“The Portuguese are not very delicate in their mode of describing any indisposition with which they may have been troubled,” writes the British author of Sketches of Portuguese Life, Manners, Costume, and Character, at the turn of the 19th century. “I recollect hearing a fat gentleman, in a room full of the best company, excuse himself to the mistress of the house for not having been able to come sooner to pay his respects, as he had been for many weeks much troubled with hemorrhoids.”
Our narrator, known only as A.P.D.G., very nearly drops off his chair laughing, but he is too polite (or perhaps too British) to let it show. Instead, he composes himself just in time to catch the lady’s response, which consists of a polite request for more information regarding the gentleman’s ailment. While A.P.D.G. didn’t record the rest of the conversation–simply summing it up as “amusing“–, we can assume he felt similarly alienated throughout. Surrounded by strangers whose ideas of appropriate table talk clashed so radically with his, he must have been the personification of that famous Sting song: I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in… Lisbon, in this case.
Like tens of thousands of others between 1807 and 1813, A.P.D.G. was a man displaced, a British soldier just landed in Portugal with orders to help defend the country against Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. In the seemingly endless war against the French, England had no other allies, which is to say it had no other entry points into Europe. If Portugal fell, Britain’s access to the continental skirmish would fall with it. (Of course, there was also the matter of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, founded in 1386, when Portugal and Britain had sworn to mutually assist one another in matters of international politics.)
These political intricacies were mostly lost on A.P.D.G. and his fellow soldiers, who suddenly found themselves flung into a so-called allied country inhabited by quarrelsome, dark-skinned people who spoke with their hands, worshiped corpses in church, and discussed hemorrhoids at the dinner table. As historian Gavin Daly puts it, “for many British soldiers the enemy was just as much an alien environment and culture as it was the French army.”
Overwhelmed by these new and oft-shocking experiences, soldiers took to writing down their experiences in intricate letters and memoirs, in which they painstakingly described and analyzed the puzzling customs of the Portuguese through the lens of their own (supposedly superior) British upbringing. Among these amateur travel writers was A.P.D.G., whose self-described “superior qualifications” for the job of understanding the Portuguese mind consisted of a “long and intimate communication with Portuguese society.” Unlike many impressionable young Brits who simply passed through Lisbon on their way to war, A.P.D.G. had already served 11 years as a civil servant in Portugal prior to the onset of the Peninsular War. Emboldened by his “good knowledge of the language and the people,” he set out to anonymously publish his magnum opus, Sketches of Portuguese Life, Manners, Costume, and Character, in 1826.
The book opens, in very scientific fashion, with a taxonomy of the people of Lisbon. While A.P.D.G. is kind on the chestnut-roasting women who are still found in Portuguese streets today (“no people in the world roast chestnuts half so well“) and the beggars (“less numerous and far less insolent than the thousands who infest our high roads“), he is less-than-complimentary to marines (“the most unsoldier-like troops in the country, the privates being composed chiefly of the scum of Lisbon“), Galician immigrants who take on odd jobs in the city (“perhaps less squeamish in the commission of enormous crimes than the natives themselves“), and that one bloodthirsty barber from Alcântara who, “when a well dressed man came into his shop to be shaved, he would take off his head as well as his beard.” Of the seamen who inhabit the shores of the Tejo river, A.P.D.G. writes that “they are respected amongst one another in proportion to the number of times they have stabbed people,” which is certainly a compelling way to tell potential visitors to stay away.
A.P.D.G. observes that modesty is unheard of in Portugal, where children regularly swim in the nude and women walk about with their breasts out; he finds himself hypothesizing that the latter custom “may in some measure be attributed, not merely to the heat of the climate, but to a certain consciousness of the superiority of form in this particular, which certainly distinguishes the Portuguese females.” He cannot help but point out, of course, how “exceedingly prolific” these superior women can be on the matter of bearing children. (Not so much the nuns from the Convent of Mafra, though, as they are “very antiquated virgins.“)
Though he is far from complimentary in most pages of Sketches of Portuguese Life, A.P.D.G. saves his most scathing words for a select group of men. His favorite targets, by far, are the monks who wander the city, wasting their time in ungodly pursuits (“I have seen [such vermin] almost in open day in full pursuit after dissolute females: no doubt with a view of confessing them“) and spreading a peculiar understanding of the nature of sin (“that there is no salvation without repentance, that to repent one must have have sinned, and that therefore it is necessary to begin by sinning.“)
Nowhere is our narrator more inflammatory than when he is listing the many vices of these so-called men of virtue. Here, he describes the many perilous tasks that occupy the cardinal patriarch of Lisbon:
Few men can be found who will accept of the situation of cardinal patriarch, owing to the restraint which it imposes; for whoever holds it is compelled to abstain from frequenting parties, or any other places of recreation. His duties are very arduous, and beyond belief laborious: for they consist in hearing mass every morning at his own chapel; and when he rides in his carriage through the Lisbon streets, it is always with the two forefingers of his right hand erect, with which he bestows his crucial benediction on the kneeling rabble. Add to all this, that he undergoes the painful necessity of pocketing a revenue of about £35,000 per annum.
It’s a delightfully sharp critique, but one that must be read within the context of the time period, as Catholicism was the main gripe of British soldiers visiting Portugal in the early 19th century. Alongside it was “dirtiness,” which historian Gavin Daly argues was basically the same thing, since “dirt, indolence and Catholicism were all inextricably linked in soldiers’ minds.” To these civilized visitors, Portuguese Catholicism was a repulsive bodily religion, a decaying cult of the macabre fit only for an ignorant and superstitious rabble. A.P.D.G. himself illustrates these associations with his description of the festivities of All Saint’s Day in Lisbon in the early 1800s, which included (but were not limited to) the display of partially decomposed corpses:
In England we call it All Souls’ day; in Portugal “os defunctos” or day of the defunct. But by a strange contradiction, whilst praying for their repose, the friars of S. Joaô de Deos disturb the remains of a great number, and ranging them along the walls of a vault with branches of laurel betwixt them, exhibit their mouldering carcasses as incorruptible saints to the gaze of all the curious. Such a sight is not calculated to render the sensations of the day more cheerful. […] When the two days are past, these holy, and, as it is pretended, incorruptible relics, are gathered together, and thrown into the charnel house until the following year.
The display and veneration of incorrupt bodies (meaning, corpses that haven’t fully decomposed because of their perceived “holiness”) remains, to this day, an integral part of Portuguese Catholicism, but A.P.D.G. & Co. couldn’t see it as anything other than a confirmation of their biases. Sketches of Portuguese Life offers a rather eloquent summary of this mindset: “when the Protestant Christian visits Portugal, he is hourly shocked by witnessing the conversion of all the holiest associations of his faith, into objects of gross and debasing superstition, senseless mummery, and atrocious fraud. Our reverence for sacred things revolts from their exhibition in ludicrous colours.”
Still more spiritually repulsive than clerics (with their twisted notions of vice and virtue) and incorrupt corpses (with their literally decaying bodies) were Portuguese wet nurses:
The love of the marvellous which these Portuguese nurses possess in the most extravagant degree, and the practice which they have of entertaining young children with stories of feiticeiras (witches,), ghosts and hobgoblins, robbers, etc all of which they believe to be true, is one of the greatest possible objections to employing them. Moreover they dabble in religious matters from motives of conscience; and being unable to reconcile to themselves the idea that their foster child is a little heretic, they please themselves with the illusion of its conversion by attaching to its little neck, rosaries, crosses, veronicas (brass medals with saints heads on them), or figas. Thus ornamented they are better able to resist the malign influence of both feiticeiras and the devil.
A.P.D.G.’s opinion of wet nurses, with their incorrigibly superstitious dedication to their wards, falls in line with other criticisms he lays on the Portuguese populace over the course of Sketches Of Portuguese Life. These are “passionate and quarrelsome people” who lack the social refinement to guard their thoughts. When they speak, they do so as a mob, “exceedingly loud, and all of them at the same time, with an eagerness beyond any thing known in other countries.” In order to better argue for whatever it is that they want, they are “always accompanied with actions of the head, body, and extremities.” In Portugal, everyone’s a combat conversationalist–and there’s no such thing as an unsuitable place to engage: “[In church, the women] enter into conversation with whomever of their own sex happen to be near them, with all the affability of a long acquaintance […] conversation during the mass is mostly of a satirical nature.”
As soon as he steps out into the countryside, A.P.D.G. learns that he too is expected to engage in conversation with people he’s never met before, and will most likely never meet again. According to his (evergreen) description, “people invariably salute each other if they meet beyond the limits of the city, however unacquainted they may happen to be; and foreigners are easily recognized in the country by their non-observance of this civil custom, the omission of which is regarded as a proof of ill breeding. Ladies sitting at the windows of their quintas in the country are invariably saluted by every one who happens to pass.” Here, his Britishness is no longer the mark of a sophisticated gentleman, but of a decidedly rude interloper.
It is in the countryside, too, away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, that A.P.D.G. begins to veer away from the biases of his countrymen. British visitors have, to this day, conflicting opinions regarding Portuguese cuisine, but A.P.D.G. seems to be strictly on the side of his hosts. He is appreciative of the many fruits and “exquisite sweetmeats” to be found around the country, going so far as to point out his favorites: dried plums from Guimarães, quince marmalade, candied pears, and “that delicious sweet called by them chilacayota; which I believe is made principally of the abobra, a long white kind of pumpkin or gourd.” The English appreciation for Portuguese preserves is well-documented, with the ever-popular orange marmalade finding its origins in traditional Portuguese quince marmalade. Less consensual are the ingredients used in some traditional dishes, as A.P.D.G. helpfully explains in one of the most sarcastic passages of Sketches of Portuguese Life:
They make particularly in the Alentejo, a cake called by them “bolo podre,” the principal ingredients of which are the flour of maize or Indian corn, oil and honey. It is really delicious; and I never met with an Englishman who did not find it so, until told that oil was a principal ingredient, and then it would have been unnational not to call it detestable. I have witnessed the same prejudice with respect to dishes prepared with garlic.
For all his grumbling and protesting, it would seem that A.P.D.G. wasn’t altogether lacking in self-awareness. He knew his fellow Brits came into Portugal with a wealth of biases and preconceived notions, and while he was all too happy to validate them on the matter of Catholic Vice™, he was also willing to challenge what he believed to be unfair criticism. Sketches of Portuguese Life shares many of the hallmarks of a genre we could refer to as British Soldiers Fretting About Portugal, but A.P.D.G. did seem to strive for nuance, every once in a while. Having lived in the country for over a decade, he’d had plenty of time to uncover the silver linings of this impertinent country. He’d mastered the language and learned to enjoy the strange and over seasoned food. He’d even found ways to co-exist with the dirty, immodest, and superstitious locals.
Prepared as they may have been to battle and ultimately defeat Napoleon, A.P.D.G. and his fellow soldiers were, all in all, almost comically unequipped to deal with foreignness. Overwhelmed by unfamiliar customs and attitudes, they turned inwards for comfort, and so secured their own self-image as the most civilized (and cleanest, and smartest, and whitest) people in the world.