Discovering the history of Portugal is discovering the maritime world. Together with Henry the Navigator and Luís de Camões, my first historical guides, I explore the maritime history of Portugal, Europe and the world. Portugal, country of brave seamen, epic voyages and the rise and fall of a global maritime power.
The Camões square is the heart of ‘bohemian Lisbon’ and is located in between the quarters Chiado and Bairro Alto. It belongs to one of the most vibrant squares of the city, where guides are talking about Henry the Navigator and Luís de Camões during their tour. History as a product for the tourist industry. Portugal, once discovering the world and now selling itself to that same world for just a couple of euro’s.
“‘Where the land ends and the sea begins.’ The tourguides starts his lesson, right in front of the group, in the middle of the square: “These poetic words describe Europe’s most south-western country and are written by Luís de Camões in his 9,000 lines long epic poem Os Lusíadas. The commercial maritime power of Portugal is the most important theme in his writings. Inspired by his life as a merchant seaman, and his voyages to Africa and Asia, Camões finishes his masterpiece after his return to Lisbon. Finally he prints Os Lusíadas in 1572, just a couple of years before he dies on the 10th of June in 1580.”
The group of Germans look around. Some visitors take pictures of the statue, while the tourguide continues his story: “The day of his death has become a national day in Portugal – the Camões Day. His epic poem belongs to the highlights of European Renaissance and is by far the most important work in the history of Portuguese literature. His statue, in the middle of the square that is named after him, reminds passengers of the golden ages of discoveries in the 15th and 16th century.” Camões looks serious, while he is holding his famoes poem Os Lusíadas. Some people in the group are yawning, tired of the long walk in the burning sun.
In front of the statue hang around some queery teenagers, a drunk man with a plastic bottle of cheap beer, and another group of tourists waiting for their tourguide. Mixed feelings of happiness and sadness can be felt, while walking around this area. The city of light breaths the glory of expansion and at the same time is filled with sadness of a fallen empire. Who really has read Os Lusiadas? Why is Camöes such a hero? Questions are rising, while the tourguide is leading his group into Bairro Alto where he continues his talk.
Praça Luìs de Camões, Lisbon
“Lusíadas refers to the Lusitanians, an ancient tribe located between the river Tejo and the river Douro at the Iberian Peninsula. Around 197 AC the Romans arrive in Portugal and a violent confrontation follows. After decades of war the Romans win, but not without loosing thousands of soldiers. The rebellious Lusitanians don’t accept authority that easy and it takes another 150 years to stabilize the area. Under the Roman Pax the Lusitanians slowly evolve in a self-governed community and this is the beginning of the birth of a communal identity, which is nowadays claimed as ‘Portuguese’.
Under Roman rule Christianity is flourishing and after the fall of the Roman Empire around 400 AC the Christian Visigoths become the most dominant tribe among the immense amount of tribes on the Iberian Peninsula. Internal fights and the lack of unity pave the way for the the Islamic Moors and around 700 AC the first Moorish troops arrive in Gibraltar. In the process of conquest the well-educated Muslims spread their knowledge about navigation, irrigation, medicines, mathematics, the old Greek texts, and the Islam.
For 370 years the Moors are ruling the Iberian Peninsula until the 11th century, when the Christians start their Reconquista. In collaboration with the Order of Knights Templar, the richest Christian institution in the western world, and with the help of Henri of Burgundy, the Moors are slowly defeated. In 1139 the first Christian king Afonso Henriques settles down and the boundaries of Portugal as an independent nation are formalized. A long and complicated royal history follows and aristocratic affairs are daily practices during the late Middle Ages. They marry, they fight, they querrel and this finally leads to the birth of prince Henrique in the 14th century.
The thirds son of João I from Portugal and the English Philippa of Lancaster marks a turningpoint in the pre-modern history of Portugal. Prince Henrique, alias Henry the Navigator, leads Portugal to the discovery of the New Worlds. Together with Vasco de Gama, the first man who sailed around the cape of Africa to India, they belong to Portugal’s national hero’s representing the flourishing maritime trade of Portugal in the 15th and 16th century. Henry the Navigator is the first figure of the monument in Belém, where also the famous tower and the Hïeronymus Cathedral are located. The overwhelming Manuel style characterises the Portuguese Renaissance. We also offer tours to that part of the city.”
The voice of the tourguide fades away. I close my book and look around the Camöes square. Some philosophical thoughts are entering my mind. “If Henry the Navigator has become the symbol of the Portuguese discoveries, perhaps Luís de Camões is the maritime consiousness of Portugal? Two figures that have become a touristic attraction in Lisbon, but who are they really and what happened to them? What happened with Portugal? Once the ‘first global power’ and now struggling in todays globalized world?” I take a nip from my bica and put the history book in my bag. Enough readings for today.
While researching the maritime history many unhidden stories are unfolding. It is hard to distinguish myths from facts. I take a deep breath and start walking downhills into the direction of the river Tagus. I have to hurry to catch the ferry to Seixal. History has many faces and I just have met a few. In search for more hidden stories of Portugal I slowly discover the treasures of the Atlantic Ocean. Right on time I catch the boat. Through the window of the ferry I see Lisbon becoming smaller and smaller. Suddenly I know what the title will be of my next article: Portugal, ‘where the land ends and the sea begins’.
Photo 1: ARM Collective (2013) – visao.sapo.pt
Photo 2: huehueteotl.wordpress.com
Photo 3: http://visitnorthportugal.com