Monday, 7 June 2010

Portugal and the sea

The Portugese were once a mighty power. They still tell stories of the great days of the 15th to 17th Century. Sadly those days are gone.

Our walking encyclopedia, Paolo, who spent five hours walking us around the city was at pains to tell us, in a self deprecating style, how the Portugese were once the best at many things; that their city was voted the most inclusive in Europe; that for 800 years the christians, the Muslims and the jews lived in harmony; how the revolution of 1974 was the first peaceful peopl'e revolution in history and more than that that the Portugese invented 'afternoon tea' - the queen wanted to check up on her philandering husband and would invite all the ladies of the court to "afternoon tea" if one failed to show I imagine that that was probably the last afternoon tea for you.
Now tea being an east indies herb brings me to the seafaring part of the story.

At Belem west of Lisbon a huge monument celebrates the golden age of Portugal. Belem is the site from which the great sailors (Diaz, Vasco Da Gama etc) embarked to discover the world beyond Europe. It's a big story, too big to tell here but it's a beauty.

This tiny seafaring nation was at least a century, maybe two, ahead of its sister countries of Europe in terms of exploration and as a result, wealth. They were crazy for sailing into the unknown. They were the first Europeans to round the Cape of Good Hope and annexed almost the entire coastline of Africa - east and west; they then took on the Indian Ocean and hit India (not an easy boat ride given that they didn't know where the next landfall was) and proceeded to take control of that coastline from Mumbai around to Burma.
They then continued along the Asian and South East Asian landmass to finally claim parts of China and Japan. As a side trip they included Timor and stayed on for a few hundred years. They did all this without any other trading nation knowing where the hell they had got to. This was 1490s to mid 1500s. They brought back huge quantities of spices, food, gold, slaves - you name it - and made the merchants and the country filthy rich. All this had previously been carted overland and the losses (bribes, taxes etc) were expensive.
Not satisfied with that they then headed southwest fron Lisbon and bumped into South America (now Brazil) and also, though less well known, headed northwest and came upon Newfoundland (N. America) and the fabulous fishing grounds of the Grand Banks.
For the next century the rest of Europe couldn't figure out where all the salted cod was coming from. (for a great story about this part of Portugese history and a telling insight into how to ruin a fishing industry read Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlinsky). Salted cod is still a popular traditional dish and is offered in nearly every restaurant in the country.

Then they got lazy. got invaded and lost the plot. In 1807 the King (Ferdinand) fled to Brazil for 20 years or so to avoid defeat by Napoleon. On his return there was afeud between the sons as to who the next king should be and having lost momentum and focus went downhill from there.

The moral of this tale.

1. Too much of a good thing will ultimately become a bad thing.

2. Plenty of Ying always leads to Yang.

3. Some things survive despite the odds - salted cod and potatoes; tea and coffee; memory and pride.

And then there's the Moorish history and the terrible fate of the Muslims and the Jews at the hands of the Christian fundamentalists.
Then there was the invasion of the tourists.


sheri... said...

steve, your post on portugal's history was fascinating! i fared poorly at history when i was in school and to this day i don't remember dates that well :( now that i'm a little older i find myself devouring it, choosing to watch a program on the history channel before anything else!
you've shared a wonderful story here, one of a proud people! and i won't soon forget the 'afternoon tea'!! :)

Adam said...

There's something unnusually symmetrical about the photo of the 4 intrepid travellers - Did you guys intentionally cross your legs like a mirror image?

Jennifer said...

The best way to see anywhere is to walk it. Love your rundown and "moments" of Portugal's history. A former ESL student of mine, from Portugal, gave me all sorts of reasons to want to visit. His talk of food, including salted cod, is one of them!

Jingle said...

Happy June!