On the night that Theresa May’s plan for Brexit is overwhelmingly voted down in the British Parliament, I was thinking about the use of historical symbols to remind a nation of erstwhile power and achievements. No, not in Britain, despite the theories of nostalgia for a long-gone empire being a factor in the Leave Europe vote.
I was thinking of Portugal. Another great empire at one point, forged by bravery, greed, cruelty and great endurance. Created by men setting forth in shallow-drafted wooden ships, or caravelas, accompanied later by bigger, armed cargo ships, carracks or nao in Portuguese .
The first explorers were first sent out under the impulsion of Prince Henry the Navigator early in the 15th century; they gradually clawed their way down the West African coast, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, worked up the East Coast of Africa and eventually reached the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The years of sea-born exploration, disasters and success led to Portugal opening up important sources of spice, slaves and innumerable other riches, not only in Africa and Asia, but also in the Americas and beyond. In fact, their fleets of ships led to Portugal founding an empire that began with the capture of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 and only ended when they relinquished their last holding, Macau, to China in 1999. It represented nearly six centuries of a wide-flung empire, one founded on sailing ships and its sailors, explorers, traders and missionaries.
Today’s Lisbon is full of allusions to those ships, caravelas and naos, in all forms of art. Nostalgia, pride about the past, celebration of achievement at the time when the art was created - all of the above, I suspect. I became fascinated by the ships depicted everywhere, even in the flooring at the Lisbon Airport duty-free shop!
One of the most familiar to visitors to Belem, along the Tagus River to the west of down-town Lisbon, is the Salazar-era Monument of the Discoveries, created initially fur the June 1940 World Fair in Lisbon and sited at the point where the ships would set sail out of the mouth of the Tagus towards the Atlantic and distant shores. The Monument was later made permanent in concrete and stone, and today, it evokes those sailing ships and the early navigators on its prow
Everywhere one goes, however, in Lisbon, there are carracks or caravels. The first I saw were delicious small commemorations of the Portuguese ships first arriving in Asia woven into the four corners of a Persian carpet.
Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498 was soon being celebrated and commemorated in many ways, I found this vivid depiction of the Portuguese arrival by boat in a Tournai tapestry created from 1505-30. Unloading these ships was quite an operation.
It was not just spices, slaves and fabrics returning to Portugal on laden ships; soon precious metals and gems were arriving from Brazil and beyond.
The Portuguese had reached Japan in 1543, and in two complex Namban screens, the ships are prominent in the scenes depicted. Alas, I found them were hard to photograph with reflections on the glass protecting them.
Nearby in the Museu de Arte Antiga were more reminders of the Portuguese sailing to Japan.
By 1700, Portugal’s empire was already diminishing in size from its previous two centuries’ gigantic span as other countries - Spain. Holland, England - sought to gain control of Portuguese holdings. Nonetheless, the dock-sides in the Tagus River in Lisbon were still busy with ships constantly arriving and departing. An amazing panorama of Lisbon done about 1700 in blue and white tiles, that survived the devastating 1755 earthquake, still tells of the city and port as it had been.
Even in churches, the emblematic caravel was featured, to remind the faithful whence came so much of Portugal’s wealth and well-being. I strayed into the beautiful Church of Santa Catarina in Chiado, during mass, the church full to overflowing, choir singing with small orchestra and lights glowing. The church was built in the 17th century, with more baroque painted and gilt details added in the early 18th century. It was restored after the 1755 earthquake. The painted rococo ceiling is wonderful, and there, again, sails a caravel.
Today, the symbol of Portugal’s empire’s reach is still used. Not only in the airport, but even in down-town Lisbon, the pavements of wonderful black and white small cobblestones carry this emblem.
Maybe it is a metaphor now to see more modern artistic representations of the caravel or carrack underfoot? Ships that enabled Portugal to explore and then span the globe for centuries were celebrated in costly tapestries, screens, vessels.
The twenty-first century, however, has brought new, harsher and more restricted realities to this erstwhile empire, just as it has done to the United Kingdom. The caravel is now only a symbol, of pride for the past perhaps, but also a wistful reminder that is increasingly liable to lose its impact and meaning in tomorrow’s Portugal. At least the Portuguese can still remember their history through artists’ endeavours. And what about Britain?