Portugal from the 1890 Ultimatum to the 1930 Colonial Act (Part 1)

National identity

When Tim and I lived in Lisbon in the mid-1990s, there was little evidence of Portuguese nationalism. Lisbon at the time was growing, EU funds were pouring in for big infrastructure schemes, which in Lisbon included expansion of the Metro, building a railway line across the Ponte 25 de Abril, the Vasco da Gama bridge and Expo’ 98. Lisbon at the time was very European.

With the money drying up, partially as a result of the EU expansion to include the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, confidence began to falter. The last big high-profile infrastructural investment of this period was the stadium rebuilding programme for the 2004 European football championships – and even that caused some disquiet because the three big clubs – Sporting, Benfica and Porto – were all getting completely new stadia and a large stadium was built in Faro just for a few games. In the run-up to and during Euro 2004, Portugal erupted into a kind of national fervour. Every available space was festooned with Portuguese flags.

Portugal Euro 2004 team

It seemed the whole country was getting behind the Seleção Nacional, and they could not believe their luck when they reached the final, in Lisbon, against the dark-horse outsiders, Greece. It was a formality. Surely?

Greece. Euro 2004 champions

Unfortunately for Portugal, Greece won 1-0. Yet the flags remained on the buildings – some for many, many years thereafter. While football is just football, it was a bit of a shock to the Portuguese. The party was over, and the hangover was about to begin.

But what is nationalism? Nationalism has shaped nations throughout the modern era – since the concept of nation was first developed during the 19th century. It has been described as a doctrine of freedom and of sovereignty. It offers liberation from oppression, it offers protection in a shared community, it offers people the opportunity to make their own decisions.

Nationalism has been responsible for deaths, wars and hatred. It has divided communities as much as it has united them. It has been used to emphasise differences and to demonise “outsiders” – people who are different.

Catalonia / Spain

… We have seen it recently in Spain, of which Catalonia is a part, where the Spanish state does not want to encourage the growth of movements that could ultimately result in the disappearance of the country.

Scotland, UK, EU

Just as, closer to home, there are those who want Scotland to break free of the UK and for the UK to break free of the EU. In both cases – according to many of the advocates – in order to reassert themselves as independent and sovereign nations.

In determining what we mean by nationalism we need to appreciate it takes many forms: some benign, others less so. Nationalism is not an evil or wicked ideology per se. It often reflects a deeply felt human need to belong to a community, to be a member of a society. How that community or that society is determined – who is welcomed as a member and is able to help shape it – will determine whether it is a benign or a malign force. Is it inclusive? Is it exclusive?

They all have one thing in common: they believe in a shared community, albeit communities that are more or less inclusive than others. And it i here that we come across one of the problems of nationalism – it is an easily thrown and an easily misunderstood label, and it is also an easily manipulated one. It is a powerful force: it has shaped and continues to shape Europe. It is a misunderstood force: it has allowed good people to be deceived by charismatic personalities. While nationalism has given us Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela, it has also given us Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.

During the 18th and much of the 19th centuries “nation” was an alien concept. Nations simply did not exist. What did exist was realms, principalities, city-states, duchies… People were not understood to be part of a community as much as they were a resource to be exploited by the ruling classes. Nationalism implies belonging. Nationalism, as we understand it today, emerged towards the end of the 18th century as people began challenging the social, economic and political structures surrounding them. It was an age of industry, science and reason when old certainties no longer seemed so secure. It was a time of revolutionary fervour. In 1773 the Sons of Liberty threw crates of tea into Boston Harbour, lighting a spark that was to lead to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the war of independence that lasted until 1783. During this first phase, nationalism was viewed as a good in itself. It sought to return society to the roots of western civilisation and to establish institutions that would encourage and reward reason, investigation and debate. A society in which free-thinkers were valued and where there was a belief in a shared community in which everyone is invested. A society built on the principles of self-sufficiency and self-sacrifice, and which was open to anyone prepared to embrace these values.

In 1789, revolution broke out in France leading to the overthrow of the monarchy and the eventual declaration of a republic. While it can be argued that the somewhat utopian beliefs of what we will call Phase 1 Nationalism were suitable for the New World, by the time it makes its appearance in Europe – in one of the most centralised and powerful monarchies in the world – it had changed to suit the circumstances of the Old World. It became more romantic in its outlook, seeking to create a place for new non-rational thinkers and artists. It promoted a permanent community – one dating from prehistory and continuing long into the future. To create and protect this, people had to have an emotional connection with it – it had to reflect them and their reality and it had to fix them in their surroundings, emphasising their link with the land and the land of their ancestors. It called for the overthrow of the old corrupt order of kings, aristocrats and clergy that divides people and looks back to an imagined golden age when people lived in small self-contained and self-sufficient communities. To put this in religious terms, while Phase 1 nationalism was puritanical and represented a clean break with the past and the creation of an imagined future; Phase 2 nationalism was more Catholic and represented a clean break with the present and a return to an imagined past.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Nationalism as we understand it was popularised in Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte who challenged and overthrew the existing social order all across continental Europe. To Europe’s traditional ruling elites he was a dangerous man who brought the ideas of the French Revolution to the subjects of the emperors, kings and princes he defeated. Once the downtrodden saw another world was possible they were unlikely to accept a return to how things were. Napoleon did not only overthrow regimes, he introduced new institutions and laws wherever his armies seized control. To such an extent that even to this day many of the laws in many western European countries contain traces of the Napoleonic Code, which introduced such “revolutionary” ideas as laws being duly promulgated and officially published and the prohibition of retroactive laws.

During the years between 1848 and 1871 Continental Europe was engaged in a protracted series of civil wars that eventually led to the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership.

1848 – Frankfurt Parliament fails to unite the German Confederation; 1862 – Wilhelm I appoints Otto von Bismarck head of Prussian government; 1866 – Seven weeks war. Germany defeats Austria and takes control of Schleswig and Holstein; 1870 – Prussia defeats French army at Sedan and begins siege of Paris. France surrenders Alsace-Lorraine and agrees to pay Germany reparations; 1871 – Bismarck is appointed Chancellor of the German Empire.

And also to the unification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel. The unification of Germany and of Italy was a response to Austrian power over Europe at the time.

1802-05 – Napoleonic Italian Republic. The French Republic promoted citizenship and republicanism over Bourbon and Hapsburg dynasties. 1815 Congress of Vienna – 1871 declaration of Rome as the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. 1815 – Most of Italy was part of Austrian Empire. 1815-48 – sentiment turns to nationalism and unification. Publication of Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (1827) – critique of Austrian rule. Cesare Balbo proposal for a confederation of Italian states led by Piedmont. Carboneria – resembled Freemasonry but committed to Italian nationalism and inspired by French Revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. Garibaldi and Mazzini. Three wars of Italian Independence – 1848-49, 1859, 1866. “Free from the Alps to the Adriatic”. 1866 Kingdom of Italy allied with Prussia against Austria and invaded Venetia and the Tyrol. 1870 Napoleon III abandoned Rome leaving Papal State unprotected. Pope Pius IX refused to negotiate Italian army’s peaceful entry. Army entered and placed Vatican under siege. Papal troops put up token resistance and Rome and Latium annexed to Italy. Pope declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican. Capital moved to Rome in July 1871.

With a pause in what was in effect a European civil war that had resulted in the unification of Germany and Italy, the creation of the French Republic and the consolidation of the Austrian and Ottoman empires. The European powers began looking elsewhere to nourish their desires to find new sources of raw materials, new markets, new places to settle excess population and from which to exert their soft and hard power. Sub-Saharan Africa was the last unexplored frontier. Portugal, Britain and France had already established footholds on the continent, but 90% of Africa remained “up for grabs”. Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy, as the new kids on the bloc, wanted a piece of the action. Bismarck called this conference that Europe’s powers – great and small – and the United States attended in order to carve up the continent between them. David Livingstone’s expeditions through central Africa and his meeting with Henry Stanley should be seen in the context of this process.

The Principle of Effectivity, or effective occupation, was intended to prevent the establishment of paper colonies. The European powers were not just allowed to take the territories – they had to announce their intention to give other states the right to object or state a prior claim. The “spheres of influence” were those regions in which each European power had exclusive right to “legal ownership” in the eyes of the other powers – a concept that greatly benefited the stronger European imperial powers.

In 1888 the Portuguese made treaties of protection with chiefs on land between Mozambique and Angola. Two expeditions were organised and treaties were signed with tribal chiefs, as required by the Berlin Conference agreement.

However, Britain, Portugal’s oldest ally and de facto protector, claimed Portugal was ignoring British interests in the area and declared a protectorate over the area then refused arbitration. Portugal’s interests conflicted with the plans of the British adventurer, Cecil Rhodes, to build a railway from Egypt to the Cape.

Serpa Pinto led an expedition up the Zambezi and Congo rivers through Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa to Mozambique. Along the way, he signed treaties with tribal leaders and set about occupying the Shire Highlands. He met British consul to Mozambique, Henry Johnston, in August 1889 near the Ruo river, when Johnston advised him not to cross the river into the Shire Highlands. Serpa Pinto crossed the river. Following minor clashes with Serpa Pinto’s force, Johnston’s deputy, John Buchanan, declared a British protectorate over the Shire Highlands. While the relationship between Britain and Portugal in Africa was at times testy, the two countries were linked by the oldest international treaty in the world, and their royal families were quite closely related. However, Lord Salisbury Portugal’s oldest ally and de facto guarantor of Portugal’s African colonies, moved quickly to exerting its hard power over Lisbon with a message that threatened war should Portugal refuse to comply.

George Petrie, British Minister in Lisbon delivered the ultimatum to the Portuguese prime minister, Barros Gomes.

This marked a watershed in Portugal. It is hard to describe how important this ultimatum was to the Portuguese. The scales had fallen from their eyes. They could no longer pretend Portugal was a great power – Europe’s first empire. Its position as a minor force, a vassal to Britain, was exposed. Portugal was powerless, and what made it all the more hurtful to many was that it was the country’s oldest ally that had pushed in the knife and twisted it.

“Whatever destiny has in store for the Portuguese kingdom, 1 January 1890 is a date that will never be forgotten. It is a date that has the weight of centuries; a moment, like all others in our history, that contains in its intense brevity all of our painful past and draws out, as yet unclearly, the secret of a troubled future. It was certainly an epilogue, but it will also be a prologue.” Basílio Teles.

Teles was not exaggerating. Portugal would never be the same again. The Ultimatum was the beginning of the end for the old regime in Lisbon. It was now only a matter of time until the whole façade came crumbling down.