Devilish Details Behind Fall of Portuguese Monarchy

Assassination Scene




Nearly a century has passed since the 1908 Lisbon assassinations of the King and Crown Prince. Historians familiar with the murders may consider them to be of no great moment. After all, King Carlos was a minor king of a small impoverished nation. Even year 1908 seems rather unimportant in comparison to the world-shattering events soon to come. Political assassinations were passé around the turn of the century, hence the killing of a president or tsar, a prince or king, was rather commonplace.

We are nevertheless mindful of Leopold Ranke’s dictum, that all historical moments are important in some way because they are equally near to God. Wherefore we are bound to find something of interest everywhere in human history, especially if we dig into the devilish details presumably presided over by the Supreme Being. One devilish aspect of a detail is that it is related to countless others. So many of them seemingly stand in a cause and effect relationship that superstitious people have been led to believe in an ambiguous world spirit, or in the existence of gods and devils summed up as God and Satan, personal entities allegedly behind all the scenes or at least dually innate in alienated human beings, hence present everywhere in universal history. Innumerable details led up to the slaying of the King and the Crown Prince of Portugal in an open carriage on the streets of Lisbon on February 1, 1908. Reference to even a few of them may bore us until we realize that we are talking about own nature in another context.

Portugal became an independent monarchy in 1139, when Alfonso Henriques assumed the title of king. King Carlos was born 28 September 1863 into the Portuguese House of Braganca, the dynasty that ruled Portugal from 1640 to the fall of the monarchy in 1910. England mourned King Carlos when he was assassinated in 1908. England and Portugal were very old friends. Indeed, there would probably be no Portugal absent England’s frequent meddling and occasional interventions. Besides companionship, what are friendships for? The advantages to Great Britain were ample: an excellent foothold on the continent; superb Port wine; Brazil’s developing markets, her brilliant diamonds, glittering gold, smooth coffee and sweet sugar.

King Carlos was personally popular at the English court. He was a handsome man with polished manners and he had diverse interests and skills. He was a marine biologist, bullfighter, skilled marksman, accomplished artist, sculptor, patron of the dramatic arts, and master of seven languages – he helped his father translate Shakespeare. Furthermore, the friendly relationship between King Carlos and King Edward VII was cemented by blood.

King Edward was the son of Queen Victoria and Duke Albert of Saxe-Coburg (Bavaria). King Carlos’s father was King Luis of Portugal, the son of Maria da Gloria (Maria II) of Portugal and Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. When Maria II died in 1853, at the age of thirty-four, her eldest son, Pedro V, was a minor, therefore her husband Ferdinand governed as regent for a few years hence the Portuguese house was technically the House of Coburg-Braganca. But the Portuguese did not care to use the Germanic reference. Neither did the British care much for Germans in their ruling house, despite the fact that Albert was an inspiration to their great Queen. When Edward succeeded to the throne, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was, correctly speaking, the royal house; however, in 1917 George V proclaimed “Windsor” to be the surname of Queen Victoria’s descendants.

Pedro V was keenly interested in the industrial and material improvements that Portugal direly needed after it had been wracked by Napoleonic invasions and civil wars. Maria II had managed to resolve the constitutional struggles that took place after the War of Two Brothers, the war between her father and his brother, Miguel. Alas, like mother like son, Pedro V died an early death, in 1861, at age thirty-four. He was succeeded by his artistically inclined brother, King Luis, Carlos’ father.

King Luis entertained his court with performances on his violoncello and translated several of Shakespeare’s plays. In keeping with an old Taoist adage, it is said that he did not do very much during the twenty-eight years he reigned, yet he got a lot done. At least the country grew wealthier due to its industrial progress.

Equally important, Carlos’ father is credited for advancing Portugal’s cultural renaissance. High culture had suffered a terrible set back with the French invasion of Portugal in 1807. As the French advanced into Lisbon, Maria I and her regent Joao fled to Brazil with the court and a retinue of about fifteen-thousand persons, on thirty-six ships escorted by British men-of-war. They took the bulk of the most valuable cultural artifacts of Portugal with them; what they did not take was looted by the French if not stolen by the English and Portuguese defenders of Portugal.

King Luis died in 1889. When Carlos took the throne on October 19, the modern imperial scramble was going full steam ahead. Germany, recently united under Prussia, was already vying for a place in the Sun in order to save the world. Several countries still had kings, but monarchy was going out of style; its vestiges were certainly not appreciated by Portuguese “republicans” i.e. democratically inclined radicals. Not only was Carlos a king by accident of birth, he was otherwise flawed to begin with as far as the republicans were concerned. He had his father’s looks: blond, Teutonic, and stout, he looked like a handsome German field marshal. And he had a Catholic queen, a princess of France, his beloved Amelie. To worsen matters, the branch of the House of Braganca which ruled the independent Kingdom of Brazil was overthrown on 15 November 1889 by anti-monarchist bourgeois liberals, and a republic was established there.

As if all that were not bad, Carlos’ personal prestige was dealt a severe blow in 1890 when he capitulated to Great Britain’s Ultimatum in the Rosy Colored Map Affair. The Ultimatum and capitulation were due to a conflict between the colonial interests of Great Britain and Portugal. Portugal wanted to connect its Angola colony in West Africa to its Mozambique colony in East Africa by grabbing the area in between. But Rhodes in South Africa had his English eyes on the same land, which a Portuguese minister had already painted rosy pink to graphically illustrate the concept of a giant, coast-to-coast Portuguese empire in Africa.

A British official was sent to Africa in 1889 to order Serpa Pinto, the Portuguese surveyor who was tracing out a route for a railroad, to back off. He refused to withdraw. Britain issued an Ultimatum, the purport of which was to get out of the disputed area or else. Carlos made a wise decision: he backed down. Financially strapped Portugal had been trying to bite off more than it could chew anyway. Nevertheless, this double-cross from Portugal’s old ally, and Carlos’ subsequent capitulation, infuriated many Portuguese people; it was in sum a national disgrace, a grievous blow to Portugal’s pride and further inspiration to republican nationalists. They accused King Carlos of selling out to Great Britain, of using his royal relationship with the British Crown simply to maintain himself on the throne.

“The effect of the ultimatum,” explained British diplomat George Young in Portugal Old and Young (1917), “in weakening the monarchy was combined with a strengthening of the Republican movement by the fall of the Emperor of Brazil, and this from no personal fault or political defeat of the constitutional monarchy, but from a preference for the Republican principle…. Republicanism was no longer a mere protestant principle and a profession of an unknown faith, but a political progamme and a procedure for reform. Just as the American Revolution contributed to our (British) national liberties at the cost of our imperial possessions, so the collapse of a Portuguese Empire in South Africa and the conversion of a Portuguese Empire into a Republic in South America gave a moral stimulus and a political status to republicanism and reform in Portugal.”

Carlos inherited yet another problem with his crown, perhaps the most crucial one of all: political-party Rotativism, the rotating system in the Cortes (Parliament) whereby the two dominant parties, the Regenerators and the Progressives, took turns governing and exploiting the kingdom.

After the French Revolution Portugal’s political struggles took the typical dynamic form of a flying bird: left wing-central body-right wing. The absolutists on the far right wanted no constitution at all. The chartists or moderates in the middle wanted a liberal constitutional monarchy granted by the monarch. The radicals on the left, the ‘republicans,’ wanted a constitution embodying the principles the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. After Miguel and his Miguelites – the absolutists on the extreme right who wanted no constitution at all – were finally defeated in 1834, the political bird drifted a bit to the left flank and political conflict continued between the two constitutionalist factions, the chartists and the republicans.

The chartists wanted the liberal charter that had been granted to them in 1826 by Pedro I when he abdicated the throne of Portugal in favor of his daughter Maria da Gloria providing, of course, that she marry her uncle Miguel and accept the charter. But Miguel took the throne and did not want any liberal baggage so he tossed it out; his betrayal provoked civil war, the War of Two Brothers. The republican faction wanted the radical constitution which had been drafted by a constituent body in 1822. It was intended to be an interim constitution until such time as the monarchy could be abolished.

In fine, one constitution was a gift of the monarch, while the other constitution was a demand upon the throne. Not only were heated words exchanged over the relevant issues but a great deal of blood was shed as well, usually after one political leader or another made a ‘pronouncement.’ Finally, the net result and main achievement of Maria II’s reign was a modified version of Pedro’s 1826 charter and the discontinuance of violence.

Thereafter, under the formal constitutional monarchy the chartist party or conservatives were called the Regenerators, eventually led by Ernesto Hintze Ribeiro. The ostensibly more liberal party, the Progressives, were headed by one Jose Luciano de Castro. But there was really not much difference between the Regenerators and Progressives, and many people were getting sick and tired of being routinely exploited by “the ins” and “the outs.” That is, under the rotative system the two parties took frequent turns governing the exploitation of the kingdom as pigs at the trough. There was little chance for radical political reform short of revolution or tyranny. Not that Portugal was lacking in left-wing radicals; the term ‘radical’ in those days was reserved for the ‘republican’ constitutionalists who had been nearly squeezed out of the Cortes.

A period of stable corruption ensued as the Regenerators and Progressives rotated governments. A Regenerator cabinet headed by Ernesto Hintze Ribeiro and Joao Franco took its turn at government from 1893 to 1897. The government began with liberal reforms in mind, but it soon turned dictatorial because of the growing criticism of the monarchy: a harsh crackdown on the press and a prohibition of public as assembly ensued. The elected portion of the House of Peers was abolished. The Progressives in the House of Deputies refused to vote, hence an all-Regenerator Cortes. An apparent plot to kill the king was discovered. A severe decree mandated secret trials of political dissidents and their transportation out of the country upon conviction. The unpopular decree resulted in a backlash that forced the Regenerator ministry to resign in 1897. The Progressives were in and then out in 1900.

This time Joao Franco took no place in the Regenerator cabinet, preferring instead to stand back and criticize Hintze in the Cortes. Then he seceded from the party with 25 deputies and formed a liberal splinter party. Hintze was infuriated: until his death in 1907, he did everything he could to crush Franco. The rotating parties continued to roll along regularly exploiting the countryside after Carlos took the throne. Hintze gerrymandered voting districts so that voting in rural areas would outweigh republican voters in the two major cities of Oporto and Lisbon, and party bosses went about drumming up support from eligible voters in the country towns, from local magnates and clergy.

As far as the largely illiterate and apathetic masses were concerned, the political agitation was a lot of malarkey about nothing. Most of the proletariat did not see anything in it for the working man. As for the peers, the revolution they contemplated to overthrow Franco was of no avail to them since the king was on his strong-man’s side.

Franco, figuring all the factions would offset each other and amount to nothing much in their divisiveness, was confident of the future. But trouble was brewing among some of the more hot-headed members of the proletariat, as well as among urban professionals. Disgruntled republican intellectuals were cultivating seeds of dissent at the university in Coimbra. The most notable dissidents were Professor Teofilo Braga, and the idol of republican students, Senhor Bernardino Machado, and, of course the noted poet, Albilio Guerra Janquiero. Hence a slightly respectable Republican Party was afoot, and there was a Socialist faction formed as well.

Joao Franco, via his brand new Centro Regenerador Liberal party, spoke out against the rotativism of Hintze’s Regenerators and Luciano’s Progressives. His new agenda was called Franquismo – the Republicans took advantage of its liberal aspects. So in 1905 there were five political parties: Regenerators, Liberal Regenerators, Progressives, Socialists, and Republicans.

Far more dangerous to the monarchy were the conspiring secret cells of the Carbonari. Membership therein was rumored to be rapidly rising; everybody and their brother were at one time or another suspected of belonging to a Carbonari secret Wood Shop.

Hintze was out again in 1904, Castro’s Progressives took another turn at the trough, but their stay was brief because of Luciano’s deteriorating health. Hintze was back as Prime Minister in 1906. He asked the king for a dictatura i.e. a period of dictatorship to stabilize the country. Carlos obviously believed that Hintze would not be a good strong man. “Woe betide those who can only rule in such a manner,” said the king. His letter of refusal was tantamount to a request for Hintze’s resignation so Hintze duly resigned, and Joao Franco, whom many people believed was an honest, loyal, courageous, and resolute man somewhat along the lines of the classical true conservative, Cato, was called up to head the cabinet. He cut expenses right away and abolished sinecures; of course the old Regenerators and Progressives were duly outraged and called for his resignation, which he immediately tendered to the King, who, of course, refused it and gave Franco the dictatura that he had denied Hintze. Wherefore the Cortes was dissolved and the “temporary” dictatorship established for the purpose of reform.

George Young opined that the Portuguese nobility and gentry with failing to follow a long-standing tradition to “fulfill their function, as in our (Great Britain’s) constitutional history, and act as trustees in the transfer of the sovereign power from the prince to the people.” He believed that Carlos was honoring “cosmopolitan concessionaires or those too politic politicians who were looked upon by the public as robbers and traitors.” As for capital shortage in poor Portugal, Young played the Jewish card and mentioned the “passive invasion” of Jewish German bankers: the Portuguese could not rely very on them because a collapse of the Portuguese monarchy would only add to their advantages in Africa.

“Under the monarchy,” recounted the diplomat, “rotativism seemed likely to have a long reign, and in consequence the Cortes was quite useless even for dealing with the one pressing political problem. This was no less than the question whether Portugal could pay its way as a nation. If it could not be made to do so, then obviously it could not hope even to maintain its position as a sovereign State, still less to make good its pretensions to be a world-empire.”

The political world if not the world at large, motivated by greed, rotated around money. King Carlos himself was described as a cynical man who was motivated most of all by desire for sensual pleasure. Jean Finot, a journalist who was in Portugal for awhile, claimed that Carlos “sought oblivion in orgies sufficiently innocent, but which in Lisbon, a large provincial town, were thought the fetes of a Nero. In truth, he was bored. He courted all the pretty women, and was always dreaming of foreign travel,” and he says, “Brave to a fault, Dom Carlos used to walk about the streets of his capital alone without an escort, everywhere meeting looks of hostility, indifference, or even disgust from passers-by. Thus he threw in the face of his people an insult which the longed to avenge in his blood.”

However that may be, Carlos was well aware of the threat to the monarchy; he sympathized with the complaints below. He was corrupted by ministers who persuaded him to use devious devices to take more money from the public coffer to support his royal needs than was budgeted. He took the “bribes” against his better judgment and he took steps to curb corruption elsewhere, but he was weak. His Prime Minister Franco was “the strong man” and was in effect the last monarch in Portugal. Franco, Portugal’s “Cato,” became the villain of the drama – Carlos looked on and lost his life. A contemporary historian, Vincent de Bragancaunha, stated, “The assassination of the King and the Crown Prince stands as proof of the political mistakes committed by Franco, which the country cannot easily forget or forgive.”

King Carlos refused to see representatives from the Cortes after it was dissolved. He ignored the clamor of various other distinguished petitioners. And during an interview with a reporter from the Paris Le Temps, Carlos declared his confidence in his dictator:  “He and I are quite of one mind,” Carlos said. “We work together, and he is completely in my confidence. There people are mistaken who think that I do not intend to keep him in power. I am quite satisfied with him. Everything is going satisfactorily. The present state of things must continue – the interest of the county requires it.”

Even worse, Carlos criticized Portugal during the interview, implying that the Portuguese national character was a dishonest one. Needless to say, this gaffe enraged the Portuguese public the most.

While Carlos talked, Franco was hard at work. Municipal elections were postponed. A decree was issued reforming the upper house of the Cortes, the House of Peers, setting aside the rights it had enjoyed for many years. Franco had been out of politics for awhile but when he returned to work for the King he said he had strong democratic instincts; however, the more his reforms were resisted, the more repressive his measures became, until, in Cunha’s words, his “recklessness was positively criminal.”

Decrees were issued in January 1908 suppressing papers and imprisoning opponents of his policies. Allegedly at Franco’s behest, Carlos signed a decree authorizing dissidents to be transported to Africa on a moment’s notice. Carlos did have his reservations: he reportedly said upon the signing of one such repressive decree that he was probably signing his own death warrant. His queen, Amelie of Orleans, a highly educated woman and staunch royalist, also had her doubts. Francis Gribble quotes her: “Franco is in the right, I suppose, but he is very clumsy in his methods.” Just before he was assassinated, Cunha reports that the king had a presentiment of his fate:

“He asked Franco if it was safe for him and his family to drive through the streets of Lisbon. But the dictator spoke so confidentially that the King relied more or less on the personal pledge given by his minister for the safety of the Royal Family. So far from taking the ordinary precautions, Franco even allowed the King to enter, with the King and the Princes, a two-horse open carriage that was to drive them to the Necessidades Palace.”

We can imagine Franco’s shock when he heard about the ignominious assassinations that ended his dictatorship. Jean Finot said that the news reached Franco during a diplomatic party at the French Delegation. The courtiers and ministers avoided him. He, pale and haggard, exclaimed, “They have killed my King and they have killed his Minister!” Queen Amelia reported said to Franco, “There, you see your handiwork!” And Maria Pia supposedly said, “You promised to release the monarchy from its tomb, and all that you have done has been to dig the graves of my son and grandson.” More gossip: Carlos’ brother, the Duke of Porto, reportedly got into a fight with Franco, rolling around on the floor of the Council Chamber after slapping him in the face and yelling, “Franco, Franco, what have you done to my brother?”

Franco resigned immediately, removed himself to Genoa, and never returned to public life. Joao Franco, a rich man who led a Stoic life, a man with a reputation for incorruptibility, courage, energy, and good intentions, was a precursor of the top-down state socialism or national socialism that was advancing in several European countries. Jean Finot wrote:

“The dictator took no one’s advice…. Franco became the real master of Portugal, a master the more to be dreaded because he held in his hands the whole political and administrative life of the country. On one occasion he said to me: ‘Our country has suffered and suffers still from administrative corruption. There is too much extravagance and too many abuses. I shall have to reform much of the machinery and get new laws passed; and when some years hence people see what I have accomplished they will excuse my brutalities and violations of the Constitution…. You must do violence to the ground before you can sow it….’ I had an opportunity of conversing with several opponents of the dictator. All admitted that, detestable though he was as a politician, his personal character was not open to attack. He prevented others from enriching themselves at the expense of the state, but he did not enrich himself. They told me many lively stories of this plunder of the state to which Franco had put an end.”

Vincent de Braganca Cunha, writing about the outrageous sinecures, said that Franco had “proceeded to deprive the State parasites of all imaginary posts so infamously monopolized by them. The corruption was such that a gentleman appointed Minister of Portugal in China had for two years drawn 2,400l a year without leaving Lisbon.” Moreover, entitled ladies were getting money for the imaginary task of searching females at the custom house, and so on. George Young relates, “Joao Franco, a somewhat sinister personality… nor the less courageous and cynical King Carlos himself… set valiantly to work enforcing economies, most of them well advised – one or two of them ill-advised, such as the increase of the civil list in substitution for ‘irregular’ advances.” The civil list listed funds allotted to the monarch; in other words, Franco openly gave the King a raise; and dubious transfers were otherwise made. George Young writes, “One might define Franco as a fiscal reformer who engaged in corrupt practices; and the inevitable result of this dual activity was that he made two sets of enemies – the one by his corruption, and the other by his economies.”

Franco’s King and Crown Prince were dead. Franco was the fall guy in the service of a king who had full confidence in Franco’s crackdown on corruption and republicanism, a crackdown that made enemies on all sides. It might have worked given popular support and better luck. Much can be said for democratic methods when the time is ripe for them, but Portugal was not ready.

The monarchy finally fell to the republicans in 1910. Queen Amelie and King Manuel II fled to Gibraltar on the yacht Amelia. The situation deteriorated even further and the virtual chaos was not brought under control until the Salazar dictatorship (1926-1974), which was the longest-lived authoritarian system in Western Europe’s history. Despite the backward-looking aspects and brutalities of the Salazar Regime, the social progress it did achieve was remarkable.



Cunha, Vincent de Braganca, Eight Centuries of Portuguese Monarchy, New York: James Pott, 1911. I have not yet found any biographical information on the historian Vincent de Braganca Cunha. He was an excellent writer – I highly recommend this particular book for its lucid narrative style and presentation of interesting information about the Portuguese.

Gribble, Francis (1862?-1946), The Royal House of Portugal, Port Washington: Kennikat, 1970 (first published 1915). Francis Gribble was British. I have been able to find little biographical information on him, which surprises me because he was an excellent, prolific writer, whose many works appear throughout the world. His witty remarks are often worth quoting. He wrote biographies of romantic figures, including Balzac, Dumas, Shelley, Rousseau, Madame de Stael, and George Sand, Madame Collete, and others.

Young, George (1872-1952), Portugal Old and Young, Oxford: Clarendon, 1917, George Young served from 1896-1914 as a diplomat – secretary, attaché, charges de affairs – in Washington, Athens, Constantinople, Madrid, Belgrade, and Lisbon. He was an authority on Ottoman law. In 1930, Young was an adviser on international affairs to the Labor Party.

Finot, Jean (1864-1935), ‘The Lisbon Assassination’, (A.D. 1908), article in The World’s Great Events. Jean Finot was a journalist and sociological researcher and writer. He was born in Warsaw as Jean Finckelhaus. In 1890 he founded Revue des revues in Paris. He is the author of the still controversial book, Race Prejudice, wherein he exposed the absurdities of pseudo-scientific racism. He spoke out against the racial viewpoints which helped lead the world into the Great War. He expressed approval of Tuskegee and other black schools.

One Hundred Years of Portuguese Oceanography, In the Footsteps of King Carlos de Braganca, ed., Luiz Saldanha and Pedro Re, Lisboa: Museu Nacional de Historia Natural, 1997

Nowell, Charles E, A History of Portugal, New York: Van Nostrand, 1952

Nowell, Charles E, Portugal, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall

Saraiva, Jose Hermano, Portugal, A Companion History, Portugal: Carcanet, 1997

Livermore, H.V., A History of Portugal, Cambridge: University Press, 1947

Anderson, James M., The History of Portugal, Westport: Greenwood, 2000

Current Literature, New York: Current Literature Publishing Co., 1908 issues

The Encyclopedia Britannica

Collier’s Encyclopedia

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