Macaulay at work in 1958

The British in the Algarve

The Algarve was always remote, even after the railway had been built. Not until Faro airport was opened in 1965 has this region enjoyed wide popularity. The traditional and historic way to get to the Algarve was to go by coach and horse via Beja to Mértola; then by boat to Vila Real de Santo António; and either by coastal boat, or by coach and horse to your Algarvian destination. Alternatively, you could arrive by boat from Lisbon.

The future Poet Laureate Robert Southey visited the Algarve in 1801, and he did not follow either of the usual routes. “We crossed the mountains to Tavira, seven leagues, terrible leagues, infinite leagues … the road would be utterly impassable were it not that the Host is carried on horseback in these wilds and therefore the way must be kept open. Wherever we looked was mountain – waving, swelling, breasting exactly like the sea-like prints of the Holy Land which you see in old travels. At last the sea appeared and the frontier towns of Ayamonte and Castro Marim; we descended and entered the garden, the Paradise of Algarve.”

Having crossed to the west of the Algarve, Southey recorded that the people living near Cape St Vincent were miserably poor, living on carobs.

Publisher John Murray in 1852 asserted that the Algarve furnished a large proportion of the adventurers who discovered India and Brazil and they were considered the best mariners in Portugal. He went on to describe the Algarveans as being honest and industrious, but great talkers. “A common saying to anyone who has been chattering is, you must come from the Algarve.” He refers to the cottages in the Algarve as much cleaner than in other parts of Portugal and “the manner of building their chimneys is quite peculiar and by no means distasteful”.

Rose Macaulay wrote two books about the British in Portugal (They went to Portugal and They went to Portugal too), and in her third book about Iberia, Fabled Shore: From the Pyrenees to Portugal (1949), she described her journey along the coast of Iberia from the Pyrenees to Cape St Vincent. The Algarve occupies only 17 pages out of 225, and she is not complimentary.

She found Vila Real de Santo António dull, Tavira delightful, Olhão exotic and oddly modernist. Faro was not interesting-looking, Loulé was white and very Arabic, Albufeira a picturesque and charming town. She found her fellow guests (all Portuguese) friendly and kind.

For her, the Algarve had “little white towns with a dream-like charm – Lagoa a charming village, Portimão … lies beautifully round its port … Lagos where the railway ends is an exciting place, very ancient, its bay of great renown … after Raposeira … the Algarve garden lies behind; bleak moorland begins. The south coast of the Barlavento in August is draughty and cool”.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries and well into the 19th century, English merchants used their economic muscle to the disadvantage of the Algarvian. Not only had Portugal suffered economic depression in the early 17th century, but the Algarve coast was subject to pirate raids until 1830 and the Inquisition campaigns against New Christians ensured that the richest Portuguese traders preferred to work abroad, well out of the reach of the Holy Office.

The economic vacuum in the Algarve was filled by merchants from all over Northern Europe, but particularly by the English. Of course, these foreigners remitted their profits to their own countries, which did nothing for the economic wellbeing of the Algarve.

From the mid-17th century, there was always an English Consul in Faro where there were as many as four British commercial houses (Janson, Mellor, Small, Parcar) and the 18th century added two more, Pitt and Lamprière.

The Lamprière family dominated commercial life in the Algarve for well over 100 years from 1714, attracting the fury of a Portuguese magistrate who rightly or wrongly attributed to them all the economic ills of the Algarve. In 1759, he complained to the king, D José: “The wealth of this house is very great, and the very great trade it carries in all kinds of grain, wines and spirits brings about a dependence and so the owners have become despotic in this land. The whole of Portugal owes a dependence to Britain, but here in the Algarve, the inhabitants have become slaves, so that their laws no longer have effect and they have to give great obedience and are vilely humiliated.”

Most visitors and tourists to Portugal tended to visit Lisbon, Porto, Sintra and perhaps Coimbra and Évora. The Algarve was regarded as the back of beyond, even for the Portuguese. It was not until the coming of the railway in the late 19th century that the Algarve lost its isolation.

In 1899, Henry Noel Shore in Three Pleasant Springs in Portugal described his rail journey to Faro: “The better class of Portuguese never travel if they can help it…and very few Portuguese go there from other parts except on business and even they can tell you very little that is worth knowing … a charming Anglo-Portuguese gentleman… ‘You know in Portugal up to within recent times no-one travelled because there were no hotels; and there were no hotels because no-one travelled’.”

Shore had arrived on the one daily Lisbon train, and in Faro he wrote: “We spied some ripe figs and laying in a supply of oranges, we sought out a sunny seat on the esplanade near a miserable patch of ornamental garden. Here some sickly palms were dragging out a squalid existence under the depressing influence of dust and periodic waterings. The prospect before us was not entrancing. We gazed across a vast expanse of mud – it might have been Weston-super-Mare – which at low tide represents the harbour here, the horizon being bound by sand dunes, beyond which was said to be the sea.”

This article is the first in a series covering the Algarvian impressions made on travellers before the 20th century.

By Lynne Booker
|| [email protected]

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Macaulay at work in 1958