The Hands That Built Portugal - Part I
Statue of Afonso I of Portugal in Guimarães, district of Braga.

There is just something about history that is fascinating; it helps us understand why we act in a certain way, why such a thing happened and why we are either united, or separated. Europeans are connected since the dawn of the Roman Empire and still, it seems impossible to grasp the rich history and special background from so many diverse countries.

History functions as a cold heartless double-edged sword that joins us together and drives us apart, whether it is from old vendettas and national rivalries or from centuries of cooperation and old alliances, we are what our ancestors left behind. This article talks about some important moments in the history of Portugal, which created these famous sons of the country: kings, artists, navigators, poets, writers and politicians. These are some of the personalities who shaped the future of Portugal.

Norway has Harald Fairhair, France has Clovis I and Portugal has Afonso Henriques. He was born in 1109 as the son of Count Henry and Countess Theresa of Portucale in the northern most part of today’s Portugal, which was under the control of Léon. In the 12th century the Iberian Peninsula was a terrible place to live in as there were a lot of conflicts between Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Some of the Northern Kingdoms (Christians) would fight among themselves for territorial control or Independence, and the Southern Kingdoms (Muslims) would act in the same way, creating chaos all around!

Afonso Henriques like most of the Iberian nobles of the time enjoyed two things: fighting and being a monarch. He was involved in many wars, but being also a monarch seemed less plausible due to the fact that his family were vassals of the Kingdom of Léon. His mother, Countess Theresa, was not very fond of an independent Portuguese realm. Afonso could succeed in gaining support from most of the county’s nobles and from full support of the clergy. His army defeated his mother’s army in battle in 1128. The new declared Prince of Portugal sent his mother to a convent for the rest of her life. In 1139 Afonso declared himself the King of Portugal, but only in 1143 the King of León finally recognized Portugal’s Independence in the Treaty of Zamora. Afonso Henriques’ ambitions were the key factor which contributed to the birth of what could someday be the world’s first global empire.

While the first line of Portuguese kings were all about fighting and conquering, the second line of kings were the one responsible for the Age of Discovery and for presenting Portugal as a powerhouse in the European game. John II, who lived on late 15th century during the Age of Discovery, was exactly what the second Portuguese dynasty symbolized: innovation, fearlessness and ruthlessness, knowing that in order to expand he could never does so via land, as the only option would be to follow the idea of his great-uncle Henry the Navigator and expand the country via the ocean. John was never particularly liked among the powerful nobles, namely because he was too stubborn and seemed pretty immune to outside influences or any nobles’ opinion. This made him into an early concept of an absolute king. Every noble who opposed him ended up stabbed, missing, expelled, arrested or poisoned and when John was criticized about this so called ’national cleanse’, he replied “I am the lord of lords, not the servant of servants”. During his rule the Portuguese crown saw hundreds of discoveries in what would be the golden age of Portuguese exploration, to such an extent that most of the discoveries are still unknown and would not be probably known due to the Earthquake of 1755, where many of them got lost.

Among the eminent kings of Portugal it is important to mention a famous Portuguese politician The Marquis of Pombal during the monarchy of King José I. After Spanish domination in Portugal (1581 - 1640), during 4th Portuguese dynasty Braganza Marquis of Pombal decided to follow a series of benevolent despotism ideologies and political strategies in order to modernize Portugal. He was proved to be an important man in the reconstruction of Lisbon in one of the worst moments of Portuguese history - the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which killed around 90,000 people and devastated Lisbon. The event was so powerful that it led to scientific studies of modern seismology and earthquake engineering, according to some rumors the earthquake was felt even in Poland. After the earthquake people in Lisbon asked him, what they could do in this situation. He bravely replied: “Now we bury the dead, and take care of the living”.

The history of Europe is a rich fountain of wisdom and we should open it as often as possible in order to remember who we are and in what direction we are moving. Only history can help us draw conclusions from the past events and to progress further.