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Mutiny on the Tagus as sailors seize control of ships

salazarportraitAlthough in retrospect Dr António de Oliveira Salazar´s period in power from 1928 until 1968 seems untroubled, his regime certainly experienced difficulties. 

In the 1930s alone, there were armed insurrections in April, 1931 (Funchal, Madeira),  August, 1931 (Lisbon) and January, 1934 (widespread, but famously in Marinha Grande).  There was an assassination attempt on Salazar himself in July, 1937, the year in which there were 3,100 political arrests.

But the event of 8 September, 1936 was different.  Sailors in the navy´s two newest warships mutinied.  Communist inspired mutinies were still fresh in people´s minds after events in Russia and Germany during the Great War.  And even in Lisbon in 1910, the Implantation of the Republic took place only after the cruiser Adamastor, under future President of the Republic José Mendes Cabeçadas, had opened fire on a royal palace, the Necessidades.

On Friday 11 September, 1936 the following Decree-law no. 26:995 appeared in the Diário do Governo:

'The Decree-law authorises the Minister for the Navy to transfer the seamen and petty officers and to dismiss or retire the officers who directly or indirectly took part, or were responsible for, the events which occurred in the morning of the eighth of the current month on board the sloop Afonso de Albuquerque and the destroyer Dão; and to transfer to the reserves those officers who make application, even though they do not satisfy the demands of the law.'

The two ships, the destroyer Dão and the British built sloop Afonso de Albuquerque, were the pride of Salazar´s navy.  One of his objectives when taking power was to increase pride in Portugal´s maritime traditions, and one way to achieve this end was to invest in new ships for the navy.   

Afonso de Albuquerque had been built by Hawthorn Leslie at Newcastle and commissioned in 1934; the Dão was built in Lisbon and commissioned in 1935.  Salazar gave a speech thanking the navy minister for choosing to name this unit of our fleet after the river that crosses my town.  He had a soft spot for this ship.

The crews of the two ships mutinied while in Lisbon harbour.  The men were opposed to the support given by the government of Portugal to the Nationalist rebels under Franco in Spain; they wanted to give help to the legitimate Spanish Republican government.  Their plan was to leave Lisbon harbour stealthily at 03h00 on 8 September, and to make for a Republican port.  But at 01h00, a loyal radio operator warned the Portuguese Admiralty of the imminent mutiny. 

The mutineers confined their officers below decks, and fired on an approaching Admiralty launch.  Fatally delaying their departure until daybreak because of a dawn mist, the two ships began to steam out of Lisbon towards the ocean. 

Salazar and the minister for the navy ordered that any ship attempting to leave the port should be fired on. And they were fired on by coastal batteries.  Both received direct hits and both grounded on the river bank.  Some of the fleeing seamen were killed by machine-gun fire, but the majority was captured when government troops boarded the two ships. 

The leader of the mutiny committed suicide, and his fellow mutineers formed the first cohort of prisoners to the new concentration camp at Tarrafal in the Cape Verde Islands.  Some were there still when the camp closed in 1954.

The government reported that the two ships had been on their way to join the Spanish Republic´s fleet, and Salazar used this potentially embarrassing episode for his own purposes, demonstrating strength of resolution in the authorities.  Salazar wrote these words about the ships and their fate:

"Their construction was ordered with that clarity of conscience which only the pursuit of duty can create, although they were paid for by the labour of a whole people.  It was with the same imperturbable serenity that I ordered them to be shelled until they either surrendered or sank.  The reason - which stands taller than any other sentiment - was this:  the ships of the Portuguese navy can be sent to the bottom of the sea, but they cannot serve under any flag other than that of Portugal.  In a single moment, many months´ savings were wasted, it is true: but we cannot restrict our actions by such considerations when the honour of the nation is at stake."

The German ambassador in Lisbon, Oswald von Hoyningen-Huene, wrote soon afterwards:

"It is even said that Salazar, being well informed by agents of the state of the spirit of the crew aboard the Afonso de Albuquerque upon its return from a port in red Spain, and having been able to pre-empt the mutiny by preventive measures, provoked the dramatic development, or at the very least allowed matters to run their usual course."

He was referring to Salazar´s principal means for staying in power, the secret police force which was responsible to him alone, the PVDE, Polícia de Vigilância e Defesa do Estado.



In 1961, the Afonso de Albuquerque resisted the invasion of Goa by troops of the Indian Union, and was attacked by a vastly superior Indian naval force.  She was beached, but continued to resist, and eventually fired nearly 400 shells.  Five of her crew were killed in this doomed action.  The ship was eventually refloated and then scrapped in Bombay in 1962.



Afonso de Albuquerque


©Peter Booker, President of the Algarve History Association.

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