Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Which Treats of Lisbon and a Great Explorer

Lisbon has been the capital of Portugal ever since it was taken from the Moors by King Alfonso Henriques in 1147.

The harbour, where the River Tagus broadens out into a veritable inland sea, is one of the finest in the world. It is about ten miles from the river's mouth, where there is only a narrow passage by which ships may pass in and out, the greater part of the entrance being blocked by the bar or great sandbank, formed by the meeting of sea and river, and which is uncovered at low tide.

Steaming up the river, the first great feature of Lisbon which one notices is the palace of the Ajuda, standing out against the sky, a huge, solid-looking building on a hill, above the western portion of the town. It is in another palace near here, that of the Necessidades, that the present King, hardly more than a boy, remained for so many weeks without daring to venture beyond the walls, after the cruel assassination of his father and elder brother in the early part of 1908. The dreadful event is still so recent that most people will remember all about it.

The King and Queen and the Crown Prince had disembarked at the fine landing-stage on the river side of the Praca do Commercio, or Black Horse Square, as the English call it, from the equestrian statue of King Joseph I., which stands in the centre. They had only just started for the palace, and the carriage was turning out of the Square into the narrow street known as the Street of the Arsenal, when a band of men with firearms, which they had kept hidden under the long cloaks they were wearing, sprang out and shot the King and the Prince before anyone had time to interfere. The coachman lashed up his horses, and drove at a gallop into the gates of the Arsenal close by. The brave Queen had thrown herself in front of her son to try and protect him; but, alas! it was too late to save either him or her husband. It is said that when, some months later, the young King Manuel drove out for the first time through the streets of the capital to attend a solemn requiem Mass, the Queen-mother wandered in rest-less terror up and down the long rooms and corridors of the palace, fear gripping at her heart, lest he too should fall a victim to assassins, and she had arranged to have telephonic messages sent to her from successive points on the royal route as he passed them by in safety.

On the banks of the river below the Ajuda Palace is the historic old Tower of Belem, solid and square, with turrets at the four corners, and with ramparts, parapets, and battlements standing out into the water.

It was from this spot that long ago the great explorer, Vasco da Gama, sailed away to discover the new route to India, round the Cape of Good Hope. Those were the days of Portugal's greatness, when her sons went out to explore and to colonize, encouraged by their enlightened Prince, Henry the Navigator. Gradually her sailors found their way farther and farther from home, and made many settlements on the West Coast of Africa. In 1487 Bartolommeo Diaz, going farther still, discovered the Cape of Good Hope, and ten years later King Emanuel fitted out four ships, which he placed under the command of Vasco da Gama, who was to try and discover a way to India by sea.

We can picture the scene. The great explorer walking slowly down the stone steps to the water's edge, and stepping into the barge which was to take him to the ships lying farther out in the stream; the brightly dressed crowd, which had assembled to see him off; and the hero himself, grave, yet full of hope, as he took his last farewell of his native land before sailing away down the river with his little squadron.

They were considered very fine ships in those days, but compared to the great vessels we are accustomed to now they were really quite small, and only 160 men were required to man all four. For months they battled against adverse winds, which much delayed them, and then encountered one frightful storm after another, till the superstitious crew, feeling that all the powers of evil were being let loose against them, and terrified at the idea of going on into the great unknown, mutinied, and tried to force their leader to turn round and go back to Portugal. But he was made of sterner stuff, and that which he had set out to do he meant to accomplish. After doubling the Cape, he sailed on up the East Coast of Africa, and then across the Indian Ocean, and at last, after a voyage of nearly a year's duration, he reached India. The result of this expedition was that Portugal acquired many settlements and colonies both in India and Africa, and Vasco da Gama had great honours conferred upon him.

Many years later, on another voyage, he died at Cochin, far away from home, but his body was brought back to Portugal, and now lies in the beautiful church of Belem, near the old tower from which he had sailed away on that great voyage of discovery, which, above all others, was to make his name famous, and to alter the whole conditions of commerce with the East. It is a fitting place for him to rest in, for it was built by King Emanuel in fulfilment of a vow he had made to erect a church and convent to the Blessed Virgin on the spot where the famous navigator should land if his voyage proved a successful one, and it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the whole country.

It is built in a style peculiar to Portugal, called "Emmanuelan," a kind of Gothic architecture, very elaborately carved with figures, flowers, and foliage, knots, festooned cables, and endless other devices. Often this is overdone, and many Portuguese buildings are, for this reason, lacking in the simple grandeur of some of our own cathedrals. But at Belem this is not the case, for in its own way it is very beautiful. Coming into the cool semi-darkness from the hot, glaring sunshine outside, you seem at first only to realize that it is high and vast, a place in which to speak in whispers, a sanctuary to worship in, with wonderful carved white pillars disappearing into the mysterious gloom of the vaulted roof.

Behind the church lie the cloisters, where one might almost imagine that some beautiful lace had been converted into stone by a magician's wand, so wonderful is the carving and so delicate the tracery of arch and pillar.