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The Enlightened Despot

Pombal: Paradox of the Enlightenment

by Kenneth Maxwell
Cambridge University Press, 200 pp., $44.95

Twice in its history Portugal has had a leading part in Europe. In the fifteenth century it pioneered explorations and discovery in other continents, ending up with a vast empire including outposts in Asia, substantial parts of Africa, and half of South America, mostly now the territory of Brazil. Other powers soon followed Portugal’s example—though not Austria. The Portuguese empire was still largely intact, and in Brazil was still expanding, when in 1759 Portugal took another great initiative, the expulsion and expropriation of the Jesuits from both the mother country and its colonies. One by one the other Catholic Powers, again with the major exception of Austria, followed Portugal’s example. In 1773 their pressure on Pope Clement XIV became too strong for him to resist, and he decreed the total suppression of the Jesuit order. Austria complied.

Portugal’s first initiative was surely one of the most significant in recorded history. If the second cannot be put in quite the same class, it was still an event that astounded the world and greatly changed it. No one doubts that one man was essentially responsible for Portugal’s expulsion of the Jesuits: the Marquis de Pombal, the prime minister of King José I throughout his reign from 1750 to 1777. It is the action for which Pombal is best known, but he was an exceptionally energetic and ruthless ruler who attempted to transform most aspects of his country’s economy and society. The historian Leo Gershoy called him “the most spectacular and dynamic reformer of the century”1—a large claim to make when writing about the age of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick William I and Frederick the Great of Prussia, Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Austria and their minister, Prince Kaunitz.

Kenneth Maxwell’s new biography of Pombal is a remarkable achievement. In only 166 pages of text, in which room has also been found for forty-seven illustrations, he explains developments in Brazil as well as in Portugal, places both countries in their world setting, expounds the minister’s career, his aims and actions, and then discusses them as a test case of enlightened despotism—all with evident mastery and relish. The book is based on extensive research, which has yielded some splendidly pointed quotations. If much of it has already figured in Maxwell’s Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil & Portugal, 1750–1808,2 his concentration on Pombal himself in this biography has led him to consider many matters not relevant to the earlier book, such as educational reform and the rebuilding of Lisbon, with which Pombal was deeply involved. Pombal represents an immense advance on anything previously published on its subject in English, and, so far as I know, there is nothing comparable to it in any language.

The first problem about Pombal is his name. He was born in 1699 into a gentry family, as Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo. In 1759 he was created count of Oeiras, and only in 1769 marquis of Pombal. His career started rather humbly; until he was in his thirties he managed his family’s rural property. But suddenly in 1738 he became ambassador to Britain, his country’s principal ally, at the crucial moment when the War of Jenkins’ Ear was brewing between Britain and Spain. Maxwell attributes this appointment to the influence of Pombal’s relatives, but his family was of no great consequence, and his elopement with a count’s niece had offended hers. It was true that the new foreign secretary was his cousin. But it must also have become obvious that Pombal was a man of remarkable force, determination, and ability, dedicated to the interests of the royal house.

From London he was moved to Austria. His first wife having died, he married in Vienna a niece of Marshal Daun, Maria Theresa’s best general. Since the Queen of Portugal was an Austrian princess, this connection proved highly advantageous. When she became regent in 1749, she recalled Pombal to be one of her ministers. In the next year her son succeeded to the throne as King José I and made Pombal his chief minister. He was already fifty-one but he retained power until he was seventy-eight, when the king’s death brought his rule to an abrupt end.

When Pombal became prime minister, the more intelligent leaders of his country were ready for change, as Maxwell shows from the writings of Dom Luís da Cunha, one of the more impressive among them. They resented that Portugal, once so great, was now treated with contempt by other powers, especially by Britain, which seemed, with the Methuen commercial treaty of 1703, to have made their country something close to a colony. This treaty must rank as one of the most effective trade agreements of all time. By its terms,

English woolen goods entered Lisbon and Oporto free of duty and, in return, Portuguese wines received advantages on the English market…. Woolen cloth made up two-thirds of total British exports, and from 1756 to 1760 Port wine composed in value 72 per cent of the total wine consumption in Britain.

British merchants took most of the profits and enjoyed a privileged position in Portuguese society, looking down on the natives whom they regarded as backward, inefficient, and sunk in Catholic superstition. Maxwell quotes a remarkable anticipation of Noel Coward’s description of expatriate behavior:

It is a common observation of the natives [wrote an Irish soldier in 1787] that excepting the lowest conditions of life, you shall not meet anyone on foot for some hours of the violent heat every day, but dogs and Englishmen.

Despite these tensions, it had to be acknowledged that the British, with their overwhelming naval strength, were uniquely well placed to protect Portugal from Spain. From 1580 to 1640 Portugal had been annexed and ruled by Spain, and there was no desire among the Portuguese to renew the experience. South America was virtually divided between the two countries, leading to continuous frontier disputes as settlement expanded.

As ambassador in London Pombal was impressed by Britain’s wealth and, in an effort to understand how it came about, he read very widely and made many contacts, for example in the Royal Society. He thought he had learned how to apply the lessons in such a way as to reduce British influence to the advantage of Portugal. When he became prime minister he set up a group of privileged companies, including one through which the major native producers of port could control its production. But he was too prudent to jeopardize the old alliance. “The objective,” Maxwell quotes one of Pombal’s associates, “was to hurt [the British] in such a way they cannot scream.” He refused to make a commercial treaty with Spain, even though his early years as prime minister saw an unusual degree of collaboration between the two powers. Just before he took office they had concluded an agreement about the boundaries of the different South American territories, and in 1754 and 1756 the two countries sent a combined force to impose the agreement’s terms. But in the 1760s and 1770s they were at was again, chiefly over Brazil.

If Pombal had been attracted by the English system of government, he must have concluded that it was totally inapplicable in Portugal. His aim administer was to enhance the already powerful absolutism of the king in order to reform the country from above. Maxwell shows how important it was that he had been in Vienna at the time when the young Maria Theresa, having nearly lost her throned after Frederick the Great attacked her and seized Silesia in 1740, had made a dramatic recovery. Her armies reconquered disloyal Bohemia with the assistance of Marshal Daun, and her husband was elected Emperor Francis I in 1745. While Pombal was in Austria, she set about reforming the government of her provinces, restricting the power of the local grandees and establishing her right to levy taxes without their consent in order to support an adequate army, measures which she imposed in 1749. These were the years of Maria Theresa’s greatest triumphs and most vigorous radicalism. Pombal, by his marriage and through his friendship with the Empress’s confidant, his countryman Duke Silva-Tarouca, was exceptionally close to her; he probably knew that her private intentions at this stage of her reign included plans to remodel the Church in her dominions and to limit the power of the Jesuits. It is no wonder that Pombal was inspired by this success story to promote in Portugal similar reforms from above.

In fact Portugal was not literally in decline in the first half of the eighteenth century. Its population was growing, and at the end of the seventeenth century a rich source of gold had been discovered in Brazil which brought wealth to some of Pombal’s countrymen, including the king, who was entitled to a fifth of its value, a bonanza which made it unnecessary for him to call the parliament, the Cortes, into session after 1698. Brazil, which had had a large part in restoring Portuguese independence, was also growing fast, approaching the mother country in population and rapidly developing production not only of gold but also of sugar, tobacco, and, later, cotton. “Portugal without Brazil,” it was said, “is an insignificant power.” But the government of João V had failed to exploit these developments constructively.

Even more conspicuous than the English economic stranglehold was the exceptional influence within Portugal and its colonies of the Roman Catholic Church, which seemed to contemporaries greater than anywhere else in Europe. It was believed that nearly 10 percent of the population were priests. The Inquisition was still having heretics burned at the stake. Since there were virtually no Portuguese Protestants, those who suffered were either Jews or so-called “New Christians”—members of formerly Jewish families that had been converted before or during the early sixteenth century—who were alleged still to have Jewish affiliations.

King João V contributed to the impression of bigotry during his long reign, between 1706 and 1750, by spending much of his Brazilian gold on a vast palace monastery at Mafra. Voltaire was not far wrong when he wrote of him: “When he wanted a festival, he ordered a religious parade. When he wanted a new building, he built a convent, when he wanted a mistress, he took a nun.” As in Catholic Europe generally, the Jesuits were numerous; they had a virtual monopoly of higher and secondary education, and they supplied the royal family with confessors. Pombal became determined to curb their power.

Reform was called for also in Brazil. The first great Portuguese initiative goes far to explain the second. As part of the process of colonial expansion under the aegis of the Counter-Reformation Church, the Jesuits had taken the major part in missionary activity in the Spanish and Portuguese empires. In South America they had been very successful in converting the Indians, whose traditions and communities they protected from other settlers. In the absence of effective central authority the Jesuits created what were virtually independent states covering very large regions of the continent. When some of the Jesuit missions that had formerly owed allegiance to Spain were transferred to Portugal in the negotiations of the 1740s, thousands of Indians were required to migrate hundreds of miles with their Jesuit protectors.

Pombal was as sure that he knew how best to exploit the economic potential of Brazil as he was about how to rule Portugal. He was convinced that “the power and wealth of all countries consists principally in the number and multiplication of the people that inhabit it.” There were not enough people in Brazil and so he decided that slaves must be shipped in from Portugal’s African territories to augment the work force. The Indians had to be freed from Jesuit protection, which, in Pombal’s view, kept them in ignorance, idleness, and superstition, and Portuguese and Indians had to be encouraged to intermarry. This drastic social engineering, together with the terms of the Spanish-Portuguese agreement, provoked armed opposition from some of the Jesuit Indian missions. The joint Spanish-Portuguese force smashed their resistance.

On November 1, 1755, All Saints’ Day, while many of the faithful were at church, an earthquake followed by a tidal wave destroyed the old city of Lisbon. Pombal displayed immense skill in turning this catastrophe to his advantage. He persuaded the king that the city should be rebuilt on the same site according to a rational plan and in an elegant style, and drove the construction work forward against all difficulties. His success in largely rebuilding the town in several years led the king to accord him virtually despotic power.

The earthquake was the subject of intense debate. Pombal, as a Fellow of the Royal Society, insisted that it was just a natural calamity. Traditionalists saw it as divine retribution, but were divided over what sin was being punished. Some claimed that God was indicating his disapproval of Pombal. His reforms were arousing widespread discontent. Those whose interests were injured by the new company of port producers that had been set up by Pombal rioted in Oporto in 1757. Pombal treated the incident as a full-blown rebellion. He established a tribunal which condemned 442 people: 14 to death, 59 to exile, and the rest to flogging, imprisonment, or the galleys. He then sent an army under his cousin to Oporto to maintain martial law. In 1758 an attempt to assassinate the king failed, but he was wounded. After a secret investigation twelve nobles were executed, among them the duke of Aveiro, “the most powerful noble in Portugal after the royal family itself, and president of the supreme court,” who was first broken on the wheel but carefully kept alive to be burned to death, and the marquis of Távora, a general and former viceroy of India whose wife was the king’s mistress. Eight Jesuits were arrested for complicity, including a half-mad old man called Malagrida who had attributed the earthquake to divine intervention.

Pombal appointed his brother Inquisitor-General and, with the aid of compliant archbishops, had the whole body of Jesuits declared to be in rebellion. They were alleged to have tolerated heresy among their Indian subjects, to have encouraged them to rise against the Crown, and to have amassed untold treasures of gold and silver in their inaccessible missions. In 1759 their lands and property were seized, and they were all either imprisoned or exiled. Two years later, with savage irony, Malagrida became the last victim of the Portuguese Inquisition to be burned at the stake.

Secure now in his despotism, Pombal introduced a wide range of measures which were at once enlightened and authoritarian. The Inquisition was turned into an arm of the state as was the censorship office. A new system of state-sponsored schools was set up to replace, or partly replace, those of the Jesuits. The curriculum of the University of Coimbra was modernized, mainly with a view to providing a better-trained bureaucracy. Religious toleration was accorded to Protestants and Jews, and the distinction between Old and New Christians abolished. The laws of the country were reviewed, to ensure both that they had rational justification and that they gave the state maximum power. This is the “paradox” of Maxwell’s title, that, in the work of Pombal, Enlightenment and despotism went hand in hand.

The Enlightenment is in danger of becoming so malleable a concept that it will lose all meaning. The present Pope and archbishop of Canterbury both condemn it. They claim that it is represented by Descartes’s thought, which, they say, removed God from philosophy and enthroned the individual’s whims, thus causing all the ills of the modern world. On the other hand, some who applaud secularism, liberalism, individualism, and democracy believe that the Enlightenment is to be identified with these causes. Both groups reject the possibility of Catholic Enlightenment; the second denies the possibility of Enlightened despotism.

These positions are unhistorical. “Enlightenment” is an eighteenth-century term, at least in German, and “enlightened” was commonly used in virtually the same sense in all the major European languages, as was “philosophical,” which had a similar meaning. Writers who were called “enlightened” or “philosophical” in the eighteenth century commonly (like Pombal) rejected Descartes’s thought as metaphysical and too systematic, and they were usually too elitist to find democracy acceptable. They could be critical of individualism and—perhaps most difficult of all for modern secularists to understand—they were often convinced Christians, even convinced Catholics. Of course, especially in countries where some sort of representative or limited government existed, such as Britain and the United States, Hungary, and Poland, there was a tradition of political discussion that valued such constitutional arrangements both for themselves and as capable of generating enlightened reform. In writings of this tendency some of the individual’s “natural” rights were generally held to subsist after society and the state had come into being.

But absolute rule was the norm throughout much of Europe, especially Catholic Europe, and most political writing there assumed that all individual rights had been surrendered when the social contract established the government. Enlightened persons often wanted to see particular reforms adopted, but not a whole new philosophy. If an absolute ruler could be found who would reduce the power of the Church, encourage religious toleration, get rid of Jesuits and other monks, abolish torture and the death penalty, liberalize censorship, and make education more secular, they would welcome his reforms from above without many qualms, especially since there was little prospect of importing representative government into an established absolutism. Many Catholics were persuaded that reforms like this were not merely compatible with, but positively beneficial to, their faith as properly understood. Some thinkers, such as the German Melchior Grimm and the Italians Giuseppe Gorani and Pietro Verri, not to mention the Englishman Thomas Hobbes, actually wrote of the benefits to be expected from Enlightened or philosophic despotism. Maxwell is entirely right to argue that Enlightenment and despotism can, up to a point and with a certain definition of despotism, be compatible.

Yet Pombal does not fit perfectly into the eighteenth-century notion of Enlightened despotism. An Enlightened despot would be despotic in the sense of possessing complete power, but he would exercise it according to Enlightened principles, which, varied though they could be in many matters, almost always included respect for the laws and a refusal to seek personal profit. This was not true of Pombal. To take a striking case in point, Maxwell offers a justification of Pombal’s judicial murder of twelve noblemen and a Jesuit by comparing it to the execution of Robert-François Damiens, who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV of France in 1757, and he comments that the cruel punishments inflicted in each case were parallel. Louis XV, however, is not thought of as an Enlightened despot, yet the legal process in France was far more worthy of respect than that in Portugal, and there was no doubt of Damiens’s guilt. Pombal’s government was exceptional in the sixteenth century for cheerfully imprisoning bishops and keeping hundreds of Jesuits in prison for decades without trial. If it was plainly “enlightened” of Pombal to abolish the remnants of slavery in Portugal itself, it was hardly so, even if it was rational, for him to extend it so conspicuously in Brazil.

Advocates of absolute or despotic rule usually argued that monarchical rule could only work well if the monarch governed personally, because only the monarch, raised high above his subjects, could embody the public interest. It may have been almost necessary for a mere minister such as Pombal to exalt himself when he was entrusted with absolute power; a monarch could afford to condescend. Pombal certainly was insatiable in sell aggrandizement. He bent the rules to make himself and his family very rich, worked closely with one brother who became inquisitor-general, with another who became governor of half of Brazil, and with a cousin who effectively ruled northern Portugal.

Maxwell’s emphasis on the importance of Pombal’s Austrian connections is persuasive. Some of the beautiful color plates in his book even demonstrate the architectural influence of Austria (including Hungary) on Portuguese buildings. But the comparison with Austria can be taken too far. Maria Theresa and Joseph II considered the Jesuits of their dominions to be innocent of most of the crimes imputed to them elsewhere. No doubt it was important that Austria had no overseas empire in which the Jesuits could establish a state within a state. But when the order had been suppressed, the rulers of Austria did not imprison or exile the ex-Jesuits. They employed many and pensioned the rest. Joseph, though he had recently recommended ten years of despotic rule for Hungary, wrote in 1768:

So far as one tell, [Portugal] is governed very despotically by the count of Oeiras who, having managed to gain the intimate confidence of the King, rules this state in all its parts according to his whims which, since they are usually prompted by a violent character and a spirit of intrigue and subtlety,… render this country very unhappy and to be pitied; dishonorable things occur there, and even acts of violence shameful in a just and equitable government.3

Still, there is no denying that Pombal shook up the societies of Portugal and Brazil and reduced the dominance there of old-fashioned Counter-Reformation Catholicism; he did much to encourage the attack on the Jesuits throughout Catholic Europe. If his ferocity is partly explained by his need to establish his own position, it also derived from the magnitude of the problems he faced in trying to govern in Brazil as well as in Portugal. And virtually all governments, not just despotic regimes, tend to expand their own power in order to impose their policies, however liberal.

  1. 1

    Leo Gershoy, From Despotism to Revolution, 1763–1789 (Harper, 1944), pp. 150–151.

  2. 2

    Cambridge, 1973.

  3. 3

    From the “General Picture of the Affairs of the Monarchy” prepared for Leopold of Tuscany in 1768, Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna, Familien-Archiv, Sammelbände 88. See my Joseph II: In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741–1780 (Cambridge University Press, 1987), Vol. I, p. 125 and note.

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