From convergence to divergence: Portuguese demography and economic growth, 1500-1850

by Nuno Palma (University of Groningen) and Jaime Reis (ICS, Universidade de Lisboa)

When did Portugal’s economy diverge from the European core? This paper constructs the first time-series for Portugal’s per capita GDP for 1500-1850, drawing on a new and extensive database. Starting around 1550 there was a highly persistent upward trend on per capita income, which accelerated after 1700 and peaked 50 years later. At that point, per capita incomes were high by European standards. Portuguese per capita GDP was about as high as that of Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, and higher than that of France, Spain, Germany and Sweden. But as the second half of the eighteenth century unfolded, a phase of economic decline was initiated.

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Throughout 1550-1750, the population did not catch up with the growth that resulted from increasing opportunities in the colonies and in exports, and from the introduction of highly productive crops resulting from the Columbian exchange, notably maize. The colonial empire also offered opportunities to migrate. But as the second half of the eighteenth century advanced, these sources of growth were becoming increasingly depleted and the decline of Brazilian gold remittances coincided with the beginning of a phase of economic decline. By the late eighteenth century almost all recent per capita GDP and real wage gains had been lost, and their level had become considerably lower than those of Britain and the Netherlands, although still not low by continental standards. As the right conditions were not in place for Portugal to industrialize in the nineteenth century, the country was left behind relatively to the continental European economies that did. Portugal would not experience modern economic growth until mid-twentieth century.

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