Megerdich Portugalian spent the last half of his life far from his homeland, but he never ceased working for its welfare as one of the forerunners of the Armenian revolutionary movement.
He was born in the neighborhood of Kum Kapu, in Constantinople. He first went to the Bezjian School. The death of his father in 1859 was, understandably, a big blow to the family. In 1862 he transferred to Sahagian School in the neighborhood of Samatia and graduated from high school the next year. He went to work with his French teacher Pierre Trois, who was the owner of a bookstore, and helped him with the publication of a booklet, The Armenian Question, in Armenian and French, in 1864.
After the death of his mother the next year, Portugalian opened his own bookstore in 1866 and worked for the next two years there, while giving private lessons to the children of well-to-do families. He was forced to close the bookstore in 1868. He would become acquainted and establish close relations with important public figures of the time, such as Khrimian Hayrig, who was briefly Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople (1869-1873), Krikor Odian, one of the writers of the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, and Archbishop Nerses Varjabedian, Khrimian’s successor as Patriarch (1874-1884).
Portugalian had a breakthrough in 1869, when two Armenians from Tokat sent him there at their own expense to teach at the local Voskian Lyceum. He worked towards the improvement of the school level and the local social life. He married in 1871 and opened the Vartanian Girls’ School in 1872 with forty students. His work of educational and public awakening led him to a struggle with conservative elements of the society until he was accused of being a revolutionary to the Ottoman government. As a result, Portugalian was called to Constantinople. However, he returned the next year to continue his fight, but he was arrested and jailed. Only the intervention of the governor of Sepastia freed him in 1874, after which he was recalled to Constantinople for good.
He became the editor of the periodical Asia where he took his struggle against the conservative elements of the community in the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The government shut down the newspaper in 1875. Portugalian did not remain inactive. He founded the Varaztadian Society to enlighten people with lectures and courses, while contributing to various newspapers in Constantinople and the Caucasus, writing under pseudonyms. In 1876 he was one of the founders of the Araratian Society whose center of activities was in Van. These activities were not well regarded by the government, and as a result, Portugalian fled to the Caucasus in 1877 and settled in Tiflis for the next two years. He returned to Van in 1879, founding a Teachers College under the sponsorship of the Araratian School, which also sponsored six other schools in the city.
Portugalian’s activities were a source of worry for the Armenian leadership in Constantinople, and in 1880 he was recalled to the capital, and the Teachers College was closed. However, he returned once again the next year and founded the Central School in 1881. The school was closed in 1885, but its graduates would become the founders of the first Armenian political party, the Armenagan Organization, in the same year. Fearing persecution, Portugalian, his wife, and two daughters fled the Ottoman Empire and settled in Marseilles (France). Here, on August 1, 1885, he published the first issue of the weekly Armenia.
In the meantime, Portugalian worked to gather all Armenian political efforts around a single organization. In 1886 he founded the Armenian Patriotic Union in Marseilles. However, some members of the organization, including the couple Avetis and Maro Nazarbek, who after failing to take it toward a socialist orientation, went their own way in 1887 and founded the Social-Democrat Hunchakian Party in Geneva (Switzerland). During the next decades, Portugalian’s public advocacy would be focused on his newspaper, which would extend his influence over the Armenians in Europe. He would be editor, copyeditor, and distributor of Armenia , with his daughters as typesetters. In 1913 the fortieth anniversary of his public life was commemorated in Constantinople.
Portugalian edited Armenia until his death in Marseilles on September 27, 1921. His legacy would survive him. Four days later, on October 1, 1921, the remnants of the Armenagan Organization whose foundation he had inspired would merge with three other political parties to constitute the Armenian Democratic Liberal ( Ramgavar Azadagan ) Party, the last of the three “traditional” parties existing today in the Diaspora and, after the independence of Armenia in 1991, in the homeland.