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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The trauma of the French Invasions

(Taken from the book “Portugal no século XVIII – de D. João V à Revolução Francesa” by the Sociedade Portuguesa de Estudos do século XVIII (Portuguese Society of 18th century Studies), in the International Congress of 1990, chapter “Portugal e as invasões francesas – aproximação à anatomia de um medo”, by Mário de Carvalho Cardoso

The French Invasions are one of those subjects in Portuguese History that bring up, still today, the most emotions. It is still a collective and spontaneous fear where the invaders are demonized.
The general feel of impotence before the cyclic invasions, before the clear instructions of non-resistance and before the flight of the Portuguese crown to Brazil, left the population with a sense of abandonment.
Although the arrival of the French army in Lisbon and the way they looked (in starving and miserable conditions) was seen in big awe, soon that sense of abandonment was transformed into a revolt, mainly because of the so called “Loans” that the French army demanded. The economical oppression, the abuse and the violence had an opposite result from what was expected of the Portuguese. There was a growing sense of national solidarity that legitimized the violence against the French (a.k.a. “dogs” because it was the only thing that many French soldiers had to eat).
Even the forced signing of documents by Portuguese religious high representatives that forbid the population to uprise and forced them to show their obedience to Napoleon had a different outcome. It was the 1st sign that the Portuguese became more independent of the catholic church.
Many authors agree that the norm of violence seen by any invading military force was enlarged because the famous mobility of the French army only brought months and months of walking and lesser and lesser provisions and, therefore, made that each individual soldier had to provide for itself for food, clothing and other interests alike. Looting and murder when there was nothing to loot, violence against nuns and clergymen were something linked to French soldiers only. Even if they would be punished by death by their own regiments, the situation was now out of control.
The 1st invasion was so traumatic that on the other 2 the Portuguese population lost it's shyness and took justice into it's own hands, fighting alongside the English army. Soult described the hatred that the French army felt and the atrocities that they suffered in Évora during the 2nd invasion.
Even the people from Galiza, North of Spain, along the northern Portuguese borders, are known to have joined the Portuguese cause by informing the closeness of the French army. It is with this help that the population of Porto was able to organize themselves, into militias, so well.

Portuguese military and civilians fighting the French army, C. Alberto dos Santos.

On another account, as soon as the invaders crossed the river Minho, the church bells rang and the river margins were filled with light and during the morning, the French saw an immense population of peasants waiting for them to disembark with all sorts of weaponry in their hands. They were all covered in their capotes (long cloaks made of straw) that made them almost unrecognisable in the local vegetation. Some even went into the water by foot or by boat in their rage and despair.
Populations would run away from the advancement of the French army but would kill and burn everything what they would leave behind , leaving the soldiers with nothing.
To fight against the invaders became a national duty. The religious obsession was replaced by another form of obsession even supported by church, not only with the excommunication of Napoleon by the Pope Pious the 7th, but also by the link that the Portuguese priests made in their sermons of holy punishment with resistance (the French invasions were explained of being a punishment against sins and therefore the more the Portuguese fought against it the easier they would be forgiven). It soon became David against Goliath.
“KILL HIM, HE'S FRENCH!” was the Portuguese response to the French brutality and soon the victims became more brutal then the invaders themselves. In some towns it even became a bloodbath not only against the invaders but also against all that were mixed up with supporters. And in fear of being accused of being such the general population became even more “patriotic”.
When Soult arrived in Braga the town was almost deserted and anarchy was installed. The town inspector had been accused of being a French partisan and the population killed him and left his body to be eaten by pigs. In Soult's opinion it would be easier to exterminate the Portuguese population then to overtake it militarily.
At the withdrawal of the troops the French army became the target of all sort of violence:From the 1800 soldiers that in 1809 left Chaves only 200 arrived alive in Lisbon.
The Portuguese population used all types of atrocities to revenge themselves. They used to hide in abandoned villages waiting for lonely French soldiers searching for food, to attack them and torture them to death. The cries and screaming were such that it stopped the remaining soldiers to help the captured companion.
The outrage, the sense of abandonment, the suffered violence felt by the population made it become the judge and executioner at the same time, to the point that still today the Portuguese think in anger and grudge of this part of History and having no regrets.

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