Skimming the Surface of Portugal’s Maritime Glories in Lisbon

Spread the love

The Maritime MuseumMuseu de Marinha, Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal has such an awesome maritime history that I was really looking forward to visiting the museum dedicated to it.  Situated in the western wing of the Jerónimos Monastery down at Belém, the setting also seemed pretty perfect for learning more about the amazing Portuguese explorers of the past.

In fact, the history of the museum is also founded in the country’s history.  It was the keen sea-faring King Luís I who, in 1863, began collecting objects related to Portugal’s maritime history and a hundred years later the Maritime Museum was opened in the Jerónimos Monastery.

The story starts with a giant map on the wall showing the voyages that the Portuguese went on as they explored, traded with and conquered parts of the world.  My fellow chickpeas found this very informative because the routes were so clearly marked.  The slow and arduous nature of maritime discovery was also made clear by the marking of so many stops en route – reminding you of how difficult it was to collect and store supplies, in addition to various other logistical problems of a long and unpredictable voyage.

It is appropriate that a grand statue of Henry the Navigator greets visitors: he was the 15th century prince who is regarded as the initiator of the Age of Discovery.  During the reign of his father, John I, the Portuguese had explored parts of Western Africa and islands of the Atlantic, but Henry pushed on further under the rule of his brother Edward.  He actually explored the coast of Africa himself, following his family’s successful capture of the port of Cueta in Morocco, which put a stop to the pirates who raided the Portuguese coast and captured locals who were sold as slaves.

It wasn’t just wanderlust that drove Henry to explore: he was after the source of the West African gold trade as well as being keen on finding the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who was said to have preserved a Christian society in the East (though the Portuguese became convinced it was in Africa).  In order to sail faster and in a more manoeuvrable way, Henry oversaw the construction of a new type of boat, the caravel, which was able to be independent of the prevailing wind direction.  It also meant that mariners were able to use the ship to explore rivers and shallow waters as well as oceans.

The museum displays also start with the taking of Cueta.  From there, we look at the expeditions of the Portuguese.  There are lots of reproduction paintings, models of ships, informative but limited displays and the occasional object of genuine interest.

This for example, was really amazing.  St Raphael was on board the second ship of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1497, commanded by his brother Paulo da Gama.  On the return voyage the ship was scuttled off the East African coast so that the depleted crews of the 3 ships could be redistributed.  This figure of St Raphael was then placed on Vasco’s ship and accompanied him on every subsequent voyage.  It returned to India with him, and remained there after his death in 1525.  In 1600, his grandson, Francisco da Gama, brought it back to Portugal.  Now isn’t that amazing?

This next item may or may not have belonged to Vasco da Gama as well: a portable altar.  It is traditionally said to have been on board the St Gabriel with him on his maiden voyage to India in 1497, but whether this is true or not, it is a beautiful object.  There are prayers placed in frames on the lid and a simple depiction of the Crucifixion.

There were, though, a lot of model ships, which didn’t do much for me but would doubtless fascinate those who like looking at the details of such things.  What I wanted more of was things like these:

The story of the objects in the shipwreck (in the last picture) is quite an interesting example of the life of an East Indiaman.  It was constructed in 1605 in the royal shipyard in Lisbon and set sail for Goa in a convoy of ten ships.  Once there, it was loaded up with black pepper (which was scattered in the river when it was wrecked and was subsequently harvested by the locals) and returned to Portugal.  The convoy anchored off the mouth of the Tagus river, but strong winds caused some of the ships of their party to pull anchor and move further into the river – which the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires also did.  Unfortunately, she struck a rock and went down – though there was no loss of life.  She was a year old.

Another fascinating find was the Japanese-made ‘Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki’.  The painting represents the blockade of Nagasaki harbour by the Japanese from the 15th August to the 4th September 1647, which prevented the departure of the Portuguese ships carrying the Portuguese embassy which had been trying to restore relations between the two countries – relations which had been broken by the Japanese in 1639.  The embassy wasn’t a success and they left empty-handed.

The story of the ‘Golden Age’ of exploration was really quite short and is followed by a large gallery filled with model boats from more recent centuries.

At the end of it were the cabins taken from the boat Amelia.  She was built in England in 1900 and was used by the Portuguese Royal Family, but also served in oceanographic expeditions along the Portuguese coast under the enthusiastic lead of King Charles.  She was handed over to the Navy after the revolution in 1910, but continued to take part in hydrographic expeditions until she was retired in 1936.

The next section of the museum is dedicated to real-life boats.

So In Summary

I couldn’t help being a little disappointed in this museum.  Bearing in mind the importance of the Portuguese, as pioneers and innovators, in the context of maritime history, I had expected something more like the wonderful Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, which was full of fascinating objects from the golden age of exploration.  I felt that the most interesting period of Portuguese history was passed over too quickly, with few original artefacts to demonstrate the scope and intensity of their exploration.  One can’t help but feel that a state institution could have access to a greater range of genuinely informative or symbolic historical exhibits.  It’s a shame.  Still, I’m certain those who are more knowledgeable or have an intense interest in boats and ships would have a whale of a time.

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the museum.  Holding the Lisbon Card only gives you a discount.

The museum has a slick website available in Portuguese only:

If you’re in the area and need something to eat, I recommend the museum cafe.  It’s reasonably priced – there’s a good range of pastries and real food, good coffees and the staff are lovely.  It has a relaxed sort of canteen feel, and is next to the museum shop – which is also rather good!

How To Get There

The museum is situated in Belém, which is quite a way outside of the centre of old Lisbon.  The transport website can help guide you there in English:


No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: