SERPA IS THE BIRTHPLACE OF SOME
PERSONALITIES AND THE SUBJECT OF A FEW HISTORICAL EPISODES
that reflect its importance and a larger role than the one that would naturally correspond to the limits of the municipality. A frontier territory, this is where the military crossbowmen units of medieval times were born. Among Serpa’s illustrious sons stand out Abbot Correia da Serra and the Count of Ficalho, who had in common an interest in botany and the love of literature. But Serpa is also a land of the people and was one of the strongholds in the struggle for decent hours in the fields of the Alentejo.
ABBOT CORREIA DA SERRA
José Francisco Correia da Serra was born in Serpa in 1751. After taking his vows, in 1775, he went to Law School. Abbot Correia da Serra, the title which would make him known in different continents, devoted all of himself to the study of botany and was deemed, in his time, one of the greatest researchers in Carpology and Plant Physiology. In 1779, together with the Duke of Lafões, he founded the Academia Real das Ciências (Royal Academy of Sciences), of which he was the first vice-secretary. In addition to his great dedication to the natural world, on which he wrote several papers, Abbot Correia da Serra, who spoke nine languages, also distinguished himself as a diplomat, a philosopher and a teacher.
Admired for his intelligence, he gained great international reputation among various personalities of his time and cultivated friendships with notable figures such as the statesman Thomas Jefferson, who called him "one of the most learned men of his time."
Toward the end of his life, back in Portugal, he became a member of the court of King João V in 1821. Although indirectly, he returned to his Alentejo roots when he was elected a representative for the city of Beja in 1822, a post he never had the chance to occupy for health reasons. He died on 11th September 1823.
© Domenico Pellegrini, Abbot Correia da Serra
THE VENCIDOS DA VIDA
«Vencidos da Vida» (Defeated by Life) was the name of an informal group made up of the most important intellectual personalities of the Portuguese cultural life of the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with strong connections to the so-called Geração de 70 (70’s Generation). The name of the group was apparently adopted by suggestion of Joaquim Pedro de Oliveira Martins and clearly reflects its members’ rejection of the aspirations of youth.
Active between 1887 and 1894, the group met for weekly dinners and gatherings at Café Tavares, in Hotel Bragança or at the homes of its members, which caused the writer Eça de Queiroz - one of its late members – to describe it as “a dining group”. The group functioned as an exclusivist society, bringing together prominent figures of literature, politics and personalities who moved in mundane and aristocratic circles.
Among its members were some of the intellectuals and politicians who had conceived the attempt to transform the country that was
the basis of the late phase of the Regeneração (Regeneration), through initiatives of renewal of the Portuguese social and cultural life, such as the Conferências do Casino (the Conferences of the Casino), held in the spring of 1871, in a rented room in the Largo da Abegoaria Casino, in Lisbon. These were organised by the poet Antero de Quental, under the influence of Proudhon's revolutionary ideas. In light of the perceived failure of this modernizing process, they channelled their disenchantment and frustration with their revolutionary ideals of youth into an elegant and ironic dilettantism. Thus arises the vague idealization of an enlightened aristocracy as a counterpoint to the utopian socialism that some of them had previously defended. The group included, among others, Ramalho Ortigão, Oliveira Martins, António Cândido, Guerra Junqueiro, Luís de Soveral, Francisco de Mello Breyner (the 3rd Count of Ficalho), Lima Mayer, Carlos Lobo de Ávila, Bernardo Correia de Melo (the 1st Count of Arnoso) and António Maria Menezes (the 9th Count of Sabugosa). Eça de Queiroz joined the group in 1889.
In spite of claiming to be "defeated", the group's activity eventually caused a new hope to revive and grow among its members, as they gained influence with the crown prince. After the death of King Luís I, in 1889, they came to have influence with the new king, King Carlos I.
In this context, Eça de Queiroz wrote in "Revista de Portugal", as soon as the prince ascended the throne: "The King appears as the only force that still lives and operates in the country."
They came to believe that a new political cycle would open up, convinced that through an increased role of the king and a new foreign policy, freed from the old alliance with England, it would be possible to quell the crisis brought about by the oligarchic regime of the Magna Carta. However, the assassination of King Carlos and Prince Luís Filipe effectively defeated their last hopes. With the death and progressive retirement of its members, the "Vencidos da Vida" group finally dissolved around 1894.
Serpa, however, was forever engraved in the genealogy of some of its members: a granddaughter of Eça de Queiroz, Maria da Dores, married the heir to the Marquisate of Ficalho, António Martins de Mello, son of Francisco de Mello Breyner, and of the union was born Matilde Maria de Eça de Queirós Mello Breyner, the current Marquise of Ficalho, the lineage that still owns the famous city palace.
© Augusto Bobone
The struggle and resistance of rural workers in the municipality of Serpa, in the context of a geographically broader movement, from the First Republic to the overthrow of fascism, are defining elements of the local collective memory.
In the history of the struggle of the rural workers of the South against fascism, for bread and labor, for freedom and social progress, the rural workers of the municipality of Serpa always stood out for their capacity to fight, mobilize and organize. Combat and resistance against dictatorship and fascism in Portugal were a continuous process throughout half of the twentieth century and, in the predominantly agricultural South, rural workers took the vanguard of that struggle. In addition to some individual resistance, the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) - that was well established in the South, with strong organizations - was essential to organizing the fight and resistance against fascism. The militants (in clandestinity) who organized that struggle were "the bicycle men", because it was with the help of this means of transport that they moved, in the dark of the night, from locality to locality, coordinating the resistance.
In Portugal, that struggle would last for 44 years (beginning with the strikes of 1918) – leaving behind a trail of arrests, tortures and deaths inflicted by the fascist regime - until the conquest of the 8-hour day (in 1962), putting an end to work from sun up to sun down.
© DR, Beja 1974-76
THE SERPA BESTEIROS DO CONTO
The municipality of Serpa played a pioneering role in the structuring of the so-called "besteiros do conto" (crossbowmen) militias, created in 1299 by King Dinis and extinguished in 1498 by King Manuel.
The Serpa Besteiros do Conto was a military force made up of ordinary men (cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors), recruited from within the municipal militias. It had an autonomous command structure and a special payment system and enjoyed a set of privileges. The duties included regular training, possession of armament in good repair and of a certain amount of ammunition, in order to maintain a high degree of readiness; these duties "remained practically unchanged until the extinction of this military corps". Due to its effectiveness and ability to mobilize a pre-determined number of combatants whenever the Crown needed them, the besteiros do conto became an elite force within the Portuguese military organization of the time.
Serpa was probably the first locality where this new military corps was instituted and where the essential terms of the privileges assigned to these marksmen between 1299 and 1313 were defined. In 1299, the newly-created Serpa militia played a prominent role in the siege of the city of Portalegre, immediately demonstrating the importance of its weapon.