NEWS of the French Revolution came to a Portugal that was struggling to return to the quiet order of the Middle Ages after the violent and scandalous attempt of the Marquês de Pombal to bring it abreast, in culture and law, with the France of Louis XV and the Spain of Charles III. The Pyrenees obstructed the flow of ideas between France and the Peninsula; the movement of ideas from Spain was hindered by Spain’s recurrent eagerness to swallow her sister state; and in both countries the agents of the Inquisition loomed like lions at a palace gate to repel any word or thought that might question the ancient creed.
At the bottom of the social scale stood other guardians of the past: the simple, mostly unlettered commoners—peasants, craftsmen, tradesmen, soldiers—who were fondly habituated to their transmitted faith, comforted by its legends, awed by its miracles, thrilled by its ritual. At the top were the feudal barons, models of manners and owners of the soil; a timid, feebleminded Queen Maria Francisca, and her son John, regent (1799) and then (1816–26) king; all dependably protective of the Church as the indispensable support of private morals, social order, and absolute, divine-right monarchy.
Amid these diverse sentinels lurked a small minority—students, Freemasons, scientists, poets, businessmen, a few officials, even a noble or two—who were irked by the despotism of the past, furtively flirted with philosophy, and dreamed of representative government, free trade, free assembly, free press, free thought, and a stimulating participation in the international of the mind.
Upon that timid minority, those shocked commoners, those startled dignitaries and Inquisitors, the news of the French Revolution, however dulled by delay, came as an exhilarating or terrifying revelation. Some reckless spirits openly rejoiced; Masonic lodges in Portugal celebrated the event, the Portuguese ambassador in Paris, who may have read Rousseau or heard Mirabeau, applauded the French National Assembly; the Portuguese Minister for Foreign Affairs allowed the official gazette to salute the fall of the Bastille; copies of the Revolutionary Constitution of 1791 were sold by French booksellers in Portugal.1
But when Louis XVI was deposed by a Paris uprising (1792), Queen Maria felt her throne tremble, and surrendered the government to her son. The future John VI turned with fury upon the liberals of Portugal, and encouraged his intendant of police to arrest, or expel, or keep under unremitting surveillance, every Freemason, every important alien, every writer who advocated political reform. Francisco da Silva, leader of the liberals, was imprisoned; liberal nobles were banished from the court; Manuel du Bocage (1765–1805), leading Portuguese poet of the age, who had written a powerful sonnet against despotism, was jailed in 1797, and supported himself in prison by translating Ovid and Virgil.2 In 1793, infuriated by the execution of Louis XVI, the Portuguese government followed Spain in a holy war against France, and sent a squadron to join the British fleet in the Mediterranean. Soon Spain negotiated a separate peace (1795); Portugal asked for a like accommodation, but France refused, alleging that Portugal was in effect a colony and ally of England. The quarrel simmered till Napoleon, after conquering half of Europe, reached out for the little state that was refusing to join in his Continental Blockade of Britain.
Behind the military and political situation of Portugal lay the precarious structure of its economic life. As with Spain, the nation’s wealth depended upon the importation of precious metals from its colonies; this gold and silver, rather than domestic products, went to pay for imported articles, to gild the throne, enrich the rich, and purchase luxuries and slaves. No middle class grew to develop natural resources with progressive agriculture and technological industry. When command of the seas passed to England, the supply of gold became subject to evading the British Navy or making terms with the British government. Spain chose to fight, and almost exhausted her resources to build a navy excellent in everything but seamanship and morale. When that navy, reluctantly merged with the French, was defeated at Trafalgar, Spain became dependent upon France; and Portugal, to avoid absorption by France and Spain, became dependent upon England. Enterprising Englishmen filled important posts in Portugal, opened or managed factories there. British goods dominated Portugal’s import trade, and Britons agreed to drink port wine from Oporto (”the port”) in Portugal.
The situation irritated and tempted Napoleon. It defied his plan to bring England to peace by excluding her products from Continental markets; it gave him an excuse for conquering Portugal; a conquered Portugal could share with France in imprisoning Spain within French policy; and a subject Spain might provide another throne for another Bonaparte. So, as we have seen, Napoleon persuaded the Spanish government to join with France in invading Portugal; the Portuguese royal family fled in an English vessel to Brazil; and on November 30, 1807, Junot led a French-Spanish army, almost unresisted, into Lisbon. Liberal leaders in Portugal flocked to the new government, hoping that Napoleon would annex their country and give it representative institutions.3 Junot humored these men, secretly laughed at them, announced (February 1, 1808) “that the House of Braganza has ceased to reign,” and more and more behaved like a king.