Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Jaime Cortesão

For several weeks now readers have no doubt wondered at the identity of the hook-shaped moustachioed dandy pictured above. In an attempt at dispelling this mystery I shall now indulge in one of my typically long articles about a writer you’ve never heard about, never read and probably never will.

His name is Jaime Cortesão; the name doesn’t mean anything to the average (and even reasonably educated) Portuguese reader anymore, at best he’s a name some glance off the cover of a very long book called História dos Descobrimentos Portugueses. But he was one of the most extraordinary individuals the country produced in the last century. He was a poet, a doctor, a deputy, a teacher, a historian, a soldier, and a revolutionary. He devoted his like to the cause of knowledge and progress. The 20th century tested him with several of its horrors. In World War I he experienced the effects of toxic gases, for the first time used in battle. He was exiled in Barcelona when the city fell into the hands of General Franco thanks to another weapon invented in the previous century: air bombings. He knew what it was to flee from a city before the unstoppable approach of the German army. In Portugal he was locked in Salazar’s jails, then lived the hardships of political exile. Indeed fate seems to have reserved for Cortesão enough adversities to break the spirit of ten men. Everybody who socialized with him, however, left us a portrait of a generous, tolerant and optimistic man. He faced all difficulties with rigour and decorum and left behind a monumental historical oeuvre and ethical example.

In 1884 Jaime Cortesão was born in Ançã, in the outskirts of Coimbra. His father was doctor, teacher and philologist. His son, after hesitating between Law and Fine Arts, followed his footsteps and enrolled in Medicine, a college course that would not determine his life. During the years at the University of Coimbra he became involved, like many young men of the time, in the republican cause, excited by the ideals and promises of a social and political renovation in Portugal. In 1907 he founded, with future philosopher Leonardo Coimbra, the Nova Sylva magazine, in which pages he published drawings and poems, a short-lived periodical with an anarchist identity that metamorphosed into a political and cultural group called Os Amigos do ABC. That same years he took part in a famous academic strike, an antecedent of the republican revolution, that pitted students against the government of João Franco, a prime-minister who had received extraordinary powers from the King to rule under a dictatorship. The strike occurred after a student who was affiliated in the Portuguese Republican Party was impeded from defending his thesis by a conclave of professors who had already agreed to flunk him on political grounds. In an act of solidarity, the students boycotted classes. This small event gained national proportions when, in response to Franco’s decision to close down the university, the students marched to Lisbon to protest, laying bare the tension between the conservative regime and the intellectual ranks of the new generation, with Europeanizing tendencies and receptive to an educational reform: Cortesão, like many at the time, thought that education in Portugal was organized in retrograde moulds that did not take into account breakthroughs in modern science and caused the nation to widen its ancient distance from the rest of the continent. By interrupting the college year the government tried to break the strike with the promise that all the students who abandoned it would automatically transition to the next year. Cortesão joined a group that became known as The Intransigents, since they rejected the obvious bribe, displaying the courage to act on their convictions, a virtue he’d continue to live by for the rest of his life. About his legendary rectitude Aquilino Ribeiro wrote one day: “There are two ways of triumphing in the world: harbouring ambitions and having no character. Jaime Cortesão harboured ambitions, as an artist, as a patriot, as the catalyser of ideals that he was. He had however the serious flaw of which many get rid when they decide to make a fortune, if they’re not already born without it: character. Character, that is, respect for his being and the being of others according to the same standard, respect for a certain ethical principle he acquired, and respect for what is social and human. Unforgivable fault in our time!”

As we shall see this inflexible ethical sense would cause him considerable problems in life, but in the years following the implementation of the Republic (1910) life was joyful, easy and full of possibilities. After the strike he intensified his role in the republican movement, performing crucial function inside it, so that by 1908 he was the liaison between republicans from North and South. In the year of the Republic he revealed new facets: he published his first book of poems, A Morte da Águia. As a poet he received admiration from the greatest of his peers. Fernando Pessoa even considered him “the finest of the poets of the newest generation” that had achieved its maturity within the 20th century. He also completed his Medical degree successfully defending a thesis that refuted the at the time accepted view that poet Antero de Quental suffered from “degeneration.” The thesis received praised from poet Teixeira de Pascoes (he had already read his poems in Nova Sylva) and the two men became friends until Pascoaes died in 1952. He was in fact invited to become his daughter’s godfather, and the inventor of the literary movement Saudosismo chose for his goddaughter the name of Maria da Saudade. Considering these poetic circumstances, she seemed to be fulfilling a destiny when she married Brazilian poet Murillo Mendes and became a known poet in her own right.

In 1912, in the aftermath of the Republic, Cortesão created the movement Renascença Portuguesa, with the sole purpose of “giving a renewing and fertile content to the republican revolution,” and wrote for its official periodical, A Águia. The same year he abandoned his medical career to try out a position as high school History teacher. Believing in the necessity of bringing people and culture together, he taught at the Popular Universities, a progressive institution that sought to fight the worrying problems of education that afflicted the working classes. In tandem with his pedagogical career he developed a political one and in 1915 was elected deputy for the city of Porto. But it’d be quickly interrupted, never to be resumed, for two years later he volunteered as soldier to take part in the war that was ravaging Europe. Since 1914 he had been directing a newspaper called O Norte, whose goal was to promote Portugal’s intervention in the war, an unpopular position since a century later historians still contend that Portugal had no responsibilities in a foreign conflict that killed 10,000 of its soldiers.  Be that as it may, once again he proved that actions should follow words and parted to Flanders as a medic with the rank of captain.

Originally assigned to the rear, far from the bloodbaths, he requested transference to the front where he fought alongside other notable Portuguese soldiers like playwright André Brun and the poet Augusto Casimiro. He took part in the horrifying Battle of the Lys, where thousands of Portuguese soldiers died in one fell swoop, and was distinguished with a war cross for his bravery. His memoir, Memórias da Grande Guerra (1919), describes without romanticism the horrors of chemical warfare, still a novelty at the time, with gases that burned the eyes and destroyed lungs. Exposed to them several times, for he loaned his mask to soldiers who had lost theirs, his health never fully recovered. In fact when he returned to Portugal he was temporarily blind. But instead of resting, he was jailed in the Coimbra Penitentiary, for three months, during the transient dictatorial government of Sidónio Pais. It was in his cell that he received news that the war had ended, as he disappointedly wrote in his memoirs: “We – those who had returned to Portugal and shared the victory of that hour – were almost all of us in jail. The others – those who had opposed our going – received the honours and glories of triumph.” Here starts his disillusionment with politics. “A nation that endures, without great protestation, such an outrage, no doubt suffers some serious spinal disease. The table of values has been inverted; that’s the only way of explaining that generous acts of sacrifice in the name of the people deserve such a vile prize.” He never returned to active politics, disappointed with partisan bickering and the governments of the 1st Republic, but without ever losing heart over the ideals that sustained it, instead seeking new means of intervening in society and being useful.

Those means he acquired when he accepted the role of director of the National Library of Lisbon; it was 1919, a crucial year in his life. It was when he met David Ferreira, a loyal friend and his future biographer. It was also the year the monarchist supporters temporarily reinstated the monarchy in Porto, encouraging a part of the army in Lisbon to overthrow the democratic government. Ferreira, as he later described it, first met Cortesão during the republican defence to foil this coup: “Belonging to the first group, still rather small, that, committed to the defence of the Republic, ran to the grounds of Parque Eduardo VII, by then already under bombing from the rebel artillery, I had, a few moments after my arrival, the joy of seeing turn up an assortment of civilians and soldiers, from amongst whom stood out the imposing figure of Jaime Cortesão, dressed as a medical captain.” With the monarchist counter-revolution defeated, Cortesão took control of the National Library and Ferreira worked as his secretary for four years. (He later distinguished himself as a historian in his own right, authoring the 1973 História Política da Primeira República Portuguesa. A curious fact: his more famous son, the poet and novelist David Mourão-Ferreira, wrote the preface for a 1961 selection of Cortesões’ poems.)

The twenties saw him representing Portugal in several international cultural events and acting as a nexus for intellectual groups that sought to give new life to the nation’s political and social aspects. From his cabinet in the library Cortesão organized gatherings of writers, artists, historians, scientists and others. From this activity resulted, in 1921, the magazine Seara Nova (co-founded with Raul Proença, another important thinker), an instrument of reflexion and criticism. (During Cortesão’s exile in Brazil, many of his writings continued to be published in Portugal via its pages.) In 1922, after accompanying President António José de Almeida to Brazil, in order to celebrate that country’s first centennial of its independence, he wrote a history book called A Expedição de Pedro Álvares Cabral e o Descobrimento do Brasil, about the man who discovered Brazil, initiating a magnificent careers as historian which revolutionised what was known about the Age of the Portuguese Discoveries. In 1924 he travelled with poet Augusto Gil to Italy to negotiate the purchase of the Cancioneiro Colocci-Brancuti, a classic repository of medieval Galician-Portuguese poems and songs, with which he enriched the country’s literary history. In 1926 he represented Portugal in the 22nd International Congress of Americanists, contributing with writings about the Treaty of Tordesillas and the discovery of America.

This intense and rich period of activity ceased in 1926 with the overthrow of the Republic. In 1927 he once again served the causes of freedom and democracy via armed resistance. An important character in the February Revolt, the first to challenge the dictatorship, he was designated Porto’s civil governor by the revolutionary committee while the city remained behind barricades. It was in these circumstances that a young Adolfo Casais Monteiro, not yet the director of the Presença magazine, not yet one of the men who’d “discover” the greatness of Fernando Pessoa, a mere student anxious to defend freedom, met him, a moment that marked him for life. “Victorious in one part of the nation,” he’d later write in O País do Absurdo, “the uprising ended up being dominated, but in Porto it resisted while it was possible, until the siege imposed a surrender; and it’s from that brief period that I keep my first image of Jaime Cortesão, in the revolutionaries’ headquarters, where some students had gone to offer to fight on their side. It was the first time I saw him and many years went by before the 17-year-old student could meet his exemplary hero – precisely to remind him the episode, and to tell him what his figure and example meant, during all those years, to our resistance to tyranny.” Casais Monteiro, like his idol, would also flee to Brazil in order to avoid political persecution.

With the uprising suppressed, Cortesão and his family escaped to Spain and then France, where he worked in the Paris Library and the National Archives, continuing his method of writing history, basing himself on the meticulous study of documents, spending hours in the archives looking for material ignored by other historians, untangling myths and rebuilding received ideas. With the proclamation of the republic in Spain (1931) he moved there, teaching and writing more history books on the Discoveries, making use of Seville’s General Archive of the Indies, a vast archive containing personal documents from figures such as Fernão de Magalhães, Hernán Cortés, and Christopher Columbus. But the Spanish Civil War put an end to this idyll: Cortesão was in Barcelona when Franco’s air force bombed it, forcing him to flee to France across the Pyrenees, losing considerable part of his documental archive. But his sojourn in France was brief too since soon the German army was marching in its direction to invade it. Since Lisbon constituted the only open port for those who wanted to abandon Europe, in 1940 he returned to the homeland, aware of the dangers that awaited him and soon became reality. Detained, he was incarcerated in Peniche, where he gave history lessons to his cellmates; then he was transferred to Lisbon. With the category of “banned” on his passport, he was allowed to leave for Brazil. During this chaotic period of moving from one country to another while Europe slowly succumbed to fascism, he found the time to write Os Factores Democráticos na Formação de Portugal (1930), a history book about the role democracy played in the construction of Portugal, a rebuttal to those who, in the footsteps of Maurras’ integral nationalism, justified the dictatorship on the grounds that Portugal was not historically prepared to be a democracy.

A man of inexhaustible resources, Cortesão reinvented himself in Brazil, or better yet, he consolidated his ancient interests in history. Since 1922 that his historical researched focused on the history of Brazil. There he gave new breath to that vast theme: he researched, discovered, published and interpreted unknown documents; he travelled across Brazil in search of the original landmarks left by the bandeirantes, the men who explored Brazil and enlarged its territories by occupying and settling new regions; through geographical and orographical studies he deepened the study of the formation of Brazil, and revolutionized what it knew about itself, receiving for his efforts several official honours and the admiration of the Brazilian people in his lifetime. He also worked for the government: at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he created a course that taught history, geography, cartography and national formation to Brazilian diplomats. In 1952 he was invited by the city of São Paulo to organize the Historical Exhibition, integrated in the celebrations of its 400 years, an event that was an astounding success. Provided with a diplomatic passport he travelled to Europe to collect new material for the exhibition, taking the occasion to make a stop in Portugal to see old friends, including Teixeira de Pascoaes, who’d pass away shortly after their reencounter. As a historian, his exile was no doubt the most fertile and productive period of his life and he never forgot his debt to the Brazilian people. In the book A Fundação de São Paulo he went so far as to claim that “loving and serving Brazil is one of the finest ways of being Portuguese.” He certainly demonstrated that. And the Brazilian repaid that love: in 1957 he was decorated with the title of São Paulo’s Honorary Citizen. That same year he returned to Portugal.

As for the Portuguese dictatorship, it honoured him the only way it knew how, with its unmistakable spitefulness and pettiness. At the age of 74 Cortesão was arrested, alongside António Sérgio (one of Portugal’s greatest essayists and comrade in arms in the February Revolution), Azevedo Gomes e Vieira de Almeida, in the Caxias fortress. When the Brazilian press got wind of this it set up an aggressive campaign to have him released, and Salazar capitulated. The regime, at this time, was committed to courting Brazil, trying to fall in its good graces and strengthen their ties, in order to find valediction in the eyes of Western democracies and international organizations. Reading the texts by Adolfo Casais Monteiro (Artigos de O Estado de São Paulo; O País do Absurdo) or by Jorge de Sena (América, América, the letters to Sophia de Mello Breyner), one gets the impression that Brazilians did not hold Portugal in high regard, for good reasons: a backwards, dictatorial country, with a gagged press, exporting an official culture that interested no one, that died with the regime that created it, while its true artists lived in the margins, struggling to be heard and known, the nation could only deserve condescending glances from Brazil. So Cortesão (and the other exiles) also represented, even if unofficially, the best of Portugal for almost two decades, counterpoising, with his erudition, generosity and nobility of spirit, the ignoble image Salazar was exporting.

In Cortesãos’ final years he continued to participate in cultural activities and to be a mentor for the opposition. He remained loyal to his repulsion for active police: in the 1958 elections (from time to time Salazar liked to pretend he believed in democracy by orchestrating “free” elections that never came to anything) he turned down the invitation to run for president. That year he became a president, but of the Portuguese Society of Writers, receiving unanimous votes and replacing his old friend Aquilino Ribeiro. When he passed away in 1960 he had achieved a moral stature that made him one of the most admired men of his country by his peers. Nowadays he’s almost unknown; his most persistent work is História dos Descobrimentos Portugueses (1960-1962), which continues to be published. But the rest is either out of print or published so obscurely it’s rare to see him mentioned anymore. That in spite of what his books can teach, especially to his countrymen, about history, the creation of the modern world and themselves. But it’s not surprising: his generation and the one immediately afterwards – David Ferreira and his son, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, Raul Proença, Aquilino Ribeiro and António Sérgio – is also somewhat depreciated. Somewhere poet Eugénio de Andrade wrote that “it’s sad to live in a country without memory.” That is the natural order of things around here. But I like to remember things, to read what others don’t want, to expand my databanks of useless knowledge, so I have immense sympathy and patience for all these forgotten figures and try to give their oblivion short breaks.


  1. A fascinating piece, even if it is probably unlikely that I will read Cortesão. I am reading Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy on the history of America at the moment. Did Cortesão acknowledge the horror inflicted on the native americns by the colonists?

  2. Ah, Séamus, Séamus, Séamus, your pertinent question could lead to a reply thousands of words long. Cortesão, in spite of his many qualities, was a 19th man and thus harboured certain, not prejudices, but mentalities. He acknowledges slavery as the worst aspect of the Discoveries, but he also places them within a wider view of slavery across history, with the Greeks, Romans, Arabs; his usual defense is that, yes, slavery was bad, but you should see the marvellous cities and temples they built with slave labour! And he sides with the traditional view that Portuguese colonialism was benevolent and gentle and a harbinger of civilization. He lived before post-colonialist theory, you have to make some allowances.

    The most urgent question is, Can the Portuguese consider their colonial history in a post-colonial light? It's not impossible, a certain left-wing of our historians does, but it's very difficult because the grandeur of the Discoveries is the only glory Portugal can brag about, so it needs to remain grand and clean and pure and unproblematic in order for us to continue to glory in it.

    Other nations, understanding the modern world they live in, try to downplay their colonial past and rebrand themselves: Italy has the Renaissance; Germany has lots of philosophers; England and France share the Enlightenment; Spain has countless great painters. They can afford to stop glorying in the former empires. Portugal doesn't have anything to replace the empire with - we didn't give the world great thinkers, painters, writers, scientists, etc. - we had them, but they never mattered on a world scale, because of our own inability to export our culture, because of our shutting ourselves to the world for centuries because of absolutist kings and a fierce Inquisition that kept Portugal on the margin of all great European breakthroughs. So we must continue to believe that the Discoveries was a great gift we gave to Mankind, immaculate and bloddless, our golden hour, even though no one cares about Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Fernão de Magalhães, etc outside Portugal.

    You'd have to live in Portugal to appreciate how intensely this past is felt: we name streets and bridges after our explorers, Portugal's world exhibition, Expo' 98, was about the Oceans, of course; we make commercials about the Discoveries. It's everywhere, not to mention our daily language is soaked through with nautical expressions - it's a past that's more tangible than our present, actually, since the downside of this nostalgia is that we frequently ignore what's going on around us in the world.

    I've always been curious to read Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America. It was Saramago who directed me to it.