The Portuguese like to think they were not like other conquerors. Consider Francisco Serro, the second European to reach the fabled Spice Islands. He fell in love on first sight with the island of Ternate in 1512, and set himself up as trade emissary and god-king. The tall knight lorded over ceremonies in shining armor, took a sultan's daughter as his wife and never went home. "He was a Lord Jim figure," says Charles Corn. In "The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade," Corn writes that Serro "lacked all bias" and saw himself as "a harbinger of a new and better world in a marriage of East and West."
This is how Portugal wants to be remembered in Asia. As they leave their last imperial possession in Macau, the Portuguese are looking back with nostalgia on a remarkable underdog empire that lasted nearly 600 years and stretched from Brazil to China. When the colonial era passed, critics attacked the Portuguese as the first Europeans to colonize Asia, the last to leave--and the ones who left nothing behind. Unlike the British, they built only scattered schools, courts and the like. But in Portugal, new novels and memoirs offer a romantic view of the Portuguese as the conquerors everyone loved, along with an increasingly candid and sad account of the empire's catastrophic collapse in 1975. "Why was such a small country able to hold an empire? Portugal was special," says Lisbon's ambassador to the United Nations, Antonio Monteiro. "We were not colonialists. Even at our peak we were almost a colony of Britain ourselves. We shared the people's suffering."
In the 20th century, poverty did, indeed, bring the Portuguese closer to their subjects. Dictator Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968, loved to say that money does not bring happiness. He imposed a reign of stagnation on Portugal and its colonies, which he never visited--but insisted on calling happy "provinces." As the poor cousins of Europe, Portuguese ventured to Africa or Asia looking not only for fortune but any job. In Angola, where Monteiro grew up in the 1940s and '50s, "blacks with money went to school with whites, and poor whites shared the same lousy living conditions as blacks. Of course there was some racism, but there was no apartheid."
In the 1950s, sociologist Geraldo Freire argued that the Portuguese willingness to adapt to tropical ways explained the racial harmony in his native Brazil. Salazar would later seize on Freire's theory of "lusotropicalism" to defend the empire, and these foggy racial theories still echo in Lisbon. Officials point to the mixed-race elites of Angola, Brazil and Macau, and the prevalence of Portuguese names in these former colonies, as proof that Portuguese rule was warmly embraced.
Perhaps, but there was more to Portuguese rule than a sunny disposition. If Britain sent out families to build colonies, poor Portugal sent out lone explorers and missionaries with no clear plan to govern--and no women. In most Portuguese territories, the church had more influence than Lisbon. And Macau was the weakest link. "Portugal simply didn't have the muscle to be heavy-handed. In Goa, they were a mosquito on the back of India," says historian Timothy Coates. "Macau was unique. It was Portuguese. It was Chinese. It was ruled by both and by neither."
The rosy view of the Portuguese empire also glosses over the tragedy of its decline and fall in 1975. After fighting for 13 years to hold on to the rebelling African colonies, the Portuguese Army toppled the dictatorship in Lisbon, then withdrew from the empire so abruptly that new wars erupted in the chaos from Angola to East Timor. New memoirs by former governors and soldiers are reliving the dirty wars in Africa, including massacres and assassinations by Portuguese, in what historian Doug Wheeler calls an "agonizing reappraisal" of decolonization.
But not of empire. After East Timor won independence from Indonesia this summer, Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao began calling for a revival of the Portuguese language, currency and law. "This is great for the Portuguese ego," says Adelino Gomes, deputy editor of Publico, a Lisbon daily. "It suggests to them that they are right to believe Portuguese rule was special."
The legacy in Macau is less sure. After 1975 expats fleeing Africa flooded into Macau, raising the Portuguese population from 3,000 to 10,000 today. They helped persuade Lisbon to fund a new airport, and a new institute of oriental studies as a bastion of Portuguese culture. But will it last? "On Dec. 20 we will say goodbye in Portuguese. They will say goodbye in Chinese. And then we will be gone," says Gomes. "Few Portuguese believe our presence will last the 50 years China has promised." And then Portugal will be just a prospering little democracy in Europe. Still special enough.