Marquis of Pombal

Marquês de Pombal

Source: Wikipedia

Marquês de Pombal

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, in Portuguese, Marquês de Pombal, (13 May 1699 – 15 May 1782) was a Portuguese statesman. He was Prime Minister to Joseph I of Portugal from 1750 to 1777. Pombal is notable for his swift and competent leadership in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In addition he implemented sweeping economic policies in Portugal to regulate commercial activity and standardize quality throughout the country.

Early Days

Sebastião de Melo was born in Lisbon, the son of Manuel de Carvalho e Ataíde, a country squire with properties in the Leiria region, and of his wife Teresa Luiza de Mendonça e Melo. During his youthful years, he studied at the University of Coimbra and then served briefly in the army. Afterward he moved to Lisbon and eloped with Teresa de Mendonça e Almada (1689-1737), the niece of the Count of Arcos Sebastião. The marriage was a turbulent one, as his wife had married de Melo against her family's wishes. The in-laws made life unbearable for the young couple; and so the newlyweds retired to de Melo's properties near Pombal.

Political Career

In 1738, Sebastião de Melo received his first public appointment as the Portuguese ambassador to London. In 1745 de Melo served as the Portuguese ambassador to Vienna. The Queen consort of Portugal, Archduchess Maria Anne Josefa of Austria (1683 - 1754), was fond of de Melo; after his first wife died she arranged the widowed de Melo's second marriage to the daughter of the Austrian Field Marshal Leopold Josef, Count von Daun. King John V of Portugal, however, was not pleased and recalled de Melo to Portugal in 1749. John V died the following year and his son Joseph I of Portugal was crowned. Joseph I was fond of de Melo, and with the Queen Mother's approval he appointed de Melo as Minister of Foreign Affairs. As the King's confidence in de Melo increased, the King entrusted him with more control of the state.

By 1755, Sebastião de Melo was made Prime Minister. Impressed by English economic success, which he had witnessed while he was Ambassador, he successfully implemented similar economic policies in Portugal. He abolished slavery in the Portuguese colonies in India, reorganized the army and the navy, and ended discrimination against non-Catholic Christians in Portugal.


During the Age of Enlightenment Portugal was considered one of Europe's unenlightened backwaters: A country of three million with 200.000 people in 538 monasteries (in 1750). Especially Voltaire was making fun of the persistent Catholic superstition in that country, e.g. in his 1759 bestseller Candide: "After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fe; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking." De Melo seems to have been deeply embarrassed by Portugal's much lamented backwardness. Having lived in two major centres of European enlightenment as his country's ambassador to Vienna and London, he increasingly identified the Jesuits with their alleged doctrinaire grip on science and education as an inherent drag on an independent, Portuguese style illuminismo. Especially in England he came in contact with the anti-jesuit tradition of that country and in Vienna he made friends with Gerhard van Swieten, who was a confidant of Maria Theresia and a staunch adversary of the Austrian Jesuits and their influence. As prime minister de Melo engaged the Jesuits in a dirty propaganda war, which was watched closely by the rest of Europe, and he launched some conspiracy theories about the order's desire for power. In the course of the Tavora affair (see below) he accused the Societas Jesu of treason and attempted regicide, which was a major PR catastrophy for the order in the age of Absolutism. De Melo/Pompbal was an important precursor for the suppression of the Jesuits throughout Europe and its colonies which culminated in 1773, when Pope Clement XIV abolished the order.

Further important reforms were carried out in education, by Pombal: he expelled the Jesuits in 1759, created the basis for secular public primary and secondary schools, introduced vocational training, created hundreds of new teaching posts, added departments of mathematics and natural sciences to the University of Coimbra, and introduced new taxes to pay for these reforms.

But Sebastião de Melo's greatest reforms were economic and financial, with the creation of several companies and guilds to regulate every commercial activity. He demarcated the region for production of Port and to ensure the wine's quality, and his was the first attempt to control wine quality and production in Europe. He ruled with a strong hand, by imposing strict laws upon all classes of Portuguese society from the high nobility to the poorest working class, and via his widespread review of the country's tax system. These reforms gained him enemies in the upper classes, especially among the high nobility, who despised him as a social upstart.

The Lisbon earthquake

Disaster fell upon Portugal on the morning of November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was struck by a violent earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale. The city was razed by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami and fires. Sebastião de Melo survived by a stroke of luck and then immediately embarked on rebuilding the city, with his famous quote: What now? We bury the dead and feed the living. Despite the calamity Lisbon suffered no epidemics, and within less than one year was already being rebuilt. The new downtown of Lisbon was designed to resist subsequent earthquakes. Architectural models were built for tests, and the effects of an earthquake were simulated by marching troops around the models. The buildings and big squares of the Pombaline Downtown of Lisbon still remain as one of Lisbon's tourist attractions: they represent the world's first quake-proof buildings. Sebastião de Melo also made an important contribution to the study of seismology, by designing an inquiry that was sent to every parish in the country. The questionnaire asked whether dogs or other animals behaved strangely prior to the earthquake. Was there a noticeable difference in the rise or fall of the water level in wells? How many buildings were destroyed and what kind of destruction occurred? With these answers modern Portuguese scientists have been able to reconstruct the event with precision.

Following the earthquake, Joseph I gave his Prime Minister even more power, and Sebastião de Melo became a powerful, progressive dictator. As his power grew, his enemies increased in number, and bitter disputes with the high nobility became frequent. In 1758 Joseph I was wounded in an attempted assassination. The Tavora family and the Duke of Aveiro were implicated, and they were executed after a quick trial. The Jesuits were expelled from the country and their assets confiscated by the crown. Sebastião de Melo showed no mercy and prosecuted every person involved, even women and children. This was the final stroke that broke the power of the aristocracy and ensured the victory of the Minister against his enemies. In reward for his swift resolve, Joseph I made his loyal minister Count of Oeiras in 1759.

Fall and death

Following the Tavora affair, the new Count of Oeiras knew no opposition. Made Marquês of Pombal in 1770, he effectively ruled Portugal until Joseph I's death in 1779. Joseph's successor, Queen Maria I of Portugal, disliked the Marquês. Maria I never forgave him the ruthlessness showed against the Tavora family and she withdrew all his political offices. The Queen also issued one of the world's first restraining orders, commanding that the Marquês should not be closer than 20 miles from her presence. If she were to travel near his estates, he was compelled to remove himself from his house to fulfil the royal decree. Maria I is reported to have had tantrums at the slightest reference to her father's former Prime Minister.

The Marquês of Pombal built a palatial villa in Oeiras, with formal French gardens enlivened with traditional Portuguese glazed tile walls. There were waterfalls and waterworks set within vineyards. He died peacefully on his estate at Pombal in 1782. Today Lisbon's most important square and busiest underground station is named Marquês de Pombal in his honor. There is an imposing statue of the Marquês de Pombal in the square, as well.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Sebastião de Melo, Marquis of Pombal".