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The Greatest Portuguese Figures in History

Updated on December 18, 2016

Poster for 'The Greatest Portuguese'

After the success of BBC's 100 Greatest Britons in 2002, several similar contests started to spring up in many countries. In 2007, Os Grandes Portugueses (The Greatest Portuguese), premiered in Portugal. As in the original British version, a poll was held to rank the 100 greatest portuguese figures of all time. The 10 most voted moved to a second stage where documentaries and debates were held to inform the audience about the pros and cons of each candidate. At a final debate, the results of the poll were revealed ranking the top 10, thus completing the ranking of the 100 greatest portuguese.

The 10 Most Voted:

The final top 10 figures most voted were the following, listed here in alphabetical order:

Dom Afonso Henriques/Dom Afonso I (King Afonso Henriques/King Afonso I):

Appropriately, the starter of our list of the greatest portuguese, is arguably, the first portuguese. Afonso Henriques was born in 1109, the son of the count of Portucale in northern Portugal. After the death of his father in 1112, his mother, Teresa of Leon served as regent until 1126. However, along the years, Afonso started to resent his mother's political relations who, due to her family ties, were mainly with galicians in Leon. Desiring an independent domain over the territory of his father, Afonso became a knight and raised an army of loyalists against his mother. After her defeat in the Battle of São Mamede, he took over the command of the county. His main goal turned to getting Portugal to be acknowledged as an independent kingdom. To fulfill this purpose, Afonso began the reconquest of Iberian territories to the south from the Moors. After many years of fighting, Afonso achieved a massive victory at the Battle of Ourique 1139, proclaiming himself the first King of Portugal in the aftermath of the engagement. However, recognition of this by the King of Leon only came in 1143 with the Treaty of Zamora, in which Afonso was recognised as King, however Portugal remained a vassal to the King of Leon, who had proclaimed himself Emperor of Hispania. The following decades saw Afonso conquering several cities from the Moors including Leiria in 1145, Santarém in 1146, Lisbon, Almada and Palmela in 1147, and also Alcácer do Sal in 1160, along with many others. Finally, in 1179, the pope Alexander III issued the papal bull Manifestis Probatum declaring Portugal an independent kingdom, who owed allegiance to no other great power, other than the pope himself. Afonso's great dream now completed, he dedicated the last years of his life to consolidating the realm, populating reconquered areas, strengthening the economy, and advising his son Sancho (who would become King Sancho I) on his own military endeavours to push the Moors further south. He died in 1185, earning the nickname "The Conqueror", the only portuguese king to hold that epithet.

Álvaro Cunhal:

Second on our list, alphabetically, of course, is Álvaro Cunhal, a more contemporary figure. Cunhal was a politician and a writer, best known for his opposition to the conservative and authoritative fascist regime of the Second Portuguese Republic, as secretary-general of the Portuguese Communist Party from 1961 to 1992. He was born in 1913 in Coimbra, and studied Law in Lisbon. It was during his studies that he joined the Communist Party in 1931, then, an illegal organization due to the regime established by the Second Republic. After his first travel to the Soviet Union in 1935, he was arrested in 1937, having to present his college thesis, on the topic of the depenalization of abortion, under police custody. After his release, he became the de facto leader of the Communist Party from 1941 to 1949, acting mostly underground to avoid arrest. However, in 1949, Cunhal was indeed arrested and remained in prison for 11 years. In 1960, he and some other arrested communist party members managed to escape from the Peniche prison. From that point until the coup of 1974, Cunhal remained in exile, leading the Communist Party as secretary-general from abroad. During this time he lived both in Moscow and Paris, returning to Portugal five days after the Carnation Revolution of the 25th of April of 1974. Following the revolution, Cunhal led the newly legalised Communist Party, acting as minister without portfolio during the provisional governments established until new elections were held. These years were marked by a large communist influence in portuguese politics, and when new elections were held, Cunhal's hostility towars the Portuguese Socialist Party prevented the formation of a united left, with the Socialist Party winning the 1975 elections. Cunhal resigned from the Communist Party in1992 but remained a often consulted and influential voice for many years until his death in 2005.

António de Oliveira Salazar:

Ironically, our third historical figure comes in almost absolute opposition to Álvaro Cunhal. António de Oliveira Salazar, born in 1889, was appointed Minister of Finance after the military coup of 1926 which started the Second Portuguese Republic. Later, in 1933 he became President of the Council of Ministers (position equivalent to Prime Minister). He remained as such until 1968, making him the longest ruling portuguese statesmen. His rule could be characterized as nationalist, and authoritative, inspired by fascism, enforced through the use of censorship and a strict political law enforcement. This line of ideology was materialized by several policies of economic protectionism on both continental Portugal and the colonies which had several positive economic impacts, bolstered by Portugal's state of neutrality during the Second World War. Like with Álvaro Cunhal, his ideology is loathed by some and loved by others. Those who admire him, consider him to be a model example of right-wing conservatism, whose authoritative policies were successful in putting Portugal on the track to become a wealthy country, socially and economically. Salazar eventually died in 1970, and a new, slightly less radical minister was appointed. However, with the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the new democratic Republic was implemented, and the colonies were granted their independence.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes:

Moving on our list, we get to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a portuguese diplomat and consul. He was born in 1885 near Viseu, to a wealthy, nationalist family. He studied Law in Lisbon and went on to become a consul in countries like Zanzibar, Brazil, Spain, the USA and Belgium, before being stationed in Bordeaux, in the south of France. Throughout this time, Aristides had given evidence of sometimes disregarding the rules. Even after the military coup of 1926, which started the Second Portuguese Republic, a nationalist regime that Aristides supported, he remained at times, unruly and disobbedient. However in 1936, the Spanish Civil War commenced, two years later, Aristides was stationed in Bordeaux, and one year after that, the Second World War began. With millions of people fleeing in fear of the German armies, and with Spain unavailable to give asylum, Aristides found himself in very difficult position. Back in Portugal, the President of the Council of Ministers, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, António de Oliveira Salazar, had issued the Dispatch 14 forbidding the issuing of visas by portuguese consuls to any 'undesirables'. Curiously, the main problem was not with the refugees being jewish or not, it was with the danger of letting in left-wingers into a right-wing country with limited economical resources. Nevertheless, in Bordeaux, Aristides decided, in June of 1940 to disobey, yet again. Issuing visas to all those who asked, Aristides let hundreds of people through, no prejudices, no requirements. He had put himself in deep trouble, as his career was surely doomed. His safety, as well as the safety of his wife and 14 children was put in jeopardy. And so it was, in late 1940 his punishment was issued. He would have one year of inactivity and then be forced to retire. In the subsequent months the family would sometimes eat in jewish soup kitchens in Lisbon. Aristides managed to become a lawyer and join the Bar Association but in 1945, a stroke denied him the possibility to ever work again. During his last 9 years, his wife died, and he remarried, starting clashes between his children and their stepmom, due to her excessive spending. Many of them moved away, yet still tried to clear their father's name from the stain the portuguese government had put on it, to no avail. Aristides died in 1954, in poverty, with only of one his nieces present.

Fernando Pessoa:

Moving from the letter A directly to the letter F, we reach one of the great figures of portuguese culture, the poet Fernando Pessoa. Born in Lisbon 1888, Pessoa moved to South Africa after his father died in 1893 and his mother remarried. Spending the rest of his childhood in the city of Durban, Pessoa received a British education, through which, he started to connect deeply with English literature. His goal was to gain a scholarship that would allow him to continue his studies in a British university, but that wasn't the case. Due to a bureaucratic entanglement, he didn't receive the scholarship, and returning to Lisbon in 1905 he would never travel again. In the following 30 years until his death, he would wonder from one home to another, engage in many small professional activities, and more importantly write constantly about the tragedy of existence, the uncertainty of life and death, about dreams, illusions and disapointments. Despite his massive talent, he's only recongnised by his peers, and in life, publishes but one book in portuguese, A Mensagem (The Message). The poems he wrote were sometimes published in literary magazines but most were never read by anyone during Pessoa's life. He would keep them in an ark, that he would carry with him wherever he moved, and that at the time of his death, had inside it 25 thousand papers, in a complete mess, comprising his life's work. He's mainly recognised due to his invention of the concept of a heteronym. Differing from pseudonyms, that consist of false names, heteronyms are fully formed personalities, with their own physique, biographies and writing styles. Pessoa developed around 70 different heteronyms, created backstories for many of them, they would have their own personality, relations with other people and with each other, and they would even criticise each other's work. The most famous three are Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis, with the latter two considering the former, their master. Fluctuating between these conflicting personalities, Pessoa was a very reserved and isolated person, often using substances like alcohol to drown out his loneliness and the pain of living that disturbed him greatly. Maintaining only one known long-term romantic relationship that amounted to nothing, Pessoa died alone, in Lisbon, on November 30th, 1935.

Portuguese Discoveries during the 15th Century

Prince Henry the Navigator:

Moving away from the 20th century we go back to the Age of Discoveries, to meet another major portuguese figure. Henry (Henrique in portuguese) was born in 1394 , the son of the portuguese king John I. Not being the eldest son, he was not the heir, but he served his father, his brother Duarte, and his nephew Afonso as an advisor and as the chief manager of the maritime discoveries along the African coast. In his early years Portugal was still recovering from the 1383-1385 crisis. Henry's father, John I, was the first king of the new dynasty and was still struggling to bring Portugal out of its position as a poor, peripheral and agricultural focused country. To this end, Henry and his brothers persuaded their father to launch an attack on the city of Ceuta, in North Africa in 1415. The attack was a success, Portugal took Ceuta with Henry being named a knight in the battle. The portuguese now had control over the trade performed through Gibraltar. After this Henry was put in charge of the government of Ceuta and given an armada of squires and corsairs through which he started launching maritime explorations further south along the African coast. He saw that to expand the portuguese territories and the Christian faith, there was no other way for Portugal, except the sea. In order to enable this enterprise, he developed a lighter ship model, the caravel, capable of going faster and further thanks to another unique feature: the lateen sail, with a triangular shape that allowed the ship to move independently of the prevailing winds. Financing numerous expeditions to find the source of the African gold trade, Henry's explorers discovered and colonized Madeira and the Azores, and continued to sail further south, eventually past the last known landmark of Africa at the time, Cape Bojador, in 1434. The explorations pushed onwards, and in 1444, Cape Vert was reached. This meant that the western Sahara desert had been surpassed, as had the Muslim land based trade routes, which allowed the establishment of a fort and the mining of gold as well as the shipment of slaves. The maritime explorations were starting to turn a profit, yet with knowing that the unknown stretched even further south, Henry couldn't stop, and laid the foundations for a continuous policy of sea explorations to be implemented even after his death in 1460, by which time the portuguese had reached what nowadays is Liberia. From his bases in Sagres and Lagos, more and more explorations sailed from to expand the unknown world and bring revenues to Portugal. Held has a pioneer by past and present sailors, Prince Henry is considered a patron of the discoveries and an initiator of globalization.

Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)

Dom João II (King John II):

Remaining within the 15th century we reach another key figure in the Portuguese Discoveries. This time, in the form of one of the country's most visionary monarchs John the Second. Born in 1455, the son of Afonso V, and great-nephew of Henry the Navigator, John spent his childhood seeing his father increasing the number of the nobility's titles, as he engaged in frequent fights with the Castillians and the Moors. John, however was not a fan of intrigue between the great houses of the realm, which made the big lords fear his future rule, and with good reason. Upon ascending the throne in 1481 he would call back to himself much of the power his father had granted the noble lords, leading them to frequently conspire with Isabella, the queen who unified Spain, and who would go on to become John's biggest rival. He would also turn the focus of the Portuguese income away from wars in the North of Africa and back towards the maritime discoveries along the African coast, with the ultimate goal of reaching India by sea, to have direct access to the spice trade. This would prove to be an enormous task for his 14 years of reign, however John remained steadfast in his notion that Portugal's strength would never lie in continental might. Thus, throughout his life, despite his rivalry with Spain, he would always seek peace in the capital, marrying his son with one of Isabella's daughters, quietly defusing the constant conspiracies and attempts on his life, from within the realm, one of which involved his own brother-in-law, and ensuring that Portugal contained its sovereignty in the colonies through diplomacy. His policy could be summarised in two sentences: peace in the continent, freedom at sea. The major maritime breakthrough during his realm came in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias passed the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. The way was opened for a voyage to reach India, but in 1492, a complication arose. Cristopher Columbus had come to Portugal, arguing that he could reach India faster by sailing west. King John was not convinced, so Columbus gained support from Isabella, and on his voyage did not discover India, but instead, the American continent, more specifically, Cuba. This brought about a complication. A former treaty between Portugal and Spain had divided the world with a parallel, according to which, Cuba belonged to Portugal. However Isabella would not have it, so in 1494, with the pope's blessing a new treaty was formed, the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided exploratory areas for both countries but with a meridian, giving Spain ownership of Cuba but allowing Portugal to freely explore Africa, India and the yet undiscovered at the time, Brazil. It was John himself who argued to push the line further west to include Brazil, inspiring rumors that he already knew of its existence. Despite all of these accomplishments, tragedy would strike John at the end of his life. His only son, Afonso, died in a horse-riding accident leaving no heirs in 1491. With John dying in 1495, the throne passed to his brother Manuel, who would live to see the arrival at India in 1498 by Vasco da Gama.

Book Cover for The Lusiads

Luís Vaz de Camões:

Arguably, the most known mark of portuguese literature from before the 20th century comes in the form of the great poet Luís Vaz de Camões. Born in 1524, in the midst of the apex of the portuguese empire, Camões grew among a family of the small nobility. Not much is known about his childhood or about his education, but it is believed that he studied in the University of Coimbra. In his youth, he was accepted in the court of the king, frequenting taverns, engaging in several romantic relationships, and writing his initial poems. Eventually growing tired of working for bigger lords, he enlisted in the military service in Ceuta, where during a battle with the Moors, he lost his right eye. Returning to Lisbon, he resumed his bohemian habits until one day, when after a scuffle with a high-ranked officer, he was arrested and sent to prison. Through his influences, he managed to secure a royal pardon that decreed he would sail to India in that same year of 1553. This would begin his grand journey to many different locales in the portuguese colonial empire ranging from Goa, to Macau, to Mozambique. This experience in the contact between different cultures served as heavy inspiration for Camões, as it was during his time abroad that he wrote what came to be regarded as one of the greatest pieces of epic literature ever written, the epic poem The Lusiads. Despite his many other lyric poems that survived the centuries, The Lusiads has remained Camões most well known work, and a permanent stamp in portuguese culture. In it, the poet exalts the path the portuguese people have taken, from their very beginnings, through the hardships they endured, and through the heroic feats that defined the identity of being portuguese. He does it by intertwining the retelling of portuguese history with the tale of Vasco da Gama's journey to India, which serves has the main plot of the poem, not without pointing out the various flaws of the portuguese society in the past and in the present and making his own recommendations for the future frequently throughout the book, whether by addressing the subject directly as the writer, or through the interventions of the pagan gods, who play a major role in the story. Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, the poet also celebrates the connections that have been made between different kinds of people, and countries, and cultures, declaring that it's by coexisting among the differences between them that the world is able to go forward. Through these messages Camões pronounces love as the ultimate and strongest power both human and divine, celebrating it in its many forms. Returning to Portugal in 1570, Camões presented his book to the king, Sebastian in 1572, who ordered its publication and awarded Camões with a substantial, but ultimately meager pension for his literary and military services. In his final years, he ended up in poverty, ultimately dying on the 10th of June, 1580, the same year of Portugal's annexation into Spain. Camões is mostly remembered as the one who defined Portugal's national identity, but who was not a nationalist, pointing out flaws where they existed, for whom women had a right to their own sexuality, it being something to be appreciated and respected, and not explored or chased after, and for whom the value of love trumped all others.

Layout of the Pombaline Lower Town after the Earthquake

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (The Marquis of Pombal):

Almost reaching the end of our list, we arrive at another striking portuguese figure. Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, born in 1699, was a nobleman, a diplomat, and a statesman. He served as a foreign representative of Portugal during the first half of the 18th century before becoming the minister of foreign affairs and eventually secretary of state (at the time, a role equivalent to that of a Prime Minister). The latter position was granted to him by King Joseph I who throughout the years came to put immense trust onto his Minister, eventually giving him so much power that it made him equivalent to a dictator among the portuguese high society. During his rule, the Marquis' reforms aimed at reshaping Portugal's economies and finances, that had become highly dependent on Brazil. By imposing strict tax regulations on all social classes, he wanted to make Portugal a self-sustaining economy, and so invested in the creation of portuguese companies and guilds to regulate every commercial activity. His importance as a minister is mostly recognised due to his swift and organized reaction to the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. With the capital of the empire in ruins, the Marquis, who had barely survived, immediately gathered numerous architects who designed new plans for the reconstruction of downtown Lisbon. The new buildings were constructed as to withstand earthquakes, and their placement was made symmetrically and equaly leveled so as to distribute the force of future earthquakes. The Marquis also called for reports of the effects of the earthquake from all over the country, and from this information, many details on the sysmological details of the earthquake were discovered and are still available. However, being a stout defender of absolute regal power, he made several enemies. When an attempt on the king's life occured in 1758, the Marquis, after investigating, accused members of the high nobility of plotting it and arrested a great number of them, possibly over one thousand people, with many of them not receiving formal trials, and some being immediately sentenced to death. But beyond the high nobility, the Marquis also made an enemy in the Church, when he expelled the jesuits out Portugal in 1759. Having dealt with his enemies thouroughly and with absolute favor with the king, the Marquis effectively ruled Portugal until the king's death in 1777, abolishing slavery in continental Portugal and in Portuguese India, as well as developing numerous educational reforms, so as to eliminate Portugal's dependence on British technological knowledge. Nevertheless, after the king's death, his daughter, the new Queen Maria I, who loathed the Marquis, stripped him of all political positions and even demanded that he not come within 20 miles of her. As such, the Marquis retired to his estate in Oeiras where he lived until his death, five years later, in 1782.

Vasco da Gama:

Finally closing out our list, comes a figure known worldwide, whose feats were the culmination of the efforts of previous generations of portuguese, and which had a great deal of influence on posterior generations of portuguese even until the present day. Vasco da Gama was born, presumably, in 1460, in Sines. Not much is known about his early years, other that Gama joined the Order of Santiago in 1480, whose master was Prince John, who later became king John II, potentially improving Gama's prospects as the commander of the fleet to sail to India. And so it was, before his death, John II named Gama as the future commander of the fleet prepared to sail to India. On the 8th of July, 1497, the four ship armada set out from Lisbon with 170 crewmembers. Following the course Bartolomeu Dias had taken in 1487, they passed the Cape of Good Hope, and from then on they were in uncharted waters. They made stops in Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi, encountering both friendly and hostile receptions, before finally reaching Calicut, India on the 20th of May, 1498, the first known person ever to do it by boat, around the African continent. Despite the overwhelming financial success of the journey, Gama left India without having established a friendly relationship with the king of Calicut, which would cause difficulties for future expeditions, including his own return to India in 1502. Upon his return to Lisbon, he was showered with praises and rewards, being given a substantial hereditary royal pension, the title of Lord, and the ownership of the town of Sines, as well as a letter granting him the right to command any other fleet bound for India when he so desired. He used this right in 1502 to commandeer the 4th armada bound for India, after the second and third strained relations with Calicut to the point of open war, while establishing good relations with surrounding kingdoms. Arriving at India once again, he had many military conflicts with the forces of Calicut, even bombarding the city from the harbor. While he was able to bring back many riches from the neighbouring kingdoms, with whom he had good relations, he was still unsuccessful in subduing Calicut, and so fell out of king Manuel's favor. Two decades passed, and a new king was crowned. Threatening to defect to Spain, Gama was able to persuade the new king John III to bring him back into the fold on the Indian front. Naming him viceroy, the king sent Gama back to India in 1524. While Gama planned many reforms once he arrived, he was never able to implement them as he died on Christmas Eve 1524, three months after he disembarked.

This concludes our list of the 10 greatest portuguese figures, as selected by the portuguese in 2007. Are there any ones you know that you think should have been on here? Which one of these do you think is the greatest, and how would you rank them? Leave your answers in the comments below and as always, thank you for reading.

Who do you think is the greatest portuguese in history?

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