The Marquis of Pombal

Lynne Booker


PRIDE OF PLACE - Standing grandly atop a pillar in the centre of Lisbon, accompanied by a stone lion, stands the effigy of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, better known as the marquês de Pombal, a man whose impact has left to this day deep and enduring marks on this country. Pombal and Prince Henry the Navigator were similar because each did much to ensure that history would see him in a good light.


Within a decade of the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Pombal had fostered a new historical tradition in which he was cast in the role of the great and omniscient benefactor who had averted God´s wrath and saved the King. He was a man feared, reviled, cursed on the one hand, and admired and honoured as Portugal´s greatest statesman on the other.  What was it about ´The Pasha´, as he was known to some, that encouraged such widely differing views?


50 years of relative obscurity

Born in 1699 into the obscure minor gentry, Pombal joined a tradition of Portuguese scholars, diplomats and politicians who had lived abroad. They were the ´alienised´ (estrangeirado)  elite who wished to adopt the foreign ways they had seen and to take charge of their own country´s destiny in a modern European way.  Although D João V (1706-1750) respected Pombal´s abilities, he did not like him, saying that he had cabelos na coração.  Pombal served as Ambassador to the Court of St James from 1738 and then he went on a special mission in 1745 to the Court of Vienna.  He remained there for 4 years and, his first wife having died, he married in Vienna the niece of Field Marshal Daun in a love match. This marriage gave him access to the best society in Vienna and, most important, on his return to Portugal, he quickly found favour with the D Maria Ana, the Austrian born wife of D João V.


Portugal´s ´Jekyll and Hyde´

When D João died in July 1750, the ambitious and patriotic modernisers soon grasped their opportunities.  The dowager Queen D Maria Ana  appointed Pombal to the secretaryship of Foreign Affairs but it was not until the earthquake on 1 November 1755 that Pombal emerged as Chief Minister.  His rival, Alexandre Gusmão the royal secretary, had declared  ´the Pasha has obtained his purpose, such are the ways of the world!  The people will suffer for it, and the news will go down to future times, which will admire the effects of his spacious ideas in everything that falls within his own department (if he does not meddle in the others!)”. The stage was set for this brilliant, imaginative, industrious man, a man whom D João had called dangerously unpredictable, to take charge.  Pombal´s ´dangerous unpredictability´was soon felt.  To those who opposed him he was implacable and ruthless and on occasion a merciless and sadistic tyrant.  We always think of him as marquês de Pombal, although he was created conde de Oeiras in 1759 and marquês only in 1769 when he was 70 years old.


Lisboa Pombalina - A Fênix

The earthquake of 1 November 1755 (see article ín  Get Real ´4 November 2008) left Pombal´s house untouched in a clear divine signal that Pombal was protected by God.  Naturally D José turned to him in this crisis and it was he who persuaded the king not to move the capital to Coimbra, but to rebuild it from the ashes of the old.  The architect Eugénio dos Santos planned one of the most radical urban renewal projects in 18th century Europe.  The Baixa was to be rebuilt on a grid-iron plan and its buildings in a neo-classical style would have only three basic variations in their exterior design.  Some thought this plan monotonous and others thought that the whole of Portugal should be rebuilt in this way!  Vila Real de Santo António was designed and built in this style but the individuality of Portugal´s other towns and cities survived.


´... those better class people who see these insults .... condone them by their silence.´

Pombal´s views of the ´Oldest Ally´were mixed.  He never learnt to speak English (despite having been  a diplomat in London) but he was keen to read English ideas in French translation.  He was impressed by English commercial expertise and maritime power in general but he believed that the privileges enjoyed by the English factories of Lisbon and Oporto were unfair.  It is unarguable that they were much better off than their Portuguese counterparts in England where he had witnessed xenophobic Cockneys amusing themselves by stoning Portuguese sailors with impunity. English merchants often complained to him about his protection of Portuguese trade, but his answer was that if they could make no profit in Portugal, they should go home.  (see article in ´Get Real´14 October 2008).  Pombal had a grudging admiration for British ways and wanted the English as equal partners in the Old Alliance.


´I know their interests better than they do themselves, and the interests of the whole kingdom´

In his determination to control the commerce of the kingdom and its colonies, Pombal created chartered companies in Brazil and Asia, in tobacco, fishing and whaling, and port wine.  When the Lisbon Chamber of Commerce protested about the founding of the Brazilian company, Pombal had the Chamber dissolved and several members imprisoned or exiled.  When Oporto innkeepers protested against the privileges of the new Douro wine company, Pombal ensured that 17 of them were hanged, and another 160 were either sent to the galleys, imprisoned, fined or deported.  At the same time, Pombal knew that one of the greatest obstacles to his economic reforms was the conservative nobility who had tolerated heretical British merchants but opposed the emergence of a Portuguese merchant class.  He decided to ´divide and rule´.  Some aristocrats were given preferment and favours - making them loyal dependents of his system, while others were singled out for persecution ´of a barbarity almost unequalled until the executions of the French Revolution ...´ (D. Birmingham).  Following one of D José´s amorous adventures with the marquesa de Távora, someone took a pot shot at the king.  Pombal siezed his chance to humble his aristocratic opponents.  Blaming the Távoras for the assault on the monarch, Pombal succeeded  in extinguishing the whole family.  The marquês deTávora himself was broken on the wheel while his wife was forced to watch the execution of their children.  A thousand more alleged enemies of the king were imprisoned.  Pombal had no more opposition from the old aristocracy.


Deducção Chronológica

In a second step towards establishing a climate in which to introduce ´enlightened´reforms, Pombal determined to rid his country of one of the most influential forces in Catholic Europe and the Iberian Empires - the Society of Jesus.  He drove them from their traditional place of influence as confessors of the royal family and threatened to establish an autonomous national church if the Vatican opposed him.  He closed monasteries and Jesuit schools; he confiscated the Jesuits´colonial possessions and eventually all their priests were expelled from Portuguese territory.  In his book ´Deducção Chronológica´ Pombal showed that all Portugal´s economic, social, political and religious ills were directly or indirectly due to the Jesuits working in accordance to a secret masterplan drawn up in 1540. A Portuguese equivalent of ´The Thoughts of Chairman Mão´and “The da Vinci Code”, this book and other anti-Jesuit propaganda were required reading for all state officials.  It was Pombal´s ambition to have the Society of Jesus internationally suppressed, and indeed it was suppressed in Western Europe until 1814.


Pombal´s Great Modernising Vision

Pombal´s social and educational reforms included ideas for training clerks, introducing science and mathematics and French philosophy into the syllabus of potential high state functionaries, medical and surgical education, botanical gardens and an astronomical observatory. The Portuguese were innately conservative and because he lacked the essential foreign teachers needed to implement these ideas, Pombal´s vision of enlightenment and improvement did not achieve reality.  Once when it was proposed that all Jews wear a white skull cap, he brought three such caps to the palace.  One was for him, one for the archbishop and the third for the king.  There was no Portuguese, he said, without some Jewish blood in his veins.  He outlawed racial discrimination against the Jews and New Christians and abolished at a stroke the role of the Inquisition – which then became an efficient Pombaline secret police.  He freed all black people in Portugal from slave status, not as part of a liberal idealism, but because black labour was needed in Brazil.


A fall from grace

In 1775 when the reconstruction of central Lisbon was far enough advanced, Pombal deemed it right to embellish the Terreiro do Paço with the equestrian statue of D José I and on its imagery he summarised for the king the triumphs of his reign - improved literacy, expanded industry, burgeoning culture, prosperity and a capital that was a showcase of opulence.  He had done much to dismantle the feudal system of privilege and to create a new order. D José died on the night of February 24, 1777 and when Pombal presented himself at the palace as usual the next day, Cardinal da Cunha said, “Your Excellency has nothing more to do here.”  The new Queen, D Maria I, was anxious to fulfil the terms of her father´s will, to pay off royal debts and to free all political prisoners – there were over 800.  Amidst widespread rejoicing, effigies of Pombal were burned, and the most hated man in Portugal was exiled to his estate at Pombal as his bas relief was torn from the base of D José´s statue.  “I am very glad to hear it; it was a poor likeness,” said the marquês. There followed years of investigation into his government, but Pombal was able to show that D José had authorised all of his actions.  His doctor reported on this eighty year old, “ The marquês displays the vivacity of spirit, the lucidity and firmness of intellect, and the fresh and exact memory of a man not yet 30 years old.”  The new government would have found it most convenient if he had died, but Pombal survived until 8 May 1782.


Requiescat in pace

In the aftermath of Marshal Masséna´s retreat out of Portugal in 1811, the English Colonel Trant and his daughter passed through Pombal on their way to Oporto.  Clarissa Trant wrote in her journal,  “We passed many ruined villages which seemed totally deserted, and seeing much evidence of the cruelties committed by the French army.”  When they entered the church in Pombal,  “we were shown a vacant space where the tomb had stood, and on the walls the words respectez ce tombeau traced in chalk, but such an order was not likely to be regarded by soldiers who respected neither the dead nor the living.  They had broken open the coffin in hopes of finding treasure and scattered the contents in an adjoining courtyard.”  Clarissa helped her father collect the relics (“some fragments of bones, a pair of faded morocco slippers and a bag-wig”) and gave them to two elderly friars for safekeeping.  It seemed strange to her that “the duty of seeing these relics properly disposed of should have devolved upon a British officer and a little insignificant English girl.”   His mortal remains now rest in the Igreja da Memória in Belém, the church built on the site of the attempted assassination of D José.


The lion´s share

Broadly speaking, those who see Pombal as a great influence on the country esteem his modernising efforts to drag this excessively religious country into the eighteenth century; on the other side are those who deplore his undoubted cruelty and his attacks on religion.  These disputes are alive even today. From his lofty perch in the Praça Marquês de Pombal, his early twentieth century statue proudly looks down over the capital he once dominated, and can possibly just make out in the distance his royal master D José I still magnificent in Terreiro do Paço.  How strange that a reign of just 27 years in the eighteenth century should be commemorated by two of the noblest statues in Lisbon.