Napoleon Series Archive 2009

The great object in Portugal (1809)


Indeed, many thanks – I have the memorandum here in front of me now.

“The great object in Portugal is the possession of Lisbon and the Tagus, and all our measures must be directed to this object. There is another also connected with the first object, to which we must attend, viz. – the embarkation of the British troops in case of reverse.” Lisbon 20th October, 1809.

WD vol v (1836) p 230 the memorandum is around 5pp in length and is presented on pp 231 to 235 in this edition

The quote (and the memorandum overall) shows us three things I think. Firstly, the possibility of mis-interpretation when one language is translated into another and back again – taking into account changes in language in use at the time. I presume that it is presented in the relevant volumes presenting documents in Soriano (but I could not find it). Now I have your guidance, this may be easier – I was looking in 1810. BTW “domínio” [and sorry for the missing accent in my previous post] can be translated from Portuguese to English domination / dominance (Porto Editora) but possession English to Portuguese in this dictionary is given as “posse” OR “possessão” – the first I have seen many times in contemporary Portuguese usage but not sure what it might have been in the early 19th century.

Secondly, this is but one of a series of early statements on the possibilities for the defence of Portugal. In support of Wellington’s plans for the defence of Portugal, I suppose, it might be useful to consider that: 1) he was not in such a good strategic or military position in October 1809 cf October 1810 (we might extend this to the autumn of 1810) and 2) he was of course under extreme pressure from the British government in relation to ensuring the safety of the British army (both at the time of drafting this memorandum and in 1810). This last consideration is a difficult one, for he obviously had to “placate” the British government, demonstrate to the Portuguese government that he meant to defend Lisbon and finally ensure tight discipline and good morale. It is clear from his correspondence that Wellington was very self assured that he could defeat the French in 1810: even though this meant retiring into the lines, ceding the Beira Baixa and Extremadoura to French control. Of course the “third line” covering the forts and intended place of embarkation near to Lisbon had to be developed – but I do think that there was no doubt in Wellington’s mind that Lisbon could be held (and no first line troops were allocated to the defence of the third line as far as I know). These points I think are particularly important given the timing of the (third) invasion and the contingencies set out in this memorandum (and others) for the defence of potential crossing points on the Tejo up-stream of the lines in case a two pronged attack were made in summer months).

Thirdly, as we now know with hindsight, Junot could reach Lisbon in 1807 but could not control or subjugate the kingdom with the troops at his disposal. Given the work of Forjaz, Beresford and Wellington (and others) Masséna could not reach the capital – and therefore could not achieve his objectives of conquering Portugal and expelling the British (even accepting the control he had of the environs close to Lisbon – i.e. those in the immediate possession of his three corps and within reach of marauding columns). As I understand it, some 200,000 of Portugal’s population of 3 million lived in or near to Lisbon – and this number was swelled by the vast number of refugees. And you could argue that the capital was even more important as a political and economic centre even compared to today – none of the other cities of Portugal were even near to its size – although some might be important centres of learning and trade (e.g. Coimbra, Porto etc).

Many thanks and best wishes


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