Portugal – General Aspects

PORTUGAL, one of the smallest states of Europe, was nevertheless during a short epoch one of the most powerful.

It might appear at the first glance that Portugal ought to be a member of a state including the whole of the Iberian peninsula; but it is neither to chance nor to events purely historical that Portugal owes its separate existence. The country is one by its climate, fauna, and vegetation, and the inhabitants dwelling within it naturally adopted the same sort of life, nourished the same ideas, and joined in the same body politic. It was by advancing along the coast, from river to river, from the Douro to the Minho and Tejo, from the Tejo to the Guadiana, that Portugal constituted itself an independent state.

Soil and climate mark off Portugal very distinctly from the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Speaking generally, that country embraces the Atlantic slopes of the plateau of Spain, and the limit of the heavy rains brought by westerly winds coincides very nearly with the political boundary between the two countries. On one side of the line we have a humid atmosphere, frequent rains, and luxuriant forests; on the other a brazen sky, a parched soil, naked rocks, and treeless plains. These abundant rains convert the feeble streams flowing from the plateau into great rivers. The natural obstacles, such as rapids, which obstruct the principal amongst them, are met with near the poltical frontier of the country. The harbour of Lisbon was the kernel, as it were, around which the rest of the country has become crystallized. Its power of attraction proved equal to that which caused the rest of the peninsula to gravitate towards Madrid and Toledo.

As frequently happens where neighbouring nations obey different laws and are made to fight each other at the caprice of their sovereigns, there is no love lost between Spaniards and Portuguese. The former, being the stronger, sneer at ” Portugueses pocos y locos ” (small and crack-brained). The Portuguese are far more demonstrative in giving expression to their aversion. Formerly ” Murderer of the Castilians ” was a favourite sign-board of houses of entertainment, and the national poetry breathes passionate hatred of the Spaniard. This animosity must interfere with the Iberian union, advocated only by a handful of people.

Ancient Lusitania ‘ as inhabited by Celtic and Iberian tribes, who resisted for a considerable time the conquering arms of Rome. Those dwelling near the coast had been subjected to the influence of Greek, Phoenician, and Carthaginian colonists ; but the influence exercised by the Romans, who forced their language and form of government upon the people, was far more durable. Suevi and Visigoths have left but few traces of their presence. The Mohammedans of various races have largely modified the blood and manners of the inhabitants, especially in Algarve, where they maintained themselves to the middle of the thirteenth century. The numerous ruins of fortresses existing throughout the country bear witness to the severe struggles which took place between these races before uniformity of government and religion was established.

The Kings of Portugal, taking the advice of the Inquisition, expelled all heretics. The persecution of the Moors was pitiless, but the Jews were occasionally granted a respite. The Spanish Jews settled near the frontier, having outwardly embraced the Christian religion, were permitted to remain ; but the more conscientious Jews kept true to their faith. and carried the knowledge they possessed to other countries of Europe and to the East. At the time of their exile they w ere engaged in literature, medicine, and law. as well as in commerce ; at Lisbon they had founded an academy of high repute ; it was a Jew w ho introduced the art of printing into Portugal ; and Spinoza, that noble and powerful thinker, was a Jew of Portuguese extraction.

But the Portuguese have not oui the blood of Arabs, Berbers, and Jews in their veins, they are likewise much mixed with negroes, more particularly in the south and along the coast. The slave trade existed long before the negroes of Guinea were exported to the plantations of America. Damianus a Goes estimated the number of blacks imported into Lisbon alone during the sixteenth century at 10,000 or 12,000 per annum. If contemporary eye-witnesses can be trusted, the number of blacks met with in the streets of Lisbon equalled that of the whites. Not a house but had its negro servants, and the wealthy owned entire gangs of them. The immunity of Portuguese immigrants who face the deadly climates of the tropics is sometimes ascribed to this infusion of negro blood, but erroneously as we think. Most of these immigrants come from the mountains of the north, where the race is almost pure ; and if the Portuguese become acclimatized more rapidly than individuals of other nations, the), owe it to their sobriety.

At the present day it is the Galicians who exercise most influence upon the population of Lusitania. They immigrate in large numbers to Lisbon and other towns, where they gain then living as bakers, porters, doorkeepers, and domestic servants. Being ridiculed on account of their uncouth language and rustic manners, they mix but little with the rest of the population. Their numbers, however, are eve increasing, and their thrift and industry soon place them in a position of ease.

The mixture of these diverse elements has not produced a handsome race. The Portuguese possess but rarely the noble mien of the Spaniard. Their features, as a rule, are irregular, the nose is turned up, and the lips are thick. Cripples are rare amongst them, but so are tall men. Squat and short, they are inclined to corpulency. The women cannot boast the tier^ beauty of the Spaniards, but have brilliant eyes, an abundance of hair, animated features, and amiable manners.

Travellers speak highly of the manners, civility, and kindness of the peasantry not vet contaminated by commerce. The cruelties committed by Portuguese conquerors in the Indies and the New World have given the nation a bad reputation, though, as a rule, the Portuguese has compassion for all sorts of suffering. He is a gambler, but never quarrels; he is fond of bull-fights, but takes care to w rap up the bull’s horns in cork, in order that the animal may be saved for future contests ; and he is exceedingly kind to domestic animals. In their intercourse the Portuguese are good-tempered, obliging, and polished. To tell a Lusitanian that he has been ” brought up badly ” is to offend him most seriously. Their oratory is elegant, though ceremonious. Even the peasants express themselves with a facility and command of words remark able in a people so badly educated. Oaths and even boasters, they are most guarded in their conversation. Portugal has produced great orators, and one of her poets, Camoes, is amongst the most illus. trims the world has ever seen. On the other hand, Portugal has given birth to no great artist, for Gran Vasco is a mythical personage. Camoes himself avows this when he says, “Our nation is the first because of its great qualities. Our men are more heroic than other men; our women better-looking than other women and me excel in all the arts of peace and war, excepting in the art of painting.”

Portuguese is very much like Castilian as far as root-words and genera] construction are concerned, but is far less voluminous and sonorous. Nasal and hissing sounds, which a foreigner finds it difficult to pronounce, abound, but there are no gutturals. Arab words are less numerous in Portuguese than in Castilian, but the Lusitanians, as well as the Spaniards, still swear by the god of the Mohammedans—Ocala (Ojala) ; that is. ” It’ Allah wills it.”

The Portuguese cannot compare in numbers with the other nations of Europe, and their influence upon the destinies of the world is consequently small. At one time of their history, however, they surpassed all other nations by their maritime enterprise. The Spaniards certainly shared in the great discoveries of the fifteenth century, but it was the Portuguese who made them possible by first venturing to navigate the open ocean. It was a Portuguese, Magalhaes, who undertook the first voyage round the world, terminated only after his death. A similar pre-eminence amongst nations will never he met with again, for the increased facilities of communication exercise a levelling influence upon all. Portugal. therefore, can never again hope to resume the national status which she held formerly, but her great natural resources and favourable geographical position at the extremity of the continent must always insure her an honourable place amongst them.