Empirical Evidence

The lust for souvenirs, physical evidence of past memories, was no different in the days of Hannibal and Napoleon to what it is now. The treasures of bygone days, stolen from Cairo, Babylon, and Bombay, populate the houses of empire—the great museums of Europe, and many of the smaller ones too.

These houses were built with income secured in foreign lands, by worker ants who dilligently transported all manner of goods back to their nest, to their queen. The capitals of the old continent bear witness to their glory hour in avenues, boulevards, monuments, and palaces. And archives.

Nowadays, when you wander through most cities in Europe, the contemporary buildings may have an impressive facade, but the interior is often utilitarian. Much like the skills of taxonomy in the natural sciences, the artisan’s craft with wood, metal, and stone has been replaced by machined goods and merchant banking.

Which makes it all the more wonderful when you find a place that not only houses history, but actually lives and breathes it. And I didn’t have to go to California or Kunming to find it, it’s just around the corner. The problem is, no one knows it’s there. I started off, quite appropriately, being held up at a crossroads for fifteen minutes while the horseguards made their way up a steep hill to their quarters—a mounted parade had just ended down in Belém.

Bethlehem, as it would be called in English, was the place from which caravels left for the Indies. At the very beginning of  The India Road,  I describe Vasco da Gama’s departure:

It was a hot, July morning, a Saturday. Tradition held that the evening before departure should be spent in prayer, and so it was on this occasion. Captains and pilots had spent the night at the little chapel of Santa Maria of Bethlehem, ten minutes’ walk from the Cais Novo, or New Quay, where the fleet was berthed. Apart from the higher-ranking saints, captained by the Gama brothers, there was a smaller saint, the São Miguel, and the inevitable supply ship, which would be sacrificed along the way. Men and victuals would be distributed across the other vessels at the time when both had disappeared in sufficient quantity.

Just as today, a hot Saturday morning in July, in downtown Lisbon.

The building I visited had ample parking, largely due to the beautiful gardens that surround it—a few centuries ago no one ever put up a monumental building without considering the trees, lawns and flowers that would surround it. And we’re the green generation?

The entrance to the Historical Overseas Archives is made of marble; quarried in various parts of Portugal, marble has traditionally been a mainstay of doorways, stairways, and flooring. In northern Europe it’s expensive. Years ago a friend of mine who lived in Belgium was quite wrongly thought to be a wealthy man because his house back home had a marble stoop.

The Archives once belonged to the Ministry of the Colonies, which in the first quarter of the XXth century became the ‘Overseas Ministry’, or Ultramar. But what’s remarkable about the building is that it dates from the sixteenth century, and survived the earthquake that levelled Lisbon in 1755. There are records from 1582, two years after Portugal fell under Spanish rule, a period of occupation which lasted sixty years, ending symbolically with the defenestration of  the Portuguese regent. I know I’ve mentioned this fact before, but I love the word defenestration, and will use it at any opportunity.

The story of the Archives, as the director pointed out to me, is the story of Portugal. The building was a palace of  families with names like Saldanha and Albuquerque. The latter may be better known as the largest city in New Mexico—certainly the first page of Google is awash with it.

Don Francisco de la Cueva (literally Francis of the Hole), Duke of Albuquerque. If I didn’t have such blind faith in Wikipedia, I ‘d swear the moustache was pranked in.

The origins of the name Albuquerque are controversial. I’d have though Al would give it away as originally Arab, from the period of the Caliphate in Iberia, but quercus is the Latin name for oak, and alba means white. White oak is therefore a distinct possibility, particularly considering the town of Albuquerque in Spain is in the province of Extremadura, fifteen miles east of the Portuguese border, and right at the heart of the cork industry—cork oak shows white when the bark is stripped.

But the Albuquerque I’m thinking of was viceroy of India, and these days would be accused of numerous human rights violations—among other things he was partial to the amputation of ears and noses.

The history of the palace is the history of Portugal. I wish I could refer you to a website, but the only offerings on the net are not so good. A mixture of English and Portuguese, even in the English version, and the less than useful search engine, do not do justice to the building and its contents. An older site, last updated a decade ago, explains that General Junot, commander of Napoleon’s army in Portugal, was frequently entertained at the palace. The Counts of Ega, his Portuguese  hosts, were later stripped of their property and exiled, as a punishment for treason.

Life has its turns, and the palace next became home to Beresford, the English general who acted as regent of Portugal before the return of the royal family from Brazil. In 1823, the Saldanha family is rehabilitated and claims back the property, but by the time the case has been through the courts, the family has no means to maintain the palace. Almost a hundred years later it is purchased by the Portuguese government, in order to house the colonial archive. Within it, there are ten miles of shelves, with documents from Brazil, West Africa, Mozambique, and Asia.

It seems that bureaucracy took over early on, and most of the documents I saw were trivial requests for money or payment, salary registers, agricultural grants, and appointments of one kind or another. This is no different from the sorts of papers I saw this time last year in the Archivo General de Indias when I was hunting down Cabeza de Vaca—most of the records were solicitations of one form or other. I suppose that just like today, it would be unusual for the really fun stuff to be openly filed by clerks. Think Wikileaks.

A mirror image of Portugal itself, the magnificent Pompey hall—great potential, waiting to be realized.

Some of the offices in the Archives have superb furniture—cabinets made from rosewood, chairs, tables, often in a style known as Indo-Portuguese. But for me, the highlight was the Pompey room, which not only has a dome that reminded me of the Jefferson Reading Room in Washington’s Library of Congress, but tableaux on the walls representing several major European ports.

Unfortunately, the columns partly hide the blue and white tiles that make up these panels, showing the ports of Hamburg, Middleburg, London, and Constantinople, among others. The depictions are from a Dutch artist, and the images of these harbors from the days of sail are probably irreplaceable. I would imagine there were once sketches, long-vanished, which formed the basis for the tiles. The city of Antwerp apparently displays a copy of its port image in a local museum.

Venice, a city that features in The India Road, partly because it was the home of Alvise, or Louis, Cadamosto, who sailed with the Portuguese, has its own tableau. The domes of Saint Mark’s are clearly visible, together with a number of towers and the square itself. The gondolieri, who are still almost as numerous as the pigeons that specialize in buzzing the tourists in the Piazza San Marco, are visible in the foreground.

The port of Venice, in a depiction that is about two hundred years old.

The Archives have a reading room that is open to the public on application, and are slowly moving into the digital age, providing online services for document retrieval. Among many other fascinating features, the building houses a large botanical collection, focusing on the tropics. It also carries out research that supports agriculture in former Portuguese colonies such as Angola, for instance related to coffee rust virus.

The Kunming website, linked above, informs us that:

During the winter months, black-headed gulls from Siberia migrate to Green Lake and entertain the crowds of visitors as they circle around and snap up bread, usefully provided by a herd of local vendors, thrown up into the air by tourists.

I do not suggest that the good people of Portugal should go to the extent of being tossed into the atmosphere to please visitors—lord knows we’ve been tossed around enough in recent years.

But it would be wonderful to see the Archives, like so many other places in the Lisbon of old that remain hidden in plain sight , become part of the roadmap for tourists who crave a little more than sand, sea, and sun.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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