History of Lisbon

Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, reflects the golden age of Portugal. In the mid-18th century, it experienced a major earthquake on a scale never seen before in Europe. But it has recovered like a phoenix. It is also a popular tourist destination due to its low cost and delicious cuisine. Let us tell you about the charms of Lisbon from the aspect of its history.

History of Lisbon

 The area of Lisbon was under the control of the Roman Empire from 205 BC. Later, due to the Great Migration, it came under the control of other ethnic groups in 409. The area eventually came under the control of the Visigoths.

 In the 8th century, Muslims from the Middle East entered Africa. They further expanded into the Iberian Peninsula. They took partial control of what is now Spain and Portugal. Among them was Lisbon. The Muslims laid out the city of Lisbon and surrounded it with walls. Outside the walls, they built the districts of Alfama and Ribeira.

 In response, Europeans began to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula. This was the so-called Reconquista. It was during the reign of Afonso I in the 12th century that things took a major turn. To begin with, Portugal was not yet an independent country when Afonso I was born. Rather, Afonso I won Portugal’s independence from Castile (Spain) in 1143 through wars. The original capital was Coimbra, a city in what is now central Portugal. At the same time, Afonso I promoted the Reconquista in earnest, finally taking Lisbon from the Muslims in 1147.

The Portuguese seizure of Lisbon in 1147

 Around this time, construction of the Lisbon Cathedral began. Thereafter, the Portuguese withstood the invasion of Lisbon by Muslim forces. In 1249, King Afonso III completed the Reconquista in Portugal. In 1256, he moved the capital from Coimbra to Lisbon. In 1288, the University of Lisbon was founded. The oldest university in Europe was founded in the 11th century at the University of Bologna, so it was two centuries later.

 The Age of Discovery: Portugal’s Golden Age

 In 1415, Portugal captured the northern African city of Ceuta. This is considered to be the beginning of the so-called Age of Discovery and Exploration. Thereafter, Portugal and Spain mainly competed with each other and moved southward along the west coast of the African continent. Prince Enrique the Navigator established his base of the mainland of Portugal in Lisbon. As a result, Lisbon developed as the home of Atlantic trade by Portugal. Spain “discovered” America by Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal, on the other hand, reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. At the end of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama finally left Lisbon for India.

Vasco da Gama pioneered the East India Sea route and began the long-desired spice trade with India. King Manuel I welcomed him back at the Château de São Jorge, which was used as his royal residence. From this point on, the enormous profits led to the golden age for Portugal, which “discovered” Brazil in 1500. Initially, the oriental spices and African gold obtained by Portugal were sold to Europeans in Lisbon. This brought many merchants to Lisbon from Germany, England, France, Italy, and the Low Countries. Portugal also conducted slave trade in Africa. Therefore, many African slaves were seen in Lisbon.

 Portugal established a maritime empire in East Asia, Africa, and Brazil. King Manuel I used his vast profits to build the buildings that would become symbols of this golden age. The Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery are two of the best examples. The Tower of Belem was built in 1515 as a fortress. The construction of the Jerónimos Monastery was begun in 1502 and completed at the end of the 20th century. These buildings are representative of the Manueline style.

 During Manuel’s reign, Lisbon developed greatly as a city thanks to the benefits of maritime trade. In the first half of the 16th century, the city had more than 60,000 inhabitants. In 1531, Lisbon was hit by a major earthquake. Nevertheless, Lisbon continued to develop steadily.

 After the death of Manuel I, João III ascended the throne as King of Portugal. João III was known for his devout faith and was also called the Pious King. He sent missionaries to spread Christianity in East Asia and Brazil. Among them was Francis Xavier, a Jesuit. Initially, Xavier conducted missionary work in India and Southeast Asia. Later, in 1549, he arrived in Japan. He established the Christian Church in Japan for the first time. From there, Portugal started trade with Japan.

 At first, Portugal wanted to establish a monopoly in the waters of East Asia. Indeed, they succeeded in taking such important cities as Goa and Malacca. But Portugal had too few resources to create a monopoly. For example, it simply had too few men to send abroad. Furthermore, internal conflicts over the nature of maritime trade became increasingly intense. Gradually, it became difficult to maintain a maritime empire. Therefore, Portugal gave up its monopoly trade and settled into the position of being one of the entrants in these waters.

 From the late 16th century, Portugal began to trade in earnest with Japan and China. In China, it succeeded in establishing a trading post in Macao. In Japan, they chose Nagasaki, a desolate fishing village, as their main trading port. As a result, Nagasaki developed into one of the largest trading cities in Japan. Mainly between Nagasaki and Macau, Portuguese trade was in full swing. The main trade goods were Chinese silk and Japanese silver. This trade brought enormous profits. Among the Portuguese maritime trade, this trade was the most profitable.

 Portugal and Japan began to have mutual exchanges. Naturally, the Portuguese arrived in Japan. They brought with them African slaves. It is known that Nobunaga Oda, a famouse warlord at that time, saw an African slave for the first time. He mistakenly thought the slave was rubbing charcoal into his skin. Portuguese cultural relics were brought to Japan and developed the Nanban culture. Conversely, Japanese culture was brought to Portugal; in the 1580s, the Tensho embassy from Japan visited Lisbon and other cities. Thus, Lisbon was connected to Far East Asia.

 However, the religious zeal of King João III also brought disadvantages to Portugal. For example, the expulsion of the Jews. He introduced the Inquisition and tightened the control of Jews. Many Jews emigrated to Africa and the Low Countries to avoid persecution. This is said to have caused great economic losses to Portugal. This is because Jews, as financiers and craftsmen, had money, skills, know-how, and global networks. These business resources flowed out of Portugal. Naturally, Lisbon suffered similar losses.

 In 1578, King Sebastião of Portugal died without an heir. In the struggle for succession, King Felipe II of Spain came forward in 1580. He raided Lisbon and fought with Don Antonio, another potential successor. Felipe II’s side won the battle and took control of Lisbon. He was victorious over his other successor and acceded to the throne as King of Portugal.

 As a result, Portugal was considered part of Spain. At the time, Spain was the most powerful country in Europe. It was fighting against England, a part of the Low Countries, and others. From the beginning of the 17th century, Portuguese strongholds in East Asia were successively taken by the Dutch and others. Brazilian colonies were also attacked. Portugal was clearly in decline as a maritime empire.

 The Portuguese did not intend to be ruled by the Spanish forever. Lisbon became one of Spain’s maritime trading hubs, and it benefited as well. Nevertheless, the Portuguese wanted to re-establish their independence. In the 1630s, the Thirty Years’ War was raging in Europe. The entry of France into the war put Spain in a lesser position. Portugal saw this as an opportunity to fight for re-independence from Spain, and succeeded in 1640. This is historically known as the Restoration of the Monarchy. There is a “Monarchy Restoration Square” north of Lisbon’s Rossio Square to commemorate this event.

 By this time, Portugal’s maritime empire in East Asia was clearly weakening. Brazil was also occupied by the Dutch. However, Portugal succeeded in recapturing Brazil. Thus, trade with Brazil would bring sugar, gold, and other commodities to Lisbon. Portugal received various forms of support from the British upon its reindependence. The British took advantage of this relationship to develop a lucrative market for British merchants in Lisbon. In addition, they had Catalina from the Portuguese royal family marry King Charles II of England in a political marriage. In this way, England came to exert great influence over Portugal. At the same time, the culture of sugar reached the British royal family from Brazil via Lisbon. The custom of drinking tea with sugar thus took root in British culture.

 Toward Modernization

 From the late 17th to the early 18th century, Portugal, along with Spain, came to be regarded as a lagging country in Europe. Britain won the struggle for supremacy with France and established a global maritime empire. At that time, Lisbon was economically prosperous with gold and diamonds from the Brazilian colonies. New churches and aqueducts were built, and the city was bustling with activity. Lisbon was responsible for a large part of the Portuguese maritime trade.

 However, on November 1, 1755, Lisbon was hit by a major, unexpected crisis. The Lisbon Earthquake occurred. This was one of the largest earthquakes in European history. Many buildings were severely damaged by the earthquake; tsunami as high as 6 meters hit the city. Large fires raged for days. As a result, some 60,000 residents died and large parts of the city were destroyed. Few of the buildings damaged by the earthquake are still standing. Among them, only the Carmo Monastery remains today. The inside is used as an archaeological museum and is a tourist attraction now.

 Fortunately, the Portuguese Prime Minister at the time, the Marquis of Pombal, was a brilliant man. Soon after the earthquake, he organized a disaster recovery team. Quickly, reconstruction and rebuilding of the city began. As a result, the city of Lisbon was modernized. For example, the medieval palaces along the Tagus River were destroyed. The Baixa district was completely rebuilt. About 50 new streets were laid out in a grid pattern to facilitate traffic and prevent future disasters. The Plaza de la Comercio was developed. Many buildings were constructed at a rapid pace. They were designed to be earthquake resistant to withstand new earthquakes. This architectural style is called the Pombal style.

 The Marquis of Pombal also reformed the city of Lisbon in other ways. He wanted to renew the Portuguese traditions that had existed until then. As part of this effort, he sought to weaken the influence of the Catholic Church on society. In particular, he targeted the Jesuits. The Jesuits had long been influential in Portuguese society. They had been influential since the time of Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits. Therefore, the Marquis of Pombal expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and confiscated their monasteries and other property. He also expelled other religious orders. Their buildings were destroyed and replaced by new buildings or converted into hospitals and government offices. Thus, a part of the religious landscape of Lisbon was drastically changed.

 The first half of the 19th century was a difficult time for Portugal: after the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon I went to war with neighboring countries. In this vein, Napoleon marched on Portugal in 1807. The Portuguese royal family fled Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which became Portugal’s capital until 1821. Meanwhile, Napoleon was defeated and disgraced at the Battle of Waterloo. But in 1820, liberal forces led a revolution in the Portuguese homeland, and Portugal became a constitutional monarchy. The political situation stabilized in the mid-19th century. Economically, the country was dependent on Great Britain.

 Under these circumstances, the city of Lisbon developed. The city’s area expanded. The reclamation of the river and the development of the port were also conducted. New city hall and the Ajuda Palace were also built. Furthermore, in 1880, the Liberdade Avenue was built and the city was expanded to its northern area. Urban functions were also modernized, and a water system was installed.

 In 1910, King Manuel II of Portugal abdicated. Portugal transitioned from a monarchy to a republic. The Ajuda Palace was no longer used as a royal palace. Thereafter, the dictatorship of Salazar ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968. After his death, the political situation was unstable due to coups d’état, etc. Around the late 1980s, the situation improved with the country’s entry into the EC.

 The modernization of the city of Lisbon continued: trams began to run in 1901, and the Santa Justa elevator was completed in 1902. By the time of Salazar, new industries were being promoted and oil factories were built. At the end of the 20th century, Lisbon hosted the World Exposition. This led to further redevelopment of the city.

Recommended or Selected References

Michael Krondl, Tales of the Three Spice Cities : A History of the Rise and Fall of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, translated by Takako Kimura, Ayako Tabata, and Midori Inagaki, Hara Shobo, 2018

Norio Kinshichi, A History of Portugal, Sairyusha, 2022

Malcolm Jack, Lisbon : city of the sea : a history, I.B. Tauris, 2019