The French invasion of Portugal of November 1807 was the first campaign of what would become the Peninsular War. The official reason for the invasion was Portugal’s refusal to enforce the blockade of British trade known as the Continental System, but it also gave Napoleon a chance to infiltrate his armies into Spain, in preparation for his attack on that country in 1808.
Portugal in 1807 was ruled by the House of Braganza. Power was held by Prince John as Prince-Regent for his insane mother, Queen Marie I. His main aim was to preserve Portuguese neutrality. On 12 August Napoleon and Charles IV of Spain demanded that Prince John declare war on Britain, join his fleets to the Franco-Spanish fleet, arrest all British subjects in Portugal and seize all British goods in the country. Prince John was willing to break off diplomatic relations and to block all trade with Britain, a concession that might have satisfied Napoleon if his main objective had indeed been the enforcement of the Continental System.
At the same time as he issued his demands, Napoleon was also gathering his armies on the Spanish border. The first to be in place was the Corps of Observation of the Gironde, 25,000 strong under General Andoche Junot. On 18 October this army crossed the border into Spain, heading towards Salamanca and the normal invasion route into Portugal, via Almeida and Coimbra. Junot reached Salamanca on 12 November, after a leisurely march across Spain in which his engineers made notes on every post of military significance they passed. A second Corps of Observation of the Gironde was put in place at Bayonne, and would itself soon cross over into Spain.
Napoleon’s leisurely timetable was disrupted by a crisis at the Spanish court, the affair of the Escurial of 27 October, which saw Charles IV arrest his son Ferdinand, accuse him of treason and then pardon him over the course of a frantic week. This encouraged Napoleon that the time was right to depose the Bourbon dynasty of Spain, and so he decided to hurry Junot on his way. On 12 November Junot received orders to increase his pace, and to alter the route of his invasion. Rather than take the road past the fortress of Almeida, Junot was ordered to move south, across the mountains of Estremadura, and invade Portugal along the line of the Tagus.
This took his army through barren barely populated areas and along rough mountain roads. By the time the French reached Alcantara, on the Tagus, five days after leaving Ciudad Rodrigo, they had lost half of their horses and all but six of their guns, all before meeting any opposition. At Alcantara Junot found some Spanish troops, whose supplies and munitions he seized, before heading west into Portugal. Eleven days after leaving Salamanca, on 23 November, the first of Junot’s troops straggled into Abrantes, while the last troops did not arrive until 26 November. If the Portuguese had put up any sort of resistance, then Junot’s ragged army would have been in serious trouble around Abrantes, strung out along four days of mountain roads, and isolated from all assistance, but no Portuguese troops were in sight.
Instead, all Junot found at Abrantes was one Portuguese diplomat (Barreto), who came with offers of submission and tribute. This encouraged Junot to make a calculated gamble. He gathered together the least disorganised companies from his army, to form four impromptu brigades, and at the head of this column of 1,500 men made a dash for Lisbon. On 30 November Junot’s column reached Lisbon, and occupied the Portuguese capital without meeting any resistance. Over the next few days his stragglers reached the city, but it would take much longer for the artillery or the cavalry to reform.
Junot’s success owed everything to the total lack of Portuguese resistance. Prince John and his advisors refused to belief that Napoleon was actually planning an invasion until it was too late to offer effective resistance. A British fleet that appeared off Lisbon only added to the confusion, and for some days Prince John could not decide whether he should submit to the French or flee the country. Sir Sydney Smith, the commander of the British fleet, had one main concern – the Portuguese fleet of fifteen ships of the line, and so worked to convince the Prince to move to Brazil, where he would be safe from the French. The arrival of a copy of the Paris Moniteur in which Napoleon announced the deposition of the house of Braganza helped to make up his mind, and on 29 November, the day before Junot reached the city, Prince John, his mother, and thousands of other citizens of Lisbon fled the country.
Two Spanish armies took place in the invasion of Portugal, but they moved much slower that Junot, and only arrived after Lisbon had already fallen. The southern army entered Portugal of 2 December, while Oporto was not occupied until 13 December. At first the French met with little opposition. A serious riot broke out on 13 December in Lisbon, but was quickly put down. Junot disbanded the Portuguese army, leaving 6,000-7,000 inexperienced men to form the basis of a force that was sent to the Baltic. The French occupation inevitably let to a great deal of discontent, but for the moment it lacked leaders and direction. It took the outbreak of the Spanish revolt in the spring of 1808 to finally trigger an insurrection in Portugal, and the first British intervention in Portugal to expel the French.
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