Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Peasantry

The peasants are very hard-working, particularly in the north, where they are a finer race altogether than in the south, not only better-looking, manlier, and more resolute in character, but thriftier and more industrious.

In a previous chapter I told you about the dancing and singing that they are so fond of; but they are not always light-hearted, for there is another and darker side to their lives.

The wages are much lower than in England, and the working hours much longer; sunrise to sunset is the measure of labour, and the summer days are long and the sun is cruelly hot. By the time work is over, the tired peasants can often have but little heart left for fun or frolic.

The end of a long day.


Very few agricultural machines are used in Portugal, all the sowing and reaping being done by hand. The grain, too, is threshed out with flails. The workers stand round a heap of maize and swing their flails rhythmically up and down with a dull, thudding sound, till all the grain is threshed out.

There is an old folk-song about this which I must quote for you. The feeling that runs all through the verses reveals pathetically the dull monotony of the long hours spent in weary toil. The singer begins by reproaching his flail; then his conscience smites him as he remembers that it is by the aid of this trusty friend that he earns his bread, and that to-morrow will be as to-day—an endless to-morrow of toil and labour.

Wheat is separated from the husk in a very odd way. It is trodden out by oxen, and beans are worked out of their pods in the same manner. The women toil in the fields just as hard as the men—if anything harder, and one may often see a woman carrying a huge load on her head with a man strolling idle and empty-handed beside her. Even the children have to make themselves useful, starting work at a very early age. A solemn little boy or girl carrying a goad twice their own height will walk barefooted in front of ox-cart or plough, guiding the great docile beasts in the way they should go. The children, too, are sent out to herd the cattle and to look after the flocks.

[Illustration] from Portugal by Edith A. Browne

The above is a well-known Portuguese folk-song. As is always the case with folk. songs which are traditional, there are slight differences in the versions in use in different places. The above is the version as sung by students at Coimbra. All present should clap their hands on the first three beats of every bar. The author is indebted for the English translation to Mr. Morton Latham.

I knew a little boy who seemed to spend his whole life shepherding his father's flock of sheep and goats, which are always mixed in Portugal. Early in the morning he would leave the farm and wander off over the moors. In cold weather he would wear a sack over his head to protect himself from the piercing wind; in summer he would try to find a cool spot beneath some high rock or shady tree, and there he would contentedly eat his midday meal of black bread, olives, and goat's-milk cheese, always, however, keeping an eye on his charges, lest any should stray.

Herd boy and his flock.


Quite different is the work of the shepherds in the mountainous country of the north and in the great Estrella range, where the lofty crags and deep gorges of the mountains stretch away as far as the eye can see. Here it is men's work, and in the summer, when the flocks are taken to the high upland pastures, the shepherds live in roughly-built stone huts. At night they often sleep in the midst of their flocks, while their dogs, big long-haired mastiffs, keep guard on the outskirts to give warning at the approach of danger.

Very real danger it is at times, for in the narrow, precipitous ravines of these wild hills are still to be found—though of late years much more rarely—the large brown wolves, which steal down at dead of night to carry off their prey. The struggle is fierce between the faithful watch-dogs and their savage enemies. The shepherds in the darkness lay about them lustily with their staves, the growling and snarling of the wolves and mastiffs mingle with the bleating of the sheep and goats and the shouts of the men, till at last the wolves are beaten off, slinking away as noiselessly as they came.

The cottages of the poor are often only small, one-storied houses, built of loose stones without cement, and just plastered roughly over to keep out the wind. Inside they are dark and dreary, and very scantily furnished. Although they work so hard, the peasants in many parts are wretchedly poor, and their food none too plentiful. It is different from that of an English labourer, being mainly black bread, made from a mixture of maize and rye-flour. They also eat olives, rice, oil, vegetables, and a considerable quantity of dried and salted cod-fish—bacalhau, as it is called. It smells and tastes very strong, and before it is cooked is as hard as a board. Nevertheless, it is very nutritious. The whole population is particularly fond of it, so much so that it is by no means unusual to see people eating it uncooked, though to us it would not seem at all a tempting delicacy.