Apologies if this is an ignorant North American question, but…
Portugal was one of the leading countries in the exploration and colonial ages (they discovered Australia and colonized Brazil for god’s sake). But since then they seem to have done a magnificent job of dropping off the radar and not calling attention to themselves. I can’t think of the last time Portugal was mentioned by the American press, either positive or negative.
Is the perception correct that they are a humble nation that doesn’t now have much interest in spreading its culture and influence? How did the big change happen compared to earlier in history?
Portugal was lucky in geography and timing. Positioned on the edge of the Atlantic, locked out of the Levantine trade to the east by the Venetians ( like most everyone else ), thwarted in attempts to expand south into North Africa ( ultimately disastrously so ) and except for one 60 year stretch somehow able to avoid absorption into Spain by lucky dynastic accidents and surprising military victories, they turned outward. And they did so at the right time with the right tech.
They reaped massive profits by securing a route to eastern spices and establishing themselves as a dominant force in the Indian Ocean carrying trade, violently displacing as many local rivals as they could. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas they lucked into the treasure trove of Brazil - establishing a massive sugar empire and much later reaping immense profits from gold and diamonds.
But Portugal per se was always tiny and in of itself fairly poor and undeveloped. For example John V of Portugal ( 1689 - 1750 ) whose reign almost exactly coincided with the peak gold boom years in Brazil, was in his lifetime the wealthiest monarch in Europe from its largess. Shortly after he died the gold rush quickly tailed off and left Portugal just as undeveloped as it had been 50 years earlier, the money having been spent largely on prestige projects like fancy palaces.
The Spanish rule ( ~1580-1640 ) partially wrecked the Indian Ocean empire by exposing it to attacks from Spain’s piratical Dutch enemies, who deprived them of many of their little trading entrepôts particularly in India and SE Asia. Later the Omani Arabs drove them from their most lucrative bases in East Africa in the late 17th century. Subsequently they were never as big a deal and after Brazil went its separate way in 1822, Portugal kinda devolved back into a semi-backwater. One with still a few vestiges of its colonial empire which it clung to more determinedly than any other European power, only surrendering its position in Africa in the 1970’s. But nonetheless no longer a major player even then. They are even less so now, though by world standards of course they’re a comfortable and modern western country.
On the list of “PIIGS” countries related to the recent European debt crises, it is the “P”. That is the last time I heard it mentioned.
The way I understand it, there was a succession crisis in Portugal in 1580, and at the end of it they were in personal union with Spain (i.e. they were separate countries, but King Philip II was king of both). Portugal lost it’s foreign policy autonomy and things started to go downhill.
As I recall Phillip II presided over a big bout of hyperinflation caused by gold arriving from the Americas, which buggered things further for both countries.
Thanks. Very interesting info - Portugal seems to have had a particularly unusual historical trajectory.
Is there also some kind of tendency toward humility in the Portuguese character? Other European countries (especially former colonial powers) still aggressively market their art, cuisine, etc. or make conspicuous efforts to get involved in world events. But the Portuguese just don’t seem to care much about promoting themselves.
Come to Southeastern Massachusetts sometime. First, second and third generation Portuguese immigrants are everywhere and they are the majority in some towns. They are a large majority in the industrial facility where I work and I have gotten to know them well over the years. We have whole Portuguese families spanning several generations that work there which works out well because it is a known quantity on both sides.
They are roughly similar to the Italians decades ago. Many of them aren’t fully assimilated but they are getting there. Some of them speak Portuguese among themselves, celebrate Portuguese holidays, eat Portuguese food etc. but they are American and fully intend on staying that way. I have never heard any of them regret that either they or their ancestors came to the U.S. Almost all of them come from poor villages and dangerous occupations (usually fishing) from either the Portuguese mainland or the Azores and even industrial work in the U.S. is a huge step up from that.
Most of them go back to Portugal on occasion to see family that remains there but they are thankful they are the ones that can get on the plane to come back to the U.S. because Portugal has not done well economically in recent centuries. You are right to say that they don’t promote themselves much compared to other countries like Italy, Greece and Spain. I am not sure why that is but it makes perfect sense when you know a lot of Portuguese-Americans. That is just the way they are. They celebrate their ethnicity quietly among themselves but don’t try to project it much beyond their local area.
More than any other of the former colonial powers, the center of the Portuguese-speaking world has really shifted to the former colony. The joke these days is that Portugal is that country in Europe that speaks Brazilian. In recent years there’s been massive reverse brain drain between the two countries; normally the situation is that highly educated workers in former colonies leave to seek better lives in the former colonizing power, but with Portugal and Brazil they’re going the other way, including many Portuguese people working illegally in Brazil.
Also coinciding with the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which virtually destroyed Lisbon and damaged most other cities in Portugal, plus Portuguese outposts like Madeira and the Azores. The tsunami even reached Brazil. Portugal may have been on the down-slope before that, but the earthquake gave them a huge push.
A big part of the problems with Portugal and contact with the outside world in modern times was the reign of Antonio Salazar as Prime Minister. For 36 years, until 1968, he pretty much practiced isolationism for the country, treating them like children who needed a parent. The country stagnated during that time, economically, technically, and in the arts. Modern music was suppressed, and people went to prison for speaking against the government. While the country joined NATO, he also started fighting colonial wars in Africa, which drained the national treasury, and continued after his death.
When we arrived in Lisbon in 1993, it was clear that the country had still not recovered from Salazar. The place was quaint, but the people - primarily the older folks - seemed dour and suspicious of outsiders. Younger people would engage with foreigners, but seemed to prefer not to. Portugal didn’t really cater to tourist trade except for the Algarve area. Most sites that tourists might visit (and we saw a lot of them) didn’t even provide public toilet facilities, let alone the usual touristy shops. They truly seemed stuck in the past.
It appears that they have finally started to embrace the modern world, cleaned up the place (it was disgracefully unkempt), and started encouraging tourism.
I’ll make an educated guess that you’re talking about the Providence to New Bedford corridor? Yeah, I’d agree that the Portuguese community is pretty low key despite having numbers on their side. Even in those places I’d reckon it’s probably 10x easier to find an Italian or Irish themed restaurant than Portuguese.
That is the general area I am talking about. I just looked and there really aren’t that many real Portuguese restaurants around which is a little puzzling because Portuguese food can be quite good judging by some of the dishes my Portuguese coworkers bring into work for potlucks and special events. I have been to a Portuguese diner for breakfast (it was good too) but nothing fancier than that. I will have ask my coworkers and Portuguese officemate why they think this is. In my experience, you don’t need to ask an Italian or Greek Americans anything about their heritage because they will tell you about it…constantly. Portuguese-Americans aren’t like that for some reason.
The Portuguese notion of saudade is the guiding philosophy there. Saudade (so-dodd) loosely means a longing for the past. As I mentioned, expats who actually live in Lisbon find it to be a difficult society to penetrate.
I found Portuguese food to either be bland or so salty it was nearly inedible. The national dish is bacalhao (salted cod), prepared any number of ways, most of which are not my idea of a gourmet meal. The national soup is caldo verde, literally “hot green soup”. Not hot as in spicy, just hot. The green is provided by kale. Some recipes add sausage and make some effort to add some flavor, but it’s very bland stuff. A traditional dish for New Years is cozido, a peasant stew made from parts of the animal you wouldn’t necessarily think of using in a stew, boiled with vegetables, then liberally doused with olive oil before eating. It’s one of the few things I’ve been served in my world travels that I felt was inedible.
I can see that. The odd thing though is that traditional Irish food isn’t very notable either yet there a plethora of restaurants in Boston area at least that capitalize on the general idea and improve the recipes so that they are palatable to the masses. Some of them are quite good too. The Portuguese have not done that to any large extent. I know some of their dishes could work with some tuning but it just isn’t there in any mass marketing way even though the Portuguese population is huge in some areas.
I will say that they are generally nice, unassuming and easy people to work with. They have just a little bit of that Mediterranean temper (especially the women) but they are generally very kind once you throw them a favor or two and they trust you.
I’m fourth generation Portuguese and live just outside of Fall River (halfway between Providence and New Bedford, as discussed above). Lived here my whole life, as has my father and grandparents. My great grandparents arrived from the Azores in the 1890s.
I can’t think of an Irish restaurant in the greater Fall River area. A few Italian restaurants are around as well (my absolute favorite restaurant is an Italian place in Somerset). Portuguese restaurants - there are plenty, but they don’t always last very long. Everyone’s vovo cooks “real” Portuguese food, mine certainly did. If the food in the restaurant doesn’t taste like vovo’s food, you’re not going to be open too long. There are a few great Portuguese places around here, though, that just serve darn good food. The Academica on South Main St in Fall River, Barcellos in Tiverton, or Porto de Cidudad in Westport. All very, very good Portuguese restaurants. I never get as far as New Bedford, but I’m sure they have their own gems.
My wife (French and English descent) says I have a long fuse temper. Takes a long time to get me to snap, but it’s a big snap when I finally go. I agree with her assessment. All of my relatives are similar in that respect, as far back as I can remember. Cultural or genetic, I don’t know, but you hit the nail the head with that statement.
As to why the Portuguese explorers kind of stopped their thing, no idea. There’s a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator on Eastern Ave in Fall River, so at least we acknowledge we were pretty good for a time.
We do seem to have a self depreciating sense of humor. Google “the Portuguese Kids” or “Manny the Portuguese Fireman.” Their videos and routines exemplify Luso American culture to a tee.
Neither of which are Portuguese dishes, AFAIK. In the two years I lived there, I never saw either of those on a menu. Now the Brazilians make pretty good food. A good bowl of feijoada (black bean stew) with some spicy sausage mixed in is good stuff.