Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Decline of Portugal

The seeds of Portugal's downfall were, however, already being sown. With added riches the nobles grew self-indulgent, and the old patriotic spirit gave place to a love of ease and luxury. The officials grew corrupt, inclined to oppress the people, and, above all, the best blood in the country was gradually being drained away to supply the wants of her new possessions. Her young men volunteered as sailors to man the fleets, or as soldiers to fight her battles in the far-away lands beyond the seas, and what with the fighting and the unhealthy climates, few of those who sailed away ever returned. There was also much emigration to Madeira and the Brazils, and it was always the strongest and most enterprising who left the mother-country to seek their fortunes abroad.

There were yet other reasons which contributed to the gradual decline.

In 1441 negro slaves had been brought home by the explorer Nuno Tristao, and the slave trade steadily increased as years went on, till by far the greater part of Southern Portugal was cultivated for the nobles by black labour. It was cheap, but it drove out the peasantry for lack of employment, and led to more emigration than would otherwise have been the case.

Then came King Emanuel's great mistake, the expulsion of the Jews.

All Jews who refused to become Christians were ordered to leave the country within six months. A great many of them were well known for their honesty, industry, and wealth, and also for their high intellectual qualities, so that Portugal was in reality banishing vast numbers of her most capable and enterprising citizens.

In 1536, John III. introduced the Inquisition, which in course of time became so fanatical that the merest suggestion of heresy caused men and women to be imprisoned, cruelly tortured, and even burnt at the stake. All this tended still further to crush out the manhood of the people. Moreover, the powers of the Inquisition were largely used for political purposes. Thus, under a fair exterior, the country was steadily decaying.

King John died, and in 1557 we once more find a little child of three years old—Dom Sebastian—ascending the throne.

This time, however, there was no wise mother to act as Regent, and at fifteen the young King was declared of age, and took the government into his own hands. He was by nature a dreamer and a visionary, and very obstinate. He looked on war as the noblest occupation for a King, and being deeply religious, became fired with a romantic ambition to become a true soldier of the Cross, and to carry Christianity to the Moors in the North of Africa at the point of the sword.

The Pope and the King of Spain both refused to help in such a wild undertaking; Sebastian's own Ministers and advisers did their best to dissuade him, but he was a despotic and self-willed monarch, and in his saintly enthusiasm he drained his treasury and imposed new taxes on his already heavily burdened people, to provide money for the great Crusade.

His best Generals and fighting men were all in India, but he raised an army of raw recruits and mercenaries hired from other countries, and at length set sail for Morocco with an army of about 17,000 men.

Poor Dom Sebastian was utterly unpractical, and a hopelessly bad General, but he proved himself, in his first and last great battle, to be a brave and fearless soldier. His little army was surrounded by that of the Moorish "Sherif," more than three times its numbers, and after an heroic struggle, in which quite half the force lost their lives, the remnant were taken prisoners.

What became of the King nobody quite knows. He was last seen fighting in the forefront of the battle, wearing his crown. Afterwards, stripped of its clothes and disfigured with wounds, a body was found which was supposed to be his, and which was eventually taken back to Portugal for burial. There are others who say that no trace of the King could be discovered, either among the prisoners or the slain, and the Portuguese populace still believe that he will some day return in a miraculous way, crown and all, to rule his people, and to raise his country to her ancient fame.

There is no need to tell you much more about the history of Portugal. After the reign of Dom Sebastian the days of her greatness were over. She came under Spanish rule for sixty disastrous years, during which time the enemies of Spain became her enemies also, and her trade and naval power were practically ruined by the Dutch and English. She was also made to feel the weight of Spanish oppression at home, but at last, in 1640, the plucky little country, remembering the proud traditions of her past, rose in revolt, and threw off the foreign yoke.

Since that time England, her old ally, has more than once stood by her in her day of trouble.

In the time of Napoleon it was England who enabled Portugal to maintain her place among the nations, but we must also not forget that it was largely through her help that Wellington was able to bring the long Peninsular War to a triumphant end.

At the present day the country has a constitutional Government somewhat on the same lines as our own. The Cortes, or Parliament, consists of a house of representatives elected by the people, which corresponds to our House of Commons, and of an upper chamber of grandees—fidalgos they are called—who are appointed for life by the King, and which is rather like our House of Lords. But unluckily for Portugal, there is a tendency among the officials never to do to-day what can be put off till to-morrow, and much corruption prevails.