Sintra Pena Palace – a flamboyant celebration of 400+ years of colonialism and slave trade

Sintra Pena Palace – a flamboyant celebration of 400+ years of colonialism and slave trade

The Portuguese Empire was the leading power in the establishing of slave trading across the Atlantic. It was also the last power of Europe to reluctantly(!) abolish slavery and slave trade.

The “Romanus Pontifex” Bill of Pope Nicholas V (1454) granted with divine christian grace the ability of King Afonso V of Portugal and his successors to enslave and trade slaves from Africa. Another papal bull, in 1537, reverted this, but nobody cared then as it was too lucrative of a business. In 1761 the Marquis of Pombal introduced some limiting legislation, the implementation of which was never carried out. The British even set out to give the Portuguese Government money in exchange for enacting such laws. The response? Portugal asked for a downpayment of £300,000 as compensation for 30 Portuguese slave ships seized by the British navy in the previous five years, after a similar treaty was signed, but never enacted.

But if you think that the Portuguese authorities were then like Oh, ok, now we’ll finally abolish this crap!?, expect some more. They did agree only to stop trade in slaves everywhere north of the Equator. You were somewhere in Mozambique? Gabon? Angola? Tough luck! So like this slavers of the time continued buying and trading slaves, even some after three decades after the legal abolition of slavery in Portugal in 1836. Portuguese media of the time was busy treating the subject as external interference in Portugals interests, playing on the publics nationalistic feelings. Sounds familiar? And even more, queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and queen Mary II of Portugal signed the treaty for the complete abolition of the slave trade in 1842. So just abolishing slave trade, but not slavery. The Act abolishing slavery in some(!) territories of the province of Angola came later in 1856. Slavery within the all the African Portuguese colonies, however, was definitely abolished only in 1869. 100 years later, Salazar and Caetano, his successor, were very busy maintaining control over colonies such as Angola and Mozambique and Guinea.

So, what do you do if you are the heads of an empire so reluctant of giving up on slavery and slave trade, but you finally sign a(nother) treaty promising to do so? Well, you could say Fuck all this!, let’s have a palace! And so they did. And if you really want to make a statement for that time, you hire amateur architect and engineer Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege. And don’t be shy about it, will you?, we are royals! After all, you are Ferdinand, nephew of Ludwig, the guy later responsible for Neuschwanstein! And you did marry-up! The year is 1838, so you buy the old monastery which got destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, the forest and hills around it, and even the Moorish Castle, because why not?. 16 years later, the preposterous thing is done and behold! Minarets, gothic gates, renaissance corridors, Manueline and Mudéjar elements, French colonial style kitchen, all multicolored, all stacked and crowded on top or next to each other, straight from the royal fantasy in which these people actually lived their unrealistic lives. But so romantic, nah!? Such a splendor of romanesque revival! I guess I missed a style or two, unlike the designers of the showcase construction. The interior is somewhat more down-to-earth. Somewhat. And has many rooms. Which, at the time, needed populating, so the royal couple went at it and did not stop until death did them apart. Queen Mary II died while giving birth to the eleventh child.

Later in 1869, Ferdinand II married outside of royalty, to an actress which inherited the palace upon his death in 1885. Since she could not upkeep it, king Luís I bought it for A LOT of money, so in the end the royal family paid twice for this castle. Realizing the stupidity, the royals tricked the Portuguese State into buying the thing five years later. So in the end, the accounts are settled: the palace was paid for twice: once by the royal family, once by the Portuguese taxpayers. 10 years later, in the fashion of forever delaying matters, the republicans got angry over this. They killed the ruling son of Luís, king Carlos, together with his heir, prince Luís Filipe, thus ending the monarchy rule in Portugal in 1910. Since then, the palace is being paid once more by the ones who want to visit, but who were not granted with such divine grace as to be born kings or queens and rule about, on accounts of it being a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Voilà!

Oh, I miscalculated! The castle was actually paid for many more times, in more than 400 years of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and slave trade, in which the royal family, throughout time, had a vested interest.

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