Portugal # 3: The Archive

Blog 3: Torre do Tombo

3 November 2011

 If research bores you, skip to the next blog (as yet unwritten, but soon . . .). If it doesn’t, well, caveat lector.

 What I’m trying to do here in Lisbon is track down the parents, grandparents, and possibly siblings of the group of Mexican crypto-Jewish silver miners whom I have been studying during the last few years. All of them were born in the Beira region of Portugal in the latter half of the sixteenth century of parents or grandparents who came from Spain around 1492 rather than be made to convert to Catholicism. Then shortly later they were all converted by force in Portugal. I came here with the assumption that many of their relatives were likely to have fallen into the documentation of the Portuguese Inquisition in the 1550s-80s. The Coimbra Inquisition had jurisdiction over the Beira heretics, for the most part, but the Beira records are in Lisbon. And, alas and begorra, they are all in mau estado – bad condition — requiring special authorization to be able to access. Permission that is sometimes given, sometimes not, as I am learning. The other major complicating factor is that my Mexican miners all have common surnames like Smith and Jones and given names like Peter and George. The computerized index of cases lists hundreds of people with the equivalent Portuguese names. I hear wild geese honking.

 On the other hand, as we all know from our slimy parks and golf courses, chasing wild geese isn’t all that hard these days: you can walk up to them and club them with a four iron if you are so inclined. And what with modern research tools, it shouldn’t be entirely impossible to find at least a trace here in Portugal of the Almeidas, Lucenas, Fonsecas, and Enriquez’s who dug or traded for silver in the Mexican mountains in the 1580s.

 Tuesday we got off the plane; Wednesday we settled in the Graça apartment; Thursday we went to the National Archives, housed in the magnificent new Torre do Tombo at the edge of the University of Lisbon. Only thirty minutes on the #735 bus. The Arquivos are housed in a massive spanking new cube of a building whose scale in dissonance with the surrounding university buildings. Four high-relief abstract sculptures jut out from the front façade. Steps, the width of the building, lead the visitor to a narrow tunnel-like entrance. The surfaces of most buildings in Lisbon are broken up with windows, balconies, and cornices, in styles that span a couple of centuries; a large number are faced in tile. Torre do Tombo seems better suited to be a Mexican archaeological museum than a Lisbon archive.

 Linda and I have been denizens now of the three major Inquisition archives: in Spain, Mexico, and Portugal, and though they are similar in what they house, they are very different in feeling, in strengths, and in weaknesses. Spain’s, at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas on Serrano, is set in a campus-like park. It looks and feels like a university library. The reading room is homey, well lit, crowded. And it is only a hundred meters from a cafeteria with splendid subsidized meals and seating for 200. And of course a bar (well, it IS Spain). Mexico’s occupies the old Lecumberri prison, with the reading rooms in cellblocks radiating from the central rotunda, formerly the guards’ stations, now an exhibition space. Its meager cafeteria died a couple of years back, but street food is available from carts in the plaza out front. Portugal’s sits in but is not of the main university campus. Its interior spaces, with exception of the well lit, spacious, and comfortable reading room with seating for 120 or so, are large, sterile, and off-putting. Downstairs is a windowless room with five formica tables and two vending machines. We bring sandwiches.

 In all three the staff are patron-friendly and adept at dealing with people who have only a rudimentary spoken command of the local language. In all three reading rooms silence reigns. In all three archives you have to fill out request papers by hand, and get them hand authorized by the appropriate functionaries, to enable the stacks gnomes to bring you the dossier you want to look it. The indices are all computerized, but the functionaries belong to a union.  Open stacks? Only in the USA.

 All three archives have computerized indices (that I can even access from my study in Kingston!), with Portugal’s giving by far the most complete and useful information. So complete, in fact, that I was able to eliminate 70% of my probably-should-look-at list without having to peruse the actual documents. Both Portugal and Mexico have digitized a portion of their collection, and again we can access those documents on line. Mexico digitized first, some 10 years ago, before the available technology was entirely up to the task. So for the fine points of Mexican trials we often have to consult the originals. (Thank goodness, because it justifies yet another trip to Mexico City. As if we needed justification.) Portugal’s digitalizations are better than the originals, turning fragile paper into firmly undamagable bits and bytes. They give the complete file, even the blank pages, in color, with the ability to zoom in and enlarge any troubling blot, overwrite, or palimpsest. A portion of the collection is on microfilm, and it, too, is high quality. Spain . . . well, someday.

 Mexico seems to take the best care of its documents. Its reading rooms are patrolled by vigilant guards who watch for unauthorized ink pens or—there have been cases in the past—clandestine razor blades. Patrons enter through a metal detector. Computers are checked in and out. Patrons who handle manuscripts must wear masks and gloves to guard the paper from breath moisture and finger oils. In Mexico parcels are inspected as you exit the building. Inexplicably, neither Spain nor Portugal takes any of these precautions.

 One last thing: all three archives hold the bulk of their nation’s Inquisition dossiers. But that material is only an infinitesimal part of what each system contains. After all, these are the national archives: home to material historical, statistical, and geographical; to letters, maps, financial records, and photographs; to all the paper that bobs in the wake of national daily life.

You want to spend a fascinating couple of weeks, or lifetimes? Come jump into the water. We’d be pleased to help you get started.

David & Linda