The role of Lower Nobility and “Colonial Nobility” in the construction of the Empire. The Atlantic Archipelagos



Code . PTDC/HAH/66107/2006

Start . 2007

Duration . 36 months

Principal Investigator . Miguel Jasmins Rodrigues (IICT)


Funding Entity

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia

Main Research Institution

Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical


Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas / Universidade Nova de Lisboa


CHAM — Centro de Humanidades
Direção-Geral do Livro, dos Arquivos e das Bibliotecas




The four Atlantic archipelagos — Madeira, Azores, Cape Verde and São Tomé -, present enough diversity to develop a proper comparative study. Being deserted lands, all these places needed population, know-how, tools. This implies the need to socially profile the people who will populate them, especially those who will become the dominant group in each, and identify the incentives and expectations that motivated them.

From what is known, it is possible to comfortably assume that the governing layer of these new societies comprise a lower or very low nobility, second-borns for the most part, having little more than the honour and the quality of their family origin. The project will focus on how this lower nobility will acquire status in order to socially reassert their family honour. As a starting point, we will assume that in a deserted land and without possible conquests, such reassertion will have to be carried out through the rule over the land and by devising collective forms of power, since, individually, almost none of these low noblemen have their own jurisdiction.

The rule over the land may have resulted from the acquisition of lands, usually sesmaria, requiring an external labour force for its revaluation, from various sources across the different archipelagos. As for collective organisation of powers, the available data points to the organisation and autonomy of municipalities.

The known facts support that, in a considerable number of cases, this process was successful while simultaneously demonstrating that a status compatible with the family honour is not compatible with living of the land. Thus, it requires mandatory commercial circuits that transform the goods produced by the ruled population, into the goods this elite needs to reassert its status. This will involve the review of the relation between "traders" and “noblemen", where the different interests do not invalidate their complementarity, or the complex network established between them.

Another fundamental phenomenon, already found in the Kingdom, even before the expansion, is the growing importance of primogeniture as a safeguard of the lineage and the House, a phenomenon which will have to be also analysed for comparative purposes. This probably didn’t had much impact on the first generation of the "settlers”, possibly not the second either. However, over time, the issue of second-borns will tend to grow. To them, the chances of a compatible status will seem only possible elsewhere or by other means.

Finally, for the society and time in question, all the social legitimisation goes through the Church, as well as some of the strategies of social reproduction. The characterisation and composition defined by the Church in each of the archipelagos will have to be carefully taken into consideration, including the origin of its members.

Outside the scope of this project is another issue equally important for the understanding the archipelagos as a scene of Portuguese expansion: the participation of the lower nobility in the Royal service, a matter which, due to the necessary topic delimitation, will only be discussed when in direct relation with the paths of individuals born or established on the islands. Similarly, regal officials or feudal lords will not be studied from a functional/work perspective, but rather how they were associated to the ruling group in each archipelago.

In fact, there are specific projects on this field, in progress, or in their final stages, which, even if addressing later periods or other expansion scenarios, will provide valuable data to process.

Within this framework we find the project «Nobility and the Estado da Índia in the 16th century», with which this project will share the same data structure, enabling a later cross-reference for a broader characterisation of both the social role of the lower nobility in the expansion, as well as to its demonstration through individual and/or succession, family and clientelistic examples. In this process, the collaboration of IAN/TT is of particular importance, greatly facilitating the tasks at hand.

Finally, it is worth clarifying the idea underpinning this whole project: the need to differentiate two distinct realities, that is, on the one hand, the data collected, which will be recorded in the database able to process the progressive accumulation of new information, on the other hand, the potential historiographic interpretations it brings to the surface, that could be characterised by the plurality and specificity of the various approaches.




•The definition of the social profile of the group of individuals established in the Atlantic Archipelagos;

•To understand the operation and organization of the group of individuals established in the Atlantic Archipelagos, as well as their founded society;

•To acknowledge the archipelagos as societies founded on the interests of the Crown and whose viability, as part of the commercial network, was essential to control;

•To develop new historical interpretations based on a prosopographic database and an image bank.







Miguel Jasmins Rodrigues    .    Coordenator

Arlindo Manuel Caldeira (CHAM)
João Paulo Oliveira e Costa (CHAM)
Maria João Soares (IICT)
Maria Teresa Avelino Pires (CHAM)
Rute Dias Gregório (CHAM)
Teresa Lacerda (CHAM)