Stand Up to the Ocean
A Psychogeographical Theory of Portuguese Imperialism
Through my adventures in Europe and through my writing, I have been exploring the idea that geography and architecture play a profound role in shaping the human psyche. The citizens of every country I have visited — Greece, Spain, Portugal, and soon Croatia — are often construed as having unique but specific personalities that scale up as unique national cultures. Any social scientist presented with this observation will invariably ask: how'd that happen? And, when searching for a reasonable explanation, should arrive at a second observation that the geographies of these countries also differ, making geography a possible mechanism for the observed personality differences.
The causal claim that "geography is destiny" has been thoroughly explored by the historian Ian Morris. In his writing, Morris argues that Britain came to dominate Europe and much of the rest of the world during the industrial revolution in part due to its isolated geographic position in the middle of the North Sea, which in that era nudged its citizenry into maritime excellence while also preserved their safety against land invasions. From this geographical vantage point, Brits reaped the benefits of international trade while maintaining island refuge from jealous neighbours, allowing it to become the dominant global force for centuries. Morris' argument makes sense, and my intention is not to debunk or even critique it. Rather, I offer an extension. If, as Morris claims, geography is destiny, it is geography that may also be psyche.
Consider the following conjecture. Japan and Greece are on opposite ends of the world yet share three key geographic features. First, both share varied and complex spatial relations with their surrounding seas. The coastline for neither country is completely straight for any significant distance, but instead curves and bends, forming long bays, inland seas, peninsulas and islets, each one with a unique morphology. Second, both are full of islands — loads of them. An official tally from Japan claimed the country is home to 6852 unique ones. In Greece, the number is almost identical, with estimates at over 6000. Like the coastline features, each island has a unique spatial relationship to the surrounding sea and its nearest larger landmass. And third, both countries have mountains — many, and surprisingly tall so close to sea-level. For example, in Japan, the Nihon Arupusu — the Japanese Alps — bisecting the main island of Honshu just an hour drive from the periphery of Tokyo, with peaks as high as 10,000 feet. In Greece, the Olympic Mountains, also above 10,000 feet tall and only 10 kilometres away from the sea. As a consequence of these geographic similarities, one cannot travel in either Japan or Greece for long stretches without encountering a totally unique spatial condition, characterized by a distinctive mix of three fundamental morphological forces: land, water, and height.
The claim that Japan and Greece share similar geographic conditions is for the most part non-controversial, as it can be easily independently verified by looking at a map. My second claim — the one about sharing psyches — is trickier, but the proof that I offer can, like by looking at maps, be easily independently verified. The proof I offer is a deep exegesis of Japanese and Greek mythology, both have which deeply shape the respective psyches, and cultures, of the two countries. In Japan, there is a huge collection of traditional folktales staring a diverse cast of deities and demons, who together tell origin stories of social norms and power structures. In Greece, something similar. Gods and goddesses at war across eons and using the tools of nature to fight for the soul of the common people. Importantly, in both mythological repertoires, characters and events are almost always grounded in place. That is, a specific geographic location within each respective country, whether it be Mount Olympus or Mount Fuji, the Seto Inland Sea or the Island of Lesbos. Therefore, in order to have a rich and complex mythology, a country first needs a rich and complex geography. Both Japan and Greece satisfy this requirement in physical terms, and it is for this reason, I claim, that they were able to accomplish what they accomplished in psychological terms.
It's at this time of the post that I remember it was supposed to be about Portugal. Thank you for making it this far — I won't stray from here on out. Let's now consider Portugal. First, its geography, which I will reduce to its two most poignant conditions: coast and ocean. In terms of the coast, you will find one nearly continuous and nearly straight stretch from the country's northernmost point to its southern tip where, for a short length, it jags perpendicular into the Mediterranean. This contiguity means that nearly all of the country is characterized by the same spatial condition: a straight stare at the ocean. And this ocean is no slouch. Here, the Atlantic is particularly virile, pounding Portugal's shores all the way from its northernmost beaches to the Algarve region in the south. At Nazaré, about halfway down Portugal's coast, an underwater canyon funnels deep-sea water towards the shore, vaulting it upwards hundreds of feet as it approaches land, creating what are literally some of the largest waves on the planet. Taken together, nearly every part of Portugal, and particularly the locations where most of the population resides, experiences a similar geographic condition, characterized by an endless horizon that steals the setting sun every night, coupled with a relentless physical pounding of water. In this way, the ocean is not "friendly", but rather dominant and oppressive. Perhaps not unlike a Dad turned bully, goading you to respond.
Portugal's demure presence in contemporary geo-politics belies its imperial past. From the 15th century to 19th century, Portugal dominated huge sections of the southern hemisphere, with colonies stretching from Brazil to Mozambique, India, China and Indonesia. Its influence is evidenced by the fact that Portuguese is the 6th most spoken language in the world. Further, the exploitative clout of the Portuguese empire is evidenced through grande and excessive classical architecture that remains standing — somewhat wobbly — in its main cities. In Lisbon, Commerce Square is a massive public plaza lined with ornate buildings and a statue of King José I at its centre. Poignantly, the square is completely open on one side to the sea, as if to indicate the value it affords. Neither of these outcomes will ever overshadow the horrors of Portuguese colonialism, but are indicative of a communal psyche defined by a desire to expand, dominate and control.
I claim that it is in part Portugal's geography, and specifically its relation to the pounding Atlantic Ocean, that is in part responsible for the development of a communal psyche dedicated to forceful expansion and domination that, scaled up, manifests as Imperialism. Rich and powerful people often have traumatic origin stories, where their characters were moulded by early oppressive experiences. Perhaps Portugal’s story is the same, and its Imperial past does not have to be considered a alien impulse, but reply to the forces of nature. Of course, nothing about this explanation excuses the horrors of Portugues colonialism. If anything, it points towards Portugal's punishment. The country's imperial power has been near completely neutered, but its geography remains the same. The ocean continues to pound.