Monday, 27 May 2013

The Portuguese empire

Further on the Portuguese, this wonderful, melancholic Youtube video, accompanied by an aching soundtrack from Madredeus, a contemporary music group, highlights the reach of their empire - from Macau to Morocco, the straits of Hormuz to the west coast of Africa, Goa to Brazil. Both a snapshot of the extent and durability of the Portuguese achievement, linked to a palpable sense of nostalgia for vanished glory that, I guess, haunts all empires that have had their day - the British Empire not excluded.


  1. Random thoughts having just visited Lagos, Sagres Fortress, and Cape St. Vincent lighthouse.
    Lagos is not the miniature Venice I expected but a plain harbor town with small caravels, small town square open to the harbor, small church, and small surrounding buildings.The most unpretentious major port in Western European history.There is a road running by the town square but In Henry’s time the road must not have existed and the water lapped at the town square. St. Anthony of Padua’s Church is the only sign of opulence from the Golden Age. Sitting in the nave surrounded by gilded walls makes this Protestant think he is sitting in a Sikh temple. No Renaissance architecture, art works, or statues of sea captains. Where did the money from African trade go? Did the Lisbon quake of 1755 destroy the town and nothing exists from Henry’s day?

  2. Sagres Fortress is misnamed. A large country residence compound with high walls but unlikely to stop concentrated attacks. Inside the walls it is as far from a Blenheim Palace as one can imagine and no physical signs of a mariner’s school other than the fascinating compass outlined on the grounds.

  3. Cape St. Vincent wind was strong and unceasing. I lost my cap twice. Even with lateen sails how did the Portuguese caravels return from West Africa in the face of such strong winds?

  4. However, rather than note the absence of grand architecture in Lagos and Sagres I should remind myself of the deeds that were done from there and, besides, Lisbon served as the Venice of Portugal.

  5. And I thank you for highlighting the Monument to the Discoveries. it is one of the most moving memorials I have visited(Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. the most moving). A work of art done by a Portuguese committee - rare indeed.The skills, courage, and sacrifices, are evoked as one stands at the base. The sea captains behind Prince Henry are individualized and, I assume, can be identified. One cannot help but then reflect upon the traders, priests, farmers, women, and children who followed the sea captains in line.
    Lastly, the upright sword at the inland side of the monument is so ingenious because it easily transposes into the Christian cross and back again into the sword. Exploration and settlement: the Sword and the Cross.

  6. Closing out my comments on our visit to Portugal:
    Prior to visiting Lagos and Sangres Fortress I read Peter Russell’s Henry the Navigator: A Life. A thorough discussion but, to me, it reads like a professor conducting seminars.Each chapter begins with a description of sources, critiques the sources, and ends offering commentary. A better title might be Prince Henry the Navigator: A Discussion of the Sources. Not a lively approach.
    Given the modest Portuguese resources I saw firsthand I have great admiration for Henry’s leadership but...... I need the basics. As a reader I need a physical image. I need his personality traits. Cromwell described, worts and all. Why did he not marry and seemingly have no interest in women? Was it because he was the head of the Order of Christ and felt he was ineligible?
    Was he close to anyone? Mother listened to an astrologer who predicted Henry would lead a crusade and expand human knowledge. His mother repeated this refrain and so did Henry act a self-fulfilling prophecy to please mother? Why did he never hoist a sail himself? He only crossed the few miles in the Mediterranean Sea between Portugal and Morocco? And what was his goal in fighting Moroccans? Winning a base in North Africa surrounded by Muslims would accomplish what? How could it survive?
    Finally, what were the sentiments of Henry toward his father, brothers, mother, and subjects and vice versa? Henry didn’t act in a vacuum; what were the emotions of the time? Just a sample list of questions.
    Your books on Venice are my favorites, in part, because the figures like Henry are filled in in color and not black-and-white.