Sebastião – The Lost King of Portugal

On August 4th 1578 24 year old King Sebastião of Portugal charged at the battle of Alcazarquivir in modern-day Morocco and was never seen again.

Was he killed? Did he escape? History leaves us with few clues. Determined to re-conquer lost lands of Morocco for his country, ultimately he lost Portugal itself. He was convinced he was brought to this place by signs, omens and the will of God.

Mad, yes Mad, because I would have greatness

Mad, yes Mad, because I would have greatness

He was accused of madness and urged to abandon his quest. But he never gave up.

King Sebastião has passed into legend as ‘The King Arthur’ of Portugal – a sleeping giant who will one day to return in his country’s darkest hour. A cult has grown up around him and there are those who to this day still believe that his ship will sail up the Tagus and the King will return.

The following I wrote whilst in his beloved Lisboa imagining his last hours in the Moroccan desert…

Louco, sim, louco, porque quiz grandeza

Lying here encoberto – concealed; is this what I am reduced to? I who flew so high, who lead an army of thousands. Now only the grace offered by its broken and slashed bodies conceals my wounded frame, my still beating heart. From under the weight of armour, severed limbs, dying beasts I can make out my enemy in the now growing gloom, searching through this wreckage of the human spirit. They search for a fallen King, but they will not find me. Heaven willed this battle. God in his wisdom has spared me. But to what purpose?

Qual a Sorte a não dá.

I told them acometa – attack! I had sworn to my ancestors in Alcobaca I would restore the glory of Portugal. What happened? Why only failure? Is this my fate? A full forty thousand we were. And of those, fourteen thousand of the very best soldiers of Portugal. ‘How happy you should be on this occasion’ I told them. Their spirits soared, they, as certain as me, that God would lead us to victory. And we charged. I fought only in His name, for Portugal, guided by His comet – His omen. It was over too soon. Slaughter. Did he desert me? Me, his Desejado?

Não coube em mim minha certeza;

Such pain. I have never before hurt in this way. The lifeblood of my pierced, broken body leaks into the rapidly cooling sands of this forsaken place. Am I dying? Alcazarquivir they call it. It took us a full seven days march from Asilah to reach. It took us a full seven minutes for the youth of Portugal to be crushed amongst its treacherous sands. Now their blood unites with that of their King, draining through the sand, forming a mighty river below the dunes. A river to rival even the mighty Tagus, lover of Lisboa, from whence it sprung.

This is my madness, accept it those who can

This is my madness, accept it those who can

Por isso onde o areal está

Ah Lisboa; will I ever see her again? They told me never to leave. They told me I was chasing a dream. I could never reconquer what had been lost. They could not understand me. I urged them to see sense, to not give up. But my words fell on deaf ears. Obsessed they called me. Eventually they promised to help, to send men from Spain even, but so few came. Too few. So few believed? And all along the omens were there, the signs, urging me on. What choice had I but to listen? But what use a sign if this is where it leads?

Ficou meu ser que houve, não o que há

My horse, three times beneath me fell. The battle raged. Each time the wind was knocked from my stomach. Each time I rose. I found another, another and another spending half a Kingdom in promised estates and titles to those who gave up theirs to aid my quest. And they urged me even then to turn, to flee. But I thought my God was testing me. Determined to prove my worth, as brave Tavora and my Count of Vimiosa fell beside me, I still refused to surrender. The sacrifice of their dear friendship the heaviest price, but God’s to ask for. ‘What heaven wills’, I cried…

Minha loucura, outros que me a tomem

Engulfed by enemy ranks, my brave standard bearer fell and with him, my banner. Seeing it fall to the ground, crushed beneath so many hooves and feet of opposition I faltered. For the first time I doubted. What is happening? How can I be losing? My cause the most just. I came only to free those who do not believe, to show then a better life, the true way. Maybe those who doubted were right? Maybe I should have listened? But the signs! The signs were clear! Or were they? Was I mistaken? It grows dark, I will soon know.

Com o que nella ia.

Let it be said, when the chroniclers pen their accounts, that their King never gave up. Let it be said that his intentions were only the very noblest. I may have been misguided. Possibly as they whispered; mad even. What is Man if not mad? But there is no more noble cause than Love. If I am to die here tonight, alone, it is with love for Portugal in my heart. This land of the Moor, unfree, lost and unhappy, lonely… I was to be its liberator; a second Portugal. Like my ancestor Afonso – conquerer of Lisboa, whose ancient sword and shield I transported across the sands, it was love for my patria that drove me.

Sem a loucura que é o homem

Above me the light is fading and the stars that should have lit up my imagined path home, shine like so many reminders of how impossible now that feat. How far away they suddenly seem. I have tried to move, to climb out from my concealment, but my body no longer obeys my command. I wish I were not alone; to lay eyes on Lisboa one last time. I am scared. I don’t want to die alone. What fate awaits me? If this is my end, what punishment lies in store? Portugal, do not abandon me.

What without madness is a Man?

What without madness is a Man?

Mais que a besta sadia,

Near is my end it seems. Even the enemy has left the field. They did not find me, gave up, but now it will no longer matter. Like Atlas I am crushed and the weight overwhelms me. But the weight of responsibility is a far heavier burden. I know not the extent of my wounds and cannot tell if it is the air of the desert night or my soul slipping from my body making me shiver. Is greatness never to be mine after all? If I am mad, if this quest of mine insane, then mine may become a life never to be understood. I hope only that you Portugal can one day forgive me.

Cadáver addiado que procria?

It is dark. I am alone. A final promise… to you Portugal, to my only Queen; forget not your King for where I go now, I will not forget you. Through the mists of Lisboa – from the hills to the West – look for me there. When you have forgiven me for leading you on this doomed path and when all have deserted you, when despair fills your heart, look to the horizon and you will see my ship. Be strong in my absence – for it seems only by my absence can you accept my Love. I give you my word you were never abandoned…

The story of the ‘lost King Sebastião’ fascinated me as soon as I learned of his existence. The determination, self-belief (though as it tuned out, at such a cost) of this young man, just remarkable. He was so utterly convinced his cause was just and every omen only served to confirm this. But what were these signs? What was the purpose? There are signs and messages everywhere (even in my story), but maybe it is all just coincidence and only those who truly want to, actually see them. Maybe we simply make ourselves believe and signs justify our actions when we want something so much?

Portuguese lines from the Mensagem ‘King Sebastião’ by Lisbon Poet Fernando Pessoa.

English Translation:

Mad, yes, mad because I would have greatness
Such as Fate gives to no one.
No tamping down in my sureness;
Therefore, where the sand dwells, the worn
Part of me stopped, not the enduring one.

This my madness, accept it those who can,
Dare whatever it needs.
What, without madness, is a man
More than a beast after feeding,
A corpse adjourned, the half-alive breeding?

~ by 2ndcupoftea on October 3, 2013.

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