role of kinship relations. Women were the most affected, for a modernizing economy offered them a greater range of choices than they had in previous times, and the radical reforms enacted after the Revolution of 1974 gave them much greater rights. Kinship relations, whether based on biology or social relationships, were perhaps the least affected, for they remained vitally important in how Portuguese lived and worked with one another.


The patriarchal and nuclear family traditionally served as the norm and the ideal in Portugal. Until the constitution of 1976 was promulgated, the father was seen as the head of the family, and his wife and children were obliged to recognize his authority. He, in turn, was obliged by law to support and protect his family. While the men worked outside the home, women were expected to care for the children and manage household affairs. Marriage was considered permanent; divorce was virtually unknown. During the period of Salazar's rule from 1928 to 1968, the family was even seen as the primary institution of politics; voting was organized under the regime, the Estado Novo (New State), on a family basis--only "heads of households" (usually men but sometimes women) could vote.

Although the nuclear and patriarchal family was the ideal, the cultural patterns varied considerably depending on class status and region. Upper- and middle-class families corresponded most closely to the ideal. Women remained at home tending the children and rarely ventured out unaccompanied, while husbands managed their businesses or followed their professions. Peasant and working-class families were marked by greater variation. In northern Portugal, for example, names and property were often passed on through the mother because of the absence abroad of male heads of households for long periods. The fact that women could inherit land in Portugal gave women in rural areas some independence, and many of them managed their own farms, took their produce to market, and did much heavy work elsewhere seen as suitable for men. The absence of men because of emigration meant that many women never married and also resulted in a higher rate of illegitimacy than in other Mediterranean countries.

The slow modernization of the Portuguese economy, the increasing employment of women outside the home, and the emigration of many women, as well as the spread of new ideas about the place of women and the nature of marriage, gradually changed the nature of the Portuguese family, despite the attempts of Salazar's Estado Novo to preserve the male-dominated nuclear family. The Revolution of 1974 responded to these long pent-up social pressures.

The reforms enacted after the revolution established in the civil code that men and women were equals in marriage, with the same rights to make family decisions. Divorce became much easier, and the number of divorces increased from 1,552 in 1975 to 5,874 in 1980 and 9,657 in 1989. The number of separations, formerly the main method of ending a marriage, fell from 670 in 1975 to 70 in 1980 but climbed to 195 in 1989. Illegitimacy was no longer to be mentioned in official documents because it was regarded as discriminatory; the frequency of births out of wedlock rose from 7.2 percent to 14.5 percent between 1975 and 1989. Abortion under certain conditions became legal in 1984. Maternal leave with full pay for ninety days was established for working mothers in 1976. A small family allowance program was also instituted that made payments at the birth of a child and all through his or her childhood. Family planning also became an integral part of Portugal's social welfare program; the number of children born per woman fell from 2.2 in 1980 to 1.7 in 1985 and 1.5 in 1988.

Relations within the family came to resemble more closely those of the rest of Western Europe. Children were less respectful to their parents, dating without chaperones was the rule, and outings in mixed gender groups or as couples were taken for granted--all things that would not have happened during much of the Salazar era.

Still, some characteristics of Portuguese family life remained constant. Marriage and kinship networks in Portugal were often based on social and political criteria as much as on love or natural attraction. To a degree that often surprised outsiders, even in the early 1990s many Portuguese marriages were arranged. For the peasant class, considerations of land were often most important in determining marriage candidates. Marriages might be arranged to consolidate property holdings or to tie two families together rather than result from the affection two people might feel for one another. Middle-class families often had status and prestige considerations in mind when they married. Among the upper classes, marriage might be for the purposes of joining two businesses, two landholdings, or two political clans.


Portuguese women gained full legal equality with men relatively recently. Until the reforms made possible by the Revolution of 1974, Portuguese women had notably fewer political, economic, or personal rights than the women of other European countries. In family matters, they were subordinate to their husbands, having to defer to male decisions about how the children should be reared and educated. It was only in 1969 that all married women obtained the right to obtain a passport or leave Portugal without their husbands' consent. The constitution of 1976 guaranteed Portuguese women full equality for the first time in Portuguese history. However, this equality was not attained through steady progress, but rather after reverses and defeats.

For centuries, Portuguese women were obliged by law and custom to be subservient to men. Women had few rights of either a legal or financial nature and were forced to rely on the benevolence of their male relatives. Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, some educated persons saw the need for women's equality and emancipation. A small Portuguese suffragette movement formed, and some young women began to receive higher educations. Shortly after the proclamation of the First Republic in the fall of 1910, laws were enacted establishing legal equality in marriage, requiring civil marriages, freeing women of the obligation to remain with their husbands, and permitting divorce. However, women were still not allowed to manage property or to vote.

Salazar's Estado Novo meant the end to these advances. The constitution of 1933 proclaimed everyone equal before the law "except for women, the differences resulting from their nature and for the good of the family." Although the regime allowed women with a secondary education to vote (men needed only to read and write), it once again obliged women to remain with their husbands. The Concordat of 1940 between the Portuguese government and the Roman Catholic Church gave legal validity to marriages within the church and forbade divorce in such marriages. Later amendments to the civil code, even in the 1960s, cemented the husband's dominance in marriage.

The constitution of 1976 brought Portuguese women full legal equality. Anyone eighteen or over was granted the right to vote, and full equality in marriage was guaranteed. A state entity, the Commission on the Status of Women, was established and from 1977 on was attached to the prime minister's office. Its task was to improve the position of women in Portugal and to oversee the protection of their rights. This entity was renamed the Commission for Equality and Women's Rights (Comissão para a Igualdade e Direitos das Mulheres) in 1991.

The position of women improved as a result of these legal reforms. By the early 1990s, women were prominent in many professions. Thirty-seven percent of all physicians were women, as were many lawyers. Slightly more than half of those enrolled in higher education were women. Working-class women also made gains. A modernizing economy meant that many women could find employment in offices and factories and that they had a better standard of living than their mothers.

Despite these significant gains, however, Portuguese women still had not achieved full social and economic equality. They remained underrepresented in most upper-level positions, whether public or private. Women usually held less than 10 percent of the seats in the country's parliament. Women were also rarely cabinet members or judges. In the main trade unions, women's occupancy of leadership positions was proportionally only half their total union membership, and, on the whole, working-class women earned less than their male counterparts.

The Extended Family

The extended family and kinship relations, including ritual kinship, were also important. The role of the godparent, for example, had an importance in Portugal that it lacked in the United States. Being a godparent implied certain lifetime obligations, such as helping a godchild in trouble, arranging admission to a school, finding employment, or furthering a professional or political career. The godchild, in turn, owed loyalty and service to the godparent. The system was one of patronage based on mutual obligation.

Political kinship networks could consist of several hundred persons. Such extended networks were especially prevalent among the elite. Members of the elite were bound not only by marriage and family, but by business partnerships, friendships, political ties, university or military academy bonds, and common loyalties. It was long the practice to have such family connections in the government so as to be able to extract favors and contracts. The elite and middle-class families also tried to have a "cousin," real or ritual, in all political parties so that their interests were protected no matter which party was in power. Sometimes the parties or interest groups were just "fronts" for these family groupings. These extended families also tried to have members in different sectors of the economy, both to enhance profits and to enable each sector to support and reinforce the others. Although these extended family networks were difficult for outsiders to penetrate, some observers regarded them as the country's most important political and economic institutions, of greater real consequence than political parties, interest organizations, or government institutions.

The poor and working class lacked the extended family networks of the middle class and the wealthy. Kin relations outside the nuclear family were weak. Little premium was placed on building economic alliances through an extended family network because there was little wealth to be shared or gained. Similarly, there was no reason to build strong political connections because the poor lacked political power. However, a poor person might succeed in persuading a local landowner or village notable to serve as godfather to his children. In that way, the individual became part of a larger network, expecting favors in return for loyalty and service. If that network became wealthy or achieved political prominence, then the poor person attached to it might also expect to benefit--perhaps by obtaining a low-level government job. But if it fell, the individual also fell. The entire Portuguese local and national system was based on these extended family and patronage ties, which were often as important as formal institutions.

SOURCE: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook

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