The home of the man from beyond the mountains who sailed to beyond the sea

Thursday, December 12, 2019, 21:54

The castle on the hill at Belmont

You can see Belmonte with its imposing castle from a long way off. Dominating the region with its 360° view, it was once an outpost built and manned by Portugal's early rulers to defend the state against invasion from Spain. However, unless Portugal's much more powerful neighbour was showing serious aggression, it is unlikely that any Belmonte resident ever met the king or any members of his court - or indeed anyone else from further afield than a few kilometres around - because the settlement was so remote and difficult to reach.

Despite its historic isolation, however, Belmonte is not without history. There is a fascinating reason why we chose to make a special effort to go to there and a curious fact that we discovered upon arrival. To find out first about the curious fact, click here.

The wild mountain range of the Serra da Estrela

Roads in the Serra da Estrela

Even today you have to make an effort to get to Belmonte. If you asked someone the way from almost anywhere in Portugal, you might get the old jokey answer, "If you want to go there, I wouldn't start from here."

As the crow flies, the shortest way would seem to be across the wild Serra da Estrela, the mountain chain down the central spine of Portugal. This is a beautiful journey, but it involves a serious winding climb up the granite ramparts followed by a precipitous descent in low gear round an almost unending series of hairpin bends. At this point, you might be under the impression that you are almost there... but think again. So far, you've only reached the middle of the massif! You now have to undertake a second climb and another descent!

No, if your real purpose is to visit the historic village of Belmonte – now a small town - it is better to avoid this demanding, eye-tiring drive and to take a long but easier road round the south or north of the maintains and to drive through the province of Beira Baixa, still one of the least developed and poorest parts of Portugal.

The parish church in Belmonte with its banner proclaiming 550 years of evangelisation in BrazilBelmonte parish church proclaiming 500 years of evangelisation in Brazil

On arrival at the entrance to the town you come across a roundabout whose decoration celebrates the continents of the world. Since, until recently, Belmonte must have been one of Portugal's most isolated settlements, this apparent internationalism comes as something of a surprise; a surprise later compounded by the banner across the front of the parish church, which is celebrating 500 years of evangelisation in Brazil

Why on earth, you might ask yourself, would a settlement so far from the ocean, on the other side of a massive mountain chain, be concerned with taking the gospel to Brazil! (This is the curious, unexpected fact I mentioned at the start of this story and, when you read the next story and find out what we had actually come to Belmonte to experience, you may find it, as Alice in Wonderland said, "Curiouser and curiouser!".)

The answer to this apparent internationalist riddle is Pedro Álvares Cabral. I had seen his tomb in a church in Santarém and assumed that was his home. I most certainly hadn't realised that he was born in Belmonte around 1467.

Statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral in Belmonte
Statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral in Belmonte

Pedro was the second son of a minor nobleman, one of whose ancestors, Álvaro Gil Cabral, had been made overlord of Belmonte by King João I in gratitude for his loyalty and service during a war with the King of Castile. Opportunity for advancement for Álvaro Gil's great-great-grandson, however, must have been non-existent in such a small, parochial settlement so, aged 12, he was sent to the royal court in Lisbon, where he received a good education, learned to bear arms and came to the attention of King Manuel I.

Though he was a soldier rather than a sailor, in1500, when he was around 33, the king appointed Cabral to be the commander of a fleet sailing to India to buy spices, which were both in great demand and astronomically expensive in Europe. Above is an imaginary idea of what he looked like. It seems his birth was not considered important enough to merit a record of the precise date nor, despite his achievements, was it thought necessary to have his portrait painted. What is known is that he must have been an imposing person, since records state he was 1.9 metres tall - 6 ft 2.8 inches - and strongly built. Given the slight stature of many Portuguese people even today, when nutrition is so much better than it used to be, he must have seemed a giant, meriting respect and even fear from his mariners despite his inexperience in the ways of the sea.

Three years earlier, Vasco da Gama had found a route round Africa to India, which entailed swinging west and then east to round the Cape of Good Hope, and had returned with news of great wealth to be made from trading in spices. Cabral's brief was to further the establishment of this trade and return with a cargo of spices. Da Gama had noted on his voyage in 1497 that there were signs that there might be land far to the west of Africa and it is not known whether Cabral chose to investigate this, whether he was blown off course or whether he just took an unexpectedly wide route across the Atlantic. Whatever the reason for his choice of route, he became what is generally accepted to be the first European to reach the coast of Brazil. That land being east of the line of control agreed between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas, Cabral claimed the land for King Manuel I, installed a huge cross and celebrated mass, no doubt to the puzzlement of the local Tupiniquim people, with whom the sailors had conducted friendly relations. In the statue above you can see the sword showing his status and the cross he planted to begin the conversion of the indigenous peoples.

Though he lost six of the thirteen ships and their crews that set out on the voyage, Cabral returned from an eventful voyage with a rich load of spices which made such a profit for the king that the expedition was deemed a success. However, for reasons now shrouded in mystery, shortly before he was due to set sail on a second voyage the king fell out with him, whereupon he retired, not to his family seat in remote Belmonte, but to Santarém. Unable to win back the king's favour, Cabral fell into obscurity and eventually died around 1520. His name and achievements were forgotten for three centuries. Only in the 19th century was his reputation rehabilitated.

Tomb of Pedro Álvares Cabral in SantarémPedro Álvares Cabral's tomb in the Igreja da Graça, Santarém

Though Cabral seems to have spent only his very earliest years in Belmonte, the town is proud of him and his achievements. Nevertheless, it is not to see the birthplace of one of the Portugal's heroes of the Age of Discoveries that most people from across the globe visit Belmonte today. That story is for one of the next posts on the blog.

What do you think of Pedro Álvares Cabral? It seems that some Spanish sailors may have reach the coast of Brazil some months before him but, if true, their discoveries, unlike his, made no impact. What the Tupiniquim people felt about their country having been 'discovered' by sailors from the west is, of course, unknown. They, however, would probably have argued that they and their ancestors had known about Brazil since time immemorial! If you have an opinion, do write in and tell us. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


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