Merchants, ports and hinterlands. The building of sea-port structures in the Early Modern Porto

Merchants, ports and hinterlands. The building of sea-port structures in the Early Modern Porto

By Amândio Jorge Morais Barros

Revista da Faculdade de Letras, Series 3, Vol.9 (2008)

Abstract: Emerging in the Middle Ages, Porto became one of the most important ports of the Iberian Peninsula. The city’s affirmation over the nearby territory was accompanied by the expansion of business towards the northern markets of Flanders, Brabant, Great Britain and northern France (Brittany and Normandy), stimulating the emergence of a merchant navy, and inspiring a set of engineering works meant to organize the harbour. With this paper, I’ll pay attention to the role performed by small ports and apparently modest business centres in the building and organization of the first global age.

The history of such port like Porto will contribute to enlighten fields of interaction that existed between the port-cities and their umlands and hinterlands, which supported its economy, mould a significant part of its society, and influenced its cultural standards. In this study I’ll present the most important facts of the process of territorial domination, and the way things were conducted in order to get effective its mercantile economy. Charts will be presented and comment, once they are very informative to this evolution, and I’ll also emphasize the international context in which it occurred.

Introduction: This article will focus on the history of relations between Porto and its hinterland during late-Middle Ages and Early Modern Times, and examine the general conditions from which a jurisdictional kind of process generated an articulated economy. The analysis here proposed will demonstrate how, in the long-duration, several actions were directed from the city and were meant to extend and make effective its authority over the surrounding territory, and profit from that.

In these forewords it seems to me important to present the guidelines of the main ideas that will be developed in the chapters ahead, namely the territorial extension and the jurisdictional level of influence in a diachronic perspective, and the initiatives aiming its consolidation, the motivation of the whole plan and the evolution of the economic ties in the meantime established.

The first one underlines the fact that the process by which Porto achieved to control a vast territory around the city was rapid and not by all means erratic. Evidence will show that the intervention over the hinterland was not an empirical attempt or a response to momentary necessities. It had a sense, a very concrete goal: it was thought and set in motion during medieval times and sought to ensure the survival in addition to the growth of city’s wealth. After identifying the city’s seating conditions – pretty much unfavourable1 – Town Hall members assumed a political speech next to the King justifying expansionist projects over the hinterland as a matter of survival. This is, perhaps, the main thesis here supported: that Porto’s territorial construction rather than accidentally was carefully thought and resolutely achieved.

The second idea involves the fact that since Porto was given a municipal chart (1123) until later medieval years it changed from a small urban centre into an extensive territory coincident with the actual Porto district.

The third idea will emphasize the fact that Porto’s men in charge took advantage of the dispute involving the local Bishop and the King about the city’s jurisdictional statute, having been granted with privileges and acquire political rights over the countryside. This process occurred between 1369 and 1384 and was a consequence of labour force requirements for projected city-wall construction, as well as a matter of city’s needs of provisioning.

Therefore, some chapters will analyse the reliability of this territory which was the most populated in Portugal and one of the most fertile, features that are enough to explain Porto’s attraction over it. The remaining municipal records highlight many decisions and energetical actions led by Porto when desertion risked arming the desired unity, mainly in terms of economic interdependence.

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