During the 15th and 16th centuries, the open oceans were to Portuguese explorers what space is now to NASA - a great unconquered territory. Men like Magellan, Da Gama, Dias, and Cabral founded an empire upon which the sun never set.
At its height, Portugal's holdings spanned one-fifth of the earth's surface. They included Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa in India, the spice islands of Indonesia, and large parts of southeast Asia. The empire's population numbered 100 million.
Now, after 442 years, the last piece of the puzzle breaks off with Sunday's handover of the tiny enclave of Macau to China. Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio will hand back the keys to the city and head home.
Within Portugal's craggy confines, the final lowering of the curtain on one of the world's great and long-running empires has stirred a strong wave of nostalgia and stock-taking.
"Now that China is taking over Macau, I feel like a parent saying goodbye to a child that is leaving home," says Fernanda Ilheu, a trade official who worked in Macau for 18 years. "At the same time, there's also a lingering feeling we're leaving something unique."
Fernando Lima, journalist and author of several books on Macau, agrees. "Portugal's empire has been fading for decades, but there's a residual sense that we created something historic." At least Portuguese can look back with some pride, says Mr. Lima. "We created a special culture you don't find anywhere else in the world, a melting pot of people of mixed-European, Indian, and Asian descent."
The native Macanese are a small part of the enclave's total population of 400,000. Largely Roman Catholic, they have their own dialect, cuisine, and now a feeling that their culture is at risk of dying out. "In the long run the differences between Macanese and the local Chinese will become very slim, unless we can find a way to preserve our culture," says Jose Luis de Sales Marques, chairman of Macau's Municipal Council. "We feel and believe that we are not Chinese, not superior, just that we are different."
But having had two years to observe the former British colony of Hong Kong after it was handed over to China, the Macanese at least have some expectations for Chinese rule. In 1994, after Portugal's revolution, a coup hastily cut loose the colonies that hadn't already been claimed by the Dutch, Spanish, or British. Angola and East Timor were suddenly freed - abandoned to their own fate.
Today, even as Portugal becomes a fast-developing member of the European Union, a legacy of wars and poverty in its former colonies still weighs heavily on the national psyche. "We're all to blame, my generation," said Mario Matos dos Santos, a coordinator at Lisbon's Macau trade mission. "The decolonization process was a shambles."
For more than a year, Portuguese officials have gone out of their way to ensure a more secure future for Macau. New glass buildings, museums, lavish monuments, and sculptures have been erected, including a granite pillar identified by the government there as a symbol of the longstanding friendship between Portugal and China.
Cultural activities also have been launched in Lisbon, including the Macau pavilion, by far the most popular feature of last summer's world's fair. It received 4 million visitors, "an encouraging local legacy of colonialism," says Dos Santos.
In many ways, the empire was a product of commerce. That includes Macau, a bustling entrept sheltering Portuguese vessels and opium traders in the old days - and a spectacular gambling cash cow today. "Portugal's interest in Macau doesn't end on Dec. 20," says Jaime Gama, Portugal's foreign minister. "Macau is an important trading partner ... and a vital gateway into China. "We also have a very real commitment to the 100,000 people in Macau who will continue to be holders of Portuguese passports."
Not only will life go on, but the history of Portuguese rule will ultimately take up residence with tales of Greek and Roman exploits, says Joao Pereira Bramao Ramos, an expert in Asian affairs and a former deputy ambassador to Japan. "The Portuguese brought back more than spices, gold, and silk," says Ramos. "They interacted with ancient cultures and gave us the vision of one world we have today."
*Todd Crowell in Macau contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society