The Iberian Case of Sibling Rivalry: Spain vs. Portugal

By Berdichevsky, Norman | The World and I, April 2007 | Go to article overview

The Iberian Case of Sibling Rivalry: Spain vs. Portugal


Berdichevsky, Norman, The World and I


As in Scandinavia (see "The Scandinavian Case of Sibling Rivalry," April 2007), Iberia has witnessed a long struggle between a unifying common cultural-linguistic and religious heritage. Contrast this with bitter national envies and rivalry, which for a time enforced a union that threatened absorption of the "lesser" siblings (Portugal and Denmark). This period was then followed by a renewed independence and sense of a distinct determination to resist the "greater" rival (Spain and Sweden) with far-reaching imperialist ambitions.

Portugal as the "younger brother"

It was the Portuguese who first achieved independence by expelling the Moors and achieving national unity, and then established a far-flung colonial empire, only to lose out later in large part to Spain. The result was a prolonged feeling towards the neighbor as an upstart and arrogant "big brother." As late as the sixteenth century, Portugal's greatest national poet, Luis De Camoes, could still reflect on the two lands' common heritage embracing all peoples of the Iberian peninsula. In his epic poem, Os Lusiadas, he referred to the Portuguese as "Uma gente fortissima de Espanha" (Canto I, verse 31). He used Espanha in the traditional geographic sense of the entire Iberian peninsular.

It was however the great successes of Portugal's heroic explorers, seamen and cartographers that made such achievements in the Age of Discovery, and cemented the essential feeling of national character that made separation from Spain a mater of national pride rather than regional distinctiveness. The Portuguese love to reassert their imperial past that outlasted Spain's, even though the final remnants eventually disappeared after World War II (Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde islands, Goa, East Timor and Macao). Quite a few Portuguese, while bemoaning the loss of empire, at least have the satisfaction knowing that there are almost as many speakers of Portuguese as Spanish.

Some were therefore recently dismayed to learn that Brazil, the largest Portuguese-speaking nation, adopted a new educational curriculum making Castilian Spanish a required subject (as the obligatory first foreign language studied in all schools), and resent their great linguistic partner in taking what appears to be a conciliatory step.

What makes Portugal different?

Why did Portugal become an independent nation, whereas other parts of modern day Spain (Aragon-Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque country, Asturias, Navarre, Valencia, Murcia and Andalucia), with original vernaculars as distinct from Castilian Spanish as is Portuguese--and all with their own sense of identity--eventually become absorbed in a united Spain?

One factor is probably the very rugged mountainous terrain and low population density that characterizes the Spanish-Portuguese border region along the course of steep swift-flowing rivers. However, several renowned Portuguese historians and geographers have highlighted human and historical-dynastical factors rather than geography or language in explaining the reasons for the permanence of Portuguese independence.

Spanish role as the "resented big brother"

Observers point out that the Portuguese national character is more sentimental, ironic, mild, and even more melancholic (as can be hear so clearly in the lilting strains of Fado music). These characteristics are often held up as the opposite of Castilian culture. Two scholars who have dealt with this question at length find both cultural and geographical factors at work. Pierre Birot put it this way (Le Portugal; Etude de Geographie Regionale, 1950): Thus, the typical characteristics that so gracefully distinguish the Portuguese soul from its peninsular neighbors, were able to ripen in the shelter of frontiers which are the oldest in Europe. On one side, a proud and exalted people (the Spaniards), ready for all kinds of sacrifice and for all the violent acts that inspire them to be concerned with their dignity; on the other hand a more melancholy and indecisive people (the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity in which one can recognize one of the most precious treasures of our old Europe. …

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