Catching Up

When it comes to us “common” people, it is rather sad to see how few traces a life leaves behind. The higher someone’s social class, the easier it is to learn something (worthwhile or not) about them fifty, one-hundred, two-hundred years after their death. Others stay invisible. Albert Camus aptly described in ‘The First Man’ the difference between a rich, layered bourgeois memory and the memory of the poor:

“Poor people’s memory is less nourished than that of the rich; it has fewer landmarks in space because they seldom leave the space where they live, and fewer reference points in time throughout lives that are gray and featureless … Remembrance of things past is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces along the path to death.”

A little too black and white a statement, you might think, but remember he wrote this in a time very different from ours: 1960, just before his death (the unfinished book was published only in 1994). No Tweets, no gratification of self through Facebook postings or Websites for the less affluent, no self-publishing, no world travels for the lower bourgeoisie and the working class, no Apprentice or Survivor to excel in. 1960, that’s a mere fourteen years before the Portuguese stepped away from the Salazar dictatorship to founder on the, to them, unfamiliar world of democracy and finally build up a broader national prosperity. How big a step this was, is proven by a few statistics I collected that were published (although at different times) not long before 1974 by the United Nations and other non-government organizations. Bear with me, they are eye-opening:


Infant mortality rate (under one year, per 1,000)   

  • Netherlands/ Sweden – 18
  • Portugal – 82

Death of children under five in one year

  • Portugal – 23,900
  • Hungary – 10,000
  • Greece – 7,200

Mortality rate from Tuberculosis per 100,000

  • Netherlands – 4.3
  • Sweden – 8.6
  • Portugal – 51.0

Expectation of life at birth

  • Netherlands/Sweden – 73
  • Portugal – 62

Percentage of dwellings with running water/electricity

  • Netherlands – 99%/98%
  • Sweden – 92%/94%
  • Portugal – 15%/20%


And I hit an astonishing percentage for literacy in Portugal of just 27%, a figure that I, just to be sure, still want to see confirmed. No wonder that I and other expats in Portugal stumble over the fact that not all aspects of society are sometimes as well-organized as we had experienced as “normal” through all periods of our lives in our former home countries. Seriously, we shouldn’t complain: the Portuguese had quite some catching up to do and still have a few tasks ahead. Meanwhile, we newcomers can lean back and enjoy their sun, their ocean side, their luxurious landscape, and their wines. Wasn’t this why we settled here?

Moreover, the “backwardness” of Portugal in comparison with most of the rest of the western world should be seen as a clear advantage. It tells us something we often lose sight of, namely that many characteristics of its cultural backlog and its disadvantage (I am not speaking of inferiority) right now, at the times many western societies are in turmoil and their residents are all but secured of their culture’s healthy future, are a blessing: they supply us expats with an economy we can afford to live in; an environment we experience as healthy, safe and welcoming; and a culture of easy living. We are blessed by the “Law of the Stimulative Arrears” with the boon of a to us favorable margin: as Portugal can still climb up, other countries, handicapped with a head start, can only fall. So, luckily for us the Portuguese have endured the short end of the stick already.

For not only Salazar kept them on their knees; earlier kingdoms knew the suppression game well, too, and after the demise of royalty life in general did not improve either. Between 1910 and 1926 the country had eight presidents and forty-four governments. In five years more than 300 bombs were exploded in Lisbon alone. Salazar came and cleaned up the economy, but only to the benefit of the ruling class; he needed a cruel dictatorship and the terror of his secret police, PIDE, to keep the nation at large under his thumb. During his reign many more than one-million of the not yet 10,000,000 Portuguese citizens emigrated or fled. “The end of the deadly rule of the dull accountant” came only after Portugal’s own prolonged “Vietnam”, its colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, had emptied the coffers and members of the leading class decided it was high noon — time to support the rebelling masses.

After centuries of eating to live, many Portuguese now could begin to live to eat, although it took a while to understand how to do it. Latecomers to democracy and participation in the beneficial side of capitalism, they may in the end deliver living proof that “late ripe and bear is better than early blossom and blast.” Ah well, I don’t know; no opera is over till the fat lady sings. But right now my only worry is that too many people will choose happy Portugal for their vacations; if the mayors of Lisbon and Porto are forced to decide and follow their colleague in Barcelona, Spain at taking strong measures and putting up a dam against “the evils of mass tourism”, the good days will already be gone. I am sure I’m not alone in this fear.

Looking into what made, and makes, the Portuguese run, I came to a period in history I knew not much, rather too little about. I discovered that my Dutch ancestors had contributed on a large scale to the demise of the glorious Portuguese empire. It started when the Spanish conquered their neighbor at the same time they were battling the Dutch unsuccessfully in a Seventy Year War. The Dutch, no dummies, used the opportunity to take many colonies away from the Portuguese suffering under the hegemony of Spain. Parts of West Africa were conquered, the Moluccas, Mozambique, Ceylon, the Portuguese settlement in Japan, half of Brazil, a piece of Senegal. Portugal’s empire, the leading nation on earth, was hit a terminal blow from which they never recovered even after the Spanish had been kicked out, because the Dutch kept on the fight and conquered also São Tomé, Angola and another part of Brazil.

In the end, the Dutch left Portugal with just Macao, a few settlements on the Indian coast and, after a peace was arranged for in 1661, three African colonies. During the following 350-something years the Portuguese colonies failed to create “any very eager or impetuous torrent of trade,” as said the more industrious Cecil Rhodes, who also said, but of his English countrymen: “We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.” Meanwhile he was promoting “the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire” as well. That’s different language than what I hear from either Mrs. May or Boris Johnson or other English lapdogs of the Americans.

The Dutch enjoyed their “Golden Age” in quiet and without much exuberance, one of the few excesses being “Tulipomania”; in general they were rather embarrassed by their newly gained riches and used these to create an affluent middle class; meanwhile in Portugal the pomp continued (for as long as the treasury lasted) to benefit only the nobility and the Church, who together in Lisbon alone kept 430 goldsmiths in business and built all these gorgeous palaces and country estates I so admire and love to visit even today. I feel lucky many of those old filthy-rich Portuguese created something with their money that doesn’t in any way resemble Simla, built in India by and for the English colonial occupiers, of which Edwin Lutyens once said, “If one was told that the monkeys had built it all one could only say: ‘What wonderful monkeys – they must be shot in case they do it again’.” Condemnations like this do perfectly fit Salazar and company, though, for their creation of such unnecessary ugly concrete suburbs for the Portuguese poor.

What makes me happy is that in 2017 the Portuguese appear to blame neither me the expat Dutchman nor my forefathers for robbing them in the 16th and 17th century of their riches and taking over their position as leader of the contemporaneous western world. Perhaps they understand their time by then was up. The nation became complacent and the new spirit of ingenious shipbuilders, conquerors, money merchants and innovators was not theirs. They must comprehend also that the Dutch themselves after enjoying their might were pushed out by the eager English, fast and furious. Yes, the lesson to learn in the present world just as in the past is: better “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Ton HaakMay 2017
Image: João De Souza (?) (1960s)