1808: The Flight of the Emperor (4 page)

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The French enter Lisbon: famished soldiers in tatters, whom Prince João could have defeated with British help—if only he had the courage.

Engraving by Louis Gudin, 1820

In her memoirs, the duchess of Abrantes, wife of General Junot, said that her husband entered Portugal “more as a fugitive than as an emissary who was sent to announce overtaking the country.”
On arrival at the port of Lisbon, the soldiers were so weak they could barely stand. Many forced the Portuguese to carry their weapons for them. “We were in a situation that was hard to believe,” wrote Baron Paul Thiebault, who participated in the invasion as Junot's division general. “Our uniforms had lost their form and color. My toes poked out of my boots.”

“Without cavalry, artillery, cartridges, shoes or food, stumbling with fatigue, the troop resembled ‘the evacuation of a hospital more than an army triumphantly marching to the conquest of a kingdom,'” notes English historian Alan Manchester, describing the invasion of Portugal.
“There is certainly no example in history of a kingdom conquered in so few days and with such small trouble as was Portugal in 1807,” says Sir Charles Oman, author of
A History of the Peninsular War,
the most important work written about Napoleon's campaign in the Iberian peninsula. “That a nation of three million souls, which in earlier days had repeatedly defended itself with success against numbers far greater than those now employed against it, should yield without firing a single shot was astonishing. It is a testimony not only to the timidity of the Portuguese Government, but to the numbing power of Napoleon's name.”


The Declining Empire

t seemed that human imagination had no limits in 1807. In England, steam propelled an empire. This new technology, invented by James Watt in 1769, gave birth to the mechanical loom, the driving force of the Industrial Revolution, to the locomotive, to the steam ship, and to the steam-powered printing press, among other mechanical novelties.

Throughout Europe, salons, cafés, theaters, museums, and galleries incubated innovative ideas and creations that definitively marked the history of culture and arts. In Germany, writer and poet Johann von Goethe finished the first part of
his masterpiece. In Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven composed his
Fifth Symphony.
The American Revolution of 1776 echoed across the globe, and the French Revolution of 1789 had redrawn the map of Europe.

Few periods in history brimmed with so many adventures, inventions, and conquests—including political convulsions and ruptures—but curiously none of this seemed to affect the Portuguese. Three centuries after inaugurating the great era of navigation and discovery, Portugal lay far from even remembering the vibrant times of Vasco de Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral. The signs of decline appeared everywhere. Lisbon, the capital of the empire, had long fallen behind its European neighbors as a radiating center of ideas and innovation. The call to enterprise, of curiosity, of the search for
the unknown somehow had slipped away from the Portuguese spirit. The age of glory had passed.

What had happened? Two theories offer explanations. The first is demographic and economic. With a relatively small total population of just three million inhabitants, Portugal had neither the people nor the resources to protect, maintain, and develop its immense colonial empire. It depended on slave labor, a demand that kept increasing in order to exploit gold and diamond mines and an industry of sugarcane, cotton, coffee, and tobacco farming.
With an essentially import and mercantile economy, the capital faced shortages. Although ships continued to arrive from all parts of the world, the Portuguese metropolis remained a relatively poor locale because the riches didn't stay there. Lisbon functioned as little more than a commercial waystation. From there, gold, wood, and agricultural products from Brazil proceeded directly to Britain, Portugal's main trade partner, while the New World diamonds headed for Amsterdam and Antwerp.

A sovereign of the seas two centuries earlier, Portugal no longer could defend itself on its own. Its formerly powerful navy had shrunk to thirty ships, of which six or seven were unfit for sailing. It was an insignificant fleet when compared with the British Navy, which at that time dominated the world's oceans with 880 combat ships.
As a result of its weakness, the French had captured more than two hundred Portuguese merchant navy ships between 1793 and 1796.
Attacks by French pirates between 1794 and 1801 also affected the kingdom's commerce to the tune of more than 200 million francs, almost all of it cargo loaded in Brazil.
Today that loss would amount to about $550 million.

The second explanation for the decline comes from the realms of politics and religion. Of all the countries in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Portugal remained the most resolutely Catholic, conservative, and averse to the libertarian ideas that germinated revolutions and more peaceful transformations in other countries. It is difficult to overestimate the enormous power of the Church. Close to 300,000 Portuguese—10 percent of the total population—belonged to a religious order or remained in some way dependent on monastic institutions. Lisbon alone, a relatively small city of 200,000 inhabitants, contained 180 monasteries. Virtually
every ostentatious building in the country was a church or convent.
For three centuries, the Church held control over the people, nobles, and royalty. Because of religious scruples, science and medicine were backward or practically unknown. Dom José, heir apparent to the throne (older brother to Dom João), had died of smallpox because their mother, Maria I, had prohibited doctors from vaccinating him. The queen grimly believed that the decision between life and death lay in the hands of God. For her, it did not fall to science to interfere in this divine process.

Processions, masses, and other religious ceremonies guided social life. The Church both determined and monitored individual and collective behavior. In the middle of the eighteenth century, elaborate wooden screens divided the interior of all churches in Lisbon to hinder contact between men and women during liturgical services.
Portugal was the last European country to abolish the autos-da-fé of the Inquisition, in which people who might dare criticize or oppose the doctrine of the Church, including infidels, heretics, Jews, Moors, Protestants, and women suspected of witchcraft, were judged and condemned to death by burning at the stake. Until 1761, less than half a century before the transfer of the court to Brazil, public executions of this type still occurred in Lisbon, attracting thousands of devotees and onlookers.

“We left a society of lively men who moved through fresh air, and entered into a timid, almost sepulchral enclosure, with a turbid atmosphere of the dust of old books, inhabited by the ghosts of doctors,” lamented the poet and writer Antero de Quental, analyzing the desolate situation of Portugal and its mightier neighbor, Spain, in the eighteenth century. “The last two centuries on the Iberian Peninsula have not produced a single outstanding man who could be put alongside the great creators of modern science. From the Peninsula has not emerged even one of the great intellectual discoveries, which are the great work and highest honor of the modern spirit.”
Although Quental included Spain on his roster of backwardness, between the two countries Portugal was by far the more decadent (in the stricter, etymological sense) and averse to modernization of traditions and ideas.

The combination of these two factors—the scarcity of demographic and financial resources and the backwardness of political ideas and of traditional
customs—had transformed Portugal into a land of nostalgia held hostage to the past and incapable of facing the challenges of the future. With a small population disproportionate to the vastness of its empire, it had no means to defend or even propel its colonial economy. It was a sedentary, obese animal with a weakened heart, lacking the force to advance the parts of its monumental body, its limbs stretching across three continents and two oceans, from South America, through Africa, to the limits of Asia. “The immense colonial empire, as vast as it was vulnerable, was in the most complete disagreement with the means of action deployed by the metropolis to defend and maintain it,” observed de Oliveira Lima.

The wealth of Portugal came from easy money, like the profits of inheritance, casinos, and lotteries, none of which demand sacrifice, creative effort, innovation, long-term investment in education, or the establishment of lasting institutions. During a period when the Industrial Revolution in Britain and America began to redefine economic relations and the future of nations, the Portuguese still existed as prisoners of an extractive economy on which they had constructed their ephemeral prosperity three centuries earlier. The economy persisted on the pure and simple exploitation of its colonies, without any investment in their infrastructure or strictly unnecessary improvements of any kind. “It was a wealth that did not beget wealth,” writes historian Lília Schwarcz. “Portugal contented itself in draining its colonies in a very parasitic manner.”
Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, author of
The Roots of Brazil
, shows how in Brazil the colonists had an aversion to hard work. They aimed to exploit all available wealth as quickly as possible with the least effort and without any commitment to the future: “What the Portuguese came to Brazil in search of was without a doubt wealth, but wealth that required audacity, and not work.”

Following the chain of missed economic opportunities, this dependence on resource extraction meant that manufacturing never developed in Portugal. Everything was bought from abroad. “The tendency for an abundance of natural resources to weaken institutions and undermine the development sustained by its nations is almost a curse,” Dr. Eliana Cardoso, professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, points out. “Countries with economies based principally on the trade of raw materials are driven to
commit a series of errors and negligences that impede the modernization of society.”

The five principal products of Portuguese colonies—gold, diamonds, tobacco, sugar, and slaves—constituted the commercial axis of the South Atlantic. Those commodities were simultaneously the salvation and damnation of Portugal. “They lacked manufacturing, and failed to produce foodstuffs or clothing in sufficient quantity to meet the minimum necessities of the population, but nonetheless lived in an ostentatious manner, bankrolled by the gold that flowed nonstop from the Americas,” writes Lília Schwarcz. “The capital of the Portuguese empire was like that, completely rife with contrasts, where the luxury of the court, living off precious metals from the tropics, cohabited alongside lack of provisions and financial dependence.”

The first shipment of gold from Brazil arrived in Portugal in 1699. That first half ton of ore grew to twenty-five tons by 1720. In total, an estimated one thousand to three thousand tons of gold sailed from Brazil into the imperial Iberian capital.
Historian Pandiá Calógeras calculates the value of gold shipped to Portugal between 1700 and 1801 as amounting to £135 million—the contemporary equivalent of $11.8 billion. One fifth of this amount went directly into the coffers of the king in the form of taxes.
Another historian, Tobias Monteiro, estimates that from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais alone, some 535 tons of gold were sent between 1695 and 1817, to the tune of 54 million pounds sterling at that time, or $4.7 billion in today's equivalent. Monteiro calculates that another 330,000 pounds of gold were illegally smuggled in the same period.
The flow of wealth to Lisbon grew even more with the discovery of diamond deposits in the colony in 1729. Pandiá Calógeras estimates that approximately 3 million carats—1,355 pounds of diamonds—were extracted from Brazil between the middle of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, counting stones traded legally and smuggled.

The prosperity and pageantry generated by this commerce resulted neither in culture nor sophistication. The last to end the Inquisition, Portugal was also last to abolish slave trafficking and to guarantee freedom of expression and individual rights. “In Portugal, there was no science, nor politics, nor economy, nor nobility, nor a court,” wrote the Portuguese diplomat José
da Cunha Brochado, disturbed by the comparison that he himself made between the habits of the Portuguese court and those of other monarchies in Europe. “Knowledge is in exile; in the convents, all that is known is how to pray the Divine Office.”

Then in 1755, a massive natural catastrophe aggravated the economic decadence and further reduced the Portuguese national self-esteem. On the morning of November 1, All Saints' Day, a devastating earthquake detonated off the southwest coast of the country, killing between 15,000 and 20,000 people in Lisbon alone. An enormous tsunami followed as did a conflagration that burned for six days. Churches, homes, palaces, markets, public buildings, and theaters all fell to cinders and ash. Rubble blocked two-thirds of all roads. Only 3,000 homes remained habitable of 200,000. Of the forty churches in the city, thirty-five collapsed. Only eleven of the sixty-five convents that existed before the earthquake remained standing afterwards. The famous Royal Library—70,000 volumes maintained with diligence and pride since the fourteenth century—turned to smoke and had to be entirely reconstructed.

Curiously the tragedy resulted in the one brief surge of modernity in Portugual, though. Sebastião de Carvalho e Melo, the marquis of Pombal, all-powerful minister to King José I since 1750, received orders to reconstruct Lisbon. Atop the ruins, his government redesigned the city with promenades and wide avenues, plazas, fountains, and new buildings. Roads were to be illuminated and cleaned, gardens well-maintained, construction efficiently organized. Pombal saw to this with an iron fist. Reconstructing the capital, he ended up reforming the empire itself. He subdued the nobility and drastically reduced the power of the Church. He expelled the Jesuits from the country and its colonies. He also reorganized education, which until then the Church had controlled.

With Pombal's government began a late entry in the Age of Enlightened Despotism in Europe, in which the monarch and his trusted associates kept the nobility under control and wielded the power to reform not only the state but also the customs of the people and the very landscape of royal rule. It was a period of progressive reforms, though quite far from being liberal. Censorship continued to maintain rigorous control over the publication of
books and periodicals, for example. Before Pombal, this role lay in the hands of the Church and the Inquisition. Afterward, it passed to the state. No work could be published or sold without having passed through the winnow of the Royal Censorial Court, its members appointed by the government.

This spate of reforms ended abruptly on February 24, 1777, with the death of José I, a weak king who had delegated governing to Pombal. His daughter and successor, Maria I, the first sovereign woman to occupy the throne in the history of Portugal, restored power to the more conservative, pious, and backward sectors of nobility. The queen was “the most sanctimonious product of Jesuit education in the course of nearly three centuries,” according to historian Oliveira Martins. “All around were whispered rosaries, saints were placed in all corners, in every oratory and niche, as candles and lamps blazed alight.”
Pombal was ostracized. On August 16, 1781, royal decree prohibited him from coming near the court. According to the law, Pombal had to maintain a minimum distance of seventy miles from the queen.
The objective of this royal restraining order was to keep him away from the center of power—and it succeeded.

BOOK: 1808: The Flight of the Emperor
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