Portugal and Pombal


I. JOHN V: 1706-50

WHY had Portugal declined since the great days of Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Camões? Once her flesh and spirit had sufficed to explore half the globe, leaving bold colonies in Madeira, the Azores, South America, Africa, Madagascar, India, Malacca, Sumatra; now, in the eighteenth century, she was a tiny promontory of Europe, tied in trade and war to England, and nourished by Brazilian gold and diamonds reaching her by permission of the British fleet. Had her loins been exhausted by furnishing brave men to hold so many outposts precariously poised on the edges of the world? Had that influx of gold washed the iron out of her veins, and relaxed her ruling classes from adventure into ease?

Yes, and it had enervated Portuguese industry as well. What was the use of trying to compete in handicrafts or manufactures with artisans or entrepreneurs of England, Holland, or France, when imported gold could be paid out for imported clothing, food, and luxuries? The rich, handling the gold, grew richer and more gorgeously accoutered and adorned; the poor, kept at a distance from that gold, remained poor, and had only hunger as a prod to toil. Negro slave labor was introduced on many farms, and beggars made the cities noisy with their cries. William Beckford, hearing them in 1787, reported: “No beggars equal those of Portugal for strength of lungs, luxuriance of sores, profusion of vermin, variety and arrangement of tatters, and dauntless perseverance. … Innumerable, blind, dumb, and scabby.”1

Lisbon was not then the lovely city that it is today. The churches and the monasteries were magnificent, the palaces of the nobility were immense, but fully a tenth of the population was homeless, and the tortuous alleys reeked with rubbish and filth.2 Yet here, as elsewhere in southern lands, the poor had the consolations of sunny days, starry evenings, music, religion, and pious women with tantalizing eyes. Undeterred by fleas on their flesh and mosquitoes in the air, the people poured into the streets after the heat had subsided, and there they danced, sang, strummed guitars, and fought over a damsel’s smile.

Treaties (1654, 1661, 1703) had bound Portugal to England in a strange symbiosis that allied them in economy and foreign policy while keeping them enthusiastically diverse in manners and hostile in creed. England promised to protect Portugal’s independence, and to admit Portuguese wine (port from Oporto) at a greatly reduced tariff. Portugal pledged herself to admit English textiles duty free, and to side with England in any war. The Portuguese thought of the English as damned heretics with a good navy; the English looked upon the Portuguese as benighted bigots with strategic ports. British capital dominated Portuguese industry and trade. Pombal complained, with some exaggeration:

In 1754 Portugal scarcely produced anything toward her own support. Two thirds of her physical necessities were supplied by England. England had become mistress of our entire commerce, and all our foreign trade was managed by English agents. … The entire cargo of vessels sent from Lisbon to Brazil, and consequently the riches that were returned in exchange, belonged to them. Nothing was Portuguese except in name.3

Nevertheless enough of colonial gold, silver, and gems reached the Portuguese government to finance its expenses and make the king independent of the Cortes and its taxing power. So John V, in his reign of forty-four years, lived in sultanic ease, gracing polygamy with culture and piety. He gave or lent enormous sums to the papacy, and received in return the title of His Most Faithful Majesty, and even the right to say Mass—though not to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. “His pleasures,” said Frederick the Great, “were in priestly functions; his buildings were convents, his armies were monks, his mistresses were nuns.”4

The Church prospered under a King who owed her so many absolutions. She owned half the land,5 and her devotees filled nine hundred religious houses. Of the nation’s two million population some 200,000 were ecclesiastics of some degree, or attached to a religious establishment. The Jesuits were especially prominent, at home and in the colonies; they had shared in winning Brazil for Portugal, and were pleasing even Voltaire by their administration of Paraguay; several of them were welcomed at court, and some of them acquired ascendancy over the King. In the great procession of Corpus Christi the King bore one of the poles of the canopy under which the Patriarch of Lisbon carried the Blessed Sacrament. When Englishmen marveled to see the route of the procession lined with troops and worshipers, all bareheaded and kneeling, it was explained to them that such ceremonies, and the display of precious vessels and miraculous relics in the churches, were a main factor in keeping social order among the poor.

Meanwhile the Inquisition watched over the purity of the nation’s faith and blood. John V checked the power of the institution by securing from Pope Benedict XIII a bull allowing its prisoners to be defended by counsel, and requiring that all its sentences be subject to review by the king.6 Even so the authority of the tribunal sufficed to burn sixty-six persons in Lisbon in eleven years (1732-42). Among them was the leading Portuguese dramatist of the age, Antonio José da Silva, who was charged with secret Judaism. On the day of his execution (October 19, 1739) one of his plays was performed in a Lisbon theater.7

John V loved music, literature, and art. He brought French actors and Italian musicians to his capital. He founded the Royal Academy of History. He financed the great aqueduct that supplies Lisbon with water. He built, at a cost of fifty million francs, the Convent of Mafra (1717-32), vaster than the Escorial, and still among the most imposing structures in the Iberian Peninsula. To adorn the interior he summoned back from Spain the greatest Portuguese painter of the century.

The eighty-four years of Francisco Vieira mingled love and art in a romance that stirred all Portugal. Born at Lisbon in 1699, he fell in love with Ignez Elena de Lima when both were children. Enamored also of painting, he went to Rome at the age of nine, studied there for seven years, and, aged fifteen, won the first prize in a competition offered by the Academy of St. Luke. Returning in 1715, he was chosen by John V to paint a Mystery of the Eucharist. This, we are told, he finished in six days; then he set out to find Ignez. Her titled father turned him away, and immured the girl in a convent. Francisco appealed to the King, who refused to intervene. He went to Rome and secured a bull annulling Ignez’ conventual vows and authorizing the marriage. The bull was ignored by Portuguese authorities. Francisco, back in Lisbon, disguised himself as a bricklayer, entered the convent, carried off his beloved, and married her. Her brother shot him; he recovered and forgave his assailant. John V made him court painter and gave him commissions to decorate not only the Mafra Convent but the royal palaces. After Ignez died (1775), Francisco spent his remaining years in religious retreat and works of charity. How many such romances of soul and blood are lost behind the façades of history!

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