Marquês de Pombal

The Portuguese statesman Sebastião Joséde Carvalho e Mello, Marquês de Pombal (1699-1782), one of the most important men in the history of Portugal, became virtual dictator of his country during the reign of King Joseph I. He used his powers to introduce much-needed reforms.

The future Marquês de Pombal was born on May 13, 1699, at Soure, a small village not far from the town of Pombal, from which he later took his title. Little is known of Pombal's childhood. He derived from a rural family of the lower nobility and probably received a good education. He served in the cavalry for a while and eventually went to Lisbon, where, after working in the Academy of History, he eloped with a niece of the powerful Count of Arcoa. This marriage opened many doors for Pombal. From 1740 to 1744 he was ambassador to London, in which post he came to understand and to resent his country's economic subservience to England.

Soon after his return to Portugal in 1744, Pombal's wife died. In 1745 he was sent as his government's representative to Vienna, where he married again. Upon his return to Lisbon in 1749, Pombal was named junior minister in the government of King John V.

Not long after Pombal's appointment, John V died and was succeeded by his son, the indolent and pleasure-seeking Joseph I (reigned 1750-1777). Pombal quickly consolidated his position within the government, and by the end of 1755, after his energetic handling of the great crisis produced by the Lisbon earthquake, he was virtual dictator of Portugal, taking complete control of the machinery of government.

In his early years in power Pombal faced strong opposition both from the great noble families, which had formerly dominated the government, and from the powerful Jesuit order, whose power and influence Pombal sought to curb. On Sept. 3, 1758, an attempt was made to assassinate the King. Pombal grabbed the occasion, resolutely implicating both the high nobility and the Jesuits in the plot. In January 1759 some of the highest nobles of the land were publicly executed. Later that year the Jesuit order was expelled from Portugal forever.

Secure in power, Pombal now concentrated on his goals of strengthening the Portuguese economy and of curbing British economic preeminence in Portugal and its colonies. A series of administrative reforms brought Portugal and Brazil under greater central surveillance, and a series of important economic and financial reforms followed.

Pombal reformed the University of Coimbra and set up a board of censorship to control education. He organized the state-run Company for Trade with Asia and, in 1755, the Grao-Para Company, the first of three companies intended to monopolize trade with Brazil. Pombal also reorganized the Brazilian mines, regulated the trade in tobacco and sugar, and in 1771 took over the Brazilian diamond trade for the state.

Many of Pombal's schemes were successful; others died at birth. Although he did a great deal for Portugal, he failed to put an end to its commercial subservience to England and to the generally bad economic situation in both Portugal and Brazil. The closing years of the reign of Joseph I saw no relief from financial difficulties.

King Joseph I died in January 1777. He was succeeded by his daughter Maria I and by her uncle and husband, Pedro III. They could not tolerate the dictatorial rule of Pombal. In March 1777 Pombal was dismissed, and a new ministry was chosen from the nobility. The fallen dictator first retired to his palace at Oiras. His enemies, however, had him banished to the town of Pombal. Various charges were brought against him, and he was found guilty at his trial in August 1781. However, Pombal, now ill and 82 years old, received a pardon. He died on May 8, 1782.


Further Reading on Marquês de Pombal

Pombal's Memoirs (2 vols., 1843) are important and revealing. The most useful biography of him in English is Marcus Cheke, Dictator of Portugal: A Life of the Marquis of Pombal (1938). A scholarly account of the political, economic, and social condition of Portugal in Pombal's lifetime is in H. V. Livermore, A New History of Portugal (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Maxwell, Kenneth, Pombal, paradox of the Enlightenment, Cambridge England; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995.