Living in Lisbon I sometimes felt a bit like I’d fallen off the map. On Sunday afternoons in particular the city seemed to be not just sleepy but fast asleep. The atmosphere occasionally put me in mind of Ricardo Reis returning from Brazil to live out his final days in his desolate and listless hometown in José Saramago’s aptly-titled novel ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’. I also recognised it from the work of Fernando Pessoa himself, in particular his ‘Book of Disquiet’, a part-autobiography of a faceless clerk revelling in his dull quotidian existence, one sweetened by intense daydreaming and a rapt attention to poetic possibility. Around this time I also read Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi, which is similar to the Saramago novel in that it depicts a character drifting round an empty Lisbon on an eternal Sunday afternoon waiting for an appointment with the ghost of Pessoa. I had known about the Portuguese gift for melancholy and fatalism, especially having lived for a year in the cradle of Portuguese nationhood, and had also read an enchanting article on the subject by John Berger (RIP) in The Guardian while working in Dublin in the summer. It was by no means always unpleasant, once one adjusted to the languid rhythm and the solitude.
Melancholy sometimes seems like a national cause in Portugal, one even promoted abroad in the form of countless travel features celebrating saudade. At the turn of the decade the local group Madredeus were heard everywhere, and were even brought to international prominence thanks to their wailing about Alfama in Wim Wender’s 1994 film ‘The Lisbon Story’. Fado, the name of the music they were playing, means ‘fate’. I began to develop a vague notion, partly acquired from those books and others like Saramago’s ‘Memorial do Convento’, partly from Pessoa’s poems and partly from articles I’d read in a special edition of the magazine Granta dedicated to Portugal (one which I had, fittingly, lost) that this atmosphere of apparent stasis was somehow related to history.
To be fatalistic means to accept whatever happens, however sorrowful, as inevitable. In Portugal that means looking back, living as it were in the pluperfect, feeling sad for what had been and mourning its absence. Such a stance seems to have its roots in Portugal’s sudden acquisition and loss of an empire.
It is a historical truism that Portugal had to expand to survive. The idea that the nation had been born with a civilising and christianising mission was no more than a reflection of historical realities. So as not to get subsumed into a bigger entity, Portugal needed to become a bigger and richer country, and so, partly drawn by ancestral legends telling of kingdoms of infinite gold overseas, the Crown invested in navigation. In the space of a single year (1498) Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Vasco da Gama reached India, and 24 years later even those achievements were surpassed by Ferdinand Magellan, who became the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. Portugal wasn’t the only European country seeking to expand but it was ahead of the pack. Millennia of Jewish and Arabic wisdom and technology were put to very good use. The Portuguese reached Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Japan, and set up trading arrangements wherever they went. But it was all too big and too fast. Portugal was too small and too thinly spread to maintain control. They had networks of forts and trading posts but their empire was neither coherent nor centralised and they hadn’t effectively colonised the places they had nominally conquered, so were vulnerable to encroachments from the Spanish, the British and (in particular) the Dutch*.
Contrary to the later propaganda of the Salazar regime, the povo (common people) had little interest in expansion. A trope commonly evoked in Portuguese-speaking culture to decry a defeatist or pessimistic attitude is that of the ‘Old man of Restelo’**, a character in Luis Camões’ 16th century epic of expansion and conquest who condemns the departing expeditions as vain and wasteful. Certainly the Crown ransacked its new territories without building much back home in the way of infrastructure. Instead it spent the money earnt from slaves and silver on baroque palaces and manueline monasteries. The ruling elites also allowed Britain to exploit Portugal’s new wealth, which is why so much of British history and culture comes from or via Portugal. Tea was part of the dowry that came with Queen Catherine of Braganza, and Britain brought Portuguese wine in preference to French for political reasons. It is also partly thanks to Portugal that we have a taste for spices – it is telling that the word ‘vindaloo’ comes from the Portuguese words for wine and garlic. In Britain Portugal had its oldest ally, but the relationship wasn’t always to Portugal’s benefit. Church and crown became phenomenally wealthy but Portugal itself was undeveloped. The fact that nowadays it has just two big cities is a legacy of centuries of failure to build roads and develop internal trade.
The symbolic defeat of the Portuguese empire took place in what is now Morocco, with the death of the royal successor Dom Sebastião (known as ‘The Desired One’***) at the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir. Two years later the Portuguese Crown passed into the hands of Philip II of Spain. This led to a suspension of the alliance with England and a further deterioration in the empire. Although Sebastião was dead, a powerful current arose based on the rumour that he would return one foggy morning, giving Portugal its second birth. The idea that Portugal could still one day fulfill its mission of building the 5th great empire on earth took hold. This movement became known as Sebastianism and had a powerful proponent in Padre António Vieira, a Portuguese preacher in Brazil; it was still very much a theme in Pessoa’s poetry and nowadays when headlines such as this and this appear it is an appeal to Sebastianist sentiment, the idea that Portugal can shake off its past and be reborn.
Another ongoing theme in Portuguese history was that of the Inquisition. According to the historian António Saraiva, the prevalence of this institution can be attributed to the desire of the nobility and church to hold down the emerging mercantile class, which is why Jewish people were persecuted, forced to become ‘new christians’ or leave the country. Some were burnt in Rossio Square. The term ‘auto da fé’ is one that exists in several languages, designating the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates. In addition to the banishment of a whole class of entrepreneurs, Portugal also suffered from a quasi-colonial relationship with England with regard to the trade in wine and cloth. Although Portugal had regained its own crown from Spain in 1640 it was still very dependent on England for commerce and on the colonies for lucrative slaves, spices and precious metals. The ‘enlightened autocrat’ Marquês de Pombal made some progress in challenging the power of the reactionary nobility and the church, reigning in the Inquisition and rationalising the economy. However, the 18th century was also a time of wars with Spain, and colonial gold and silver were beginning to run out.
Then, in 1755, a massive earthquake struck Lisbon (as immortalised by Voltaire in Candide), destroying the city. The following century began with the Napoleonic invasion, at which point the royal family fled to Rio, which briefly became the capital of the empire until, tired of Portugal acting essentially as an intermediary between its products and the European market, it proclaimed Independence in 1822. The 19th century was also a period of civil wars between liberal and conservative factions. Throughout the century huge numbers of people left for Brazil, partly to replace the workers freed at the end of slavery. Emigration was (and continues to be) a constant theme in Portuguese history, with a large proportion of the people always leaving, mostly for South America. Few 18th and 19th century emigrants could be persuaded to move to Africa, with its disease, prison colonies and lack of prospects.
There was always the possibility of union with Spain. In the late 19th century this was seriously mooted as a means of survival. In reaction there was a powerful nationalist movement, based around the 350th anniversary of the restoration of ‘independence’. In fact, several historians have argued convincingly that the accession of João 1 in 1640 was not the result of a popular revolt but merely the change of one lord for another. Nevertheless, the campaign culminated in the erecting of a statue in what became known as Praça dos Restauradores, Restorers’ Square. In 1890, Portugal was humiliated internationally by being forced to give up territory it had claimed but never occupied between Angola and Mozambique. In response it launched a long and brutal campaign to pacify those parts of Africa it did nominally rule over, and there was a wave of nationalist fervour at home, resulting in what one historian called the ‘second foundation’, as it was during this time that the flag, shield, and the national anthem were chosen and the writing system standardised. Then, with the assassination of the King in 1910, a short-lived republic was installed.
Political and economic instability resulted. Fernando Pessoa wrote during this period of:
This dull brilliance of the land
That is Portugal sinking in sadness –
All is uncertain and ultimate.
All is fragmented, nothing is whole.
Oh Portugal, today you are mist..
If Pessoa thought a saviour was at hand, he wasn’t completely wrong, but it wasn’t anything like the one he’d been dreaming of. In 1926 António Salazar took over, and within a few years he had established the ‘Estado Novo’, the New State. He preached and practised a severe doctrine of austerity and self-reliance. I once asked a Portuguese friend if Salazar had children, and he laughed, explaining that he was ‘kind of a priest’, but he wasn’t the friendly sort, presiding instead over a brutal police state in which political opposition was crushed. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and forced into exile. In the Second World War Portugal was ‘neutral’, but…with benefits.
As for the colonies, they played a powerful ideological role. In classrooms throughout the country for decades there hung a map of Portugal and its colonies coloured in as one country the size of Europe, accompanied by the slogan ‘Portugal is not a small country’. The nature of Salazar’s closed, integrated circle of trade meant that for a period the country was also economically dependent on its colonies. Portugal survived partly by providing raw materials and African workers for South Africa. This gave Portugal currency stability, particularly important as it traded little with other countries. Hence the response of the regime to the outbreak of anti-colonial agitation was ferocious. In 1951 it had declared that all its colonies were now overseas provinces, so it was an existential issue to hang onto them; letting go of them would be like giving up the Algarve. The irony that most of continental Portugal was still not particularly well-connected to the Algarve probably didn’t bother them unduly*****.
Portugal also actively promoted the notion that in its colonies racism had been overcome. It was argued that the Portuguese benefitted from a ‘unique gift for understanding the African’. In fact, from the start of the 20th century a system was in place in Portuguese colonies under which Africans had to qualify as ‘civilised’ by taking an exam. Very few passed and no white settlers were asked to do the same. Nevertheless the respected Brazilian sociologist and father of lusotropicalism Gilberto Freyre accepted an invitation from Salazar to visit Angola, presumably in his dotage and wearing lilac-shaded lentes, and he gave it a clean bill of health, before popping back to Brazil where he was last heard of singing the praises of his own country’s military dictatorship.
The PR effort by the Portuguese could not disguise the ugly reality of the brutal wars it was fighting across all its African ‘provinces’, with significant support from apartheid South Africa. Then, in 1968 Salazar fell off a chair******. The regime pretended he was still in charge for a while and then put someone more hapless in charge. Portugal was effectively freed on April 25th 1974 by its own colonies – a movement of army officers who were no more prepared to fight for a lost cause overthrew the regime overnight. It was already becoming a different country in economic terms. With the overseas-funded growth of the 1960, a new middle class was rapidly developing. Not that political stability had suddenly been achieved, however; there then followed several years of infighting between political forces whose Marxist revolutionary credentials were very quickly proving to have been forged.
For the philosopher-king of Portuguese national identity Eduardo Lourenço, membership of the European Community was the ‘best drug to cure the post-colonial hangover’. Not everyone agreed. In 1986, the year of both Spain and Portugal’s ascension to the EU, lifelong Communist José Saramago published his novel ‘The Stone Raft’, in which the entire Iberian Peninsula floats away, eventually to reposition itself midway between Africa and Latin America.
Perhaps all former colonising and colonised countries share something of this particular mix of melancholy, insecurity, guilt and regret. Like in a bullying relationship, the two sides of the equation are interdependent, defining themselves in relation to one another, and once freed/deprived of that role it’s inevitable that they are forced to face searching questions as to their identity. To quote Eduardo Lourenço again, such countries have to undertake a ‘slow, painful and perhaps impossible reconfiguration of our national mythology’. In the words of Portugal’s King Pedro V:
‘Once we were great, now we’re small. We are still not used to being small, and in the middle of our misery we still want to show off a level of luxury that provokes scorn. Let’s not delude ourselves; let’s look at reality, and let that be our starting point’.
Being from a former imperial power myself, one whose long-standing connection with Portugal has not always been to its advantage, I can see that Portuguese history and the attempts of the Portuguese to come to terms with their past has a lot to teach me. It shames me somewhat that my knowledge of Portuguese history is, although inevitably faulty, better than my understanding of my own*******. Nevertheless, learning about it has been a means of coming to terms with my own history, culture and identity. The British tend to err more on the side of arrogance than melancholy, but they are after all two sides of the same coin. While the Portuguese like to say that the word ‘saudade’ cannot be translated into any other language, I, and I’m sure most other people, find the English term ‘Brexit’ to be equally mystifying. Maybe it means that the UK’s necessary reconfiguration of its national mythology is no longer possible. I do hope not.
* This is attested by numerous sources on the historical record but as this is a blog and not a history book I will just leave this here.
** See e.g. Dilma.
*** In Portugal all monarchs have nicknames. The English equivalent is not ‘Big Ears’, ‘the one who murdered all his wives’ and ‘that bloke who resigned to spend more time with Mein Kampf’. Incidentally, when José Mourinho called himself ‘the special one’ he must have been thinking in pretty grandiose terms.
**** In fact I just googled Ronaldo and Sebastião and I found this page by someone who is clearly, as the Portuguese say, madder than Batman.
***** I met people in Guimarães who told me that when they were kids it took two days to reach the Algarve and five hours to reach Porto.
****** As described in excruciating detail by Saramago in his you-had-to-be-there short story ‘The Chair’.
******* With regard to any inaccuracies please contact the Master’s tutors in the Portuguese Studies Department of King’s College London, ‘cos it’s them who taught me all this stuff.