The Portuguese - A Modern History by Barry Hatton

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


I see from the image of the book that the subtitle has been changed from Portrait of a Nation, which is a more accurate description, to A Modern History in my edition (which I found meaningless). The subject matter is partly history, partly personal reminiscence and partly about Portugal after its accession to the European Union. Mr Hatton addresses questions which constantly assail us expatriates. How has the leader of European exploration and imperial expansion fallen on hard times? Why do the forcados challenge bulls in the bullring? How did a democracy emerge from the forty years of Salazarism? Why is Portugal so poorly developed in comparison with Spain? How is Portugal really doing in the modern rat-race? Where are the success stories in modern Portugal? The book emerges as Portugal occupies centre-stage in Europe for the first time since the Carnation Revolution of 1974, but this time for financial reasons.


The answers are characteristically upbeat as the author explicitly disparages the Portuguese national habit of self-deprecation. His daughter pleaded with him not to portray the Portuguese as labregos, or bumpkins, and he follows her wishes admirably. His chapters on fado, on the eating customs of the Portuguese, and the Portuguese love of idiosyncrasy and individualism, even anarchy, provided this reader with fresh insight. In his quarter of a century in Portugal, Mr Hatton has come to know and to love the Portuguese character, and he conveys his enthusiasm with clarity. He admires their skill at improvisation, their courage, their love of good living. In an interview, he allows some frustrations to emerge such as the Portuguese lack of respect for punctuality, their disorderly parking and their parochialism both geographic and professional. Many expatriates would agree.


Mr Hatton's touch is less sure with older Portuguese history. The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, but not from Portugal. D Manuel I chose to retain Portuguese Jews within Portugal by the expedient of forcibly converting them to Christianity. The non-aristocratic Afonso d'Albuquerque was Governor of India (not Viceroy) and was never ennobled but died in disgrace off Goa after falling victim to aristocratic intrigues in Lisbon. Drake raided the Algarve coast in 1587, but not in the company of the Earl of Essex, whose raid occurred in 1596. The grid iron pattern of the baixa in Lisbon is not unique in Portugal, as visitors to Vila Real de Santo António may attest. The army of Sir Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal in 1808, not 1809, to begin British involvement in the Peninsular War. The tombs of D Pedro I and Inês de Castro are not side-by-side at Alcobaça, but face each other across the church, so that as they arise at the reincarnation, they may see each other before they see anything else. But these small mistakes do not detract from the overall value of the book.


One of the useful comparisons that Mr Hatton makes is that between the Portuguese and the Irish. These two peoples on the western rim of Europe share heritages of similar geography and ancestry. Each is known for tranquillity, for individuality and for a certain insouciance. Their near neighbours, the Spanish and the British, are much more orderly and stiff-necked. And he vividly portrays the view of his Portuguese daughter, who on a visit to London found British system and order irritating, and who wanted just to make a mess.


In an interview on the Portuguese radio station Antenna 1, Barry Hatton explained that his original title for the book was turned by the editor into a chapter heading. Wrestling Bulls was his original choice, and I agree with him that it would be a better title for the book. The exploits of the forcados amadores are inexplicably brave, even foolhardy, and uncharacteristic for Portuguese in that their survival depends on organisation. There is also the connotation that it is wise not to tangle with men who wrestle with bulls! In Spain, the bull at the bullfight will always die in the ring, sometimes tragically at the hands of an inept matador. By contrast, the Portuguese bull, although tired and stung by the bandarilhas, gets the chance of revenge against the forcados, and leaves the bullring often unwillingly but at least on his feet. There is something of fair play in the Portuguese bullfight.


Corruption is a difficulty in Portugal, and is probably endemic in the EU. The one modern Portuguese who was famously sea-green incorruptible was the then Colonel Ramalho Eanes, who commanded the units which protected the Revolution in November 1975 from a lurch to the left. His reward was election to the Presidency of the Republic in 1976 and promotion to General. In office he would accept none of the customary presents and gifts to a Head of State but only his official salary. It may be this characteristic which accounts for his reputation among schoolchildren as the last king of Portugal.


Mr Hatton has lived in Portugal for 25 years, is married to a Portuguese and has three Portuguese children. He jokingly says that he is Portuguese from the neck down, and so he is still well able to see Portugal with British eyes. He is by profession a foreign correspondent, and for the most part he writes good clear English with plenty of pace and in an attractive style. He is well qualified to write a modern history of Portugal, and his book is very readable. It has clear and unusual black and white photographs, and it may be a prototype for other books in that it was printed in India. I was surprised to discover that the list for Further Reading had no room for Professor Charles Boxer, that giant among historians of Portugal, but Mr Hatton finds room to quote him more than once in the text of the book.


The book which most nearly resembles Mr Hatton's modern history is of course Marion Kaplan's The Portuguese: the Land and its People first published in 1991, twenty years ago. Barry Hatton's book is a timely update of our knowledge of issues concerning Portugal over the last twenty years and his accessible book adds to our knowledge and appreciation of our hosts, the Portuguese. It is thoroughly recommended and well worth buying.