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Effects of Sebastianismo and Quinto Império on Portuguese Culture & Literature

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Starting from 1341, the first expedition to the Canary Islands, and with the expeditions to India, Brasil and Japan, the Portuguese people opened their vision towards the undiscovered world. Besides reaching the goods that started to be traded (gold, silver, spices, silk, sugar and slaves), Portugal also came out of its shell and got the taste of building an empire for the first time in its history. With the eager to conquer new lands, apart from the overseas colonies, the young king Sebastião started an expedition to Africa, however, he passed away in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir on the 4th of August in 1578, and so the conquest of African failed. After the death of the king, the succession crisis arose and the King Philip II of Spain peacefully incorporated Portugal into Spain by enticing the Portuguese nobility and a part of the clergy. During the United Iberian Peninsula era between 1580-1640, which came after the golden age of descobrimentos, Portugal was a under the sovereignty of Spanish crown, but maintained an independent law, currency and government. In the meantime, The Portuguese nobility began to lose its power and several Portuguese colonial holdings came under the administration of the Dutch government. These events gave rise to a restoration period and an independence effort from the Spanish sovereignty.

In order to fuel this restoration effort, the myth of Sebastianismo was introduced to the society. There was a belief in the country that on day, on a foggy morning, the Portuguese king Dom Sebastião, disappeared in the battle of Alcácer Quibir, will return to Portugal on to lead the country to a new era of prosperity, just like the belief that one day Jesus will return to Earth to save the humanity once and for all. In his epic poems, Luís Camões dignified the past glory of Portugal by celebrating Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India, and emphasized the higher purpose of Portuguese civilization. The book was structured in themes in terms of its content. In the first theme the poem refers to the discovery of Vasco de Gama, in the second theme to history of Portugal, in the third theme to Portuguese people and heroes, and in the fourth theme to the mythology. As being examples of classical epic poetry, ‘Os Lusíadas’ appears to be inspired from the Greek culture. The following verses are from the Os Lusíadas:

“These are the tales of arms and matchless men / Who put to sea from Portugal’s west shore / And trekked to Taprobana and beyond / By oceans nobody had braved before, / And in combat and crises held their own, / Drawing on more than human skill, in war / Among a distant people, to bring the name / Of a New Kingdom, and earn it deathless fame”.

The belief of Sebastianismo was also strongly reflected on the poems in the books Mensagem of Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa. In those poems, he promoted the belief that whatever happens to Portugal, the King will return and the country will rise again. Like the ideal of sebastianismo, the ideal of O Quinto Império, which was introduced to the society by the Camões, was continued to fuel the society to keep alive the spirit of establishing an empire again one day. The Jesuit priest, António Vieira also belived that after the great empires led by Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon or Assyrians), Cyrus (Persia), Pericles (Greece) and Caesar (Rome), the Fifth Empire will be led by the King of Portugal and unite the Christian World. He also emphasized the importance of history in his book series Sermões as:

‘The purpose for men who have invented the books was to cherish the memory of past things, against the tyranny of time and against forgetting men”.

His words praising the past glory of Portugal and naming the country in the future as the Fifth Empire to come after the restoration of independence, revivified the self-confidence of Portuguese people to establish the chosen nation again in the future. Like António Vieira, Fernando Pessoa also refererd to a fifth empire but in a more spiritual context rather than a material empire governing the World. In his poem called The Fifth Empire, Pessoa wrote: ‘Greece, Rome, Christianity, Europe – the four are leaving. Where does every age go? Who comes to live the truth What did D. Sebastião die?’. These words marks the symbolic value of King Sebastião in the formation of a fifth empire by reviving the ancient glory of Portugal.

In 1872, Joaquim de Oliveira Martins published an influential essay on Camões’s Os Lusíadas and its historical and social context. He formulated Portuguese history as an apocalyptic cycle of birth, decay and death in four parts: first dynasty, the golden age, the overseas expansion period, and the remaining three centuries. Oliveira Martins perceived the critised the moral degeneration that was caused by the wealth coming from the discoveries. In the last period, in those three centuries, the inquisition persecuted, tortured and massacred thousands of people in order to guarantee a catholic faith in the society. However, the country put an end to this fanaticism with the effort of modernist, intellectual people in the society. For instance, the role of Marquês de Pombal in initiating the modernity in Portugal by making possible the abolition of slavery, a reorganized educating system and the reconstruction of Lisbon after a devastating series of disasters of earthquake, fire and tsunami in 1755. 

Although after those dark centuries, the country experienced a republic, a dictatorship and a membership to European Union in such a short time period. And the reflections of the ideals of sebastianismo, the fifth empire and the postponed glory to come on the Portuguese society still can be seen in the saudade and caravels in the fado music, in the modern Portuguese literature, and even still in the distant dreams of some old people.

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