Blog single

Bad Winds and Bad Marriages: A Brief History of Portuguese Independence

One Peninsula. Two Nations

Bad winds and bad mar­riages!” So jest the Por­tuguese about Spain, their con­joined Iber­ian sib­ling. Although the winds may con­tin­ue, there have not been any bad mar­riages” late­ly and the eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al bonds between the two nations are cor­dial and sym­bi­ot­ic. This being said, the détente that has grown over the past cen­tu­ry has not com­plete­ly erased hun­dreds of years of com­pe­ti­tion and dis­trust. That a nation with less than 15% the land­mass of Spain and only 25% of the pop­u­la­tion could offer this com­pe­ti­tion says much about Por­tu­gal as a nation. In fact, the ques­tion I want to address today (in a very broad sense) is how it could have sur­vived the past 800+ years as a sov­er­eign nation. 

I will save the saga of how the Visig­oths replaced the Romans on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la for anoth­er post. For today, it suf­fices to say that the dis­or­ga­nized Visig­oth­ic rul­ing class was eas­i­ly defeat­ed by the Moors (Mus­lim North Africans) in the year 711 AD. The Moors would push north­ward, con­quer­ing the entire Iber­ian Penin­su­la except for an enclave on the north­ern coast (in mod­ern-day Asturias). From this enclave would come the first effec­tive orga­nized resis­tance at the Bat­tle of Cov­adon­ga in the year 722. Over the fol­low­ing cen­turies, a Recon­quista” would take place that would end (at least from a con­ti­nen­tal per­spec­tive) in 1492. These cen­turies of recon­quest are his­tor­i­cal­ly con­fus­ing at best. Although much of the mod­ern nar­ra­tive regard­ing Iber­ian nation­hood on the Penin­su­la is based on a noble resis­tance to the Mus­lim invaders, the truth is much more com­pli­cat­ed, with Chris­tians fight­ing Chris­tians more fre­quent­ly then they fought Moors. The same can be said for the Mus­lims who fought against each oth­er in this peri­od and often allied them­selves with Chris­tians if the cause pro­mot­ed their inter­ests. Out of this caul­dron of war and intrigue, mod­ern Iberia slow­ly start­ed to emerge. 

Normal Width Image

Here we see the three primary Kingdoms of the Peninsula: Portugal, Castile, and Aragon. Navarre would be asorbed into Aragon, while Granada in the south would be definitively absorbed by the joint Kingdom of Castile and Aragon in 1492.

Even­tu­al­ly, three major Chris­t­ian King­doms vied for pow­er: Por­tu­gal, Aragon, and Castile. In 1384, the Army of Castile invad­ed Por­tu­gal to impose con­trol. Remark­ably, after two years (and with some help from the plague), the out­num­bered Por­tuguese emerged vic­to­ri­ous, sub­se­quent­ly sign­ing a treaty with the Eng­lish to guar­an­tee their inde­pen­dence. This alliance cre­at­ed a pat­tern of war and antipa­thy between Spain and Eng­land (today Great Britain) that con­tin­ues in a rel­a­tive sense through the present day. (Gibral­tar is one legacy.) 

The three Iber­ian King­doms ref­er­enced above were reduced to two when Isabelle and Fer­di­nand mar­ried and uni­fied the crowns of Aragon and Castile, com­plet­ing the expul­sion of the Moors and essen­tial­ly cre­at­ing mod­ern Spain. Both Spain and Por­tu­gal would be ruled by Haps­burg (Aus­tri­an) mon­archs with mar­riage and blood main­tain­ing a frag­ile peace. From 1581 to 1640, the two coun­tries were unit­ed, under what is referred to as the Iber­ian Union. The Union was dis­solved (with Eng­lish sup­port) dur­ing the 28-year War of Por­tuguese Restoration. 

In 1807, the Span­ish invit­ed Napoleon to cross their ter­ri­to­ry to chal­lenge British influ­ence in Por­tu­gal. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for the Span­ish, Napoleon decid­ed that while he was there, he would claim sov­er­eign­ty over the entire Iber­ian Penin­su­la. The ensu­ing Penin­su­lar War would see the British, Por­tuguese, and Span­ish fight­ing togeth­er to defeat the French. Although the remain­der of the 19th cen­tu­ry saw some con­tin­u­ing con­flict between Spain and Por­tu­gal, nei­ther coun­try pos­sessed the will or the resources to waste on each oth­er. The 20th cen­tu­ry brought curi­ous­ly sim­i­lar fates for both nations, with mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships that peace­ful­ly melt­ed into mod­ern democ­ra­cies and inte­gra­tion with the Euro­pean Union. 

The leit­mo­tif in the nar­ra­tive above is that Portugal’s inde­pen­dence from its much larg­er neigh­bor was nev­er inevitable. Por­tu­gal fought hard, built their own empire, played a deft diplo­mat­ic hand, and on more than one occa­sion ben­e­fit­ed from a lit­tle bit of old fash­ioned good luck. An even more inter­est­ing aspect of this sto­ry is how the Por­tuguese expe­ri­ence set them apart cul­tur­al­ly and lin­guis­ti­cal­ly. They are not a cul­tur­al sub-set of Spain. (And they want you to know that.) I will dis­cuss this fur­ther in a future post.