In search of Ormuz, a week in 21st century Portugal.

In the Belém (“Bethlehem”) district of Lisbon there is a monument which is popular with tourists from all over the world. Last week, I was one of those tourists. I put a photo of this particular monument, set against a stormy sky, up on my Facebook account. It has proved particularly popular with some of my Indian friends and former colleagues. The irony of this has been haunting me. You see the monument is dedicated to the memory of Prince Henry The Navigator, and others, who contributed to the Portuguese Age of Discovery and Exploration, hence its name in Portuguese is Padrão dos Descobrimentos. 

Tourists gather at the base of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, in the background is Ponte 25 de Abril, a 1960s suspension bridge.

At the base of this monument is a mosaic-esque depiction of the world, or rather, most of the world – with notable exceptions; Canada, Australia and Greenland to name a few of the missing countries. The countries and states are not labelled, but there are areas of land with archaic names and dates attached to them.


It appears that this tiled display performs the same function as the monument. It labels the trading posts held by the Portuguese, and lists the dates that they gained a foothold in each new territory.

I have mixed feelings about these type of monuments. Although it is a part of history, and explains the cultural heritage and ties between Portugal, Goa, Macau and Brazil, for example, it also celebrates the “success” of colonialism from the perspective of the metropolis, listing its colonies like a form of account book. The wealth made from these ventures may have fuelled the Portuguese elite, and prompted the silver trade in the New World, but it brought slavery and misery to millions of people. The figure of Afonso de Albuquerque, former Viceroy of Portuguese India appears on the monument, which was constructed in the decades immediately following Indian Independence.

Although the British played a much greater part in colonising India, I can’t imagine installing this kind of monument at that time. True, in London there is still a lot of triumphal colonialist architecture (admired endlessly by the Korean and Japanese tourists I encountered), not the mention the many statues of Queen Victoria/Empress of India,  yet most of these tend to be at least a century old, when the majority of British people may well have still believed in the moral legitimacy of Empire.

Back to the bridge. Ponte 25 de Abril. Renamed from “Salazar bridge” in 1974, when a military coup-turned-popular-revolution (the “Carnation Revolution“) transformed the Portuguese state into its modern form, by ending war and the presence of the Portuguese military in their African colonies.  Yet now the bridge is known to most visitors to Lisbon as a backdrop for their Padrão dos Descobrimentos photos. In that small cross-section of Lisbon, colonialism and colonisation is simultaneously praised and condemned, and few can perceive this irony. There is no doubt that the technological discoveries (armillary spheres etc., which appears on the modern Portuguese flag) and the Age of Exploration led to the mass exploitation of native peoples in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, but can these events ever be separated, and therefore, celebrated?

Not according to the Brazilian and Uruguayan people I was walking with. “They shouldn’t be proud of this”, one man hissed, and another replied “doesn’t Portugal have any other achievements?”

As I wandered around Belém in the rain I thought about all of this. The Indian convenience stores were a familiar sight, and they reminded me of the shared colonial connections between the UK and Portugal as former maritime powers. I even recognised some traditional Chinese characters on a building which I later identified as a library dedicated to Macau ( Àomén, 澳門). I had expected to find Portugal, with its good beaches and colourful public squares, to be like an alternate version of Spain, a place that is familiar to me through childhood holidays. Now I realised that Portugal, with its colonial past and controversial street art to rival Banksy, reminded me more of the place I’d left, the UK, in the darker sense.

Praça do Comércio

I also visited MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) in Belém, and by sheer coincidence they have a fantastic exhibition on at the moment concerning Utopia/Dystopia, in honour of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s original Utopia. The literary links didn’t stop there, as I discovered that Lord Byron had a particular obsession with Lisbon and Sintra (formerly Cintra), after accidentally sojourning there in 1809 (he missed the boat to Malta…). Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was Byron’s third book, and it made him as celebrity. Based on his continental tour which he undertook for two years after leaving Cambridge, the work draws on observations made as he toured European countries from Albania to Spain.

What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold!
   Her image floating on that noble tide,
   Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,
   But now whereon a thousand keels did ride
   Of mighty strength, since Albion was allied,
   And to the Lusians did her aid afford
   A nation swoll'n with ignorance and pride,
   Who lick, yet loathe, the hand that waves the sword.
To save them from the wrath of Gaul's unsparing lord.


   But whoso entereth within this town,
   That, sheening far, celestial seems to be,
   Disconsolate will wander up and down,
   Mid many things unsightly to strange e'e;
   For hut and palace show like filthily;
   The dingy denizens are reared in dirt;
   No personage of high or mean degree
   Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt,
Though shent with Egypt's plague, unkempt, unwashed, unhurt.


Poor, paltry slaves! yet born midst noblest scenes—
   Why, Nature, waste thy wonders on such men?
   Lo! Cintra's glorious Eden intervenes
   In variegated maze of mount and glen.
   Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
   To follow half on which the eye dilates
   Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
   Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium's gates?

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto the First, XVI-XVIII

Aside from Byron, the Boca do Inferno (“Mouth of Hell/ Hell’s Mouth”), a rock formation at Cascais, evoked Dante. The cold water and pretty miserable weather also harked back to the “frozen” hell of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It’s through Milton that we return to the title of this post. “In search of Ormuz”. But where is Ormuz/Ormus, and what was it? As shown above (on the featured image of the carved world/ Portuguese maritime map) Ormuz was a territory located in the modern-day Middle East, a rich trading port controlled by the Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Why did this name mean something to me, as someone who has never been to the Middle East, or who knows little about Portuguese history? It’s because f the opening of Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I studied for my A-Level English Literature, and again at undergraduate level.

 "High on a throne of royal state which far outshone/ the wealth
of Ormus and of Ind*/ or where the gorgeous East with richest hand/
showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold".

- Paradise Lost, Bk.2, lines 1-4

With this description Milton might well have been trying to undermine Satan’s legitimacy, by alluding to the East as “despotic” and “barbaric”, the opposite of Western “civilisation and manners”. This ground had already been covered in Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), in which the figure of the “Sultan” is seen as a representation of tyranny and despotic governance. It has been discussed as such by critics, who claim that “Satan has merely Oriental pomp”[Penguin Popular Classics, Paradise Lost (1996) pg. 32] in other words, Satan possesses style, not substance.

Yet, Satan can also be viewed as a type of hero, a Byronic hero in fact, a deeply flawed individual with heroic traits, who often appears in Gothic-style literature (think Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff). Here lies the heart of this dichotomy, for at the same time as western writers imagined that the East possessed an irrational method of rule, and an obscene gravitation towards vain riches, it was the West, which coveted these places, and hence, would first seek out, and then seek to control, the wealth of Ormus and of Ind.


7 thoughts on “In search of Ormuz, a week in 21st century Portugal.”

  1. Very interesting! I love hearing the history behind things. It’s incredible that so few understand the significance of symbols of their own culture. Maybe we take for granted our own culture’s way of being, behaving, and believing?

    Liked by 1 person

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