Historical Research for Alternate History is…Challenging

This weekend I read The Last Day by Nicholas Shrady, which discusses the 1755 destruction of Lisbon by earthquakes, tsunamis, and fire. It is, BTW, an excellent book, thoroughly researched yet easy to read. Just over 200 pages.

(Ruins of the Carmelite Monastery, left mostly as is.)

The mores of that time seem strange when reading about them. They seem irrational, as does the iron control that the Church had over the Crown and the People. Yet at the end, the author of The Last Day points out how many similar voices there are NOW after major catastrophes (like Katrina), blaming them on sinful people of various stripes.

What this has to do with my writing:
When I consider my alternate version of Portugal, I have to try to think of it in terms of Magic. In my Portugal, magic works. There are two types of human magic: Witchery, which is what comes naturally (read that as From God) and Witchcraft which is augmenting one’s natural abilities by either Spells or Sacrifice.

By the time of my novels (1902), the Portuguese Church is OK with Witchery, but NOT Witchcraft. (The Spanish Church isn’t cool with either.) By the time of my novels, post Inquisition, most people know that many natural witches previously entered the Church to keep from being prosecuted by the Inquistion. The males gravitated toward the Jesuit Order (which had a strong influence over the Portuguese Royal Family.)

So one of the major events that’s changed by this is the Disappearance of King Sebastian. The young king was practically raised by Jesuits. IRL, his fervor led him to participate in an ill-conceived Crusade to Morocco….during which too many young Portuguese men lost their lives and Sebastian disappeared.

But if the Jesuits had seers among them, I would hope that at least one would say “Uh, Sebastian, this is a BAD idea. You’ll die, Portugal will lose its independence from Spain*, and your people will lose too many young men.”

So in my alternate history, Sebastian never goes to Morocco. Like a good little king, he marries, has children, and the House of Aviz continues.

Therefore, I have a completely different royal family by the time of my novels. Anyone who knows Portuguese history will do a double take when I talk about Dom Sebastian III. Other people will probably have no idea that I’ve changed history at all.

But my novels have Portugal split into two countries, Southern Portugal and Northern Portugal. This is the result of a war between two young twin brothers in the late 1740s who are quibbling over which one really has the right to the throne. The classical Liberal vs. Absolutist divide goes into place, north and south (just as happened in the real Two Brothers War, although at a different time.)

And what stops the war is the Destruction of Lisbon in 1755.

That’s one event that no amount of magic could prevent.

Magic might change how that event was interpreted throughout the world (it had huge repercussions philosophically), but it couldn’t prevent it.

And that’s why I spent the afternoon reading about one of the more depressing times in Portuguese history, and one of the most curious people: Pombal. He got the city back on its feet, stopped the looting and crime, plotted the course of rebuilding, kicked the Jesuits out of the country, overhauled education, put his heel down on the Inquisiton. In essence, he brought Portugal into modern Europe. At the same time, he was brutal and tyrannic.

In setting up my alternate history, I decided that Pombal was also a force of nature. So in my history, he’s still there…but controlling only Southern Portugal. Northern Portugal just observes as he does his stuff….and then as the next Prince exiles him and reverses many of the changes he instituted.

But they learned some lessons from those decades of change, among them that a middle road must be reached between the Church and the People. That the power of aristocrats has to be curtailed. That there is value to many of the changes being made throughout Europe. Northern Portugal just takes it slow. They don’t confiscate the monasteries (which is why São Bento is still a monastery in my books, not a train station), but at the same time the power of the Jesuits is strictly curtailed. Coimbra is updated, but unfortunately public education is still very limited.

I would love to believe that someone, somewhere, was a rational person in all that mess…so I made my Northern Portugal slightly more rational than any government probably was. Author’s prerogative, I suppose.

*FWIW, the Jesuits actually -wanted- to unite Spain and Portugal at first…but very quickly things went sour for the Portuguese, because basically everyone in Europe hated Spain at that point and even Portugal’s old allies turned against them (because they essentially -were- Spain then.) By the time the Portuguese managed to throw off Spain 60 years later (thanks to a well-timed Catalonian Revolt) the Jesuits were happy to see the unification undone!


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