Since the late 15th century Portugal was the unquestioned organizer and leader of the great overseas expansion and also the first country in the world to start a colonial policy. The Portuguese managed to explore the farthest reaches of the world in America, Africa and Asia, but over time they became so attached to their colonial territories that many decided to stay there for the rest of their lives. Many Portuguese who settled in the overseas colonies kept cultivating the Portuguese language and culture – even those of them who have never had contact with Europe. This prompted us to think how the colonial overseas contacts of the Portuguese Empire were born and maintained until the beginning of the 19th century. This identity is being analyzed in an unconventional manner by combining traditional historiography studies with Social Networking Analysis, which is a modern mathematical and informational tool. Portuguese colonial society will be understood as a network society where its structure is what explains certain behaviors and tendencies, rather than personal characteristics. Despite the fact that the colonial world was a network of connections between individuals, the focus of the research will be shifted from the human to the relationships that connect him or her with other actors. Social networks are understood in this context as a conscious policy of building lasting, intercultural and transcontinental relationships. The expected results will bring an innovative insight into the understanding of the colonial system, in which its outskirts have often played the role of the center. On the one hand, there was the centralized royal administration with its plans and strategists; on the other hand, against all odds, there were conscious individuals living on the margins of colonial societies in America and Africa, trying to build their space within complex transoceanic social networks.


The aim of the project is to combine knowledge about the history of the Portuguese colonial empire with contemporary tools that can provide an innovative method to understand what the Portuguese empire was in a broader perspective, analyzing at it as a system of colonial interconnections. In our project we use Social Network Analysis. The research is aimed at verifying the nature of the connections between the administrative structures and the inhabitants of the colonial outskirts. Overseas identity is not regarded as a unitary assessment or state, but as a product of relationships formed between social actors. The motivation of the processes of shaping such understood identity was the interaction and cooperation of numerous elements i.e. distinctness, continuity or belonging. As a result, the colonial area of the Portuguese empire will be understood as a system that united individuals too, and not only divided them. The starting point for analyzing social networks will be provided by the concepts of the multi-continental monarchy and oceanic network empire (port. império oceânico em rede). Hence the Analysis of Social Networks, which is a suitable tool for showing this type of viewing the empire.

We do believe that the colonial social network was not naturally given but was a fruit of the dialogue-based approach and the result of investment strategies, both based on individual and collective needs. The social relations between the inhabitants of the Portuguese colonies and the metropolitan institutions were established and reproduced consciously, resulting in durable obligations, felt subjectively at individual level as gratitude (pt. gratidão), respect (pt. respeito) and mercy (pt. mercê) or institutionally guaranteed (rights). Paul D. McLean, associate professor of Sociology at Rutgers University and the author of “The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence” believes that early-modern societies had a much deeper understanding of importance of networking as a social process than the contemporaries (McLean 2007, p. 5). This statement could be also visible in the early modern Portuguese Empire, where the individuals were supposed to create complex social networks on national, international and transoceanic level.

Selected research questions

  • How did the Portuguese administration contribute to birthing the overseas identity of its inhabitants, especially those apparently marginalized from the point of view of the colonial system?
  • How slaves, Indians, freed slaves and women created communities?
  • How those social actors formed a collectivity and recognized themselves as being a part of it?
  • Did they become aware of belonging to a colonial structure?
  • What types of relationships did involve both sides?
  • How did colonial social networks change over time?
  • Were the relations between colonial communities and the Lisbon administration based also on cooperation and trust?

It is assumed that the Portuguese colonialism united single individuals rather than excluded them, making even the most marginalized groups to strive to integrate within the colonial system and to create supranational social networks. It is also supposed that a specific awareness and sense of belonging of the colonial inhabitants of the periphery to the colonial system has been created.

Data sources

  • Historical Overseas Archives in Lisbon