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June 10 is Portugal’s National Day: This is the story of why Portugal celebrates its worst day, ever….

June 10 is Portugal’s National Day. And while most national days mark a great accomplishment or success – Think the French Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence– June 10 Celebrates the darkest day in Portuguese history. This is the story of why Portugal celebrates its worst day, ever….

First, the dark history of how June 10th became a holiday. The year was 1944. Portugal was ruled by a dictatorship, and was in the middle of a difficult balancing act as one of the few neutral nations in Western Europe during world War II The Estado Novo declared June 10th the Dia da Raça, or the Day of the Portuguese Race. Pretty ugly term, as Portugal still held a far-flung empire from Africa to Asia. But it was a rally cry in dark times.

Camoes_monument_in_Lisbon

So, why June 10th? The dictatorship had latched on to great figures in Portugal’s long history to symbolize the nation – and certainly Luís Vaz de Camões was top of the list. Portugal’s preeminent poet, the power of his writing is breathtaking. Had he written in Italy, Camoes would be taught today in schools across the world. His sonnets of love remain as fresh and powerful as they were in the 16th century. His life, as a soldier, poet, and adventurer was epic. He lost an eye helping defend Ceuta, he traveled the Portuguese empire, and he was a cousin of the great Vasco da Gama. It seemed fitting that Portugal’s National Day should fall on the day that Camoes was born – just one issue. No one knew for sure what day (or year ) he was born. 1524? Maybe 1525?

So, the thinking must have gone, let’s make the national day the day he died. They knew that. June the 10th. But that was an awful day. And yet, that was the day they chose, those wily fascists…

So, what happened on June 10th 1580? First, you need to understand the depth of the end of Camões’ life. In 1572 he published what is considered the master work of the Portuguese language: Os Lusíadas, a 10 canto poem that follows Da Gama and his fleet, as the gods help and torment him on his way to India in 1497. Every great nation needs a creation myth, and a hero–this was Portugal’s. But the Portugal Camões’ wrote to had become corrupt, depleted and was led by a mad king. So, the very end of his masterpiece, he wrote this:

No more, Muse, no more, that Lyre has fallen

Out of tune and its voice hushed,

And not from the song, but from seeing that I

Sing to a people who are deaf and hardened.

The favor, which lights up ingenuity

Does not shine on this country, it's stuck

I do not comprehend greed and rudeness

Of this austere, dark and vile sadness.

Eight year later, broken, penniless and forgotten, Camoes lay on his deathbed. And there was one other thing. That mad king, young King D. Sebastião – the king that Camões’ has once read Os Lusíadas too, had led a massive Portuguese force into North Africa in 1578, and never returned. Kingless, on June the 10th 1580, a massive Spain army massed on the frontier – Portugal had lost its warrior class, and after four centuries, the nation seemed doomed. On his deathbed, Camões wrote his final words… All will see that so dear to me was my country that I was contented to not only to die in it, but with it.

And Portugal fell to the Spanish. Let’s celebrate?

But, why not?

By 1640, Portugal was back. The Spanish were tossed out, the nation restored. Other invaders would come, amazingly hapless rulers would follow, and war clouds would form. Portugal survived. And, so – if you can survive a day as horrible as June the 10, 1580 – then everything else seems survivable. This small nation, poor in resources and on the fringe of Europe, survived, flourished, and went on. So, perhaps not be design, but by the hand of fate, June the 10 is the Day of Portugal. And after nearly 900 years, Portugal has something to reflect on.

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