Those who have recently discovered Portugal and specifically, its capital city Lisbon, will have wondered how this Atlantic jewel managed to remain for so long off the tourist map. The reasons for this are many but for those who stumble on the shell and discover the pearl hidden inside, it matters little. They are already addicted.
On December 1 in the year 1755 Lisbon suffered one of the planet's worst ever earthquakes, followed by an equally devastating tidal wave. Twenty per cent of the population was killed or seriously injured and a great part of the city's infrastructures crumbled. Many of those that remained, burnt.
This shocking incident had a profound psychological effect on the people of Lisbon (Lisbonians), to the end of the twentieth century, so much so that they blocked the river out of sight and out of mind, lining up containers along the considerable waterfront stretching along the south side of the city which like Rome, sprawls across seven hills.
The Earthquake made Lisbon turn inwards and forget its tremendous heritage of peoples who had given this city such a cosmopolitan human fabric since the settlement Alis Ubbo (Safe Port) had been founded by the Phoenicians at least as far back as the eighth century BC, perhaps earlier and the many peoples who settled there afterwards: Pre-Celtic tribes, Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Suebi, Visigoths, Moors, Crusaders, Genoese, Florentines...
Lisbon may have turned inwards after the Earthquake but Portugal historically turned outwards and sought its fortunes away from the strip of land on the Atlantic side of the Iberian Peninsula. The city of Ceuta in North Africa was taken by the Portuguese in 1415, Madeira was discovered in 1419/20, the Azores in 1427/31, Cape Bojador was passed in 1434. By the end of the century, the Portuguese had sailed round the African coast, setting up trading posts and micro-states/vassals around Africa, around the Middle East, Persia and India. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade with Japan.
In 1494, by the Treaty of Tordesillas (which divided the world outside Europe between Portugal and Spain), Portugal gave itself Brazil, six years before it officially discovered it in 1500, meaning the Portuguese probably already knew what was there, including the gold mines of Minas Gerais and the silver mines in Sacramento. Perhaps earlier expeditions to Africa had taken advantage of the southerly trade winds in the South Atlantic and had been blown to the reddish, ember-colored shores of Brazil (from the Portuguese word brasa, or ember). The Portuguese town of Cuba, Alentejo (Southern Portugal) claims Christopher Columbus as its own. Did the Portuguese King really decline the services of this intrepid explorer or did he use Columbus to hoodwink the Spanish and make them invest heavily in one geographical area (Latin America) leaving the rest open to Portugal?
This tremendous voyage had good stories and sad stories, happy stories and bad stories, consolidated in the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Latin America to the Far East, across both coasts of Africa and both coasts of India and all the space in between. After Brazil declared independence in 1822, Portugal became a pluri-Continental nation composed by Portugal in Europe, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe Isles in Africa and in Asia, the Indian enclaves of Goa, Daman and Diu and East Timor in Indonesia, although throughout this epic story other territories and cities were discovered by and at different times belonged to Portugal, such as Sri Lanka, Malaca in Malaysia, the Isle of Flores in Indonesia. Who knows whether the Portuguese were the first to discover Australia?
It is obvious, therefore, that the influence of Portugal's culture, language, gastronomy and singular way of being has spread far and wide and has left countless marks around the globe, some known, others to be discovered. For instance, the existence of several words in African languages, including Swahili, the Vietnamese alphabet (invented by two Portuguese), the word for "orange" in many languages: burtuqaal (Arabic), Portokali (Greek), Porteghal (Farsi/Persian). For instance, the Indian recipe vindaloo coming from the Portuguese preserving sauce vinha d'alhos (wine and garlic). And how much more?
So a visitor to Lisbon might wish to discover all of this in a Museum of the Discoveries. So, where is it? There isn't one.
Possible objections to this idea might come from those who abhorred the Portuguese colonization and do not want to create an ode to Portuguese military prowess overseas. Others might come from the museums which are already established, afraid of losing out to what could threaten to become a mega-museum, overshadowing their collections.
However the challenge would be to create a Museum (from muse, giving inspiration) which creates bridges of friendship and embracing similarities while welcoming differences, different ways of presenting a common and shared history and culture, investigating the scope of this culture around the world throughout the centuries. It would not only put Portugal more definitely on the map, it would also provide a platform for the CPLP space (Portuguese-speaking countries) to present themselves, celebrating diversity.
It could be a permanent exposition space (as EXPO 98 was in Lisbon) for the countries encountered by Portugal, it could be a showcase for environmental issues (such as African rain forests and the Amazon, such as oil exploration, fracking), it could be a database/library/document center, it could be a vehicle to catalog languages, dances, gastronomy, customs. These days great importance is given by Universities and Funds for research and post-doctoral studies to something called "impact" which is the presentation of the theme to non-academics. A Museum of the Discoveries could cover a wide variety of areas of investigation, providing a platform for conferences, discussions, debates.
For those who like an adrenalin rush, these days a virtual or replica carrack (nau in Portuguese, the ships used in the discoveries) is not that difficult to make and provide white-knuckle rides, or else to be used as a pedagogical instrument in teaching pupils about maritime engineering, about scurvy, about the history of the discoveries. And so much more. And we have not yet spoken about the cultural area: art, music, the cinema, literature...
Colloquiums addressing important issues such as slavery, trade, micro- and macroeconomics could follow. In short it could be a space with a huge impact, with different spaces presenting diverse themes catering for multiple audiences.
The ideal time to have launched such an idea would have been in 1998 at the time of the EXPO or in 2000, the five hundredth anniversary of the (official) discovery of Brazil. Opportunities lost? Maybe. But the idea remains, the ideal remains and surely, the Portuguese-speaking world deserves such a platform.
Is Lisbon up to it? It would make much more sense to house such a showcase museum in Portugal's capital, from where the carracks departed from the Tower of Belém, docking alongside it, the sailors climbing to the turrets and entering the ships from there, at that time in the middle of the river.
But if Lisbon is not interested, maybe Oporto is.
A challenge for Portugal: A Museum of the Discoveries
*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications for over twenty years; he has contributed to the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications. He has spent the last two decades in humanitarian projects, connecting communities, working to document and catalog disappearing languages, cultures, traditions, working to network with the LGBT communities helping to set up shelters for abused or frightened victims and as Media Partner with UN Women, working to foster the UN Women project to fight against gender violence and to strive for an end to sexism, racism and homophobia. A Vegan, he is also a Media Partner of Humane Society International, fighting for animal rights. He is Director and Chief Editor of the Portuguese version of Pravda.Ru.