Captain-major is the English rendering of the Portuguese title Capitão-mor (sometimes Capitão Donatário) for colonial officers, put in charge of a capitania, Portuguese possession (called captaincy, after his title) deemed not (yet) important enough to have its own colonial Governor.
Due to the impossibility of exercising direct control and sovereignty over islands, the captain-major was the channel by which the sovereign could delegate his powers, with certain restrictions, under the responsibility of peoples he felt he could confide. The Donatário could administer, in the sovereign's name, the lands for which he was assigned, with all the regalia, rights and obligations, with the exception of certain limits, including military authority over soldiers and detachments of the crown, or the administration of justice.
In addition to the regalia of office, the captains-major would hold title to the closest parcels of lands, be able to contract renters of these lands, in the name of the crown. Many of the donatários were hereditary, with a few exceptions, referred in the Salic Laws (Leis Sálicas) of the time. The Salic laws regulated all aspects of life, including crime, taxation, indemnity, and female inheritance.
This was notably the case in the following Portuguese colonies, in this incomplete list:
- Madeira islands (3 captaincies)
- Azores islands (several, including the following)
- São Miguel - 1st Capitão Donatário Gonçalo Velho Cabral; 2nd Captain Donatário João Soares de Albergaria; 3rd Captain Donatário Rui Gonçalves da Câmara
- Santa Maria - 1st Capitão Donatário Gonçalo Velho Cabral; 2nd Captain Donatário João Soares de Albergaria; 3rd Captain Donatário João Soares de Sousa
- Faial - 1st Capitão Donatário Josse van Huerter, a Flem nobleman, who had acquaintances in the crown, and married into the House of Burgundy.
- Portuguese Guinea, before it was united in 1879 under that name with its own Governor, and separated from Cape Verde, remaining Portuguese till 1974:
- in present Ghana, since the 21 January 1482 foundation of the Portuguese Gold Coast (Fort São Jorge da Mina de Ouro [Elmina: 21 January 1482-28/9 August 1637], Fort de Santo António de Axim [Axim: 1486-February 1642], Fort São Francisco Xavier [Osu: 1640-42] Fort São Sebastião [Shama: 1526-1637]), it always has its single captain-major, until after the 29 August 1637 Dutch occupation of its capital São Jorge da Mina, it was on 9 January 1642 ceded to the Dutch (becoming part of Dutch Gold Coast)
- Mazagan (El Jadida), since it became in 1506 a Portuguese possession, till 1608, afterwards it had its own Governors until on 11 March 1769 it was incorporated into the sultanate of Morocco
- Mombasa on the coast of later Kenya (since 1502 a sultanate, Mvita in Swahili or Manbasa in Arabic, independent from Kilwa Kisiwani) since its 1593 Portuguese occupation had captains-major (since 1638 as a Portuguese colony, subordinated to Goa in India), interrupted 12 December 1698 by Omani sovereignty (under Governors styled Wali in Arabic, or Liwali in Swahili), then a last one as Portuguese rule resumed (12 March 1728 - 21 September 1729 Álvaro Caetano de Melo Castro, next it was lost for good - see also Colonial Heads of Mombasa
- Portuguese Mozambique, since 1 March 1498 claimed for Portugal by Vasco da Gama, had captains-major since in 1501 Portuguese administration begins, as Captaincy of Sofala (subordinated to Goa, in India), till 1569, next Captains-general, since 1609 Governors, since March 1837 Governors-general - see also Colonial Heads of Mozambique
- on São Tomé island, since it became a donataria in 1485, there were Captains-major till 1586, next Governors; 1753 it was united with Principe island as (present state) São Tomé and Príncipe, again under Governors
- Brazilian provinces (some had Governors from the start):
- Ceará, a captaincy since 1619 (1621-1656 subordinated to Maranhão), there were Captains-major 30 June 1699- 17 January 1799, then Ceará captaincy was split from Pernambuco (to which it had been subordinated since 1656) under its own Governor
- Espírito Santo, which had been a donataria under its own Governors since 1535, had captains-major 1627-1675, then again two Governors Donatory, and more Captains-major 1682-1799 (though since 1718 it was a crown colony, subordinated to Bahia), afterwards again Governors
- Grão-Pará had Captains-majors since in 1615 the settlement begun as a part of Marahão (it was the residence of its Governors 1737-1755) - 1753, next Governors(-general)
- Maranhão had Captains-major 1745 - 1775, next (as before since 9 January 1616) Governors
- since its creation in 1582 in the Captaincy of Paraíba, subordinated to Pernambuco, except the occupation (Dutch Directors 1635-1645) and the single 1645-1655 Junta (council), till 1797, next Governors; in 1799 a separate Captaincy of Paraíba do Norte was created
- at least one Captain-Major is known of the Captaincy of Pernambuco (1535 founded as Donátaria of Nova Lusitania, renamed in 1575), Manuel de Mascarenhas Homem; no later than 1699 it got its own Governors, but nevertheless it became in 1716 a Crown colony, called captaincy of Pernambuco.
- the 1597 founded Captaincy of Rio Grande had a single Captain-major 1697-1701, Bernardo Vieira de Mello, next Governors, subordinated to Pernambuco till 1808; since 1737 it got its modern name Rio Grande do Norte
- at least since 1761 in the 1759 founded Captaincy of São José do Piauí, subordinated to Maranhão until 1811, from then with its own governors, since 28 February 1821 renamed Province of Piauí
- São Vicente had Captains-major 1533 (till 1691 alongside Donatários); on 17 April 1709 the name of São Vicente changed to São Paulo e Minas de Ouro, since 18 June 1710 it had its own Governors (in 1750 it was renamed São Paulo, since 28 February 1821 it is a province)
- Sergipe d'el Rei had Captains-major since 1696 (also after the 1763 merger with Baía) till 20 February 1821, next it was a province under its own Governors
- since 1518 (except in 1524 1551) a Portuguese Captain-major was appointed to Colombo, the capital of Kotte kingdom on Portuguese Ceylon island (present Sri Lanka), until the last incumbent, Pedro Homem Pereira, was promoted to Governor in 1594; on 27 May 1597, King Dharmapala of Kotte dies without heirs, and bequeaths his entire kingdom to the King of Portugal, making all Ceylon a Portuguese colony
- since in 1557 the Portuguese established a trading post at Macau (subordinated to Goa in Portuguese India), it had Captains-major till 1622, then Governors since 7 July 1623 until 19 December 1999 (finally returned to China)
- Portuguese Timor, a colony since 1642, had Captains at least since 1647, then Captains-major 1665-1702, next Governors
- Ormus (present Hormuz, in Iran) had Captains-major both in September 1507 - January 1508 as the Portuguese first occupy it, again when since 1 April 1515 Hormuz (Ormuz) Island became a Portuguese possession (subordinated to Goa in Portuguese India), until its 3 May 1622 incorporated into Persia
- Portuguese Malacca, since 24 August 1511 a Portuguese colony on peninsular Malaysia, had Captains-major since 1512 (subordinated to Goa) till 14 January 1641, next Captains-general, till is was list on 14 January 1641 to the Dutch
Such was the case in the following places:
(see also above for those who later got captains-majors):
Colonial captaincies in Africa
- in Portuguese Cape Verde there have been various captainships; only in 1587 the donatarias were united into colony under one Governor:
- Captains of Santiago (later northern Santiago) 29 January 1462 - 1505
- Captains of Ribeira Grande (southern Santiago) 19 September 1462 – after 22 December 1562
- Captains of Boa Vista 29 October 1497 - after 1542
- Captains of Alcatrazes 1484 - after 1508
- Captains of Praia 1526 - after 21 January 1570
- Captains of Fogo 1528 – after 12 January 1553
- Captains of Santo Antão 13 January 1548 - 15..
- in Morocco:
- Aguz (Souira Guedima) during the entire 1506 - 1525 Portuguese rule there
- Arzila (Asilah), since the 24 August 1471 begin of Portuguese rule till 1545, afterwards it had its own governors (except August 1550 - 1577 temporarily restored to Morocco) until 1589 when it was for good restored to Morocco.
- Azamor (Azemmour), since it came on 3 September 1513 under Portuguese rule, till on 30 October 1541 the city was restored to Morocco.
- in Safim (Safi), during the entire Portuguese rule there 1488 - Oct 1541
Colonial captaincies in America
- A special case was the Chief of the Captaincy of the Pro-French Republic of Counani 23 July 1886 – 1886 Trajano Benitez; next there were four presidential terms
Captain-major is also an Estonian Navy rank which is 1st senior officer rank and equal to a commander in western navies.