I have been traveling in Europe for the past weeks, and have had a great time in Portugal, Spain and France. There is so much to take in here, and one of the most interesting recurring discussions I have with Europeans, is the view we “Yank’s” hold of the royalty, both past and present. And it was not all that long ago that we mere commoners had no real opinion on such matters, for the “divine right of kings” had a long and fairly painful history before finally abandoned. A very severe example of this can be found in Portugal at the incredible Palacio Nacional de Mafra, located about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon.
Mafra is indeed a spectacle to behold, and I have visited the Mafra Palace many times, including coming with a group of PLNU MBA’s here in November 2011 on a study tour. Built in the 1700’s to fulfill a vow made by the Portuguese king if his wife gave birth (she happened to be an Austrian, but the interrelationships of the royals is entirely another tale), it stands about 700 feet along the front, has 1,200 rooms and nearly 5,000 windows and doors! Under construction for about fifteen years, at one point nearly 45,000 workers toiled on the project, not including the soldiers needed to police the project and keep order, the cooks, butchers and thousands of others. It was an unparalleled project for Portugal, as King John V ordered that the finest craftsman and laborers from throughout Europe come to Mafra to create his palace.
However, what is most fascinating to me about Mafra is that it does indeed appear to be a project that nearly destroyed a nation, and the true price of it is still being felt 300 years later. While in 2013 we think of Portugal as a “peripheral” member of the European Union, one of the weakest and least economically productive, during the reign of John V, this tiny country reaped vast sums from its colonies, most notably from Brazil. Literal shiploads of gold came from new mines in Brazil, but instead of managing this wealth prudently, a great wealth shift from Portugal to other countries began as the bills for Mafra became due. Germany, France, Italy and many other nations benefitted from the vast cost of Mafra Palace. In the coming decades, Portugal would endure a horrific earthquake in 1755, the invasions of Napoleon, and the independence movement of Brazil all helped topple Portugal from its perch among the giants of Europe. There is much irony in the fact that in 1910, the Portuguese monarchy collapsed, and the royal family abdicated and exited the country from halls the Mafra Palace.
History can prove kings, and politicians, to be utter fools. While I greatly admire the Mafra Palace, and believe it is a treasure of Portugal and indeed the world, I wonder what could have occurred in the fate of Portugal if instead of a royal class being feted and catered to, entrepreneurship, mercantilism, free enterprise, manufacturing and political and religious freedom would have been nurtured. Did Mafra prevent Portugal from being a “small giant,” a country big enough to have leadership in business but small enough to be discreet, nimble and astute? We will never know, but many historians believe that these forays into the fulfillment of the ruling class’s desires, be they wars, initiatives, programs, legacies, or palaces, can commit later generations to obligations they simply cannot fulfill, and the entire course of history is changed. This is not just a lesson from the history of Portugal, but one all of us in the 21st century, regardless of where we call home, need to keep in mind.