A street called ‘Emancipation’

It isn’t often that a street is named in honor of a newspaper, and then it’s not important that it is just an unimpressive short street and not something over-the-top as Times Square with which the ‘New York Times’ was blessed even before the paper became the leading international news medium.

In Tomar, Rua do Jornal ‘A Emancipação’ stretches no longer than the length of two small apartment buildings on one side and the rear of five (semi-) detached homes across, on its west side; and after an open space five or six attached homes on each side before ending at a T, beyond which begins farmland. It feels good to live on this street in Tomar’s east end, in an apartment that looks out over the city to the castle on the hill, built in 1160, and the Convento de Cristo monastery of great fame, dating back to the 1600s. It feels good that I can mention this street’s unusual name on my business card—not that I use one. Emancipation, that’s better than a street named after a less than majestic monarch, noble nincompoop, calamitous colony, wasteful war, degenerate general, passé politician, or manipulating money manager.

Jornal ‘A Emancipação’ was an early participant to the debate about the necessity of social change in Portugal. It became, on February 2, 1879, the first newspaper sold on the streets of Tomar—a weekly founded and edited by Angelina Casimira do Carmo e Silva Vidal (what’s in a Portuguese name…) and managed to survive not even a year. This was less dramatic than it sounds, because it was immediately followed by ‘A Verdade’ (The Truth) founded by Vidal’s friend Antonio da Silva Magelhães, one of the first professional photographers of the country, and his paper made it into the twentieth century. The Truth—Pravda—De Waarheid—La Verité—Sanningen… all over the world news media leaning towards socialism or dominated by communist views worked under the same name, almost a banner, even if not each of them took the truth all too serious and thus helped laying the foundations of what we now understand to be fake news. Although ‘A Verdade’, as ‘A Emancipação’, was a serious and sincere reporter of the truth. Silva Magelhães printed both these newspapers in his ‘Imprensa La Merveille’.

Tomar got started by the Romans under the name of Sellium. Later came the Moors from North-Africa who remained for some 500 years and named the settlement Tamaramá, which stood for “sweet water”, an appropriate name because of its location on the fast-running clear-water Nabão. The name was changed to Thomar when the Knights Templar built their huge castle in 1160 and by 1600, at the time the Convento de Cristo was added, to Tomar. Until Magelhães opened his photo studio (in 1862) and started to document contemporary town life not many images had depicted Tomar or the Tomarese; today, the municipality archives are proud to preserve his whole impressive oeuvre.

It is no wonder that Tomar was one of the first Portuguese towns to have a newspaper. Its long history as a seat of government (the castle was a sort of headquarters of the Knights Templar; the famous King Henry the Navigator lived in Tomar while his explorers sailed the world seas) had created a prosperous town that, although it remained small, became one of the first in the country, after Lisbon, Porto, Elvas and Vila Real, to receive electricity (in 1901) and was one of the first to open a movie theater, only six years after cinema’s invention.

Yet, Tomar was too small for Angelina Vidal. Born in 1847 or 1851 in a middle-class family, she aimed to conquer the whole of Portugal. Writing for scores of young newspapers and magazines, and speaking at labor conventions and protest demonstrations north and south, east and west, she devoted her talents to the improvement of the living conditions of the working class, to the emancipation of men and women alike, and to the education of their children. She was a militant journalist, writer, translator, playwright, freethinker, and teacher. A strong public speaker, she (fascinated by French revolutionary history) drew crowds even in Paris where she, in her thinking about social change a moderate in the line of Danton and Condorcet rather than Marat and Robespierre, was compared to the rebellious Olympe de Gouge who, found not being extreme enough, died under the knife of the guillotine. Vidal at one time was invited to duel with someone who felt offended by a poem she wrote for ‘Jornal de Abrantes’; luckily (for her challenger, because she was a most ferocious woman) the duel was cancelled at the last moment.

In Vidal’s time, Portuguese monarchy was approaching its final days. Trade unions were founded left and right, protests became the order of the day, all kinds of republican dreams were energetically discussed. Vidal wrote much for ‘A Voz do Operário’, a workers’ paper whose owners also founded a cooperative to work for the establishment of schools and libraries (in a country then with maybe 40% literacy), cultural centers and orchestras (music being viewed as an important instrument for creating strong communities). She and most of her colleague-journalists at ‘A Voz’ were not connected to a specific political view or party. The Partida Socialista was still small in the early days. Vidal stood closest to Partida Progressista, others to Partido Regenerador. There was also a Centro Regenerador Liberal, whose leader, João Franco, became prime minister for a short time until he was accused even by likeminded patriots of behaving like a Messiah: “You have banned our conservative parties. You have replaced our parties. You have in fact replaced every one of us.” Rather a predecessor of the other Franco, and Castro, Trump, Putin, Maduro, Erdogan, Salazar, etcetera, etcetera.

These were the best of times, like ours (with Trump, May, etcetera), for satirists. Humor was much needed to make life bearable and became a strong weapon in the fight against silly politicians and recalcitrant royalists and other ultra-conservatives. But regicide was needed before the Republic could be established and by then it was 1908. Of course, social improvement needed more than merely a new constitutional form; and Vidal kept finding plenty of issues attack or causes to support. She was one of the first to signal that the main reasons for so many people emigrating (in some years more than 150,000 of a total population of four million) were the miserable conditions of the lowest classes and the blind alleys of so many others who were trying to climb up. She wrote about the dangerous, often life-threatening working conditions in phosphorus and cotton factories. Her battles for female emancipation became more explicit: “However decent a woman may be, she has a hard time avoiding being pushed into prostitution.” Her activism destroyed her personal life. After losing her parents at a young age, one of her children died, and her husband (a doctor serving with the Portuguese Navy) left her and arranged she, “this revolutionist woman”, did not get custody of her other children. She would have been a worthy contributor to the present day discussion, although I expect she’d be disappointed to find so much emancipation work still to be done in the twenty-first century.

Few activists of her time appreciated that in reality Vidal was rather an evolutionist. She stood for the democracy of an orderly society, a controlled economy, controlled agrarian and industrial modernizations, a free press, decentralization of government, education for all, and separation of church and state but with respect for all faiths and believers. She condemned the murder of the king, Dom Carlos I: “The Republic does not gain anything from regicide!” and was attacked for her moderation. In the end she was too balanced in her views to become one of Portuguese history’s really great ones. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century there are cultural foundations and welfare organizations carrying her name; there is a street named after her in Lisbon’s old Graça district; and the Portuguese postal services CTT put out a series of stamps dedicated to Vidal and a few other “Great Women of the Republic”; while in the Ajuda botanical gardens an oak was planted in her name.

Vidal could never have dreamed of the honors ultimately to be bestowed on her. She could never have dreamed that in Tomar a street would be named after her first step as an activist journalist, and that a Dutchman arriving from North-America would come to live there one-hundred years after her demise and write about her Jornal ‘A Emancipação’ and her personal history. Angelina Vidal died on a street in Lisbon in 1917, in great poverty, after long years of slaving for the wellbeing of Portuguese men and women and granting most of her earnings as a journalist and an author to the causes she fought for.

In 2018, three local newspapers are published in Tomar (with a population of 20,000 living in town plus again 20,000 in the district): ‘O Templário’ (since 1925), ‘Cidade de Tomar’ (since 1935) and ‘Despertar do Zêzere’ (since 1979). Apparently the Portuguese still love to receive their news in print.