Portugal is a country with a rich cultural heritage, with ramifications throughout time and space. In this series of blog posts, we’ll briefly go over Portugal’s history, traditions, and cuisine, and hopefully understand a bit more about the country and its people.
Writing a summary of Portuguese history is a nearly impossible task. Not only is Portugal an old country with a long history, this is a complicated history that has been thoroughly whitewashed.
Now, this is a sensitive subject, because these historical narratives are a foundational part of the Portuguese cultural identity. However, what good is national pride if it is based on the erasure of the suffering of many other people? An accurate and critical view of our past will prove much more useful to our present than a romanticized one.
Knowing this, let’s look at a very summarized and selective version of some important historical events of Portuguese history.
Portugal Before it Was Portugal
Hominids have inhabited the Iberian Peninsula as far back as 1.2 million years BC. Between 40 000 ad 8000 BC hunter-gatherers settled in the Iberian Peninsula, leaving us cave engravings that you can still visit in the caves of Foz Côa.
As technological advancements like agriculture and trade started developing, Lisbon became an important port to the Greeks and the Phoenicians, from whom the name of the city may originate: Alis Ubbo, meaning “safe harbor”.
After this, there are many different people who invaded the Iberian Peninsula and left a mark
The Beginnings of Portugal
The ‘Reconquista’, the process through which Christian noblemen “retrieved” their ancestor’s once-lost lands, honors the perspective of these Christian noblemen, which some historians consider biased.
Nonetheless, this process was done with the help of French troops, urged by the pope, including D. Henrique. He was a well-connected knight that got a county — the “Condado Portucalense” — due to his military performance. While this county remained a vassal state of three kingdoms while D. Henrique was alive, his son, D. Afonso Henriques, managed to form an independent kingdom and crown himself, becoming the first king of Portugal, founded in 1143.
Throughout the reign of D. Afonso Henriques and his successors, Portugal was “conquered” from north to South. Notable among the conquests was Lisbon, which counted with 7000 Portuguese and 1300 crusaders, and Faro, the last city to be included in the kingdom of Portugal.
During the first dynasty, Galician-Portuguese was made the official language of the country by D.Dinis, there was a tragic love story between D. Pedro and D. Inês, and there were periods of conflict with the Castillian kingdom which resulted in the building of new walls to surround the capital.
The Colonial Period
Starting at the second dynasty of Portugal there was the period of the “Descobrimentos”, or “The Age of Exploration”. A period often described as the Golden Age of Portugal in history books, it was a time when the Portuguese were at the forefront of nautical science, cartography, and astronomy, and established commercial connections with different kingdoms (often through violence). This later lead to the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade.
This era started with the siege of Ceuta, in 1415, and wouldn’t finish until the 16th century. While the original goal was to establish power through Morocco, soon that was abandoned, and all efforts were put into finding the sea route to India.
Ultimately, it was Vasco da Gama who succeeded in this task in 1498, though he was unsuccessful in trading anything. Later, Pedro Álvares Cabral and then Vasco da Gama again returned to India to attempt to establish a commercial contract with Calicut through hostile means. A ship coming from a pilgrimage in Mecca, which was carrying some powerful merchants, women, and children, was seized, robbed and set on fire with the people inside it.
Between 1506 and 1570 “Casa da Índia” — the state-run commercial organization responsible for international trade — detains royal monopoly over all importations and sales of spices, increasing the riches of the Portuguese court exponentially.
In 1506, after Vasco da Gama arrives from India, the Portuguese king D. Manuel asks that the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is built, in the Manueline architectural style — a flaming gothic monastery with maritime elements that can be visited in Belém.
If nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, imagine the Portuguese Inquisition! After the Portuguese Jewish population was forcefully converted, it was massacred in 1506 at the hands of the Christian population, resulting in 2000 deaths over the course of three days.
It was partially this same mentality of distrust of the “new Christians” that fueled the creation of the Portuguese Inquisition. It operated between 1536, when the first “auto de fé” — a ritual of public penance through torture — happened, and lasted until almost three centuries after.
The end of the second Portuguese Dynasty is surrounded by intrigue, as the only legitimate Portuguese successor disappears in a battle in Alcácer-Quibir, Morocco, prompting a dynastic crisis that resulted in the union of the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms.
The third Portuguese dynasty is then composed of three kings who were also kings of Spain, all named Felipe. This lasted until 1640, when the so-far relative independence Portugal had, as well as the Portuguese colonies and the power the Portuguese nobility held were threatened. The 1st of December is a holiday in Portugal — Day of the Restoration of Independence — that commemorates precisely this event of 1640.
The beginning of the 18th century in Portugal was characterized by the concentration of power in King João V — an absolutist monarch. His cognomen was “the magnanimous” due to the discovery and pillage of Brazillian gold during his reign. This allowed him to order the construction of big monuments like the Mafra Convent, and the “Águas Livres” Aqueduct, a system that granted the population access to 30 water fountains throughout the city of Lisbon.
After D. João V comes his son, D. José I, who had the ruthless Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo as a prime minister. In 1755 the biggest earthquake in Europe’s history hits Lisbon, followed by a tsunami and a series of fires. José de Carvalho e Melo took the lead in caring for the victims of the disaster and reconstructing the parts of the city that were destroyed, including what we call today the “Baixa Pombalina” (Pombaline Downtown). This downtown area is constructed according to the new Enlightenment ideals for urban planning — a grid system that greatly contrasted with the windy neighboring Alfama.
José de Carvalho e Melo’s success as a leader during the aftermath of the Earthquake granted him the title of Marquês de Pombal (Marquis of Pombal), along with an increase in authority which he used to take away the power of the Portuguese Aristocracy and to increase the brutality of the Portuguese Inquisition.
The 19th and 20th Century
The Napoleonic wars started in 1803 and between 1807 and 1810 there were three invasions of Portugal, an ally of Great Britain. The Portuguese Royal family escaped to Brazil, avoiding capture. Meanwhile, the Portuguese population was unhappy, asking for the support of British troops in the expulsion of the French. After this, the English commanders are given more power over the Portuguese troops, establishing an English regency period that lasts until 1820.
During the 19th century there’s a redistribution of power among new political institutions, and the redaction of the first Portuguese Constitution — an attempt at a Constitutional Monarchy. After a period of political instability, in which several different political ideologies fought, and the dissatisfaction with the monarchy grew bigger and bigger, there was a regicide in 1908, which lead to the end of the monarchy and the Implementation of the Republic in 1910.
This republic was not peaceful, though, and as instability throughout Europe grew, António de Oliveira Salazar was appointed the Minister of Finance in 1928. Later he established a catholic conservative dictatorship called the “Estado Novo”, of which he was the de facto dictator. This dictatorship severely stunted Portugal’s growth. With tools like propaganda, censorship, a youth organization, informers, a private police force, and a concentration camp, Salazar was able to keep himself in power until his death in 1968.
Another important aspect of Salazar’s dictatorship was the fight to keep Portuguese colonies like Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guiné-Bissau under Portuguese authority, despite international pressure to free them.
To this effect, the terminology used in legal documents was changed to be less suspicious, a Lusotropicalist narrative was created, portraying Portugal’s relationship with its colonies as an amicable one (a narrative that is still very much prevalent), and ultimately there were colonial wars that lasted from 1961 until 1974.
Six years after Salazar’s death, on the 25th of April 1974, there was a military coup in Portugal that ended the Dictatorship once and for all. This revolution was a peaceful one, with no deaths, and became known as the Revolution of the Carnations (Revolução dos Cravos).
Just last year we celebrated the fact Portugal had lived more days in a democracy than in a dictatorship. This is very recent history; both my parents were born before the dictatorship ended, and all my grandparents lived through it.
Obviously, there’s been Portuguese history since 1974, and a rich one at that — but I couldn’t possibly fit it all in one article. So I decided to leave an open ending for you to explore. I encourage you to train your Portuguese and expand your world knowledge by looking at Portuguese news publications, such as Público and Expresso, as well as smaller, independent publications like Setenta e Quatro and Fumaça.
Hopefully this concise overview of Portuguese history piqued your interest in the country and the language!
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