There are three well known facts about Porto. One, it’s home to Port, a fortified wine that goes well as an aperitif or paired with a dessert. Two, it sits next to the Douro valley, where some of the best Portuguese red wines are produced. Third, Portugal’s name derives from ‘Portus Cale’, Porto’s name during the Roman Empire. Alas, none of these three pieces of trivia tells much about the city or its inhabitants, which are neither particularly fixated on spirits nor on Roman toponymy of 2,200 years ago. There is however one story that perfectly epitomises Porto: the 1832 city siege. It’s a story of valour and hardship. A clash of the old and of the new. A mark in Portuguese history made of sweat, tears and blood.
The siege was a decisive chapter of a larger book we have peeked into before, when talking about the Queluz Palace: the 19th century civil war that pitted brother against brother. On one side, Dom Pedro, who wanted a constitutional monarchy for Portugal. On the other, his brother Dom Miguel, who wanted to keep the old absolutist monarchy.
The events that spurred this fratricidal conflict can also be traced back to Porto. In 1820, a liberal revolution that had sparked in the city quickly spread out to the entire country. Seen through today’s eyes, the demands of the revolutionaries look perhaps conflicting: on the one hand, they wanted a constitution for Portugal that would bring more power to the people; on the other hand, they clamoured for a less independent Brazil, which a mere five years ago had gone from being a colony to an equal part in the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves.
And indeed the two requirements would prove impossible to reconcile. King João VI, exiled in Brazil since the Napoleonic invasions of 1807, came back to Portugal to quench the revolution. He managed to restitute peace by conceding to a constitution, but there was nothing he could do to avoid Brazil claiming independence. He had left behind his son Dom Pedro to act as his regent. But Dom Pedro was a liberal at heart that had grown reading Voltaire and Edmund Burke, and was far more sympathetic to the pressures of the Brazilian that to those of the Portuguese.
King João VI died shortly after, in 1826. His eldest Dom Pedro was the natural successor to the throne, yet he chose to remain in Brazil and abdicated in favor of his daughter Dona Maria II. As she was just seven, her uncle Dom Miguel would act as prince regent. Unlike his brother, Dom Miguel believed in the good old days of absolutism, so he took advantage of his position to usurp the throne, turn the constitution into a mere piece of paper and drive the liberals out of the country.
By 1832 the situation had become so severe that Dom Pedro conceded the Brazilian throne to his son Dom Pedro II and sailed back to Portugal. He stopped in Azores to assemble an army, composed by mercenaries and exiled liberals. Among those stood notables such as the writer Almeida Garrett, who called this “the moment the old Portugal ends and a new one starts”.
The army landed in a beach near Porto and quickly occupied the city, cheered on by its residents. Unsure of how many men Dom Pedro had managed to assemble, Dom Miguel’s absolutist force preferred to flee.
But the celebrations would be short-lived. The absolutists quickly regrouped and sieged the city with an army of 60,000 men that vastly outnumbered the 7,500 liberals. Dom Pedro, a savvy strategist both at the negotiation table and on the battlefield, knew he only had a chance of keeping the city if he held on to Serra do Pilar, an elevation on the south bank of the Douro river, next to where the Dom Luís bridge stands today. The losses were tremendous, but the absolutists were unable to take Serra do Pilar and use it to bomb the city below.
Without a good vantage point, the absolutist army resorted instead to indiscriminate bombings and attacks, targeting both civilians and the military. Supplies were also dwindling and disease was spreading quickly, but Porto’s residents did not cower, choosing instead to fight back. Craftsmen and merchants, professors and students, many chose to battle alongside the military.
It would take more than a year of privation and hardship, but eventually the liberal army and Porto’s residents were able to break the siege and drive away the absolutists. Less than a year later, Dom Miguel conceded defeat and the Crown was transferred to Dona Maria II, Dom Pedro’s daughter.
Today, Porto’s toponymy retains many references to the siege. Praia da Memória, or ‘Beach of Memory’, marks the spot where the liberal army landed. One of the streets leading up to Serra do Pilar is called Rua dos Polacos, in honour of the many Polish mercenaries that lost their lives defending it. Rua da Travagem, which loosely translates to ’Blockage Street’, honours the efforts of Porto’s residents in stopping the absolutist army.
But by far the city’s biggest tribute to the siege is its formal name: Cidade Invicta do Porto, or ‘Unvanquished City of Porto’, given by Queen Maria II after the siege. No other Portuguese city bears the same distinction.