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Sunday, April 29, 2012


Entrance of the Royal Gunpowder Factory of Barcarena, in Oeiras, picture taken by author

Since my last visit to the Museum of the gunpowder factory here in Oeiras, I decided to start a research of anything I could find about this factory, and others, during the French Invasions. Hard task, but very interesting and rewarding, if you're a History fanatic like I am. I'll explain:


But before I start to share my research I've started in the Military Historical Archives I'll have to explain that most of the documents I only could copy by hand and I also want to apologize for the lack of translations you will find in the text, since I couldn't find the synonyms.
The Gunpowder factories were called Royal Gunpowder factories because, of course, they belonged to the Portuguese Crown and the ones I found in the Lisbon region were:
- Real Fábrica da Pólvora de Barcarena, which made the black powder, dried it and sent it to warehouses. In the 16th and 17th century was also known to make weapons, later extinct probably because of security issues. It was one the most safe and complete gunpowder factory in Portugal, being supplied by water by a nearby creek, even making it's own barrels, even if it hadn't a place to dry the gunpowder paste (called “greenhouses” in Portuguese).
- Real Fábrica do Refino de Alcântara, refined saltpeter and sulfur that came from the Royal Glass making Factory of Vila de Moura and other places , even produced some amounts of gunpowder, and these were taken to Barcarena by boat down a creek, along the shoal line and up the Barcarena river. This factory was closed in 1874 and all the gunpowder production was moved to Barcarena. It firstly made gunpowder besides refining sulfur and saltpeter but soon it became clear that it was a dangerous business. The factory was to close to the city of Lisbon, it could be seen form the ocean because of the flat terrain it was located on, the worker's housing (blocks!) where almost attached to the factory and even some gunpowder was stored on the premises.
-Real Fábrica das Rilvas
- Real Fábrica da Nitreira

I don't know if the information about these factories was lost in time, or if I can find the information I'm looking for in other archives. What I'm looking for is some historical data of these factories short before the French occupation and during that time too. To see if the French ever took the Portuguese gunpowder production under their wings and what happened to it when the British came to the Portuguese rescue. Questions that still remain to be answered.

So, to start with, a bit of background. I suggest you do a quick research on how black powder was made to understand the documents I'll post below. But on a short view, it was made out of 75% of saltpeter, 10% of sulfur and 15% of charcoal all needing to be refined, then grinned by heavy blocks of stone (called engenhos, or in English mills) pulled by oxes (this process was called a tarefa, a “task”) then mixed into a paste, then dried and stored. Different types of gunpowder were made as you'll see further on.

  • The factories belonged to the Portuguese navy. Don't forget that it was Portugal who started the maritime discoveries and that it was Portugal who owned half of the world. So, that means that gunpowder was necessary to secure Portuguese power in the colonies.
  • All the gunpowder production was kept in secrecy. There was no interest in sharing numbers and knowledge with strangers (specially Spain, who was the 2nd largest European country with colonies and with whom we were constantly at war).
  • Some of the factories had a fortress type of architecture for the same reasons as written before and the factory of Barcarena was even built in a valley so it wouldn't be so exposed to the eye.
  • According to a document form 1811 about the usage, ingredients, types of gunpowder and workers in the factory of Barcarena, we can say that saltpeter and sulfur were refined in Alcântara as said above, that charcoal came from trees such as alder and willow and that the types of gunpowder made here were the ones for war (!!!), for hunting and those powders that needed to be improved.
  • The pine trees forests from Leiria and Pederneira gave timber for the mills for Barcarena at the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries. What is interesting is that the same forest from Leiria was not only used to build the ships for the maritime discoveries but also planted by the Portuguese king D. Dinis in the 14th century for the same purposes (it was this king that founded the Royal Portuguese Navy).
  • Gunpowder was stored in several places, like in the warehouses of the factories mentioned above, the Depósito Geral (a general warehouse belonging to the crown) and even a new warehouse from Beirolas, mentioned in one of the docs I've read.
  • In these factories several foreign workers were employed or because of their expertise or just because they lived here (see previous post on the Portuguese economy). Several different statistical studies were made in these factories to know how many foreign workers they had, like how many Germans worked for the Royal Army factories (in 1807) or how many Prussian gunsmiths were hired to work in Portugal. Could these type of studies been made for security reasons? Don't forget that it was in 1807 that the French invaded Portugal.
  • 2 interesting documents I found were a permit of 1803 from the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, allowing factory labor on Sundays and a letter from the workers of the Barcarena Factory to the King in Brazil in 1808 complaining of the lack of payments.
Nevertheless, here is what I found so far about general information and affairs of the Gunpowder Factory of Barcarena (I'll post the production info and numbers further down):

A letter (belonging to a set of letters between June 1756 and June 1762) written by José António Macedo de Vasconcelos from the factories of Barcarena e Alcântara to D. Luiz da Cunha Manuela about a question if the river of Barcarena (which gave water to the factory) was public or private, says that all rivers that are waterways and have the same amount of water all year round, even if not being big rivers, are of public use and belong to the Portuguese Crown, unless this same water is diverted to other locations. All private rivers are the ones that belong to some property owner and shouldn't harm third parties, like watering crops. In the case of the Barcarena river, it's public because it's water flows all year long and the land owners cannot divert it's water that flow to the factory's mills without previous permission.
Water mill at the factory in Barcarena, picture taken by author.

On August the 17th of 1805 there was an explosion and fire in the factory of Barcarena, in which some people died and a month later an inquiry – a devassa (please read a previous post on Portuguese Society) - was installed on September the 13th. All the testimonies were signed by the factory workers. The beauty of reading this document was the fact that it was visible how the names were signed, by people who couldn't' read or write: sometimes Xs, sometimes the full name written coarsely, blobs of ink that in time corroded the paper... Amazing!
The document starts with and concludes that:
«Por ordem da N.A.R. passei ao Distrito de Barcarena a devassar sobre a causa do infausto sucesso acontecido na Fábrica da Pólvora na tarde de 17 de Agosto do corrente ano: Executar esta dilgência, inquirindo as pessoas habitantes nos lugares circumverinhos, e athe algumas que me pareccio poderem ter algua noticia interessante ao fim proposto, por inteligentes do interior manejo da mesma Fábrica, completando o número da lei; e todas informemente jurarão não haver o mais leve indicio de maquinação insidioza, ou imprudência culpável, como consta da mesma Devassa, que apresento a N. A. R. Lisboa, 13 de Setembro 1805.
O corregedor do Crime da Corte, Miguel Pereira de Barroz.»
«By orders of our Royal Highness I went to the district of Barcarena do inquiry about the causes of the unfortunate occurrence that happened in the Gunpowder Factory in the afternoon of August the 17th of the current year: to execute this endeavor, inquiring the people that live in the surrounding places and even some of the people that I found to have some interesting information to the this purpose, because of their knowledge of the interior handling of the same factory, fulfilling the numbers required by law; and all informatively sworn that there wasn't the slightest indication of
insidious planning, or culpable imprudence, as it says on the same Devassa, that I present to our Royal Highness. Lisbon, September the 13th, 1805.
The Inspector of Crime of the Court, Miguel Pereira de Barroz»

In 1806 the re-building of part of the factory after the explosion in 1805 cost 15.268$120 (Réis was the name of Portuguese currency until 1911), being :
- 8.870$082 expenses for the new buildings,
- 43.905$082 for materials to make gunpowder for all the year of 1806,
- 2.014$175 for those who died and their families.

Another letter, written by Carlos António Napion to António de Araújo e Azevedo in September, 1805 (after the accident in Barcarena) about the advantages in expanding this factory instead of building another one, says that:
«1º, dificuldade em achar hum sitio aonde haja agoa suficiente, e comodidade para ter perto da fábrica carvão para a pólvora» (difficulty in finding a location with water in abundance and to have nearby charcoal for gunpowder)
«2º, A necessidade de estabelecer também em pouca distancia da fábrica outra fábrica para refinar o salitre, quando nao, a despeza que he precizo fazer no transporte do salitre da actual fábrica, para a nova fábrica da pólvora.» (the necessity to also establish nearby another factory to refine saltpeter, not even considering the expenses to transport the saltpeter from the current factory to the new one)
«3º A grande despeza que seria necessária para a construção dos engenhos como de derivação, da caldeira, açude, aramzens, abegoaria, cazas etc para o uzo destas e outras fabricas.» (the big necessary expense to built new mills , boiler, dam, warehouses, sheds, houses, etc)
«4º A considerável despeza que causarão anualmente ao Estado os ordenados dos Administradores, Feitores, Almoxarifados, Fiéis, etc, que todos aqui se considerarão precizos para trabalhos, e para a arrecadação.» (the annual expenses for the State that the wages for administration, foremen, warehouse keepers and all other personal neede to produce and store gunpowder)
«5ºA despeza do transporte de huma considerável quantidade de pólvora athe Lisboa, pois he neste porto que se vende a maior parte dela, e que se consome.» (the tranpsortation expenses of considerable amounts of gunpowder to Lisbon, since it is here that most of it is sold).

He continues speaking of the advantages and disadvantages of building a new gunpowder factory: that transporting gunpowder in paste to another location away from the factory of Barcarena would cause several problems because of it's quantity; that 1 hour of distance between one factory and the other would be more then enough to avoid fires; a new factory located close by just to the deposit of “granizado” would reduce the expenses and also avoid building new mills; other factories don't have water located at the premises; one could consider building 3 factories just for the “granizado” instead of 1 new one very far away; 3 new locations would bring the advantage of separating the gunpowder into 4 parts (something that 2 factories wouldn't be able to do) and besides the safety issue it would also mean that everything would be part of the same administrative board.

And at the end of the letter Carlos António Napion puts 2 questions:

«1º Qual he a quantidade de pólvora que anualmente convem fabricar-se em Portugal»* (which would be the suitable amount of Gunderson produced anually in Portugal?)
«2º Qual he a melhoria de granizo* que se quer (…*) e também se quer fazer uzo da estufa para granizar no Inverno»* (Which would be the improvements of “granizo” (…) and also on the use of the “greenhouse” to “granizar in the Winter)

NOTES *: 1805 is 2 years before the 1st French Invasion and 4 years after the last war with Spain; “granizo”=granulated?; (…) not readable; Carlos Napion suggests the use of a “greenhouse” to dry gunpowder in Winter (documents further on prove that there wasn't such a method in Barcarena).


Several types of artillary produced in Barcarena, picture taken by author.
And now to the production:

In 1801 the balance accounts of the factory of Barcarena signed by the Sergeant Major José Joaquim Talaya shows the following numbers:

(the numbers match, so I'm just writing one of them down)
Saltpeter from 4 refineries 7,,2,,21,,*
Refined saltpeter 5693,,3,,6,,
Refined sulfur 867,,2,,27,,
Charcoal for gunpowder 1889,,3,,20,,
Common gunpowder 6659,,1,,0,,
“Principe”* gunpowder 14,,1,,0,,
Dried English gp. 2490,,~,,13,,
Common useless* gp. 302,,3,,14,,
Barrel staves 72625,,~,,7818,,
Bundles of hoops 1473,,~,,1,,
Containers (mugs 1770, tubs 303, smaller barrels 212)
Several genera (jean's bags 1916, leather sieves 72, high quality cloth 217, hair brooms 22)
Barrels (lower quality 3639, mid quality 24.860, 1st quality 908, casks 16, “quartos”* 8, barrels 4)
Fava beans(?) 1508 “alqueires”*
Straw (stacks of 120#*) 1893,,93,,
Oxes 14

NOTES *: I don't know what type of measurement was used by the author of this document; “Principe” means Prince; Useless means that it was worthless or is it just another name given to gunpowder?; “quartos” a type of barrel or measurement; I'm not sure it said beans because I couldn't understand the handwriting; “alqueire” old moorish measurement, similar to bushel; “stacks of 120#”, I cannot say what type of measurement this is.

In a document from 1802, a weekly analysis is made of the work done in Barcarena from 2nd January of 1802 to 30th of January of the same year. Here's the basic info I took out of the document:

Week of 2nd of January 1802:
  • 7 mills grinded 450 “tasks” of mixed ingredients for common gunpowder in a total of 675@*;
  • No storage because the weather didn't allow the paste to dry;
  • In the Depósito Geral are stored 2808@ of common gp., in the factory 1815@ of “granizado”* in paste, 29 ½ @ of “principe” gp. and 838@ of useless gp;
  • From Alcântara came 144@ of saltpeter and 50@ of sulfur;
  • From the factory's cooperage came 192 new barrels of 2@ capacity, 576 pipe staves and 11 bundles of hoops “de cunhete”*.
Week of 9th o January 1802:
  • Grinded 407 “tasks” of mixed ingredients for common gunpowder in a total of 610 ½ @;
  • No storage because the weather didn't allow the paste to dry;
  • In the Depósito Geral are stored 3421@ of common gp. in paste, in the factory 1812@ of “granizado”* in paste, 29 ½ @ of “principe” gp. and 836@ of useless gp to be refined;
  • From Alcântara came 416@of saltpeter and 45@ of sulfur;
  • From the factory's cooperage came 128 new barrels of 2@ capacity.
Week of the 16th of January:
  • Grinded 513 “tasks” of mixed ingredients for common gunpowder in a total of 769 ½ @;
  • No storage because the weather didn't allow the paste to dry;
  • Delivered 6@ of “principe” gp. For the royal hunt;
  • In the Depósito Geral are stored 3885@ of “granizado”* in paste, in the factory 240@ of dried gp., 1878@ of “granizado”* in paste, 23 ½ @ of “principe” gp, 836@ of useless gp.;
  • From Alcântara came 72@ of saltpeter and 200@ of sulfur;
  • From the factory's cooperage came 155 new barrels of 2@ capacity.
Week of 23rd of January 1802:
  • Grinded 372 “tasks” of mixed ingredients for common gunpowder in a total of 558@;
  • Stored 320@ of common dried gp.;
  • In the Depósito Geral are stored 4185@ of common dried gp., in the factory 240@ of dried gp., 1716@ of “granizado”* in paste, 23 ½ @ of “principe” gp, 836@ of useless gp.;
  • From Alcântara came 432@ of refined saltpeter, 204 bundles of hoops “de cunhete” sent by Joaquim Jozé Dias;
  • From the factory's cooperage came 114 new barrels of 2@ capacity.
Week of 30th of January 1802:
Grinded 462 “tasks” of mixed ingredients for common gunpowder in a total of 693@;
Stored 400@ of common dried gp.;
In the Depósito Geral are stored 4635@ of common gp in paste, in the factory 160@ of dried gp., 1859@ of “granizado”* in paste, 231/2 @ of “principe” gp, 992@ e 20 “arreteis” of useless gp.;
From Alcântara came 360@ of saltpeter and form the warehouses 276@ e 20 “arreteis” of common useless gp.;
From the factory's cooperage came 128 new barrels of 2@ capacity.

NOTES *: @ = arroba, a measurement left by the Moorish; “granizado” = granulated?; “de cunhete” probably a denomination a certain type of barrel hoop; “arretel” is a Moorish measurement.

One of the mills that would be moved by oxes, picture taken by author.

In 1811 an official letter by Manuel Ribeiro de Araújo to Benjamin d'Urban about the work done in the factory of Bracarena writes:
«Cumprindo ordem do Marechal Beresford, Comandante em Chefe do exército, Manuel Ribeiro de Araújo tem a honra de informar que a Real Fábrica da Pólvora de Bracarena tem sempre trabalho e trabalha ainda em ingredientes para fazer pólvora, em quantidade de braços para trabalho de acordo com os meios que tem à disposição»
«To carry out the orders of Marshal Beresford (!!!), the Army's Commander in Chief, Manuel Ribeiro de Aráujo has the honor of informing that the Royal Gunpowder Factory of Barcarena has worked and still works in ingredients to make gunpowder, in quantity of workers accordingly to the means they have available.»
It continues saying that there's enough water to move the mills, but only in winter, that there are no “greenhouses” to dry the powder, in Summer it's the opposite (it would be dried out in the open on terraces).

And it finishes with:

«E por isso não se pode julgar o resultado do trabalho da fábrica num só mês, mas sim em todo um ano, cuja conclusão que se tira da relação do trabalho que é enviada pelo mesmo à Secretaría de Estado dos Negócios da Guerra e na qual Benjamin d'Urban pode ver o trabalho que a fábrica fez de Julho de 1810 até Junho de 1811.»
»And for that reason one cannot judge the results of work of the factory in just one month, but in a whole year, which findings one can take form the work relation send by the same to the Secretary of the Affairs War and in which Benjamin d'Urban can see the work that the factory has made form July 1810 until June 1811.»
18th century portuguese soldiers and rifles, picture atken by author.

And here, the info of the document mentioned above:

  • July = 1.238@ of damaged gp sent to the warehouse;
  • August =240@ new gp.; 1462@ of damaged gp sent to the warehouse; 40@ of powder gp;
  • September = 360@ of powder gp; 460@ of damaged gp sent to the warehouse; 40@ of powder gp;
  • October = 506@ new gp.; 208@ of damaged gp sent to the warehouse;
  • November = 108@ of new gp sent to the warehouse;
  • December = 304@ of new gp sent to the warehouse.
  • January = 312@ from which only 112@ were sent to the warehouse since the rest cannot be accounted for because it hasn't dried;
  • February = 504@ of Prussian gp. from which 114@ went to the warehouse because the rest couldn't dry;
  • March = 138@ (28@ of mixed ingredients for new gp.), 554@ of damaged gp. from which 334@ went to the warehouse since the rest was left behind to dry;
  • April = were milled 67@ (27@ of mixed ingredients for new gp. ); 280@ were “granizados” of gp that came form Mafra; 614@ of Prussian gp;
  • May = “granizados” 822@ of Prussian gp from which 662@ will be sent to the warehouse and 160@ stay in the factory because it hasn't dried;
  • June = 75@ of damaged gp milled. Gunpowder couldn't dry this month because of lack of workers that didn't came to work for lack of wages payments (!!!).

I hope that this extended post wasn't to boring and that it showed you a small insight of the conditions of gunpowder manufacture in Portugal at the time. What I found so interesting is even in being such an important factory in the national scenario and being considered one of the safest, if not the most safe, factory in this country, there was still a lot to be improved, specially in drying methods, and somehow Marshall Beresford found it necessary to ask if the factory still existed and produced. Lack of British faith in the Portuguese or just a perfectly normal question for someone left in charge of a country with an absent king?
 Old factory sign saying «Military Factory of Gunpowder and Explosives, Barcarena, more than 500 years at the service of the nation, Lessee: the Company of Gunpowder and Amunition of Barcarena; Special gunpowders for hunting, quarries and mines;  fuses: simple and double, white, tarry or specail for mines; Ball powder sold here; picture by author.


Le Loup said...

Excellent Sara. May I give you a tip?! When taking photos, always take more than one of each subject, at least three of each & if not sure take more from another angle.
Sincere Regards, Keith.

Sara Seydak said...

Thanx for hte advice! :) I always take more then 1; digital cameras make it easier, but when the more interesting things are behind glass and with porr lighting... I'll be going there again anyways, so perhaps this time I'll have more luck.