Pombal: Paradox of the Enlightenment
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.