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the portuguese referendum

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what the what? "there's no referendum in portugal" i hear you say. and you're correct. the portuguese socialist party won elections in 158 of the country's 308 municipalities, the country was named the best travel destination in europe at the world travel awards and the antichrist josé mourinho had a street named after him in his home town, but there was no national referendum in the country of portugal.

but there could have been.

back in the fifteenth century, spain was... nonexistent. the iberian peninsula was divided into several states, each of which considered themselves independent of all the others. you had portugal on the atlantic side. in the centre was the kingdom of castile [which had previously been castile and léon]. in the northeast you had the basque kingdom of navarre [home to one of the many branches of my family tree]. in the south-southwest, you had the muslim caliphate that had once held sway over much of the modern-day spanish territory, but whose influence was waning. and in the southeast, which is also kind of northeast, you had the kingdom of aragon.

aragon itself was a sort of novel concept, because it was really the combination of aragon and catalonia, and at the dawn of the fifteenth century, the relationship was still something that was in the beginning stages.

by the mid-fifteenth century, castile was the ascendant power, at least in theory. the problem was that they had a profligate spender and utter dunce as king. king henry iv was a grade a moron in many ways, and during his reign the kingdom became indebted and began to show some significant fault lines, as he was unable to keep crime under control. [he's also sort of famous for being unable to keep his wife under control. his second wife, joan of portugal, had two children by the nephew of the bishop of fonseca while still married to henry. he did eventually divorce her about that, but still... two children before the divorce?]

the clever castilian nobles realised that the future laid with henry's very canny half-sister isabella, and eventually bullied him into making her his heir [instead of his own daughter because, let's face it, who knew where she came from...]. as a result, isabella, auburn-haired, educated, and backed by powerful interests in castile, became the most eligible bachelorette in europe. and boy, did henry ever try to capitalize on that.

as a child, isabella had been betrothed to her second cousin ferdinand of aragon, in the interests of bringing the two adjacent kingdoms closer than ever. however henry was wary that the king of aragon, john ii [who also happened to be his uncle], was in a position to use the union to squish castile like the bankrupt, crime-infested, bloated little bug that henry had made it, and therefore thought to marry isabella to someone else. and by "someone" i mean "anyone". seriously, he offered his half-sister to anyone he thought would have his back, like she was some sort of door prize.

the bachelorette - iberia
for better or worse, henry had held onto power by making a deal with isabella and the nobles that backed her: as his heir, she wouldn't get married without his consent, but he couldn't force her to marry anyone she didn't want to. that arrangement is responsible for a lot of the world as we know it today, because, as it happens, isabella was not the least bit fucking shy about invoking her rights.

most notably, henry had offered her hand in marriage [and sovereignty over the kingdom of castile] to his brother in law, alfonso v of portugal. henry was convinced that this was a much better move [for him] than aligning with aragon. but isabella was having none of it, and the marriage never happened.

all hell almost literally broke loose in the wake of the deal's collapse, because it highlighted the fact that henry had no clue what he was doing. in desperation, henry kept offering isabella to people as a bribe to stand by him, but the cast[ilian] iron princess made her own moves: she made an agreement with her uncle to go back to plan 'a' and marry her cousin, ferdinand of aragon. after the little matter of their being too closely related to be legally married was dealt with via papal "get out of incest free" card, the political lovebirds were united in 1469. henry died five years later, and ferdinand and isabella ruled over the combined states of castile and aragon. together they conquered the emirate of granada, the last remaining muslim outpost on the iberian peninsula, laying the serious groundwork for the nation that we now call spain.

having lost the isabella sweepstakes to aragon, the portuguese retrenched and just went about the business of being portugal. aragon, including the region of catalonia, became part of the unified nation of spain. and make no mistake, while castile liked to show itself off as the centre of power, putting the capital in madrid and calling its particular dialect spanish, like it represented the whole damn place, aragon was no minor partner in this arrangement. their territories included corsica, sardinia, sicily and much of southern italy. so, if anything, aragon went into this partnership with the upper hand. and, as the basis of aragon's naval power, the principality of catalonia was the jewel at the centre of their crown.


at the very end of the fifteenth century, a genoese prospector going by the name of cristoforo colombo talked ferdinand and isabella into financing a trip. in an ironic twist, colombo ended up pitching the monarchs of castile and aragon on his plan to sail the atlantic ocean to asia after he'd been shown the door by the kingdom of portugal, where isabella and her children would have been in charge had she chosen to go along with her brother's scheme of uniting the western side of iberia.

we know what colombo did, of course, and the effects it had on the rest of the world, but what isn't commonly discussed is the fact that, once they knew there was serious booty to be had on the other side of the atlantic, ferdinand, isabella and basically every other major european monarchs focused all their attention there. that meant that control of the mediterranean meant less and less, so catalonia, became less and less important. worse still, since aragon and castile were still part of a separate-but-equal partnership and not a full-on union, catalonian cities along the mediterranean were prevented from even participating in the increasingly lucrative transatlantic trade. catalonia and its capital, barcelona, tumbled in importance and its culture excluded from the increasingly powerful spanish state.

there is a long history since that time of tension, repression, resistance and rebellion in the catalan region of spain, all of which fed into the unsettling images of this week's catalonian independence referendum. whatever your feelings on the subject, it's hard to generate a lot of sympathy for the spanish government when you see police shutting down polling stations, dragging peaceful people away or beating them down, and at the same time saying that the chaotic circumstances render any result invalid.

see, in spanish, that would be "votamos"
the spanish government had already received a legal opinion that the referendum was unconstitutional because it violated a clause on spain's "indivisibility". well, yeah. the constitution would say that, because no constitution has ever said "all this is valid until some part of the country leaves, and then your warranty is void". furthermore, that clause is clearly included because the people who wrote it were extremely aware that the spanish union was pretty frayed, and that plenty of groups have opined that they would rather go it alone and end the great experiment known as spain. if anything, the biggest surprise is that the first referendum was in the catalonian south and not the basque north.

in my linguistic adventures, i've learned some spanish, along with a little bit of portuguese and catalan. portuguese, with its nasally pronunciation and dropped consonants, sounds surprisingly similar to its distant cousin romanian in some instances, but is obviously closest to spanish. as a canadian who speaks french pretty well, i'm struck by catalan's similarities to french. much like norwegian, swedish and danish, the triad of portuguese, spanish and catalan exist on a continuum where they can either be seen as separate languages or as dialects of the same uber-language. recent history has conditioned us to think of portugal as one country and separate culture, and spain as another. but we could just as easily be living in a world where aragon/ catalonia was independent and spain ran all along the atlantic coast.

this post isn't intended to push you to one side or the other on the catalan referendum. i have conflicted feelings on it myself because, while i think that the catalans [and the basques] have been poorly served by castilian-dominated spain, i'm not convinced that imploding one of the world's largest economies and, effectively, the european union, is something that's going to benefit anyone. [sadly, things continue to deteriorate because the panicked spanish government has dropped a hammer the likes of which has not seen since the days of franco.]

but i do think that this is a good moment to think about what we all mean when we talk about 'nations'. there was not a referendum in portugal this week. there was a referendum in catalonia. but if the infanta isabella had been persuaded that marriage and political alliance with portugal was a better bet than aragon [and catalonia], it's very possible that that's what we'd be dealing with. history frequently hinges on such tiny decisions, which is why it's such a tricky, slippery basis for any arguments. and that in turn is a reason why political arguments are more appealing when they talk of what can be accomplished together. 


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