Archive for the 'History' Category

The Massacre of Lisbon

Monday, April 17th, 2006

Wednesday marks the 500th anniversary of the Massacre of Lisbon, in which more than four thousand Portuguese Jews were killed over the course of three days (April 19-21, 1506). A memorial of sorts may be held in the Rossio; see Rua da Judiaria [in Portuguese] for more details.

See Wikipedia for some information about the massacre in English, or read The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.

People who weren’t who they were

Sunday, August 15th, 2004

I’m a long-time fan of the Earl of Oxford as Shakespeare (although the Kit Marlowe theory also has its appeal). Edward de Vere died 400 years ago, but the mystery remains: who wrote Shakespeare? And if we can’t figure Shakespeare out, how can anyone ever have hoped to find the “historical” Jesus, at five times as many centuries past?

The history of the Portuguese Age of Exploration is relatively well-documented. Under the Infante Dom Henriques (Prince Henry the Navigator) Jo?o Gon?alves Zarco discovered the islands of Madeira around 1420, either Diogo de Silves or Gon?alo Velho discovered the Azores in 1427, and various expeditions explored the West African coast, reaching Cape Verde around 1460 and S?o Tom? e Pr??ncipe around 1470. Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Vasco da Gama established the sea route to India in 1498, and Pedro ??lvares Cabral claimed Brazil in 1500 (although its borders had already been established by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494). In 1519–1521, Fern?o Magalhaes (Magellan) sailed west for the Moluccas; though he died along the way, he had already made it to a longitude he’d been to before, making him the first man to circumnavigate the globe—not the Spaniards who turned pirate after his death and limped home with 18 out of the original 270 crewmen.

It’s a simple story encompassing every important sea expedition of Western history, all in the space of 100 years, all undertaken by Portuguese nationals. You may think that there’s one missing, that some Italian named Columbus discovered America. The usual answer to this claim is that the Portuguese discovered Brazil before 1492 but kept it a secret. But there are more radical answers to the Columbus Question. Some Portuguese scholars claim that Crist??v?o Colom (or Cristof?m Colon) was the Portuguese pseudonym of one Salvador Fernandes Zarco, a native of the city of Cuba in the Alentejo and grandson of the Zarco who discovered Madeira. Most of the information about Colom is only available in Portuguese: Cuba, em portugu?s antigo coba? significava torre? e n?o tinha qualquer significado noutro pa??s. But here’s an English version.

I don’t expect any non-Portuguese readers to buy the Colom story; I just find it fascinating that we can have such exotic doubts about the identities of people who were well-known in their own day. The true identity of Shakespeare is supposed to have been known to many of his contemporaries, and Salvador Fernandes Zarco’s grandfather had been a governor of Madeira for forty years before “Columbus” married the daughter of another governor there. It’s hard to imagine that people didn’t know these things, but easy to believe they didn’t feel it necessary to write down that Colom wasn’t some random Genovese shipwrecked on the Portuguese coast at 25, never to return to Genoa, as the official version goes.

In both stories we have two lives glued together: that of the actual man who did the deeds (whether sailing or writing plays) and that of some random schmo with the right name and paper trail. Shakespeare’s case is supposed to have been a matter of genuine deceit, whether because Marlowe was playing dead or a nobleman (Oxford or Bacon) was preserving his reputation. Colom’s case looks like later Italian self-deception.

It’s also harder to correct; Oxford, Marlowe, and Bacon were all Englishmen (and Marlowe not even a nobleman), so national dignity isn’t at stake in the Shakespeare Question. But if Colom was Portuguese, that puts all the descobrimentos squarely in the hands of the Portuguese navigators—a logical conclusion, but not one likely to be popular with Italians or Spaniards.

The Baltics

Friday, July 23rd, 2004

On or about this day in history, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia fell to the Red Army. They would not regain independence until 1991. The United States never recognized Soviet claims in the Baltics.

The Eagle has Flown

Tuesday, July 20th, 2004

On this day in 1969, two men set foot on the moon. But the eagle doesn’t fly there anymore.


Tuesday, July 13th, 2004

MustangSally has an interesting LiveJournal entry on the history of stirrups.

Battle of Britain

Saturday, July 10th, 2004

Quote of the day: My Luftwaffe is invincible. And now we turn to England. How long will this one last - two, three weeks? –Hermann Goering, June, 1940

The Battle of Britain began on July 10th, 1940 and continued through October 31st, although the issue was more or less decided on September 15th. You can find day-by-day information at and

Uphill Both Ways

Monday, June 28th, 2004

One hundred years ago today, Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe with honors. I’m no so surprised that she did it despite being blind and deaf, as that college students were still in school in June in 1904.

Vichy, Baby

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2004

Cheese link of the day: Guard Your Cheese

On June 22nd, 1940, the French surrendered to the Nazis. The newly-formed Vichy governmend asked for an armistice, the terms of which were signed in the same railway car as the armistice of November 1918. The car was then destroyed.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Thursday, June 17th, 2004

Quote of the day: Antes com Deus contra os homens do que com os homens contra Deus. –Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches died 50 years ago in April, but commemorative services are being held on or around the 17th of June at synagogues and churches around the world. Those of my readers who are not Portuguese are probably asking themselves one of two questions: Who was he? or, if you happen to know who he was, then Why June 17th instead of April 3rd?

The long answer is here, but the short answer to the first question is that de Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux in 1940, and probably the single individual who saved the most Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Although the Salazar government had forbidden granting visas to Jews (explicitly) and displaced persons (in general), thousands of refugees beseiged the consulate begging for help as France was falling to the Nazi onslaught.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes decided to help them. Beginning on June 17th, 1940, he issued at least 30,000 hand-written visas allowing refugees - among them the Habsburgs - to cross the Pyrennees into neutral (or non-belligerent) Spain. A third of the visas went to Jewish families (not necessarily to individuals), and Mendes also issued passports and helped people across the border, so the actual number of people he saved is unknown but much larger than 30,000. He was recalled to Portugal a week later as the Wehrmacht were occupying Bordeaux, but he did not obey orders for two more weeks.

After his return to Lisbon, Salazar took credit for de Sousa Mendes’ humanitarian efforts, yet stripped him of his honors, barred him from his profession, and refused him his pension. He and his large family became as refugees in their own land. He died unnoted, in poverty, in 1954. Though he was posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile (ironically so - he was proud of his Jewish ancestry), and even partly rehabilitated recently by the state, his story remains a uniquely Portuguese tragedy. Que a sua alma descanse em paz.

The Fall of Paris

Monday, June 14th, 2004

On June 14th, 1940, Paris fell to the Nazis.