Skimming the Surface of Portugal’s Maritime Glories in Lisbon

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.

Entrance to the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Entrance to the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Just inside the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Henry the Navigator sits on the left.

Just inside the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Henry the Navigator sits on the left.

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 back of Henry the Navigator, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

The back of Henry the Navigator, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Gallery in the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Gallery in the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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?

St Raphael belonging to Vasco da Gama, c1497, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

St Raphael belonging to Vasco da Gama, c1497, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the St Raphael belonging to Vasco da Gama, c1497, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the St Raphael belonging to Vasco da Gama, c1497, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Portable altar, possibly belonging to Vasco da Gama, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Portable altar, possibly belonging to Vasco da Gama, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the portable altar, possibly belonging to Vasco da Gama, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Model of a 'taforeia' ship for transporting horses and for combat, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Model of a ‘taforeia’ ship for transporting horses and for combat, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

What I wanted more of was things like these:

Commemorative Stone, Diu Fortress, India, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Dedicated to the Navy Captain Caetano Correa de Sá, Governor of the Diu Fortress, where it was placed in 1758 to celebrate the construction of a bastion as well as other works.

Commemorative Stone, Diu Fortress, India, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Dedicated to the Navy Captain Caetano Correa de Sá, Governor of the Diu Fortress, where it was placed in 1758 to celebrate the construction of a bastion as well as other works.

St Francis Xavier on the Santa Cruz, 17th century, anonymous, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  This shows St Francis Xavier's miracle, which occurred when he was sailing from Macau to Japan.  The crew was dying of thirst, so he soaked his feet in the sea and it turned into fresh water.

St Francis Xavier on the Santa Cruz, 17th century, anonymous, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  This shows St Francis Xavier’s miracle, which occurred when he was sailing from Macau to Japan.  The crew was dying of thirst, so he soaked his feet in the sea and it turned into fresh water.

Pirogue, c1450, India, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  It's a small craft for individual use in the canals of Kochi.  This one was apparently in use until the 20th century, and is one of the oldest existing examples of this type.

Pirogue, c1450, India, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  It’s a small craft for individual use in the canals of Kochi.  This one was apparently in use until the 20th century, and is one of the oldest existing examples of this type.

Large Pirogue, 16th/17th century, India, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  The high quality of this is unusual. A decorative cross may imply it belonged to the house of the Catholic Bishop of Kochi, whose diocese covered the entire south of India, Coromandel and the Bay of Bengal.

Large Pirogue, 16th/17th century, India, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  The high quality of this is unusual. A decorative cross may imply it belonged to the house of the Catholic Bishop of Kochi, whose diocese covered the entire south of India, Coromandel and the Bay of Bengal.

Tapestry of Tournai, Belgium, 1520, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  This was part of a set on the Portuguese Discoveries that was probably commissioned by King Manuel.  It depicts the loading/unloading of a ship.

Tapestry of Tournai, Belgium, 1520, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  This was part of a set on the Portuguese Discoveries that was probably commissioned by King Manuel.  It depicts the loading/unloading of a ship.

Walnut chest, mid-15th century, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal. The lid has the Gama family coat of arms, though whose it was in particular is not known. Due to the metal handles and lock, it's possible that it was a travel chest, and probably went to India since it is in what became known as an Indo-European style. The inlaid ivory was probably added later.

Walnut chest, mid-15th century, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal. The lid has the Gama family coat of arms, though whose it was in particular is not known. Due to the metal handles and lock, it’s possible that it was a travel chest, and probably went to India since it is in what became known as an Indo-European style. The inlaid ivory was probably added later.

There was an interesting display of archaeological finds from the area around the fortess of São Julião da Barra on the Tagus river, which is essentially a ship graveyard.  During excavations in 1996/1997 there was a focus on the remains of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, wrecked in 1606 during what was literally the last part of her journey from Kochi.  It brought to light artefacts that showed daily life on board for passengers and crew, as well as providing information about the products involved in trade.

Actually, the story of the ship 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.

Some archaeological finds from the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires in the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Some archaeological finds from the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires in the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki, c1650, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki, c1650, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki, c1650, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki, c1650, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki, c1650, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the Chart of the city and harbour of Nagasaki, c1650, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

View of gallery packed full of model boats, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

View of gallery packed full of model boats, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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.

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The King’s Cabin on the Amelia, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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The Queen’s Cabin on the Amelia, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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

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Saveiro style fishing boat from Caparica, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  It’s of a type of boat that has its origins in Mesopotamia.

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Gee, look at all them boats in the Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Customs Barge, late 18th century, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  She was manned by 12 oarsmen.

Customs Barge, late 18th century, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal. She was manned by 12 oarsmen.

The Royal Barge, 1778, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Built for Queen Maria I and used by the Royal family, she was manned by 80 oarsmen.  Queen Elizabeth II of England travelled on her when she visited Portugal in 1957.

The Royal Barge, 1778, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Built for Queen Maria I and used by the Royal family, she was manned by 80 oarsmen. Queen Elizabeth II of England travelled on her when she visited Portugal in 1957.

Detail of the back panel showing Neptune on the Royal Barge, 1778, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the back panel showing Neptune on the Royal Barge, 1778, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the back panel showing Venus on the Royal Barge, 1778, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of the back panel showing Venus on the Royal Barge, 1778, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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The Big Barge, 1728, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Built for King João V for his own use, she was manned by 80 oarsmen.

The rudder of the Big Barge, 1728, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Built for King João V for his own use, she was manned by 80 oarsmen.  

The rudder of the Big Barge, 1728, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Built for King João V for his own use, she was manned by 80 oarsmen.

Vehicle of the Lifeboats Institute, 19th century, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  It transported the ropes that were used to recover people from stranded ships.  

Vehicle of the Lifeboats Institute, 19th century, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  It transported the ropes that were used to recover people from stranded ships.

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Fairly III-D ‘Santa Cruz’, 1922, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Of English origin, the plane completed the first air crossing of the South Atlantic in June 1922.

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Schreck FBA, 1917, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Cos we all want to fly in highly flammable wooden planes.

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Navy Shipyard Fire Department Vehicle, 1881, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  Manufactured in England by Merryweather & Sons, it was pulled by men or mules to the site of the fire.  The steam would set in motion the water-pumps for the hoses by the coal-boiler.  It took less than 10 minutes to get to the required pressure level, and this would happen while the vehicle was on its way to the fire.

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All the awards won by the English built Navy Shipyard Fire Department Vehicle, 1881, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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Raft, 1940s, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.  It was used to rescue people.

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View of boats, Maritime Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

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: www.ccm.marinha.pt

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: www.carris.pt

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