Jose Saramago, the Nobel prize-winning Portuguese writer, described the Portuguese as “people who possess little and feel much.”
It wasn’t always so.
The Portuguese were the world’s great adventurers; for a glorious century, the Portuguese expanded the known world beyond the imagination and created a Portuguese empire. Prince Henrique (Henry) the Navigator of Portugal sponsored an impressive succession of voyages by Portuguese caravels with a series of bold, courageous, even fool-hardy adventures.
The Portuguese debunked and discarded the self-limiting hysteria that “The world is flat and there be dragons out there”.
Portuguese sailors, in 1415, crossed the Mediterranean and conquered, Ceuta, a Moorish port in what is now Morocco. From there, encouraged and funded by Henry, Portuguese sailors explored further and further down the coast of Africa whilst discovering Madeira and the Azores. Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, proving a sea passage to the East was possible; Vasco da Gama in 1498 crossed to Goa on the coast of India, The Portuguese didn’t stop; they slipped south to Cochin and around India into the East Indies and finally made landings and established contact with Japan in 1542.
They were active traders for spices, slaves, fish and other valuables. They established trade routes, built long term trading relations with the indigenous peoples they happened upon and became indescribably wealthy in the process. They found spices, gold, precious metals and gems and created a trade system that reaped riches beyond imagination for this tiny nation perched on the edge of Europe.
The history of Portugal in those two centuries of the early Age of Discovery are fascinating. The Maritime Museum in Belem, a suburb of Lisbon, is enthralling and thrilling, creating a thirst to read more and know more of this truly adventurous people.
I stand in awe of the courage of the Portuguese explorers. Their curiosity seems boundless, their inestimable drive to risk all to seek out new lands is unfathomable. Their willingness to subject themselves to the privations of voyages into the unknown that lasted for months, often years, is unparalleled.
The Spanish were scared little schoolboys compared to the Portuguese. The French, English and Dutch came much later, were little more than followers and opportunists.
The Portuguese were a small nation; their discoveries manifold for their size as a nation. Yet, in the end, they were spread too thin and were unable to control their ‘possessions’. The larger nations usurped them and they lost most of their colonies and, with that, most of their wealth.
Their temporary wealth was strewn across the country; churches, castles – monuments to a bloated, entitled, indulgent and very expensive narcissistic nobility – none of which could be sustained. The nobility expelled the Knights Templar and the Jesuits to confiscate their wealth in a vain attempt to pay their bills; they fell into ruin anyway. All that is left is monuments to their excess that we, as tourists, come to use as background for our selfies.
Portuguese history is fascinating for the glory, the hubris and the slide into insignificance and penury. Saramago may be right, the Portuguese may now possess little and feel much. While they may lack contemporary wealth and political stature, they are rich in history; the Portuguese explorer’s footprint is everywhere, never to be erased. The Portuguese do deserve to feel much.
Sometimes an adventure is most memorable for unexpected reasons; we go to somewhere to see castles, instead we become infatuated with the local pottery; on our wine tour we discover tapas, the wine is forgettable, the food is forever implanted in our epicurious memory. Sometimes we stumble onto something that was there all the time, something that was hiding in plain sight. Something that was so obvious that it did not merit consideration simply because it was so obvious.
The Portuguese explored, they discovered a new world, brought it to the attention of the world and ultimately were pushed aside by greater powers who colonized that world. It is a story that seems more likely to be fiction not fact.
It is a story that has been told for centuries, but it is a discovery – new to me.
I have some catching up to do.