Pombal and the Inquisition in Portugal

The Portuguese ruler began to curb the most powerful arch-conservative force in the country on May 3rd, 1751

The Marquis of Pombal
The Marquis of Pombal

Sebastião de Carvalho, Marques de Pombal (1699-1782), was the virtual ruler of Portugal for more than a quarter of a century during the reign of King José I. A ruthless moderniser, he undoubtedly learned much from his previous seven-year stint in England as Portuguese ambassador to the court of George II. When he took control in Lisbon after José’s accession to the throne in 1750, Pombal set out to rein back the power of the landed aristocracy and build up Portuguese industry and commerce. To do this it was necessary to confront the Inquisition, the most powerful arch-conservative force in the country. In 1751 he made all sentences passed by the Inquisition subject to review by the crown, and so began to draw the institution’s teeth.

The Inquisition had been established in Portugal since 1547, on the Spanish model. Its apparatus of officials and informers, its courts and dungeons and torture chambers, its carefully stage-managed show trials and horrific burnings at the stake, inspired the same dread as the later secret police of totalitarian systems in Portugal and elsewhere. Its function was to wipe out religious dissent, but it was rootedly hostile to innovation of any kind and it was supported as an engine of conservatism by the landed aristocracy. The Inquisition  bore especially hard on Jews, many of whom had been more or less forcibly converted as ‘New Christians’. It was also fiercely opposed to industrialisation and business, which it linked with ‘Jewish capital’, and many middle-class business people and traders fell into its claws.

Pombal gradually transformed the Inquisition by bringing it under state authority, virtually abolishing it as an engine of religious thought control and using it instead against those suspected of treason against the state. In 1769 he appointed his own brother, Paulo, a layman, as Inquisitor-General. Meanwhile, Pombal had been able to end the persecution of Portuguese citizens of Jewish descent and to abolish black slavery in Portugal – in both cases primarily for economic rather than humanitarian motives. He went on to crush the Jesuits, modernise Portuguese higher education, encourage the formation of strong trading companies to exploit the wealth of Brazil for Portugal’s benefit and build up Portugal’s commercial empire. At the same time he weakened the aristocracy, established an efficient state police force and created his own apparatus of terror. He made many enemies and when José I died in 1777, Pombal was immediately dismissed, subjected to long and brutal interrogation and banished to his country estate where he died in 1782.

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