On 29th of March 1809, the biggest disaster of the Portuense history happened. Today is the 210th anniversary of the catastrophe, and the memory still remain. Let’s take a step back in time, and remember the 4000 lives lost in a day.
Ponte das barcas
Ponte das Barcas was inaugurated on 15th of August 1806 and was created by Carlos Amarante, a portuguese engineer and architect. Amarante is also the creator of other places in Portugal such as the Igreja da Trindade in Porto or the Santuário do Bom Jesus do Monte next to Braga, one of our favorite places in Portugal.
Ponte das Barcas means, “The Bridge of Boats” and this name speaks for itself. The bridge was made of 20 boats standing side by side and attached with steal cables. Although other Bridges of Boats were made in the past, this one was built to be more durable and was able to open in two parts, to let the boats navigate on the Douro river.
Back in the beginning of the XIXth century, Maria I, Queen of Portugal was diagnosed with mental illness by a commission of 17 doctors, and wasn’t able to govern the country anymore. Her son, John VI became the regent of the kingdom and had to assume the tasks left by his mother.
In the same period of time, in France, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French in Notre-Dame de Paris which marked “the instantiation of modern empire” as wrote Todd Porterfield and Susan L. Sigfried in their book “Staging Empire: Napoleon, Ingres, and David”. Napoleon proclamed The Continental System, which restrained European countries from trading with the England. At first, John VI, King of Portugal, followed the rules, but after the Franco-spanish defeat in Trafalgar, he re-opened the trade relations with the British. Going against Napoleon‘s rules, the Kingdom of Portugal became very soon, the new target of the Emperor of the French
The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon signed a secret treaty with the King Charles IV of Spain, which would divide Portugal in between the two parties. The province “Entre Douro e Minho” as the “Kingdom of the Northern Lusitania”, and the provinces “Alentejo” and the “Algarve” as the “Principality of the Algraves”, both would belong to Spain. The Emperor of the French would remain with the provinces Trás-os-Montes, Beira and Estremadura.
The French invaded Lisbon in 1807, but had to leave the country when the British rescued the country by fighting against the French.
Napoleon was well-known for his abilities of not giving up and started to plan a new invasion of Portugal. This new strategy was led by Marshal Soult which conquered Braga on the 20th of March 1809. Soult reached São Mamede de Infesta a couple of days later, a town closer from his target, Porto.
One day before the attack, Marshal Soult kindly asked the bishop D. António de São José de Castro to hand them the town without any resistance.
Ponte das Barcas by Barão de Forrester
However, as no agreement was made in between Soult and the bishop, the French Marshal launched the assault on 29th of March 1809 at 6am. Everything happened so fast that only a few hours were needed for Soult to conquer Porto.
Afraid from the Napoleon‘s troups, the portuense citizens started to run down to Ribeira to cross the Ponte das Barcas, with the hope of saving their lives on the other side of the river. However, the bridge collapsed under the weight of all the people crossing the bridge at the same time. It resulted in 4000 people losing their lives in this tragedy, most of them drawning in the Douro river.
It did not take long before the British started their way to Porto in order to chase Soult, which happened on May 12th, 1809. Porto was freed from Napoleon‘s troups but Portugal wasn’t, as the Emperor of the French made a come back in the South of Portugal in May 1811.
After the disaster, the Ponte das Barcas was temporarily rebuilt and has been totally desmolished when the new floating bridge of Porto: Ponte Pênsil, was inaugurated in 1843.
Alminhas da Ponte
Alminhas da Ponte was made by Texeira Lopes and is installed in Cais da Ribeira since 1897 as a tribute to all the lost lives on March 29th, 1809.
In 2009, during the 200th anniversary’s ceremony, two new monuments from Souto Moura were inaugurated at the edge of the platform where the Ponte das Barcas was, two centuries before.
The Memory and the pain remain
The most impressive when we pass in front of the memorial during our City Visit tour (sometimes twice a day), is to see that people still come every day to light on a candle, put some flowers. It is definitely a scar that portuense citizens keep in within them, even 210 years later…
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See you soon in Porto!