Who was the Marquis of Pombal?

The Marquis of Pombal. Was he an iron-handed visionary or an Enlightenment despot?

One of the great Portugal’s History players, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, count of Oeiras and marquis of Pombal, is still a controvertial figure.

Was he an iron-handed visionary or an Enlightenment despot?

What is certain is that he ruled the country relentlessly, with the power given directly by King D. José I, who had the utmost respect and appreciation for him.

As a dictator, Marquis of Pombal broke the previously installed powers of the old aristocracy around the king and demolished the strong influence of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Sebastião José also developed modern universities, took the first steps to end slavery, but on the other hand, he also hanged and brutally executed some people upon dubious trials.

How are we going to rank him?

Even today, his deeds are debated.

This article is not a historical document but a simple list of events to begin to understand who Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal, was.

In more simplified terms, there are two moments in the history of Portugal when the Marquis of Pombal was the prominent character:

    • During the management of the consequences of the Great Earthquake of 1755, in Lisbon, and consequently the reconstruction of the city,
    • and the creation of the world’s first demarcated wine region, the Douro Valley wine region.

However, his intervention in the country’s government was away more comprehensive.

He revolutionized teaching, unbalanced the previous forces of power in the kingdom, intervened in Portugal’s foreign policy, with particular relevance for Brazil’s exports, to mention only some of its interventions.

To get to know this character a little, I will list some of the events I consider key in his life:

    • Born on April 13, 1699, in Lisbon.
    • His low-nobility family did not enjoy enough prestige to put him in the light of a future path of success.
    • He attended the Law course at the University of Coimbra.
    • At a certain point, he consensually abducts D. Teresa de Noronha and Bourbon Mendonça and Almada, and marries this lady, eleven years older than him. D. Teresa, was a widow of the house Count of Arcos, therefore of the high nobility. Her family would never forgive her for marrying someone of lower condition.
    • Perhaps due to the influence of his wife or his uncle, he obtained the post of Portuguese Ambassador in London.
    • In London, Sebastião José, had contact with a more open and dynamic reality than he experienced in Portugal. This new reality opens his horizons, despite not leaving any record of significant achievements during his stay in London.
    • In 1739, D. Teresa died, leaving to the future Marquis of Pombal, all her family inherited assets.
    • In 1745, Sebastião José was sent to Vienna to mediate a conflict between the Queen of Hungary and Bohemia and Pope Benedict XIV.
    • His intervention did not bear much fruit, never the less it was in Vienna where he met the woman who would become his future wife and from whom he would have seven children, the Countess Leonor Daun.
    • After a season in Vienna, Sebastião José, against his will, was called back to Lisbon, where he did not enjoy the esteem of King D. João V.
    • However, eight months after Sebastião José arrived in Lisbon, King D. João V died in July 1750, and the new king was acclaiming, D. José I.
    • The new king’s mother, D. Maria I, was very fond of Marquis de Pombal’s wife, they were both from Austria living in Portugal and probably was by the influence of D. Maria I, that following the rise to the throne of D. José I, the future Marquis of Pombal was appointed as a member of the new government by the new king.
    • Of the new king and queen, no concrete policy was known, apart from some guidelines related to the Opera House.
    • The king highly valued his private life and worldly pleasures. He found in Sebastião José, a staunch defender of the royal figure and authority.
    • Through his time in London, Sebastião José gained energy and assertiveness in action, and his time in Vienna was essential to plant, grow, and develop the Enlightenment spirit in him.
    • Sebastião José has proved to be a skilled and relentless politician in governance as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
    • King D. José I began to have great admiration for his decided servent, full of ideas and solutions to the most varied problems. The king granted him more and more room for maneuver and power.
    • The Marquis of Pombal, who was initially supported by the “Companhia de Jesus,” the Jesuits, at the beginning of his political career, ended up interfering with the interests of the Jesuits in South America.
    • The Jesuits were the confessors of the royal family and dominated teaching in Portugal. All-in-all, the Jesuits had a state in the State. These issues were undermining the power of Marquis of Pombal, and for that, he needed to find a solution.
    • Years earlier, in 1703, the Methuen agreement had been signed to facilitate the entry of English wool in Portugal and to turn Portuguese wines very competitive in England. One of the countless consequences of an apparently attractive agreement was the decrease in the quality and price of Portuguese wine. Wine being perhaps the highest Portuguese export product, the Marquis of Pombal would not let it rest without finding a solution for this issue. This is the setup in which the demarcated Douro region was designed and nowadays we have the Douro Valley wine region, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

The above list established the context in which Marquis the Pombal developed many actions that will make him quite powerful:

    • He created the monopoly of Companhia do Grão Pará and Maranhão that will commercialize Brazilian products at the time, alienating English and Jesuit traders who took great advantage of their dominance over the indigenous population. This monopoly will be very profitable to the Portuguese crown and is the beginning of the antagonism with the Society of Jesus.
    • Reconstruction of the city of Lisbon after the Great Earthquake of 1755.
    • He managed to expel the Companhia de Jesus from Portugal and, in 1773, a papal bull extinguished the Companhia de Jesus.
    • Restructuring of teaching at the University of Coimbra, expelling the college composed by Jesuit members and hiring professors at the universities of Bologna and Padua. The aim was to create a more advanced university than Oxford.
    • He changed laws like the one prohibiting the dissection of cadavers for study, so the teaching of medicine could advance.
    • He created a tax over sales of wine and spirits to allow 440 elementary schools and 358 high schools to be built, democratizing education up to a certain extent.
    • He created the General Company of Agriculture and the Alto Douro Vineyards, also known as Real Companhia Velha, which controlled the market of the Douro wine region, which he personally supervises. This company was formed by a significant group of Portuguese producers to control the quality and price of the wine to be produced within the demarcated region. British traders were not included, and all exports of wine would have to pass through the Company at Vila Nova de Gaia.
    • General Trade Company of Pernambuco and Paraíba.
    • General Company of the Royal Fisheries of the Kingdom of the Algarve;
    • Royal Glass Factory of Marinha Grande;
    • Royal Silk Factory;
    • Etc etc

In this process he left a trail of executions, hostilities, and injustices of which some events are listed:

    • Hangings, dismembered bodies, and people sent to exile following the uprising in Porto in 1757.
    • Execution of the Távora family, who allegedly attacked the king’s life. Arms and legs broken with the hammer and subsequently burned alive, among other horrible killings.
    • Several hangings after summary proceedings of thieves caught stealing buildings damaged by the Great Earthquake.
    • Etc, etc.

There is a certain consensus between some historians about the moment that Sebastião José became really the relentless ruler he was: the management of the consequences of the Great Earthquake of 1755.

After the earthquake king D. José I built an impressive tent on the outskirts of Lisbon and moved all the royal family for that kind of house. He didn’t want to live in a brick house again.

Sebastião José stayed in Lisbon taking care of rebuilding the city and punishing does that did not follow his rules.

His power took off from there.

In 1759 he was made Count of Oeiras and in 1769 he was made Marquis of Pombal.

In 1777, D. Maria I, King D. José I’s daughter, was the acclaimed queen of Portugal upon the death of her father.

With the death of King D José I, the golden phase of the Marquis of Pombal was ended, and his decline began.

The Marquis was immediately exiled to his estates, and his trial begins.

Among the various prisoners under the Marquis of Pombal ruling and now released was the bishop of Coimbra, who was imprisoned for about ten years for preaching against French humanist teachings.

It was not possible to condemn the Marquis of Pombal because, for all charges, he had written evidence stating that he had acted on behalf of the king.

In 1782 Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo died on his land in Pombal.

A dictator, a despot, and a tyrant? Controversial? No doubt.

With him, Portugal ceased to be considered a backward and obscure country and entered fully into the Enlightenment and, at the cost of many injustices, enriched the country and himself.

Dictator? Sure.

And how else are we going to rank him?

Please let me know your thoughts.

Have a nice day,

David Monteiro

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