European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

20 January 2014

Portuguese revolutionaries in Plymouth: politics and the classics

José Bento Said, Remedio d’amor, e queixumes de Dido contra Eneas: traducções livres das obras de Ovidio. Trez sonetos, e garantias dos direitos civiz e politicos dos cidadaõs portuguezes, outorgados na Carta Constitucional de 1826.  (Angra: Imprensa do Governo, 1831).  British Library RB.23.a.17999(1).

The year 1826 saw political turmoil in Portugal, when the decades-long struggles of liberals and reactionaries opened up a new front in the Azores, the island group in the Atlantic which had been part of the empire since the fourteenth century.

This small publication prints the Carta Constitucional which established a new liberal regime in Portugal.  It also has some to-the-minute political odes: unsurprisingly, as in the romantic period verse was still thought a fitting medium for current affairs.

But what I find striking is that even at moments of high politics authors did not forget their Classics: the volume begins with translations of Ovid’s Remedia amoris and Dido’s complaint against the perfidious Aeneas (Heroides, VII) rendered in five odes. Poetry by a poet dead 1800 years, and on the theme of love (albeit concentrating on its downside).

The tenacity of classical culture as a point of reference for political writing is paralleled by one of the first books printed in Brazil: 

Monumento á elevação da colonia do Brazil a reino, e o estabelecimento do Triplice Imperio Luso. As obras de Publio Virgilio Maro, traduzidas em verso portuguez, e annotadas por Antonio José de Lima Leitão … (Rio de Janeiro : na Typographia Real, 1818-1819). RB.23.a.18324.

The Portuguese, unlike the Spanish, had repressed the printing press in their American colonies, so early Brazilian books were never common. As Borba de Moraes shows, Brazilian authors published in the old country.  It was the flight of the Portuguese court to Rio before the advance of Bonaparte which transferred the power base to the new Empire of Brazil.

But again, the Brazilian patriots were so immersed in Graeco-Roman culture that they celebrated their new status with an edition in the original Latin and facing Portuguese of the founding of an earlier Empire: Virgil’s account of the birth of Rome in the Aeneid.

The first of our two publications includes what at first sight seems a cuckoo in the nest:

“Ajunta-se a esta obra a Descripção das tres magnificas Cidades Plymouth, Ston-House, e Devonporth, a qual o Auctor offerece gratuita aos Illms. Snrs. Academicos, Officiaes Militares, Ecclesiasticos, e mais Snrs. que subscrevêrão” (p. 76)

Plymouth RB.23.a.17999(1)

Why should the good people of the Azores wish to read a description, in verse indeed, of ‘the three magnificent cities of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport?’

The reason is that a group of Portuguese liberal exiles took refuge in Devon in 1829. They managed to get printed a small number of pamphlets and, true as ever to the classics, put on a performance in Portuguese of Joesph Addison’s Cato.

Wherever these political activists went, they took their classical education with them. And in modern Britain still some of our most gifted politicians make proud display of their knowledge of Greek and Latin.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Rubens Borba de Moraes, Bibliographia Brasiliana: rare books about Brazil published from 1504 to 1900 and works by Brazilian authors of the Colonial period  (Los Angeles, 1983).  RAR 090.981

Barry Taylor,  ‘Un-Spanish practices: Spanish and Portuguese protestants, Jews and liberals, 1500-1900’, Foreign-language printing in London 1500-1900, ed. Barry Taylor (London, 2003), pp. 183-202 (p. 190).  2708.h.1059


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