History, Politics & Economy

For those who want to find out about Algarve´s history and economy some facts and in some cases an interpretation of these facts are found under the corresponding headings in the English and French sections.

History of the Algarve

Paleonothlogy Salema Beach

Paleonothlogy – dinosaur footprints (see also Salema beach)

Similar to some other places in the world Portugal has many fossils from the time when dinosaurs ruled the world.

Despite the perpetual erosion of the cliffs there are some very well-preserved footprints from dinosaurs, dating about 100 million years back, just a meter or so above the sand in 2 different places close to the Salema beach (see Dinosaur Footprints in the West Algarve).

Prehistoric Age

There is evidence that the Iberian Peninsula, including what is now Portugal, were colonized first by neanderthals entering the Iberian Peninsula around 70,000 BC, and subsequently by Homo sapiens 25 – 30,000 BC.

During the last ice age food supply was in part made up from hunted mammoths and other large furred animals. This was the period when large megaliths (carved erected stone) were raised as tombstones. A nice example can be found near of Raposeira 9 km along the N125 road to Sagres. (Below)

The Antiques

There is evidence that the southern part of what is now Algarve was colonized by sailing nations including the Carthaginians who founded the Punic colony of Portus Magonis (believed to be what is now Portimão) during the late 3rd Century BC (see Museu de Portimão).

The Romans colonized the entire Iberian Peninsula. Similar to in other colonies they constructed a network of roads for troops and transport of goods. There is ample evidence of their presence in Portugal. On the nearby beach (Boca do Rio, 4 km east of Salema) a large fish factory was established as demonstrated by recent excavations. (Read article) In particular a fermenting process allowing for a ”fish sauce” to be made and exported to other parts of the Roman Empire. There is no amphitheater in Algarve but the remains of one were recently found in a location in the Alentejo district immediatiately north of Algarve (Público July 18. 2019, p 17) and there are standing remains of a temple in Evora also in Alentejo.

The most significant roman impacts on the peninsula were two-fold: the introduction of Christianity and the establishment of Latin as the spoken tongue. From an economic point of view mining of minerals such as iron and copper were important and remain so even today. (Thus during the 1900´s Portugal exported large quantities of Wolfram and today several global mining companies are looking for Lithium in various areas of the country).

Similar to other parts of the Roman empire the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by gothic tribes (here a subtribe called-Visigoths) In many aspects the Visigoths adapted to the customs of the peoples and cultures of the Iberian inhabitants (including becoming Christians and speaking the local versions of Latin) while their own footprint on the peninsula was limited.

The Moric period

Much more significant became the influence from the Mores, the Arabic Muslim invaders. In less then 3 years (711 – 713) their armies conquered nearly all of Iberian Peninsula. Their occupancy was sometimes associated with use of force but there were also periods of peaceful co-existence. The local population was highly influenced by various aspects of the Arabic knowhow and style of living. They established large cities such as Lisbon, Mértola and Silves (photo below) and their style of building and decoration of houses still influences building, not the least in Algarve. The language of the Portuguese was also influenced and even today about 1000 words in Portuguese have Arabic origin,– often starting with Al….(e. g. Algarve, Alentejo), but also some expressions such as Oxala (from Inshallah, if God wishes). In addition the Arabs introduced watering systems and a number of new plants and trees including orange, lemon, fig and pomegranate trees.

The founding of Portugal

A small fraction of the country in the very north of Spain (Asturias) withstood the Arabic invasion. This region formed the nucleus of resistance which began already 10 years after the conquest of the peninsula. The repossession of the land initially progressed very slowly towards the west and the south, In 868 the region of Portucale and its main town with the same name (located in what is now the Grande Porto area) was reclaimed. The first king (initially count) of a new kingdom designated Portugal (consisting of what is today the northern part of the country) was declared 1143 by Dom Afonso Henriques after many years of war with the kingdom of Leão e Castela. Post 1143 king and the kings after him continued expanding the territory towards the south. The full conquest of the southern-most areas in Algarve with the cities Faro and Silves (see above) was achieved only more than 100 years later (1249) – at this point in time the area designated as Portugal had nearly the same boarder as it has today.

The great discoveries

As mentioned above Infante Dom Henriques, based a Navigation School of Sagres (photo below) in the early 1500’s. The knowledge assembled and taught at this school was the basis for the many discoveries made by Portuguese sailors between 1415-1560. Although many of the explorers on these ships came from other parts of Portugal the crew was often recruited locally.

Initially 1415 Infante Henriques gathered renowned Arabic astronomers, cartographers and sailors to develop and test theories on ever-longer sea expeditions. During its´ existence the school contributed to the creation of a novel ship with great improved sailing properties (the Caravel) and improvement of navigational instruments, such as the sextant. The school also introduced navigating by use of the stars and cartography was improved successively. Together with the drive of Infante Henriques all of this resulted in Portugal having supreme knowledge in this field during the time. When he died in 1460 Portuguese ships had rediscovered Madeira and the Acores and arrived to Sierra Leone in Africa. During the next decades the kings of Portugal authorized expeditions further south in Africa with Bartolomeu Dias reaching the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. A copy of the ship can be found along the sea promenade in Lagos. The sea route to India was then established May 1498 facilitated by the fact that the Arabs already had knowledge of the routes, currents and winds prevailing on the east coast of Africa. Having established the route the king sent armed yearly expeditions (armadas) to the main settlements on the western coast of India, to ship out men and weapons and ship home the riches of the orient (spices, silk and more).

Due to the existing winds and currents in the south Atlantic Brazil was discovered in 1500 by one of these expeditions.

About the same time as the African route to India was identified the Genovese Christopher Columbus, on a mission sent out by the king of Castella, 1498 discovered what he thought to be India (hence the name of West Indies), but that later proved to be part of the American continent. A storm forced CC to land in Lisbon on the way back and there he revealed his findings to the Portuguese king causing a conflict about who should dominate the sea-faring business. Finally a treaty was signed by the kings of Portugal and Castella after the intervention of the pope. The treaty gave all new discoveries east of the point in the Atlantic (and including parts of Brazil) to Portugal and everything west of that point to Spain.

With this treaty at the back the Asian expansion of the Portuguese empire continued to Goa in India (1510), Malacca (Malaysia, 1511) Moluccas (Indonesia; 1512), Ormuz (1515) Timor (1515), Canton (1517), Japan (1543) and Macau (1557).

The story of Portugal as a world power became relatively short. The king Dom Sebastião died 1580 and Filipe II, king of Spain and a relative of the Portuguese royal family, invaded and beat the Portuguese lead by another pretendent to the throne of Portugal. During the period 1580 – 1640 was ruled by Filipe II, his son and sonson. Unfortunately Spain was in a state of war with England, the Netherlands and France during much of this period and without any troops to send Portugal lost most of their colonies to these adversaries.

Not surprisingly the Portuguese and the Algarveans are very proud of their history of global discoveries.

The Lisbon earthquake and Tsunami

In 1755 an earthquake hit the southern part of Portugal. As a consequence of this earthquake combined with flooding (Tsunami) and fires the lower parts of Lisbon containing the palaces and the port were completely destroyed. The city was quickly rebuilt providing Lisbon with characteristics quite similar to otherbig cities with centres constructed during the same era including Paris and St Petersburg. The epicenter of the earthquake was immediately south of the Algarvean coast and it, and the Tsunami it caused, were as devastating for Algarve as the was for Lisbon. Traces of the Tsunami can be found in diggings and in fact when performing the excavations of the roman fish factory in Boca do Rio (see above) it appears that tsunamis of various intensities hit Algarve every 100 year or so. The most recent larger earthquake followed by a small tsunami struck western Portugal and Morocco in early 1969. Originating west of the Strait of Gibraltar, the earthquake had a magnitude of 7.8. In total, thirteen people died, 2 of whom lived in Portugal.

The dictatorship

Fast forward to the previous century and the so called Estado Novo existing from 1932 to 1974 and preceded by a military regime 1928 – 1932. The New State had all the hallmarks of a dictatorship:

  • Ideals and Values of the Estado Novo (Deus, Pátria, Família) were hammered into people; `
  • A single party lead by one strong man (Salazar 1932 – 1967; Caetano 1968 – 1974)
  • Oppression of freedom of speech and writing (censorship)
  • Labour unions made illegal
  • Surveillance by the state, informants and a secret police (PIDE)
  • Imprisonment and silencing of critical voices
  • A youth movement (Mocidade Portuguesa) to foster the young to be loyal and obedient citizens
  • Limited interactions with the external world
  • State-controlled economy and market-place
  • Job creation by gigantic projects; building of water reservoirs and road building
  • Little investment in secondary or tertiary (i.e. universities) education
  • Externalization of problems – Colonial wars

Finally on April 25, 1974 the people revolted. The uproar was preceded by overt criticism from high-ranking militaries aimed particularly on the colonial war and its consequences for the Portuguese economy. So when the revolution started and continued the military more or less sided with the people resulting in a completely peaceful revolution – the designation of the uproar as Carnation revolution emanates from the soldiers accepting that the people put carnations in the pipes of their guns (photo below).

The most recent 45 years

After a rather tumultuous 2 year period a new democratic constitution was finally in place in spring 1976 and elections for the parliament could be held. Meanwhile the colonial wars were quickly finished – giving rise to another challenge for the young democratic nation: 500 000 persons of Portuguese origin were expelled from the former colonies (mainly from Angola and Mozambique) and these immigrants needed to be integrated in Portugal. However the integration was successful and a period of relative stability ensued – an important moment for the young state was its inclusion in the European Union in 1986.

For the recent “bailout” 2011 – see the Economy section below.

Politics & The People


The current government (since the elections in 2015) is a minority government with ministers from the Partido Socialista (PS, corresponding to the Social Democrats of many other countries) and is led by António Costa. It survives because of a budgetary collaboration with the two leftist parties; the Bloco Esquerda (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and with the green party (PEV). The reason why parties on the extreme left are let into the salons partly relates back to the 1974 revolution and its sequels. The president, Marcelo Rebelo Sousa, whose role in Portugal is mainly to represent the country comes from Partido Social Democrata (PSD) which here is a center-liberal party. A second centrist – liberal party is the Christian Democrats (CDS).

The collaboration between Marcelo and António Costa seems to be working fine and the warm personality of the president complements the rather beurocratic prime-minister. Despite the support by the very leftist parties Portugal, in part due to budgetary cuts affecting the people, the finances are in balance and there is a growth in the economy slightly above the of the average in the Eurozone. The country is also starting to take small steps to reduce the national debt. The clouds on the sky, apart from the debt, are two-fold – the below average of education level (at the population level) and a low productivity (despite Portuguese having a 45 h work-week). A new election will be held in October 2019.


The People

The Portuguese people are very friendly and welcoming despite the many tourists that swarm both the great cities and the coasts. Do not mistake their kindness for being dull – the people are very proud of their history and background.

The younger generations (60 years or less) are very skilled in languages and most of them speak very good English. Some also speak French not the least because not so few of them have been spending part of their life in France as migrants.

Algarve is full of people who have moved from other parts of Europe on a permanent basis. In some towns such as Lagos, emigrants make up 20% of the residents (Read more). A sizeable portion of the immigrants are of Brazilian origin. In Western Algarve the influx from the former African colonies is limited – more people with this origin are found in Lisboa.


The Economy

The Ecomomy of Portugal and its inhabitants

Compared to many other countries in Western and Southern parts of Europe the salaries of Portuguese people are very low: the minimum salary is 600 euros, the median salary around 950.A nurse earns approx. 900 euros and the basic salary of a doctor in the public health system and who has 20 years of experience is 1500. All of this despite the 45-hour work-seek.

Much of this can be related to the stagnation/failure of the economy to thrive during the long period with dictatorship when the economy was hampered by the consequences of this type of regime:

  • loyalty rather than merits paid off -creating little incentive for creating novelty, new patents, and products
  • schooling of children not so important – in particular in women there was a high level of analphabetism
  • tertiary education limited to a relative small part of the population
  • colonial wars taking a toll on the young generations of the 60ties and early 70ties
  • poor economy and colonial wars resulted in brain drain through emigration of the young and bright.

Unfortunately the governments during the 90´ties and the first decade of the 2000´s were unable to fully transform the structural problems inherited from the dictatorship into what is required of a modern economy. One area where this is particularly obvious, even today, is the absence of a truly meritocratic way of filling important positions both in the private and political zones leading to corruption This failure may in part be due to a rather fragile governmental situation with socialistic governments regularly alternating every 4 years with the center-liberal parties. In addition, there was an increasing national debt being accumulated from 2004-2010 due to lack of firm control of budgets (see graph below).

Due to these imbalances the world-wide bank crash in 2008 hit Portugal particularly hard. On 6 April 2011, the resigning prime-minister José Sócrates announced on the television that the country, facing a status of bankruptcy, would request financial assistance to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Financial Stabilization Mechanism, and the European Financial Stability Facility (the three of which is referred to as the Troika by Portuguese) like Greece and Ireland had done before. This announcement was unexpected since in the first quarter of 2010 Portugal had one of the best rates of economic recovery in the EU. It has therefore been discussed if Portugal fell victim to successive waves of speculation by pressure from bond traders; rating agencies and speculators (similar to what happened to Sweden in the early 1990ies).

However, the facts remain, Portugal had a failing and poorly run bank sector and an accumulated state debt. Similar to Ireland and Greece, Portugal (or rather the Portuguese people) had to pay back dearly to get the loans. The state had to reduce costs by pensioning off and not replace state employees (which now in more happy times the Portuguese administration is suffering from) and freeze the salaries of personnel in the health insurance system, in schools, of the police and of the army.

Yet again the smart and young left Portugal for other countries.

However, similar to Ireland, Portugal did well. The Portuguese population is a hardy kind and is used to make sacrifices. Although the state debt is still very high (123 % vs a median of 65% in the Eurozone), the economy looks promising. And again the people that remained in Portugal during the crises (some even starting to come back) have demonstrated that they are smart and on their toes. A very recent survey demonstrate that Portugal now is the top country in southern Europe (before Italy and Spain) in innovation as measured by patents, register of trademarks and register of new design features (Público, July 14, 2019, pp 14-15). One of the greatest challenges today is to convert the tertiary education from being a privilege of relatively limited elite to a broader part of the population to meet the increasing demands of knowledge in the years to come and as a consequence of this to increase the productivity.