The voyage to the south
When the royal family of Portugal went native in BrazilBy John Ryle • 10 October 2004 • The Guardian (“A Tropical Versailles”) • Empire Adrift by Patrick Wilcken • Posted 2016 • 1,762 words
In his novel, The Stone Raft (1986), the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago imagines the entire Iberian Peninsula breaking away from Europe and drifting across the Atlantic towards the tropics. Saramago’s allegory of detachment reflects Portugal’s historical role as the earliest of Europe’s seaborne empires. It reveals a nostalgia for the wonder years of the sixteenth century, when this tiny ear of land (in the phrase of an earlier Portuguese writer) established a colonial presence in India, China, Africa and the Americas, the remarkable period that saw the start of Europe’s long and violent romance with the peoples of the south.
Patrick Wilcken’s Empire Adrift takes as its subject a later, comparable development in Portuguese imperial history, one that is equally remarkable: a time of national dislocation in the early nineteenth century, when the royal family, the Braganças, confronting the prospect of invasion by the French, fled to South America by sea, remaining there for more than a decade. It is an extraordinary story that, like the origin of the empire, resonates with Saramago’s dream of a vagrant Iberia.
The flight of the Braganças took place at a critical point in Western European history, during the early years of the Peninsular War. Eclipsed by Britain and France, Portugal was in decline. Napoleon’s army was advancing from the North. The deposed kings of France and Holland had both gone into exile in England; and the British fleet was blockading the Tagus in an attempt to counter the French advance. As the French army drew closer to Lisbon, the Portuguese Prince Regent, Dom João, under pressure from the British envoy, took a decision that would be fateful not just for the Portuguese crown, but also for Brazil, the new-world colony that was the mother-country’s major source of revenue.
A subtropical Rome
On November 29, 1807, a day before the French army entered the city, Dom João and his Spanish Borbón Queen, Dona Carlota, fled by the only route available to them: the sea. It bears comparison with the fall of Saigon in 1975, the event that marked the end of the war in Vietnam. In Lisbon, in 1807, a convoy of three dozen frigates, brigantines, sloops, corvettes and ships-of-the-line, with the entire Portuguese court on board, 10,000-strong, set sail for Brazil with a British escort, braving the winter storms of the Atlantic. Religious dignitaries, government ministers, military officers, with their families and servants and Dom João’s half-mad mother, Queen Maria, made up the complement of passengers on the three dozen vessels that formed the convoy. The ships also carried the Portuguese imperial regalia, the royal carriage, a piano, and several tons of books and documents, the paperwork of empire.