History of Portuguese-Polish relations. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century
Over the centuries, the relations between Portugal and Poland were not exercised often as the two countries were too far away from each other. The relations however would always be distinguished by mutual friendliness. It all started in the Middle Ages. As Prince Henry the Navigator was to conquer Ceuta in 1415, his companionship featured a group of anonymous Polish knights. In Madeira, there would be stories circulated about some prince named Henry, who had once settled in this Atlantic island. Legend had it that the prince would be none other than Władysław III of Poland, a miraculously saved king of Poland and Hungary, who, along the most common lines, must have perished in the Battle of Warna of 1444, fighting against the Ottoman troops.
First ever registered trade contacts between Poland and Portugal date back as early as to the 14th century. There were exports of grains and wood going from Gdańsk towards the Portuguese harbours, most often intermediated by the Portuguese merchant trading post in the city of Antwerp. And vice versa: there were imports to Poland of salt, Atlantic fish, fruit, wine, sugar, and, above all, exotic spices of Guinea, Ceylon, the Malabar region or the Maluku Islands. Both Poland and Portugal, on the opposite ends of the Old World, would find themselves at the intersection of global trade routes.
The Jewish family of Gaspar da Gama stemmed from Poznań. In 1498, Gaspar encountered in India Vasco da Gama, a famous explorer of the sea route to the subcontinent, with whom he then returned to Europe. Next, Gaspar da Gama took part in Pedro Cabral’s expedition, during which Brazil was discovered, all followed by his later engagement in another Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India. Damião de Góis, an outstanding Portuguese humanist, paid two visits to Poland: in 1529 and 1531, in the capacity of a royal ambassador who would seek the hand of princess Hedvig Jagiellon, daughter of Sigismund I the Old, king of Poland, for Louis, brother of king John III of the Avis dynasty. Polish merchants, clergy (including the Jesuits, who set off from Lisbon for the Far East), knights, and later nobility, travellers and diplomats travelled to Portugal. In 1733, the brother of the Portuguese king John V, infant Dom Manuel, was one of the candidates for the Polish electoral crown. In 1754, father Kazimierz Wyszyński, former general of the Marian Order, founded the first monastery of this congregation in Portugal at Balsamão; he died there a year later in the reputation of sainthood. There were also Poles in Portuguese overseas possessions. By the same token, the Portuguese, including Jesuits and Dominicans, arrived in Poland. Both nations were united above all by a similar view of their place in Europe: a conviction of their role as the bulwark of Christianity, and of their historical mission to the continent. Diplomatic relations between the courts were irregular, and were maintained through ad hoc missions.
The ultimate partition of the Republic of Poland by its neighbouring imperial powers – Russia, Prussia and Austria – did reverberate in Portugal as well. The same held true for the subsequent Polish uprisings of 1830-1831 and, in particular, the one of 1863-1864, which targeted the Russian partitioner and were meant to throw off the foreign yoke. In 1832-1833, General Józef Bem made attempts to put together a Polish Legion in Oporto, yet without success. The legion was supposed to partake in a civil war on the liberal side and be composed of veterans of the November Uprising (the Polish-Russian War 1830-1831). One of the veterans, Józef Karol Konrad Chełmicki (known in Portugal as José Carlos Conrado de Chelmicki) served in the Portuguese army up to the rank of a Major General. Besides, he was himself a top geographer, author of a publication on the cartography of Cape Verde and Guinea, which is still in school use in Africa. In the 19th century, Portugal found its admirer in the shape of Teodor Tripplin, a traveller and one of forerunners at the stretch of Polish science fiction.
Portuguese poets and writers dedicated Poland a number of literary pieces, which were expressions of sympathy to the ‘unfortunate’ Polish nation, and as well featured keen mentions on Poland’s fight for independence, ‘for our freedom and yours’. Almeida Garrett, an eminent representative of Portuguese Romanticism, already in 1830 wrote that ‘Poland, which the stupidity and cruelty of the European rulers allowed Russia to ravage, destroy and finally consume, was Europe’s strongest trench against Moscow’s ambitions’.
- Teodor Tripplin (painted by Joseph Simmler, 1852) © MNW
- Almeida Garrett (painted by Pedro Augusto Guglielmi, 1844) © BNP
- Władysław III Jagiellon, king of Poland and Hungary (painted by Marcello Bacciarelli, between 1768 and 1771) © ZKWM
- General Józef Bem (anonymous, ca. 1850) © MWP
- Vasco da Gama (painted by António Manuel da Fonseca, 1838) © NMM
- Damião de Góis (drawing attributed to Albrecht Dürer, ca. 1520-1521) © ALB