Wednesday, 27 November 2013

In those times the fever of navigation burned in us like a chronic disease: Portuguese history with Oliveira Martins

If Alexandre Herculano was Portugal’s first great historian of the 19th century, Oliveira Martins (1845-1894) was its last great one. Inseparable from the Generation of ’70, the name given to the young group of artists and intellectuals who emerged around the 1870s, he befriended and maintained lasting relationships with several of its members: for instance, he wrote the preface for Antero de Quental’s sonnets, and in Eça de Queiroz’s The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes he even exchanges letters with the titular hero. An unsuccessful novelist himself, after debuting with a now forgotten novel, Febo Moniz (1867), Oliveira Martins made a name for himself in the social sciences, writing about topics as diverse as economics, socialism, biography, colonialism and anthropology. But nothing earned him the reputation he maintains till today like the history books he wrote. In 1879 he published two history books that made him famous: História da Civilização Ibérica and História de Portugal, the former about the history of the Iberian Peninsula, the latter about Portuguese history. In 1880Portugal Contemporâneo came out, picking up where the previous book had stopped. On top of that he also turned his attention to England, the Roman Empire, Hellenism, Christianity and literary criticism. In his indispensable book on Portugal, Miguel de Unamuno writes extraordinary panegyrics to Oliveira Martins; he goes further than his countryman Menéndez y Pelayo, who “said that he was the most artistic historian that the Peninsula had in the last century; for me, I think he was its only historian-artist.”

   The most artistic and most penetrating. His fancy reached depths never reached by the tiresome and tired science of others. His História da Civilização Ibérica should be a compendium for every learned Spaniard and Portuguese; and there shouldn’t be any American, of those who from time to time search in our history and caste the forebears of theirs, who did not know this admirable book.
   Instead of repeating, once again, clichés about what was the Spanish soul at the time of the discoveries and the conquest of America, it would be good if they went to find rich suggestions in books such as Oliveira Martins’.
   In his brief pages we find more doctrine, more sociology and more psychology than in many volumes over-stuffed with information.

Prior to discovering Unamuno’s book, a rich source that has guided my readings for a couple of months now, I had never read Oliveira Martins, but I could tell that a writer so robustly recommended deserved more attention. Finding his books nowadays requires time and patience, because as it tends to happen with historians, they get supplanted by new ones, and I uncharacteristically had to resort to second-hand books. How many 17th French historians are still read, or 18th century English ones? In his time, Jorge Luis Borges could still heartily recommend Edward Gibbon, but mainly for aesthetic reasons, or pleasure, no longer as history, not because Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is better than any history of Rome from the last fifty years, although as far as I’m concerned it may still be. One of the books that most piqued my curiosity was Oliveira Martins’ two-volume Portugal nos Mares (1889), about the role of the sea, the navy and the maritime discoveries in Portugal’s history. Now, there have certainly been better, up to date books since its publication, notably Jaime Cortesão’s thorough and seminal three-volume history of the Portuguese discoveries. Furthermore, we’re soaked in this stuff from primary school on. Nevertheless, Oliveira Martins, with his wealth of detail and colourfulness, gives volume and contour to the school lessons that often are nothing more than the superficial ticking off of dates disjointed facts. Furthermore, Oliveira Martins wrote in that inimitable 19th century style that made pages beam with verve; Borges was correct, there are always aesthetic reasons. Alas, my edition is not the one I preferred but an abridged version, but for our intentions it will suffice.

The book, even in its abridged version, is filled to the brim with wonderfully useless knowledge. We learn, for instance, that a 17th century ship bound to India, if we’re talking about one with a tonnage of 550 tons, was manned by a crew composed of no less than 123 crewmen, plus 250 soldiers. It enumerates different models of ships, and even the types of weapons a ship carried with it, and the quantity, the terms are so many and so singular I fail to even find translations for them. Battle tactics are also not overlooked and Oliveira Martins gives a vivid description of just what happened when two enemy crews came face to face in the middle of the sea. How he knows, I have no idea, but he’s persuasive and aesthetic enough for me. This is the sort of book authors of history novels pillage to pepper their books with convincing details. Naval laws, how much ships cost to build, how much they carried, what kind of taxes, fees and tariffs they paid, the legally murky matter of corsairs (in the early times of seafaring, it was normal for nations to grant corsairs permissions to attack allied vessels, and everyone was alright with that because no legislation regarding the sea existed yet, it was a no man’s land, open to everyone), the influence the legend of Prester John exerted on the Portuguese discoveries (a king financed ships with the intention of discovering this fabled Christian kingdom, reputed to exist somewhere in Africa), this and much more receives considerable attention in the book. Sometimes he even turns to historical documents for a glimpse of the psychology (or apparent lack of) of the 16th century sailor. Here’s an excerpt from the account of a Dutch seaman who travelled with Vasco da Gama on his second voyage to Calcutta. We’ll skip right to the end, where they’re coming back to Portugal and meet some difficulties:

   On July 14 we started having a shortage of bread and victuals, and we were still 1780 miles away from Lisbon.
   On July 30 we found an island where we killed more than 300 men, capturing a large number. We collected water there and we sailed on the first of August.
   On 13 August we sighted the North Star again and we were still 600 miles away from Portugal.
   In the year of 1502 the infidels lost 180 ships; and if these hadn’t been lost things would have gone bad to us, because they were enemies.
   And thus we returned safe and sound to Portugal.


And praised be the Lord for islands.

For reasons of brevity I’ll have to narrow down the book to three topics: the rise and fall of Portuguese seafaring, the figure of the Infante D. Henrique, and Fernão Magalhães’ journey. Also, lots of history will have to be left out, but there’s always Wikipedia.

In summarizing the history of Portuguese seafaring, Oliveira Martins is also sketching what he calls the Portuguese people’s collaboration in the “work of modern civilization,” which to him emanates from the single-minded drive and actions of one man: the Infante D. Henrique (1394-1460), son of a king but never king himself. The author tells us that Portugal’s most glorious era emerged from the Infante D. Henrique’s triumph in an ideological battle with his royal brother, D. Pedro (1392-1449): the latter fostered the policies of his forebears – increasing the population, creating an economy based on agriculture and fishing, protecting the borders from Spain; the former, a visionary ahead of his time, believed in maritime expansion, “crazed by the sea, burning in his head, with obscure legends of medieval geography, the heroic ambitions of learning, of empire and of power characteristic of the Renaissance.” With time, the Infante D. Henrique’s vision overwhelmed his brother’s temerity and isolationism and Portugal’s destiny became inextricably linked to the sea, for better and for worse. For a while, though it seemed only for the better. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“Portuguese navy is born with national independence,” states the author. The conquest of Portugal started from north to south, for we mustn’t forget that our first king, D. Afonso Henriques (1109-1185), was a descendant of nobility from the Kingdom of León. As his armies claimed land from the Moors, Christian harbours became vulnerable to the Muslim pirates who infested the waters from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. BY sheer luck, at the time Crusaders were going to Syria via the peninsula, and Lisbon was the ideal port to stop to refresh; so King Afonso Henriques allied himself with them to conquer the city. The battles for the control of the coast raged on for decades, until everything down to Algarve was under Portuguese rule. Already during the reign of the second king, D. Sancho I (1154-1212), the monarch contracted the services of a Genovese admiral to teach the arts of ship-building and cartography; at the time, the Genovese enjoyed the greatest of reputations as sailors. Thus began the Portuguese navy, created to defend merchant ships and whale fishing along the coast. So important did Lisbon’s importance as a port grow, that by the time of D. Fernando (1345-1383), the city was one of Europe’s main hubs of maritime commerce: Oliveira Martins cites accounts of the time in stating that at any give time, there could 400 to 500 ships just in Lisbon; and 100 or 150 more in the ports of Sacavém and Montijo. Those were small ships, with an average tonnage of 100 tons, and he estimates that Lisbon’s annual maritime movement was around 250 to 300 thousand tons. Lisbon was also already a cosmopolitan city then, open to people from Genoa, Lombardy, Morocco, Aragon, Milan, Corsica and Galician. Oliveira Martins attributes to D. Fernando important measures to foster the development of the navy: he stimulated the sale of new goods, acted as a bank giving out loans to merchants who wanted to prepare ships, insured them against losses, and created benefits and perks for seamen, for instance exemption from army service for those who joined a crew. Oliveira Martins informs us that these protectionist measures, much frowned upon at the time of his writing, so averse to the laissez-faire worldview, were nevertheless the same policies that every nation after the monarch implemented to create powerful navies with imperial ambitions, namely France, Holland, England and the USA.

However, there is a huge difference between having a navy and using it to discover the world. The rise of Portugal as a maritime power happens because of the vision and determination of the Infante D. Henrique, who in 1418 set up a navy school in Sagres to study new charts, astronomy, mathematics, maps and to train seamen. Better than anyone else, he intuited the potential of the discoveries. Impelled by his vision, the Portuguese begin the Era of Discoveries. Thanks to expeditions and voyages promoted by him, the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores were discovered. Next the Portuguese started exploring the African coast, discovering Gambia and Cape Verde. In 1434, Gil Eanes navigated past the Cape Bojador, a point on the African coast that up until then had been considered impassable. By the time of the Infante’s death, in 1460, the African coast had been explored all the way down to Sierra Leone. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias traversed the Cape of Good Hope (in what is currently Cape Town, South Africa; the cape received that name from King D. João II, before it was known as the Cape of Storms), proving the connection between the Atlantic and Indic Oceans, and opening the sea route to the fabled Indies, where Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498.

Before the Portuguese, seafaring in Europe was mainly restricted to the Mediterranean and along the coastlines, venturing into the ocean was folly and certain death. For that new type of voyage a new type of ship was necessary, and the Portuguese invented it: the caravela, or caravel. “A ship was needed that was like the Arabs’ horse, lively, quick, intelligent, docile and sober,” explains Oliveira Martins. Two caravels sailed with Columbus on his voyage through the Atlantic. We all know the story of what happened next, of how he discovered the Americas thinking he had discovered the westward route to the Indies. What is less known is what nearly happened to him when he returned to Europe. On his return trip, he didn’t go straight to Spain, instead he stopped in Lisbon, in the Year of our Lord 1493. King D. João II (1455-1495), who had continued the maritime explorations after the Infante, his great-uncle, wasn’t happy to know that a Genovese sailor had just claimed for Spain new lands. Our chronicles tell us that the king’s advisers told him to kill Columbus so news wouldn’t reach Spain. Apparently he was a rowdy, discourteous fellow and it would be easy to make it look like he had brought death upon himself. The king did not pay heed to them, and there’s an alternative history book here somewhere. By the way, did you know about the modern theory that Columbus was in fact Portuguese? In recent years, several Portuguese books have defended this claim. It would be cool it it were true, we’d have a hat trick then, three out of three: Vasco da Gama, Fernão Magalhães and Columbus, such a lovely pattern, but history doesn’t care about aesthetics.

With the discovery of the route to India and the commerce of spices and other exotic goods, Portugal became richer than it ever was and the discoveries gave way to imperial ambitions, discovered lands became occupied lands, and the first Portuguese colonies date from this period. Fleets were sent to conquer native harbours and to impose colonial administration, agents of the crown became renowned for their military prowess and ferocity, like Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), who conquered Goa, Malacca and almost single-handedly created the Portuguese empire in Asia, where the Portuguese ruled only briefly, for they were never strong enough to defend its territories from local forces and the new emerging European empires. When the Oriental dream ended, Portugal turned to Brazil, with its gold and diamonds, and when that too ended, Portugal focused on its remaining African colonies, which gained vital importance for the nation in the final decades of the 19th century, and Salazar in the 20th century still tenaciously tried to retain them, fighting bloody wars for them during the 1960s and 1970s, until they too were gone after 1974. As the empire crumbled, Lisbon’s importance dwindled from centre of the world to mere port of call, where ships stopped for reloading and tourists for refreshing. At the time Oliveira Martins wrote the book, the situation was grim: in1878 Portugal was almost at the bottom of the world list in terms of tonnage carried by its navy, a humiliating position for the nation that had “given the world to the world,” as we like to say in our nostalgia for the empire. Oliveira Martins identifies one of the country’s reasons for such a poor rating with its inability to make the leap from sail boats to steam-powered ships. In the past, Lisbon’s dry docks had been the most famous of Europe, and nations had their ships and fleets built in them. But as often happens with us, we failed to innovate and allowed new technologies to leaves us behind. Oliveira Martins also attributes the decline to the loss of sovereignty to Spain in 1580 and the depletion of resources in the several Anglo-Spanish Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as damaging commercial treaties signed with England after it regained its independence. Apropos of the Anglo-Spanish War, the infamous Invincible Armada was built in Lisbon’s dry docks, and the fleet itself sailed from the Tejo river. This I had not learned at school. Oliveira Martins also enumerates the types and number of ships and soldiers, and even lists their nationalities. Many Portuguese sailors were part of the crews, and it’s also speculated that the failure of the armada was due to the mutual hatred nurtured by Portuguese and Spanish crewmen. I should hope so.

In the end, India and the discoveries were Portugal’s ruination. They created Portugal’s first sovereign debt – D. Sebastião (1554-1578) had to default, the first of many times Portugal declared bankruptcy – and the monarchy had to contract the first foreign loans to finance the voyages, plus the widespread dream of making quick money interrupted the normal development of society as thousands left for the Indies with schemes of making their fortunes there. The country was neglected, its interior depopulated, everything was put into the service of the discoveries and the voyages that brought rich spices and indeed made a few rich, but hardly any of those fortunes were channelled into important infrastructures or innovations to develop the nation. It created only an indolent moneyed class that imported all essential goods from Europe.

Finally we reach to my favourite essay in the book, concerning the life and famous voyage of Fernão Magalhães, better known to the world as Ferdinand Magellan. “Colombus, Vasco da Gama and Magalhães are the three eminent names of the history of navigation. The discovery of America, the maritime way to India, and the passage of the Atlantic to the Pacific, cataloguing in its trip around the globe the world’s seas – those are the three famous moments that close the truly epic cycle of human daring and curiosity.” Sure, Oliveira Martins had a soft spot for him, but things were not always peachy for Magalhães. He tells us that the populace “stoned the nephews of the renegade, chasing them to the point of having to move to Maranhão, at the time still deserted, returning later to Jafe, but hiding the last name, which the heirs only retook towards the end of the 18th century.” Magalhães was considered a traitor, a Portuguese who had sold himself to the odious Spanish crown, and rivalry between the two Iberian nations was at an all-time high then, with each country claiming half the world to explore. The Treaty of Tordesillas had given one hemisphere to the Portuguese to explore, and the Spaniards had received another. At the time of his great voyage, Magalhães believed that the Moluccas (current Indonesia and known at the time also as the Spice Isles, valuable beyond measure) could be arrived sailing westward. The Portuguese had already discovered it circa 1512 going through the Indic, and it was believed to be located within their hemisphere. But Magalhães, like Colombus, believed he could reach India via the Atlantic, and he also thought the island was located in the Spanish hemisphere. Therefore Oliveira Martins gives sounds reasons that his motivation to work for Spain was not treason so much as a clear understanding of politics of the time: if the Moluccas were under Spanish territory, only a Spanish-sponsored expedition could undertake the journey.

Fernão Magalhães was born in 1480. At the age of 25 he sailed to India, a soldier and adventurer; in 1508, back in Lisbon, he enlisted once more to India. In 1511 he was under Afonso de Albuquerque’s command in the conquest of Malacca. In 1512 his services had achieved him a place in the Court, where he set about studying charts and developing his theory of a westward path to the Moluccas. According to Oliveira Martins, he “wasn’t born to be a courtier” and after a new campaign in the siege of Azamor, he returned again to Portugal to meet the Court’s indifference; “one can’t say hostility, because the renown of the soldier was not such as to provoke jealousy.” According to what is know (in 1889), he left Portugal because he had been denied a pay-rise. Although spite was the reason he abandoned Portugal, political prowess was his motive to go to Spain; he believed he could reach the Moluccas by crossing the Atlantic, and only the Spanish crown could finance that enterprise. In October of 1517 he arrived in Seville. “This is the moment when his enterprise begins – to end with his death, like Alexander’s,” the author says.

Before Magalhães attempts had been made to find this elusive westward passage, but searches had never located any river that led to the yet-unnamed ocean behind America. Since Cortez and Pizarro it was known that this ocean existed but no one knew how to get a ship in its waters, not just because of the Andes, a “wall against the sea” but because “the great American rivers,” with the exception of Oregon, all of them run towards in the Atlantic. Is this really true? Magalhães’ arrival in Seville coincided with the rise of King Charles I. While reading this book one notices how so often the discoveries were the result of stubborn and resolute men who defended their visions and paid no heed to nay-sayers. . Charles I, the Infante Dom Henrique, Columbus, Magalhães, all seem men possessed by visions, by a truth beyond tangible grasp, almost like mystics. What made them so certain? Who knows, but o how they achieved results!

With a contract signed in 1518, Magalhães set about making preparations. In Portugal, meanwhile, King D. Manuel was being advised to assassinate the wayward countryman. “This opinion, against which we should not feel indignant in the slightest, was perhaps the most reasonable for the time. Let us not a rack or a dolt out of the bishop. Murder was common in those italianized courts; and the chronicles speak of the political murders by D. João II and by D. João III.” Yeah, we’ve noticed. This was another assassination that did not happen and Magalhães lived to set out with five ships. His crew was composed of Spaniards, foreigners, like the Italian Antonio Pigafetta, who bequeathed to posterity a diary of the journey, a Genovese sailor who wrote an account too, and also Portuguese sailors. “In those times the fever of navigation burned in us like a chronic disease. Travelling, discovering, conquering, pirating, was the passion of a century for the Portuguese’s children.”

From the start the voyage saw conflicts between the Portuguese and the Spaniards, and a mutiny soon ensued from the Spaniards’ side. After a man called Cartagena was arrested for insubordination, a friend called Quesada released and they took three of the five ships – San Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria – and attacked Trinidad and Santiago. A naval battle followed, with Magellan triumphant and in control of the five ships once more. Culprits were decapitated and quartered, others were abandoned on the shore, the captain showed no mercy. Not long after, Santiago sank during a reconnoitring mission, the crew escaped unharmed. Magalhães decided to winter in the South American coast. Citing Pigafetta’s diary, Oliveira Martins explains that one day they saw a native who was so tall they called him a giant, or a patagón, big foot, hence the name Patagonia. “Indeed, the first relations of the crew with the natives were peaceful, becoming only ferocious, as always, the moment Magalhães arrested a pair of Patagonians aboard to take them to the Spanish king.” Oh don’t worry, it’s going to get worse.

Around October 1518 food was running low and the ships were in poor conditions, so the crew debated returning to Spain. Magalhães refused, hell-bent on fulfilling his vision. Treason set in once more, this time a Portuguese first mate called Gomes took hold of the Santo Antonio and fled back to Spain. Magalhães persisted with his three remaining ships. Finding a strait they went through it, in the meanwhile christening the land around them as Tierra del Fuego, and on September 27 they arrived on the other side, at last they were in the Pacific, thus named because of its calm waters. Victoria was the first ship to sail in its waters. “Having reached the Pacific, Magalhães only had to die in the enterprise, to satisfy, like Alexander or Albuquerque, the demands of aesthetics; without which there are no heroes. Vasco da Gama lived too much.”

Ultimately greed, arrogance and warmongering killed Fernão Magalhães. Not satisfied with finding the strait, he sailed on westwards, insisting in reaching the Moluccas. Along the way he ransacked and attacked small native kingdoms, demanding vassalage to the King of Spain. One day, with fifty men, he tried to do the same to one such kingdom and found himself facing a small army composed of three to four thousand men on the marshes as they tried to disembark. The natives never gave them a chance to reach the shore, as arrows were fired at them; the armours they used resisted but the natives realized their legs were vulnerable and an arrow lodged itself in Magalhães’ leg, and soon he was overwhelmed by enemies as his men run back to the ships. Thus died the Alexander of the Seas, or whatever. With hardly any men left to navigate three boats, they burned down Concepcion and continued their journey westward, finally reaching the Moluccas on November 6, 1521. On 6 September 1522 Victorian arrived in Spain again. Poor Magalhães never reached the Moluccas, and ironically the Treaty of Saragoza later allowed Portugal to retain them: since astronomers and mathematicians couldn’t determine if the islands were in the Portuguese or Spanish hemisphere, the Spaniards just allowed them to keep it in return for a payment.

Oliveira Martins’ book is a fascinating, informative, often entertaining read. The only caveat is that one needs to make allowances, many allowances. One should never forget that he writes from the perspective of a European who had no doubts the European empires were destined to rule the world forever.

“This persistence, gentlemen, this tenacity of a nation in the concretization of its destiny, is our greatest title of glory. The Portuguese strength presents itself to us with the character of an element. And if to this constancy civilization owes the discovery of a world, politics owes the Portuguese genius the types of institutions on which, for colonial exploration, one can say lies, for three centuries now, the whole richness of Europe.” Words uttered in Madrid in 1891. I can just imagine his heart breaking if he were alive today and saw the Columbus centennial anniversaries being charged with celebrating a racist, genocidal slaver. He lists several of those noble institutions, to wit, penal colonies, colonial administration, the use of exiled criminals to populate colonies, commercial companies, the reinstatement of slavery, the creation of the first native protectorates. Just imagine someone defending this today. Interestingly, one of the institutions practiced by the Portuguese he admires was the miscegenation of species, that is, promoting the marriage of Europeans with natives to ground them in the colonies, and in no other place do we see this ethnic diversity more clearly than in the Brazilian people. I guess we were less racist than the British, there’s always that in our favour.

And so ends my series of posts on 19th century Portuguese writers. Before the month is over, there will still be José Saramago, because it is November after all.


  1. I am more excited to read this than the novelists from the last post, to no point since I will never read any of it put your excerpts and description.

    But I am one of those people who reads Gibbon and other old historians for pleasure.

    1. Ah, scorn not Garrett and Herculano, they were tremendous writers, although at the moment I favour their non-fiction over their fiction.

      I too have to read Gibbon, as part of my life-long project to read every author in Borges' A Personal Library, I'm just not sure whether an abridged version or the whole thing.

  2. Oh it's not scorn - it's that Martins sounds really good.

    I vote "the whole thing" - great prose all the way through. A certain kind of great prose.

    1. As it is, I have two more history books by him to read, so I'll gladly write about them when I'm finished, although don't expect anything until next year, I'm getting Portuguese literature fatigue.

      Funny, I read Miguel de Unamuno because a while ago you wanted to read about him, and that has lead me to Oliveira Martins, and now I'm going to write more about him for your pleasure. Mysterious are the ways of blogging.

  3. Very mysterious. No hurry for my sake. I should get to Unamuno myself, but I think next year's theme is Scandinavian.

    1. Scandinavian? That means a very a wide range of countries, I may even join in, I have a Selma Lagerlöf:novel to read.

  4. Yes, the variety ought to be enjoyable. Icelandic sagas on one end, Moomin sagas on the other.

    1. And everything in between. I vote for Scandinavian theme next year.

  5. Oliveira Martins as come to my attention from reading the Expresso free offer of 'Portuguese battles throughout history' book collection, many of the books reference him. But I would like to add four parallel plot lines:1st) D.Dinis ordering the planting of a pine forest which still exists and is known as the Pinhal de Leiria, gathering resources for the naval industry; 2nd) D. Henrique was the Grand Master of Order of Christ, the Portuguese successor to the Knights Templar Order; 3) Constantinopla had been ceased by the Turks in 1453 which cut Europe's acces to the Asia products 4) The pope who approved the Tordesilas contract was none other than Pope Alexandre VI, aka Roderico Borgia;

  6. Ah toutjour, it's always a pleasure to read one of your rare posts.

    Yes, the Leiria pinewoods, a remarkable undertaking, and again an example of how the firm will of single men could alter the course of their countries.

    I had no idea Alexandre VI was a Borgia, Oliveira Martins skips that bit :)